Thoughts On the Great LRT Debate

I’ve been thinking a lot about urban development. Not just because it’s one of my main interests (and has been for a good decade and a half), as well as a key function of my day job, but because of the debate surrounding one of the biggest issues facing Edmonton – LRT routes.

On Friday, City Council is slated to make a decision on alignments for the Southeast and West legs of the LRT network, complementing the existing and planned lines to reach other parts of the city. The Southeast leg appears to be heading for approval with little dissent; the west, on the other hand, elicits strong feelings from many parties.

The route following Stony Plain Road is the recommended one, but previously considered routes along 107th Ave or 87th Ave could be brought back for consideration. There are points in favour and against all three options, and their projected ridership is all in the same range. In the end, it comes down to which of the three options is most amenable to your goals for the city. The planners did their job on the issue; it’s now up to the public officials to make the ultimate decision.

That being said, the debate amongst the public has missed some key issues, in my mind. Leaving aside the hyperbole on both sides, I’ve been surprised by how many people treat as self-evident some notions – particularly the idea that light rail will automatically spur a lot of redevelopment, and that it is an economic driver (the fact that the land development opportunities evaluated for this process is based largely on projects already approved or going through the application process also isn’t well understood). I’m going to give that idea a cursory examination.

The O-Train
The O-Train at the Bayview station near downtown Ottawa.

I am a strong proponent of light rail and of a well-designed urban form, but as with every issue, I think the most important thing is that it’s done properly, and that an informed as possible decision is made. This is especially true with light rail, since it’s a pretty much irreversible decision. It’s not easy to pick up the tracks and move them 5 or 10 blocks if you realize you made the wrong decision.

Here follows my contribution to the debate.

Does LRT Contribute to Redevelopment?
There are many instances where light rail has contributed to redevelopment; it certainly appears to be a better use of public funds than sports arenas or any number of other mega-projects. But there are also cases where the investment hasn’t followed, leading one to believe that light rail is not a sufficient condition.

For example, this forthcoming study on light rail in the Phoenix area shows that that region saw property values around light rail stations increase when the areas were rezoned to allow for greater density. Property around stations that saw no rezoning didn’t increase – around one station property values actually decreased.

Second, and most importantly, looking purely at the impact of light rail ignores the fact that some development likely would have occurred even in the absence of light rail. For example, in Dallas, property values for commercial property around light rail stations have risen 24%; for residential properties the increase is 32% this decade. However, city-wide, property values went up 11% and 19%, respectively, in areas not served by light rail. Minneapolis constructed a new light rail line at the beginning of this decade. Between 2000 and 2004 (when it opened), property values around the new stops rose 83%; the city-wide average for that time frame was 61% (stats from the report found here). Now, there could be other factors driving the difference as well. For example, it’s possible that light rail was built in areas that are desirable for other reasons, or that other desirable amenities (good schools, appealing public spaces, etc.) are also now present. But light rail is certainly a factor.

What I wonder is whether development spurred by light rail would have largely occurred anyways, perhaps in other areas of the region. This becomes germane when we consider Edmonton’s situation. There are already revitalization efforts underway in The Quarters, Alberta Avenue, and the Fort Road area, to name three. Is Transit-Oriented Development in the west going to attract development that would not have happened otherwise in Edmonton, or is it simply attracting development that would likely occur elsewhere in the city (and making it on average 20% more valuable than it would otherwise be)? When looking at the economics, let’s also remember that light rail comes at a significant capital cost as well; the operating costs, however, can be lower if it’s popular and widely-used.

What is undeniable is that light rail is a city shaper. Done properly, it can affect where development dollars flow and alter the built form.

Transit Mall
The MAX Light Rail stops by Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.

What Gets Built Matters

This ties in to my penultimate point from the previous section. The development that comes with light rail has to be the type of development there is a market for. Ideally, to my mind, it would be an under-served market. As I alluded to before, there are several areas making a push in the multi-unit market targeting empty nesters. In addition to Fort Road and the Quarters, downtown still has a good amount of vacant and underutilized land, Century Park is still being built, and there are an assortment of condo and high-rise projects in the works throughout the city.

I think supply has shaped Edmonton’s development patterns as much as anything, but I also think there’s a limited demand for 1-2 bedroom condos. Most people, if they have a family, want a space amenable to children. Many empty-nesters want single-family homes as well. Unfortunately, we tend to build the former in older neighbourhoods and in redevelopment projects. If we continue to, families are going to either look elsewhere to live, or suck it up and live in a low-density, outlying area where they can actually get family-friendly housing. Family-friendly housing would also be in concord with the goals of many of the communities that will be served by LRT – west end communities along Stony Plain Road are concerned with preserving their schools, and in attracting families. Development in this area should largely respect this.

Other Factors Matter
Travel time on transit obviously matters a lot, and affects the success of a station and any related project. This report makes a compelling argument for the importance of linking destinations in planning light rail. Zoning and the development permit process are also critical. I mentioned the example of Phoenix, where zoning affected the change in land values. The development process also matters a lot. What can be built, and how easily it can be accomplished, drives what ends up being built. As do other amenities in the area. Expecting that running a light rail line through an area will automatically produce benefits is a mistake.

Thoughts On West Jasper and Stony Plain Road

About a month and a half ago, Dave and I went out to Stony Plain Road to take a look at the area prime for revitalization. There are already plans and actions in the works. The area has been designated a business revitalization zone, and a full revitalization strategy has been developed. You can see some progress already – the block between 150th-151st St is improving. The south side features a noted Portugese bakery and Revolution Cycle. The north side features new tenants such as Derks Formal Menswear, The Haven Social Club, and the United Way. There is also a cluster of sex shops, but progress doesn’t happen overnight. As you move west from there, you start to see more pawn shops and payday loans stores.

Stony Plain Road
New tenants such as the United Way have moved in on Stony Plain Road between 150th-151st St.

You can see my photos from the trip here. Walking around the area, it struck me that transit service was one of the smaller concerns. The revitalization strategy seems to back this up. Residents are more concerned with safety, businesses appropriate for the community vision, and

My impressions are pretty straightforward:

– The most crucial challenge is developing an identity for West Jasper/Stony Plain Road. Successful areas have an identity, whether it’s through their design and architecture, residents, activities, or some combination thereof. The identity of the West Jasper area doesn’t really come through. As an example, Alberta Avenue is making strides by tying in with the arts community. Where is Stony Plain’s story going to come from?

– There are some design challenges that aren’t easily fixed. For example, 100th Ave effectively cuts off the neighbourhoods south of the area from the main commercial strip. The communities north of the strip lack connectivity, both with Stony Plain Road (the two areas feel disconnected), and internally, you continually run into dead ends trying to navigate it.

– There is little brownfield space. We’re not talking about redeveloping empty space (ie. Century Park). Most of the area is already occupied. Some of it is underused, and some of it is used by businesses the residents would rather drive out. The piecemeal ownership of the area makes it more challenging to coordinate development and to execute an overarching strategy.

That being said, there is progress being made, and any critiques I make are not intended to slight the efforts of residents and businesses to improve their community. But I still believe that LRT won’t be a magic elixir, nor is transit service the biggest challenge for the area.

Gentrification, or Uplifting of the Whole?
With all the talk of LRT (or anything) as a redevelopment tool, what gets lost sometimes is what happens to the residents if redevelopment is successful? Do they benefit from rising property values, or are they pushed out of the neighbourhood? And what happens if they don’t gain? It’s unlikely that redevelopment will help address the root causes that drive crime – addiction, poverty, to name two. What’s more likely is that these residents are going to be displaced to another area in the city. If West Jasper revitalization is successful, if it doesn’t help give the current at-risk residents a hand up, they’re going to be the at-risk residents at the centre of another area’s revitalization effort 10 years later. Revitalization is good, but it doesn’t necessarily decrease our obligation to address social problems and provide services.

In the End, the Economy Matters
Many of the land development opportunities identified for Edmonton’s proposed LRT corridors are projects where zoning has already been approved (the Strathearn Heights project for the SE, and the Vision for the Corner for the West, to name two). It’s thought that LRT development will spur projects like this to go ahead. That may be true, but something else will – an economic upturn. Both of these projects were approved in 2008, around the time the economy slowed down. Suddenly, the market for housing (especially condos) wasn’t what it was a couple of years earlier when they started working their way through the development process.

And this gets to the heart of the biggest issue for driving and sustaining development. We need to increase productivity and grow our economy. If we can attract and develop business, that will drive the need for more commercial/office space, and therefore more residential space to house new workers and residents. The goal of attracting business also ties into our development plans. What kind of businesses and residents we (want to) attract affects what we need to build. If we intend to have a young work force (or be a city of retirees), we might want to focus more on multi-unit housing. If we want to attract more families, we need to make sure we’re building housing suitable for their needs (be it single-family or multi-family). Similarly, industrial and oil field service companies, for example, are going to want different types of space (and in different locations) than a bank or law firm, and a start-up tech company may very well want something different than the aforementioned four groups.

As James Carville famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid“.

It’s not as simple as building, and waiting for them to come. We need to make sure we’re building to attract and retain people and businesses, and to continue to grow into the city we want Edmonton to be. Light rail should be a big part of this, and can help shape a city, if not deliver the growth some advocates feel it does. But done right, it will get a city closer to its broader goals and ambitions.


4 Responses

  1. This is a very thoughtful analysis of the LRT debate. Thank you for that and thank you for raising the point about family-oriented housing. I agree it’s particularly important to look at the type of development that is going to happen in these areas and I really hope family options materialize!

  2. Thank you Alex for a great post. A lot to think about, but I do agree that developing family oriented housing is an important component to this.

  3. […] not in fact dangerous, idea for the city to adopt (Alex Abboud addresses this issue quite well in a post of his own). That being said, Councillor Leibovici’s suggestion to either tunnel or add more road lanes to […]

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