Zoning bylaws, and why they matter

Photo: Anthony Reinhart

Photo: Anthony Reinhart

Of all the surprise hits of the last year, zoning bylaws have become an unexpectedly hot topic. Initially created as a means to enforce exclusivity, zoning bylaws have since become the main way cities plan. Everything from green space and schools to industrial areas and supervised injection sites are dictated by zoning. But they can also be contentious. By restricting what can go where, zoning bylaws can shape how our city will look in the future. 

On Monday, Waterloo Council received staff's latest review of zoning across the City. This is a massive undertaking: the bylaws date back 50 years, if not earlier. The update is meant to plug a number of holes left over from decades of tweaks and provide a clean, consistent slate on which to build our future.

Some Uptowners hope that the new version will provide a few years of clarity on the development front. They point out that it will be harder for developers to ask for exemptions if a bylaw is six months old. Uptowner Kae Elgie also pointed out that bylaws are a powerful tool for shaping our community. "I just want the city to be one we can live in and be comfortable in," she told Council.

For developers at the Council meeting, however, one of the main points of contention were bylaws dictating minimum amenity space in apartment buildings. Is there such a thing as too much amenity space? Developers say yes. At a certain point, they say, the bylaw requirements start to cripple a project, calling for hundreds of square feet to be provided and "programmed" (that is, slated as a gym or a media room). "You like regulations. We see it as rigidity," one delegation to Council said.

They also raised concerns that bylaw requirements on setbacks, height, underground parking space and rooftop amenities limit creativity in design, and could also impact affordability. Bylaws, staff pointed out, aren't meant to be perfect. But they do provide a guideline for what we want the city to become.

What I'm hearing from residents -- and what came through clearly at Monday's meeting -- is that people want liveable buildings and liveable spaces. That means required setbacks, tower separation rules, maximum height restrictions and other bylaws that aren't too exciting on paper but have real impact on streets. 

In the end, Council deferred its decision until September 10 in order to allow more time for consultation. "I would like to understand the other perspectives, and I would like to work together," Elgie said. On that, everyone could agree.