R-CG in the Ward 12 Context
First off, what is R-CG?
R-CG stands for Residential - Contextual Grade-Oriented, a land-use district used to determine what is allowed to be built on a parcel of land. Broken down, residential as in used for living in, contextual as it fits the context of the street (height, size of building, etc), and grade-oriented as in all entrances to units are 'at-grade' or ground-level.
Essentially, it allows single-family homes, semi-detached (duplexes) and row or townhouses, as well as secondary or backyard suites. The homes built on an R-CG parcel would have a maximum height of 12 metres, which is identical to current R-C1, R-C2 or R-C1n zoning. Structures built there could also cover 45-60% of the land area as well, which is slightly larger than single-family zoning allows today. This land-use district is still considered low-density residential, even with doubling or more of the number of housing units on the property. Someone could not build a high-rise or even a 4-storey walk-up next door within this district. The housing form itself is already common in Ward 12 communities. From McKenzie Towne on, our neighbourhoods were built with many mixed-use zones. We have semi-detached, townhomes, and even condos in every single community. The increased density experienced by inner-city communities is more often than not located among streets and neighbourhoods with merely a single style of home: the detached house surrounded by abundant land. Street after street of the same usage and the lowest densities seen across the city.
Urban planners often talk about the "donut" established suburbs in the Calgary context. We have a strong density in the downtown core and a more modern, higher-density ring around the outside of the city. Between those two lies the large stretches of pre- and post-war boom communities, stretching to the limits of 80s and early 90s expansion. In some communities, nothing but single-family homes were zoned and built. Fifty-foot wide lots were common and wide streets capable of fitting 2 driving lanes and 2 rows of parked cars with room to spare bisected these rows of houses. This was an inefficient design. Planning principles have far advanced in the ensuing decades. Master-planned communities are built with density, mixed-uses, convenient amenities and long-term sustainability in mind. Their one true fault is the distance between them and the core of the city, meaning greater potential travel distances and the need for vehicles for those that live there.
Pulling some examples from Ward 12 communities, and streets near land-use changes that came to Council this week, I was able to compile the following comparisons, for context:
(Each selection included a lane, shared by both sides of houses, and was typical of local density)
I have heard from concerned residents in my ward, fearful of unwanted change, and I am empathetic to your voices. A lot of information has floated around since the release of our Housing and Affordability Task Force report in May. Many have questioned whether we should expect to see changes here. The short answer is no. Firstly, based on the information above, our neighbourhoods do not have the potential to absorb additional units as easily as the established areas can. Second, the homes being replaced are more often than not well past their prime. They are 50, 60, 70 years old, or even older. They are energy inefficient, needing retrofits or upgrades to be brought up to modern standards, and their value has dropped far from peak, which is the opposite of new homes in new communities. In fact, there have been examples where inner-city lots have been worth less while the homes are still upright, as they would include the added cost of demolition.
Another great reason for seeing these changes within inner-city communities is that the choice is not available to people who wish to live there. If you are looking to live in a low-maintenance rowhouse, it rarely exists in much of the city. In places like Mahogany or Auburn Bay, it's not that far away. You can fall in love with a Ward 12 community and live in a purpose-built rental, upgrade to a condo, upgrade again to a rowhouse or semi-detached, upgrade again to an estate home, and then retire to a low-maintenance lifestyle in seniors living or a complex like Westman Village. It's all here, and you could spend 60+ years in the same community, in a variety of housing forms.
One of the great changes that is legalized in R-CG zoning, is the ability to include unique forms of housing, like backyard suites. Imagine having the opportunity to support your mortgage or have a grandparent live in a suite above your garage. This is very common in McKenzie Towne and was one of the distinctive features that brought international recognition for this creative community design. It can be done in other communities but requires a costly and time-consuming process just to get approval for the building form. Secondary/basement suites are allowed in essentially all residential districts, and have been since 2018, but creative uses of your own property have been much harder to initiate.
Why blanket zoning reform?
The need for housing and a refresh of our housing supply in our established neighbourhoods is a huge challenge due to the political headwinds it faces. The zoning reform is not meant to be a silver bullet—this is one segment of the housing continuum and the arguments against it generally only hold up under weight it isn’t meant to carry. The simple fact of the matter is that there is over sixty per cent of The City where we are not able to build anything but a single-family home. The battle for where to add incremental density dominates our planning department and gums up the bureaucracy. A move to give people more rights with what they do with their own land and directly tackle some of our biggest challenges makes me supportive of the move.
Affordability by deterioration
One of the biggest arguments against this move is a very factual observation that the units replacing old R1 single-family homes are often more expensive. Redevelopment is almost always more expensive than what it replaces. The most expensive redevelopment is when an R1 replaces an R1. The cheapest, per square foot, is R-CG. Protecting affordability by making it difficult to redevelop homes, especially those that are at risk of being condemned is not a long-term affordability strategy. Further, any line of reasoning that states that retrofitting is the only path forward (it certainly has a role) negates the economic and sustainability benefits of adding density to The City.
Legalize homes cut red tape
Right now the Land Use Redesignation process and the uncertainty inherent in the process make it difficult to move forward with confidence. Risk and delays increase costs. With the zoning reform also comes housing as a permitted use which will give our redevelopment efforts confidence that what they are building—The City actually wants. Risk in any project adds costs and barriers and this action will make a significant difference by adding supply and certainty.
Growth with less liability
Our City is staring down a seven-billion-dollar infrastructure gap. We have far too much infrastructure to maintain given the amount of ratepayers. Now, we are going to grow as a region regardless and this allows for smarter growth. Housing prices have been a long-standing competitive advantage in our region with communities like Airdrie and Cochrane leading in growth rates. Right behind this are our outer suburbs. This leads to transportation and service level poverty as we spread out and lagging infrastructure like transit and rec centres fall further and further behind. We need to get serious about growth in established areas and the zoning reform is an important step in the right direction. It is less expensive for the city to allow more homes where we have already built infrastructure (roads, water and sewer pipes, and utilities) than at the edges where the only users of this infrastructure are the new residents.
There are many things about redevelopment that are challenging for communities. Losing mature trees, shadowing, privacy, and the “feel” of the street changing and unsettling those that have lived there for generations, to name a few. These are inherent in the redevelopment process and inevitable in all cities on a positive economic path. The biggest impact on Calgary over the next stretch will likely be the large public outcry from those who fear the worst of all of those outcomes popping up right next to them and feeling extremely motivated to fight City Hall on the change because of it—often without learning much about why we would consider it in the first place.
Building up, not out is increasingly becoming a commonly agreed-upon goal for our City. How we do that carries the weight of resistance for many people. Allowing for incremental change across our City spreads out the impacts and is one of the best actions we can take alongside our affordable housing strategy.
It's easy for you to support because it's not happening in your neighbourhood
Yes, the direct impacts will be felt less in Ward 12 but this isn't why I am supportive. Making the city livable and affordable for all, is a shared responsibility. As someone who lives in and fights for the priorities of our suburban communities, I have also committed to standing up for all Calgarians. By supporting the efforts to build more homes in established areas, I am also supporting better amenities and healthier local businesses in those neighbourhoods that directly benefit from more vibrancy. I believe we should all push for increased funding for transit and recreation for both inner and outer communities. We will welcome many more new residents to our city in the coming years, and as they settle in new developments or in areas established before we were born, they should all have the same opportunities to build a life in Calgary.
As always don't hesitate to reach out with feedback on this or any other questions or concerns related to The City and Ward 12.
Email: [email protected]
Cllr. Ward 12