Through actions already taken, it is obvious that City Council has already reached a positive conclusion on the proposed Alldrit Group tower, even though a public hearing has not yet occurred. The action to which I refer here is the land sale negotiation for a piece of municipally-owned River Valley land. The architect wants to build the tower partially in the River Valley. Yup. And the City is in favour of the development, despite books of policy to the contrary; they just want to get the right price for the land first, and so the final handshake has not yet occurred. Although the tower has stand-alone architectural merits, this is a case study in poor public decision making and bad urban design. And the location is wrong.

The giant 80-storey building would tower over all existing buildings in Western Canada. For all the places permitting high density in Edmonton (Blatchford, the Ice District, Century Park), this tower is proposed on a piece of parkland. I won’t make a joke that this is the reason that Council wants to expropriate other downtown land to add a park… but I guess if you are allowing buildings into the River Valley, you want to return the greenspace somehow. Click here to see my article on that.

The proposed development is located adjacent to The Quarters, not within it. The Quarters is an area that contemplates high-rise development, but the proposal is not in The Quarters and, as a professional planner, I can’t emphasize enough that this is a major faux pas, and grounds for appeal. None of the policies for The Quarters support developments off-site. Further, even if the proposal was geographically contained within the plan area, it is debatable if it would be supported by the policies of that plan.

When I moved to Edmonton eleven years ago, I worked for a reputable planning consulting firm, and one of my first projects was to create the vision for The Quarters area. It was a huge process. I remember hearing countless times that people were upset with the then-recently-built Shaw Conference Centre for blocking views of the River Valley, and we swore to not repeat that. Prior to the construction of the Shaw, there were great vistas from 97 Street south, into the River Valley, and unobstructed views all along Jasper Avenue. This 80-storey proposal will further block sights into the River Valley (having some glass at the base does not ‘protect views’). And then, what will stop a third and fourth proposal, and so on, from occurring next to this one? Will all of Jasper, as it turns into 82 Street, be walled by tall buildings? What about the urban balcony proposal?

And what was the point of countless hours of public meetings, public hearings, consultant fees, and city workers developing a plan if it is ignored the first time a developer comes along and waves a wad of cash? This is a serious problem. It is against City policy but I guess the developer will just apply to amend the plans… In this case they will ask nicely to turn parkland into a skyscraper. Council will obviously say ‘yes,’ or else the City would not be ready to sell the land to the developer in the first place. Council even expedited the negotiations which is a further disregard to public opinion.

Although there has been some pre-application public engagement, the correct procedure is for the rezoning application to be heard first, so that the public has a chance to provide input. Once Council hears what the public thinks, they then proceed to negotiate the land sale.

So to sum up, the proposal is against existing policy (which was established through public input), but Council will make the deal and ask for public endorsement at a later date, after a team of lawyers grind behind-the-scenes details (arena deal, anyone?). What’s rich is the stipulation in the proposed land sale that the developer cannot come back to the City with a different proposal once they acquire the land. It’d be locked in. We will either get the tower, as proposed, or nothing. This makes the legislated hearing of public opinion a moot feat. A waste of time? Did we just bypass public opinion?

But the land still needs to be rezoned, and that process involves the all-too-important democratic public hearing. It is often during the public hearing stage that changes to proposals are made (heights, set-backs, architectural detail, and public amenities are adjusted to address concerns). The public hearing is an important vetting process which often adds valuable alterations to a proposal.

It will be interesting to watch the looks on the faces of the councillors as they eventually listen to angry people during the rubber-stamp rezoning, while knowing that they can’t back out of the backroom deal that they made. Will the councillors look bored, enthusiastic, concerned, or guilty? Hmm. But I know what they will be thinking. They will be thinking: ‘Hurry up; your input means nothing; we have already decided the issue. Oh, you people don’t understand.’

Will the City get a fair price for the land once they publicly agree to acquire it? You can bet they won’t. It is so clear that Council is chomping at the bit to get this tower built. The only one with power in this transaction is the developer. It will be a cat playing with mice, and this is a sad situation for the taxpayers.

 

The Building

While my intent here was to just critique the process, I will say that the building is not appropriate for the site, even though I am always excited to see downtown developments. We just can’t allow jubilation and Edmonton-pride to cloud our judgement when something shiny is dangled in front of us.

The rules apply to you and me, but not to the big wheels, it seems. The City won’t hesitate to make a single mom tear down a recently constructed deck because it is 0.1 metres too close to a fence, but pouring cement into a park? Sure… if it’s for a building that’ll have more concrete than any in Calgary.

As a principle of urban design, smaller structures should occur adjacent to the River Valley with larger structures stepped back a few blocks. We should block the least amount of views possible, and that’s why such an obstruction should not occur on a scenic edge. The proposal is either in the wrong location, or too high for the present location (notwithstanding the shocking fact that the present location is a public park). The River Valley is sacred to Edmontonians (let’s face it; we live in a flat city, and some contours add excitement). Can we not continue the good work done to date that has protected this natural marvel? The River Valley is the largest urban park in the world. Let’s maintain its integrity. This location should be utilized to enhance the appreciation of the River Valley, not to block it.

In the past, I have written a lot about zoning and our planning process. There are many problems with our current system and I have some proposals to address the shortcomings.

But I guess it doesn’t matter what system of zoning we are using if our Council just ignores the rules…

 

If you live in Ward 3, you can have confidence voting for me. I will follow the rules.

“Jon D for Ward 3”


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