A Letter to TOD: Some thoughts on Belgravia, looking ahead

The City of Edmonton is launching a pilot project with McKernan and Belgravia about future development of neighbourhoods adjacent to LRT stations and what types of residential and development approaches would work for residents.  The approach is called “Transit Oriented Development” (TOD).  You can find out more about the City’s TOD guidelines here.   A TOD open house is scheduled on November 22nd at McKernan School.

Belgravia resident Catilin Brandon sends this letter regarding Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the neighbourhood, based on her experiences in living in core neighbourhoods in Vancouver and Calgary. Thanks, Caitlin!

My husband and I own a house within 400 m of the McKernan/Belgravia LRT. The house is at the end of it’s life, and we intend to build a family home on the site within the next couple of years.

To better understand the TOD, which will influence what we build, I recently had a discussion with the city’s TOD planning group. From the conversation, I had the impression that duplex construction would likely be a proposed development option within the 400 m. At the time, lot division was not yet being considered. I would argue that lot division would be a good consideration for rezoning.

After living in Belgravia for a year now, I see the very strong competing forces of rental vs family owned (and lived in) homes. For selfish reasons, I want owner occupied single family homes to win! It would sure make arranging play dates a lot easier 😉 as well as help support our school and community.

While a duplex does not exclude families, it is not a housing form that is aspired to (rightly or wrongly) for family ownership. My observation of duplex construction along 76 Ave. is as rental properties, and these are quite depressing in their construction and in their upkeep. Much of the duplex construction near the University is uninspiring. A current mls listing in McKernan shows a side by side duplex with 8 bedrooms and 8 bathrooms per side (that’s 16 bedrooms + 16 bathrooms in total!). This particular property is informative on many levels. First, at a list price of 1.2 million, it tells you how profitable large student rentals can be… Second, it tells you what happens when zoning fails…

“Not in my backyard!” you say? But wait… the large new house on 79th Ave, just West of 114th St, is also built-to-rent with a large number of bedrooms and bathrooms. Based on the asking rent last fall and number of rooms, I estimated a total income of ≈ $6,000 per month. Yet, city zoning on this house states “100% single family dwelling“.

It took me awhile to get over the shock of this type of construction. I have never seen this before. Essentially an apartment was built, but it was made to look like a brand new house. I don’t mean to single out any particular properties in this letter, but I do mean to be instructive and this particular house serves a good (bad) example.

Clearly, houses at the end of their economic life in our neighborhood that are near the LRT, and/or comprimised by exposure to busier roadways, have considerable pressure on them for rooming house style rental properties. But to say that type of construction is “100% single family dwelling“ is affront to the house next door, as is the backyard converted to a gravel parking lot. A rooming house of this nature has serious adverse influence on potential adjacent redevelopments, and indeed for the entire block.

Yet–what is to be done with these perimeter houses with high land value? Considering the land and construction costs, redevelopment into a single family home at that site was unlikely.

One of the best ways I know of to encourage the redevelopment of single family homes on inner city lots is through lot division. I come from Calgary where lot division was introduced over 10 years ago. The result has been completely transformed inner city neighborhoods. Presently Edmonton will pass a general 50’ lot division city wide (on sites previously allowing for duplex construction). And the mature neighborhood overlay is currently being amended to allow a minimum 25’ lot.

To increase the housing density near the LRT, I prefer lot division over duplex zoning for two reasons. First, the side by side duplex form allows more room within the housing envelope (one wall is shared) and is more likely to be built-to-rent than would be two small lot houses. Secondly, as I already stated, the duplex housing form is less desirable for family ownership. While 25’ lot housing is not perfect, it is an increase in density equal to duplex zoning and is a housing form that attracts young families. On resale these houses would continue to attract young families, thereby helping to keep the area near the LRT vibrant and family friendly into the future.

Over the course of rezoning for TOD there are many issues and options that the neighborhood needs to discuss. With this letter I encourage readers to consider all the options, and get involved in the discussion. Remember – rezoning doesn’t mean that housing will change immediately, or even that it should change. What it means is that when a house is up for sale at the end of it’s economic life, the zoning is in place to support appropriate development for the community.

For me, there are two things I would like to see from any zoning changes introduced:

1. Zoning that encourages families. We have excellent nearby schools, childcare, access to public transit and recreational facilities –and families want to live here.

2. A plan that would produce a uniform and consistent feel to the neighborhood 30 years from now, with a transition in density inward from the LRT and perimeter.

Regarding point 2) above, redevelopment adjacent to or facing busier roads, and where houses back onto larger scale zoning (apartments), a higher density form may make sense. The City of Edmonton has a category for urban character row housing that may be applicable:

• UCRH – Urban Character Row Housing Zone: This zone provides for medium density Row Housing in a manner that is characteristic of urban settings and can include more intensive development in the form of, but not limited to, smaller yards, greater Height, orientation to a public street, and greater attention to architectural detail. This Zone is intended as a transition zone between low and higher density housing.

The defining characteristic of urban characteristic row housing is the reduction in set-back requirements. A reduced set back allows increased square footage inside the development, while preserving some backyard. Land- scape architectural details (eg. hedging, fences) are used to preserve the personal/public space. In essence, it improves the redevelopment opportunity beyond that provided for in regular row housing with the intention of a higher architectural quality. Some examples of narrow lot houses and row housing are shown below– all images courtesy of MLS:

In addition, I have the following final thoughts and questions:

1. I believe TOD zoning should be taken along the existing axis of streets, rather than follow a 400 m radius from the LRT. For instance: (a) Bring TOD zoning changes to the front limit of a street – i.e. prevent the situation from arising where a house loses backyard privacy due to increased zoning behind but is not included in an increased density zoning itself. (b) Take TOD zoning to end of a block, rather than have TOD def- inition end mid-block, as the 400 m zone currently does. This would result in more consistent and appealing presentation of the distribution of density.

2. Within the TOD redevelopment guidelines, we stipulate that any re- development that takes down a tree must replant a tree? I believe we can.

3. As for the developments themselves, how can we influence them for good architectural outcome? Has anyone met with developers to discuss how this is influenced? (asides from sheer economics that is – eg urban character zoning increases the internal square footage by reduction in set back and can increase the developers profit on the sameland base – which can (but will?) result in better architectural appeal.)



p.s. If you would like to comment or respond to this, please email c/o: planning@belgraviaedmonton.ca



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