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A look at the strategies and chances for success of city planners in Calgary and Edmonton

Parks and Re-Creation: after years of supporting sprawl, city planners in Calgary and Edmonton are encouraging builders to come home to the core

Jan 9, 2013

by Michael Ganley

There is no shortage of challenges facing urban planners. They deal with political bosses, developers, builders, businesses and an often-impassioned public on a daily basis, and they’re at the centre of many of the most important debates about the cities that most Canadians call home. To get some insights into their take on development and construction, Alberta Venture caught up with Rollin Stanley, the recently ensconced general manager of planning for the City of Calgary, and Gord Jackson, director of policy for Edmonton’s urban planning and environment branch.

Conversation starter

Stanley’s most recent gig was as the planning director for Montgomery County, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. One project from that position that he’s particularly proud of is the ongoing White Flint development. It’s centred on a subway stop and one of the highest grossing retail areas in the U.S., but is an aesthetic and planning nightmare: six lanes of traffic and one big mall surrounded by several strip malls. Even during that region’s building boom from 2000 to 2005, nothing changed. “[The developers] were sitting on a beach sucking back pina coladas and [their buildings] were 100 per cent occupied,” Stanley says. “What would be their motivation to change?”

So he got to work. He advocated to county council that the land be “up-zoned” so the developers could build taller buildings (thereby increasing density and revenues for both the county and the developer). In return, developers opened their books to the county, agreed to be taxed (provided the money went into a fund to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements in the area), swapped lands so the overall plan could be realized and even ponied up $4 million to market what was going on. “By talking about property taxes and revenue streams and community services, we sold the message to council in a place that’s very suburban and where there’s a lot of resistance to change,” he says. Within a month of putting the zoning in place, the county had several of the largest development applications in its history, and they’re being built now. “The question is always, ‘What are the circumstances today and in the immediate future that will help bring about an agenda for change.”

Savings accounts

Calgary and Edmonton are relatively new cities, and as such have not yet seen the full impact of bills that come due when aging infrastructure needs repair and replacement. “When these bills start coming due in a younger city like Calgary – say 25 or 30 years from now – you can’t raise property taxes enough to pay for the replacement cost of all the infrastructure we’ve built,” Stanley says.

In one U.S. county where he worked, the deferred road maintenance bill was more than $350 million. “They will never catch up.” He says plans must be made now to prepare for those bills.

Nodes, corridors and parking lots

“The most cost-effective source of land is the land you’ve already built on,” Stanley says. “In Calgary that’s our main streets and our nodes at the intersections of the main streets and around transit hubs. I’m saying our land supply should include all of Centre Street north of the Bow River.” As happened in Montgomery County, he’d like to see the rules changed such that developers can get more density: it would be an incentive for them to act. Right now, the Alberta Building Code mandates that wood-frame buildings, which are cheaper to build than steel and concrete, can be built to a maximum of four storeys. “In the rest of the world, it’s six storeys or more,” he says. Easing that restriction would lead to a boom in investment.

Plus, there is all that land in both Calgary and Edmonton that is now taken up by parking lots. “That’s your low-hanging fruit,” he says. “It’s already serviced, and environmentally it’s one of the worst things you can have. It’s a no-brainer.”

Subsidized suburbs

Stanley recently met with people from Calgary’s Ward 7, a predominantly downtown neighbourhood, in their community centre. It needs about $100,000 of renovations. He made the point that if they moved to a new subdivision, they would all have new schools, new community centres and new parks. “They said, ‘We’ve lived here for 30 years and paid our taxes, but all the new stuff’s going out there.” This advantage for the suburbs exists despite the fact that the downtown neighbourhoods are cheaper to maintain: They’re already served by transit, the roads are there and the cost of such things as emergency services and garbage pickup is lower due to greater density.

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“Their concerns are valid,” he says.

“If we keep building far-out suburbs, we have to figure out how we will grow to pay for service and replacement.”

You want density? It’s in the ‘suburbs’

When people talk density, they’re generally thinking about condo towers and infill projects in the downtown. But Jackson points out that many new neighbourhoods that are generally considered suburban – say the developments along Stoney Trail in Calgary or in the Terwillegar area of Edmonton – are actually raising the density of the two cities. People are sacrificing lot size to get the house they want at a price they can afford, but they’re also helping the cities meet density goals. “I’m not sure what one has to do to no longer be called suburban if one is achieving relatively urban densities,” Jackson says.

Gord Jackson’s Top 4 initiatives in Edmonton

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City Centre Redevelopment
One of this country’s great opportunities for a city to master-plan urban development, the reimagining of the 300-acre City Centre airport will bring as many as 30,000 people within shouting distance of downtown. It will include large parks, bike paths, recycled storm water and light rail. The first shovel is expected to be in the ground in 2014.

The Light Rail Transit plan
This long-term project will see the LRT extended northwest to NAIT’s campus (by April 2014) and preliminary engineering has begun on a route southeast to Mill Woods. There are also plans to extend it west past the West Edmonton Mall and further northwest past NAIT. But the lines and stations are only part of the “transit- oriented development” the city is engaged in. “The objective is to create environments where people will live at higher densities not only to use the LRT stations, but to support and fuel commercial and community activities,” Jackson says.

Housing Grants
In 1997, the city launched the Downtown Housing Reinvestment Grant Program, under which it gave developers $4,500 for the first 1,000 housing units built downtown. That program helped kick-start interest in building downtown. “After the developers found the market, after they said, “OK, we can build and sell in the downtown area,” we started to see other buildings coming along,” Jackson says. Downtown housing tock has gone from 6,000 to 12,000 in the intervening years.

The Quarters
At the eastern edge of Edmonton’s downtown is the Quarters, a low-income neighbourhood of crumbling infrastructure, inexpensive rooming houses and homelessness. The city has launched a 20-year project to rejuvenate the area. In addition to investing $56 million in infrastructure and public amenities, the city brokered deals with land owners and has negotiated compromises with developers – as was done in the White Flint development – to attract private sector investment of more than $200 million.

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