Missing Middle Zoning Review

Sean Lee

August 29, 2019

The following is a thought article. ISL has no relation to the Missing Middle Zone Review Project.

Significant changes are mounting with Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw, which should culminate in a wholescale re-write of the bylaw coincident with the CityPlan (Municipal Development Plan, or MDP) over the next couple of years. In a thoughtful and tempered approach, the Zoning Bylaw has seen several incremental changes introduced over the past three years. This has provided time to assess, pilot, and test conditions and impacts of these changes, but the cumulative impact is surely yet to come as it will take several years for the local market and development scene to fully realize the potential unlocked by these changes.

Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw is a product, at best, of the 1980s. Although the current volume dates to 2001 – along with dozens of subsequent textual changes – until recently the stated objectives of City Council and the current MDP regarding support for urban infill were very difficult to square with the reality of what type of development is permissible under the development regulations in the Zoning Bylaw. We are finally seeing critical mass in the changes, and this summer will see the biggest transformation yet.

Not only are specific regulations changing, but what is finally becoming apparent is an actual change in the academic and philosophical approach underlying specific regulations.


For the past three decades, the Zoning Bylaw has taken a prescriptive approach, this despite a philosophical change in provincial legislation for municipalities which flipped to a permissive approach by the 1990s. That’s another story- but suffice to say, municipalities in Alberta have had the ability to write simpler, clearer, more effective zoning regulations for quite a while, but only now is Edmonton embracing this.

Up to this point, we have seen a Zoning Bylaw which fundamentally assumes that there are numerous things we always need to be concerned about and must always carefully control, across the board, without regard to local conditions and context. It’s paternalistic, and as a result, we have standard zones that only work well in greenfield suburban, new-build situations- and even then, not always. The current batch of changes which are proposed will finally culminate in a relatively more performance-based approach.

Rather than dictate the perfect number of residential units per given plot of land, the medium-scale/medium-density zones focus on preferred outer form: primarily height, and then setbacks and stepbacks. Allowances for complementary neighbourhood-oriented commercial uses are also expanded, recognizing that part of a complete community is the ability to include daycares, convenience stores, and food shops in the residential neighbourhood. Mitigating issues of nuisance or conflict are still important- there are and have always existed powers and discretionary authority in the Zoning Bylaw as regulations which pertain city-wide. They are no longer being made redundant by trying to micro-manage regulations within each zone.

With these changes, we may be on a realistic path towards a more fully form-based and performance-based Zoning Bylaw, which is the only approach that can implement the ambitious CityPlan. Hopefully we’ll see more details on what that looks like this fall.

Summary of Proposed Changes
The Zoning Bylaw team reported to Urban Planning Committee on July 9, 2019 and have done a good job of detailing the proposal read them online. We’ll cover just the highlights here.

Consolidating Multiple Unit Residential Uses
Stacked Row Housing and Apartment Housing are no longer defined as Uses. They are replaced by Multi-unit Housing, which is any of three or more principal dwellings arranged any way you like.

Density Caps Removed
The RA7 and RA8 Zones, which generally allow for four and six storey buildings respectively, no longer have a density cap. In recent years, a large number of DC2 (site specific) zones were simply RA7 or RA8, but with higher allowed residential unit numbers. The density caps in the standard zones were generally half what the current market required in the same amount of space. Chalk that up to the 1990s holdover when land was cheaper and units could be larger.

RF6 Retired
RF6 Medium Density Multiple Family Zone is gone. This was always an awkward zone, one which was seldom used. An intent of the zone was for stacked Row Housing, but this hasn’t caught on locally, and is better accommodated in any other medium density zone. The proposal is to eliminate this zone and convert all zoned lands up to the RA7 Zone due to the similarities.

Overlays: Rationalize and Retire
Mature Neighbourhood Overlay (MNO) – this applies to much of pre-1970 Edmonton, and encumbers any standard residential zone falling underneath with a plethora of regulations, which the original neighbourhoods were never subject to at the time of their development. Notably, homes originally developed were permitted to be built up to 10 metres, but the MNO now restricts that to 8.9 metres. Aside from the obvious and glaring questions of generational equality this invokes, it means you can’t build a three-storey row house (or single-detached for that matter) next to an existing three-storey house or row house.

The proposed change is to allow for height of 10 metres in the RF5 Row Housing Zone. This should enable more row housing to move ahead, without resorting to site-specific zoning.

The Medium Scale Residential Overlay and Medium Density Residential Overlay (MSRO and MDRO) are to be taken out behind the barn. Aside from the obnoxiously bureaucratic and obtusely similar names, these were odd overlays. Similar to the MNO, they have very specific geographies: the MSRO applies to RF6 and RA7 in the MNO area; the MDRO applies only to small areas, in Strathcona and – of course – Belvedere.

The MDRO restricts the height of the RA8 (normally 6 storeys) to the RA7 height (about 4 storeys). If you want RA7, just do RA7- wrong tool for the job. The MSRO, similar to the MNO, applies a number of regulations to building design to development in mature neighbourhoods which the existing building stock never had to meet.

With both of these Overlays gone, the height of RA8 will be as in the RA8 Zone, and desired design regulations that reflect an urban-core type of development are implanted directly in to the RA7 and RA8 Zones themselves, giving an equal footing to the zone no matter where in the city it is employed.

(RF3) Small Scale Infill Development Zone
The zone will contain the new replacement Use, Multi-unit Housing, and allow for it to be employed mid-block. Previously a lot anywhere could be zoned RF3, but multiple unit development (up to four units) was permitted only on corners. Because corners are special.

Unit number caps and minimum overall site area are also gone, replaced by minimum site area per unit, in line with other zones. Some design regulations such as requiring buildings to face and front a street have been added.

Other Changes for RA7 and RA8
The minimum required site (800 m2) is gone. This would allow for smaller and skinny apartments, and for utilization of sites that were previously stranded in many of the older mid-rise neighbourhoods. The development pocket is controlled by Floor Area Ratios (FAR), height, and setbacks.

Liberalizing commercial opportunities will create a modest mixed use area: a set of commercial opportunities become Permitted (as of right): child care services; professional, financial and office support services; and convenience retail stores. Additional commercial opportunities also become Permitted: general retail; health services; and specialty food services. New Discretionary commercial uses are introduced: business support services; restaurants; and special events are proposed as discretionary uses.

With these changes, we may be on a realistic path towards a more fully form-based and performance-based Zoning Bylaw, which is the only approach that can implement the ambitious CityPlan. Hopefully we’ll see more details on what that looks like this fall.

We are finally seeing critical mass in the changes, and this summer will see the biggest transformation yet.

There are a number of other zone-specific changes, which the Administration reports detail in a nifty chart. The Urban Planning Committee endorsed these changes at the July 9, 2019 meeting. They must now proceed to the August 26, 2019, Public Hearing at 1:30 pm for all of Council to consider.

While this tranche of amendments won’t fix everything that needs to be done to make Council’s stated infill objectives a reality, they go a long way and represent quite a large step forward. Next, I’m looking forward to seeing a fulsome discussion on the failure of the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay to ensure quality infill, and hopefully a repeal in favour of more practical approaches to design.