Keith Gerein: Zoning hearings a watershed moment for Edmonton's council, and public discourse

Edmonton’s city council and city staff should be pleased with their big reforms to city zoning, even if they never want to go through it again

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Toward the end of the city’s gruelling public hearing on zoning, at least a couple of speakers remarked that council was almost certainly locked in to approving the proposed changes — if for no other reason than to avoid going through the same marathon again.

The line got a chuckle, but it’s possible the speakers also had a point.

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In the end, council’s 11-2 vote on Monday to pass the new zoning bylaw felt like a rather anticlimactic finish to the whole showdown, and one that seemed somewhat predetermined, given all the work councillors and city administrators had done over the past few years to advance it.

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Yet the final vote should not obscure what was a fascinating interaction between residents and council on a topic, land use, that usually causes heads to droop any time someone brings it up at a party.

The process saw four full days of speakers — close to 300 people signed up, with opponents slightly outnumbering supporters — another day of debate and questions to city staff, and a final sixth day discussing motions to potentially tweak the bylaw down the road.

In my years covering city hall, I can’t recall another hearing that had such varied public interest and thought-provoking discourse.

(Debates over the arena deal and City Centre Airport may have come close, but the range of discussion was far more limited. Unlike those issues, zoning is something that influences the entire city, and affects different residents in different ways.)

It was particularly gratifying to me to see that 134 of the speakers who signed up did so to support the zoning overhaul, which isn’t typical of most issues that come to public hearing.

Of note, there was an obvious generational flavour to the public divide. With some exceptions, most young adults were on the supporter side, telling councillors of their struggles to find affordable rents, and their fear of forever being shut out of the housing ownership market due to high prices, inflation and interest rates.

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Their presentations reminded us that the zoning overhaul is not just about sustainability and density, but is also an exercise in equity — hopefully leading to greater housing choice and affordability for singles, young families, newcomers, people with disabilities and those without inherited wealth.

Ah yes, affordability. This was probably the biggest point of contention during the hearings and remains the biggest mystery of whole issue.

It is interesting that city managers backed off their initial claims that having higher density zoning will promote price moderation, and even the experts — some of whom seem more credible than others — have been divided.

The fact is we won’t know for years how this works out, in part because Edmonton is one of the first cities of its kind to try this. (Other cities are pushing toward it, but aren’t there yet).

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Even then, zoning is just one piece of the affordability puzzle, which is affected by oil prices, supply-chain issues, labour costs, interest rates, lending policies and migration, just to name a few factors.

All things being equal, I see logic in the argument that universal upzoning throughout the city should have a stabilizing effect on land prices, which should, in turn, assist housing affordability over time.

Worth noting, the major federal parties also seem to subscribe to this view, and the Liberal government has even made loosening regulations for “missing middle,” high-density housing a condition for municipalities to receive money from the government’s $4-billion Housing Accelerator Fund.

Still, we know developers are going to stay attuned to the market and focus on projects that bring them the most profit. Hopefully new zoning and federal funds steer that market toward more multi-family housing, but this is something governments must watch.

As for the opponents of the new bylaw, I was impressed that it wasn’t just the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) crowd who came to speak, although there was certainly some of that.

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The most constructive opponents suggested the zoning overhaul be delayed to allow for further improvements. Ideas included having provisions in the bylaw for new housing to have hookups for EV charging and solar power, better protection of heritage structures and mechanisms to produce more public and private amenities.

After approving the bylaw, council passed a number of motions to study these and other ideas that could lead to zoning changes down the road. So these opponents did have some influence.

By the way, this was always the plan. City councillors and managers knew the initial bylaw would undoubtedly have flaws, but smartly recognized it was better to “not let perfect be the enemy of good” and instead fix the gaps as they are discovered.

Had council decided to delay the bylaw — such a motion lost 2-10 — I fear that could have been a death sentence to the whole exercise and five years of preparation, all in the false hope of attaining better public buy-in.

Nonetheless, we know the fight isn’t over, at least not among the wider community. The city is going to have continue its education efforts, but complaints can be expected and there are even likely to be a handful of horror stories related to the changes.

Yes, that could give prospective council candidates something to run on in the next election. Unfortunately for them, I suspect much of the current council would be happy to fight a campaign on that subject.

For the moment anyway, council members and city staff should be pleased with what they have accomplished here, even if they never want to go through it again.

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