By Phil Tank, The StarPhoenix, March 1, 2014 - The StarPhoenix approached city councillors with core neighbourhoods in their wards and asked them to point to positive examples of infill development. Ward 6
Infill should not be seen as a "bad word," Karl Miller, president of Meridian Development, says.
Miller acknowledges there are many examples of bad infill development, including some in Nutana, where he lives and has overseen the construction of infill projects.
Nutana is checkered with some poorly constructed buildings and some homes that belong in the suburbs, and not an older, inner-city neighbourhood, Miller says.
"Those change the character of a neighbourhood," says Miller, whose company has been around for over 10 years.
"Infill is vital to the health of a neighbourhood or a community," he adds. "Development in old neighbourhoods is a good thing. Any time you get investment in a neighbourhood, that's a good thing."
City of Saskatoon administration is trying to establish rules for infill development, such as maximum heights, distance from property lines and other building restrictions.
Ward 6 Coun. Charlie Clark can point to a number of positive examples of infill in his ward, including new homes that look like they have always belonged among structures many decades old.
"We're not against infill and we don't think infill is all bad," Clark says. "And there's a lot of examples of infill that are good."
One development that Clark embraces was built on a corner lot at Temperance Street and 14th Street East that added a five-unit building without disrupting the neighbourhood and may have actually added to the streetscape.
The six-unit townhouse development features five entrances on 14th Street, where before there was just the side of a house and a fence.
"That's the paradigm shift," Clark says. "You're adding density on the ends (of blocks)."
Clark says there are also subtle forms of added density that may not be apparent to someone passing through a neighbourhood, such as modern houses that fit in with older buildings.
Miller says consulting with residents in a community is an important part of successful infill, such as a project on 11th Street in Nutana between Melrose and Victoria avenues.
A 1912 building was beyond the point of saving and was eventually replaced with a multi-unit development that extends deep into the block without substantially altering the character of the neighbourhood.
The project started with consultations with neighbours and the community association before rezoning was sought.
"Sometimes they think of things that we didn't even think about because they live there," Miller says. "If we don't continue to have infill in those older neighbourhoods, they'll deteriorate." Miller welcomes the city's move to establish rules for infill in older neighbourhoods, even though he does harbour some concerns about rules that conflict with homebuyers' preferences.
He questions a six-metre side wall height limit for infill homes and "just goofy" limits that restrict the number of homes that can be built on a given lot size, sometimes resulting in a less attractive duplex instead of two single-family homes.
But Clark says developers are already adapting to the reality that infill development will soon be regulated.
"Lots of people are already conforming to the guidelines we're proposing," Clark says.
Ward 2 Coun. Pat Lorje wants to expand the thinking on infill by extending infill beyond core neighbourhoods to the entire city.
"We always talk about infill. How come we never talk about suburban infill?" Lorje asks. "If we're going to talk about densification, why don't we densify the entire city?" Lorje urges caution when approaching infill as she says there are many projects in her ward that did not fit into the established neighbourhoods where they were built. She points to two-storey walk-up apartments that were built in the 1980s on corner lots and have not been well maintained.
"It's not so much infill - it's overfill that I've been concerned about," Lorje says. "You really have to be very careful where you're doing the infill."
Lorje thinks the concept of infill should be applied throughout the city, not just in the older core areas. She's also a supporter of garage suites as one method to increase density without disrupting a neighbourhood. As city administration attempts to craft guidelines for infill development, Lorje has argued for special consideration for the Montgomery Place neighbourhood in her ward - a unique area designed through a federal government plan to provide housing for Second World War veterans and their families.
Lots tend to be narrower in older areas of the city - 7.6 metres wide as opposed to 15.2 metres - and consideration needs to be given to this when planning projects, she says.
Still, there are positive examples of infill. Lorje points to a 27-unit student housing development at 315 Ave. H South, built by non-profit Cress Housing, that created very little stir despite its size.
"It's created no fuss, no bother in the neighbourhood that I'm aware of," Lorje says.
Barry Downs, general manager of Cress Housing, says he was not surprised that the $2.76-million project, which was completed in the fall of 2012, did not attract opposition given the type of neighbourhood in which it's located.
"My experience is that the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor is less of an issue to lower-income people," Downs says. "It was well received from the very beginning."
The high number of renters in the area also reduced the type of opposition that arises when homes are occupied by their owners, he says.
The project marked a departure for Cress Housing - it involved building a new property instead of renovating an existing one.
But it has proved to be a positive experience. It transformed a lot that had been vacant for several years and it did not require rezoning.
The units, self-contained studio apartments that rent for $350 a month, are rented by either students or the working poor, Downs says.
And the project has not attracted vandalism or crime, proving to be a positive addition to the neighbourhood. Lorje also likes Habitat for Humanity projects that provide homes to low-income families, but would like to see more built in other areas of the city.
There's a recipe for success for infill projects, Lorje says.
"I think if they're done properly and there's ... consideration given to the neighbours, I think they go very well."
The original plan for an infill development in the North Park neighbourhood failed, but its successor is a success story.
Blackrock Developments planned a six-unit project for the corner of Seventh Avenue North and Osborne Street, but encountered opposition to the size of the development during community meetings.
"I don't want to build something that people don't want there," Mark Kelleher, president of Blackrock, says. "We had strong opposition at the beginning of the project."
Kelleher decided to scale back the project to a fourplex with garages and the opposition waned. Kelleher says the neighbours are happy with the final product, which was completed in 2008.
"There's a good example of a developer working within a neighbourhood," Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill says. "Sometimes residents get concerned because of the size."
Increasing density in core neighbourhoods frequently presents a challenge for developers.
Ward 1 neighbourhoods such as City Park and North Park tend to have older houses, some of which are up to 80 years old, Kelleher says. Some of the properties have been rented out and allowed to deteriorate, he adds.
With the project at Seventh and Osborne, an older house on a corner lot was demolished to make way for four townhouse-style units.
"We're real proud of that one," Kelleher says. "It was a great project. It fit right into the neighbourhood."
It can also be difficult to communicate what a project will look like before construction
begins and there is suspicion that there will not be sufficient consideration given to an older neighbourhood's character.
"There seems to an inherent mistrust of developers, especially in established neighbourhoods," Kelleher says. "Infill development is far more challenging than building on a new tract of land."
Despite the challenges and opposition, infill is vital, not just to reach the city's goals of greater density in the core neighbourhoods but also to prevent a neighbourhood from becoming dilapidated.
"If nobody ever invested in established neighbourhoods, you're going to be left with some undesirable properties," Kelleher says. "You can't have a vibrant neighbourhood with a bunch of old, rundown, crappy houses."
City of Saskatoon administration is coming up with rules for infill development that range from building new properties in established neighbourhoods to adding garage or granny suites.
Kelleher says he "generally" supports guidelines for infill, although as a builder he always wants flexibility.
"It's a great step forward," Hill says of the incoming rules. "They've been a very long time coming."
Hill, an advocate of garage suites, says it's important to have a diversity of infill and suggests a shift in thinking on infill can be valuable - specifically that infill properties can be rented out and not just owner-occupied.
Hill says he can point to a number of properties in his ward that have been built on a block with older homes and fit right in.
"Now that they're complete, they look like they've always been there," he says.
That doesn't mean all infill projects blend right in. "There's been a significant increase in infill development," Kelleher says. "And with that, you don't always get good infill development.
"People are generally quite happy when it's done properly."
The city's neighbourhood-level infill strategy includes several planks detailing the desired direction of infill development.
The city is divided into pre-Second World War and post-Second World War neighbourhoods.
Garden and garage suites for single-unit dwellings and four-unit dwellings on corner lots are supported, subject to discretionary use approval.
Several size restrictions are proposed, including a maximum building height of 8.5 metres above finished grade, a maximum building depth of 14 metres, a side-yard setback of 0.75 metres on one side and 1.2 metres on the other side, a front-yard setback of at least six metres and no more than nine metres (prewar) and 12 metres (postwar), maximum site coverage of 40 per cent for an entire property (up to 50 per cent in prewar neighbourhoods to accommodate a front porch), a backyard setback of 7.5 metres (or 4.5 metres for corner lots), and one required on-site parking space and two required spaces for a singledetached dwelling with a suite on property. As well, frontyard parking would not be allowed on prewar properties.