Pushing the Envelope in Riversdale
Ever wonder why our cities, neighborhoods and buildings look the way they do? And why Saskatoon looks and feels differently than, say, New York City or Montreal? One of the answers, albeit not a sexy one, is that our zoning bylaws are different. Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, says that zoning is the invisible hand that guides and controls how we build our cities.
It's also one of the biggest challenges that we run up against while working to build interesting urban lifestyle offerings in Saskatoon.
Case in point is our Element Urban Village project. When we acquired the land in Riversdale where 4 highly distressed and neglected character homes stood, it had residential zoning that only allowed the construction of a 3 story walk up apartment building. An image of what was permitted is shown below.
Now if you're thinking to yourself "hey, didn't they build those back in the 1970's" you're absolutely correct. I'm sure the developer dusted off a set of drawings he used 40 years ago and simply handed it over to his architect.
As a company, we could never put our name to a project like that. It's thoughtless and unsympathetic to the neighbourhood. Knowing a better solution could be created, we endeavoured to get the property's zoning changed to allow something that looks more like this:
The process to realize this housing project went something like this:
1. Buy the land with no assurance of rezoning success.
2. Hire an architect to design a 17 unit development with no guarantee it will ever be permitted.
3. Take the design to the city for preliminary feedback.
4. Redesign the project.
5. Apply for rezoning.
6. Meet with the city again once all city departments have taken a kick at the can, er, project.
7. Redesign the project trying to appease concerns from city departments.
8. Send out project info to all residents within a block of the project.
9. Host an open house for the local residents to gather feedback on the proposed design, which I honestly enjoyed thoroughly.
10. Redesign the project to incorporate feedback from the neighbours.
11. Attend Municipal Planning Commission to field questions and concerns from civilians tasked with oversight.
12. Attend City Council and field questions from city councillors before they ultimately vote for or against the project going ahead.
13. Task the architect to continue with the construction drawings and apply for a building permit.
14. Build the project.
All said and done, it took 18 months from when we purchased the properties until we had a building permit in hand and were allowed to begin construction. A lot can happen in the real estate market over the course of 18 months and most developers simply do not have the patience to deal with the uncertainties intrinsic to a rezoning-by-agreement process. I checked with the city and they've completed just 3 other rezoning-by-agreement applications in the last 12 months.
Now I can already hear you asking yourself, "So why bother going down that path?" Well, when you look at our current zoning laws, what you're actually looking at is a document that rigidly dictates what you can build. Everything from building height, yard setbacks, maximum size of housing, unit density, number of parking stalls required, locations of garbage cans etc. Good nighttime reading indeed. The challenge within bylaws is that they are extremely slow to evolve and change as society's needs change. Looking at the changes of personal transportation needs being driven by things like the explosive growth of Uber, car share programs and cycling culture, it's no surprise lifestyle needs have evolved. Unfortunately, our zoning bylaws are stuck well in the past, still demanding 1.625 parking stalls per condo. That makes sense in suburban areas but not in urban districts. The zoning simply has fallen behind and we continually run into policies that were written for not even for a different decade, but for a bygone era. This isn't the 1960's anymore.
So the short answer to the question is...we're patient with our projects because it's the only way to get a unique and great end product. One that today's buyers want...and they can't get it anywhere else. This is an uncommon approach to development, especially in Saskatoon.
The truth is, I'm more concerned about helping to evolve the ways that our cities are built than I am about becoming a large volume home builder. I care more about quality of lifestyle, environmental sustainability and living a life that is filled with culture and community spirit. My goal is to continually push Shift Development Inc. towards setting the bar higher with each successive project and I'm confident that Element Urban Village has retained all of the good ideas from our Mosaic project while pushing the envelope in areas of transportation, energy design, mixed-income housing and community building.
Shift Development isn't just a buzzword name, it actually stands for an idea. It guides our decisions and actions while reflecting our belief that if we don't like the box we find ourselves in, then we have to build a new box. Doing so enables us to bring something interesting to the city of Saskatoon, and the world, with every project we undertake.