Better infills through consultation

The City has done a review of all the infill housing put up in the last few years in selected central area neighborhoods. Staff went out and photographed every house from the street. I must commend them for actually doing part of the study out in the real world and not from charts and drawings in the back room. It wasn’t that many years ago that the City reprimanded staff for actually going out in the field. It is a practice I would like to see more of (the going out in the city part) by planners. There are been a number of zoning and planning issues on the west side in the last year for which one of my early questions to the planner is “have you gone and visited the site?”. The answer is always NO.

I make my views known only after I visit the site in question. It always amazes me what I see on-site that isn’t apparent on a plan. Things like context. For a recent zoning variation for example, the planner didn’t know the short stub-end street had the only entrance to underground parking for a condo that faced another street a block way. Oops, minor detail. He also didn’t notice the “sidewalk” was only 18″ wide and flush with the asphalt pavement. Pish and bother.

I thought the city’s staff did a fine job of the infill review. They caught and identified a number of issues that bug me. They proposed a number of suggested “improvements”, which I was much less enthused about.

For example, some infills  basically present a street-front of garage doors. The proposed solution was to limit the frontage that could be garage doors to 50%. That might work. But it ignored other possible solutions, such as better garage detailing that turns them from utility to design WOW. Or better paving and landscaping to reduce its impact (of the infill samples shown, too often the dominant garages had dominant over-paving and inadequate landscaping too. Fixing those might reduce the garage door problem).

And what if a developer, faced with a narrow-lot infill, decides that rather than putting in 2 units of 12-1500 sq ft, decides to put in one giant monster home of 3500 sq ft with a one-and-half-wide garage door that meets the new rule but makes the infill less affordable?

I was also very unenthused about suggestions that more parking be put in the back yard. God, aren’t we surrounded by cars on every side now, and yet the city might encourage putting more of them in back yards! Kiss back yard trees goodbye. And out of sight, out of mind, I expect those parking spaces to expand over time to take over the whole yard. Anyone for a backyard BBQ with musical accompaniment courtesy of an oversize Bose car stereo system? Please, keep the cars out of the back yards.

Indeed, the city’s responses were typical of a bureaucracy. If the rules don’t work, if you’re digging a hole, then dig harder. Throw up more rules. The most obvious problem was that many times there were tradeoffs to be made between the choices. If no garages at front with living spaces above … then we might get garages at front with living spaces behind. Is this better? Maybe we should ask the neighbours? (I propose a less-rule-bound solution below).

Too many side doors? Are the narrow frontages too hard paved? Well, let’s reduce the available amount of soft space by requiring the front door and walk be on the front instead of the side. Oops. That might not get us the intended result. Indeed, they had plenty of examples where the front “sidewalk” is really just another parking space. Why not specify a six inch curb between walk space and driveway? and driveways that are as wide as the garage, not right out to the lot line.

While pleased the planners went out into the real world to see the infills, they only showed the “bad” examples on their site and at the meetings (and kudos to them for actually showing real-world problems; no word on what those owners think of being singled out as mistakes). There was no indication of what we could aspire to. Let’s see what the planners think are good ones before we adopt their rules that are intended to get more of that result.

The planners showed too little initiative in that they restricted their review to street fronts. But almost every house has a front and a back. And just as many people look at the back as the front. And the back possibly engenders more discomfort since it is our “private” space that gets invaded by infills.

Consider the infill going up behind me, at 145 Elm. I have featured it before. The house goes right back as far as it legally can, 25′ from my lot line. Fair enough, them’s the rules. But …  the house is three floors high with huge windows that effectively appropriates my garden as their own, because their principle living floor is level 2. They’ve got the height advantage. But wait… the 25′ setback is for the house only, it doesn’t count the “projections”, in this example, a second floor deck that will be about 10×20′. As visible from the photo (deck not yet in place) the entire deck will be above my fence, and above any height fence I could legally install.

145 Elm: main floor is above fence line, even though fence is 6' high ontop of a 3' retaining wall. Yet to come: a big deck on the second floor. The left unit shows the window pattern that will also be on the right house.

For this infill, the developer is nice to work with, he has agreed to make the deck’s glass railing frosted, so I won’t spend all my time looking at my neighbours’ knees and we won’t be looking at at each other all day even when sitting down, indoors or out.

But, the City hasn’t addressed these overlooking issues or back decks, they only looked at front facades. They need to consider the back yard too.

Rather than more rules micro-managing what can and cannot be done, which only invites more niggly-piggly nit-picking by lawyers and sharp “got-ya” deals at the expense of innovation, I would prefer if infills either had to go through a neighbor’s consultation or design review process.

I have met several developers of infills who confess astonishment at what neighbours will accept (even welcome) if approached before hand and the options/alternatives discussed. How many ugly infills could have been improved through an inexpensive consultation? If there are ongoing disputes, on to the design review panel of “experts” (lay or professional, volunteer or paid). If disagreement continues, I suspect we’ve got a “shark” developer (or as one person at the meetings put it, a “rape ’em and leave ’em” developer). In those cases of continued disagreement, send it on to planning committee. And I do realize that some neighbours will never accept any change. The existing residents, the developer, and the future resident have rights and obligations.

Last points: the City web site shows numerous examples of struggling trees. Sometimes these are poorly planted new trees, in too-small holes, surrounded by impermeable paving. In this case, the problem is a combination of cheap or ignorant tree planters and a failure of the city to have and enforce tree planting standards. So import the correct tree standards and require them to be followed. This could be done by inspecting the hole before the tree goes in, or requiring landscapers to certify the planting conditions (if they cheat, and get caught, good bye landscaping license). 

 Infills are expensive. They have higher risk than tract homes on greenfield sites. They are usually in more desirable locations. In most cases, they are way more valuable than their neighbours. So with higher price, comes higher-income households. Who are more likely to be mid-life, multi-vehicle owners. It will take them time, if ever, to adjust their suburban lifestyle to the city. To realize they don’t need two or three cars. That maybe they needn’t to be chauffeurs to sports teams any more. Let’s not make infills more expensive and even more the preserve of the very affluent minority. I’d like my kids to have a choice to live in the city. Or the suburbs.

You can have fun viewing infills at the city web site

11 thoughts on “Better infills through consultation

  1. “How many ugly infills could have been improved through an inexpensive consultation?” I agree. A personal anecdote: a couple of years ago when developers were preparing to build three new 2500+ sq ft shoebox houses on an oversized lot in Champlain Park (which City staff flagged among their examples of ‘bad’ infills), they organized a ‘consultation’ in the local fieldhouse. A significant cross-section of the neighbourhood turned out curious and in good spirits. The developers presented their design, it seemed with the sole intent of being praised for their genius and great taste, because when neighbours started posing questions and making suggestions (some good “why are the driveways so wide?” “can’t we save some of the oak trees at the edge of the lot?” and some asinine — “why not build low-income housing?”), the developers replied “you don’t understand, our zoning approval is contingent on building exactly what our plans show here.” I have no idea if this is true or not, but obviously the meeting went sideways from there. The general mood quickly turned to “well why in the heck did you invite us here?” and the questions and suggestions turned into accusations and recriminations. Everyone, developer and neighbour alike, left in a pretty foul mood, and a very antagonistic relationship was established between the developers and neighbours that lasted throughout the construction period. (it didn’t help that one of their contractors died while removing the trees, and that contractors regularly started work as early as 5:45am while others continued working until the middle of the night, and people wonder why there are so many bylaw complaint calls to 311 these days!)

    Luckily, two of the families that moved in were so charming and lovely, that neighbours were unable to hold a grudge against the new residents, but what an unpleasant experience!


    1. and I agree that more micromanaging rules are certainly not the answer. I nearly laughed up my breakfast reading your pitch perfect description of the typicial bureaucratic response to such problems!

  2. I’m a planner and would just like to say that we’re really really trying hard these days and get out to do site visits as often as humanly possible. Most of us are extremely pationate about what we do and how to help this city through its growing pains. Infill is not going away and we often find ourselves between a rock and a hard place (not to mention timelines mandated by the province and unbeliveable workloads in the urban area). Generalizing comments about planning staff does about as much good as generalizing comments about all developers or all concerned citizens. We’re also not legally allowed to photograph backyards (another bureaucratic hurdle of site visits) due to trespassing issues. But enough ranting – I don’t disagree that infills might benefit from more consultation and a design review, and it comes down to a question of resources, when there are not a lot of planners, and hundreds of infill projects every year.

  3. That, I understand, is why the planning department no longer considers zoning to be a significant obstacle. A few years ago (I’m told) the City decided to move from a strict adherence to zoning to allowing more leniency, but strict requirements for more subjective things like good design, community buy-in, etc.

    They got as far as getting rid of strict zoning, and didn’t bother to replace it with anything.

  4. Lets look at the facts.

    1. NIMBY is alive and well when it comes to infills
    2. If you have anymore than 2 people in a consultation there will never be an agreement
    3. you can’t make everyone happy or even get close to a minority of happy people
    4. people will always resist change, good or bad
    5. beauty is in the eye-of-the-beholder (I personally find single floor bungalows with traditional framing ugly – yes lets have more siding)
    6. people like cars….that will not change…therefore you need some place to put them…like a garage

    I am all for reasonable zoning rules, but not ones that force potential infill builders, who contribute to the cities economy and tax base, to ride bikes and build according to the tastes of their neighbours. I suppose this will be an unpopular post on this blog, but it irks me to see the unreasonable NIMBY attitudes towards infill..which in the last few years has shown some very exciting trends towards modernism and innovation.

    1. I agree that their are unreasonable neighbours around, but that is not necessarily the rule. Maybe I am just lucky, but my neighbours are fantastic and I am sure that they are not the only ones in the city. I have done various landscaping and renovation projects at my house and all it took was a bit of discussion with them and everyone was happy. Obviously, consultation is no panacea, but I don’t think you can dismiss it out of hand. Not all people are unreasonable.

  5. Maybe you could explain in more detail how process for neighbour consultation and design review would work?

    1. what are the objectives and success criteria for the consultation and design review?
    2. would the neighbours be able to veto aspects of the design? If so what aspects?
    3. would the approval of the building permit be tied to neighbours approval?
    4. would the neighbours be willing to accept that not all or any of their suggestions would be implemented? If not, would the builders yet again not be labelled as not listening

  6. David: My first point was that the city has design guidelines and then it has rules. It has some problems with infills. The typical bureaucratic response of fixing the situation with more rules may not work, because many of the problems with infills are choices between features where there is no definite right or wrong. Maybe in a later post I’ll set out how the consultation might work, but for now I suggest that a developer is better off knowing what the neighbours want/like/don’t like and letting this inform him when she deals with the architect. For example, I know of one infill the neighbours hate because it goes deep into the lot; the neighbours preferred something higher and thinner that left the back yards open. In this case, the developer left money on the table because he could have built more sellable space the way the neighbours prefer. I dont suggest neighbours get a veto. I do suggest they get a summary/copy of the infill design guidelines and see the developers concept plans. Take it from there. And no, I don’t expect unaminity.

  7. I attended one of the infill meetings and left with mixed feelings. First and foremost, garage doors occupying all of the ground floor of an infill project looks, in almost all cases, pretty ugly. Kind of like a hungry machine that swallows people and their driving machines…
    Certain design regulations would be appropriate, but at the same time you have to be careful you’re not squashing creativity. This seems like a fine balance, because different people will have different views on what looks ‘acceptable’.
    The sizeable group of people at the meeting seemed inordinately concerned with things that fall under basic property rights, basically asking the city representatives if they could have the final say on what their neighbour builds. Things like “what if their windows look into our windows”, building height that is within zoning but a foot or two taller than our house, etc, etc.
    To many, it seemed that the only acceptable infill would be a direct facsimile of their house. I don’t think new infill guidelines are going to placate the kind of residents who show up at these meetings, unless the guidelines are extremely strict.

    1. I like the idea of putting a balcony above a large garage door. That allows partly hides the garage door and gives the residents at least some access to the street and their neighbours. Not practical in all cases, but as Eric D. points out, a lot can be solved by good design.

  8. First off, I really enjoy reading this blog. It provides great information on the emerging projects in the area.

    I have considerable experience in drafting words for processes and requirements, and can say definitively that trying to specify a process for community consultation is not likely to succeed since the results could never be used for approval of a building project. From a legal perspective (in my opinion, I am not a lawyer) if such a process was to be part of the approval process, then the criteria for what could be discussed and subject to approval would need to be defined beforehand in “black and white”. That is exactly the purpose of zoning bylaws – which are in themselves a form of censorship – a few defining what is acceptable for the many. No need to go into a long dissertion on censorship, although in my opinion it is necessary for a fair and functioning society…but the line once drawn can have significant consequences. For example, lets take the issue of garage doors since it seems to constantly come up for discussion in these posts. People like, want and need cars…let’s not pretend otherwise. As such, garages are a fact of life. So, if we change the zoning bylaw to restrict the size of the garage door width relative to the size of the house, then we are automatically eliminating the possibility of building on some infill lots for projects that may in fact be incredibly interesting and important to the community. Diversification is desired and not to be stifled. Take a stroll through the suburbs and see the rows upon rows of houses that all look the same – that is truly ugly. Also, who gets to draw the line? Difficult questions. In my opinion, the city needs to allow for special cases, where innovation and imagination are required. So a certain infill needs a wider garage? so what… Just because the zoning allows a wider garage, does not mean that everyone, or many, will do so.. Lets place more trust in the re-birth of infill that has been occurring in the last 5 years, and it’s trend towards new and different designs.

Comments are closed.