A look ahead at 2016 for City Council and the City of Edmonton

This year is going to be a difficult one. “While technically it won’t be a recession, for many people it’s going to feel like one,” said City of Edmonton chief economist John Rose. Our economy is expected to grow by just 1% with unemployment rising, perhaps as high as 7%. We’re less energy-dependent than the rest of the Province, but low oil prices are still going to hurt many.

Angles on Clouds
Angles on Clouds, photo by Dave Sutherland

While the economy seems certain to dominate the headlines this year, there are plenty of other topics that will come up throughout the year. Here are some key things that City Council and the City of Edmonton are going to have to deal with in 2016 that we should keep an eye on:

New City Manager

With the firing of City Manager Simon Farbrother back in September, City Council will need to select a replacement this year.

I think this will be the single most impactful decision that Council will make in 2016 – who is the right person to lead the City in the years ahead? Council has already indicated they are looking for someone who is more involved in the day-to-day, “someone who can meet the aspirations of this city head-on.” The job posting further specifies that the successful candidate will be “a community-minded relationship builder and a consummate communicator who can advance an effective culture through accountability and ingenuity.” I think interim City Manager Linda Cochrane is doing a fine job, and she certainly has the knowledge, experience, abilities, and relationships that are critical to succeed in the role. But I don’t think Council will go with an insider. I think they’re looking for a fresh perspective.

A new City Manager will no doubt want to make changes to the organization, so expect more dominoes to fall this year.

Ward 12 By-Election

With Amarjeet Sohi being elected as MP for Edmonton-Mill Woods in October’s federal election, residents in Ward 12 are currently without a representative on Council. The by-election to fill his seat will take place on Monday, February 22 and there are already 29 declared candidates. That’s an incredible number of candidates, and it means voters in Ward 12 are going to have quite a difficult job deciding who should succeed Sohi. During the 2013 municipal election, Amarjeet Sohi raised more than $130,000 and spent more than $85,000 to win his seat. On average, the winning councillors spent $73,000. I don’t think we’ll see sums that large this time, however.

This is City Council’s first by-election in more than two decades. The new Councillor will need to get up-to-speed quickly, and won’t have much time to have an impact before we find ourselves in another municipal election.

With Amarjeet Sohi being named Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, I think Edmonton is very well-represented in the current federal government. Furthermore, we have a minister responsible for infrastructure in this country who knows first-hand the challenges faced by big cities like Edmonton. That bodes well for our city’s relationship with the federal government and for our interests.

LRT (Metro Line, Valley Line, Future Expansion) & Transit Strategy

Last year was not a great year for LRT in Edmonton, so I’m sure the City and Council will be hoping for a much-more train-friendly 2016.

The Metro Line LRT still has issues, of course. The City still hasn’t accepted the safety certification of Thales, and the line continues to run more slowly than planned (and seems to break down awfully frequently). The City says it wants to reach “Plan A”, which would be full operation using the computer-based train control system, but is currently at “Plan B-” (seriously? this is Plan C guys), which is reduced speeds and “line of sight” operations. The middle step, “Plan B”, is full speeds but using the new system only between Churchill and NAIT. It seems there’s still a long way to go.

Brad Smid, who “managed the planning, design and construction of the $700 Million Metro Line Stage 1 (North LRT Extension) from Downtown to NAIT” was just this month named Director of the Valley Line LRT Design & Construction. That could be good or bad, depending on your point-of-view. Some argue that Smid is a very capable manager who spotted issues with the Metro Line LRT early on and was instrumental in getting the project constructed under budget. But he didn’t do himself any favors this summer when he downplayed the issues with the Metro Line LRT. Saying that the project was completed “on time and on budget” from a design & construction point-of-view doesn’t mean much to taxpayers who ultimately ended up with less than they were promised. Maybe Smid is the right guy to lead the Valley Line LRT project, but he’ll have to earn the trust of Council and the public.

On the Valley Line LRT, things are looking better though. The City selected TransEd Partners late last year to design, build, operate, maintain, and finance the first stage of the project. The first task in 2016 will be to finalize the contract, which is expected to be complete in February. Construction will begin shortly thereafter (preparations have already been underway, of course). We’re promised that this line will be different, because it’s a P3. We’ll see about that.

A couple of reports on future LRT expansion were postponed from 2015 to this year, so we should see Council consider a long term funding plan for the LRT, a communications plan on LRT funding, and an “interdepartmental approach” for investing in transit and LRT, among other things. There’s also the ongoing work to create a new Transit Strategy that kicked off over the summer. The strategy won’t be complete until early 2017, but the bulk of the work will take place this year, and is an opportunity for Edmontonians to provide input on “how transit can best support the city we want to live in ten years from now.”

City Charter, MGA Review, Edmonton Region

Discussions about the City Charter will continue this year. Mayor Iveson was careful to set expectations last month that he doesn’t anticipate a charter being in place until the end of the current Council term, but we may see elements of it move forward in the year ahead. Both Mayor Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi see the charter as a critical step forward for Alberta’s big cities, bringing fewer restrictions, a new relationship with the Province, and long-term sustainable funding.

Also ongoing this year is the effort to modernize the Municipal Government Act (MGA), the legislation that guides how municipalities in Alberta operate. The MGA review began in 2014 and made progress last year with Bill 20 being approved by the Legislature. Additional changes will now be considered, with a goal of competing everything in time for the next municipal election in 2017. The City of Edmonton has put forward some key principles and considerations that it would like to see reflected in the new MGA. I expect a new set of recommendations will come to Council for approval this year.

Council will also need to continue pushing ahead with its regional partners. The focus for the Capital Region Board this year is to finalize its Growth Plan 2.0. It is a 30-year strategy for managing growth in the region that was originally developed in 2010 and is now getting its first major update. The current plan is for the CRB to approve the final plan in September so that it can be submitted to the Province in October (roughly a year behind schedule). Also, while a decision likely won’t be made this year, the City’s annexation plans will continue to be a focal point for regional discussion.

Last year saw the launch of the Metro Mayors Alliance and “a blue ribbon panel on improving the competitiveness of the Edmonton Metro region.” I expect we’ll hear much more from that group in 2016.

Northlands & Rexall Place

Back in April, the Northlands Arena Strategy Committee (which I was a member of) released its final report and recommendations, which were accepted by the Northlands Board in May. Since then, Northlands has been hard at work on completing its Strategic Plan. That work is now complete, and it will be presented to Council in the next month or two. A report on enhancing the Coliseum LRT Station and perhaps building a pedway to the Edmonton Expo Centre was put on hold in 2015 while Northlands worked to sort out its strategy, so that could all come up this year too.

Some aspects of the plan have already begun to leak out, including repurposing the entire 160 acres of land, the oft-discussed possibility of joining Northlands and EEDC, and perhaps even the end of horse racing at Northlands Park. I understand we’ll also learn more about a potential agreement between Northlands and the Oilers Entertainment Group (outright competition would be detrimental to both).

This could prove to be one of the most difficult issues for Council in 2016. The fallout of previous decisions – to build Rogers Place, to keep Northlands out of the discussion about the new arena, to build the expensive Edmonton Expo Centre – all of that will need to be dealt with this year. In a worst case scenario, Northlands goes away and the City is left with debt and expensive, problematic assets on its hands. In a best case scenario, a new vision for that area of the city is agreed upon and led by Northlands. Either way, the City is going to have to contibute taxpayer dollars, so Council will need to determine how it wants to spend its limited money.

Blatchford

Blatchford is a long-term project, but this will be a critical year for the development of the future community. Late last year Council decided to cut the large lake from the vision, the latest in a number of features that have been cancelled. On the plus side for Blatchford, the cost of environmental remediation has been far lower than anticipated.

A report is expected in the first quarter addressing the District Energy Sharing System that has been proposed for Blatchford. Administration will be preparing “a comprehensive business case” for the implementation of such a system, plus a “detailed rate setting analysis”. Council will need to determine if the district energy system is critical or if it too will be cut. There are some other big decisions coming up as well, so it should be an interesting year.

The City is still planning to sell fully serviced lots at Blatchford to builders this year, if all goes well.

Walterdale Bridge, 102 Avenue Bridge over Groat Road

Both the Walterdale Bridge and the 102 Avenue Bridge experienced major setbacks in 2015.

The $155 million Walterdale Bridge remains on budget according to the City, even with the year-long delay. The completed bridge will span 206 metres and will be 54 metres tall. All of the arch steel is now on site, the heaviest piece of which weighs 125 tonnes. The current plan is for the new bridge to open by the end of the year, with the old bridge slated to be removed in 2017.

The best date we have for the completion of the new 102 Avenue Bridge over Groat Road is “fall 2016” but for a project that has already faced a number of delays, that’s not very reassuring. The installation of steel girders in March was a disaster, with three of them buckling (#girdergate). It was determined that “the spacing braces failed upon crane release of the second last girder, resulting in the buckling of three girders.” They were repaired off-site and have since been reinstalled.

The City can’t afford anymore delays with these two important projects. Apparently a new integrated infrastructure services department has been created to try to avoid issues like the ones faced by the bridge projects. Let’s hope it helps and that they’re completed successfully this year.

Affordable Housing

This is an issue that Mayor Iveson has made clear on numerous occasions he’d like to make progress on. But as he wrote back in December, while “City Council remains strongly committed to supporting affordable housing projects in Edmonton” they believe funding needs to come from other orders of government. “There has to be a better way, one that is fairer to city taxpayers,” the mayor said.

Affordable housing was most recently discussed by Council at the October 27 Executive Committee Meeting. In addition to having Mayor Iveson approach the other orders of government to help advance the Londonderry Regeneration Project, Council asked for a report to come back in April outlining “how a Community Development Corporation could be established” and to address “the role of current housing provides in the Edmonton Metro and the possibility for better integrating and coordinating their work.” Council is also expecting a report to come back in March addressing affordable housing at Blatchford.

Municipal Development Corporation

Over the last year or so Council has been investigating the creation of an arms-length development company. The idea is that a Municipal Development Corporation (MDC) could be used for city building and could even pay a dividend to the City. UDI Edmonton sent a letter to Council back in June offering support for Council’s desire to develop City-owned land assets more efficiently, but expressing “serious concerns” with doing so through an MDC. They don’t want to compete against the City, understandably.

Despite that opposition, Council seems keen to move forward. They approved a motion at the November 26 Executive Committee meeting to have Administration return with a report on April 12 that outlines how to get a Municipal Development Corporation up and running with the preferred “super light” model, and that includes identifying which lands “would be more suitable for primarily profit-motivated development” that the MDC could activate.

An alternative to creating an MDC could be to establish an advisory board made up of existing developers, but I think they’re likely going to go ahead with the corporation this year.

Infill

Last year wasn’t a great year for infill. We’re nowhere close to meeting the 25% target for infill development, and there was a lot of frustration shared by communities as some projects started to move ahead. Still, Council and the City have committed to infill as a critical component of building a sustainable city, so they need to find a way to keep it moving forward.

Infill was most recently discussed at the October 5/6/7 Executive Committee meeting. Council is expecting a report by March that addresses how to deal with infill sites in mature neighbourhoods. Among other things, Council is looking for “options to create an integrated inspection and enforcement team” and “options to implement a performance bond/letter of credit and/or liability insurance, and/or warranty programs to provide security for the adjacent City and private property.” Hopefully some of those options will provide a way past the negative headlines that seemed to dominate the last year.

Following that meeting, Mayor Iveson wrote that infill “is about creating more housing options for Edmontonians and their families, which is important for the social sustainability of our community over the short and long term.” He promised to “assist the communities where this important development will occur.”

Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap identified 23 actions, and roughly half of those have been completed so far. The remaining actions will be completed this year, but it’s not quite clear what will come next. The Mature Neighbourhood Reinvestment Report is to be released in the spring with numbers on the infill taking place around the city.

The Quarters, Rossdale

The Quarters project suffered a setback in 2015 when the deal between the City and BCM Homes to develop a 28-storey residential tower at Five Corners fell through. I went by the giant hole in the ground the other day and discovered it has become home to dozens of pigeons. Apparently just one interested party came forward to look at taking over the site, but no announcements have been made yet. With $56 million in infrastructure upgrades and new construction going into The Quarters, the City desperately needs private partners to come on board to help build out the area. Not to mention the City’s first CRL project at Fort Road has not been very successful, and it would be a shame to see The Quarters follow in its footsteps.

In December, Council voted to sell some land in West Rossdale to the Province for $13 million. Mayor Iveson said there will be plenty of discussion about the impact of this decision on the West Rossdale project in the year ahead. “I think we have signalled an intent we want to work with them and just want to work out some of the details,” he said. The West Rossdale Urban Design Plan was first approved in 2011, so it would be great to see some progress in the year head.

Uber, Taxis, Bike Lanes

After a year of illegal operation and some very heated debates, we should finally get a resolution on the Uber issue in 2016. Proposed changes to the Vehicle for Hire Bylaw were discussed by Council in November, but they deferred a decision until later this month. I remain a fan and happy Uber customer, and I have no doubt that Council will provide a way for Uber to operate legally in Edmonton and I’m confident they will remain here.

The other aspect of the Uber debate is what to do with taxis, if anything. Back in March Council asked for an independent study on Edmonton’s taxi service levels, and that is expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2016. The taxi companies won’t be happy about Uber, but additional changes could be on the way for their operations too.

The other contentious transportation issue that Council will need to deal with this year is bike lanes. They voted over the summer to remove bike lanes on both 95 Avenue and 40 Avenue, with an argument that doing so would pave the way for better bike infrastructure going forward. Well, now they need to prove that. As Mayor Iveson wrote in July, “Council’s statements about implementing the next generation of spaces must be quickly followed with action.”

New Civic Tower

Rogers Place isn’t the only major downtown project expected to open this year. The City of Edmonton’s new office tower is also slated wrap up construction later this year. Featuring 29 storeys the tower will stand 129.8 m tall, putting it in the top five (until the other towers in the arena district are built). The City has signed a 20 year lease for roughly 60% of the tower and has an option on naming rights too. The currently approved name is simply “Edmonton Tower”.

Council will remain at City Hall of course, but the new tower will no doubt have a large positive impact on the culture of the City, putting thousands of colleagues under one roof for the first time. With two-thirds of the City’s downtown employees moving to the tower, it will also have a potentially negative impact on other downtown buildings, creating a lot of vacant space very quickly. The City of Edmonton’s leases at the CN Tower, HSBC Building, and Scotia Place all expire in March.

And that’s just scratching the surface

There’s no shortage of issues for Council to consider throughout the year, as the list above demonstrates. But those are just the big items. Some of the other issues that will come up this year include:

  • Proposed changes to the Public Hearing process
  • An update on efforts to protect & preserve the McDougall United Church
  • An update on the City’s Image, Brand and Reputation Strategy
  • Managing the availability of Park & Ride facilities and a Gorman Park & Ride Strategy
  • Options for Alley Rehabilitation and Renewal
  • An update on the Traffic Management Pilot in Prince Charles and Pleasantview
  • An Electrical Bus Pilot
  • EFCL’s 100th Anniversary Project
  • The proposed Lewis Farms Recreation Centre
  • Funding for the Milner Library Renewal & Upgrades
  • An update on the Urban Beekeeping Program
  • An update on the Urban Hens Pilot Project
  • Plenty of Zoning Bylaw Changes (including reduced parking requirements in three pilot areas and around eating & drinking establishments)
  • An update on the proposed Galleria project
  • The 2016 Municipal Census

This is going to be a busy, difficult year. Get ready!

  • Sig

    When you put every major city issue together in one document it becomes clear how poorly our city is being governed. Our city leaders have proposed much and have grand ambitions, but executing those plans has been largely a failure. I am incredulous that the city is placing anyone involved in the Metro Line debacle in charge of the much larger Valley Line project.

    Edmonton’s Chief Economist has consistently downgraded his outlook with each uttering. His forecasts don’t seem to be worth the paper they are written on. I fear this will be the year reality kicks those in Edmonton who have largely ignored the economic destruction around them.

  • Jeff Brady

    I agree with Sig. We elect our council to govern. We expect that the policies and decisions passed by council are upheld by city admin. The city manager should have proper oversight of the departments but so should council. Council has typically relinquished this part of their job to admin. It reflects very poorly on council when admin. embellishes data presented at meetings. For example, city admin. claims there are 10,000 passengers a day on the Metro line, which is an extreme exaggeration of what really exists.