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Banff density debate touches off during public hearing

“We felt in order to get the private sector to develop, sweeping land use bylaw changes were going to be the best course of action."
Banff Town Hall 1
Banff Town Hall

BANFF – The density debate is dividing the Banff community among those in urgent need of appropriate housing versus those concerned about loss of character, livability and green space of residential neighbourhoods in the national park townsite.

The Town of Banff proposes changes to the land use bylaw in a bid to allow greater housing density gradually over time by eliminating residential parking requirements and increasing the allowable size of buildings in neighbourhoods.

Planners say the proposed changes, which include low-, medium- and high-density districts, aim to work together to address Banff’s housing shortage of between 700-1,000 housing units and boost the current rental vacancy rate of less than one per cent.

“We felt in order to get the private sector to develop, sweeping land use bylaw changes were going to be the best course of action,” said Dave Michaels, who is the manager of development services for the Town of Banff.

The municipality’s overall goal is to address the housing shortage by building Town-financed housing, changing regulations that will accelerate private development, adding incentives for new homes, and addressing the demand for new housing and commercial expansion.

The federal funding of $4.66 million as part of the Housing Accelerator Fund for Banff is serving as a catalyst for this. The process is expected to bring on at least 240 new housing units by 2027, including 43 so-called affordable units.

Several residents wrote letters or spoke in person for and against land use bylaw proposals to increase density town-wide during a public hearing on June, 8, which now sets the stage for council’s consideration of second and third reading on Wednesday, June 24.

Under the extensive changes to the land use bylaw, each of the town’s 23 land use districts would be categorized as either higher-density, medium-density or lower-density districts and would have regulations to match.

To increase the allowable size of buildings, proposed changes include an increase in building height, up to 14.5 metres in high-density districts, a reduction in setbacks, and an increase in the total floor area that could be built on a site in all residential areas. This would be done on a sliding scale where more floor area can be built when more homes are proposed.

The proposed changes would simplify the definitions of different residential housing types and define which housing types are permitted or discretionary in the lower-, medium-, or higher-density areas.

A what-we-heard report based on public consultation indicated people were, in general, in support of the need to make changes to increase housing, with those residents identifying as renters more open to support the bylaw changes overall.

There was mixed support for specific proposed changes that affected parking or height allowances and the starkest contrast was the near even split among homeowners and renters who were supportive or opposed to the proposed changes to parking.

Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA) called on council to act on the changes, saying Banff’s critical workforce needs appropriate housing.

“Our people are suffering, this is no joke. They’re stressed and they’re leaving us,” said Wanda Bogdane, executive director of BLLHA.

Jeffrey Carpenter said he has lived in Banff for more than 10 years, and finding housing during this time has been a “constant struggle”.

“As a single person, I relied on staff housing for many years because it was the only affordable option available to me. Currently, I work two jobs to cover my monthly rent, which consumes 85 per cent of my income,” he said.

“This situation is unsustainable and has forced me to seek more affordable housing options. Without these options, my only alternative would be to leave the Bow Valley and abandon the life I have built here.”

Even with a commercial cap set for the town in the 1990s, the current housing shortage persists.

Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s and continuing now, the town continues to see an increase in population as commercial properties transition from retail to restaurant operations, which require more employees who need more housing.

Long-time resident Gord Irwin said the shortfall in housing has been driven by commercial development.

“There’s been a large push to the build-out of what’s allowed and housing simply has not kept up,” said Irwin, who has previously served on the Development Appeal Board and Municipal Planning Commission.

“We can’t anticipate how many residents are going to be required to fill the jobs in those commercial businesses.”

Rather than changing bylaws in residential areas, Irwin recommended council change bylaws related to zoning for commercial businesses.

“I would also recommend the No. 1 step is to put an immediate moratorium on any business licences and any commercial development. In other words, stop digging the hole deeper,” he said.

Irwin said the next step should be a requirement for any commercial development or redevelopment to contain a percentage of residential housing.

“We need a radical movement or we will never ever catch up to the requirement for housing in this town,” he said.

“There’s no other solution, there’s no land, so the commercial zoning needs to be brought into the discussion to determine how we can meet our housing needs.”

Irwin said the combined parking and density changes will have a deleterious effect on the quality of life in town, will have minimal change on the amount of housing and will have no impact on housing affordability.

“In my opinion, all of these combined bylaws are accelerating the change towards an industrial tourism centre, not a national park experience centre,” said Irwin.

“We are at risk of pursuing some shiny coin from the federal government for, amongst other things, destroying the aesthetics of this town.”

Leslie Taylor, a former mayor and town councillor, opposed the bylaw changes, noting Banff is already the densest community in Alberta, according to Statistics Canada, at 2,034 people per square kilometre, with the next densest being Calgary at 1,592.

She questioned whether Banff has a demand-side problem, rather than just a supply-side problem, and said there also needs to be a clear vision in terms of the Town of Banff’s intended endpoint for population, which currently sits at about 8,300 residents.

“We are aiming to double permitted density in some districts and quadruple it in many others. Does this mean we are aiming for a town of 20,000 people? 40,000?” she said.

“Why are we proposing to quadruple permitted density in several zones? If what we want is to accommodate our existing population, then surely doubling across town would be enough.”

The what-we-heard report generated from public consultation indicated, generally, that those in favour of eliminating minimum parking requirements called on council to prioritize much-need housing over parking, while those in opposition felt it would make the current parking problems even worse.

Opponents generally don’t believe developers will choose to build parking in new developments because it saves money, although some said they could support the intent with nuances, such as removing parking requirements for smaller units, typically under four units.

Taylor said the parking changes will lead to very different outcomes in different parts of town, depending on the parking spots available, whether the area is a resident parking permit (RPP) restricted zone, or whether area residents are short-term renters or long-term owners.

“I think total decoupling is not a good solution for Banff. I think the assumptions are flawed,” she said.

That said, if council does go down this path, Taylor suggested allowing parking requirements to be varied up to 100 per cent instead of blanket town-wide elimination, but only if a thorough review or checklist is done.

That could include taking into account the number of dwelling units, whether rental housing for short-term staff versus owned condos for long-term residents, parking supply in the neighbourhood, the number of on-street spots available in that neighbourhood, and whether the development is in the RPP zone.

“It’s essentially a direct control approach on parking. I think it’s better than a blanket solution,” said Taylor.

“Or if you really want to go with a developer-driven parking space decisions, then let’s have a formula regarding resident parking permits for residents of such developments.”

Christian Dubois, a local real estate developer, said removal of minimum parking requirements, combined with proposed changes to density, height, and floor area ratio, goes a long way to making a residential development in Banff economically viable.

“These proposed changes will undoubtedly lead to the construction of much-needed housing for residents, which, ultimately, is the objective of the Town’s housing action plan,” he said in a letter to council.

With the changes, Dubois said there would still be adequate opportunity for developers to provide onsite parking with their developments, but without having to “sacrifice liveable square footage”, which is not possible with the current bylaw and minimum parking requirements.

But, he said, on no account would he consider a residential building without providing parking.

“As much as there is a positive and welcome shift away from the reliance on personal vehicles, the reality is there is a portion of the population that will still own vehicles, and with that, a demand to find housing that provides parking,” he said.

“By providing parking, not only are we matching a demand, but I believe we are adding notable value to our development.”

Mark Walker, who has lived in Banff for 16 years and bounced around from hostels and shared staff accommodation to private units before securing a home through Banff Housing Corporation, said Banff needs to take drastic steps to increase supply of quality housing.

He said everyone has heard stories of people living in crowded conditions and bunk beds piled into a room.

“We lose so many great people who could have stayed, started their families, created businesses or provided their experience as leaders in their field,” he said.

“As the properties are redeveloped, we can have places that are going to provide the stability, the privacy and the dignity that people need to move from those transient situations and become residents.”

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