The Risk of Referral at Holyrood

“Welcome to City Council,” my new colleague Councillor Cartmell said as he grappled, pained look and all, with the decision on the Holyrood Transit Oriented Development (TOD) application. It was a tough and thoughtful decision for everyone. No slam dunks on either side I'd guess.

In the end, council voted to refer the application back hoping a different project would be back before us some months down the road.

I voted against this referral for a number of reasons, but I do want to begin by recognizing the tremendous efforts and engagement of the collection of community members, who were part of the Holyrood Development Committee and otherwise.

Ultimately, I saw too many risks in this referral that were not mitigated in my mind by enough confidence in the next few months being fruitful. I hope I am wrong. I hope the community and the developer can each move from their existing positions and find value in each other's interests. I feel our administration and planners worked hard to facilitate this over the past 18 months but they can only move people so far. Hopefully, council’s decision changes the culture of relationship building here.

My principles:

When I consider these big projects I most often reconnect with some key principles embedded in our Municipal Development Plan:

  • Sustainable Urban Form: Edmonton manages growth to move the City toward a culturally, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable state.

  • Integrated Land Use and Transportation: Land use and design complement and support the transportation system, while the transportation network supports areas of increased density and employment.

  • Complete, healthy and livable communities: Planning neighbourhoods that encourage active living through design is particularly important for reducing obesity and weight-related health issues, reducing air pollution and respiratory health problems, reducing stress and promoting good social and mental health.

Furthermore, our MDP goes on to say how important it is that we “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities through a long-term growth coordination strategy... by linking growth with optimized infrastructure investment" which we can do in a couple of ways:

  1. Integrate higher density development with Light Rail Transit (LRT) stations and transit centres

  2. Encourage a minimum of 25 percent of city-wide housing unit growth to locate in the Downtown and mature neighbourhoods and around LRT stations and transit centres where infrastructure capacity supports redevelopment.

My worries about this referral:

  1. Essentially the motion council passed sends direction for the developer to move away from having 3 tall towers on this narrow five-acre site and the green space that it allowed for, to building ~13, four-story walk-ups with very little green space. I do not believe this will be neither a better design for this site nor a better design standard for future TOD sites. I’ll be curious how our Edmonton Design Committee responds to a short and stubby site design.

  2. There was some discussion about the signals this council sends about development juxtaposed against the last council. While pushing this back because of community dissatisfaction does send an important signal about our willingness to ensure communities are heard in these applications it also sends a couple of other signals. Firstly, this decision says that the established residents in mature communities essentially have all the influence over site design and housing type for future residents, whose influence is hard to measure and project. Secondly, it signals to the development community that it is still far easier to do business in the suburbs. This second point is also exacerbated by the myriad of conflicts that exist between various policies and guidelines which make it difficult for communities and developers to know which end is up.

I thought the project significantly aided the goals in our MDP and mostly met our large site and transit-oriented development guidelines. But the majority of council didn’t agree.

I am hoping that a better project can come back. But that is now up to the flexibility of the developer mainly and partly the willingness of an established community to accept some degree of change they may not be comfortable with yet.

As a council what we can do, and do fast, is update our policies governing large site developments so that developers and communities have clarity about what is possible and what is not.

  1. We need a streamlined set of development guidelines for transit-oriented development and large sites in the shape of a new nodes and corridors strategy built on the principle of getting to yes on densification.

  2. We need to complete the work establishing table stakes and some broader guidelines for the community benefits and amenities packages we expect from developers in exchange for higher density, taller towers, and more floor area ratio (FAR).

  3. We’ve begun to develop a more comprehensive and measurable public engagement that begins much earlier on large sites like Holyrood.

  4. We need stronger policies and programs to include more affordable housing in direct control zones particularly where affordable housing is being replaced.

  5. We need a way to ensure the needs of future residents can be understood in applications in mature neighbourhoods that provides more balance to debates about how neighbourhoods will change over time.

Our apprehension on this project should not define our council one way or another, but for me, there are signs warning me that we are not quite ready to truly shift from a suburban city to an urban one.