Manitoba

Saying 'yes' to skinny, tall and long homes: What Winnipeg can learn from Edmonton

Edmonton has gone out of its way to make plopping modern, smaller residences on older lots — a controversial exercise in density virtually everywhere — somehow hip. And Winnipeg is taking notes.

Public opinion in Edmonton shifted for infill by involving neighbours, builders in talks, officials say

These infill homes on Vivian Avenue in St. Vital in Winnipeg are larger than neighbouring older homes. The city is considering new guidelines for infill housing and has consulted with Edmonton about its plans. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Edmonton is so lovey-dovey with putting multiple residences where there was only one that city employees made Valentine's Day cards to profess their admiration for infill development.

On the card, a heart is sketched above a cartoon streetscape dotted with homes of varied shapes, green lawns and people walking and biking. "You complete my street," the card gushes

Edmonton has gone out of its way to make plopping modern, smaller residences on older lots — a controversial exercise in density virtually everywhere — somehow hip. And officials in Winnipeg are taking notes.

City of Edmonton staff put together a few Valentine's cards to show their love for infill development. (Jason Syvixay/Twitter)

Infill proselytizers in Edmonton use a Twitter hashtag, dream up proposals for a design competition attracting top urban minds nationwide, and even started a non-profit advocacy group to promote building in aged neighbourhoods rather than sprawling outskirts.

Meanwhile, the city made a website and cartoons, formed employee teams focused on infill development and pitched infill as a way to make "Everyone's Edmonton" come true.

This is happening while developers in Winnipeg cried this week that infill housing would grind to a halt if administration restricts how much of a lot a new home can cover. City planners are thinking of limiting the size of homes to 45 per cent of lot size, which developers say would make homes too small and too expensive to sell. 

A petition of 600 Winnipeggers was even submitted to council last month calling for a moratorium on infill development.

In devising Winnipeg's first plan for a city-wide infill strategy, officials have vowed no more "skinny, tall and long houses," which they said were lambasted as eyesores by the neighbours.

Jason Syvixay understands where both cities are coming from: he's a Winnipegger who is principal planner with the City of Edmonton's infill liaison team.

He says buy-in from the community is necessary.

"We realize that infill might be a messy thing," said Syvixay, who posted the infill Valentine's cards on Twitter this week. "Let's try to dive right into that and try to delineate how neighbours and builders can have a really respectful and considerate experience during the construction process."

Near building sites, postcards and brochures are handed out, explaining the housing type under construction and phone numbers to call if neighbours have concerns, he said.

"It has been less about should we do infill, but more about when, where and how."

It wasn't always this way in Edmonton. 

Boom in lot-splitting 

Beginning in 2013, the city permitted that 50-foot lots could be split in two in certain neighbourhoods.

"There was a lot of resistance to this," said Mick Graham, president of the Infill Development in Edmonton Association board. "People who had happily lived in 1,100-square-foot bungalows saw these tall, narrow houses appearing on their street, and it wasn't what they were used to seeing."

It was an onerous slog before infill was met with acceptance rather than derision, said Hani Quan, who spearheaded development of Edmonton's second infill roadmap last year.

 

"At the time, it was really painful because we were trying to push this along and it was the first attempt," he said. "There was definitely a lot of people who found infill a bit of a dirty word and they didn't want to see it filling in the neighbourhoods."

Approvals for lot splitting went up more than 50 per cent between 2015 and 2016 after the city started allowing owners to subdivide properties 50 feet wide or larger. (City of Edmonton)

Graham, a home builder, applauds Edmonton officials for realizing unchecked growth in the suburbs wasn't desirable. It cost the city too much to keep building roads, sewers and new schools outwards, while the population in mature neighbourhoods shrunk by 73,000 people over the last 40 years.

"Here in Edmonton, we're closing schools down in mature neighbourhoods," he said.

"I think a lot of folks are realizing … we're commuting too far or we're spending too much time sitting behind the wheel. We're creating too many greenhouse gases and our taxes keep going up to fund this expansion that's really not serving anyone very well."

Quan understands the apprehension from people critical of infill, especially residents who grew up in the same neighbourhood for decades and are seeing changes they never wanted.

"All of a sudden you see redevelopment happening and construction happening and it's just disruptive. It's genuinely, legitimately disruptive," he said. 

Quan credits the city's work in shifting the public dialogue. He's gone to engagement events where pro-infill boosters are showing up, which wouldn't have happened much five years ago. 

Edmonton officials have turned their attention to "missing middle" development. The city's infill stock is comprised of small detached homes that are too pricey, or massive towers of condominiums and apartments, but little in between.

"We're sort of at the point where we're having the next conversation [in Edmonton], which is the missing middle," said Chelsey Jersak, an urban planner in the city. 

A realtor in Edmonton sold this skinny home in the Glenora neighbourhood for about $900,000. (Chris Proctor) (Chris Proctor)

The city is setting aside five lots in the Spruce Avenue neighbourhood for architects and builders worldwide to come up with multi-unit, medium-density plans. The winning team will have the right to purchase the site and build their design.

Hazel Borys, an urban planner in Winnipeg, has been tapped as a jury member for the competition. She's impressed that Edmonton has taken "community engagement to the next level."

"I think Edmonton is signaling to the people that the words are [there], but the actions are also stepping up."

Unavoidable reality

She says Winnipeg is afflicted by NIMBYs — the not-in-my-backyard homeowners disturbed by the idea of narrow homes, while Edmontonians are more concerned about ensuring that infill is done right.

​Quan said Winnipeg shouldn't get a bad rap if it isn't as far ahead as Edmonton in promoting infill, and that maybe Winnipeg would be on the same track if it were feeling the strain of nearly one million people.

The pushback against infill will always be there, he cautioned, no matter the political will or the size of a city's sprawl.

"Even after decades of doing this, there are still some of the same issues to deal with. There's still NIMBYs."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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