Edmonton’s Arena Will Likely Happen, But Would it be a Bad Thing if it Didn’t?

Edmonton Arena District Open House
Flickr/Mastermaq

The proposed downtown Edmonton hockey arena took a hit today. City Council discussed the matter in private, and its motion ex-camera reveals that Oilers owner Daryl Katz asked for more public funding. It’s unknown at this point whether that would have come in the form of an increase to the $450 million budget, a decrease of his $100 million contribution over 30 years, or both.
David Staples has details on the requested changes.

In any case, this is a setback to getting the project, which has dominated discourse about how to revitalize Edmonton for six years (except for the Expo 2017 diversion), completed. I still think it will go ahead. The money will be found either from the province (likely at the expense of other public works for Edmonton), a reduction in the overall budget (perhaps combined with a commensurate increase in ticket taxes or city contribution), or through some additional surcharge or levy should the proposed City Charter give Edmonton the authority to do so. If nothing else, should Calgary move ahead with plans for a new arena, I can envision enough combined pressure from the two municipalities to forge a deal for provincial support. So, while today’s news is a setback for arena advocates, it remains to be seen whether this affects timelines by six weeks, six months, or six years.

All of the above is irrespective of whether or not the arena would actually be a good move. I’m with the economists, who agree that there’s no net economic benefit. I worry about the inherent risks that The Atlantic and many others have written about. And I’m with Jane Jacobs on the idea that mega projects are not the way to revitalize neighborhoods. If one is to be built, it shouldn’t be done so under the auspices of revitalization.

Future Development
“Future Development” near Nationals Park in Washington, taken four years after the project broke ground.

Anyway, back to the present. Nearly six years after the idea was first raised, it’s never been less than $100 million short in funding, and is an unknown amount more at the moment.

What I will continue to give the arena credit for is boosting investor confidence in downtown, but this could be achieved in many ways. As for the economic claims, the next major boosts to downtown’s employment are likely come either from further growth in the energy sector (which will happen whether the arena is downtown, at Northlands, or in Spruce Grove) or from new companies and emerging industries being incubated at places like Startup Edmonton. Further increases in services and amenities are best supported by getting more people to live in the area, rather than visiting on occasion.

Finally, for all the talk about it being necessary for Edmonton’s quality of life, let’s remember that the initial exploratory phase came out of discussions between the City, the Oilers, and Northlands, not a citizens’ push. If it was essential, one might wonder why it didn’t come up in the early stages of the downtown plan’s development, or that the Next Gen report and initiative, launched in 2006, didn’t flag it as a key concern. While the report isn’t online, my recollection is that the cities it looked at as case studies were college towns like Austin, Texas and Madison, Wisconsin – neither of which has a franchise in the big four sports leagues – as well as Phoenix, Arizona, whose hockey team in suburban Glendale…um…probably isn’t the example arena proponents want to use.

So, if the project got delayed, downtown would see its investor confidence shaken in the short term, but creative organizations and entrepreneurs would find a way to forge ahead. And as I said on Twitter, imagine if key decision-makers devoted even a fraction of their efforts that have gone into this project into supporting small-scale ventures that could yield big results (I put forward some ideas here).

Market
The City Centre Market, small-scale revitalization that works.

Finally, remember these two things. Edmonton has often suffered when it’s chased after the latest trend, and some of the best things Edmonton has to offer came about because of decisions that bucked prevailing trends. A few examples in each.

Where Edmonton Has Failed in Chasing the Latest Trend

– By embracing the trendy shopping power centres of the late 1990s and 2000s (while other cities were moving to more compact developments), the city accelerated it’s decentralization and car-orientation at a period of significant growth. It took years and several iterations of these developments to start to see even some elements of mixed-use incorporated.
– In its zeal to embrace latest trends, much of its built history has been erased. It happened to the Edwardian buildings that first dotted its city centre, and now its happening to post-war Modernist gems, which will probably be fashionable again and missed by the next generation. Just one example of the former. The Greyhound depot on 103 St, slated to be replaced in the arena district development, itself replaced a 1920s 8-storey warehouse 30 years ago. The demolished Marshall Wells building, of which Edmonton lost many contemporaries, is precisely the type of space that is coveted in Edmonton (think a larger Mercer Building), and has contributed to urban revitalization across Canada and the United States.
– No discussion about massive downtown Edmonton redevelopment projects would be complete without this story on the history of the Eaton Centre development.

Where Edmonton has Succeeded by Bucking the trend
– It is a global leader in waste management, having embraced curbside recycling and other measures years – if not decades – ahead of many similar municipalities.
– It’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) system is still advanced compared to many similarly-sized cities, in large part because it had the foresight to embrace the technology in the early 1970s, decades before others. It was the first metro of less than 1,000,000 residents to build a line.
– Finally, and most importantly, let’s remember how close Edmonton came to embracing the rampant freeway trend of the 1950s and ’60s. Had the Metropolitan Edmonton Transportation Study been implemented, it would have paved over much of its treasured River Valley, including MacKinnon and Mill Creek Ravines.

As I said at the outset, I still believe the arena will go ahead. But with the evidence and history at our disposal, are we sure it would be a bad thing if it didn’t?

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Jasper Ave Blues: Downtown’s Heart is Already Alive and Beating

Edmontonians were abuzz earlier this week when new images of the proposed downtown arena were first released, leaked by Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples, then officially posted by the City of Edmonton.


Overhead shot of proposed new arena and adjacent office tower to the south (City of Edmonton)

Initial reaction to the design was largely positive; I include myself in that group. If nothing else, it exceeded my expectations. Writing about it in the Journal the next day, David Staples called it ‘a sleek, futuristic heart transplant to pump some life into our downtown.’ A critic might call this hyperbole, but at the very least I believe we owe David the right to take some poetic license with his words. Nonetheless, the message behind it points to the thinking and motivation of many arena advocates, and why many – including myself – have been critical. It highlights two different visions – if not inherently opposed, then often conflicting – of how to build a vibrant downtown. One is a big-scale, big-project, top-down approach. The other is grassroots, supporting a series of small, incremental steps that – together – create a large cumulative impact.

“the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like”.

– Jane Jacobs, ‘Downtown is for People

If we examine downtown Edmonton through this lens, we see that the most successful endeavors are coming not from the top down, but from the ground up. Churchill Square struggles to create vibrancy; City Centre Mall turns it back to the community. Meanwhile, new condos are in high demand, 4th Street is booming, and you can’t get a table at Corso32.

Jacobs’ article points to the value of people – both as intuitive judges of what makes a downtown work, and – in my mind – the ones who truly bring value to downtown. I believe the heartbeat of any successful community is its people. People drive business growth, they drive good government and civic institutions. They drive activity, and create places other people want to be. By this metric, downtown Edmonton’s heart is alive and beating.

This is evident in downtown residents like Mack Male and Sharon Yeo, who are bringing activity to the area with events like What the Truck? and Blink Edmonton. In entrepreneurs like the Start Up Edmonton group and my friend Justin Archer (and the rest of Unit B) who are creating vibrant new work spaces in older buildings, and the many other business owners bringing life to downtown with new restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, and retail locations. It’s evident in the hard work of the Downtown Edmonton Community League and the 4th Street Promenade Steering Committee. It’s demonstrated by the commitment of civic institutions like the Edmonton Public Library, who are building a downtown more inclusive of the most marginalized citizens through its new outreach office, and Edmonton Police Services, with its efforts to assist vulnerable persons through its downtown division.

To use the heart transplant metaphor, both sides of this debate can agree that the patient – downtown – needs rehabilitation. One side would argue that only a major transplant – a dramatic gesture in spite of all other courses of action – can bring it back to health. The other would point out that incremental steps and changes over time have already made a difference. The transplant is an option, but it’s by no means a guarantee for success, and the process comes with inherent risks (including failure). The incremental approach will take longer, but is ultimately the more prudent course.

I’m firmly on the side of an incremental approach. I believe people are already voting with their feet for what kind of downtown they want.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, life is a series of successful gestures, so too is a vibrant community. We don’t need a transplant. We need to recognize, celebrate, and support the things that are making a difference. The sooner we recognize that downtown’s heart is alive and beating in the citizens investing in making it a better and better place, and start focusing on supporting and scaling up the things that are giving it more and more life, the sooner we’ll achieve the downtown we all want for our city.

Jasper Ave Blues: Small Investments, Big Returns

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve probably gathered that – while not inherently opposed to mega-projects – I am often skeptical of their value and actual vs. promised benefits. I tend to think that smaller, more creative investments can often yield greater returns. Having seen successful catalyst/anchor tenant projects in other cities, I think the key is for them to be built in scale with the surrounding environment, rather than overwhelming it. But I also believe, as I said, there are creative, cost-effective ways to improve the livability of an area as well. If you think of Whyte Avenue, High Street, and 4th Street Promenade – to my mind Edmonton’s three most successful examples of (re)development in the city core, you’d be hard pressed to name an anchor tenant or single driving project for any of the three. Rather, the sum product of various small(er) businesses and amenities is what makes each area so great.

Andy’s suggestion of chess parks in Edmonton got me thinking about such small investments. There are examples, both permanent and temporary, in downtown Edmonton of such small investments, and creative use of space. The Alley of Light, and the upcoming Blink pedway pop-up restaurant event come to mind.

Pocket Parks, and Target Activities in Parks
Having evolved, and been built (and rebuilt) over decades, not everything downtown fits into neat lines or parcels. That means that there are going to be underused spaces, or properties that don’t fit an obvious, conventional use. The aforementioned Alley of Light is one example of turning a dead space into something functional, and this can be built on.

Pocket parks are one way to fill this void. The 7th and Penn Parklet in downtown Pittsburgh is one of my favourite examples (it was created after demolishing an adult bookstore).

7th & Penn Parklet

As the Parklet, with its focus on public art, shows, there also need to be things that will get people outside and using them. My observation is that unless there is a specific event happening, most of downtown Edmonton’s parks go unused even on nice days. Why not try putting chess boards, or a bocce ball court, or something that will make them stand out and draw people in? The basketball hoops that go up in Churchill Square every summer are a good example of where this is already being done. Twitter exchanges with Andy and others quickly identified the following possibilities for a chess park downtown: the area behind Milner Library, the space just north of Scotia Tower, Beaver Hills Park on 105th and Jasper, along Rice Howard Way adjacent to patios. And that’s just off the top of our heads. There are numerous creative things we can do with public space that will encourage more use, and pedestrian traffic, in good and bad weather.

Art in Unexpected Places
Murals and statues are popular forms of art, but I enjoy seeing art in other places and forms, in particular when it transforms something that’s otherwise mundane.

Power and Colour

Throughout downtown Victoria, many of the power boxes are painted, bringing colour and life to otherwise unremarkable (aesthetically-speaking) objects.

Flora in Creative Places
Like with art, this is a way to bring character, and colour, to a street or building. A couple of my favourite examples:

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The plants growing on this building in Boston (somewhere between Newbury Street and Storrow Drive) make it stand out amongst a row of identical brick buildings.

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The potted plants along the edge of the parkade (background) add life to an otherwise sterile building in Chicago’s Loop.

Heat and Fire to Extend the Patio Season
It amazes me how little Edmonton businesses do to extend patio season. While only the heartiest Edmontonians (probably not enough to create a value proposition for business owners) would use a patio in -20 weather, I think a combination of heating, warm clothes, and alcohol to warm the blood would make patios a viable proposition when it’s around freezing, if not even a bit colder.

Cadillac Ranch
This patio at the Cadillac Ranch restaurant in downtown Cleveland has a fire pit to keep guests warm. This was taken on a November day, when weather (with the wind chill) was probably around freezing.

A couple of examples from San Diego. Yes, San Diego, with average low temperatures of 10 degrees celsius.

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The heat lamps above each table at Fred’s Mexican Cafe on 5th make the patios hospitable late into the night, and allow guests the option of whether or not they want to use them.

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Davanti in Little Italy not only has outdoor heaters for its back patio, but the patio itself is a creative use of space. They expanded and took over the back alley in order to add this section.

It just stuns me that they do this effectively in San Diego, yet neither business owners nor consumers are promoting this in Edmonton.

Improving the livability of downtown, and making it more interesting and amenable to spend time in (especially along the street) is a key, cost-effective way to make downtown a more interesting place to be. I noted some initiatives already underway, and I hope we continue to build on them, and pursue other initiatives of this type to improve our downtown.

New Partners for Smart Growth: Day Three

The third and final day of the conference featured two plenary sessions (the first and last ones during the day) and two breakouts. The themes of the sessions I attended focused on diversity, social, and economic inclusion.

The Great Reset: Reshaping Our Economic and Physical Landscape to Meet New Needs
This session, featuring senior civic leaders, discussed the changing landscape, and the urgency to develop communities that meet the demands of consumers.

Kim Walesh, Director of Economic Development for San Jose, spoke to the demographic changes, and how this affects the market. She noted that development has targeted the 35-54 age group, but demographics are shifting to seniors, as Baby Boomers enter that demographic in large numbers, and young professionals, as Millennials come of age. They both want a more urban environment. Baby boomers want to be able to walk to restaurants/shops and medical appointments. Millennials have what she described as a “live first/work second” outlook, meaning they’ll choose a community/city where they’ll want to live first, then look for work second. She also noted that this group is 33% more likely than other demographics to want to live within 3 miles of a Central Business District.

Speaking anecdotally as a Millennial (and child of baby boomers), Walesh’s argument resonates with everything I see and hear amongst both my and my parents’ respective cohorts.

On the inclusion theme, Walesh made a powerful argument for the value of immigration, pointing out that 50% of CEOs of Silicon Valley tech companies are foreign-born, and 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or second-generation Americans.

Additionally, Mayor Mark Mallory of Cincinnati, who I’ve been a fan of since first hearing him speak at the Urban 2.0 conference, spoke about building on his city’s concentration of Fortune 500 companies and head offices, and the appeal of the old streetcar they’ve reintroduced. Officials from Portland and Seattle spoke as well about their respective initiatives. I was impressed with Seattle’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, and how they view green initiatives and goals as a key part of their economic strategy. They’re also building a more inclusive city by including the city’s thriving music scene in its economic development initiatives, and by increasing the diversity of housing types available for young people (such as 300 square foot “pods” that have shared amenities). As the speaker noted, for many young people, “home is not necessarily the place they want to stay”.

Slimpickins
Seattle sees its music scene as part of its city’s economic development and appeal. Pictured here: Slimpickins, busking at Pike Place Market.

Advancing Equity in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Action, Research, Advocacy, and Place-Making
This session put forward four perspectives on greater inclusion and equity in the Twin Cities.

ISAIAH, a community organization, organized the Healthy Corridor for All initiative, around the Central Corridor Light Rail Development. This development affected many low-income and minority communities, and the community wanted to ensure that the health of residents and communities was not adversely affected. The speaker also stressed the point that silos between public health officials, advocates, and planners need to be broken down. The link and impact planning has (for better or worse) on public health has been a recurring theme throughout the conference.

Louis King, founder of HIRE Minnesota, spoke powerfully to the need for economic equality. He began by stating that “the best social service program in the world is a job”, and noting that African-Americans were more than 3 times more likely to be unemployed than Caucasians in Minnesota. HIRE is an accredited educational institution, both advocating for equality, and providing training and skills development for individuals. He spoke to several principles that would foster greater economic inclusion.

Laura Zabel of Springboard for the Arts presented their Irrigate project, partnering local artists with businesses and community organization to create place-making. I was impressed with a number of things with this initiative, in particular the way it engages artists who are already in the community, pushes an understanding that the arts are a key part of – not extraneous – to the economy, and the way it expands the conventional notion of who, or what, is an artist.

I am incredibly impressed with the work Justin Kii Huenemann and the Native American Community Development Institute are doing. They are focusing on building equity and community along Franklin Avenue, where the greatest concentration of Native Americans in the Twin Cities is found. They’ve helped foster local ownership, from institutions such as a bank to arts initiatives such as a gallery and a festival. NACDI has put forward a powerful vision of Franklin Avenue as an American Indian Cultural Corridor, and are putting resources behind it to make it a reality, transforming from an economy of social service to one of entrepreneurship and growth. Living in Edmonton, which by the end of the decade will have the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada, I see great value and opportunity to foster inclusion through initiatives like this in both my community.

Huenemann also spoke to the need for responsibility from the communities affected and involved. He passed on an old saying from an Elder, that when you’re pointing one finger at someone else, you’re pointing three back at yourself – meaning, you need to think about what you’re doing, rather than blaming others.

Restoring the American City: Augusta, GA and Laney Walker/Bethlehem

Laney Walker and Bethlehem are traditionally African-American communities adjacent to downtown Augusta. Vibrant communities from the 1920s to 1970s, they’ve experienced significant decline over the past 40 years. In Laney Walker, 33% of housing was in poor condition or dilapidated; the number in Bethlehem was 70%. The areas had hollowed out; while 1000 acres in size, and home to 3500 parcels of land, it was home ot only 4700 people.

Beginning in 2007, revitalization efforts sought to build on its character and proud history as an African-American community. As Chester Wheeler, one of the leaders of this initiative noted, “Government could not come in and plan for the people. It would never work”. Government did, however, need to mitigate the risk of private developers to encourage investment. The project has been sensitive to existing residents, including them in the consultation and planning from the site, and ensuring any tenants that are displaced are successfully relocated to a home in their existing community. Impressively, they have yet to acquire a single property through eminent domain, respecting local ownership of each property. The project has focused on preservation and reuse (where the former is no longer possible). As one resident said, “it’s important to keep these buildings so they can continue to tell their story”

This effort receives a public investment through a hotel/motel surcharge, and is using it to leverage private investment at a 5:1 ratio. It builds on the area’s history by creating a Heritage Trail, which identifies 150 sites of significant recognition of African-American people and places throughout the city. This speaks to one of the best strategies I see for urban development, building on your own city’s character and making them strengths, rather than copying the trend of the day.

Community Design and Urban Innovation for a Knowledge Economy
Michael Freedman, Principal at Freedman Tung Sasaki in San Francisco, closed out the conference.

He covered the evolution of the smart growth movement over the years, noting that we now know what the problems and solutions to them are. The key challenge he identified is to create “a broader consensus for the coming prosperity”. It’s a well-found point, that the coalition of smart growth/new urbanist advocates needs to grow. I’m reminded of a speaker yesterday who asked, “how can you create an environment where people see a reflection of themselves in your work?” I see this as important to any successful movement, that people can relate, and see a place for themselves as part of it.

He also noted that, “when the nature of work changes, the city is entirely transformed”. He followed by pointing out that transportation changes follow changes to work, rather than influencing the change itself as many assume.

Freedman covered the evolution of cities since the industrial revolution, noting where we have arrived at today, a place where creativity and innovation are the primary wealth-generators of the new economy. He tied this back to cities, focusing on the need to develop cities (physically and otherwise) that foster innovation and creativity, and talked about what the city of the future might look like (hint: the business park is dead).

This is the challenge for smart growth and new urbanist advocates like myself. To articulate a vision and a road map to create cities that respond to the economic, social, and environmental needs of the 21st century. With the work being done by people like Freedman, and many of the speakers and attendees I’ve met in the past three days, I feel like this future is closer than many of us might think.

New Partners for Smart Growth: Day Two

Following on my post from the first day of New Partners for Smart Growth, here is a quick recap of Friday’s sessions:

Building a Powerful Regional Equity Coalition to Deliver on Sustainable Communities
Building on what I noted in the East Baltimore project, three organizations spoke about how they’re ensuring smart growth and redevelopment is inclusive of all residents, particularly marginalized communities. Urban Habitat, out of San Francisco, has developed a Board and Commission Leadership Institute, where they prepare and encourage members of marginalized communities to participate in civic boards and commissions. They’ve gone, in the words of CEO Allen Fernandez-Smith, from “the goal of influencing decision-makers to the goal of being the decision-makers”. San Francisco is also leading the way with a Local Hire Policy for public works, including a provision for employing residents from disadvantaged communities.

Farmers’ Market

For lunch we went to the Farmers’ Market at Cancer Survivors’ Park, adjacent to the conference hotel. California is leading the way with more than 700 farmers’ markets across the state, and this ties in well with San Diego’s thriving local food culture I noted in the Thursday recap.


Little Trips, Big Difference: Predicting Traffic for Mixed-Use Sites

As someone who values metrics and analytics, I was interested to see what’s being done to measure the efficacy, and continue to build the case for mixed-use developments (MXDs) and transit-oriented developments (TOD).

The speakers focused on 7 ‘Ds’ that reduce demand for trips and vehicular traffic:
– Density
– Diversity
– Design
– Destinations
– Distance to travel
– Development scale
– Demgraphics
– Demand management

Tools now can predict number and types of trips from factors such as how many jobs are available within 3 miles of a location. I see a real value in being able to demonstrate the value of MXDs over traditional suburban development in terms of environmental impact and infrastructure cost. I’m thinking some universal metric like baseball’s Wins Above Replacement.

Jobs, the Workforce, and the Economy: Rethinking the Role of Smart Growth and the Economy

Speaker Larry Fitch began by noting that economic growth is often seen as separate from the smart growth agenda, when in reality they’re heavily intertwined. This point is well-found. Smart growth and new urbanism need to be about more than a built form. The inherent economic benefits, and the potential economic opportunities for citizens, need to be a conscious part of this effort, and well-articulated as part of the vision as well. He also focused on the issue of transit and accessibility, and how without it residents can become marginalized. He used the example of his guitar instructor in San Diego, who has to take the bus an hour and a half to teach his 30 minute lesson.

Hop Hopkins, a community organizer in Los Angeles, spoke about what the Conservation Corps is doing to train workers from disadvantaged communities in emerging green industries. Programs like this point to the possibility of greater economic benefits, while also ensuring that residents of marginalized communities benefit, rather than are displaced from these efforts.

The State Center project in Baltimore is another example of this. An infill project just north of the Inner Harbor, development is filling in a suburban-style government office, providing affordable housing and community resources, and delivering economic inclusion by ensuring local hiring in the development process.

These are just two examples of how smart growth and new urbanism can be part of a new, more sustainable, economic agenda.

New Partners for Smart Growth: Day One

I’m at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego, which started Thursday and ends today. When I have more time following the conference, I plan to write more in-depth on what I learned, but my writing on the conference will begin with a quick recap of each day. Here is a brief overview of what I attended on Thursday. You can read full descriptions of the sessions here:

Restoring Prosperity in America’s Legacy Cities
Feeding my current Rust Belt obsession, I attended this session to learn what former industrial centers are doing to ‘right-size’ and adapt.

In East Baltimore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been involved in facilitating redevelopment that is sensitive to the existing residents. With Johns Hopkins University expanding, the Foundation played a key role in ensuring residents were included, and benefited (such as having priority to send their kids to the new school, and economic inclusion agreements for redevelopment work). Where relocation happened, due to eliminating unsuitable housing, support was providing for tenants to relocate. One of the dangers of revitalization/gentrification, a theme that has come up a lot this conference, is that it will exclude and displace residents in an area. Revitalization that is inclusive of all community members will deliver more value to both residents and the city/region as a whole.

Dan Kildee of the Center for Community Progress spoke of the need to ‘right-size’ communities that were built for a much larger population than they support now. He made a profound point around one of the challenges we face in accepting this. It’s a distinctly (North) American view that growth is inherently good, and ipso facto, that any city/region that is not growing is inherently a failure. A large part of New Urbanism and Smart Growth, for me, is rethinking what we view as a success, and Kildee’s points speak to this.

Seeds of Change: Creative Urban Gardens and Edible Parks
This session focused on urban gardens, local food, and green initiatives in San Diego County and Los Angeles. San Diego has turned its plentiful farmland into a local economic asset. San Diego County has more farms than any other county in the US, more than 7000 in total (343 of which are organic). The farms supply everything from popular local restaurants, to public schools. There are also creative ways to reach populations not usually connected to the local/organic food movement. At a youth center, consumers wanted to get outdoors, so they worked to convert two batting cages into gardens. In the County, there is also a boarding school for foster teens built on an organic farm, where the students participate in tending to the farm, and learning key skills.

Charrettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement
This session focused on creative new ways to engage the public. As someone who feels like the public consultation process is deficient, if not broken, it was great to hear of new ways to engage greater numbers of people. CrowdBrite developed an online tool to compliment the in-person consultation. In one case, 600 people used the online portion, contributing over 100 ideas. The amazing thing is that none of the online participants had, according to the records of the city in question, attended a public meeting in person over the previous 10 years. Initiatives like this point to ways to greater engage a larger number of people in consultation.

Essential Components of the 21st Century Community: Housing for the “Missing Middle”
This focused on (primarily infill) medium-density housing types, such as row housing, bungalow courts, and duplexes. While the speakers didn’t indulge my obsession with brownstone row housing, they did promote a form-based code, of which I am a big proponent. Richmond, CA, has used a form-based code to facilitate the development of affordable housing and other land uses that often encounter opposition from communities.

Brick Houses
Medium-density row housing in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC.

One of the speakers also made a great point about how multi-unit buildings often give up the amenities people like in single-detached units, such as having both a front and back door. I see a lot of potential in medium-density housing (I would love to be able to get a brick or brownstone row house in Edmonton), but I recognize that to appeal to a larger demographic, it needs to incorporate in some form things that people like about their single-detached family homes – front doors, back doors, garages, and yards. It’s great to see cities making advances in these areas.

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.