Downtown Development Can and Should Happen, With or Without a CRL

On Wednesday, Edmonton City Council will review the latest report on a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) to support building a downtown arena. The scope of this has grown, though, as no longer is a CRL just suggested to support the arena, rather a CRL encompassing the entire downtown is suggested – which would fund the arena, associated infrastructure, and a host of catalyst projects throughout downtown.

As reports tend to do, this one paints a rosy picture of the future should a CRL be implemented. New hotels will pop up. Land values will soar. Downtown will flourish. I think the Capital City Downtown Plan has many good ideas contained within, and I’m a supporter of a strong, vibrant city centre (I live in Oliver – close to downtown’s west boundary, and support many business and amenities here, and throughout downtown and the Old Strathcona/Garneau area). That said, I have a mixed reaction to the CRL Report.

First of all, it continues to infer that a CRL is new tax money. Copper and Blue does a good job of debunking that. Still not convinced, here’s another thorough explanation of a CRL. On a related note, the idea that a CRL is needed to spur investment in downtown bothers me. There’s nothing stopping City Council – nor has there ever been – from directing investment towards downtown. The report notes that capital infrastructure investment in downtown has fallen 39% since 2002. Few would argue that there haven’t been worthwhile projects Council could have been funding downtown in that time. Were Council’s hands tied in doing anything about this? Investment in downtown is a good thing; it should be happening with or without a CRL, and it should have been happening all along.

There are positives, as noted, in the report. Based on my last post about downtown investment, readers can correctly assume that I’m happy to see promised investment in new housing units, a park for the warehouse district, and dedicated bikeways. I’m a strong proponent of investing in things that improve the quality of life for residents on a day-to-day basis. This will produce more return than occasionally-used facilities. These three things, and the park/gathering place in the McKay area, all enhance the quality of life for residents, and make it more attractive to live and spend time downtown.

City Centre Market
A busy Saturday at the market on 104th Street.

On a concerning note, while the $45 million CRL number has been touted as the cost for the arena, there’s an additional (estimated) $52 million cost for the “arena area”, ranging from pedways to land purchase. This number should be included when we’re discussing Edmonton’s investment in a potential new arena.

Beyond this, I just have questions. Some of the things that stood out:

– Funding for the bikeway initiative is only preliminary, and offers no guarantee of future funding to complete the project.
– There’s an assumed 1000 stall parkade in the arena area. Weren’t downtown arena proponents at one point saying there wouldn’t be a need for a big parkade because of the number of stalls within a 10 minute walk of the proposed site? 1000 stall parkades (unless all underground) tend not to contribute positively to a pedestrian-friendly, street-oriented development.
– The assumptions of office, hotel, and even residential growth seem rosy, and there’s no mention of where this assumed market demand for office and hotel space is coming from.
– Attachment 4 (the last page of the PDF) outlines a potential timeline. Mentioned, in an almost off-hand way, is how development of the CRL regulation has taken 2 or more years in other cases. This, and final approval, need to come from the province, which is not guaranteed (they did approve a CRL for the Quarters, though). Looking at the timeline, this can easily turn into a multi-year process before it’s in place.

That last point concerns me the most. Downtown investment and continued redevelopment should happen with or without a CRL. Just like waiting for resolution on the arena issue puts the north edge (the proposed site) in a holding pattern, so too could pursuit of the CRL for downtown as a whole. Downtown has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 10-15 years. With or without an arena or CRL, I’m convinced new businesses will open, new amenities and activities will draw residents downtown. I worry that on a macro level, though, waiting for approval that may or may not come in a timely manner (if at all), could work against downtown redevelopment, stalling increased investment in the area.

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