Infill projects find a home in capital

Small-scale developments a good deal for buyers, sellers – and City Hall

Developer Fred Carmosino might live in Dunrobin, but he knows all about the benefits of downtown living.

Sure, there’s the convenience of being close to a plethora of shopping and entertainment options in the city’s central core. But when Mr. Carmosino, one of the owners of Maple Leaf Custom Homes, talks about the growth of the infill housing market in Ottawa, he’s really referring to the bottom line on the balance sheet.

“My business partner, (architect) Brian (Saumure), would tell you that it’s because it’s an opportunity to do things that are a little more expressive from an architectural point of view,” said Mr. Carmosino, who estimates that of the 15 or so developments his firm builds each year, about 30 per cent are small-scale infill projects on residential side streets in neighbourhoods such as Centretown, Hintonburg and New Edinburgh.

“From a development point of view, it becomes a very lucrative venture,” he said. “The play in any sort of multi-unit development is really always land. If you own a 50- by 100-foot lot in the city of Ottawa, in a zone where you’re able to sever and create two 25-foot lots, well, you’ve effectively just doubled your money because you’ve now created two lots that have the almost the same value as one.”

Officials at City Hall also say they’re seeing a clear trend toward more infill.

“We issued building permits for about 1,600 infill units – not high-rises – on side streets in the last five years,” said Alain Miguelez, the city’s program manager for zoning, intensification and neighbourhoods, who estimated the number for the previous five-year period was probably closer to 400. “That’s pretty big.”

Maple Leaf’s recent project on MacLaren Street near the corner of Kent Street is a prime example of what Mr. Miguelez is talking about.

Two attractive three-storey freehold townhome units stand on the property, where once there was just a small garage. The owner of the rental home next door was looking to sever the property, which included the land the garage stood on, and enlisted Mr. Carmosino’s help.

The resulting deal was a win-win for both the homeowner and Maple Leaf, Mr. Carmosino said. Maple Leaf bought the house for about $100,000 above market value, he said, knowing the resulting development on the severed lots would bring in a huge return on that investment. The 2,200-square-foot unit at the front of the building – the two freehold townhomes are separated by a common wall – recently sold for more than $790,000, while the slightly larger back unit is listed for about $770,000.

The fact there’s only a limited amount of land available for development in the core makes infill an attractive proposition, said real estate broker David Sugarman of Coldwell Banker Rhodes and Company.

“It’s not like you can create a tremendous amount of infill,” said Sugarman, the broker for the MacLaren Street property, who along with fellow realtor Angela Augsbury has worked with Mr. Carmosino on a number of sales. “It’s always going to be a great opportunity from either the buyer or the seller’s perspective. If a deal can be put together with a small developer, then why not benefit from both perspectives?”

Aloft Developments owner Adam Zlepnig, whose firm has several infill projects on the go in the New Edinburgh area, agrees. A growing number of homebuyers are willing to shell out a little more money to live in the core, where they are closer to major amenities and don’t have to fight rush-hour traffic on the Queensway, he said.

“To be able to have that family home downtown is becoming more attractive,” Mr. Zlepnig said.

The city also benefits from infill, developers add. Homebuilders are revamping downtown infrastructure at their own expense rather than taxpayers’, and City Hall brings in thousands of dollars in construction and, often, demolition permit fees from each project.

The overall economy also gets a boost, said Mr. Miguelez.

“Those are new families that are going to go and live in the old neighbourhoods in the city and repopulate them and bring new investment,” he said. “I think it brings a lot of liveliness to the city. It makes urban retail much more viable, much more attractive.”

Still, the infill craze hasn’t been without controversy. The city is rewriting its zoning bylaws after changes last year designed to ensure infill projects fit in with existing neighbourhoods were panned by some architects and developers who called them too restrictive.

In particular, the city’s bid to restrict front-yard parking sparked criticism. Mr. Miguelez said the city simply wants to encourage builders to make green space in front of infill developments a priority.

“You have to design around what fits in the neighbourhood, not around parking,” said Mr. Miguelez. “Why would we come in and impose something that doesn’t fit with the (neighbourhood’s) character and produces a hodgepodge that in the end leaves nobody happy?”

Architect James Colizza, whose firm has worked on a wide variety of award-winning infill projects in the core, said he thinks the city has “gone overboard” with the new proposals, but admits it’s hard to know where to draw the line.

“I think there’s a place for the car in the composition of the street – it just can’t dominate,” Mr. Colizza said. “You don’t want to look at the street and see just cars and garage doors. It’s finding that balance. It’s a tough go. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.”

He does agree with Mr. Miguelez on another issue, however. “I think urban living is appealing to a lot of people,” he said.

Many happy buyers, builders and sellers would attest to that.