This is the first of two articles discussing proposed plans for the Molson/Crosstown site in northwest Oliver. Part one focuses on planning and zoning frameworks in Edmonton and how they impact development in the city. Part two focuses on the Molson Brewery and will be published next week. Part two can be read here.
When Mayor Mandel declared “No more crap!” in his State of the City Address in 2005, it was supposed to usher in an era of quality architecture and urban form in Edmonton. Eight years later, the Oliver neighbourhood is facing the possibility of yet another auto-oriented big box shopping centre on the former Molson/Crosstown site near 104 Avenue and 120 Street – approximately 14.2 acres of prime infill property sandwiched between mid- to high-rise residential buildings to the west, north and south and the Oliver Square development to the east. At a recent open house in which City Administration and the applicants (Sun Life Financial and First Capital Realty along with their consultants from ParioPlan and Dialog) presented a proposal to rezone the Molson site from Heavy Industrial to a General Business Zone and a High Rise Apartment Zone in the southern and northern halves of the site, respectively. They also presented preliminary site plans for the lands. At the meeting, residents from Oliver and surrounding neighbourhoods seemed to echo Mandel’s sentiment of eight years ago: “No more [Oliver Square] crap!”
In the time since Mandel’s famous declaration, the City has developed a series of documents known as The Ways. The purpose of these documents is to set the direction for development in the City and guide its growth. The first two documents to be developed were The Way We Grow (the City’s Municipal Development Plan or MDP) and The Way We Move (the City’s Transportation Management Plan or TMP). In Alberta, an MDP is a statutory plan that establishes policies for land use in municipalities. These are mandatory for municipalities with a population of 3,500 or more. In Edmonton, the new MDP and TMP have been touted as marking a turning point in planning and development in Edmonton and among other things, emphasize smart, compact and sustainable growth, complete, healthy and livable communities, and transit-oriented development (TOD).
The Molson/Crosstown proposal stands as the first true test of the power of these documents and the City’s resolve to uphold the policies and standards therein. At worst, the proposal in its present iteration laughs in the face of The Ways documents. At best, it simply denies their existence. In particular, the strong automobile orientation, lack of mixed use, and emphasis on parking in the proposal is completely counter to the City’s policies on compact, complete communities that are anchored by transit hubs. In fact, the current proposal includes approximately 925 parking spaces (455 surface and 470 underground) on a site that will be directly adjacent to a future LRT station and one of the densest neighbourhoods in Edmonton. What’s more, Ward 6 Councillor Jane Batty is all too aware of this disconnect noting that after viewing plans by the applicants, the actual transit-oriented development pieces of the project will not be implemented “until later on.”* She contends that this makes sense since “the LRT running down 104th Avenue won’t be happening for a number of years.” This is hardly a forward thinking and progressive attitude towards TOD – wouldn’t it make sense to ensure that new/infill developments along these planned lines adhere to the tenets of TOD now, rather than hoping that ad hoc retrofits occur in some vague future scenario?
So if the MDP establishes policies for land use in Edmonton, how does this happen? The problem is arguably due to a disconnect between statutory plans and zoning on the one hand, and a lack of political courage and accountability on the other. First, a municipality’s zoning bylaw regulates the use and development of land. At present there is a disconnect between the City’s guiding documents and its zoning bylaw. This is not a new problem, nor is it a unique one. Examples can be found across Alberta and likely, across the country. With its new MDP and TMP, Edmonton is in need of serious zoning reform – for example, the proposed parking provisions on the Molson/Crosstown site are minimums according to the zoning bylaw, despite being situated adjacent to an existing Transit Avenue, a future LRT line and within the 7th most walkable neighbourhood in Edmonton according to Walkscore. In theory, zoning is subordinate to the MDP. The zoning bylaw is meant to support this document and act as a tool for its implementation, not provide developers with avenues around their obligations to quality city building – something often lost in a jumble of market projections, financing constraints and construction deadlines. The unfortunate reality in this case is that the applicants are (at least in one sense) operating within the rules as laid out by zoning.
Equally important is a need for courage among our local politicians to stand up, recognize and uphold the very policies, standards and documents that they have approved – and often trumpeted. If they cannot find this courage, it is our responsibility as citizens to call attention to this and every four years, hold them to account at the polls. In the case of the Molson/Crosstown proposal, if the rezoning application is approved by Council, the development cannot be refused since it would be in line with the zoning bylaw. However, Council does have the power to refuse the rezoning application and to put some pressure on the applicants to bring their proposal in-line with City policies – residents, in turn, can put pressure on their elected officials to uphold these policies. Ultimately, without zoning reforms and a little political courage and accountability, instead of building a quality city that is healthy, livable, sustainable and progressive, we risk getting more crap.
*Personally, I would like to see these plans. During the open house (and after much pressing by attendees), the applicants made vague promises that mixed use, density and TOD might “eventually” be part of the plans if market conditions were right.
Well written article. It should also be pointed out that Sun Life and First Capital have stated that the residential component to this project will happen at a later time, if they see that there is market demand. It can be argued that there is in fact demand for residential in this part of the city, particularly if the site is adjacent to a future LRT station. One might start questioning how serious the joint venture really is with regards to the mixed-use aspect of this development.
This property is a huge opportunity and responsibility for both the developer and the city.
It could be a step forward if viewed as a major part of kickstarting the west public transit corridor and enabling the DT area to be a more viable living solution for those who work in west Edmonton. It is also a flagship development for building the Edge community’s visibility. Both the aesthetic and development possibilities are fantastic for creating a liveable and urban oriented option for DT. I fear that those possibilities will be overrun by the momentum of past habits and mistakes.
I own a business in the area and frequent business there as much as possible but the current proposal leaves me concerned that all of the great things happening to the area could quickly be undone by a typical square ugly high rise development oriented around surface parking opportunities and automobile traffic in the “same-old” Edmonton way. I hope the City has the will to stand against this type of development and assist/enable developers to be part of a NEW Edmonton, aethetically and functionally, rather than a reflection of the way things have always be done.
Be brave make something better.
Dr. David Candler
dc3 Art Projects
It’s a sad state of affairs, isn’t it? Unfortunately, Mandel’s “no more crap” line hasn’t stopped the crap from being churned out in Edmonton. You’re right, we do need serious reforms to our bylaws because merely creating documents of “recommended guidelines” won’t convert most developers.
What I don’t get is why this type of development is even necessary in Oliver. This is a terrible use of land with historic value. We have plenty of this architectural vernacular in the hinterlands, why must we continue building these types of developments in the heart of the city? This isn’t 1997 and the core communities aren’t begging for any development whatsoever. Surely the people behind this could’ve been a bit more creative.
Edmonton should have higher standards for itself. Unfortunately, there is an image issue in this city and many espouse a “good enough” mentality regarding Edmonton. No wonder this city is thought of the way it is (or not thought of at all) in the rest of the country. We’ve made some good strides in recent years, but this Molson redevelopment would be a huge step backwards. Even the Canterra Centre, right on Jasper and 109th, which is arguably more “urban-minded” than Oliver Square, I find embarrassing. It’s too suburban for a downtown of one of Canada’s largest cities.
Having done a walk through of the Molson plant with the heritage planners in my previous life as a central area and downtown planner, I find the current state of redevelopment plans sad, but also consistent with the approach taken to this site all along. Molson in their joint venture with Anthem, was extremely disinterested in any heritage discussions and the opportunity to create something special dies a little bit more each day. The current remnants on site are really standing in such isolation that they are like a candle on a blank table and much harder to work with in terms of creating a place, when there were multiple buildings to work with the outcomes could have been so much more spectacular. In this city the only way any thing positive will happen is a groundswell of community voices such that it motivates political support. I applaud the Oliver Community League for their latest series of meetings and discussions on the future of the site. Hopefully they can approach those running in Ward 6 and gain some strong support for a better outcome.
The issue can be zoning yes. but the issue is also that these developers will do what it takes to make money. and while its all theoretically good for compact cities and non-auto orientated development. That doesn’t make money. what benefit is there for the Developer to build a Compact area when the LRT is still a decade from being built? The good thing about parking lots is it is very easy to re-build on them when the LRT does get built.
I love the Compact Urban idea. but lets face it this area will never be developed to a true Compact standard until greater then 50% of the people in Edmonton can get there in a short time. our transportation/transit networks cant handle it and LRT development is slow. let them build a development where in 10 years when the LRT is built they can convert the parking into something more useful and satisfy both their company needs and the needs of “future Edmonton”
On the contrary, the fact is that the immediate surrounding land uses to the north, south and west is quite compact in comparison. Combined with the tight vacancy rates found in the Oliver community, this would suggest that such a compact development model would make money regardless. The landowner/developer, given its profile, however is not experienced with such a formula. It is out of hesitation to explore new products rather than a markets response that such a development application is being made.
An important missing fact is that this is NOT a TOD site. There is no LRT and leaving an undeveloped waste land until such time as there is LRT is equally irresponsible.
The City has invested heavily to develop 105 as the residential expansion for Downtown, not 104.
residential development will compete with river valley development, downtown, airport, and 105. 104 is the least desirable, without LRT, of these development areas.
Thanks for the comment! Although the site not currently a true TOD, the City of Edmonton has designated the immediate area as a future TOD site where existing TOD guidelines do apply despite the missing LRT component.
Thanks for the comment! I don’t think anyone is advocating to leave the site idle. An important distinction between NIMBY and the position of the concerned community leagues and residents appears to be more along the lines of QIMBY (Quality In My Back Yard). With 20,000 residents in the immediate and surrounding area, the site warrants a much more urban, rather than “hybrid urban-suburban” (the developer’s term at the public hearing tonight) form. In any case, this point is moot considering council approved the zoning change tonight and development will likely commence on the site this fall.
With respect to TOD, 104 avenue is designated as a Transit Avenue by the City and as such, development along it does fall under the TOD guidelines. LRT is not necessarily a pre-requisite of TOD. In fact, Peter Calthorpe (credited with coining the term TOD) recently expressed that he would like to retire the term: “The reality is that people get almost too focused on transit. There’s a symbiotic relationship between it and walkable destinations. You can’t have good transit if you can’t walk when you arrive. So pedestrian-oriented development is really at the heart and soul of great cities.” (http://www.metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/July-2013/Q-A-Peter-Calthorpe/)