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ELISE STOLTE: Brilliant and truly awful infill designs pitched in Edmonton design competition

Spruce Avenue Mews is one of 25 designs submitted to the City of Edmonton Missing Middle design competition that passed initial technical and financial screening. It was designed by Michael Wieczorek, Marc Boutin, and Yves Poitras.
Spruce Avenue Mews is one of 25 designs submitted to the City of Edmonton Missing Middle design competition that passed initial technical and financial screening. It was designed by Michael Wieczorek, Marc Boutin, and Yves Poitras. - Spectacle RedBrick

Genius. This new design competition by the City of Edmonton was a stroke of genius.

Twenty-five pitches for new, medium-density projects in Edmonton’s mature neighbourhoods — all vetted for technical and financial viability — are now online and they range from brilliant to the truly appalling.

With concrete examples of what developers want to build, city council should now know exactly what its new rules should allow and, just as important, what it should be banning completely.

One design is so tone deaf it doesn’t even show the poor neighbours in the rendering, as if trying to trick the jury into thinking a four-storey wall along the entire south edge of an existing homeowner’s yard is a good idea.

No. It’s a terrible idea. That architect can head back to the sketch pad. Massive, sun-blocking walls have no place in the middle of Edmonton’s residential neighbourhoods.

The submission Nordvest would place a four-storey wall along the south edge of the neighbour’s yard. The Calgary-based developer later explained it was trying to demonstrate new modular design techniques that can be built off site and paid less attention to the neighbourhood context of the design.
The submission Nordvest would place a four-storey wall along the south edge of the neighbour’s yard. The Calgary-based developer later explained it was trying to demonstrate new modular design techniques that can be built off site and paid less attention to the neighbourhood context of the design.

City council wants to create opportunities for affordable homes in quiet, residential neighbourhoods. But it has to do that without losing those friendly, welcoming aspects of the neighbourhood residents love best.

That won’t be easy, but this competition shows it’s possible.

The designs are online for the people’s choice award. Voting is open until May 3 at edmonton.ca/InfillDesignPeoplesChoice .

City planners created the Missing Middle design competition to see what architects would like to build on a row of four lots in Spruce Avenue, at 106 Street and 112 Avenue. The four lots were bought and never used during LRT construction, and will now be sold for market price to the winner of the design competition. Rezoning fees will be waived.

One of my favourite designs is Spruce Avenue Mews by Michael Wieczorek, Marc Boutin and Yves Poitras. It actually proposes 28 units on the four lots, 11 units more than the pitch with the insensitive four-storey wall.

A view from the sunken walkway in Spruce Avenue Mews that gives at-grade access to the basement suites and the suite in the middle of the yard. Other units have patio spaces on their roofs.
A view from the sunken walkway in Spruce Avenue Mews that gives at-grade access to the basement suites and the suite in the middle of the yard. Other units have patio spaces on their roofs.

But the strength of the Mews design is how it keeps the character of the street — it maintains the look and spacing of single-family houses — while creating a welcoming mix of units all with their own exterior front door.

It’s complicated to explain but picture this. Take any two standard side-by-side lots. Tear down the existing bungalows and replace them with narrower two-and-a-half-storey homes. Then, on the two outside edges of the newly combined lots, dig a pathway down 1.7 metres to make walk-out basement suites.

Two new laneway houses at the back would also have three-bedrooms each and walk-out basement suites. One additional sunken suite is in the middle of each backyard with a peaked roof to make it more airy and create separate patios above.

Finally, between the two main houses and between the laneway units, the architect slips in a single-storey, at-grade unit that is fully accessible for seniors or someone in a wheelchair.

That’s up to 12 units on any two lots, but it still feels like it belongs in a lower-density area. The architects got to 28 units on these four lots by creating a second, similar prototype with more units on a corner. Almost every unit has a parking space along the back.

It’s also a short walk from LRT, Kingsway Mall, the Royal Alexandra Hospital and NAIT. Poitras, the lead designer, says they hope to rent the three-bedroom units for less than $2,000 a month, one-bedroom units for less than $1,000.

Spectrum by RedBrick Group of Companies and Spectacle is one of 25 submissions to Edmonton’s Missing Middle design competition that met the initial technical and financial screening.
Spectrum by RedBrick Group of Companies and Spectacle is one of 25 submissions to Edmonton’s Missing Middle design competition that met the initial technical and financial screening.

Other neat designs would create pleasant walkways, a mixed community of units and buildings that don’t feel large or oppressive. The community representative said he liked about one-third of them. Hopefully the contest will inspire developers to build the best ideas that don’t win in other locations.

The next step for city officials, beyond announcing the winner May 29, is to write the kind of zoning that allows this in the right places. Council will need to identify sites near transit, malls and other amenities where this medium density makes sense and rezone the land.

That’s been the biggest barrier, said RedBrick’s Tegan Martin-Drysdale, a developer who’s been involved with infill in Edmonton since 2012. It’s too risky for a developer to try to rezone land for a small project with such tight profit margins.

I like her design submission, too, a series of small buildings surrounding courtyards. It has a one-storey plus a loft building beside the single-storey neighbour and rises gently to four storeys at the far end of the site. Her studio units would rent for $800 per month, with a three-bedroom for $1,700.

That’s the real payoff. If Edmonton finds the trick to accommodate more people sensitively, it finally gets a range of affordable housing.

estolte@postmedia.com

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