Over the last three and a half years, I have supported a number of new towers across the city (ex: the CNIB building on Jasper Ave, the MacLaren on 124th Street, the Healy Ford project by MacEwan, the development in Windsor Park and many others). There have also been three tower proposals I did not support: The Mezzo on Whyte Ave, Southpark on Whyte Ave and The Emerald on Jasper Ave. I was not able to support The Emerald as I felt the tower podium lacked many basic features we would expect in a modern tower design. With regards to The Mezzo, you can read my thoughts on why I did not support it in this post from April 2016. My reasons for not supporting Southpark are very similar to the reasons listed in The Mezzo post. As mentioned in the April 2016 post, while I am a strong supporter of the need to increase density throughout Edmonton, I believe it is important to not simply support any proposal that increases density. After a two day long Public Hearing, I chose not to support the rezoning application for the 80 storey tower because I do not believe we completed due process.
This Public Hearing had many speakers from the area who provided excellent submissions about their concerns for this proposal. The concerns ranged from not staying true to the Quarters Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP), the loss of the River Valley view from Jasper Avenue, the precedent of selling River Valley land, the height of the building and many other topics. While I appreciated those perspectives, I did not have the same concerns. I rarely like to stray from a recent ARP, but when a unique proposal comes along, it is worth giving it serious consideration. When I read through the report (Items 3.1-3.6) I was impressed by the attention to detail in the building design and features. From the podium that will allow people to see the River Valley through it, to the way the building has three different but complementary designs as it moves up, this will likely be considered one of Edmonton’s finest buildings. The architecture of a building does not make it a catalyst but the amount of people living in it will drive development around it as those who live there will need places to purchase groceries, connect with friends and a number of other amenities. I believe this new demand for amenities and services will drive additional development in the Quarters and help accelerate a very good ARP.
Although I truly believe this development will be a benefit to the community, I think we failed when it comes to providing the public with the necessary information to help inform their feedback at or before the Public Hearing. To be clear, the legally required public engagement did take place and in fact, the notification range was expanded from the standard 60m to 240m. My primary concern relates to the part of the Bylaw where it states that there will be a ‘publicly accessible private park’ and the guarantees we have around how that park will be operated. As part of the land sale agreement, a public access easement will be finalized to ensure the public can enjoy the park before the development begins. Once the development is complete, that initial public access easement expires and a new public access easement will be developed.
An initial agreement has been drafted that is not yet public and therefore residents were not able to provide their feedback on what is a critical part of this proposal. I have little doubt that the applicant and the City will not have an agreement to ensure this publicly accessible private park is operated like every public park in the city but nevertheless, being able to see what is contained in that agreement should be a minimum expectation as part of the Public Hearing process. The residents who live in the community would be able to identify any gaps in the operations of this publicly accessible private park that the City and applicant may have missed. Thankfully a subsequent motion was passed that guarantees the public can weigh in before the agreement is finalized but that should have happened during the Public Hearing.
Two weeks ago Council made a major decision regarding our drainage assets that had a wide range of views. Prior to making that decision, a Letter of Intent was drafted so that all Edmontonians could review the specifics of the proposed transfer and provide feedback. Although not every person agreed with the final decision, the process allowed for thoughtful submissions that generated additional positive amendments to the final motion. The fact that this Public Hearing did not have an equivalent process that allowed for submissions on the agreement of how the park would be operated is frustrating. It is particularly frustrating because the process of allowing the public a chance to view the initial public access easement documents and any non-private details from the land sale did not have to be a long process. In 4 and ½ weeks we could have held another Public Hearing and allowed people the opportunity to offer feedback on the operations of the park. That minor delay might not have addressed all of the concerns around public engagement for this proposal but it would have resolved the primary public engagement concern raised by speakers at the meeting.
In my closing comments I said, “Painfully, I can’t support this because I don’t think we did due process.” I wanted to support this because there are many positives in the proposal. Even though I support most of what was in the application and I believe we need to increase density throughout most Edmonton communities, when we do not allow the public the necessary information to provide thoughtful feedback, we damage our relationship with Edmontonians and risk missing out on quality engagement that enhances future applications and policy because people will not believe their comments will have any impact. As we prepare to roll out the new Public Engagement Policy over the next two months, I hope we learn from this example to ensure that we deliver on the commitments made in that document.