What does it look like when a suburb has a midlife crisis?
We’re about to find out in Edmonton.
This Sunday, residents of the 1950s-era suburbs of Gold Bar, Fulton Place and Capilano will have the chance to apply a restrictive covenant to their individual properties. The Hardisty Too committee has created the covenant, and it’s promising any property owner who signs the legal add-on that it will “help preserve the existing characteristics of our neighbourhoods.”
Yes, you've heard the 'infill is destroying characteristics' line before. It's boring and I apologize. But do read on.
Many within Edmonton’s city planning department are worried about Hardisty. Their concern is the covenant signals that Edmonton's numerous, Leave It To Beaver-aged suburbs (which we euphemistically call ‘mature neighbourhoods’ but should perhaps call what they are — old suburbs) are potentially revolting.
But one city planner who contacted me says that beyond this, many are also concerned residents who sign up may be imposing rules on their properties that could destroy values and lock their lots — and parts of Edmonton — in time.
Stories about property covenants excite, at best, property lawyers, technocrats and city nerds. Still, what’s happening in the Hardisty 'hoods is a central issue that will define Edmonton’s ability to grow into a properly functioning city. It could also have a powerful effect on the coming municipal election.
So read on.
Restrictive covenants for dummies
They aren’t new in Edmonton. The Carruthers Caveat, in Glenora, where many houses look like they're from Harry Potter and the Range Rovers are plentiful, is one of many, and it's been in force since 1911. The covenant, which some love and others, like me, feel less enamoured with, limits what property owners can build — so, single detached houses, large setbacks and no businesses within the houses, please.
James Carruthers, a rich guy from Montreal who moved to Edmonton when Alberta got its name, created the restrictive covenant on land he bought and subdivided (and got the city to link to downtown with a bridge and a streetcar — way to go, Jimmy). He did this without much apparent shame. Carruthers demanded that any house built in his Glenora community would have to cost at least $4,000, lest Edmonton's poor people move in across the street.
Carruthers' house-price rule is less powerful in 2017 than it was in 1911. But the rules he imposed about the built form have more or less made Glenora a living museum long after Carruthers died.
Okay, so what's going on in the Hardisty hoods?
A group of neighbourhood activists has created a restrictive covenant that it will offer property owners of Hardisty's Gold Bar, Fulton Place and Capilano neighbourhoods on Sunday.
On Friday, I called Liz Gardner with the Hardisty committee to discuss the covenant, but she was busy planning for the Sunday event. She did tell me, before having to run, that she hopes the covenant will help ensure developers and the city don’t “wreck what we have going” in the community.
“I like my space,” she added.
I needed more, so I dove into the group’s website.
On infill in their community, they write: “There will be decreased green spaces, fewer large trees, decreased sunlight and privacy, crowding, increased traffic and street parking, stress on existing sewer and water lines, and increased noise.”
Their response is the covenant.
So why are city planners concerned?
Kalen Anderson, a senior planner at the city, says the covenant the Hardisty group proposes is highly restrictive. She's worried owners who sign it won't understand the long-term consequences.
Anderson says Hardisty is considering a covenant that prescribes minute details. For example, it drills down to how many parking spots each house should have. By doing this, "It’s essentially creating a new building bylaw," Anderson says.
She also says the covenant could hurt property values. Signing a covenant that prevents what can be done with a property limits its development potential, she says, which in turn could mean the property's resale value might be capped in the future (on this point, I'd say the jury is still out — consider house prices in Glenora, or in Rosedale, Toronto's equivalent rich, inner-city suburb).
But most worrying for me, as well as Anderson, is how this plays out over time for Edmonton as a whole.
Anderson says that over her career she's never seen a neighbourhood unanimously agree on something. This should surprise no one. Peer 50 years into the future of the Hardisty neighbourhoods after the covenant, then, and Anderson sees not an idyllic Glenora but instead a dog's breakfast. "What this could turn into is a bit of a checkerboard effect,” she says.
The reason is that some will sign the covenant while others will not.
Further, because there will not be unanimous adoption (which Carruthers didn't worry about since, well, he owned all the property in Glenora), “What it won’t achieve for people is stopping infill from happening in their neighbourhood," Anderson says, bluntly.
Instead, "It will stop it on their property.”
What will that mean in the future? "If we play this out, we could see a pretty interesting kind of neighbourhood, where you have houses that look like they were built in 1950, but they’ll be surrounded by different types of housing conforming with the zoning of the day."
It will also mean that whatever city growth happens after property owners in Hardisty lock their titles in time will be limited. And that the people who do said locking might be gone by the time Edmonton is really frustrated by the consequences.
If this sounds familiar, please read the bits above about Glenora.
Why is this happening now?
Edmonton is a city of first-generation suburbs that's approaching one million residents.
In other words, this fight's inevitable.
Anderson says at one million people, a city built as a collection of 'burbs like Edmonton is will naturally start to experience its first big city problems. Suddenly, approaching one million people, we're talking congestion, having arguments about downtown parking prices and realizing our transit is really inefficient.
But Edmonton is a young city, too. Fast forward to today and the suburbs we built for the Boomers, like Gold Bar and Capilano, are now seeing some of their original buyers or longer-term residents confronted with something their neighbourhood has been sheltered from until now.
“It’s very jarring," Anderson says, of residents experiencing redevelopment, which we boringly call infill, for the first time.
The movement many of us refer to as NIMBY-ism is often the first reaction we consider.
But on the other side, Anderson says, are the PIMBYs, demanding older suburbs add density and housing options they might want, which are more affordable and linked to transit.
And there's also city itself, which is currently dense with people at its core, but nearly empty in the middle, and dense again at its new suburban fringes (which are hitting 50 residential units per hectare now, or double the density of Capilano).
To make the city work well for everyone requires the middle of the city join in and develop with the core and fringes, Anderson says. Otherwise, we'll have transit linking downtown with edge communities that travels through vast swaths of inner city suburbia with few people to get there.
Even Hardisty's own page acknowledges this — as it shows that more than 60 per cent of houses in Capilano, for example, have two people or less.
They're empty nests.
And if this remains as is, young families will be forced to move ever farther outside the city core if they want anything approaching what the Boomers were entitled to in their family-rearing days.
“The option to not change, in an environment where we’re growing by 14 per cent every two years, is not there," Anderson says.
So, some of Edmonton's inner-city suburbs are having a midlife crisis. A few will try to prevent change. Others will recognize it's inevitable, and standing in its way affects a lot of people.
As someone who hopes Edmonton provides more for those of us who aren't Baby Boomers, I hope the latter group is the majority.