Yellowknife’s new zoning plan confronts residents with an awkward question: are you prepared to gradually alter your neighbourhood to mitigate climate change?
The latest iteration of the city’s draft zoning bylaw is presented to councillors on Monday. While the edge has been taken off a couple of the initial draft’s proposals, the new bylaw remains driven by concepts like infill that promote densification.
Densification means more people living in closer quarters. Yellowknife’s planners say it’s important for two reasons: it cuts down on the cost of delivering services, thereby keeping taxes down, and it helps to mitigate climate change.
Yet densification also asks people to accept changing neighbourhoods full of single-family homes into ones that begin to embrace more people living in the same space. That might mean extra suites, duplexes, or triplexes. It might mean small apartment complexes.
In asking residents to accept that climate change is a reason for densification, the city faces a microcosm of a much broader conundrum: everyone recognizes climate change exists and needs to be mitigated, but not everybody is thrilled to discover mitigating climate change involves changes to their lifestyle and their neighbourhood.
“The whole concept of encouraging mixed-use, higher-density zoning is something that makes for better climate policy and better outputs when you’re looking at how you measure the mitigation of climate change,” said Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city manager.
“What do you do to protect the feel of neighbourhoods while looking at the fact that we do need to change the way we approach cities? It’s super old-school to say this area is commercial and that area over there is purely residential. These are not ways that cities can modernize, that cities can remain vibrant, that cities can remain affordable.
“We never want to say that word, that toxic word that feels like a swearword – Nimby – because I don’t think that’s where people are coming from. I think it’s genuine concern about how their community reflects. But the advantage is reduced cost of living and mitigation of climate change overall.”
The zoning plan councillors inspect on Monday imagines neighbourhoods where stores and services are just around the corner rather than across town. Some residents worry that means round-the-clock takeout joints disrupting previously peaceful streets. Charlsey White, Yellowknife’s planning director, wants them to see that differently.
“When we look at complete communities,” said White, using a catchphrase for the kind of city Yellowknife’s planners say they are trying to build, “we look at areas where people live, work, and play – trying to make those all work together in an area where you can have active transportation, where you don’t need to drive, where you could walk your child to school, where you can then turn around and walk the other way to work, all within a reasonable area.
“Different uses like small-scale commercial? I mean, everybody enjoys going to the corner store or some local neighbourhood market areas, where people can go get their fresh food within walking distance from their home. Same with daycares, being able to have their children in their neighbourhood. Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at, not taking it to the extreme of large commercial or other uses.
“When we look at things like climate change, having more compact use – and the highest and best use of everything from our roads, our sewer and water, and just the activities that we do in our daily life – reduces long-haul transportation around the city. People can walk where they need to go, ride where they need to go. It decreases our environmental impact, whether that’s emissions from vehicles or whether that’s materials.”
“Overall for our community, we want it to be dense,” said Bassi-Kellett. “If we want to look at cost of living, we want to make sure that wherever possible, we’re using existing infrastructure. The Bartam redevelopment is taking advantage of existing water and sewer lines and existing roads. Things like that mean it’s cheaper for development.
“We’re going to get an increase in our overall [tax] assessment base, which is terrific, without having to add in more roads and water and sewer pipes, part of which is paid for by taxpayers. If we don’t have to do that, that’s a much better deal for all Yellowknifers and they’ll feel that, eventually, in their property tax bill.”
Adrian Bell, a Yellowknife realtor and former city councillor, urges residents to carefully compare the existing zones and proposed zones. The city must ensure residents understand what the zones mean, he says, so people know what’s likely to happen to the neighbourhood when they move in.
“A major piece of the puzzle is allowing people to do their due diligence when they purchase property – allow them to know what they can expect in their surrounding area,” Bell said.
“What people really don’t like is when they buy under certain circumstances and then the circumstances change.
“It’s one thing if it’s for an overwhelming need – the circumstances have to change because there’s a desperate community need. But if it’s just because local planners have no better ideas, because they can’t get their hands on any new land and so we might as well open up all these areas to densification? Well, neighbours don’t usually react very well to that type of reasoning.”
In Grace Lake, some residents felt that way on examining the draft of the new bylaw. They argued the city was trying to push industrial development too near to a neighbourhood whose residents had been sold on a concept of tranquil living. In its latest draft, responding to that feedback, the city has reinstated a buffer zone to the north of Grace Lake.
Equally, Bell thinks densification closer to downtown Yellowknife should come as no surprise and is likely to be accepted, even welcomed, by most residents.
“I do think in a lot of neighbourhoods, particularly close to the downtown, you’ll find that people are OK with it,” he said. “A lot of the people who have participated in the consultations so far have said exactly that: they believe in more density, they believe in a lower carbon footprint.”
Bell says increasing densification is not a new approach for Yellowknife, even if the new bylaw presents it in slightly different or more emphatic terms.
The city’s smart growth plan, which began development in 2007 and was signed off in 2010, is an example.
“When you’re faced with no land available and you’ve got a city council that says we need to encourage development, the planning community and the planning consultants have to come up with an answer. It’s not enough to say: we recognize what you said but it can’t be done,” said Bell.
With the smart growth plan, he said, planners were “given their marching orders: we want to increase density. It doesn’t have to be entirely densification, it can also be some greenfield development.”
He continued: “But in the first 10 years after smart growth, the greenfield development was all they actually accomplished. The opportunities for infill didn’t really arise or weren’t pursued by developers, but there was some greenfield development of new neighbourhoods. OK, now it’s time to do the densification part. And if the community’s views on densification have changed since smart growth, then people need to speak up.
“But it probably won’t just be one or two people who are going to change a course that was set by thousands of people who were consulted a decade ago. It’s probably going to take another major planning exercise to say: how do you now feel about densification? Should we still be pursuing that? Those are the marching orders they received and that’s what they’re acting on, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that these are the types of things being proposed by the planners and the consultants. I do think it’s important for people to understand that context.”
Effect on housing
Attempting to reassure residents who worry for their surroundings, Bassi-Kellett and White promise the new bylaw doesn’t mean the sudden emergence of buildings that don’t begin to blend in with the neighbourhood.
“One of the stipulations is we have to look at the character,” said White, the planning director. “Character means something different depending on where you are in Yellowknife. One thing my staff and I are going to look at is how we can better align or define what character is.”
Bassi-Kellett argues the development envisaged by planners is already happening.
“Behind me was a shack that is now a three-storey building that has two apartments and a workshop in it. In my neighbourhood, there are a number of different properties that have either secondary suites or are duplex. These things are existing, people are looking at the opportunities on their lots and what they can build,” she said.
“It’s there already. But I think we definitely want to open that up again. Where can we find that affordable housing for people, that the character of the neighbourhood isn’t eclipsed or overwhelmed by that?
“The cost of land development in Yellowknife is really high and can mean, at times, that entry-level housing is a $450,000 trailer. Yikes. That’s a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow. And we have heard that people leave town if they can’t find affordable housing.
“If there is the ability to have a house with a suite inside it – if it’s a duplex, if it’s a triplex where a person lives in it but they also create housing opportunities for other people that are a little bit more affordable than single-family – that ultimately can be a good thing.”