This week I had the pleasure of doing a presentation for @spirit_of_urban along with two passionate, dedicated, and very smart city planners, @KalenAnderson and @chase_jeff. We got to speak about infill in Edmonton from our own perspectives. Here is my essay from that presentation:
Hi, My name is Daniel Engelman and I am the owner of Engelman Construction. For the past 5 years I have been an infill exclusive home designer and builder in Edmonton, building predominately single-family homes.
I’ve become involved with IDEA, the Infill Development in Edmonton Association as the very newly minted policy director. I joined as a member of IDEA about a year ago, excited to be a part of a collective voice, as a passionate urbanite builder.
I not so coincidentally come from a long line of homebuilders.
My Grandpa started building homes in Edmonton in 1950’s. Brand new neighborhoods way on the edge of the city - Park Allen, Avonmore, Lendrum,. You know, like WAY on the outskirts of town.
50 and 60 foot wide lots were the norm. Small bungalows, huge yards.
My dad then built homes through the 70’s and bad times in the 80’s.
Through the generations there have been a lot of changes in styles, sizes, and building practices of houses, etc, but WHERE they are built, until recently, has been constant.
New homes were always built in new neighborhoods at the edge of the city - Turning farmland into paved streets. Urban sprawl was the norm, and for a while, you could say this worked.
So Why after three generations of living in, and building new homes in new neighborhoods would I break the mold, and really, the path of least resistance, and make the switch to infill?
Because, I love Edmonton, and have been watching it grow and change my whole life, and genuinely see us at a crossroads with potential to become an amazing urban centre.
There are three points that I know, as a builder can contribute to this vision. Ill outline them here and then unpack the details through the last bit of my presentation.
1. Affordability- Being close to an urban centre is expensive, and having rental income to supplement your mortgage or living on a smaller lot makes mature neighborhoods affordable, transferring directly into diversity on these neighborhoods. If we are going to attract families, kids, students, aging parents, and have a real diverse urban city, we need to look at constructive ways of making infill more affordable.
2. Density - there are factions of people out there who talk about density as a bad thing. But realistically, if we are going to have a city which can support local restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, bars, great public transit and all the other amenities that make up a great city. Density is not an option, it is a prerequisite.
3. Diversity – Great urban centres that we all visit and come back and talk about have one thing in common. They have diverse populations, people of all ages and income brackets living in fairly close quarters. The diversity of population is something that makes great cities great, but without diversity in housing types we risk losing the ability to have all populations having a place in our mature neighborhoods around the core.
The vision and the ideals of what we want are great, but, I as an entrepreneur need to know the numbers make sense too. I have some numbers from our company from this year which I find very interesting and revealing to a generational shift which is affecting the way our city is and will be built in the future.
There are two streams of projects in our office.
1. Straight infill
2. Densifications projects.
What I mean by that is a straight infill project is a replacement of an existing dwelling at a one to one ratio. Generally this means the demolition of one house and the construction of a new one. There is no increase in density through this, just old housing stock being replaced by new.
The second kind of project we do we call a densification project. In this scenario we are demolishing a home and replacing it with more dwellings than it principally had. This densification can be accomplished through a variety of ways.
1. Subdivision of a lot – Currently in RF2 and RF3 Neighborhoods we can subdivide lots of 50’ or wider into more lots. The result are narrow lots and skinny homes.
2. Secondary suites - Through either a basement, garage, or garden suite, a secondary suite means that there are multiple dwellings one lot.
3. Multifamily developments – Semi detached, duplex, row houses etc. These are all options for densification projects.
In 2014 our company will build One quarter of projects are straight infill, and three quarters of our projects are densification.
So 25% of builds as a one to one replacement of housing, and 75% as densification.
Furthermore, it is notable and distinct who is buying these different projects.
This year, Of the 25% of our projects that are straight infill ALL of the clients are over 40 - they do not have children living at home, and WILL NOT have school age children living in their homes in the future.
In the other 75% of projects which are densification, NEARLY ALL of those clients are members of the echo boom - either young families, or couples who will have families in the next five years.
Take home point - Younger clients from the echo boom are overwhelmingly demanding densification projects.
It is well documented, and I can attest to this in my own clients - that the echo boom generation has different wants and needs than their parents. Priorities such as closer commute, being close to entertainment, walk-ability, good public transit, and access to our amazing river valley are pulling echo boomers towards the core.
To be close to the core, Members of the echo boom are willing to live in smaller spaces, with secondary suite income used to subsidize their mortgage, bringing infill back into their price range.
However, The sheer demand for these properties has driven the cost of housing up in these areas drastically.
In the past 18 months, we have seen nearly a 50% increase in the cost of subdivideable lots in Edmonton, with nearly all of them going to multiple offers when they come for sale with no slow down in sight.
The densification of lots under current zoning is really only allowable in RF2 and RF3 neighborhoods and there is an estimated lot stock of only about 8000 of these lots in all of Edmonton.
Furthermore, lot supply in infill is currently STATIC - as demand increases, supply does not. In infill we have to wait for owners to be willing to sell their property before redeveloping - rather than just asking a developer for more lots as they are demanded as in new neighborhoods.
I'm going to talk about two specific areas of interest. In these 2 areas, changes to byways have already been requested by city council, and I am in full support of these.
First, garage suites.
It’s been requested that garage suite zoning be reviewed by city council. The motion is to increase the number of units able to be built in mature neighborhoods.
Currently there are 3 requirements on lots eligible for garage suites that are limiting their widespread adoption.
· Location - with a couple of minor exceptions, you must be on a corner lot to be allowed a garage suite. This already nixes out around 9/10 lots on average.
· Size: a minimum site area of 460 square meters is required. This also excludes a large portion of potential lots, as well as any and all newly subdivided lots.
· Parking: The main reason for the previous two requirements is parking. Currently, you must provide 2 parking stalls on site for the principle residence, and 1 additional for the suite. This is basically impossible outside of a corner lot, or a very wide lot.
Although there may have once been merit to those requirements, I think we need to look forward towards the vision we’ve been describing. As we have talked about Edmonton is urbanizing and changing. We are expending vast resources on an LRT system which we want to be exceptionally utilized and ease the pressure on our roads.
What we would like to see is parking requirements relaxed in areas close to mass transit. Renters can then also reside in the core, and not have need for a vehicle. This would allow nearly every lot in a mature neighborhood to potentially have a garage suite – transforming the affordability, density and diversity of our core.
Subdivided lots in rf1.
Higher density infill is being built as fast as the market will allow at present, with demand vastly exceeding supply.
There are an estimated 100,000 rf1 lots in Edmonton. A very large portion of these are 50' wide or wider.
The potential increased supply of subdivided lots would help satiate the huge demand we are seeing right now. Within this, we can still respect the current zoning setbacks, as well as, I believe, respect the aesthetics and character of the current neighborhoods.
In short it would make these lots both more affordable, and more plentiful for redevelopment, attracting more families back into our core.
So, to conclude, to take steps towards density, and reach our potential as an urban center we need to make our core affordable in a way that allows diversity to thrive. Two logical steps to take towards this right now are allowing more garage suites in mature neighborhoods, and allowing the subdivision of RF1 lots.
As Kalen and Jeff have said up here change in Edmonton is happening, regardless of what we do. Neighborhoods do not stay the same even if we do nothing, however, what we want the future to look like is up to all of us as citizens of Edmonton. Everyone is this room is an author of what this city decides to do and where we go next. There is definitely evolution happening in mature neighborhoods, where we end up is up to us.