Faulty Prescription for Infill Problems

(Above: good looking infills that may not be possible under the proposed new rules)

The City is concluding its study of infill housing projects in the downtown wards. They examined every infill built over the last few years, photographed them, and analysed what went wrong.

The most obvious problems related to new buildings being too massive compared to their neighbours, too hard paved in the fronts (often leaving no soft landscaping at all) and too many  garage doors that blight the street.

So, they came up with some solutions.

Alas, I left the public reveal of these solutions feeling rather let down and discouraged. If bureaucratic type people, who live and die by rule making and rule applying and rule interpretation and rule bending are left in charge of assessing their product, we shouldn’t be surprised when their primary solution to anything is to … write more rules.

Now I must admit a decided unenthusiasm for parsing rules. They don’t exactly bring me to the big O. But adding to the rule book just complicates development, stifles innovation, and probably favours those sleazoid developers who just love nitpicking rule sets to find the loopholes (we all know people like that from work, who shirk whilst being unbeatable when it comes to knowing the contract).

The planners identified problems with infill front yards being too “hard” and lacking landscaping. Fair enough, it’s a real problem. But their solutions include banning front patios, front decks, or even staircases that extend into the required front yard. So those popular infill styles that put one house on the front of the lot and another behind it … well those front unit people won’t likely be sitting out front anymore. And why is a concrete stair going up to a front door forbidden while a concrete front sidewalk covering the same area is welcomed? Under the new rules, front doors in new infills may largely be recessed, and yet further un-obvious from the street. Or they will be flat at grade (since stairs are verboten) even if the style of the whole street has doors several feet up off the sidewalk. What happened to blending in with the neighbours? Or worse, front spaces will be graded at a slope, so the front walk does what a traditional stair is supposed to do.

While the city doesn’t encourage “faux historic” styles (what we mortals call blending in really well) consider a street with a row of 10 brick homes, each with a front verandah. If the builder of the infill half way along wants to blend in, he may not put the porch in line with the other houses, but has to set it back to align with the brick front wall of the adjacent houses, in order to preserve “the front yard”. More likely, he is simply going to cut off the porch to get more house. (the new rules don’t outright ban front porches, but they do make them much more expensive — and thus unlikely — as they have to occupy the area otherwise occupied by the building envelope).

I got the distinct feeling that the front lawn rule is designed to satisfy those from the inner suburbs like Champlain Park or Westboro where lawns are valued; but was not high on the wish list of those from Centretown or Vanier where front yards are more likely to be developed as patios, verandahs, or gardens and greater  diversity is more tolerated.

Rooftop decks are an issue. I think many of them are very underused, and thus not a equitable substitute for yards, because they are awkward to get to, too hot/cold/windy/isolated (except for those avoiding tan lines). But neighbours worry about overlooking, loss of privacy, etc. The city’s proposal to require them to be set back 1m from the building wall scarcely seems worthwhile.   Where the roof deck is on a middle floor (often a cut-out in the building envelope to permit windows for rooms where side-facing windows are not possible or wanted) I wonder if this setback rule is needed or will simply frustrate innovative design. I would suggest the rule be waived when the deck in question faces other infill units. In most other cases, some sort of planter or privacy screening rule might be much more useful.

The city proposes forbidding any front walk from being more than 1.25m wide (about 4′). This is to prevent too much hard surface, and to discourage sidewalks that are really parking spaces. Except … the city then goes on to REQUIRE that said sidewalks abut the driveway or parking space, virtually begging the homeowner to park on them. Alas, they ignored my suggestion that walkways had to be at least 8″ above the driveway so cars can’t so easily park on them, and my suggestion is to permit front yard patios provided it is impossible to park on them (eg 2 steps up, or a permanent planting feature to protect them).

Alas, they also ignored my practical suggestion that they regulate the amount of hard coverage by requiring it to be permeable (rain fall runs through it to the ground below, feeding the trees and soil). So, you can’t have a 5′ wide walkway of permeable stone but you can have a 4′ walkway of impermeable concrete. Huh?

And please, save us from universal backyard parking. Isn’t it bad enough that our environment is dominated by cars out front and at the sides, but to drive more into the back yards is to make them paved parking lots that blight everyone else’s back yard at the same time. Let’s try to keep the cars out of the back yards, not in them. I do like the City’s sugestion that parking minimums be waived for infills, so off-street parking will no longer be required (often the new driveway replaces one public curbside spot with one private laneway spot). This might actually lower the cost of housing.

I had a brief chat with an infill builder after the meeting. He expressed frustration that the new rules would stymie innovation, and play into the hands of aggressive rule pushers who seek to maximize building size. He also lamented that the existing rules discourage or forbid two infill single family homes on a 50′ lot but encourage the semi, which therefore has a larger mass and makes neighbours unhappy. (As a builder, he could sell the same square footage as a single for about $70k more than when built as a semi). As a long term proponent of smaller infill housing (which the city effectively forbids) I found myself in rare agreement with a builder.

I think the city’s review of infills was a worthwhile exercise. It identified some real problems and issues. The main actors from the City seemed sincere. I heard lots of complaints from community association people and residents. I heard very little from developers who build the city. I came away from the process a bit disappointed that the net result was tinkering with the rules and forbidding more things. I saw nothing that rewarded innovation, rewarded good design, rewarded neighborliness. I felt we were letting an opportunity slip between our fingers.

5 thoughts on “Faulty Prescription for Infill Problems

  1. Grrr. Now I’m angry at myself for skipping these sessions. The one element that sticks in my craw is any rule that would discourage or minimize the size of front porches. One of the most positive developments we’ve seen in the past few years in Champlain Park (yes the same area you implied might be *against* porches) is a miniature front-porch Renaissance, with a dozen or more recent renos either adding or significantly improving front porch living space.

    Eric, while you were on the Champlain Oaks walk, you probably saw the one we added to our house five years ago – a 10×23 roofed porch we planned out when our old concrete steps fell victim to a sewage sinkhole. We had a choice between extending our house frontage a couple of metres forward or a roofed porch that extended even farther than that. We chose porch, and since then, I’ve become a porch evangelist in the neighbourhood.

    Unlike a back deck, a “tanline free” rooftop deck, or a blank front wall, a porch is a nice blurring of the public / private realm and lights up any street by encouraging socialization, hanging out with a book, and in the case of a large porch like ours, even family meals – all of which makes the neighbourhood feel much more urban and connected.

    The problem with the infill discussion is that it’s too much about what “offenses” should be forbidden across the board, and it’s not enough about what kind of communities, and Community (writ large), we’re trying to build in our city.

  2. I too am a fan of front porches. We have several retired folk on our street (Golden Triangle) who love sitting out on their front porches. They have keen eyes and miss little…so the suspicious looking fellow at the side of our house one day was questioned and sent off. Same for two fellows trying out the neighbour’s fire escape…confronted and run off. It’s like having your own security company.

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