Edmontonians say they want an urban lifestyle, but we're our targets
By Steven Sandor | August 1, 2016
CAN WE LEAVE CARS BEHIND?
The results of the 2016 Best Neighbourhoods Survey show us that we’re a conflicted city. Each of the 10 top communities are mature neighbourhoods. Many of them are close to the core of the city.
So, it’s a sign that Edmontonians are ready to embrace the urban lifestyle. Correct? Well, not quite. Take a look at these numbers:
61.8% say car/personal vehicle is their preferred mode of transportation
20.1% say walking
8.7% say bicycle
7.4% say transit
60.4% of us say they NEVER use transit (0 trips per week)
58.9% say they NEVER ride bikes
“It is really confusing,” says Ian O’Donnell, the vice-president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL) and Top 40 Under 40 alumnus. “This city can be the most frustrating place in the world. People want an urban, vibrant city – but not at the expense of the lifestyle they’ve come to know.”
The poll asks: Is it important to have grocery shopping available in your own neighbourhood?
Eighty-one per cent of respondents said that they do their grocery shopping in their own neighbourhoods or neighbourhoods very close to where they live.
But, even though we like to shop close by – we want to be able to drive there. When we asked if availability of parking was important to grocery shoppers, only 12.9 per cent said no.
So, what does that tell us? That Edmontonians like to do their major grocery shopping in places close to home, and they want to be able to drive there and park for free. This is understandably ironic because driving to a store that’s only a few blocks away defeats one of the most important aims of urbanism – which is to be able to leave the car at home, or not have a car at all.
O’Donnell says that because Edmonton has been such an easy city to drive for so long, many of us aren’t ready to loosen our grips on our steering wheels.
Basically, he feels that a lot of people want an urban lifestyle, we’re just not sure what that it is.
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“We’re kind of at the puberty stage of urban life. We’ve gone through infancy, now we’re transitioning from a small city to a city of over one million. We’re not a small city anymore.”
He says that urban dwellers to truly embrace the car-less lifestyle, they need to know that all the necessities – grocery store, a pharmacy, doctor’s office – are within five blocks of their front door. And, Edmonton’s core neighbourhoods are short on services – especially when it comes to groceries. We don’t have those corner fruit markets like you see in other major cities.
“Your neighbourhood will be disparaged if you get in your car and head to Superstore,” he says. “Condos appreciate – cars depreciate.”
So, to shift the balance, we’d need more amenities downtown and in the first-ring neighbourhoods that border the core – not just weekly farmers’ markets.
URBAN AREAS NEED TO BE FAMILY-FRIENDLY
According to David Shepherd,the New Democrat MLA for Edmonton Centre, Alberta is the last province standing when it comes to allowing for adults-only buildings. But, while he understands that organizations like the DECL would like to see the brakes put on adult-only developments, he says that the provincial government is not currently looking at making amendments to human-rights legislation.
But, as an MLA and a condo-board president, Shepherd says he understands that changes need to be made to downtown’s housing mix.
“People get married, or they find partners and then they want to have children and then, all of a sudden, start running into a number of difficulties,” says Shepherd. “Sometimes it’s something simple like there being a very small amount of three-bedroom suites. There are certainly buildings that have adult-only or other age-restrictive policies. And, just in general, the challenge of older wood-frame buildings which just don’t have very good noise control.
“I really want to see downtown thrive not only as a place to visit and as a place to recreate, but as a place to live.”
“And, within that, for communities to really thrive, you need to have diversity in those communities. That’s diversity across income brackets, and that’s diversity of ages. I want to see our downtown core be a family-friendly place for people to live.”
So, will we see more three-bedroom condo options in the future? Shepherd thinks so. He says both the Downtown and Oliver Community Leagues are having discussions with developers about making more family-friendly units available. He says that indications are that new developments in both downtown and Oliver will have more of the larger units.
As Shepherd hopes for more family-friendly housing, the city’s administration told council in late June that the new 45-storey Emerald tower did not “consider the need for family-oriented housing and the infrastructure necessary to support families with children in the preparation of land-use plans in established neighbourhoods.”
But, on June 27, council voted to approve the tower – to be located at 114th Street and Jasper Avenue. The conditions included a clause for the city to buy five per cent of the units at 85 per cent of list price to be reserved as affordable housing. As well, the developer will be required to hand over $200,000 to the Oliver Community League for public-park enhancements.
“What we need is inclusive housing,” says O’Donnell. “We will never develop as a city if we don’t have inclusive housing.”
And that’s why the DECL would like to see a future where there are no “adults-only” buildings. If a young couple decides to have a child, then housing options grow limited. Single parents face uphill battles to find housing close to the core.
More options for families need to exist in core neighbourhoods. Children and their parents must feel welcomed – not like they are inconveniences. No, this doesn’t mean that Corso 32 has to provide a kids’ menu and crayons; but it means there need to be more urban spaces that are family friendly.
O’Donnell says the $4.2. million Alex Decoteau Park, currently under construction at 105th Street and 102nd Avenue, will offer one such option.
THE INFILL SHELL GAME
In early May, an MLS custom search of infill properties in Edmonton turned up:
A 1,302 square-foot home in King Edward Park for $582,300
A 1,900 square-foot home in Ritchie for $599,000
A 1,605 square-foot home in Westmount for $688,000
What the search revealed is that it’s nearly impossible to find an infill home in a central-ish Edmonton community for less than $500,000. Compare that to a 1,880 square-foot new home from Jayman Master Builder — a model that can be built in Schonsee, located in northeast Edmonton, in the $400,000 range.
It’s the infill conundrum. Proponents say it will bring young families to core neighbourhoods. But the fact is even modest homes — as low as 1,300 square feet — sell for hundreds of thousands more than new homes available near the fringes of the city.
And the truth is, the city is falling well short of the infill targets set. Ambitious plans to facilitate the splitting of large 50-foot residential lots — allowing for one large house to be replaced with two more affordable skinny home — have led to some very interesting developments. But there have been battles; in 2015, Westbrook Estates residents fought against a plan to subdivide a lot in order to build skinny homes. Glenora’s Carruthers Caveat protects much of that neighbourhood’s large lots from being subdivided.
Councillor Michael Walters says that the city has not aggressively pursued mature neighbourhoods when it comes to adding density.
“The most neighbourhoods have been asked is technically the least we can ask them to do,” he says.
Two years ago, in the Avenue neighbourhoods issue, Walters said that established big-ticket neighbourhoods such as Crestwood and Glenora were examples of urban sprawl; communities located close to the core, but with large lots and low density — and high prices that kept them from diversifying.
But we aren’t seeing these communities transform.
“I think we are making slow progress,” says Walters. “Our municipal development plan call for 25 per cent of new housing starts to be infill in established neighbourhoods. We’re not there yet. But we can’t do it so rapidly that it leaves residents of mature neighbourhoods spinning.”
Walters says that the city can target lots that border major corridors, not the centres of those existing neighbourhoods, with more family-friendly zoning options and row-housing opportunities.
THE CARRUTHERS CAVEAT
When Edmonton was named the capital city of Alberta near the beginning of the 20th century, it was a boom town. And a developer named James Carruthers was interested in creating a neighbourhood that would entice wealthy buyers. He placed a caveat on the land in what is now a large part of the Glenora neighbourhood — that no home could be built that was worth less than $3,500, a princely sum at the time. The caveat also enforces 25-foot setbacks and prohibits multi-family dwellings. That caveat still is in force today.
SCHOOL POPULATION — THE ULTIMATE INDICATOR
In our annual neighbourhoods survey, the readers tell us they want to live in mature neighbourhoods like Strathcona, Oliver and Westmount. But, as the statistics show, there is a big gap between where people tell us they want to live — and where they actually choose to settle.
Demographics don’t lie. And both Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools have to deal with a massive influx of new students — all living in the outer ring of the city.
According to EPS stats, public schools in the city welcomed 12,447 new students from 2010-15 — and 90 per cent of them come from what are called developing neighbourhoods; that is, newly developed areas. When Dr. Lorne Parker, Edmonton Public Schools’ Executive Director, Infrastructure, looks at his map of the city, there are a bunch of red dots located outside of the Anthony Henday’s ring. Those represent new schools that are on track to be built to meet the crush of new kids living in those areas.
The school stats show us that families are moving to the burbs at a rate that’s, well, unmatched in Edmonton’s history.
Already, the stats show that one third of all kindergarten students in EPS go to schools outside of the Henday. Kindergarten kids are the best indicator of where the young families are; and the fact one in three are living in the outskirts tells us a lot about where families are calling home.
Meanwhile, schools in the mature neighbourhoods continue to see their student populations shrink:
Utilization rates report from EPSB (2015/16)
Glenora 71 per cent
Westmount 42 per cent
Westminster (Glenora) 68 per cent
Oliver 49 per cent
Queen Alex 33 per cent
Rio Terrace 74 per cent
Holyrood 71 per cent
At Edmonton Catholic, utilization is mapped out by district. Edmonton’s Central district has the lowest enrolment of any region in the city — 48 per cent by residents; the district buses kids from other areas to the central schools so they can reach 66 per cent capacity. In the south central region, schools are only 40 per cent full based on local residents.
In an ECSB map of new construction plans, red dots signifying new-school projects ring the outside of the city. Why? In the southwest, schools are at 108 per cent capacity, and some kids are bused out of the area to relieve the pressure. Schools in the southeast are at 104 per cent capacity because of busing. If kids weren’t sent out of their catchment areas, the schools would be at 115 per cent capacity.
“Family-friendly housing tends to be located in the outskirts,” says Rob Tarulli, the senior land use planner for ECSB and an Avenue Top 40 Under 40 alumnus. “We have worked diligently with the City to make family-friendly housing available in older neighbourhoods, but with very limited success.”
And, as long as infill projects continue to attract only the wealthy, Tarulli doesn’t see a change.
“The questions is how to make those established first-ring communities — places like Belgravia and Glenora — more attractive to families. If they buy an existing house there, they know they will pay at least $500,000 and have $200,000 in renovations, but for just the $500,000, they can get a new home in Rutherford. What can tip the scale for the established community is that it’s built up so it’s a convenient place in which to live.”
The closing of schools are going to be wakeup call for many. As the student populations in the core decrease, school boards wrestle with how to keep them open — considering that they need to spend money in the outskirts to address the growing student population out there.
“In some ways, we may be too far gone,” admits Walters. “I think, in most existing neighbourhoods, we’ll see discussions about the consolidation of schools. And the only thing that would stop that is we make heavy changes to zoning laws, but those are greater changes than the residents of the existing neighbourhoods would be comfortable with.”
The consolidation has already come to Ottewell. Three schools in the area — St. Kevin, St. Brendan and St. James all closed down, and a new St. Brendan — housing kindergarten-Grade 9 students, will open this fall. It will take in students from the catchment areas of the three former schools.
And, back at Edmonton Public, Parker is dealing with a dichotomy. He will oversee the opening of 13 new schools in 2016-17, but in the core there are many, many empty places.
“We have a lot of total excess space,” he admits. “And that excess space is in mature neighbourhoods. Those schools were built on the 1950 and 1960s model, when there were more students per home.”
So, what does that mean? In the 1950s, it was common for a couple to have three or four or five kids. Now, one-child families are common. Let’s take Glenora as an example. It’s not a dense neighbourhood. But, a few generations ago, because large families were the norm, the community could still produce enough kids to pack the local school. Now Glenora School is at 71 per cent capacity. The houses are still occupied, but people aren’t having as many kids.
So, the only way to bring a first-ring community back would be to encourage its residents to have more kids. Are you an urbanist? Start procreating!
“Infill is certainly not hitting the city targets,” says Parker. “And, even if it met those targets, because families are smaller, we still would have excess capacity.”
Parker says that around 90 existing, aging schools are up for major maintenance projects to bring them up to 21st century standards. If the Edmonton Public School board was to approve them all, the total cost to upgrade these old buildings would total more than $1 billion. And that’s not going to happen.
So, what will happen is the consolidation of schools; where there were once three schools in an existing neighbourhood, there will now be one. And Parker says these moves will be made in concert with the communities; new schools could be designed with community recreation facilities; they could also house tenants like a doctor’s office. And communities and school boards will discuss what could happen to the schools that, well, won’t be schools anymore.
“The key message is that the status quo cannot remain. To do nothing is not an option.”
TRANSIT — ARE WE ON TRACK?
If Eddie Robar was a juggler, he’d need as many arms as Doctor Octopus.
The new branch manager at Edmonton Transit Systems took over the post at the beginning of 2016, and he’s working with a series of conflicting problems.
In 2015, total ETS ridership was at 88.7 million; in 2014, it was at 89.2 million. Despite the fact that a new LRT line was added in 2015, and that the city’s population continues to grow, ridership is shrinking.
By comparison, Calgary Transit had 110 million riders in 2014.
There is pressure to boost service and reliability in the core of the city, yet there’s a population explosion on the ring outside the Henday.
So, how can Edmonton say that it is becoming an urban city when transit ridership is contracting? Until that tide is turned, one of the greatest arguments for urban living — that you can leave the car at home — rings false.
Under Robar’s leadership, ETS will reallocate 50,000 bus hours. Beginning in September, routes with less than the minimum threshold of riders an hour will see some staff moved to heavy corridor routes.
It’s all about on-time performance and, relieving what Robar calls the “pinch points” in ETS. We see headline after headline about LRT delays, bus delays. And it’s a simple question of customer service; if you don’t get to work or class on time because the bus is late or the LRT is down, you’ll get back in your car.
“Are we providing the best services we can provide?” says Robar, sitting in the boardroom of the Mitchell Garage, the giant north-side ETS bus-service facility. “Where can we use the resources the best that we can, in the service area we have? You may have to pull services from areas of low usage to drive ridership up in certain areas. Frequency, connectivity and convenience is all part of that.”
The reallocation is a short-term fix. But a longer term strategy is coming. The city has surveyed residents about the transit system. The question: Would we rather have a city where urban corridors see more buses and more trains, or a city where all of the suburban areas have regular access to transit? We can’t have the best of both worlds. If we want to alleviate the downtown routes at rush hours, staff need to be borrowed from the suburban routes. Or, do we make sure that everyone in the burbs has regular access to transit, even if many of the buses run almost empty? If we make go for the completist system, then we have to accept that downtown buses will be overcrowded and that there will be delays.
“We’re trying to find that information from the public as well, what people want, what people are looking for, are they looking for that urban lifestyle,” says Robar. “What does that mean for the transit system itself? What are the tradeoffs that have to happen to achieve those goals?
“It’s broader than just transit. We will look at the tradeoffs that the people want. And if it’s the urban lifestyle and being in higher density populations, then that’s how we’ll design the network. If it’s that people want service coverage everywhere in the city and a basic level of service to everyone, then that’s how we’ll build the transit system.
“There’s a dichotomy between go this way or go that way. And I think that in transit systems we’ve got to try and build for that mass population. So, looking at how we deliver the services, it’s a spectrum of conversation. How far on the spectrum do we go? How far over to the ridership or the coverage side do we go? Is there going to be a lean more towards ridership or a lean more towards coverage? That’s contingent in what we receive in responses. But certainly there is a trade off. If you want to have high-frequency corridors, that’s got to come from somewhere. And if we want a more coverage-based system, that comes out of frequency.”
And, as part of the new vision, ETS is also expected to better integrate with other city departments, and vice versa. In the past, they operated separately from each other, so the person planning transit routes was playing catch up with those who were approving new developments. Now, they are expected to work hand in hand, and transit is seen not just as a service, but a vital part of city building.
Peter Ohm, the city’s chief planner, believes that strong transit connections will act as the bones of the city. Transit hubs will be places that are developed into high-density living areas, with many opportunities for jobs.
“Transit is an organizing element for the structure of the city,” says Ohm. “The spokes and hubs model that we currently have is a way that, in the future, by the number of stations we’re going to be eventually developing, is we can organize how the city is intensified… Along the lines we’ll have concentrations of density. We will have concentration of jobs.”
And the new integrated approach will see transit and other city departments continue to communicate after the new transit lines are built.
“We still have to stay highly connected between those different areas to make sure that the city not only planned properly, but that it’s constructed properly and that it functions properly,” says Ohm. “We’re more interested in each other’s business, and understand each other’s business. So the restructuring gives us greater ability for integration and better ability to understand what each other’s needs are.”
It’s far too early to assess what these new ideas will mean for ridership and Edmonton’s liveability. But Robar feels the city is on the right track.
“Is it all sorted out yet? No, I don’t think so. Is it on a path to being sorted out? I think that it certainly is.”