Edmonton should eliminate the RF1 zone to advance infill development

City Council should eliminate the RF1 zone and rezone all of those areas to RF3. Such a move would raise the base zoning for residential neighbourhoods across the city, moving the discussion around accommodating Edmonton’s growth from “how does infill fit in” to “infill is a key part of our entire city’s future, let’s make it work.” Such a decision would make it clear that the entire city needs to evolve together as we grow.

This is not a new idea. It has been proposed before, such as by the Infill Development Edmonton Association. More recently, Councillor Michael Walters has been in the news, making the case for increasing density throughout the city rather than just in specific neighbourhoods:

“We’ve created this sense of entitlement that my neighbourhood is a single-family neighbourhood. No infill should be permitted here,” said Walters. “I don’t think that any neighbourhood is entitled to have low density.”

As long as the majority of our mature neighbourhoods are zoned RF1, we’ll always have an “us vs. them” problem. I mean, just look at what one Kenilworth resident told The Journal:

“Duplexes? No, we don’t want that,” added June Lunn, who moved in five years ago. “Those kind of things are low income. I think older neighbourhoods should just be left how they are. That’s why we live here. If you can’t afford it, go elsewhere,” she added. “I’m not trying to be rude, but we work hard for where we live.”

Entitlement and NIMBYism at its finest. But this isn’t just about building an inclusive city. This is about accommodating the amazing growth Edmonton is experiencing and is projected to continue experiencing. Suburban neighbourhoods alone just aren’t going to cut it. Mayor Iveson wrote about this today:

“We simply can’t continue to build our city and accommodate our growth by developing new neighbourhoods alone. Our suburban neighbourhoods provide great homes, communities and amenities for Edmontonians, but they can’t be the only place where Edmonton’s growth and change occurs. The way we’ll continue to be able to grow a great city in a strong region is by enabling diverse housing options across our entire city. Infill is a crucial piece in building up our established neighbourhoods and further embracing the urban shift that is already underway in Edmonton.”

Infill

The fact is, Edmonton is behind on one of the key goals set forth in The Way We Grow, Edmonton’s municipal development plan. The plan targets that “a minimum of 25 percent of city-wide housing unit growth locate in the Downtown and mature neighbourhoods” and near LRT and transit centres. That’s infill, and while it is happening, it isn’t happening quickly enough. We’re no where close to 25% and without some sort of bold action, we’ll never get there.

As a result, the City has now published its first major report on the topic. Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap is “a two year work plan to advance infill.” Many speakers today described the roadmap as “a good start” and felt it adequately captured the public consultation that went on during its development. But the sentiment was clearly that it doesn’t go far enough.

The roadmap identifies 23 actions, including 8 that the City considers priority actions to begin immediately. “They are key activities that are needed to remove barriers to the development of more new housing and to proactively manage growth,” the roadmap says. The actions are broadly categorized into communication, collaboration, knowledge, rules, and process. As is typical with these kinds of reports, the actions are mostly baby steps, especially those in the rules category.

Action 15 says, “change the RF1 (single detached) zone to allow the subdivision of properties into narrower lots that are half the average width of the other lots on the block (but not less than 25 feet wide).” Action 16 says, “create more opportunities for row housing in the RF3 (small scale infill development) zone by removing location restrictions and changing the site regulations that currently limit this form of infill on RF3 lots.”

Council could just let the roadmap run its course, and maybe learn from that to agree on the next set of actions in two years. And eventually, after many years, we’d have transformed the RF1 zone into something that better enables infill. But I think Council needs to be bolder. The time for baby steps is over.

rf3 zones

There are just 16 neighbourhoods that currently feature predominately RF3 zoning. The vast majority of our neighbourhoods are zoned RF1. But as Administration readily admitted today, RF1 is no longer relevant. It’s just not how we develop neighbourhoods anymore. New areas of the city feature greater diversity than just single detached homes, and have higher density than mature, RF1 neighbourhoods as a result. If the RF1 zone is no longer relevant, then why keep it around?

Moving the baseline to RF3 is not a silver bullet. It also doesn’t mean that every new home built is going to be a townhouse. But it does remove a key barrier to infill, and it does make the desired mix of housing possible. It would allow land prices to stabilize, making infill more affordable.

Ambleside
Medium density housing in Ambleside

Council repeatedly asked the two panels of speakers today for advice on how to get the public onside with more infill and any potential zoning changes. They talked about “social acceptance” and noted they’re the ones that field the angry calls.

Here’s the thing: some people are going to complain no matter what you do. There will always be the June Lunn’s of the world. As was pointed out in response to Council’s questions, waiting to get everyone on board prevents action. You’ll never get everyone on board. It’s important to keep the dialogue ongoing of course, and to give Edmontonians an opportunity to be heard. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep pressing pause. Take action, and clearly inform citizens about why that decision was made and what it means. Council was elected to make the best decisions on behalf of citizens for our city’s future, and if that means infill throughout the city, then let’s get on with it already.

Today, Executive Committee passed a couple of motions to move this work forward. First, they asked for a report “outlining options to overhaul our suite of low density zones (RF1-RF4)” which could include consolidation, changes to the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, and information about incentives that could be offered to support increased densification. We should hear back on that in January. Second, they voted to allow garage and garden suites and to change RF1 to allow narrower lots not less than 25 feet wide. A public hearing on the changes will take place by January. Furthermore, they asked for an update on progress with the Edmonton Infill Roadmap by March 2015.

That’s all good, and as we head into a very busy capital budget season, it’s probably enough for now. But I’d like to see Council go further when they pick this back up in the new year. Let’s get rid of the RF1 zone, either by rezoning those areas to RF3, or by coming up with a new consolidated zone to achieve our infill objectives. Let’s take a bold step forward.

For more on today’s discussion, check out this post from Elise Stolte.

  • http://mover.io/ Eric Warnke, Mover.io

    Great writing, as usual.

    Do you know whether property values will go up or down if an RF1 neighbourhood is converted to an RF3? It seems to me that larger houses/lots are worth more than smaller houses and apartments.

    Disclosure: We bought an RF1 house last year.

    • http://blog.mastermaq.ca Mack D. Male

      Hi Eric, good question, I need to learn more about this. In the short-term, I don’t think there would be any impact on property values as changing the zoning doesn’t immediately change the contents of the neighbourhood. Over time, as more diverse housing types are built, aging properties are redeveloped, and the neighbourhood becomes more vibrant, I would think the value of property would increase.

  • Urban Ed

    People’s funny ideas about zoning and control over how their neighbours develop drives me a little nuts. I recently bought a Single Family Home in one of the 16 RF3 neighbourhoods. The zoning was a reason my father gave for not buying the house. (This same father has decided that he’s no longer going to redevelop a property he owns in Belgravia because last year’s zoning changes removed the option to build a front-attached garage…like many of his generation he seems to idealize the suburban layout that was dominant when he was young).

    Re: Eric – there really wouldn’t be any data in the Edmonton sense about what happens to property values. Changing an existing neighbourhood from RF1 to RF3 might well reduce property values as people like my father are afraid of potential redevelopment. (The alternative story is that increased development opportunities result in developers bidding up the price in converted neighbourhoods, and being able to turn a profit by subdividing into smaller lots or multi-family…I don’t have the data to know which is the dominant effect.)

    My RF3 neighourhood (Grovenor) is surrounded by 3 RF1 neighbourhoods and 1 RF2. As far as I can tell, the distinguishing feature of RF2 is that semi-detached housing is permitted, whereas it’s discretionary in RF1. The ones to the east (Glenora) and south (Crestwood) are more expensive, and the ones to the north (McQueen) and west (Canora, the RF2) are cheaper. Clearly zoning isn’t the defining element in land value.

    But either way, if you change the whole city, then the dynamic changes. There simply aren’t other options, and the retro-grouch effect disappears. Maybe a few marginal buyers will move to Sherwood Park or St Albert instead if SFH-only zoning is still allowed there, but as noted, new development today usually has multi-family incorporated anyway.

    My expectation from a basic supply/demand analysis in moving the whole city to RF3 would be an increase in property values, at least for single-family homeowners. There’s the immediate increase in demand as the development opportunities bring in institutional money, and if you own a SFH, the supply of that kind of housing in mature neighbourhoods will also go down over time.

    Owners of existing condos and other forms of multi-family would likely see price declines as supply of that sort of housing increases…this is the nature of increasing the affordability of central living. My experience as a condo owner in Oliver is that this process is already underway for apartment-style condos, since there’s so many new towers shooting up.

    Regardless of the accuracy of that analysis, the fact is that protecting homeowner equity should not be the job of City Hall. Their job should be to develop a city that works and is pleasant to live in, and places as much value on the people who would like to live in mature neighbourhoods as the people who already do.