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Edmonton City Centre Airport/Blatchford: another Edmonton developer boondoggle

Okay. I have a bone to pick with people who were pro-conversion of the Edmonton City Centre Airport. Four years ago, you promised taxpayers that this green development would be world-class. You pooh-poohed the concerns of northerners — like my friends in the farthest reaches of the Northwest Territories — that their quality of medical care and the urgency of medevacs would not be impacted. You somehow did some fabulously disingenuous math in your head saying that a little baby that went into respiratory arrest in a small northern hamlet, who waited an hour and a half for the medevac to arrive and another hour and a half for it to get to Inuvik then fly on to Yellowknife or Edmonton and be transferred from our city centre airport to the Royal Alex would be just as well served by landing at Edmonton International and transported on our infamously un-predictable Queen Elizabeth II highway. I never quite got the math on that one.

Anyway, like the math on the medevacs that threw the well-being of our northern neighbours out the window for the profit of developers greedily salivating over central Edmonton real estate, the math on everything else on ECCA/Blatchford does not add up.

We were told this would be a world-class green development. We were told it was about infill, about new approaches to planning and building. We were sold a whole host of promises.

Here’s Mandel a few years ago, appealing to us to be brave:

Here’s the new message on Blatchford: obliquely apologising for Stantec and other consultants being unable to apply what leading design firm Perkins+Will was hired to design:

My issue here is not with the conversion. I realise that decision was made long ago. I think it is phenomenally stupid for a city growing as quickly as our, and as vital to northern issues (and resource development) as ours, to close central infrastructure for condos. In any other city, I’d say “oh great, infill! That’s good for all of us”. But Edmonton has proven again and again that it cannot competently pull off any large project, particularly not something that promised so many ideas foreign to our local cadre of developers and builders.  Edmonton gets swindled by developers and business leaders all the time (cough arena cough). I’m well aware that anything that brands itself as world-class in Edmonton should immediately be mis-trusted. Forget world-class: I just want my city to do something of this scale in a competent, transparent and fiscally responsible manner.

[By the way, here’s a recent story on what the firm that won the international design competition, Perkins + Will, have to say about our incompetence, in case you don’t believe me when I say we have a unique capacity and predilection for screwing up really basic processes: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Design+firm+attacks+grossly+inaccurate+Blatchford+development+cost+estimates+Video/9925693/story.html.]

My main issue is the opacity of the decision making process regarding our approach to using the airport today, and the chain of back-room decisions about the airport that stretch all the way back to the 1990s. It’s a strange day when I agree with David Staples, but here you have it — in this piece he points out how decisions about the use of City Centre Airport were made by the bank, not taxpayers or politicians. This should bother us immensely: http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2010/09/22/how-edmonton-signed-away-its-downtown-airport-once-and-for-all-in-a-bank-agreement-ten-years-ago/

Rather than go on a long-winded rant about how I tried to warn people four years ago that the city would not have the competence or the distance from its strong developer lobby to pull this off in the grandiose ways it promised (but I did tell you so, four years ago), I’ll instead leave you with some questions our City Council and its Planning Department should have to answer before any further decisions are made on this development:

-How much has the ECCA/Blatchford design process cost us so far? (Including a comprehensive breakdown of salaries in the planning department; payments to the design firms in the competition; consultants who were brought in [if any])

-Which local developers will be benefitting from the changes in plans? (Be honest with us here — who is backing this sudden decision to abandon the world-class mono-rail talk and instead go with #yeggingitup?)

-How much is the environmental remediation of ECCA lands going to cost us? Who is overseeing this to ensure it is done competently and there are no future concerns about ground and water contamination?

-When is a REALISTIC timeline for the remediation process to be done (when will shovels REALISTICALLY be in the ground)? In the meantime, how much money will be lost to the local economy while that land sits empty and unused and the businesses that were there have been forced to leave?

-How much did taxpayers wind up paying to buy out the leases of existing airport businesses?

-How much would it cost to push for changes in building codes rather than abandon things like grey-water collection all together?

when was the 20% affordable housing target cited in the 2010 revised planning principles for Blatchford downgraded to 10% being cited today? 

-Further: what steps are being taken to make decision-making processes around issues like Blatchford are fully transparent? Edmonton city council and our Planning Department has a major problem with opacity when it comes to land-use decisions and I think Edmontonians deserve a watchdog or an ombudsperson to appeal to regarding any decision that may benefit big campaign donors like our lovely local developers, builders and engineering consultants.

In the end, I think Mandel left Iveson and the new council with a steaming pile of Blatchford feces. And I’m really disappointed Don is shoveling it rather than standing up for all the promises we were given regarding this ‘world-class’ project. I can get behind the logic of abandoning the pneumatic garbage collection system, since we already have a phenomenal waste management system here (thanks to former Mayor Jan Reimer, who had no need for all the developer-driven bells and whistles Mandel constantly threw at us!). However, you can’t close major infrastructure on promises of a ‘Berlin-worthy green development‘ and then only four years later turn around and say “we paid for a green design plan, we did math calculations on the green design plan, we campaigned on the green design plan, we asked a world-class design team to come up with a green design plan with the parameters our eggheads researched for the green design plan, but we have only now realised green design plans are expensive so we’re omitting large parts of that green design plan we specifically requested and paid for”. It speaks to a level of incompetence we should be outraged at — at one point along the way did someone suddenly realise that you can’t import a Berlin-style green development to a place with big problems regarding green building codes and developers who basically don’t have the skill-set or the motivation to build specialised green neighbourhoods?

We can build ‘regular’ infill anywhere. If you drive through working class neighbourhoods like mine, you can even see the unique Edmonton twist our builders and developers are putting on infill by building enormous infill McMansions that take up the entire lot and get sold for double what the original house cost (not only is this gentrifying cohesive neighbourhoods like mine by a thousand cuts, this is also, by the way, not what we were promised when infill came up a few years ago. Infill discourses keep saying that it’s about better use of land, but how does that get translated in a place where developers have so much sway and are mainly focused on making as much money as possible with the least effort required? For this reason, current infill practice in Edmonton seems to go against all that shiny architecture and planning rhetoric about ‘cities of the future’ that gets thrown around at elevator talks. Single use McMansions and massive duplexes are not transformative infill praxis).

We could build 30,000 new units in downtown Edmonton without closing the airport, if we were truly committed to dynamic and creative approaches to using land (I currently live in a city of 140,000 that takes up 67 square kilometres and has a population density of 3,298.0 /km2 — compared to our sprawling and embarrassing 684 square kilometres in Edmonton and 123.0/km2). The conversion of the airport was dangled in front of us as a solution to this density problem, but now that we’re being faced with the inertia of local building and developing practices we’re being told we cannot achieve it’s goals. And yet, we’re slow to update building codes to allow for creative use of existing under-used land outside of the airport lands. The problem, inherently, is that rather than tackle cheap and achievable infill goals throughout the city, we could only envision doing infill if we imported whole-neighbourhood style suburban developing practices to a central patch of land. At the end of the day, this is a developer problem, and we shouldn’t be subsidizing their lack of creativity or their mid-century approaches to land use. It’s not very profitable for our developers to build ad hoc infill in empty lots, so they plotted to bait and switch us with Blatchford. They wanted a big chunk of land, and craftily argued that building on the airport would curb sprawl (and yet, I see very little action to stop the existing suburban developments already on the books!). So I want to know who was on the take on this one, who suckered us into approving such a project, and who will be laughing all the way to the bank in a few years when we build a bunch more conventional and vehemently non-environmentally sound Edmonton Specials where grey-water collection and sustainable green energy and a transformative building ethos was promised (while still building crap that extends out to all corners of the city).

Perhaps the thing that irks me the most is the downgrading of the affordable housing target. 20% was a realisable and necessary goal. 10% is a slap in the face, given how much money our taxpayers will be on the hook for with yet another City of Edmonton boondoggle.

Screw the ‘bottom line’ argument we’re being given: it never helps the average Edmontonian when city council tries to argue it’s protecting the bottom line anyway (and when this comes up, it’s usually a huge red flag). Give us the project former City Council and our former Mayor sold us on, browbeat us with, planned an international design competition for, and bought out a working airport for.


One thought on “Edmonton City Centre Airport/Blatchford: another Edmonton developer boondoggle

  1. If I said they spent 1 BILLION buying leases would I be far out ?

    Posted by Marvin Dehnke | June 14, 2014, 4:11 pm

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