Zoning overhaul will help meet growing demand for housing in Edmonton, developers say
Home builders say in its current state, the city's building rule book can be too rigid
Proposed zoning changes with the potential to significantly alter the look of Edmonton's mature neighbourhoods are a big improvement over existing rules, say players in the city's development community.
Developers say it's a matter of moving on from an "archaic" system that's hampering the kind of development Edmontonians already want.
City council is nearing the end of a years-long process to comprehensively overhaul rules about what can be built in Edmonton, and where. It's the first time since the 1960s that changes of this scale have been considered — among them, city-wide rezoning that would allow development up to three storeys across residential areas.
In June, as a council committee began a meeting dedicated to the zoning review — it would go on for 12 hours — several speakers from the development industry were among the first in line to express their support for the changes.
Some developers raised questions, noting that the new rules aren't perfect, but agreeing they wanted the reforms to go ahead.
On the other side of the debate, a group calling itself Coalition for Better Infill has been dropping pamphlets into mailboxes, accusing the city of "giving too much to developers and getting too little in return," with industry driving the changes to the detriment of input from residents.
The city has been gathering public feedback on the zoning renewal since 2018.
Home builders and developers say they just want a straightforward process for building density into mature neighbourhoods, as is called for in Edmonton's City Plan.
Approved by council in 2020, the plan imagines a more dense, environmentally friendly urban space as Edmonton grows toward a population of two million.
"I can't suggest that it's not good for developers, because it is," Melcor Developments regional manager Michaela Davis told CBC News.
"But it's good for everybody because it allows housing to come on faster — the type of housing we're already building, that Edmontonians want."
Davis and other developers say that in its current state, the city's building rule book can be too rigid.
For example, if there are plans to build townhouses in a neighbourhood where zoning allows them, design details that deviate from set criteria can force a builder to pursue approval via direct control (DC) zoning instead.
The zoning bylaw is catching up to what is already occurring and hopefully should make it easier to carry on with that market trend.- Kalen Anderson, executive director of Urban Development Institute - Edmonton Metro
DC is essentially a tailor-made zone, and going through that process can add a year or more to permit and building timelines.
Kalen Anderson, executive director for the Edmonton chapter of the Urban Development Institute, likens it to crafting a hand-sewn sweater when it would be easier to start with a loose-fitting shirt that accommodates different shapes.
The updated bylaw condenses several different residential zones into one set of "small-scale residential" rules.
Direct-control zones will still exist under the bylaw reform, but Anderson said developers shouldn't have to constantly try using them.
"[Developers] are asking for what's already happening," she said. "The zoning bylaw is catching up to what is already occurring and hopefully should make it easier to carry on with that market trend."
Accommodating diverse housing
Bob Summers, director of the University of Alberta's school of urban and regional planning, said the revamped zoning rules would make it easier to build in mature areas, but that wouldn't directly lead to a windfall for developers.
"If you're a developer whose primary goal is to make profit, it's really easy to go build strip malls and suburban housing and so on in this city," Summers said.
"What this does is it actually just changes rules … that will make it a little bit easier for them to build diverse housing."
He said it's understandable that people might be nervous about change in their neighbourhoods, but it would come gradually, over decades.
The new rules would make it easier to build higher-density housing in existing neighbourhoods.
"If you knock down a $400,000 house and you build one $1-million house, you have had a negative impact on affordability," Summers said.
"But if we're increasing the number of units — especially in Edmonton where we have so many old 1950s, '60s and '70s bungalows — you're freeing those up for others in the market, and that will help affordability."
Charles Fay, president of the Canadian Home Builders Association Edmonton region and vice-president at Jayman Built Edmonton, said it isn't a surprise to see developers largely on the same page about the new rules.
"We can just get started. It creates business certainty," he said.
And for Davis, it's about solving a long-standing issue.
"Imagine working within a very sort of archaic set of guidelines, and then you have the opportunity to bring those guidelines up to 2023 and beyond," she said.
"Everybody would be excited, and that's how we feel."
The final, updated bylaw is now being circulated ahead of what's expected to be a lengthy public hearing at city council.
It starts Oct. 16. The council calendar shows three additional days set aside for the discussion, if necessary.