Group worried about ‘radical’ zoning bylaw changes; Edmonton councillor calls them ‘necessary’

Click to play video: 'Group of citizens worried about zoning bylaw changes in Edmonton'
Group of citizens worried about zoning bylaw changes in Edmonton
The City of Edmonton is moving forward with plans to slow urban sprawl and shift to denser neighbourhoods. As Sarah Komadina explains, some Edmontonians say there wasn't enough public consultation and they worry about how the plans could shape the future of the city – Jun 15, 2023

Some Edmonton residents are worried that not enough people know about the zoning bylaw renewal initiative, which would allow more infill housing and mixed-use space in residential neighbourhoods. On Thursday, they presented poll results to strengthen their argument.

A group of concerned residents hired Pollara Strategic Insights to survey 300 Edmontonians from across the city about the bylaw changes.

Kevin Taft, the group’s spokesperson, said only three per cent of respondents said they could explain the bylaw to another person.

“I was disturbed,” he said. “I can’t say I was hugely surprised because so many people that I had spoken to had never heard of it.”

He said the poll showed just 11 per cent of respondents had a general idea of the bylaw and 62 per cent said they’d never heard of it.

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Taft said this shows that city council and city administration have “failed completely” at communicating with the public, need to hold more in-person town halls on this topic, and until then, go back to the drawing board.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton’s urban policy push leads to some frustration'
Edmonton’s urban policy push leads to some frustration

But Ward Métis Coun. Ashley Salvador says the city has been engaging on the new zoning bylaw renewal since 2018 — in various formats. In fact, the process was delayed a year when the city heard more people wanted to provide feedback.

The city said, since 2018, there have been more than six online workshops, 14 open houses, 13 pop-up events and more than 30 stakeholder meetings. Information on the initiative was mailed to more than 400,000 property owners in May 2022. More than 48,600 people viewed the draft bylaw between September and December 2022, and more than 3,500 comments were submitted.

“We know there are concerns,” she said Thursday. “At the same time, we do know that we have to move forward. The zoning bylaw is one of the primary tools the city has to implement the City Plan. If we are going to get to a vision of having a more sustainable, walkable, urban, inclusive Edmonton, this change does have to be made.”

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She called the City Plan was “one of our most extensively engaged-on documents ever as a city.”

The revised zoning bylaw updates rules set in the 1960s.

Under the renewal, infill housing – such as skinny houses and small apartment buildings – could be built on any residential lot in the city without the builder needing to go through an approval process with the city.

The revised bylaw will also encourage certain business types, like small restaurants, cafes, child care and retail stores, to be located among houses in neighbourhoods.

Dense housing will be allowed on any lot in the city, with some zones allowing infill and small apartments and some allowing highrises.

Building denser housing like rowhouses, duplexes, apartments and garden suites could help lower-income Edmontonians break into the housing market, according to Salvador.

The proposed bylaw would also allow a greater mix of types of lots in neighbourhoods.

“For decades — we have to remember, the current zoning bylaw is decades old– it’s been quite restrictive,” Salvador said Thursday.

“We are looking at an affordability crisis. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis as well. We truly do need to densify our current neighbourhoods. We have to allow for more diverse types of housing. We cannot continue growing outwards. It’s not environmentally sustainable, it’s not financially sustainable. It’s incredibly costly for us to grow in that manner.

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“Through the zoning bylaw, we’re also hoping to facilitate more of that dense development within existing neighbourhoods because we can’t afford not to.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton residents concerned about infill damage call for better enforcement'
Edmonton residents concerned about infill damage call for better enforcement

Taft said he’s worried most Edmontonians don’t understand the “enormous” impact this bylaw change would have on their neighbourhoods.

He said it could mean mid-rise eight-storey buildings — and in some areas, high-rises — built in residential neighbourhoods. He said developers would be allowed to build eight housing units on lots as narrow as 50 feet and front and rear setbacks would be greatly reduced.

“The kinds of buildings that will be permitted automatically in people’s neighbourhoods will be dramatically different than anything that’s been built before,” Taft said.

Bruce Dancik is particularly worried about buildings coming closer to sidewalks and a reduction of that setback distance.

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“I’m a tree guy… a retired professor of woody plans. I came to Edmonton in ’73 and was struck by the American Elm population, biggest in the world, of mature, large Elm trees. And yet we’re doing things to remove them,” he said.

“While we all want to see densification, the first thing they want to do is cut the trees down and it just seems insane. We’re trying to increase the tree canopy.”

Click to play video: 'Fate of mature Edmonton trees part of ongoing debate over infill development'
Fate of mature Edmonton trees part of ongoing debate over infill development

Marie Gordon, a long-time Edmonton resident, said she considers herself a pretty engaged and informed citizen.

“I, like a huge majority of Edmontonians, had really no idea what a radical restructuring this bylaw was going to be,” she said outside city hall on Thursday. “I feel utterly left behind and I want to be more engaged and so many people do in creating a much better plan.”

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Gordon said she supports infill but that it must be done thoughtfully.

“We’re already dealing with the LRT construction, we have a lot of infill. We just want a say on how things happen because once this thing gets passed it’s irreversible.”

Salvador says that’s not the case.

“This is not a one and done. It’s not like we pass the zoning bylaw and never talk about it again. There is an iterative process that will happen afterwards if adjustments need to be made.”

Salvador says there’s more flexibility in the new zoning bylaw for more mixed-use development in Edmonton neighborhoods.

“We are trying to really lean into the idea of 15-minute communities. We want people to be able to walk to a corner store, to be able to have easy access to daycare, and everyday amenities they need in close proximity to their home,” she said.

“It’s necessary change if we want to build a city Edmontonians say they want to see.”

Edmontonians who want to know how their neighbourhood is currently zoned — and how that could change with the new bylaw — can use the city’s Know Your Zone tool.

The city’s urban planning committee meets next on Tuesday, June 20. The public will be able to share their thoughts on the bylaw at a public hearing on Oct. 16.

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