FREDERICTON – The first of two eight-storey towers will rise above the provincial capital near Odell Park this spring, right on the edge of a neighbourhood with traditional homes.
The Victorian houses on Waterloo Row will be joined by a complex containing more than 130 micro-apartments.
Developers are moving towards larger, taller residential buildings to follow growing interest in living in or near the city centre. But those projects have been met with critics concerned about scale, traffic, parking and changing the character of Fredericton.
“Definitely there’s a tension there,” said Ward 10 city councillor John MacDermid. “When I think about the last six, eight months of development there have been four major buildings that have come through the development process. And three of them have faced some degree of opposition.”
Fredericton City Council adopted a new municipal plan on Jan. 27 which calls for a shift towards higher density, mixed-use housing close to downtown. That decision comes as the capital city is experiencing a substantial rise in population growth paired with low vacancy rates.
Mayor Mike O’Brien said there’s concern around change with nearly unprecedented growth in the city.
“We’ve gone from being a kind of a small town to a vibrant city, and it’s happened in very short order,” he said.
‘Unhealthy’ rental market
Gabriel ElZayat, the owner of Bella Properties, is working on two major mixed-use developments in downtown Fredericton. His apartments are often rented before construction is finished on a building.
“Right now we put one up for rent and we have lists of people that we can call and say, ‘Okay, we have a unit that’s becoming available’,” ElZayat said. “We have strategic locations, good locations downtown that people want.”
The urban core is experiencing low vacancy rates and city officials have noted a major lack of sufficient residential housing and apartments. The vacancy rate in 2019 was 1.4 percent, down from 2.1 percent in 2018.
That need comes as the capital city is experiencing a growing population paired with increases in commercial and residential development. Fredericton set a record for building permits with $170-million issued in 2019.
The city’s population is growing steadily and is projected to increase 50 percent by 2040. Statistics Canada data shows the population of Greater Fredericton reached 108,054 residents on July 1, 2018, an increase of 6,294 from the 2016 metro population of 101,760.
The mayor attributes that growth to a “booming start-up culture” and growing tech sector drawing people to the city. But O’Brien noted that the “unhealthy” tight rental market is inflating prices.
Recent projects opposed
MacDermid, who also sits on the Planning Advisory Committee, said tension around new residential developments stems from the short notice for proposed projects. Planning reports are released five days before a committee meeting.
“I think what the residents want is they just want more time, they want answers,” he said. “They want to have an opportunity to actually understand the project a little bit more.”
ElZayat said there’s often “unfair” pushback on larger developments as building up is unavoidable in Fredericton’s future.
“It’s challenging when somebody has a house in a neighbourhood and then down the street, they want to build an apartment building,” he said. “Some people have an issue with that because it adds traffic, it adds people, but there’s no way around it.”
The city’s planning advisory committee gave the green light to a $30-million mixed-use development last month, approving a variance to allow for higher-density construction. The Rookwood Avenue project by Cedar Valley Investments faced concerned neighbours during a meeting at City Hall.
Resident Patricia Fields said she was concerned about parking during summertime construction and the impact of increased traffic.
“I feel the neighbourhood deserves more notice and an opportunity to understand better,” she said.
Lynn Fullerton said the two buildings could look like a “big wall” coming out of Odell Park. The proposal would be twice the height of the tallest current structure in the area.
“The massing of this I think is grossly oversized and doesn’t do anything for sight lights or visuals,” Fullerton told the committee.
East of that development, two buildings are slated to bring more than 160 micro-apartment units to a lot between Waterloo Row and Forest Hill Road when construction starts this spring. More than 28 residents in the neighbourhood asked the city to look further into the proposal with concerns about runoff and traffic.
The Fredericton Exhibition grounds is another site the city is eyeing for potential development.
Fredericton Exhibition Ltd. (NBEX) and the city signed an agreement ending years of tension over the 31-acre parcel on Smythe Street. Officials hope to see housing on the land that NBEX has hosted the exhibition for decades.
“That’s a bit of a safety valve for the next decade if we can come up with the right plan,” O’Brien said.
A joint-planning committee, created by the agreement, is hiring a firm to draft a development plan for the property.
Several mixed-use projects are underway in the downtown core, including the redevelopment of the Centennial Building into a nearly $50-million hotel, restaurant and residential property. The building was sold to a private developer in December after the newly-elected provincial government cancelled a $78-million project on the King Street site.
Interest in downtown lifestyle
City officials say higher density allows for efficient infrastructure and transit allowing for stable tax rates. It’s also a trend residential developers are trying to meet, as people look to live a short walk away from restaurants, cafes and stores.
“You’ve got everything within 10-minute radius drive,” ElZayat said. “But mainly, really it’s the walkability, it’s the lifestyle that you get when you live downtown.”
O’Brien said the city centre plan aims to protect the large Victorian homes and leafy streets in the downtown area. The approach is to fill in vacant lots with higher density.
“Hopefully as the city grows, it will entice more people to come back and purchase some of the homes that might be getting old and then renovate them and turn them back into single-family homes,” he said.
ElZayat said from a developer’s view, Fredericton needs to expand zoning for higher density and allow the downtown to extend onto new streets.
“What city in the world would have a downtown where there’s single-family homes,” he said. “You have to let go of the old, come with the new and then in order for you to do that people have to be open-minded and say, ‘Okay, well our city is growing. We have to grow with it.”