Faced with the prospect of an empty site in the middle of the city, with 300 acres of land ready to be developed, a lot of municipal governments would have seen nothing but dollar signs.
Edmonton pictured families.
The City Centre Redevelopment plan, scheduled to break ground in 2014, is an ambitious project that will turn what is now a functioning airport into a carbon-neutral residential neighbourhood for as many as 30,000 people.
On Thursday, Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel is scheduled to address the Innovation City conference at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, unveiling his vision of a cutting-edge urban environment built on a foundation of three- and four-bedroom condos.
His city has recently emerged as its own centre of urban innovation, a place that is managing both its money and its politics in a refreshingly productive way, and where technology is being used to streamline bureaucracy and prioritize transit-oriented, sustainable projects.
“The mayor and council are forward-thinking visionaries,” said Peter Busby, managing director of the Vancouver-based design firm Perkins + Will, which will create the City Centre master plan. “They’re not mired in politics. They’ve got an agenda to do the right thing.”
Mr. Mandel’s appearance at Innovation City comes a week after the Toronto’s deputy mayor, Doug Holyday, voiced his opposition to developers being required to include three-bedroom units, saying he did not think downtown is an appropriate place for children.
Unlike Mr. Holyday, Mr. Mandel is hoping to draw families to Edmonton’s core, and believes the idea will be so popular that City Centre’s 25-year time line is accelerated.
“It’s going to keep some of our citizens with children from moving to the suburbs,” he said this week. “And I think it’s going to create an entirely different dynamic in the north end of our city. I bet you in seven years it’s sold out.”
Mr. Mandel keeps an intentionally lower profile than his neighbour, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. But since the first of his three terms began almost eight years ago, his city has invested more than $9-billion in capital projects.
The City Centre Redevelopment will include large swaths of designated parkland, recycled storm water, bike paths, light rail and have its own on-site biofuel energy system.
Last year, Edmonton was also named one of IBM’s Smarter Cities, the first Canadian municipality and just one of 24 worldwide to receive a $400,000 grant from the tech company. It gave the city access to a team of IBM employees who helped develop a streamlined City Hall management system, allowing employees of various departments to share information and concentrate their efforts.
It is designed to support a municipal development plan called “The Way We Grow,” approved by city council in 2010, which lays out a vision for Edmonton’s growth and attempts to synthesize the efforts of various city departments.
Mr. Mandel credits city manager Simon Farbrother with insisting that every aspect of the government must operate with a similar goal.
“Historically, cities are divided up into departments but Simon said, ‘No it’s one city, one vision, one direction,’” he said. “So if you’re in transportation, you have to worry about what’s happening in the recreation centres. It’s really integration of government and trying to make sure we’re as efficient as possible.”
Of course, Edmonton has benefited from the flush finances of its province. Mr. Mandel said it has tapped into a provincially bankrolled Municipal Sustainability Initiative, introduced by former Premier Ed Stelmach, as well as the Green Transit Incentives Program, which helped expand the city’s light rail transit system.
Current Premier Alison Redford has put together a memorandum of understanding with Edmonton and Calgary to develop a “big city charter,” which could see the control Mr. Mandel and Mr. Nenshi have over their assets and finances continue to grow.
Edmonton is also the owner of a utility, Epcor, that pays the city an annual dividend of about $140-million. Over the past 15 years, the city has earned an additional $500-million from the dividends paid by an endowment fund started when it sold the city telephone company EdTel, which was part of what would eventually become Telus.
But Edmonton CFO Lorna Rosen said the city faces the same budgetary considerations as other Canadian municipalities. Over the past three years, an annual average of $50-million has been cut from the operating budget.
Because the city eliminated its debt in the 1980s, and remained debt free until about 2001, Ms. Rosen said its has been able to leverage its ability to debt-finance some larger scale projects.
To pay for infrastructure upgrades, the city introduced a property tax hike in 2009 that has so far raised $45.7-million for the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. Along with their bills, home owners receive a brochure that outlines the specific improvements being made with the money.
The City Centre Redevelopment is strikingly simple in its financing. After the airport closes, the city will service the land, installing utilities and building the roads. It will then sell off parcels to developers, who will be required to adhere to a specific plan for mixed-used residential housing that includes single-family units, row housing and condominiums.
The city will also sell off 110,000 square metres for office space and 45,000 square metres for retail.
“As opposed to us taking a profit, actually making some money, on this one we’ll turn a good deal of what we could realize back into the project itself, in order to have a higher level of environmental and social sustainability,” Ms. Rosen said. “It’s going to pay for itself.”
The city will also take bids from utilities to develop a bio-fuelled energy system on site, using agricultural waste and its byproducts to provide power and heat.
For all its virtues, the Edmonton plan has not been without controversy.
Some citizens want to keep the airport, and even took the city to court, unsuccessfully demanding a plebiscite on the issue.
The development was a campaign issue during the 2011 municipal election, but voters returned all city council incumbents who had supported the project.
This week, the results of a naming committee contest returned some unpopular options, including Sol’Town and The Crossroads.
Mr. Busby, who spoke from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he is helping build a transit system, credits the Edmonton mayor and his council for having a bold vision of where they want to take the city, saying that Alberta is not where he expected to be challenged to design a carbon-neutral community.
“I think it’s actually the most interesting urban redevelopment in Canada at the moment,” he said. “What’s most exciting is that they really are going to go ahead with it.”