The City of Edmonton wants to build another park downtown. The problem is that the City does not own the land. And that is the problem.
Are gravel parking lots ugly? Yes. Should it be up to the City to beautify parking lots by forcibly taking them away from their owners?
Well, if the answer is yes, then shouldn’t the City do the same to all strip clubs and shady massage parlours? If the City is in expropriation mode, why don’t we just put parks everywhere?
Should we also try to turn 20-year-old fast-food restaurants into City-run trendy spots with chalkboard menus and distressed wood décor?
Expropriation used to be a swear word. It is a totalitarian tool to change ownership. Typically, it is required when a city absolutely needs the space for municipal purposes. In this instance, the City can’t live without another park? According to Metro Edmonton:
“The park would replace 18 surface gravel parking lots — an area slightly bigger than Churchill Square — on both sides of 107 Street between Jasper Ave and 102 Ave… City officials said attempts to negotiate with property owners have been unsuccessful, resulting in the push for expropriation.”
And, “These sites have remained undeveloped for at least two decades,” said senior planner Duncan Fraser.
First of all, parking lots are not undeveloped land. The land in question is developed per the owners’ intent: a money-making tax-paying project. Are parking lots the ‘highest and best use,’ a term often used in real estate? No, they are not, but whose decision is that to make? The State’s?
It very well may be reasonable for the owners of these parking lots to stay steady on course, keeping them as is, earning $30+ per car per day, perpetually.
However, the ‘best use’ of the land would likely be for a campus of large office or residential towers. It might make business sense to spend $150+ million in construction to reap $200-250 million in sales, but all real estate projects are inherently risky, and developers should not be forced into gambling with their (or their shareholders’) money.
In this economy, a comprehensive real estate development gamble could very well make the proponent bankrupt, especially with the other aggressively proposed real estate projects on the go, many of which are City-sponsored. In order not to flood the market, most development occurs in sequences. That is how the industry works: supply and demand. Currently, we have a healthy supply of downtown development.
In another post, I asked the question, ‘Why would a group like the YMCA compete against the City’s mega-rec centres?’ Well, they won’t, anymore. The same logic applies here: with its deep pockets, the City is currently redeveloping much land in Edmonton; the airport lands, Fort Road, the Quarters, the Galleria Project, and the Ice District are the most recent and best known examples. The private sector must be confused, timid, and shell-shocked about the City’s actions. Does City Council think that it is playing SimCity?
Worse, does the City think that it is Robert Moses?
The Stated Contempt For Parking Lots
The City says that people living downtown need outdoor space, as they do not have backyards. Okay, but let’s actually think about this.
Well, I am sure that the immediate residents of this area would like the bonus amenity of a park, paid for by the rest of us Edmontonians, but we have to remember that we are not landlocked Manhattan. We face a different reality. Anyone who chose to live downtown did so because they like downtown. They like the hustle and bustle, and these parking lots are currently placeholders for future buildings, not for a passive park.
This area may ultimately become developed with tall buildings, putting in coffee shops and stores on the ground level. I suggest that that is why they were originally purchased by speculative developers. Twenty years ago, during a recession, some people took a risk and kept the bills paid by utilizing the space for parking. Now, as their investment nears maturity, the City is about to pluck the fruit from them. How anti-Edmontonian is that?
The Need for Density Downtown
For downtown Edmonton to properly develop with great (not just ‘good’) restaurants, nightlife, and cultural attractions, we still need to attract a critical mass of people. We are not there yet. We need more density downtown, not less, and we need it to be easy for visitors to arrive. We do not currently have a critical mass, and we won’t get there by planting grass seeds and permanently sterilizing a large tract of land.
We are not going to build a great downtown by keeping it flat forever, but I’ll take a gravel parking lot for 20 more years if that is what it takes to see real development.
Moreover, if one looks at a map, one will see something shocking. Not only are several pocket-parks close by, not to mention Churchill Square, but the parking lots in question are currently just two avenues north of the Legislature Grounds, and so it is a lie to say that downtown residents do not have access to beautiful open space. Further, the Legislature is atop the wonderful River Valley, which is the largest urban park in the world!
There is no need for another park downtown.
The Real Reason for the City’s Disgust
From so many of its policies, it is easy to conclude that the City thinks that those who drive are in need of re-education. The City is doing everything that it can to dissuade people from driving in hopes they will finally fully embrace the LRT. That is one reason why almost all bus routes force you to take the LRT if you want to go anywhere in Edmonton that would require a transfer. In an upcoming post, I will fully dissect our transit system.
The City is bewildered as to why more people do not take the LRT. They think that it is such a good idea that it should be mandatory.
Parking Downtown and Expropriation
It appears as though the City wants a monopoly on parking downtown, so that it can crank ‘event rates’ even higher: ‘See, you could’ve taken the LRT, but you drove, so pay up, buddy’, is the apparent motto.
City: ‘The Oil Kings are playing tonight. We already took $300 million plus of taxpayer money to pay Katz, so we need to charge you $3.50 an hour until 10pm to park many, many blocks away from the arena, even if you are not going to the game.’
The current parking policies are actually doing much more harm than good for downtown. I am an urban planner and I think that all City-owned parking lots/street parking should be free for the first 15 minutes. If you pay for parking, this would also give you 15 minutes of grace.
The problems with expropriation are that it is a slippery slope and it sets a bad precedent. Removal of the City Centre Airport was basically (but not technically) expropriation: it was an involuntary seizure. But if Council pulled off that heist, stealing a few parking lots should be a cakewalk, right? This attitude is the same poisonous thinking behind empire-building annexation grabs (I’ve written about that too). Annexation is taking land from another municipality. Expropriation is taking land from citizens. Both are powerful tools that should be exercised with extreme caution.
If I am elected to Council, I will never vote in favor of expropriation for vanity reasons. In comparison, Councillor Loken just did, and Councillor McKeen said: “I’m hoping the city can get this done sooner rather than later so we don’t have to involve the courts.”
On second thought, maybe I should buy another book of LRT tickets before the price of those gets hiked again.
“Jon D for Ward 3”
North Side Journal