Big Idea 2011: Perks To The Burbs

It’s easy to get mad at Edmonton’s new subdivisions, but families and developers will tell you there’s more to these neighbourhoods than affordability.

Ringing hammers are familiar sounds in Edmonton. Though the recession may have slowed construction, the city has grown considerably over the last decade, and the sound of metal banging wood hasn’t stopped.

Managing that growth may be the city’s greatest challenge as it confronts burgeoning environmental, economic and demographic pressures. School closures, ring roads, rising property values, traffic and infrastructure concerns are all subplots.

Yet, despite an emphasis on densification in the City’s latest Municipal Development Plan, growth remains largely focused on suburban areas. One simple reason for this is that the single-family home remains the most popular housing unit on the market.

“Everyone has an image of their ideal home,” says Russell Dauk, vice president of land and communities for Rohit Group. “We’re in the business of providing the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and live in the home they want.”

High-density living isn’t for everyone.

Tyler Vreeling tried downsizing his rural lifestyle to fit an urban environment. After moving to Edmonton from remote Hawk Hills, about seven hours north, he traded his truck in for a car. It worked, for a while.

Then, with a growing business demanding more hauling capacity, the principal designer at Fat Crow Design and Avenue Top 40 Under 40 alumnus bought a truck again. And he has no regrets.

It’s the kind of story Corb Lund might craft into a song, and it would probably resonate with a lot of Edmontonians. Striking the right balance between urban and rural lifestyles isn’t easy, especially if you come from a place as wide open as Alberta.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, roughly 4,000 residents in 2008 and another 5,000 in 2009 moved to the city from within Alberta, many from smaller towns or rural areas. “For people who have never lived in a city before, the suburbs tend to be more what they’re looking for,” says Frank McIsaac, another rural expat. “We like to leave our windows open at night. We can do that here without worrying about the noise.”

McIsaac lives in Rutherford, freshly built in the city’s southwest, with his wife and baby girl. They knew exactly what they were looking for when they bought into the neighbourhood: quiet streets, a safe place to raise a family, a garage and space – enough for McIsaac to do his woodwork and metalwork.

Another aspect that appeals to McIsaac is the small-town community feel. “We know all our neighbours, and our neighbours’ neighbours.”

That rural sensibility – space, safety, comfort, community – is one attraction of suburbia. Affordability is another. For first-time homeowners, cost is often a primary factor, and higher property values in central areas can be a deterrent.

“I think why you’re seeing the demand in the suburbs is you can get more bang for your buck – [smaller yards], less maintenance and larger houses,” says Narish Maharaj, broker and managing partner at Dominion Lending Centres Optimum, who lives in Rutherford with his young family.

For qualifying purposes, says Maharaj, lenders don’t discriminate between suburban and urban areas, though they are more leery of certain Edmonton neighbourhoods. “Some lenders won’t lend in specific urban areas … because they don’t see the resale market,” he explains. “In suburban areas, you don’t see that because there tends to be high demand. Usually, it happens in older neighbourhoods associated with more crime, where time on market is substantially longer.”

But, according to David Thompson of PolicyLink Research and Consulting, in other markets the opposite has also been true.

“During the recent decline in the United States, what we saw [was] that property values in the suburbs declined a lot more than they did in the centres of the cities. So what we learned is that there is a much higher risk to living in the suburbs.”

Community revitalization may help restore lender confidence in older, central neighbourhoods, but it may take further incentives to convince new buyers to take on bigger mortgages for smaller homes requiring more upkeep.

Transportation-based mortgages are one such solution.

“We need to look at location-efficient mortgages,” argues Thompson. Some lenders have begun to account for these factors, he says, realizing that high commuting costs can affect a homeowner’s ability to pay back the mortgage. “Because if you pay $10,000 a year to commute over the life of a 25-year mortgage, that’s $250,000. All of a sudden, living in the suburbs doesn’t seem so cheap.”

Understanding why residents are more willing to buy “out there” is only one half of the equation. Developers continue to be interested in building on the fringes.

According to Dauk of Rohit Group, consumer demand is the single biggest driver. But there’s more to it than that.

The most common parcel size for land development is the quarter section, but with the exception of Edmonton’s municipal airport lands, such large tracts are rare in central areas, and are usually zoned for multi-family development. “It’s always cheaper to develop a greenfield than a brownfield,” says Jon Hall of the Edmonton Real Estate Board.

However, while outlying areas present a fresh palette, they also present new complications.

Developers can get caught between municipal development plans, which set density levels for new subdivisions, and an ever-changing marketplace. Some complain of inflexibility and slow municipal approval processes, which can leave them on the hook, paying interest on multi-million dollar loans for land they’ve purchased but can’t yet develop.

Meanwhile, a trend towards community living and smaller footprints has some buyers seeking different traits in their homes and neighbourhoods. Instead of spacious dwellings, some would rather splurge on marble countertops, hardwood floors or commercial kitchen finishings. “You see young people buying the jewel box [with] every upgrade possible, and they’ll sacrifice some space for that,” says James Mabey, real estate broker and Top 40 Under 40 alumnus.

Beyond individual homes, the shape of entire subdivisions is changing towards a more “holistic” design, says Mabey. “People [want] to live, shop and work within a much shorter distance from their homes.”

Developers are responding with the “mini-city” concept – concentrating transportation, amenities and community attractions within each neighbourhood. This isn’t without cost to the homebuyer, points out Dauk, but compared to older, automobile-centred models, there is potential to reduce suburban footprints.

“It’s like the City is reproducing itself in all quadrants,” says Mabey, “almost like a research project.”

But this research has high stakes. Meeting housing demand while balancing living standards, environmental impacts and markets is a sensitive experiment Edmonton, like many other North American cities, has been grappling with for decades.

Currently, the local chapter of the Urban Development Institute reports Edmonton has the right housing mix to meet homebuyer demand. But as demand spikes again – driven in part by a projected surge in the natural resource industry and correspondingly, regional employment – the challenge will be to maintain that diverse portfolio in a sustainable way.

Urban, high-density living has been touted as the ideal model of eco-friendly, 21st century living, but perhaps it’s worth re-evaluating the perceived wisdom of densification.

Vreeling says, “We need diversity, we need people to have homes that are big and some that are small because each of those individuals, families or businesses have different needs and bring different things to the community. There is no one model or answer, everything works together. [If] we promote good decision-making, then good design will follow.”

For Mabey, the answer lies in stronger collaboration. “The City has to be realistic, developers have to be making money and consumers have to be happy … if we want vibrant, meaningful and relevant communities.”

Creating more opportunities and spaces for people to gather and enjoy being outdoors may be one way to generate more interest in the core, suggests Vreeling. As a designer, bringing a rural sensibility to the urban environment is one way in which he can express his own affinity for natural space. “It helps us to remain in tune with nature … to remember natural rhythms that exist in the world, outside of this artificial one we’ve created.”

If the City wants to achieve greater sustainability, then it may have to recognize this sensibility and work with it. Perhaps it’s time to ask, what might suburban sustainability look like?

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