Edmonton’s skyline can now officially rise higher

For all the noise that was made about height restrictions over downtown in recent years, they sure went away quietly today! At a public hearing, City Council made the removal of the Airport Protection Overlay (APO) official, passing Bylaw 16859 without debate. The zoning bylaw no longer references height restrictions, and buildings downtown can now rise to whatever height the market will bear.

Edmonton City Centre Airport

Section 810 described special regulations for the Downtown Development Area as follows:

“…the maximum Height of a development within the Downtown Development Area, defined in Appendix I to this Schedule, shall not exceed a Height of 815.34 m above sea level.”

Though the maximum height of each building varied with its specific location, in general, the overlay restricted buildings downtown to a maximum height of about 150 metres. The new EPCOR Tower was built to the maximum height allowed, rising to 149 metres, about two-thirds the height of the Bow building that now dominates Calgary’s skyline. Now, buildings can go even higher.

It was only a matter of time until the Airport Protection Overlay was removed, thanks to the full closure of the City Centre Airport in December. “The removal of the Airport Protection Overlay is considered to be an administrative process directly resulting from the closure of the Edmonton City Centre Airport which underwent significant public consultation,” today’s report read. Still, the outcome marks another milestone in the history of the City Centre Airport.

City Centre Airport

Our attention has now fully shifted to Blatchford, and rightly so, but the removal of height restrictions could enliven downtown’s development too. There are of course many examples of great cities that have managed to grow with height restrictions in place, such as Paris or London. Removing the Airport Protection Overlay in Edmonton isn’t going to change the fortunes of downtown by itself, but it is one more barrier out of the way. For a good discussion on what the removal of height restrictions over downtown could mean, check out this Avenue Edmonton article.

City Council takes a step in the wrong direction by supporting the Galleria Project

Well it just wouldn’t be a high-profile project without Council doing most of its deliberations in-camera (private) now would it? That’s exactly what Council did again tonight in considering the Galleria Project (items 6.5, 6.6, and 6.7). It’s a worrying trend.

Essentially what Council decided to do was move forward with building the pedway, at an amount of up to $30 million, and that it would purchase the necessary land and relocate the EPSB Maintenance Building at a cost of about $33 million, pending written confirmation from tenants of the project. This doesn’t mean the Galleria Project is a done deal, but it is a significant step in that direction. And I think it’s a step in the wrong direction, at least at this time.

Here’s the motion as passed this evening:

  1. That the Capital Profile number 14-17-5037 in Attachment 2 of the April 15, 2014, of the Sustainable Development report CR_1065, be amended to a total cost of $30 million.
  2. That subject to an agreement to share the total cost of construction for the Pedway, approved by Council, with land owners north of 103A Avenue benefitting from the construction of the Pedway Connection to the Royal Alberta Museum:
    1. the amended Capital Profile number 14-17-5037 to fund the Pedway, be approved, and
    2. a contract with Ledcor Construction in the amount of $4.4 million for the design for the construction of the Pedway, as outlined in the April 15, 2014, Sustainable Development report CR_1065, be approved, and the contract be in form and content acceptable to the City Manager.
  3. That the Galleria Project – Downtown Academic and Cultural Centre be acknowledged as an innovative development opportunity in downtown Edmonton and subject to the City receiving written confirmation of financing and financial commitment for the Galleria Project from the Province of Alberta for the University of Alberta, a major office building tenant, other office building tenants, and retail tenants, that the purchase of land and relocation of the Edmonton Public School Board Maintenance Building and Capital Profile number 14-17-5031, as set out in Attachment 1 of the April 15, 2014, Sustainable Development report CR_1066, be approved.

Wasn’t this project supposed to be mostly paid for by donations? Yet here we are, with the City taking on much of the upfront risk.

Galleria Project

Council decided on all of this after receiving a report full of potential risks. Here are some excerpts from one of the reports that Council considered today on the Galleria Project (emphasis is mine):

  • “The Foundation initially requested financial support for the Galleria roof, but has withdrawn that request given the preliminary state of the project and the absence of a clear design or plan.”
  • “The University of Alberta has confirmed its intention to relocate the School of Music and Department of Art and Design to the site, bringing potentially 5,000 additional staff and students to downtown. This relocation is conditional upon direct, climate controlled connection to the LRT (i.e. an underground pedway connection to Churchill Station).”
  • “On February 18, 2014, as a result of revised cost estimates for the pedway construction and land purchase, the Foundation requested additional funding that reflected the increased cost estimates. In addition, because of the design and construction schedule for the Royal Alberta Museum, the City was asked to fund the pedway design and associated utility relocations immediately. This work cannot be deferred to a later date.”
  • “In order to purchase the School Board property, the City will be responsible for all costs to relocate the School Board Maintenance Building Operations to an alternate site.”
  • “In order to protect for the opportunity to connect both the Royal Alberta Museum, the Galleria, and other new development north of 103 A Avenue directly to Churchill LRT Station, the decision to proceed with the design of the pedway, the commencement of required utility relocations, and commitment to construct the shell under the Museum forecourt must be made now.
  • “The request to the City to contribute towards the construction of a roof over the Galleria has been removed. The Foundation may return with a request for assistance at a later date once more information is available. It is considered premature to consider any additional funding for this component until the project further evolves.”
  • “The business case as developed by the Foundation identifies that the source of funding for the Trust, and in turn for the theatres, is from the revenues generated by the office space and retail leasing on the property. In the event that the revenues are not realized, then while there is no legal obligation for the City to assume the operation of the theatres, there is a risk that the City could be asked to provide financial assistance in order for the theatres to continue to operate.”
  • “It is difficult to define and quantify risks at this time as this project is still at the concept design stage. The Foundation has provided what information it has, but there is not sufficient information available to fully address many of the issues identified for clarification.”
  • “Critical assumptions have been made relative to office and retail lease rates, rate of office space absorption, retail market demand, financing costs, construction costs, fundraising commitments and availability of government grants. Should any of the assumptions made in the business case not be realized, there is a risk that the funding to build, operate and maintain the theatres will not be sufficient to achieve the goal of providing affordable space to the arts community.”
  • “While the Foundation is confident in their ability to secure an anchor tenant for the office tower as well as several additional tenants, no proposed tenants are under contract.”
  • “With several new office towers having recently been announced or underway in the downtown, vacancy rates are expected to rise, and given the existing vacancy within the EPCOR Tower, the ability to secure tenants in a short time frame is considered to be a significant risk.”
  • “Costs for the theatres are difficult to estimate as they are subject to considerable range depending upon the design; however the costs are at the low end of the range of recent theatre construction in Calgary and Toronto.”
  • “The Foundation or Cultural Trust will offset the anticipated net operating loss of the theatres with diverse and dedicated revenue streams from office and retail rental rates from the larger Galleria project. There is no contingent plan contemplated to continue the operations of the theatres if the projected revenues are not realized.”

Nevermind that the original business case called the four new theatres “financially self-sustaining”. Guess not. Or that it declared the project was “feasible” and “sustainable” or that it would “generate significant revenue.” Unless of course the assumptions are wrong. Or worst of all, that the City wouldn’t have to put in much money, because it was a unique “P4” model. Right.

Somehow, after discussing the project behind closed doors, Council was able to look past all of that risk and concern (not to mention the ultimatum about needing to decide today) to support the project. Furthermore, many of them made a point of expressing their support verbally, as if the proponents might see the motion not as a victory but as a loss.

Councillor Henderson called it “a remarkable opportunity for the city.” Councillor Esslinger called it “an exciting project.” Councillor Sohi said it was “a very innovative development opportunity.” Only Councillor Knack spoke partially against the motion, suggesting that it should be compared against other projects up for consideration as part of the next Capital Budget. Mayor Iveson too pointed out that more assurances are needed, but said “it’s entirely appropriate to further explore” the project. He said it’s a “very exciting concept.”

Councillor McKeen made the motion, and used his remarks in part to justify the use of an in-camera session. He essentially asked us to trust Council, to take their word for it that the proponents did their homework. I fully appreciate the sensitivity around confidential information that doesn’t belong to the City, but I fail to see why that means the entire discussion needs to be had in private.

Furthermore, Councillor McKeen said “I think we’re asking a lot of the proponent” and added “we have spent a lot of time on this.” Really? Given the glaring holes in the proposal and self-admission that it is still extremely preliminary, I don’t think Council is asking much of the folks behind the Gallera Project at all. And I certainly don’t think Council has spent “a lot” of time on this project, unless it all happened behind the scenes.

In general I think the land investment by the City is a good thing – I’d rather have the City own it than some speculator or foreign investor who will just leave an ugly and unsafe surface parking lot on it. I think it also makes sense for the City to be a key player in land assembly for big projects. But aside from that, I’m really at a loss for why this should proceed with City funding.

The word most commonly used by Council tonight to describe the project was “innovative”. They all seemed to find the proposed Cultural Trust especially appealing, despite the risk that it may never come to fruition if the anticipated revenues from the office space and retail leasing don’t pan out. Unfortunately no questions were asked about the success of such initiatives in other cities throughout North America. No questions were asked about the likelihood that such a scheme would work here in Edmonton.

Only one question came up about whether the project as proposed would actually meet the needs of the arts community. No one asked why other arts organizations aren’t lining up to support the project, however.

At no point in the brief public discussion tonight did any question come up about the potential impact this project could have on the arena, located directly across 101 Street. This despite the fact that both projects need significant retail leasing to happen in order to succeed, which means they’ll be competing against one another.

Galleria Project

And most importantly, no consideration appeared to be given as to whether or not this is the way we want to build our city. Is moving billion dollar projects around like lego pieces really the way to do it? Shouldn’t there be some concern about how they’ll all work together? Or maybe some sort of bigger vision or plan? At the very least, shouldn’t we understand whether or not we can afford the worst case scenario?

I’m all for building downtown and the positive vision that Council has for Edmonton. I fully appreciate the incredible work that Dianne and Irving Kipnes have done and will continue to do in Edmonton. But I’m finding it incredibly difficult to support the Galleria Project as it has currently been proposed.

City Council approves a new transportation goal and outcomes for The Way Ahead

It’s no secret that LRT is City Council’s top infrastructure priority. They have repeatedly stressed the importance of expanding our LRT network, and scored a win recently with the Valley Line. LRT is part of a bigger transformation that Council hopes to realize, which is a shift away from the car-dominated transportation network we have today to a network that offers realistic choice through a range of travel options. At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, they approved a new goal for The Way We Move that makes this transformation clearer.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

In November last year, Edmonton’s new City Council took part in a series of strategic planning sessions. In addition to serving as a crash course on the City’s strategy and approach to long-term planning, the sessions were also a way to ensure the new Councillors were on board with the corporate outcomes, measures, and targets for each of the six 10-year goals identified in The Way Ahead. Among the key outcomes of those meetings were a desire by Council to review the goal statement for The Way We Move, as well as a desire to emphasize public engagement within The Ways.

The public engagement action is being handled through a new Council Initiative, and I think we’ll hear much more about that in the weeks ahead. I’m looking forward to it.

The goal for The Way We Move was reviewed and discussed at a couple of subsequent Council meetings, notably January 28 and March 11. Council wanted to stress the use of public transit, but they wanted to make it clear that Edmontonians would have choice. The goal they ultimately settled on reflects both of those desires and has led to a new set of outcomes too.

Current Goal: Shift Edmonton’s Transportation Mode

The current goal statement for The Way We Move is focused on “mode shift”, which is meant to convey that while the majority of Edmontonians get around the city using vehicles today, that should not always be the case. The reasons for needing a shift included changing our urban form to be more sustainable, accessibility, supporting active and healthy lifestyles, reducing the impact on the environment, and attracting business and talent to Edmonton.

Here’s the goal statement that accompanies the goal:

“Modes of transportation shift to “fit” Edmonton’s urban form and enhanced density while supporting the City’s planning, financial and environmental sustainability goals.”

Each goal also has an ‘elaboration’ associated with it. The current one for transportation reads:

“In shifting Edmonton’s transportation modes the City recognizes the importance of mobility shifts to contribute to the achievement of other related goals. To do so suggests the need to transform the mix of transport modes, with emphasis on road use for goods movement and transiting people and transit use for moving people. This goal reflects the need for a more integrated transportation network comprising of heavy rail, light rail, air and ground transport, and recognizes the important contribution that transportation makes to environmental goals.”

While the current wording attempts to connect with the other goals in The Way Ahead, it doesn’t as forcefully make the case for offering alternatives to single-occupant vehicles. The other challenge is that “mode shift” doesn’t mean anything to most of us, and sounds bureaucratic.

Perhaps more importantly, this was the only goal that was presented as if was worth doing solely to achieve the other goals. Surely a shift in how we move around the city should have benefits of its own!

New Goal: Enhance use of public transit and active modes of transportation

The new goal statement reads:

“Enhancing public transit and other alternatives to single-occupant vehicles will provide Edmonton with a well-maintained and integrated transportation network. Increased use of these options will maximize overall transportation system efficiency and support the City’s urban planning, livability, financial, economic and environmental sustainability goals.”

And the new elaboration reads:

“Through this goal, the City recognizes that a transportation system that is designed to support a range of travel options will increase the number of people and the amount of goods that can move efficiently around the city, while supporting the City’s goals for livability, urban form, financial, economic and environmental sustainability. Creating this 21st century sustainable and globally competitive city means offering choice. It will allow Edmontonians of all ages and abilities to safely walk, bike, ride transit, ride-share or drive to the places they need to go. The trade-offs needed to achieve this vision will create an integrated transportation system with greater travel choices for Edmontonians.”

The connection to the other goals is still present in the new wording, but not at the expense of highlighting the desire for alternatives to the car. There’s also the suggestion that trade-offs will need to be made in order to create a system that offers choice – we can’t have it all without making some hard decisions. The new goal is much more approachable now that “mode shift” is gone.

New Outcomes

Alongside this change, Council approved 12 new corporate outcomes, replacing the 20 that had previously been approved. Through their discussions, Council felt the outcomes should be specific and measurable, and provide a clarity of purpose. They wanted to simplify the approach. Here are the 12 outcomes they ended up with:

  1. Edmonton is attractive and compact
  2. The City of Edmonton has sustainable and accessible infrastructure
  3. Edmontonians use public transit and active modes of transportation
  4. Goods and services move efficiently
  5. Edmontonians are connected to the city in which they live, work, and play
  6. Edmontonians use facilities and services that promote healthy living
  7. Edmonton is a safe city
  8. The City of Edmonton’s operations are environmentally sustainable
  9. Edmonton is an environmentally sustainable and resilient city
  10. The City of Edmonton has a resilient financial position
  11. Edmonton has a globally competitive and entrepreneurial business climate
  12. Edmonton Region is a catalyst for industry and business growth

Gone are words like “minimized”, “supports”, or “strives”. The new language seems less open to interpretation, which is a good thing for determining progress. The next step is for Administration to prepare measures and targets based on these outcomes and to update The Way Ahead (there are currently 65 approved measures and 27 approved targets).

Results?

It’s great that Council wanted to strengthen the transportation goal and that they have simplified the outcomes. Most of this strategic planning was completed by previous Councils, so the exercise probably helped to ensure our current Councillors feel a sense of ownership. But the challenge remains: we need to implement the plans and see results. An annual report on progress will go to Council next year, based on the new outcomes, measures, and targets.

Edmonton City Council Initiatives for 2013-2017

With the adoption of Policy C518 (pdf) in March 2006, City Council started identifying and assigning Council Initiatives, “projects that Council deems would benefit from having a Councillor as a sponsor.” At its December 11, 2013 meeting, our current City Council approved the list of initiatives for the 2013-2017 term.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

The following initiatives from the 2010-2013 term were renewed (the Councillor assignments, as volunteered, are in brackets):

  • Northern Relationships/Circumpolar (Gibbons, Iveson, Caterina)
  • Arts & Culture (Henderson, McKeen)
  • Economic Development
    • Heartland (Iveson, Gibbons)
    • Startups (Oshry)
    • Port Alberta (Nickel)
  • Housing (Iveson, Henderson)
  • Edmonton’s Poverty Elimination (Iveson, Henderson, Sohi)
  • Indigenous Peoples Strategy (Iveson, Caterina, Henderson)
  • Multiculturalism (Iveson, Sohi)
  • Next Gen (Oshry, Knack*)
  • Public Transit (Knack, Sohi)
  • Recreation (Anderson)
  • Seniors (Knack, Sohi)
  • Traffic Safety (Esslinger, Loken)

The following initiatives are new (the Councillor assignments, as volunteered, are in brackets):

  • Child Friendly Edmonton (Esslinger)
  • Communities in Bloom (Nickel)
  • ELEVATE (Esslinger, Walters)
  • Public Engagement Initiative (Henderson, Walters)
  • Urban Isolation/Mental Health (McKeen)
  • Winter Cities (Henderson, McKeen)
  • Women’s Initiative (Iveson, Esslinger)
  • Post-Secondary Relations (Iveson, Knack, Esslinger)

Here’s a look at all the initiatives by Councillor for the 2013-2017 term:

Councillor Initiatives
Anderson
(Ward 9)
– Recreation
Caterina
(Ward 7)
– Northern Relationships/Circumpolar
– Indigenous People’s Strategy
Esslinger
(Ward 2)
– Child Friendly Edmonton
– ELEVATE
– Women’s Initiative
– Post-Secondary Relations
Gibbons
(Ward 4)
– Northern Relationships/Circumpolar
– Economic Development – Heartland
Henderson
(Ward 8)
– Arts & Culture
– Housing
– Edmonton’s Poverty Elimination
– Indigenous People’s Strategy
– Public Engagement Initiative
– Winter Cities
Iveson
(Mayor)
– Northern Relationships/Circumpolar
– Economic Development – Heartland
– Housing
– Edmonton’s Poverty Elimination
– Indigenous People’s Strategy
– Multiculturalism
– Women’s Initiative
– Post-Secondary Relations
Knack
(Ward 1)
– Next Gen*
– Public Transit
– Seniors
– Post-Secondary Relations
Loken
(Ward 3)
– Traffic Safety
McKeen
(Ward 6)
– Arts & Culture
– Urban Isolation/Mental Health
– Winter Cities
Nickel
(Ward 11)
– Economic Development – Port Alberta
– Communities in Bloom
Oshry
(Ward 5)
– Economic Development – Startups
– Next Gen
Sohi
(Ward 12)
– Edmonton’s Poverty Elimination
– Multiculturalism
– Public Transit
– Seniors
Walters
(Ward 10)
– ELEVATE
– Public Engagement Initiative

The following initiatives from the 2010-2013 term were considered complete and are now discontinued:

  • City of Learners (mandate complete and to be continued by EPL)
  • Community Sustainability (to be re-focused through ELEVATE)
  • Environment (moving into implementation)
  • External Affairs (covered with board appointments)
  • Transforming Edmonton (mandate complete and operationalized)
  • Agri-Food/Urban Agriculture

Council approved the above initiative assignments and closures unanimously. The next step is for Administration to bring forward updated Terms of Reference for each.

One impact of declaring these initiatives is that Administration is required by the policy to include all Council Initiatives in business plans and budgets. That makes it possible (to an extent) to track resources and progress on each.

These initiatives aren’t highlighted and assigned just for show. You can expect to see Councillors at any media events related to their initiatives of course, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that each will do as well.

In addition to the initiatives above, Councillors are also appointed to various boards and committees. There is a limited amount of overlap.

I am a little surprised that the Environment initiative was closed, with no related initiative put forward to replace it. Especially given the direction Edmonton is heading as a leader in sustainability and waste management. I am very pleased to see a new initiative focused on public engagement, however.

* – Though the documents do not reflect it, Councillor Knack has confirmed that he too is on the Next Gen initiative.

2013-2017 Edmonton City Council Swearing In Ceremony & Inaugural Meeting

Edmonton’s new City Council was officially sworn into office this afternoon at City Hall. Councillors have been busy since last week’s election of course, learning how everything works, getting their staff and offices in order, and I’m sure, stopping every now and then to take it all in. But now their positions are official, and the real work can begin.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

The event was emceed by John Dowds and opened with an invocation from Elder Francis Whiskeyjack. With the help of Justice D. M. Manderscheid, each new member of Council took the oath of office in front a packed crowd. It wasn’t all business though, as Sierra Jamerson performed a beautiful song right before Mayor Iveson took to the podium to deliver his remarks.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

Mayor Iveson began with some tributes, acknowledging that Edmonton is on Treaty 6 territory, and praising the work of the previous Council. He highlighted the “vigorous pace” that outgoing Mayor Stephen Mandel had set and confirmed that he too will lean on “the diversity of wisdom and perspective” that each member of City Council brings to the table.

Mayor Iveson talked about the importance of the Edmonton Region, the new relationship with Calgary, and the need to “firm up stable, predictable funding for key infrastructure, including LRT.” He talked about roads and pipes, fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency, homelessness and poverty, urban living, innovation, the environment, the arts, and diversity and inclusion. It was the same messaging Iveson has been delivering for months on the campaign trail, but asserted with the new confidence that comes from being mayor.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017
Mayor Don Iveson takes the oath

Before highlighting his colleagues on Council to close, Mayor Iveson addressed the so-called generational shift that has been talked about over the last week:

“Some have remarked that this election marked the passing of the torch to the next generation of leaders. But I and my fellow Council members are custodians of that leadership, doing the most good with it to make Edmonton an even greater place, in time to pass on the torch to our children and grandchildren. The leadership you see here represents all Edmontonians, regardless of age or interest. A united city we must be, in order to accomplish all on the path ahead in the next four years.”

Here’s a video of some of today’s highlights:

The inaugural meeting of the new City Council took place immediately after the ceremony. The first order of business was to adopt the agenda, and after the vote passed unanimously, Mayor Iveson let out a brief “whew!” that the much-larger-than-normal crowd enjoyed.

Here’s the seating order, from left to right:

  • Councillor Amarjeet Sohi
  • Councillor Michael Oshry
  • Councillor Ben Henderson
  • Councillor Andrew Knack
  • Councillor Tony Caterina
  • Councillor Scott McKeen
  • Mayor Don Iveson
  • Councillor Bev Esslinger
  • Councillor Dave Loken
  • Councillor Michael Walters
  • Councillor Bryan Anderson
  • Councillor Mike Nickel
  • Councillor Ed Gibbons

The mayor gets to select the seating order. I’m not sure how Mayor Iveson came up with the order, but Joveena noted that experienced and new Councillors alternate, which seems like a smart approach. The returning Councillors are more or less in the same spots as before too.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017
Unanimous, for now

The meeting was very short, though Councillor Sohi did give notice that he intends to bring forward a motion in November to provide WIN House with $50,000 in funding. He was sporting a bright blue shirt that said, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like”.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017
Mayor Don Iveson

Now that it’s official, City Council will get down to business, starting with Strategic Planning tomorrow and soon, the 2014 budget. You can see the upcoming schedule as well as agendas and minutes here.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017
City Council gets down to business

Congratulations to our new City Council!

You can see my recap of the 2010 Swearing In Ceremony here. You can see more photos of today’s ceremony and meeting here.

In a sea of platitudes, are there any specifics?

It’s true that this election lacks a big, divisive issue like the arena or the city centre airport. There’s little disagreement among candidates about the path Edmonton is on or even about what Edmonton will look like in four to eight years. Yet despite all of that similarity, candidates aren’t doing much to differentiate themselves. With just ten days until election day, all we seem to hear are platitudes. Where are the specifics?

“Let’s get our city’s taxes and debt under control,” reads mayoral candidate Kerry Diotte’s digital brochure. The text offers some numbers to illustrate how Edmonton’s debt has grown over the last decade, but details on how to get that debt “under control” are nowhere to be found. “Reduce wasteful spending” is another common refrain from the Diotte camp, but how? In our #yegvote Hangout, Kerry said he’d need to review “wants” versus “needs” but wouldn’t offer any specifics, suggesting he’d have to do that in collaboration with the new council.

(BTW, it’s remarkable how similar Ward 2 candidate Don Koziak’s vision for City Council is to that of Kerry Diotte.)

Over in Ward 4, incumbent Ed Gibbons offers policies like: “is working with administrators and developers to ensure the appropriate growth of our community,” and “supports appropriate redevelopment of older communities for both new and existing residents.” What is appropriate growth? How do you quantify that? What does appropriate redevelopment look like?

Ward 1 candidate Rob Pasay has five platform statements, each about three or four sentences long. Here’s his “Power To The People” policy:

Put an end to corporate sponsorship of Councillor and Mayoral candidates. Encourage a city-wide vote on any project whose total initial cost is greater than a certain percentage of the City GDP. Increase voter turnout by investigating the use of malls and seniors homes as voting stations. Actually balance the budget.

Greater than a certain percentage of the GDP? What’s the percentage? 1%? 50%? Does that even make sense as an idea? How would you hold a city-wide vote in the middle of a four-year term? It’s a crazy thing to say without any specifics to back it up.

The policies put forward by Ward 11 candidate Mike Nickel are even more laughable. Here’s his entire policy on municipal taxes:

Our tax dollars must be spent effectively with an eye reviewing the City’s current expenditures and debt load. There is no room for civic waste or financial mismanagement.

Some of his other policy statements are even shorter, and he ends each one with a question: “How do you feel about this issue?”

I can understand why a candidate might hesitate to get too specific – they could then be held accountable if they got into office. For instance, what if they promised a 5% cut, but could only achieve a 3% cut once elected? Would that be seen as the candidate misleading voters? It’s better than making only vague promises with no real plan, in my mind.

I suppose platitudes are better than misinformation. There are clearly a large number of candidates who haven’t done even the most basic research on issues like homelessness or LRT funding. Still, I wish there was more substance to the policy statements being put forth by so many of the candidates. A statement of intent is useful, but why stop there? Even just a little more detail would help to differentiate many of the candidates from their competitors. When the candidates themselves remark that “we’re all saying basically the same thing” at forums, there’s a problem.

Untitled

To be fair, there are some candidates that offer more than just platitudes (but not many). Ward 2 candidate Ted Grand gets specific in his neighbourhood renewal policy:

The City has recognized it fell behind in maintaining infrastructure in the City’s mature neighbourhoods. In the 2013 budget they set funding support of the renewal program at 1.5%. I will be working to restore the program back to the 2010 level of 2%, so more neighbourhoods can be completed sooner.

In the mayoral race, Don Iveson is consistently highlighted as the only candidate that seems to know the facts and can offer more than just an opinion. Even the Edmonton Sun’s Lorne Gunter picked up on this, writing “on every issue, he understands the problem and has thought through a solution.” Consider Don’s policy on funding the city. He offers a short-term plan with some specifics:

“I will introduce a program called “Council’s 2%” in which Council will work with city administration throughout the year to find an annual 2% increased efficiency in our city’s tax-supported operations, which should yield approximately $80 million over the next four years.”

And he saves any platitudes for the long-term vision:

My vision is that in 20 years, the city’s over-reliance on unfair property taxes is long behind us. Edmonton, and all Canadian cities, need better tools to pay for the services we expect and the city we envision.

The main reason I’m interested in specifics is not differentiation, but confidence. I want to be confident that the successful candidates have what it takes to do the job. Specifics and detail are a large part of what City Council deals with on a daily basis. There’s a reason that a Councillor’s workload “averages at least 60-70 hours per week.” No doubt some of that time can be attributed to attending events, but there’s a significant amount of effort that goes into understanding the issues.

But don’t take my word for it – here’s what current Councillor Kim Krushell told me:

To be an effective City Councillor you have to be prepared to not only attend countless Council and committee meetings but be willing to lead Council Initiatives. The biggest part of the job is reading. Councillors get most of their agendas the Thursday before the week of meetings. This means spending countless hours reading on the weekends. When you sit on other Boards such as the Police Commission or AUMA (Alberta Urban Municipalities Association) there is a significant amount of additional reading the Councillor has to do.

She added: “The job is not easy but it is rewarding!”

With so little time before election day, we’re not likely to see much change in the information that candidates are providing. And that’s a shame, because deciding between “I support better public involvement” and “I support better public consultation” is not going to be easy.

Under Mayor Mandel’s leadership, Edmonton has thrived

Mayor Stephen Mandel announced today that he will not seek a fourth term as mayor. It’s the first time since 1988 that an Edmonton mayor has left the position voluntarily, when Laurence Decore resigned to enter provincial politics.

Had Mandel run again, he would have won. Councillor Diotte was the only person on Council who was willing to run against him, and it is doubtful that another serious challenger would have come forward, let alone had a chance at victory.

The change this year to four year terms likely had an impact on his decision – Mandel would have been into his 70s had he won another term. Three year terms were introduced in 1968, and Mandel has supported the idea of adding another year in the past. "My belief is that a four-year term allows you to be successful," he told the Journal in 2005. "It’s a more substantive time for trying to complete an agenda."

Mandel has also supported the notion of term limits for mayors, noting the demands of the job. "That takes a great deal of energy, and to be creative for a long period of time, there is a simply a limit," he said in 2005. "I mean, how many years can you do it and still be effective?" Like his predecessor Bill Smith, Mandel’s three consecutive terms are more than he or anyone else expected him to serve.

Stephen Mandel at Candi{date} Sept 29, 2010

After failing to win a seat on the public school board in 1995, Mandel was elected to City Council by just 33 votes in 2001. Working alongside Karen Leibovici in Ward 1, commentators at the time noted that Mandel learned a lot and matured politically over those three years.

As the 2004 election approached, Mandel found himself deciding to run for mayor. He did not want to serve another term under Bill Smith, who aside from being a cheerleader was often described as a "lone wolf." Mandel also felt that Robert Noce, the other serious contender that year, was not someone he wanted to work with. "We can wait forever for somebody else to do it, but I’m not going to do that. I believe that one of the real problems of our city is that we wait for everybody," he said at the time.

Mandel handily won the election that year, defeating Smith by more than 17,000 votes. "You have no idea how I feel. This is unbelievable," he told supporters after the results had come in. Despite being snowy on election day, turnout was relatively good at 41.8%. In 2007, Mandel earned 66% of the vote, defeating Don Koziak by more than 60,000 votes. It was a clear mandate for Mandel and the big city vision he had brought to Edmonton. Turnout was just a dismal 27% that year, a sign that Edmontonians were happy with the direction Mandel was headed.

Mayor Stephen Mandel

In the last election in 2010, Mandel earned 55% of the vote, defeating David Dorward by more than 50,000 votes. Turnout improved slightly from 2007, jumping to 33.4%. It was an important election for Mandel. "This election was about building a positive future for Edmonton," he said in his 2010 swearing-in address. "It embraced long-term thinking and a broad vision of an ambitious Edmonton." Just two new councillors were elected that year, suggesting once again that Edmontonians liked where things were going.

Mandel has accomplished a number of the things he originally set out to achieve. Expansion of the LRT, tackling the problem of homelessness, reducing crime, and raising the profile of the arts, to name just a few. He has always pushed for improved relations with the Province, and for Edmonton to get its fair share of attention and money. On regional issues, Mandel regularly pushed for more cooperation rather than competition, though he was willing to be the bully if he felt it was appropriate.

Mayor Stephen Mandel

Mandel wanted Edmonton to be a capital city again, to be a big city. As he said today, “we want our city not just to exist but to thrive.” Under his leadership, it has happened. The feeling of being left behind that Edmontonians felt in 2004 no longer lingers, and any jealousy of Calgary has given way to the realization that the two cities need to work together.

These are not easy challenges to have tackled, and they have certainly demanded a lot of Mandel. He was known to have a temper before becoming mayor, and Edmontonians got a glimpse of that during his first term on Council. While Mandel has learned to control his language in public, he’s been known to passionately express his viewpoint behind closed doors. Occasionally his anger got the better of him, such as when he learned that Edmonton had lost federal support for its bid to host EXPO 2017.

Mandel will certainly be remembered for many of the capital projects he had a hand in, such as the South LRT extension, the closing of the City Centre Airport, and of course the downtown arena, but I think his true legacy is actually a little less tangible.

Edmonton City Council Swearing in Ceremony

I have always appreciated Mandel’s view that councillors should be involved in citywide issues, not just ward issues. In his 2007 swearing-in address, Mandel stated: "No matter what community has sent us here, we all share a responsibility to do what’s right for the city as a whole." His approach as mayor was markedly different than Smith’s before him. Mandel often complained of feeling excluded as a councillor under Smith, and that certainly influenced his style. In his remarks today, Mandel again reiterated his view that the mayor “is just one small voice” on Council.

Over his three terms, Mandel has brought an increasing level of sophistication to the City of Edmonton and to the way City Council operates. He showed us what could be achieved by building consensus and working together. He showed us what’s possible when everyone is aligned, both inside and outside of City Hall. That to me is his lasting legacy. He’s changed the way we do things. In Mandel’s Edmonton, we make things happen together.

Mayor Mandel

I’m very grateful that Mandel dedicated over a decade of his life to this city; Edmonton is a better place because of his efforts. I wish him all the best in his next adventure!

Will he retire? If not, what will Mandel do next? Here’s what he told the National Post in 2010:

"I’m not a hobby guy. I like to volunteer when I’m not doing this job, but right now this is busy and I don’t. So I don’t have a hobby, but I wish I did, you know. I wish I was a woodworker. I think when I retire I’m going to try to learn how to cook. I like to cook. I’m not any good at it."

Mandel did hint today that he has been discussing future plans with his family, but said today was not the time to share them.

Mandel’s announcement makes the election this fall much more exciting. Not only does it mean we’ll have a new mayor, but it likely means a large number of new faces on Council. Expect to see a number of campaign announcements over the next month. On that, Mandel shared a few thoughts as well. “I’m excited to know that our citizens will have many diverse options to consider this fall. I want to wish the best of luck to all those who will put their names forward to be Edmonton’s next mayor.”

What good are (bike) plans without implementation?

Bike lanes have been in the news again, largely thanks to Mayor Mandel referring to the plans as a “nightmare” on Wednesday. It’s pretty clear that our poor public consultation practices are part of the problem here, but there’s another issue at play. As a city we’re good at talking the talk, but we too often fail at walking the walk.

From The Way Ahead:

In shifting Edmonton’s transportation modes the City recognizes the importance of mobility shifts to contribute to the achievement of other related goals. To do so suggests the need to transform the mix of transport modes, with emphasis on road use for goods movement and transiting people and transit use for moving people.

From The Way We Move’s Strategic Goals:

Public transportation and active transportation are the preferred choice for more people, making it possible for the transportation system to move more people more efficiently in fewer vehicles.

From The Way We Move’s Implementation Plan:

Active transportation includes any form of human-powered transportation, the most common modes being walking and biking. A key direction of The Way We Move is to develop an integrated and sustainable transportation system in Edmonton to enable citizens to shift to these modes.

And then of course there is the Active Transportation Policy which declares, “the City of Edmonton strives to be pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.”

Our plans and goals and policies all seem to support taking steps to make cycling in Edmonton more common. We know that doing so will help to reduce traffic congestion, preserve our road infrastructure, protect the environment, and make us healthier. Our goal of building 500 km of on-street cycling facilities in the next 10 to 20 years is achievable, and we can be confident it’ll help shift our transportation modes because just as you get more drivers when you add more roads, research suggests you get more cyclists if you add more bike lanes (pdf).

So why does it seem so difficult to make any actual progress?

Isaak Kornelsen Memorial Ride - August 31, 2012

When the 2012-2014 Capital Budget was being discussed, Active Transportation nearly missed out on funding. After lots of public feedback and discussion, Council amended the budget and did include $20 million. Now we get around to actually spending some of that money on cycling – $2 million or less this year – and we once again seem to be forced into the position of having to fight to move things forward. One step forward, two steps backward.

Without question the way the City does public consultation contributed to this mess – there’s a lot of room for improvement. But “poor public consultation” is also a convenient scapegoat for politicians and citizens opposed to the plans. There’s no conspiracy here. The notion of adding bike lanes to our streets didn’t suddenly appear one day out of thin air. These plans have been in the works for years.

All we need to do now is walk the walk.

You can learn more about Cycling in Edmonton here, and note the City is running a survey on the 2013 Bike Routes until February 27.

Two other thoughts:

  • Why wasn’t there any outrage about the loss of parking when the bike parking corrals were put in place over the summer? Was it just because they were temporary?
  • Am I the only one annoyed that we’re spending 10 to 30 times more on a “mechanized access” project for the River Valley that has no clear plan than we are on bike lanes?

Edmonton should introduce online voting

City Council will decide tomorrow whether or not to go ahead with online voting in municipal elections. Executive Committee referred the item back to Council without a recommendation, but Administration’s position is clear. Their recommendation states:

  1. That an internet voting option for the 2013 General Election be approved, subject to the necessary Local Authorities Election Act regulation changes.
  2. That Administration request that Alberta Municipal Affairs make the necessary regulation changes to allow implementation of an internet voting option.
  3. That Administration bring forward amendments to Election Bylaw 15307 to address legislative requirements for internet voting.

You’ve probably heard about the Jellybean Election that was held last year to test the viability of online voting. The feedback from that and other public involvement activities was also clear:

Overall, the responses from those who participated in all of the public involvement processes indicated support for the use of internet voting as another voting option. The responses were qualified with an expectation that the City ensure that the voting option provide auditability, security, reliability, be user friendly and be provided at a reasonable cost.

With a projected cost of $400,000 to implement online voting for the 2013 General Election, I think the City can meet those qualifications. Online voting is a viable option right now, and we should offer it in Edmonton.

Voting Station
Is this the best we can do?

I could write about how pretty much everything can be done online now. We pay our bills, share our thoughts, file our taxes, buy goods and services, look for love, and much, much more, all online. I could write about how Scytl, the company we used for the online voting system in the Jellybean election, “has provided internet voting for elections all over the world including France, Madrid and Halifax.” But I’m not sure any of that would convince you more than this CNN article from 2011:

In all, 80 Canadian cities and towns have experimented with Internet voting in municipal elections. The town of Markham, in Ontario, has offered online ballots in local elections since 2003.

We’re not even close to leading the pack in Canada, let alone the world! Estonia has allowed online voting in its national elections since 2007. Online voting may be new to Edmonton, but its old hat elsewhere.

Read just about any article about online voting and amidst any concern you invariably hear that online voting is the future. The article in the Journal last week was no exception:

While Coun. Karen Leibovici feels online elections are the way of the future, she’s not sure the city can be ready to introduce this approach in less than nine months.

Online voting may be the future, but it’s not futuristic. As this Mashable article discussing online voting in the US says, “Internet voting systems are already being used in elections of consequence” and “widespread online elections will be a reality in the near future.”

Understandably, the most vocal concerns about online voting have to do with security. No system is 100% secure, but generally speaking it’s not the technology that is the weakest link, it’s us. For an eye-opening look at the human side of security, I’d encourage you to read Kevin Mitnick’s book The Art of Deception. In it, “Mitnick explains why all the firewalls and encryption protocols in the world will never be enough to stop a savvy grifter intent on rifling a corporate database or an irate employee determined to crash a system.” Or someone motivated to interfere with an election. If you really want to hack the system, you’ll find a way.

For me the question becomes, is online voting any less secure than offline voting? I don’t think it is. How do you know that that piece of paper you drop into a cardboard box ends up where it should and is counted accurately? How do you know that someone hasn’t interfered with the system somewhere in between you voting and the results being published? You don’t. A technology-based system would still require a certain amount of trust, but unlike with paper-based systems, that trust can be backed up with audit records and digital copies.

No one is suggesting that we get rid of paper-based voting and move entirely online (at least not yet). But adding online voting as an option would make the next election more accessible, and would give us the opportunity to gain some insight and knowledge on how to improve the system in the future.

The corporate outcomes section of the report going to Council states:

Providing voters with secure voting options enhances the democratic process and our citizens’ connection to their community, and supports the goals of the Way We Live.

I can’t say it any better than that. Let’s move forward with online voting in Edmonton.

Edmonton City Council and Katz Group move forward on new downtown arena

Today was the latest episode in the downtown arena saga and it was a weird one. Council received an update from Administration on negotiations with the Katz Group and ultimately voted 10-3 to move forward with an altered deal, though one that still closely resembles the framework that was approved in October 2011. Today is being called a “landmark” day for Edmonton, and supporters of the arena are understandably happy that the project is moving ahead, even though they may not be entirely sure why.

Let’s start with what’s new. The price of the arena has gone up $30 million to $480 million, and that pushes the total cost of the project (including the community rink, land, and other elements) to more than $600 million. The other changes include:

  • The additional $30-million for the arena over the previous framework will be split between the City and the Katz Group
  • The LRT connection, solely funded by the City, has been reduced from $17-million to $7-million
  • Katz Group will pay for the slightly increased costs of the Winter Garden
  • Under the new framework, the City will own the arena and land, and the Katz Group will pay all operating costs and receive all revenues

There are some other changes too, such as a property tax clause that no one seems to understand. But the biggest difference? Congratulations and optimism all around. Speaking to the media afterward, Mayor Mandel declared:

“It’s 100%, a deal is done. All the other stuff is just going through some steps. I’m absolutely totally confident that we will go ahead…”

And here’s the statement from the Katz Group:

“This is a milestone agreement for a world class facility that will drive the ongoing revitalization of downtown Edmonton,” said Daryl Katz, Chair of the Katz Group. "It also helps to ensure the Oilers’ long-term sustainability in Edmonton. This has been a challenging process for all concerned but we are confident we will all look back on the end result with pride and satisfaction at what we have achieved. I want to thank City Council and City Administration for their work on this file. This is a great day for Edmonton and we are excited to get to work on realizing this incredible opportunity.”

You may recall that when the original agreement was passed in October 2011, there was quite a bit of optimism then too. But it wasn’t along the lines of “the deal is done” as much as it was about moving forward. To be fair, it’s not like there was cheering in Council Chambers today, as Paula noted:

“After all the years of negotiations, the vote was greeted by silence — followed by an awkwardly belated round of quiet applause from the Katz Group and their supporters.”

But for Mayor Mandel and Daryl Katz in particular, their comments represent a complete turnaround. Last September, the mayor was “frustrated” and issued a statement calling for “the Katz Group to clarify its full position.” In response, Daryl Katz wrote a letter in October in which he called for “more time and political leadership.” He said negotiations had “gone backwards” and noted there were 15 open issues. In December, the Mayor said “we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go” and said a deal had to be reached within six weeks.

My read of the report suggests fewer than 15 changes were made, but maybe Katz was just grandstanding in his letter. What’s most interesting of course are the things that have not changed.

There’s still $100 million missing from other orders of government (plus another $14 million for the community rink). Mayor Mandel today said he is “very confident” that the province will come to the table for that amount, but no one knows when or how. There’s also no guarantee that that province would approve the proposed downtown CRL (though it seems unlikely they would reject it) nor that the Katz Group will actually invest in the commercial development surrounding the arena (it’s all “subject to commercial viability”).

I don’t see much of a difference between today’s deal and the agreement from October 2011, but apparently it was enough for Mandel and Katz to declare that we’ve crossed the finish line.

So what’s next? Well someone needs to come forward with $114 million, for starters. Given that the City expects construction to start as early as August 2013, getting the remaining funding issues sorted out would seem to be the priority. But perhaps more importantly, this agreement significantly increases the likelihood that Mayor Mandel will decide not to run again in the next election. As Paula noted, that means “a new political game is just beginning.”

I’ll give Don Iveson the last word on today’s proceedings: “I don’t want our city to fight about this anymore. It’s been an open wound in Edmonton.”