Edmonton urged to take a new view of back alleys

With the development of garage and garden suites in Edmonton, the city needs to change the way it looks at back alleys, Kevin Taft told the urban planning committee on Wednesday.

Nearly 80 garage and garden suites developed in Edmonton in past two years

A garage suite under construction in a Ritchie back alley. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

With the development of garage and garden suites in Edmonton, the city needs to change the way it looks at back alleys, Kevin Taft told the urban planning committee on Wednesday.

For the people living in those suites, the alley becomes their front door, said Taft, a Belgravia resident and former leader of the Alberta Liberals.

Before expanding laneway housing, Taft said the city needs to treat back alleys as residential settings, ensuring good lighting, snow and ice clearing, fencing, and ways to deal with garbage.

"I'm not trying to stop laneway housing, I'm trying to get it right," said Taft, suggesting a pilot project in a few neighbourhoods.

A report to the urban planning committee says there were 55 new garage or garden suite units in mature and established neighbourhoods in 2016, 23 in 2015 and 16 in 2014.

Taft said the city should do a pilot project. City staff said that would be possible but stressed it would need buy-in from all homeowners on the block.

"There's an excellent opportunity to animate our back alleys," said Kalen Anderson, director, planning coordination.

"We have this huge asset on our hands which is essentially another miniature roadway network that we've never been treating as such."
A garage suite under construction in Ritchie, a mature neighbourhood in south Edmonton. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

It will take some time to determine where the pilot would take place, and when, but Anderson said it makes sense to turn to an area in the city where the development of garage and garden suites is already taking place.

A map provided with the report to committee indicates the neighbourhood of Ritchie as a hotspot for this type of development.

If a community steps forward and wants to participate, that will speed the process, Anderson said.

Criteria would need to be developed so there would be measurable ways to determine what works and what doesn't, said Hani Quan, senior city planner.

Without that information it's difficult to set a timeline, he said.

Taft told the committee the city needs to take a look at the state of its back lanes, and what changes might be needed with garbage collection in an effort to clean up the alleys.

Those issues are being looked at as two separate pieces, Coun. Andrew Knack said.

Next steps

A report on a strategy for properly paving back alleys is coming to city council May 9, and a review of garbage collection will happen in 2018 as contracts expire, said Knack.

What should come first is a bit of a "chicken and egg" situation, said Anderson.

"If people start living facing into the alleys their expectations are going to change," she said. "At the same time, if you make investments and treat them differently, that might spur people to think about these places for living instead of just places to park your car and put your garbage."

The city first allowed garage and garden suites in 2007, but they were limited to corner lots. 

In 2015, zoning bylaws were changed to allow this type of development in most areas. Earlier this year, city council made a change to the number of required parking stalls, reducing it to a minimum of one for a residential property. 

The parking change was seen as a way to free up more space on a lot, and encourage the development of single-storey garden suites, said Knack.

The committee voted in favour of developing a strategy for laneway housing.

It will be developed in tandem with a strategy around infill housing, with a report expected to come back to the committee in July 2018.
A map of new garden and garage suites in Edmonton 2016. It shows Ritchie as the hotspot for this type of development. (City of Edmonton)