This is a follow up to my A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the “secondary suite” issue in Edmonton lately. Maybe I’m wrong, but given that garage, garden and basement suites are virtually always discussed in the context of increasing the density of our “mature neighbourhoods” I’ve always understood that City Council and Planners have seen secondary suites as an important part of increasing that density. I think believing secondary suites to be of any importance is foolish and I’ll try to explain why I feel that way.
Imagine a neighbourhood like my go-to example, Parkallen. It’s a pleasant combination of single family homes and low rise apartments surrounding a school, community hall, a few shops and a greenspace. Arterial roads border the neighbourhood on all sides. An LRT station is nearby. It’s a little lower density than the neighbourhood I live in, Strathcona, with it’s mix of single family homes, low rise, mid rise, high rise apartments, schools, greenspaces and arterial roads. Both Parkallen and Strathcona have some amount of secondary suites as well.
The new idea seems to be to permit secondary suites on virtually any single family lot (with some restrictions) with the goal of increasing density. The thought seems to be that seniors will be able to remain in their home longer if they are allowed to build space for an old fashioned boarder. If every house in Parkallen added a secondary suite – an impossibility, of course — it would be the equivalent of adding a single child to every family living in a single family house. Parkallen has 655 single-detached houses, so, at best, the secondary suite plan would add 655 people to Parkallen’s 2200. This would be a significant increase, but, as I said, an impossibility.
The plan is premised on home-owners actually wanting someone – face it, a stranger – living in their house or yard. Yes, some would be attracted by the economic opportunity, but I would argue that most who chose to live in their own little home on their own little plot of land choose to do so because they want that little bit of space. Most people have no desire to be a landlord. Most home-owners will not add secondary suites. In fact, I would expect few would, so the 655 additional people will never move into Parkallen. I’d be surprised if the secondary suite plan added more than ten residents to Parkallen in a year.
But let’s back up a little.
Up above I mentioned that Strathcona, my neighbourhood quite close to Parkallen, already has a satisfactory density. In fact, it’s one of the densest neighbourhoods in Edmonton. How can that be? My description of Strathcona above was very similar to my description of Parkallen: single family homes, low rise apartments . . . Wait! Strathcona has mid and high rise apartments as well. Parkallen has nothing above about four stories. The key to raising density in a neighbourhood is not to put people in back yards; the solution is to go up!
Anyone familiar with 109th street south of Whyte Avenue knows that the street, the eastern boundary of Parkallen, is lined with low rise commercial/retail buildings. Would it not be a more certain solution to the density problem to rezone that strip, or parts of that strip to high rise residential with commercial on the ground floor, rather than to depend on the financial difficulties of ageing home-owners? One or two high-rises on 109th would bring in the 655 additional people quickly, revitalizing Parkallen School and Parkallen Community League, bringing new customers to the restaurants and shops, and, very important to the current residents of Parkallen, retaining the character of the neighbourhood.
A densification plan that relies on every homeowner choosing to become a landlord in their own home will never work, but vastly increasing the tenancy of a single or a few select properties would. Careful, thoughtful rezoning of particular properties would increase the density of many Edmonton neighbourhoods much, much more quickly than the secondary suite plan ever will. I certainly have no major issue with the idea of secondary suites: I’m happy to have them in my neighbourhood. But I’m also happy that there are high rises and mid rises around the corner. I wish every Edmonton neighbourhood were allowed the benefits of a full range of residential options.