Keep Garages in the ‘Burbs

Many suburbs feature house after house that sits behind or on top of the garage, which tends to orient residents’ lives to inside the home or the backyard. While that may be what people living in those suburbs prefer, it seems not to be what people living downtown desire. Those folks like having homes that face the street, often with a nice porch, which helps build a sense of community.

And yet, someone could right now pluck a typical suburban house and plop it into an old and established downtown community. Even where the house is found behind the garage.

That’s more than a hypothetical situation. It happened in the neighbourhood surrounding Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener, where residents found a massive semi-detached house built amongst their modest 1½ story homes. This type of transformation is happening in other long established neighbourhoods across the region. And it is a trend that is likely to accelerate once the LRT is operational and property values increase.

As residents around Eastwood discovered, if new builds conform to zoning and any other regulations in place, they can be built. Residents there were upset because they purchased a home in a neighbourhood because they liked its character. They care about maintaining its look and feel and get nervous or upset about change that impacts what they love about their neighbourhood.

Residents are not opposing change like knee-jerk NIMBYs. If you tour the neighbourhood, you will see many homes that have been enlarged. They just want change that respects their neighbourhood’s character, and a fair opportunity to influence future development.

That’s why the City of Kitchener initiated a Residential Intensification in Established Neighbourhoods Study (RIENS). The study will determine what regulations should be in place for small scale development in neighbourhoods that have been largely the same for decades. It focuses mainly on the downtown neighbourhoods near LRT stations and the Rockway-Vanier area.

The goal is to establish rules that help guide developments and major renovations so that they fit into the norms of the neighbourhood. How high will a house be compared to its neighbours? Will it leave less space between houses than is common?

At one public meeting, there was concern that these rules could homogenize eclectic, quirky neighbourhoods. That’s not the intent at all. Rather the desire is to preserve that kind of character. In fact, the rules can only set the context for what is possible. There will always remain lots of room for individual preferences and taste.

And that’s why I believe the most important regulation that is needed to guide development and renovations in established neighbourhoods is: the garage must be to the side of the house and must be at least a metre behind its front side.

RIENS will be proposing regulations for Kitchener this fall. If you live in the study area, I urge you to get involved in setting the rules that determine what is possible before you feel helpless. If you live in Waterloo, you can join a similar process, as the City is updating its urban design guidelines.

James is on a stakeholder committee providing feedback on RIENS in Kitchener.