New standard could help shift Edmonton's growth pattern

· The Pulse

The city is developing a new measure called the substantial completion standard aimed at supporting the City Plan's goal of encouraging a market shift from primarily greenfield development to infill. But representatives from the home building and development industries are concerned it could contribute to the affordability crisis in housing.

A policy in the City Plan ( requires substantial completion of developing areas, defined as those within city limits but primarily outside Anthony Henday Drive, before authorizing the development of future growth areas, defined as land south of 41 Avenue SW.

On Jan. 17, city council's urban planning committee will receive an update on the development of the substantial completion standard, a component of the Growth Management Framework that administration describes as "one tool to address phasing growth, financial sustainability, and meet planned infrastructure commitments."

Administration said the substantial completion standard would help provide complete communities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and delay the premature conversion of agricultural land.

But at city council's urban planning committee meeting on June 14, 2022, where the substantial completion standard was first discussed, Kalen Anderson, executive director of the Urban Development Institute - Edmonton Metro, said it could be a barrier to development, and that could make housing less affordable.

"Canada has a structural housing shortage, and has the lowest number of housing units per 1,000 residents of any G7 country," she said, suggesting that Canada would need to add about 400,000 housing units per year for the next decade, "over and above what the market is currently producing, in order to get back to balance."

She said municipalities like Edmonton hold the keys to unlocking more supply. "Edmonton has a strategy, the room, and the ability to grow within its existing boundaries, and this is an advantage that should be leveraged," she told committee.

Coun. Ashley Salvador countered that the city must consider more than just the supply of housing. "It's not just about increasing the housing supply, it's about increasing the number of complete communities that we're building," she said.

"I always think about, as a Prairie city, absolutely we have that room to grow, but we don't necessarily have the financial capacity to maintain and renew that degree of outward growth. So I think that the type of growth matters."

A map of Edmonton showing redeveloping, developing, and future growth areas, with completion thresholds for developing areas overlaid

The substantial completion threshold would vary across the nine districts identified in developing areas of Edmonton. (City of Edmonton)

Coun. Anne Stevenson agreed, and said the operating cost of continued outward growth is a major concern. "That to me is where substantial completion is a really critical thing that we get right," she said.

Jag Mehta, vice president of housing at Rohit Group of Companies, spoke at the June 14 meeting on behalf of the Canadian Home Builders Association - Edmonton Region and called for support and investment from the city in both developing and growth areas.

"The CHBAER supports a less stringent approach to substantial completion policy to ensure that builders can continue to provide a variety of housing choices throughout Edmonton in response to consumer demand," he said.

The City Plan does not anticipate development in the future growth areas until the city reaches a population of 1.5 million people. Administration said its analysis suggests 500,000 people could be accommodated in the developing areas based on a "business as usual" scenario.

The proposed substantial completion standard would be comprised of six metrics, three of which would be required (residential, non-residential, and parks) and three of which would simply be tracked (fire halls, transit service, and school sites). The residential metric would look at the number of dwelling units approved, the non-residential metric would consider the zoning of commercial and industrial land, and parks would account for the number of active parks.

Administration said additional metrics may be tracked in the future, such as a mobility metric and some way to measure libraries and recreation facilities.

May apply to infill in the future

The City Plan has a target of 50% of new residential units to be added through infill by the time Edmonton's population grows to two million, with 35% added through infill by the time the population reaches 1.25 million. That's up from about 25% as of 2022.

Nine of the 15 districts identified in City Plan are in developing areas, and substantial completion thresholds are proposed at the district level using the 1.5 million population horizon.

The proposed thresholds at that time vary across the nine districts from just 15% in Horse Hill, where there is almost no residential completed currently, to 90% in Mill Woods and The Meadows, which are currently 67% complete. In the middle are areas like Ellerslie and West Henday, which would have thresholds of 60% and 65%, respectively. Administration said some districts like Mill Woods and The Meadows would have fewer than 5,000 dwelling units remaining before reaching completion, while others like Ellerslie and West Henday might have up to 25,000 units remaining.

While the standard is focused on developing areas, UDI's Anderson told urban planning committee in June that it should also consider the density of mature neighbourhoods.

"When we're thinking structurally about where the problems are, there are of course increasing gains to be made in new communities," she said. "But we need to be looking at why about 100 neighbourhoods in Edmonton have a density under 20," referring to the number of dwelling units per net residential hectare (du/nrha).

The substantial completion standard does not currently apply to redeveloping areas, defined as existing areas within Anthony Henday Drive that have already completed the cycle of growth and maturation. Many of the neighbourhoods in redeveloping areas have less density than newly built neighbourhoods in developing areas because standards were less stringent in the past.

The Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board's growth plan specifies an overall minimum density of 35 du/nrha for most areas across the region. Administration said that in Edmonton, residential density built each year has increased continuously from about 26 du/nrha in 2009 to 35 du/nrha in 2020.

Administration said it is planning to consider extending the substantial completion standard to redeveloping areas within the next four years, to help define what complete neighbourhoods look like in an infill context.

What's next?

Additional engagement with industry was completed last month, the result of which will be shared at urban planning committee's meeting on Jan. 17.

Administration expects to finalize the substantial completion standard by the end of the second quarter of 2023, with implementation beginning immediately after. Council would receive annual updates beginning in 2024.