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Jasper Ave Blues: What Does $5 Billion Get You These Days?

In Edmonton, the Downtown Business Association released a new report about potential downtown investment. It outlines 36 projects that are approved, proposed, or rumoured to be occurring downtown or in the adjacent Quarters area. Most readers will recognize that not all of these will go ahead – some will be shelved indefinitely, if not permanently and some will be scaled back. Yet, it paints a picture of what downtown might become, maybe not in 5 years (as the report suggests), but perhaps in 15-20.

I’ve grouped the probable, proposed, and rumoured projects into five categories: Commercial (office, retail, service), Residential, Major Facilities, Infrastructure, Public Space:

Commercial
This is the most problematic section. It proposes nearly 3.9 million square feet in commercial space (office, retail, and service), which seems…really high. For example, a City-commissioned report from 2009 anticipated that downtown would need an additional 3 million square feet in 2044, using baseline growth projections. In an alternative, and more positive, scenario, it projects demand to be about 4.5 million by 2044. All these projects going ahead would mean more than 85% of that would be available 5 years from now. This doesn’t add up, especially when – as our Mayor correctly points out – many businesses still don’t want to locate downtown.

(Update: DECL President Chris Buyze is more bullish on the commercial real estate market than I am. At this point, we have to agree to disagree, but he provided this Colliers report in support of greater growth).

Residential
In total, it proposes 2284 units, in addition to however many the Warehouse Incentive Program would contribute towards. Using the $10,000 per unit number from the Capital City Downtown Plan, that would mean an additional 1200 units for a total of 3484, which could translate to more than 5000 additional residents in five years (assuming roughly 1.5 residents per unit). Given that downtown grew roughly 130% in 15 years, growth of close to 40% in 5 years isn’t completely implausible. Note too that the region’s population grew by 124,924 residents from 2006 to 2011, and you can see demand for housing continuing to grow so long as the economy performs well.

Yet, the biggest threat to residential development downtown probably comes from its neighbours. Projects in Oliver continue to move ahead, drawing from much of the same pool of potential residents. Development on the City Centre Airport lands is also likely to start, providing further competition. For development in all three areas to go ahead as planned in the short term, Edmonton likely needs a huge economic boom, or a meaningful reversal of growth in the suburbs.

(Update: Buyze says the 10K grant isn’t happening. Not sure what the money will be spent on, but I can’t see this positively impacting my unit projections).

Major Facilities
The arena will go ahead, as will the Royal Alberta Museum. Based on estimated attendance, let’s say the arena will bring roughly 1,800,000 visitors; based on data from the early 2000s and accounting for growth, let’s give RAM 260,000 (if you think those are impressive, downtown Edmonton’s workforce would account for between 14,000,000 and 15,000,000 just by going to work regularly). In any case, all sorts of caveats apply when considering impact, such as that many attendees will go straight from the train or bus or their car to the venue and back, and many who do go out before or after an event already do so in the downtown area. The rest of the venues are still too much in the project phase to project well.

Infrastructure
The changes to Jasper Ave and completion of Capital Boulevard will help with beautification. The proposed enhancements are all welcome, though dependent on CRL revenue, which wouldn’t begin to be collected until at least 2015 – assuming the arena goes ahead that year and ancillary taxable development is build at the same time.

Public Space
What I said about the proposed infrastructure projects applies here as well.

What It Means for Downtown
All these projects added up provide a window into a possible future for downtown. Yet, it’s by no means assured, and not the only possibility. Many of these plans are just that – plans, with no money attached. Others are just ideas at this point. It’s likely that civic plans will once again be updated before all of these projects (or replacements) go ahead, meaning priorities may shift, if the market hasn’t led a shift already.

Citizens have to think about what kind of downtown they want, and whether what’s being proposed meets that vision. In particular, because it’s estimated that at least $2 billion of this investment (including $1.5 billion of what’s probable) will come from public funds.

For me, I see many projects I like in the report (additional residences, parks, cycling and walking infrastructure). But I also see things that are missing, such as no mention of the LRT (the downtown portion connecting the West and Southeast legs of the unfunded new line).

I will continue to hammer the point about opportunity cost, and it needs to be said again here. In particular when dealing with the public investment side, we need to consider what the money can best be spent on in order to achieve the social, financial, and development returns we hope for. I hope citizens keep that in mind when reading this report and others like it.

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The Inclusive City: On Language and Culture

Last week, I wrote about the importance of urban design in promoting inclusiveness, and helping people change their circumstances for the better. This concept can be expanded to other characteristics as well, in terms of putting forward a message of cultural – and linguistic inclusion.

On one of my first visits to Portland, I was struck by the fact that MAX Rail announcements are made in both English and Spanish. Don’t believe me? You can hear an example here (at Pioneer Square, a flagship stop and destination downtown)

Portland, unlike cities in the southwest, isn’t known for a large hispanic community, and sure enough, the census data confirms that, with 9.4% of residents of Hispanic or Latino origin. MAX Rail is regional, so if any suburbs contain significantly higher numbers, that may boost the regional share to the state level of 11.4%, but it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the metro average does appear to be significantly lower than the national share of 16.7%.

The point, however, is not about at what share of the population does a linguistic group command service in its native language. I’m on the accommodation side (yes, I do support official bilingualism in Canada), and see a broader point behind the language issue. It speaks to how welcoming and open to diversity a city (or, at least, its decision makers) is.

Contrast this to the proposed approach of Quebec’s government in waiting. In a province where only one major city – Montreal – is really multingual, nevermind bilingual, it proposes to further restrict the use of English and other languages. Some stats on Montreal – 66% of Montrealais identify their mother tongue as French, 13% as English. Any arguments that other languages need restriction for French to thrive ought to be debunked as mere rhetoric. I covered the long-term threat this approach poses to Quebec’s cities in last week’s post.

Now, to end on a positive note. Edmonton has the fastest growing urban Aboriginal population in Canada, and may soon have the highest in total numbers (though not proportion). Zoe Todd has previously written about the Aboriginal marks on Edmonton’s urban landscape, how other cities like Winnipeg do, and how much more can be done to honour the area’s history.

I thought about this with the unveiling of Aboriginal art panels that will line the city’s South LRT line. It’s a small gesture, perhaps, but one that takes the city another step towards putting forward a more inclusive message. In today’s world, I think that matters a lot.


A photo of the panels, via Don Iveson on Twitter.