From: RBG In the News

Don Iveson on Horse Hills NorthEast ASP Feb 2013

On Wednesday Council decided to approve 40 years of new supply of predominantly low-density residential development in the Horse Hills area in North East Edmonton.

It was inevitable. It was more than 30 years in the making. And yes, it’s fair to help landowners on all sides of the issue know what’s planned.

It’s true that land supply is becoming scarce in that quadrant of the city and though estimates vary, there are fewer than 5-10 years of existing supply. It is prudent to bring on more supply, especially given the job growth expected nearby in the Edmonton Energy and Technology Park, which will create new demand.

Meanwhile, demand is still strong for suburban low-density housing. And why not? The land is cheaper and the infrastructure and structures are new. With my 59-year-old fixer-upper house and crumbling uneven sidewalks, even I can see the appeal. And yes, many of the new and existing jobs are closer to these proposed neighbourhoods. So, no doubt, there is a market for the proposed housing.

I can’t deny that those are today’s economic realities for urban development. Given today’s realities, much of this plan makes sense. In fact, it has some really promising possibilities for integrating small-scale community food production, innovative ‘low-impact’ servicing and the potential for a proper town centre, hopefully linked with LRT.

For the first time, we did get some high level information about the costs to the City of supporting this growth (Mack Male’s offered some highlights of the report here). I think it was probably low on costs and high on the revenue forecast. Nevertheless, it showed what is the case for each of our low-density neighbourhoods, including mine, which is that we collect less in revenues than we face in costs. This isn’t particular to Edmonton – it is like this in most Alberta communities. We offset this either by subsidy from the non-residential tax base, other general revenues like the EPCOR dividend, or by delaying investments in infrastructure construction or repair.

It follows that denser communities make more efficient use of infrastructure, and therefore are more cost efficient. And we’ve made gains – these neighbourhoods are much denser than older Edmonton neighbourhoods, again, including mine. But the City is talking about adding density in my neighbourhood, which I agree with, and on the airport lands and other sites, and one of the strongest arguments is that it makes for a more efficient and affordable city.

On the food and agriculture question, while I am sympathetic in principle to the calls for preserving agricultural lands, the economics don’t support it unless you have a willing landowner, ready to forego the potential gains of development. Some advocates were calling for a large swath of land to be permanently protected; however, for the City to impose this or negotiate this would have meant compensation in the tens or hundreds of millions to landowners intent on development – so that was a non-starter. I still do think there is opportunity to look at long-term agricultural land preservation, and building a local food economy – but this should be in a regional context, where the lands are still affordable and the economics stands a chance. I encourage food security advocates to not lose heart, and to consider rallying around this as a regional issue.

But the remaining agricultural and market garden land owners who wanted to continue to operate their businesses have been significantly impeded by this plan. I had initially hoped this ASP would cerate some exciting opportunities to work with the cluster along 197 Avenue near the river to plan a neighbourhood and that integrated them. And even though there was significant public support for their protection and sustainability, the plan doesn’t protect them. At best it tolerates them. And because of the conceptual provincial road alignment, their long-term future is in doubt.

I could have supported the southern half of this (neighbourhoods 1-3), because that’s today’s housing market reality. We are only at the beginning of offering more city-wide choice in our housing market. There is work ahead to encourage a supply of more jobs in the core to support infill housing demand. And while the LRT network to support better mobility is growing, it is moving slowly.

But this is not only today’s decision; this is at least a 40-year decision (and beyond as we service and repair approved areas). Thinking ahead, I think we could have done better.

I think we could have found a way to better accommodate the cluster of remaining farmers, even perhaps around the provincial road. I don’t have the answer, but I’m not sure we tried hard enough to find one.

And I think that in less than forty years (if cost continue to rise, as distances grow, as demographics change, as traffic gets worse, and if tastes change as a result) that the communities we’re building then will be different from the ones approved yesterday – moderately denser, more efficient, more walkable, better connected to great transit, and with more mixed employment.

There is room for the plan to change and evolve over time so I have hope that as it is implemented its ambitions can rise.