Edmonton City Council's green-lighting last month of the 45-storey Emerald condo tower slated for Jasper Avenue and 114 Street came amid controversy over both its height and the inclusion of above-grade parking.
The Emerald will be at least twice as tall as its neighbours and will become the city's tallest building, eclipsing the Pearl, which stands at 36 storeys and was completed by the same developer last year. It will also be three times the height the lot was previously zoned for.
Many councillors, including the Mayor, and the City's planning department and design committee opposed the development. According to Kalen Anderson, director of planning co-ordination, the planning branch were concerned that "the proposed density and corresponding design and amenity contribution did not fully recognize the increase in development rights being requested."
Oliver residents also turned out in force to voice their concerns. "The biggest issue we have is the urban design," says Dustin Martin, civics director for the Oliver Community League. "The developer is proposing above-grade parking, which means the second, third and fourth levels aren't in active use. The retail bays at ground level, in our opinion, are too large. We want developments to support smaller, local business owners. We also want more affordable options and three-bedroom units for families."
The developer, Regency Developments, successfully argued that meeting the demands of community, council and committee would leave them with a development that didn't stack up financially.
"Above-grade parking reduces construction timescales," says Raj Dhunna, Regency Developments chief operating officer. "We'll save eight months of construction time and $50,000 per stall ... This significantly reduces the final cost to the consumer and we have to pay attention to the house prices people are willing to pay in Edmonton."
Mr. Dhunna's family has been developing in the city since the early nineties. They've completed 1,500 multifamily units and four high-rise towers in the downtown core. Mr. Dhunna says they've learned from experience that price matters in Edmonton.
"The Pearl really didn't do as well as we'd hoped," he confesses. "Everyone loved it from an urban design point of view, it's a really beautiful building, but from a financial standpoint it wasn't great for us.
"The Pearl had seven levels of underground parking," he continues, "which took a whole year to dig out. We put in super-fast elevators and we were the first developer to use curtain wall in Edmonton," he says, referring to the Pearl's sleek glazed exterior. "Even Calgary doesn't have curtain wall.
"But, as much as it's a beautiful building, it ended up costing more than we'd have liked and that was reflected in the price for buyers."
The average cost of a condo in the Pearl is $800,000. It was completed in March, 2015, and five of the development's 128 units remain unsold, including the penthouse, which is Edmonton's most expensive condo ever. Originally listed at $3.5-million, it is currently on the market for $3-million.
"I definitely won't build that high end in Edmonton again," Mr. Dhunna admits.
"Edmonton is not Toronto or Vancouver. The economics of the city are very different," he continues. "Only five per cent of our entire portfolio are investors. We're selling to end users. The policies need to reflect that."
Condos in the Emerald will start from $350,000 and will be aimed at middle-income Edmontonians looking for a downtown lifestyle. "If we price it correctly, it will sell," says Mr. Dhunna.
But Mr. Martin argues that other developers are building below-grade parkades, or no parkades at all, and being successful.
"We told [Regency Developments] that we would support a reduction in parking but that's not a discussion they wanted to have. Other developers have built below-grade parking. There's a condo in Calgary, which has no parking at all. If they can't make it work when other developers can, maybe they're in the wrong profession."
But on one point both Mr. Dhunna and Mr. Martin agree: that Edmonton's planning policies no longer support the best interests of the growing city.
"When we pushed for rezoning for the Pearl it took two and a half years. After that we had some easier rezoning projects, but with the Emerald we're back up at 18 months; timescales like those are tough to work with." says Mr. Dhunna. "Edmonton is at a tipping point right now and continued growth depends on the implementation of relevant policy and a better understanding of the reality of the economics of our city."
For different reasons, Mr. Martin shares his frustrations.
"Edmonton is still in a mentality of 'any development is good development,' but that's incorrect and the faster we grow the more incorrect it becomes. Suburban councillors approved the Emerald; councillors representing the city's core disputed it. There's some catching up to be done in terms of how Edmonton see's itself."
The current Oliver Area Redevelopment Plan is 20 years old and Ms. Anderson says there are no plans for a comprehensive review, although "with each application that diverges from the current policy, corresponding amendments to the Plan must also be brought forth for consideration."
Meanwhile, Regency Developments are already planning their next zoning challenge and the first development to be brought forward for Edmonton's new LRT line.
"We have nine acres over several blocks on the new LRT line in Holyrood and we plan to push for 1,300 units of mixed-use residential and commercial. We'll be aiming for 22 storeys in height," he says. "The neighbourhood is mostly single-family houses with a few taller buildings so it's definitely different. We want to set a precedent along the new LRT line."
The LRT line is due to be completed in 2020, at which point Mr. Dhunna is hopeful Edmonton's economy will have picked up.
"Ninety per cent of our tradespeople are local. We're currently driving our own economy in Edmonton when jobs are scarce. It's another reason why continued development is important and it's another part of the frustration. We're a developer who's willing to step up and take risks at a time when the economy isn't doing well. Many others aren't."