Earlier today City Council voted in favour of the The Mezzo development just off Whyte Ave. On Monday City Council also voted in favour of a low-rise apartment building at 84th Avenue between 101st and 102nd Avenue. In both instances, I voted against the proposals. The focus of my post will be on The Mezzo project but happy to answer any questions about the other project at a later time.

You are likely asking if I’m feeling alright. “How can one of, if not the most, pro-infill people not support two infill developments very close to Whyte Ave that help us increase our density?” First, let me assure you I am feeling fine. While I absolutely believe in the need to significantly increase density throughout our city, that does not mean I should support any rezoning application that increases density. In fact, we are required to enter any rezoning application with an open mind. That doesn’t mean we can be leaning in one direction or another, but it does mean that we must be open to persuasion. This is an important part of any Public Hearing and I’m certainly glad I came in with an open mind as until a few days ago, I felt comfortable with the proposal.

So what changed my mind? Let’s rewind back a few weeks ago when I had a chance to sit down with Simon O’Byrne and the applicant Mathew McLash. I have a great deal of respect for both of these people as I appreciate Simon’s passion for great urban planning and Mathew has already shown his commitment to high quality infill development. To prove that point, watch this video on the City of Edmonton YouTube page. So getting the opportunity to learn more about the proposal was very exciting because I have great confidence in the work both of these gentlemen do. It will come as no surprise that after sitting down with them, I was feeling quite positive about the proposal. I loved the affordable housing component, the design of the building podium, activating an under-utilized parcel of land, a substantial increase in density and there are many other aspects in the proposal I was excited about. While I did not support this rezoning, I still love all of those items I listed above and believe that if this type of development is going to become the new standard, this sets a high bar that others will need to meet.

Although the meeting went very well and I was feeling quite positive, we started to get a variety of emails about this proposal both for and against. There were some emails from people that were opposed that were focused on the height of the development and the impact to Whyte Ave. At the time, I didn’t see the concern about the height as the sun shadow study in the report Council received addressed that concern. A week ago David Staples wrote a column about this project and I decided to post a link to it on Twitter and Facebook to ask what people thought of the project. There were a variety of responses and I have to thank everyone that shared their views as it was done in a very respectful way that encouraged people to consider all sides of this debate. That debate provided me with some new perspectives I hadn’t previously concerned and after the Executive Director of the Old Strathcona Business Association suggested we meet for a coffee at some point, I thought it might make sense to meet with him before the Public Hearing and walk through the area. Although I had been to Whyte Ave many times before, I wanted to walk Whyte Ave and the neighbouring blocks to determine if the height concerns were something I should revisit.

The walk was scheduled for Saturday afternoon because I had to attend an event put on by Paths For People in the morning. At this event I had the opportunity to hear Gil Penalosa give a much shorter version of the presentation he made the night before. For a summary of that presentation, visit Mack Male’s blog. While the majority of the presentation was focused on building cities for those from 8 to 80, there was a slide that showed that getting significantly higher density does not only need to be done through high rise towers. There are many different configurations including a mix of low and mid-rise towers that can achieve an equal level of density assuming you design it properly. This was the first time I really started to think about The Mezzo project with a different lens.

Later that afternoon and after putting out the invite to walk Whyte Ave to the general public, I was pleased that Matt McLash chose to join us for the walk along with some of the community residents from Queen Alexandra, Garneau and Strathcona. Councillor Ben Henderson also came out since this application was in his Ward and he knew much of the history of the Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP). We spent about an hour and a half walking both Whyte and 81st Avenue and took a short stroll along 106th Street to learn more about the great work by the community leading the Engage106-76 project. The discussion we all had was passionate but never disrespectful and I felt I had a much better appreciation of the proposal that was coming in front of Council a few days later. I still did not believe that the height was necessarily a deal-breaker but there were some great points raised by some community members about how cities like Paris, London, etc. have already achieved more density that we may ever be able to achieve in my lifetime with a very different built form. This point reinforced what I heard from Gil Penalosa earlier that day.

Ultimately the point that resonated with me the most from some community residents at during that discussion on Saturday is the desire of the community to complete the review of the Area Redevelop Plan that is scheduled to be completed by year-end to have a more holistic discussion about what changes are going to occur in the Whyte Ave corridor. Most everyone I have spoken with over the last month all recognize that the status quo was not a viable option moving forward and that changes would have to be made. This was not a situation where residents were coming forward to suggest no change should ever happen which is what some people raised during the lot subdivision conversation last year. When the lead organizer of Engage106-76 – which is one of the finest examples of community-led engagement – says that we should allow the ARP process to finish first, that stuck with me. She and a member of the Strathcona Community League were not suggesting that no new development should happen at that corner or even that a 16 storey building wouldn’t be appropriate, but what they were suggesting was the need to start and finish the ARP review process which would be done before the end of this year.

At this point I was now more on the side of not supporting this development than supporting it but we still had the Public Hearing process to go through. The presentations on both sides of the issue were great and each provided great points as to why Council should either vote for or against this development. What solidified my thinking were the answers from our Administration who are experts in Urban Planning. These experts recommended to City Council that we do not support the application. To read their full report to Council please click here to read the Sustainable Development Report. You will note that they did not think this was a terrible development. They had many positive things to say about this application but they also had some negatives things to say and based off their analysis, the negatives outweighed the positives. Our Chief Planner commented that the work that they would be doing as part of the review of the Area Redevelopment Plan would allow them to research other major cities across the world to get a better idea of what other cities do in terms of increasing density on and around their main streets. They felt that they did not yet have enough information to determine if 16 storeys was right for this location and what other built forms could be examined to achieve an equal level of density. Edmonton doesn’t really have much in terms of mid-rise development and understanding what has and hasn’t worked in other cities would be valuable for me to determine if I am making the right land use decision.

In speaking to the proposal earlier today I closed with the following comments:
“I believe we truly need to understand the science behind the impact of low, mid and high rise development to an area like this. Knowing that it is possible to achieve significantly higher density through a variety of urban built forms, I want Edmonton to have that same type of conversation on how we can continue to do density and infill better. This also gives our urban planning experts who have recommended non-support to complete the necessary research that from what I interpret, they feel is absolutely critical before making a decision that will substantially shape the future ARP discussion. Since this conversation is expected to be done before the end of the year, we have the opportunity to engage both the local community and other experts from outside Edmonton where they have already gone through these discussions to get the best information prior to making a decision that will shape the future plan for this entire area. This ARP review is going to happen whether or not we pass this bylaw and I do not want to be here at the end of this year receiving a recommendation from our urban planning experts who will be engaging with other experts in the field across other municipalities that says we should be looking at a mix of low and mid rise buildings forms based off good planning principles. We have been told that based off the current planning information in front of us that we should not support this development and I don’t believe we have the additional planning information necessary to make the call today on whether or not this is the best use of land in this particular location. Therefore I believe we owe it to ourselves to complete that required detailed research using best practices from other cities prior to us making a decision today.”

As I have said above, there is a lot to like in this development. If this is going to become the new standard, I’m glad this development is setting the bar high in many areas. The vote against this should not be interpreted as me suddenly disliking infill or not being willing to make a tough decision. Rather the reason I supported this is since we are expecting significantly better information around various types of development by the end of this year, I felt it was reasonable to hold off for the time being to do the research while engaging the community in a proper review of the Area Redevelopment Plan. If there are better ways to bring in the same amount of density, why wouldn’t we want to have that information prior to making a final decision? Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on this and if you have any questions or feedback, please ask/share them in the comments section below.

Written by Andrew Knack

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