Development without drama

July 25, 2016

When new projects are announced in old neighbourhoods, the fallout can be unpleasant, but in Cambridge some people are showing it is possible to reach a happy compromise

CAMBRIDGE — When Wendy Patterson heard about a possible townhouse development going up across the street from her Blair Road bungalow, she was incensed.

"You purchase your home because of the privacy, for the bigger lots," she said.

The quiet hum of nature from a nearby park and large, rural-style homes mark this decades-old Blair Road neighbourhood.

Patterson made signs that read "stop the zoning change" last summer and stuck them in the grass at 264 Blair Rd. to let her neighbours know.

It sounds like the beginning of a typical story: residents upset over proposed, possibly massive townhouse development in mature neighbourhood.

But this story turned out to be quite the opposite.

There was no tug-of-war between the developer, FAE Development and Construction Inc., and residents.

No long list of angry neighbours waiting at city council's podium to express rage.

There was only satisfying compromise.

Residents met with the developer and city planners last fall in what Coun. Pam Wolf called a "pre-official meeting" to talk about concerns with the intimidating project.

"All the people got to say what their issues were. It was all very polite," said Wolf, who is the area's ward councillor.

A proposal for 16 two-storey townhouses quickly turned into ten loft-style townhouses.

Mature trees on the property were saved. Hedges and shrubs were added for the privacy of ten family homes that surround the large lot.

"It's a good example of compromise," said city senior planner Elaine Brunn Shaw.

Shaw noted the development fits the province's Places to Grow Act, meant to foster new developments in built-up areas of the city.

The region and city's official plans also encourage infill projects, developments that use vacant land or replace existing structures in mature neighbourhoods.

"We must use urban boundaries more efficiently," Shaw explained.

Aside from the neighbourhood meeting — it's required by law that the city must host one when any zoning change is proposed — the city and developer had a second informal meeting with the area's residents to hear them out.

"They listened, the developer listened," Patterson said.

This example, one the residents wanted to be "precedent setting," sparked a desire from the city to attempt something new.

"We're going to try a different approach and perhaps adjust the way we do things," Shaw said.

The times are changing.

As established urban centres run out of space, single-family homes are torn down to make way for townhouses and condos.

Shaw said there has been a steady stream of zone change applications to build multi-unit dwellings in the city.

Since the proposal for the project came and went through council, politicians have used it as an example.

They've struck informal subcommittees between residents, developers and city planners to hash out issues before council hears proposals and votes to make decisions.

"It's much better if we can have the negotiations before it gets to council," Wolf said.

Politicians created informal resident-developer subcommittees with a proposed development for the former Saginaw Golf Course, a huge project with plans for an apartment building and hundreds of single-family homes and townhouses.

Council also struck a subcommittee for a proposed 99-townhouse project on the Cambridge Vineyard Christian Fellowship's property on Elgin Street North.

"It's great if people meet and come to some middle ground," Wolf said.


What they did

There aren't any townhomes on the 1.1-acre Blair Road plot yet.

A single-family home sits in the middle of the large lot that shares boundaries with ten other homes in the area.

"Those residents are going to feel most of the impact," area resident Deb Fee said.


As a retired city employee, Fee said she had a bit of know-how on where to start digging for information.

Along with Patterson, the pair set to work.

"We got the justification report, the zoning bylaws, the official plan, whatever information we could," Fee said. "We picked it apart, we constantly asked questions," Patterson added.

They dug through piles of legislation, gathered comments from their neighbours and whittled them down to a few key points, and then they were off to city council.

"I don't think they had seen a presentation like this before," Fee laughed. "We were organized."

Under the name Cambridge Residential Infill Development Association, Fee said the pair highlighted three crucial features for any infill development: minimize the impact of development, make sure the project is compatible with the neighbourhood in scale and form, and build a project that's minor in nature.

"That's in the city's official plan," Fee pointed out. "It should be compatible with the neighbourhood."

She doesn't want people to drive down the quiet residential area nestled between Blair and Galt, see a large, monstrous townhouse development and say, "Whoa, what the heck is that doing there?'

Patterson and Fee weren't interested in stopping the project altogether. They just wanted to give it a little nudge in the right direction for their quiet neighbourhood.

"We weren't coming in and saying no," Patterson said.

"We were saying, 'How can we make it work for the neighbourhood?'

The pair spread notices and agendas for resident meetings they organized themselves. The first one attracted over 80 people, Patterson said.

They put pamphlets in people's mailboxes and shared news through Facebook.

After hours of work, Fee and Patterson submitted a 15-page report to the city highlighting their concerns with density, area compatibility, right to privacy, traffic and trees.

"We didn't want to get up there like a disorganized group," Patterson said.

The developer agreed to change the scope of the project by reducing heights and setbacks and lowering the project's density.

"I think they knew we had a strong argument," Fee said. "For the most part, people are pretty happy with the compromise."


Looking forward

Patterson and Fee think improvements can be made to the process of zone change applications and development proposals.

"It seems so backwards," Patterson said.

Fee worries about residents who may not know what to do or where to go for information when a big infill development comes to their neighbourhood.

"The developer is just using all the legislation. … They're not wrong in that, but then everyone gets all riled up," she said.

She wants to see the city draft guidelines for infill developments in Cambridge.

"This is going to be happening more and more," Fee said.

"Neighbourhoods need to be organized and understand all of the information."

It's why the duo recommends a residential infill development working group to establish guidelines specifically for infill projects in mature areas of Cambridge.

If you want to see an attractive new development in your neighbourhood, then be part of that change. Don't fear it, Patterson said.

As for when the 10 bungalow-style townhomes will be built, Fee and Patterson don't really know.

They just hope that in a few years, when the vegetation on the property grows, it will look like it's always been there.

That's the ideal infill project, Fee said.


By Anam Latif, The Record