Vision In Place, Tough Choices Still Required

28 07 2009

Edmonton City Council made a bold decision in the direction of urban densification in early July, voting to eventually close the City Centre Airport, with precise timing still to be determined. The vision that will replace the medevac flights, hobby craft and small charters is a transit-oriented, mixed use, high density green community centred around an LRT station, and an expansion of the Northern Alberta Institute for Technology campus. While there were some understandable concerns about the effect this decision would have on businesses currently located at the airport, Council decided that the benefits of redeveloping the 217 hectare (500+ acre) area vastly outweighed the business and transportation benefits of keeping the airport open.

NAIT's crowded campus, with City Centre Airport hangars in the foreground

NAIT's crowded campus, with City Centre Airport hangars in the foreground

In April I wrote about the choices several other North American cities had made to close their centrally-located airports and redevelop them as model mixed use urban communities. I personally think that the decision Council has made is the right one and that, if realized, the vision for the airport lands could signal a paradigm shift for Edmonton away from its predominantly suburban development form. But while I applaud this particular decision, I question whether this city realizes what will be required to have it become a reality. A shift towards an urban sensibility in Edmonton, even just to the point where urban development is in balance with suburban growth, requires big picture thinking on the part of City Council and planners to see how all the elements fit together, to ensure that support is given to this type of urbanism.

Edmonton is growing surprisingly fast. The 2009 municipal census shows that the city managed to add some 30,000 residents between April 2008 and April 2009, bringing the total population to 782,000. This is a rather impressive rate of growth, considering the difficult economic conditions during that time period, including a collapse of the oil prices which are so important to Edmonton’s economy. Continued growth is an important pre-condition for the redevelopment of such a large site as the airport, and as oil prices creep back upwards the short-term outlook, at least, appears positive.

But while growth usually equals demand, demand is not a homogeneous thing where real estate is concerned. Approximately three quarters of residential development in the Edmonton market currently takes place in newly-developing suburban areas, with urban redevelopment capturing the rest. And there is no shortage of suburban areas being developed. As of 2008, there were 42 neighborhoods under development across the city. The Planning and Development Department keeps track of development trends relative to supply in approved plan areas, using single family lots as a barometer for the overall market. In 2008, there was a 10 year city-wide supply of single family residential lots in Neighbourhood Structure Plan Areas. Taking higher level Area Structure Plan numbers into account, Council approvals were in place for almost twice as many lots, representing an 18 year supply†. With new areas being proposed to be opened up for suburban development through the draft Municipal Development Plan, this state of oversupply seems poised to continue.

While oversupply is good in some respects, moderating the cost of new homes, the question is not just about quantity or cost. Through the Strategic Plan, Edmonton City Council has expressed a desire to shift the city away from the predominant sprawling suburban form. If Edmonton really wants to densify, make better use of existing infrastructure, make a shift to public transit and other alternative modes of transportation and invigorate mature neighborhoods, then Council cannot have its cake and eat it too. If Edmonton wishes to revitalize Downtown, The Quarters, the Downtown North Edge, Alberta Avenue, Jasper Place and the City Centre Airport lands (all of which have seen planning efforts in recent years) through redevelopment, as well as hoping for redevelopment activity in other mature neighborhoods and along LRT lines, then continuing to offer support for new suburban development is naive. If these redevelopment efforts are the brainchildren of City Council, why would Council eat their young?

An important task of City of Edmonton planners should be to understand clearly how much development the city really needs, and make firm recommendations to Council about where to place priorities. This is not to say that development should be halted or artificially constrained. Everyone needs a place to live. But it can and should be directed and shaped so that development occurs in a fashion and the locations where it can support the city’s vision for itself.

People complain so often about developers ruining their neighborhoods, cutting down this, tearing down that, building that other thing that “no one wanted”. We seem to forget that it is in our power to guide developers, through clear regulations and policies, about how we want our city to look and function. We can’t really blame them for looking out for their bottom line, particularly if we are not confident enough as a city to look out for our own.

Note: Calculations for city-wide supply are my own, extrapolated from City of Edmonton estimates for developing sectors of the city.

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From Eye Teeth to Urban Jewel?

4 03 2009

In June of this year Edmonton will consider the possibility of closing the city-owned City Centre Airport (the Muni) and look at options for redevelopment. While the decision is still a long way off, the debate seems to be ramping up in the media, with Scott McKeen writing two columns in the last week, business leaders making their pitches, and a slew of letters to the editor showing up in the Edmonton Journal in recent weeks.

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

The future of the Muni, which competed with Edmonton International until a referendum in 1995 decided (by an overwhelming 77% of voters) to consolidate scheduled air traffic at the larger airport, has long been a point of debate. Although the referendum halted most scheduled traffic, it remains a hub of Edmonton’s aviation industry, still serves the small-but-influential business travelling class, and serves as a convenient base for med-evac flights. It’s the business travellers that seem to be the most vocal proponents of not only maintaining the Muni, but also reopening it to scheduled air traffic. Arguments offered are varied, but usually boil down to these two points: that the Muni is a vital economic driver for Edmonton’s connections with northern communities, and that almost any North American city would give its eye teeth to have an airport in such close proximity to its downtown. I don’t really see how Edmonton’s links with the north would be severed by the closure of the Muni any more than Edmonton’s links with the rest of the world were severed after consolidation. But it’s the second argument that interests me most, as there are actually some North American cities that have shut down major inner city airports in the last 10 years, and have made real urban development success stories out of the choice.

Denver’s Stapleton International Airport and Austin’s Mueller Municipal Airport were closed in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Both were huge sites (Stapleton – 4700 ac/1850 ha; Mueller – 709 ac/279 ha) and in both cases the existence of neighboring residential communities was a major factor in the decision to relocate. Both cities took their time developing master plans for their sites, and both chose to select a single master developer to take charge of construction. Stapleton has been under development since 2001, while Mueller has been on the go since 2004. Both master plans exhibit all the best of current planning thought, focusing on mixed uses, higher but mixed densities, pedestrian and transit orientation (both have rapid transit stops planned or under construction), significant open space components,  and an overall emphasis on social, economic and environmental sustainability. The developer at Stapleton, for instance, is grinding up old infrastructure for reuse, stating sensibly: “It’s cheaper to mine the runways than to go mine the quarries.” Both sites have garnered significant interest in planning circles, and Stapleton in particular has received numerous Smart Growth awards, one from as far away as Sweden. An interesting analysis of Denver’s Stapleton redevelopment here, and a comparison of Denver and Austin’s approaches by Austin’s Chamber of Commerce here.

The other notable Canadian urban airport debate would be over Toronto’s Island Airport. Closure of this airport has also been considered in recent years, and the current mayor David Miller was elected in 2003 partly on a pledge to nix plans to build a bridge to the island (currently served by a ferry). Similar arguments have been made in that city, with a swelling downtown residential population arguing for closure or restrictions for quality of life reasons, and the business community citing the need for expansion for reasons of economics.

So Edmonton is not alone in this. Arguments on both sides still need to be made, and the final word will be heard from City Council. But it seems clear that the “eye teeth” argument, that Edmonton is a bush league city if it thinks that closing a central airport is a good idea, does not hold water. Some very dynamic North American cities have made the tough choice to close their airports, and then have gotten busy constructing a progressive urban vision for them. Taking planes out of the downtown skies may not necessarily mean that the sky is falling.