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A rendering for the Muttart Urban District at Stadium Station in Edmonton.

Brookfield Residential

After 36 years of failing to spark significant housing development along its northeastern light-rail line, the City of Edmonton is now partnering with private developer Brookfield Residential to see condo towers overlook the tracks.

“The city negotiated a cost-sharing agreement where Brookfield will do the construction of the improvements and the city will reimburse them for the city portions of it,” says Erik Backstrom, a senior planner with the City of Edmonton. “In our agreement, there are basically requirements that development happens. It’s trying to ensure that if the city puts money into this area, that development will happen and they’ll marry together.”

Mr. Backstrom says the deal – which will see Edmonton and Brookfield invest a total of $14-million to prepare the 7.5-acre former lumber yard for sale to condo developers – is a “different approach” than the city has taken on transit-oriented development (TOD) in the past. “In this case, the city made an effort to work with the private sector.”

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For Edmonton, it has been a hard lesson to learn.

Edmonton’s Capital Line, Western Canada’s first light-rail transit project, opened in 1978 for that year’s Commonwealth Games. It was built atop a former CN Rail line and much of the land along its course housed factories or storage yards and required costly environmental cleanup.

Edmonton’s attempts to spur development along the line date to 1982, with a plan that called for “high-density redevelopment projects in close proximity to the LRT Station.” But developers did not respond to that plan, nor to several updates to it added in the 90s.

In recent years, as Edmonton’s population grew at Canada-leading rates and its boundaries continued to sprawl, the city amplified its efforts, spending $88-million to decontaminate an 11-acre land parcel beside the Belvedere station, which once housed a meat-packing plant. It built residential streets, installed fancy benches and laid out parks–even a baseball diamond – at a site it marketed as Station Pointe. But today, after two years on offer to developers, just 112 units on one of five parcels is under development, by BCM Homes, while another parcel is listed as “pending.”

“At Station Pointe the city acted as developer and I think market uptake has been slower than we would have liked,” Mr. Backstrom says.

Two stops to the southwest at Stadium Station, directly beside Commonwealth Stadium where the Eskimos of the Canadian Football League play, Brookfield is now developing the land for sale rather than the city. “We’re going to be putting in all of the roads, the new pedestrian crossing through the LRT right-of-way, building the two new parks, all the sidewalks, all the public infrastructure essentially,” says Cherie Stewart, senior manager of business development with Brookfield.

Once this work is complete there will be four plots of land that have been zoned for mixed use – or, essentially, residential and retail – “where developers can come in and build towers,” she says.

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And the company is already in advanced talks with a developer from outside Edmonton to build towers on the site. “We really hope that this deal closes and then they can get into the ground right away,” Ms. Stewart says. “Best case would be 2021 that we would actually see some building, at the latest.”

Ms. Stewart says Brookfield envisions the land parcel as a dense, urban, transit-oriented village with retail shops along the streets and 1,400 housing units above it all. The project will ultimately look similar to dense developments you might see in Portland or Stockholm, she says, and its main selling features are its proximity – to the LRT, the nearby North Saskatchewan River valley and downtown. “And we feel that the Commonwealth Stadium, with concerts, football fans, all of those events, will really help liven that area up,” she says.

Still, Ms. Stewart says the project is “definitely a new concept for Edmonton.”

Many other North American cities, struggling to find the capital to build light rail transit and eager to add density without clogging their highways might be startled to learn that transit-oriented development is a new thing for developers in Edmonton.

The reason, says Jarrett Campbell, who helped broker the deal with Brookfield before becoming vice-president of Edmonton-developer Sparrow Capital, is economics and buyer preference. Unlike Toronto, Vancouver and even Calgary, Mr. Campbell says “the big push” toward redeveloping Edmonton’s inner city hasn’t happened because it hasn’t had to.

“It’s still easy to get a single-family house in the suburbs for a cheap price in Edmonton,” he says. “Brownfield’s expensive, while suburban development is still cheap.”

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Still, as these factors begin to change, Mr. Campbell sees “enormous opportunity” for redeveloping Edmonton’s inner city, which has an abundance of brownfield sites similar to the one Brookfield is developing. “Just take the top few [sites] and we’ve got space to put tens of thousands of people in new housing.”

Ms. Stewart echoes this. She says living in a condo beside an LRT line may be old hat in Vancouver and Toronto, but it’s new in Edmonton – both for buyers and builders. Indeed, the Stadium project is Brookfield’s first foray into infill in Edmonton rather than building housing in suburbs on the city’s fringes.

“I think it’s been very successful in other parts of Canada but it’s definitely a new concept for Edmonton,” she says. “So, I don’t think [transit-oriented development] has necessarily not been successful, I just think it’s taken a little bit longer for Edmonton to catch up with what the city has envisioned.”