At its Tuesday meeting, Planning Committee will have the golden opportunity to set new low standards for infill housing.
Yup, right after a lengthy consultation and report process on making infill housing more compatible with the neighborhoods, right after the Mayor tells developers to obey the rules, and Councilor Hume says Amen to That… we have committee ready to approve an infill project that will lower the bar.
The proposal is for 23 infill townhouses at the corner of Rochester Street and Balsam. The proponent, Fanto Group, came to the City a few years ago proposing a bunch of seven (+ or -) storey apartment buildings for the site. They were turned down. Their new proposal is for a mews lane with three bedroom, three & four storey townhouses. Every house has an indoor garage. It’s a much better proposal, except for some of the details.
Recall that townhouses have shared walls with their neighbours, so these side walls have no windows. Which means the front and back exteriors of the units have all the windows. And today’s preference is for lots and lots of big windows.
And the innovative bit about this project is that the space behind the units, formerly known as “back yards”, have been downsized. Significantly. From the twenty feet or so normally allocated, to four feet. Yup, the back yards are four feet deep. And that means the main wall-o-windows on these houses is four feet from the lot line. A three or four storey high wall-o-windows.
Not, mind you, that Planning Committee is exactly being directed to notice the four foot yards. Instead, the application merely says “reduced rear yard to 1.2 metres” without mentioning that it is a reduction from 7.5 metres. Merely a detail.
Nor, mind you, is Planning Committee exactly being given the opportunity to notice those four foot yards, since the Planning Committee paperwork includes only site plans without the buildings shown. To discover the four foot yards, committee members must search the electronic files.
Nor, mind you, can Planning Committee members assess the impact of these new units on the ajacent lots, since there are no plans showing the adjacent houses.
Will planning committee permit these townhouses to be built with such tiny “yards”? If so, they will be sending a signal to all other infill builders to skip the yard and outdoor space entirely, just ‘borrow’ (appropriate? steal?) the space from the neighbours. And what happens if the neighbour wants to build infill units … could they also be built with their wall of windows four feet from the property line? I tell ya, this neighbourhood will attract exhibitionists from all around the world.
Of course, the adjacent property owners may not be permitted to build similar units along the lot line, in which case it’s a sort of first come land grab situation. Be the first to build up to the lot line so your neighbour cannot intensify on their lot.
Do you think this is an unusual lot, or unusual situation? While ordinary people might think these proposed infills have eliminated their back yards, the planning boffins demur. These townhouses are facing their “side lot lines” according to the City (conveniently, there doesn’t appear to be any “back lot lines” anywhere). In which case, can we expect infills everywhere to start being built sideways on the lot so the back yard becomes another unit and the whole concept of green back yards is
The local Dalhousie Community Association wrote to the City months ago pointing out the blatant undesirability of locating the main window walls of houses so close to the lot line. The planners’ response: “no external activity or amenity areas are proposed … along this edge … minimizing opportunities for overlook… ” and these mini-backyards are “similar to typical side-yard to side-yard condition and is not considered problematic”. There it is: if you can’t see into the neighbours yard while standing in the 4′ backyard, then the overlook condition from the second, third, or fourth floor of the townhouse doesn’t exist either. This new definition of a lot includes no back of the lot, no back yards, every edge is just a “side yard” condition. I can hear developers licking their lips over this precedent.
What of the City’s Urban Design and Compatibility policy that states “development should respect the privacy of outdoor amenity areas of adjacent residential units”? Well, the planners state that this site plan and those overlooking townhouses “is sensitive to the specific amenity space arrangements on surrounding properties…” while conveniently not showing the adjacent buildings or lots, either with current or intensified land uses.
What is our planning department thinking? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because the report to Committee is very interesting for what it is missing. It is missing any elevation (sketch) that shows what the exteriors of the houses will look like along the lot lines. It is missing the site plan — such as shown above — showing that 10 houses face the lot lines with a four foot setback. From the planning package, you’d never know there were rear windows on these houses.
Planning staff is normally reputed in the media to be eager to approve developments. Actually, this isn’t the only project in the neighborhood that seems to be skipping approval from those guys who are supposed to be able to recognize and encourage development that meets the norms of good planning. There are at least two other neighborhood projects that are bypassing the planning staff and going up the food chain to seek political approval instead.
And where is Councilor Holmes on this issue? Holmes wants family housing in the area, and not just small condos for Yuppies and Dinks. To her, these constitute family housing.
Finally, just to show what sort of development I would prefer to see on this site, with similar density, here is a plan working its way through the planning mill, from the same neighborhood showing two rows of townhouses on a site, but the back row actually has 18′ back yards: