By TIM QUERENGESSER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, July 20, 2018
EDMONTON -- In the end, it took two years of consultations, design changes and a consistent lack of support from a city design committee to persuade Edmonton City Council to approve 1,200 residential infill units in a project known as Holyrood Gardens.
But some say the decision, while drawn out, is symbolic of a city that has talked about infill for a decade, yet is now starting to embrace it along with density.
"Holyrood [Gardens] sends one signal in that it did take a while," said Peter Ohm, chief planner with the City of Edmonton.
"But council, ultimately, after the third trip, approved it."
On July 9, Edmonton's council approved Regency Developments' proposed Holyrood Gardens site, a 1,200-unit project across eight buildings on a rectangular, four-acre plot of land that runs along 83 Street.
The site currently has about 160 townhomes built in the 1950s, now in an accelerating state of decay.
The proposal features a mixture of builds and heights, including two 20-plusstorey towers, a transit plaza, 12,000 square feet of small retail bays and rental units for up to 2,500 people. Edmonton planners have earmarked the area for renewal for 25 years but interest from developers has never materialized until recently, when the city intentionally routed its coming Valley Line LRT to stop directly at the townhomes.
But while the needed pieces for a transit-oriented development (TOD) seemed to be in place, Raj Dhunna, chief executive of Regency Developments, says the twoyear process and three trips before city councillors approved it required underline a lingering discomfort with density and large-scale infill projects.
"We're still learning, definitely, and I think city administration and the community, the engagement process is still in its infancy, and that's restricting development where there could be more," he said.
The process has indeed been a bumpy one.
Back in 2016, when Mr. Dhunna first proposed Holyrood Gardens, residents of the detached housing to the east of the proposed site organized themselves and worried aloud about its design features - even describing the dense, blocks-long development with simplistic surfaces and small windows as similar to the Berlin Wall.
"We felt it was a neighbourhood being built on the edge of our neighbourhood, rather than development being integrated in our neighbourhood," said Jaime Forster, with the Holyrood development committee. "You really had a wall and you didn't have a lot of connection." City council, in its second view of Regency's project, responded to this pressure last November by sending the design to its city design committee, an arm's-length advisory group of experts that assesses certain development proposals in a city that has had its fair share of mediocre architecture in the past.
The committee agreed with the Holyrood development committee and did not support the proposal, instead calling for a "fundamental redesign."
Regency responded to the criticism by adding an additional building and increasing the heights of the two towers while in turn reducing their floor-plate sizes. It also reduced massing in the smaller buildings, increased space between the buildings and boosted the size of a proposed transit plaza.
This new proposal was again sent to the design committee and they, again, refused to endorse the proposal, as did the residents.
Still, the project went before city council in early July, which voted in favour of it.
Mr. Dhunna says the decision was symbolic of where things go from here on large-scale infill and TOD in Edmonton.
"Density should have been a conversation early on that was off the table," he said, noting the density of the project has not shifted. "The first two years was very frustrating, very tough, because we were fighting that LRT battle, density, traffic battle and a lot of false information. But the past six months was real engagement ... once you got past those hurdles."
He said the decision sends an important message for future developments. "This was kind of a better balance, where Regency, the community and the city didn't get everything they were looking for."
Mr. Ohm would tend to agree.
He says the Holyrood Gardens decision was "significant" and is part of a growing trend of Edmonton maturing on its infill development and setting itself up to build more of it - and faster - in the future.
Aside from approving the project, Mr. Ohm says the city has formalized the public amenity contribution that comes when land is up-zoned for such redevelopments.
In the past, this would have resulted in an ad hoc conversation but is now simply a menu of choices.
"That's another little piece that's helping us to create a framework to help developers who actually take on this risk to actually get it done," Mr. Ohm said.
The city also recently released its infill strategy, which outlines several further steps it needs to take to accelerate development, including looking at simple things such as sewer and other infrastructure limitations that projects expose.
This new strategy, along with investments in LRT, is seeing outside developers take an interest in infill in Edmonton, Mr. Ohm said.
"What's showing up is some folks from outside of the province that are taking a look at some of the larger redevelopment sites," he said. "What it shows is a maturity in terms of the market thinking about what to do with land."
Most say it's badly needed.
Back when Edmonton started targeting infill, in 2010, Mr. Ohm said, it set a target of 25 per cent of new development - far lower than many other large cities - to occur within established neighbourhoods. The number was, at best, "aspirational," he said. "We were tracking; in some cases, more than 85 per cent was going to greenfield."
Ever since, further policies and investments have been made to shift the tide. But the results are still frustrating for some.
Three large sites in established neighbourhoods that are earmarked for redevelopment and infill - Blatchford, West Rossdale and the Quarters - have all sat in a state of relative limbo as Edmonton, nevertheless, continues to add thousands of new residents.
Mr. Ohm said Blatchford alone will now be "a more-than-20-year project" as a result of market conditions. But, he said, conversations about the 25-per-cent goal he has had with politicians suggest it will increase in future.
Mick Graham, president of IDEA, an infill advocacy group in Edmonton, said it has to increase.
"I think we need to be more strategic than we've been," Mr. Graham said. "What I'd like to see is let's look at it neighbourhood by neighbourhood or cluster of neighbourhoods by cluster of neighbourhoods. We can be a lot more aspirational, we can link it a lot more closely in terms of what we're building with LRT and we're not going to shoot ourselves in the foot when we approve all these big projects and then realize we don't have the water and sewer to support them."
The writer is a board member of IDEA.
Edmonton City Council recently approved the Holyrood Gardens project to be built on 83 Street. It took two years to get to this stage, however, owing to a lingering discomfort among city administration and community residents with density and large-scale infill projects.
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