Is Infill threatening our Historic Neighbourhoods?

Infill Housing in the Highlands

Infill Housing in the Highlands

Is infill, defined as the current practice of demolishing one house on a large lot and erecting two (or even three) in its place, a threat to your neighbourhood? This is a hotly debated topic in cities where real estate prices continue to escalate, making mature areas ripe for the plunder.

Mature neighbourhoods are attractive to developers due to their proximity to the city core. They know that this is a selling feature for many buyers. Transportation routes, fast rail transit and bus service are all well established and close to commercial areas. There is no need to pack a lunch for a shopping trip.

The streets are lined with large trees and landscaping that would take years to grow in a new area. I never realized how important this was until I moved into a brand new home in a new area of Calgary in the early 1980’s. There wasn’t a single connection to nature. It was deathly quiet – no sounds from our feathered friends or squirrels, no sightings of rabbits or the occasional coyote. Of course the non-stop sounds of electric saws, hammers and big trucks filled that gap.

We should not paint all developers with the same brush, however it seems that, for every developer who designs houses that are sensitive to the character and scale of a neighbourhood, there are many more that are in it just for the money. Some cities, where real estate prices are astronomical, like Vancouver, are seeing their historic neighbourhoods dissolve. Elegant homes on spacious grounds with lovely landscaped lawns are being replaced with high rise buildings that cater to the wealthy. The sad thing is that many of these condos aren’t even lived in. They often belong to foreigners who invest in real estate. This does not create vibrant communities, but dead zones in a city.

A historic home was demolished to make room for two three-story homes on a street of small bungalows.

A historic home was demolished to make room for two three-story homes on a street of small bungalows.

A recent article in Avenue Magazine called “Building the Better Community” expressed some of the views of developers and politicians in our city. What I got out of the article was:

1. If only the city planners would get in line with developers and change the zoning, they could demolish houses and build more new houses in mature areas at will, thus supposedly bringing down the price of houses and making it more affordable for first time owners.

2. Urban sprawl, a term once used to denote the way many cities spread out to new suburbs, is being used incorrectly. One city councillor, Michael Walters, was reported to have said that the true urban sprawl were neighbourhoods with “huge 50 foot or even 75 foot lots”. Master Builder’s general manager, Matthew Kaprowky, is quoted as saying “We estimate that there are 80,000 fifty foot lots available in established neighbourhoods. Imagine what could be done if we could split those into 160,000? Yes, sir – think of what it would do for your business! The irony here is that the top ten neighbourhoods in our city, according to Avenue’s own annual poll, are those ‘sprawling” mature / historic neighbourhoods!

bih house 2

So, with such opinions, it isn’t really surprising that our historic homes are under threat of demolition – because it’s all about money. To be fair, the article had some very good points regarding the effect of lower density such as school closures, fewer commercial options and so on. I agree with one comment made by Councillor Walters about there needing to be more senior housing in neighbourhoods so that people didn’t need to leave their communities when they left their homes.

I am not against infill. It is important to continue to renew a neighbourhood, to get new blood, as the saying goes and there are some wonderful new homes in our community and that’s good for all residents. What I am against, is the callous way some buildings are foisted on a neighbourhood without regard for scale or compatibility. I also lament the destruction of heritage homes for the almighty dollar. ‘Nuf said. What do you think?

7 responses to “Is Infill threatening our Historic Neighbourhoods?

  1. I agree. My in-laws live in Detroit, Michigan, and these types of very old homes are in gang-ridden crime areas. They’re burned, plastered with graffiti and just left to rot. It’s sad and sickening because the structures themselves are sound and a handful of them are still beautiful, although most are falling apart. I want to cry every time we drive by them.

    • Unfortunately Detroit has other well-publicized problems as well so it isn’t surprising that homes are left abandoned that way. As the saying goes however, change the people in a community, change the community. The buildings and what happens to them are simply the result of the kinds of people that live there – for good or not.

  2. I think you are exactly right! It pains me to see a beautiful old home demolished and a cheap duplex put up. Cheap meaning it won’t last more than 25 years before it will be cheaper to demolish it and build a new one than to repair it. Planned obsolescence.

  3. I agree with you. This is a thoughtful piece that looks at different sides of the issue.
    Sometimes I wish there were more neighborhoods with a genuine mix of house and property sizes — so different people are encouraged to share the same neighborhoods, not just by income level. And it should be more common.
    At the same time, historic homes don’t get enough respect, unless they are designated by the city. In Toronto, over the last several years, the in-thing is faux French chateaux of various sizes. Brick houses are taken down or stuccoed over to create this look. (Or man-made stone fronts.) Some of this is pleasing, but now it’s overdone.

    It’s the diversity of a city that makes it attractive and pleasing. That diversity comes in various dimensions, and caring for and preserving historic neighborhoods is part of it.

    • Absolutely. I am offended at being told that my neighbourhood is responsible for urban sprawl. After all, it’s been here more than 100 years. There seems to be a movement towards making all neighbourhoods look the same as they do in suburbs. That cookie-cutter look is exactly what we wanted to get away from which is why we moved here to this area. Yes, we paid more but it was worth it to get away from that claustrophobic feeling of a narrow street full of two and three story houses on 25-foot lots. Should I feel guilty? Well, I don’t :).

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