My comments at the Food & Agriculture Strategy public hearing

Good morning Mr. Mayor, members of Council,

My name is Mack Male and I’m here today on behalf of myself, in the capacity of a citizen who loves both food and Edmonton.

There are very few things in this world that impact us on a daily basis as much as food. I firmly believe that food should be an important part of our city’s long-term planning, so I am very pleased that we’re discussing a Food & Agriculture Strategy in Edmonton. Unfortunately, I cannot endorse the document as it currently exists.

After reading the strategy, it was abundantly clear to me that it was not created with a goal of transforming Edmonton into a leading food city. Should we aim that high? Absolutely yes. We have an extremely vibrant and growing food community in Edmonton, and a long history of urban food production. Unfortunately the strategy is not only for the most part vague and non-committal, its almost unfathomably uninformed, or at best, incomplete. There is no mention of Operation Fruit Rescue, the River City Chickens Collective, Eat Alberta, or perhaps most shocking of all, Edmonton’s Food Bank, the first in Canada and a key supporter of food security in Edmonton for more than three decades. These and other omissions reflect the highly compressed timeframe in which the strategy was created, and the failure to include key stakeholders from the food community.

This should be a strategy about food, not about land in the northeast, but citizens have no other opportunity to comment on that development. I’ve heard the argument that at this point, the land is too valuable to be used for agricultural purposes. If that is true, it’s a direct result of the actions of City Council. You approved the Edmonton Energy & Technology Park directly across from the land in question in June 2010, thereby setting the stage for a large centre of employment that will require nearby residential areas. At no point in recent memory has there been any indication from Council that development in the northeast was anything but a foregone conclusion. I regularly and publicly praise your efforts and leadership on our city’s vision and strategic plan, but I think this issue illustrates that you need to do more when it comes to the issue of growing strategically and sustainably.

On Tuesday, the Community Services Committee recommended that Council approve the WinterCity Strategy and that Administration report back with a status update. Today it has been suggested that you endorse the Food & Agriculture Strategy in principle and that Administration first come back with options and costs before starting any implementation. I think that recommendation is another indication that this strategy has been rushed and is not ready to be endorsed by Council.

If we’re going to endorse a Food & Agriculture Strategy, let’s make sure it is one that we’re proud of and one that provides a solid foundation on which we can build.

I will leave you with three requests:

  1. First, reject the draft Food & Agriculture Strategy
  2. Second, schedule a public hearing on the Growth Coordination Strategy so that citizens can provide input into that very important document and the discussion about land use can move to a more appropriate place
  3. Third, establish the Edmonton Food Council as an official Council Committee and task it with the creation of a new Food & Agriculture Strategy that reflects the vibrancy and creativity found in Edmonton’s food community

Thank you very much.

The non-statutory public hearing continues this afternoon. For background, read these links. To follow along, use the #yegfoodag hashtag on Twitter.

We all have skin in the game

I’m registered to speak during tomorrow’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with Executive Committee (though I expect we’ll see more than just the five standing members in attendance). I’m yet to hear anyone on Council say they are looking forward to it, however.

“If you own the land and you want to grow berries, go ahead. If you don’t own the land, I would say the same thing, get the heck out of the way. You have no interest. We’re going to have everybody with no interest, financially or otherwise, coming forward supporting something that they really have no skin in the game about, and those that do, are going to suffer the consequences.”

That was what Councillor Caterina said at the September 5 meeting of Executive Committee, voicing his opposition to the public hearing (ultimately he did vote for it along with the rest of the Committee).

No interest? No skin in the game? Councillor Caterina could not be more wrong, and let me tell you why.

First of all, we’re talking about the Food & Agriculture Strategy, not the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.” Food is something that touches all of us, and if we’re going to take a position as a City on the importance of food to our community, I want a say in that.

I think we screwed up by attaching the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the specific land issue in the northeast. I want a WinterCity Strategy-like approach to food. There is so much that was left unexplored, and so many people that were not involved that have important, valuable contributions to make, and that’s largely because the discussion was dominated by the northeast.

Secondly, Council is largely responsible for turning this into the “What To Do With Land In The Northeast Strategy.”

I have not seen any concrete evidence to suggest that we can sustain our outward growth, nor have I seen any concrete evidence to suggest we can’t. There’s lots of anecdotal information, and certainly there are dozens of other places we can point to that clearly demonstrate the unsustainability of sprawl, but we need facts and figures for Edmonton. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into new areas, what that costs the city. We need to know, for every unit of housing we add into existing areas, what that costs the city. Then we can start to determine whether or not we can afford to move ahead with more sprawl. My educated guess is that we can’t.

We should have had those numbers from the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan (IIMP) and the Growth Coordination Strategy (GCS), but that’s not going to happen. In September, Administration asked for the IIMP to be treated as a “framework” rather than a plan, then provided a meaningless two-page document to serve as the framework. Council let them get away with it.

The GCS is slated to go to Council on November 19. A draft was released in May, but it has been rewritten and was distributed to select stakeholders at the end of the day on Tuesday. The deadline for comments? Tomorrow. And beyond that select group, there has been zero public consultation, and there’s no indication that a public hearing will be held for the GCS. The purpose of the GCS is to “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” so can you guess what was removed from the latest draft? Anything related to mature areas, transit oriented development, and infill. So much for the “coordination” part of our growth strategy.

As our elected representatives, Council should be the ones asking why. Why do we still lack the information we need to make smart decisions? Why have we rushed these documents? Why haven’t we included the public in their creation?

In short, Council has not provided citizens with confidence that we can grow sustainably, nor have they provided opportunities for citizens to have a say on the plans that will affect where and how we grow. The only opportunity we have is the Food & Agriculture Strategy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I pay taxes like everyone else. It costs money to provide services to an ever-expanding list of neighbourhoods, and that means there is upward pressure on my taxes. Police stations, libraries, and parks do not build themselves. There are no magic fairies that remove snow in the winter or fix potholes in the summer. Taxes pay for those civic services.

I have an interest in ensuring Edmonton’s food security because food is central to my everyday life. I have an interest in what happens in the northeast because I have an interest in living in a sustainable city. I have “skin in the game” because I pay taxes like everyone else. And above all, I as a citizen of Edmonton, have a right to be involved in decisions that affect me.

Translating the City’s report on the Food & Agriculture Strategy

The agenda for next week’s non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy is now available online, as is the final draft of fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy. In addition to some tidying up and a “fresh” new look, the final draft includes an executive summary. Here’s an excerpt:

fresh is not an endpoint, but a starting point. With that in mind, the Strategy does not provide a detailed implementation plan, but rather sets directions for moving forward. Implementation will occur over time as the Edmonton Food Council is established, partnerships are formed, research is continued, resources are allocated and progress builds towards results.

fresh

Also included in the agenda is a nine-page report prepared by Administration with an overview of the strategy, commentary on the recommendations, and a recommendation to Executive Committee on how to proceed. Here is the recommendation:

That Executive Committee recommend to City Council:

  1. That fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy, as outlined in Attachment 1 of the Sustainable Development report 2012SPE029, be endorsed in principle.
  2. That implementation of fresh (Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy) be postponed pending Administration reporting to Executive Committee in the first quarter of 2013 on the options and costs.

Endorsed in principle, but with implementation delayed pending an update on options and costs. I wasn’t entirely sure why they’d structure the recommendation that way. I mean, since when does Administration implement anything without first gathering options and costs? Why couldn’t Council approve the strategy, if they think it is ready to be approved, and then direct Administration to start implementation immediately, the first step of which might be to gather more information on costs?

So I kept reading. Here are the final remarks in the report:

While Administration views the recommendations of fresh as being generally reasonable and worthy of follow up, it also sees it being prudent to postpone implementation of fresh pending the development of a better shared understanding between Council and Administration on the options and costs to implement the Strategy.

Notwithstanding advice to postpone its implementation, endorsement of fresh in principle will satisfy the requirements of Municipal Development Plan Policy 3.2.1.7 relative to enabling consideration of future Area Structure Plans and will provide City Council with the means to evaluate future Area Structure Plans for the Urban Growth Areas by way of the tool kit contained in strategic direction 9 (see Attachment 3).

Right, so allow me to translate. Administration is basically saying: “Look, we have the development industry breathing down our neck and we need to get this taken care of ASAP so that the Area Structure Plans in the Urban Growth Areas can move forward. We know the recommendation that deals with land use raises a bunch of questions, but we don’t think it is important to answer those right now. Also, we don’t want your endorsement to necessarily commit us to implementing anything, even something as straightforward as establishing a food council, so we’re just going to come back with a report on costs and go from there. Cool?”

No, not cool.

I’d encourage you to read through the documents here in more detail.

The arena deal is dead, but the City of Edmonton came away the victor

After a heated discussion on the arena yesterday afternoon, City Council voted to cease all negotiations with the Katz Group and directed Administration to explore alternatives. Here are the three motions they passed:

  1. As a result of Mr. Katz’s letter and unwillingness to have an open discussion with Council and the frustration of the Interim Design Agreement, all negotiations and ongoing City work related to the October 26, 2011, framework cease immediately.
  2. That Administration provide a report, as soon as possible, to City Council to report on the completion of the cessation of negotiations and the status of the City’s current, transferable investments in a potential downtown arena project.
  3. That Administration provide a report outlining a framework for Council to explore potential avenues to achieve the long term goals of sustainable NHL Hockey in Edmonton.

That means the arena as we know it is dead, but it doesn’t mean that a new arena is completely off the table. With that third motion, Administration is empowered to explore alternatives to working with the Katz Group, which could mean the City builds a new arena by itself. Here’s the full video of Mayor Mandel and City Manager Simon Farbrother answering questions about yesterday’s meeting:

Supporters of the arena will no doubt lament the fact that we appear to be no further ahead than we were four years ago, but I don’t think that’s true. Here are some of the reasons that I think the City and Council came away the victors in this whole debacle:

  • The City owns the land. No matter what happens with the arena, that land was a great investment. And I’d much rather have the City own it than some speculator who is just going to sit on it.
  • The City owns the design of the arena. Last October, Council directed Administration to spend $30 million to get the design completed to 60%. The City can take this design to a new partner or use it as the basis for building the arena itself.
  • The City now has a head start on a CRL for downtown. I think a case could be made for a downtown CRL even without the arena. Maybe it would be scaled back, but all the work that has already been done to develop the CRL plans could be reused.
  • Council no longer look like the bad guys & gals. I’m no fan of the way that Council handled the negotiations over the last couple of years, but fortunately for them Katz handled things even more poorly!
  • It may seem as though Katz has the upper hand with the ability to move the team elsewhere, but that has always been an empty threat and remains so. The NHL still wants hockey in Edmonton, and I honestly believe that Katz wants to keep the Oilers here too. If anything has changed, it’s that the NHL would be even less likely to allow a move now that Council has done everything it can to work with the Katz Group.

I’m less confident this will actually come to pass, but I was encouraged by comments made yesterday by one of the Councillors that the “unprecedented” use of in-camera sessions should be avoided in the future. It’s clear that the private meetings did more harm than good in progressing the deal and getting Council what they wanted, and I hope that means Council will avoid in-camera sessions in the future.

The arena is getting all the attention right now, but in the grand scheme of things, there are far more important issues for Council to be dealing with. More than 150 neighbourhoods need renewal and it’s going to take billions to maintain all of that infrastructure. At the same time, Edmonton’s population and economy continue to grow much faster than the national average and that means big pressures in terms of where we put new infrastructure, how we move people efficiently throughout the city, etc. As soon as they were done with the arena issue yesterday, Council starting talking about the LRT.

Back to business.

If you care about local food & urban agriculture, tell your Councillor

In an effort to connect City Council with constituents to discuss the Food & Agriculture Strategy, the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) organized two ward meetings in advance of the public hearing on October 26. The first took place on Tuesday at the Robertson Wesley United Church, and while the councillors for wards 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 were invited, only Councillor Henderson attended. GEA officials told us that Councillor Krushell had responded and that she was unable to attend, and that Councillor Loken had responded and wanted to meet privately with GEA (he confirmed to me he is waiting for GEA to confirm a meeting, GEA has told me they want a public meeting, not a private one).

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

The meeting was scheduled to last one hour, and GEA officials did a good job of sticking to that schedule. Unfortunately most of the hour was spent bringing everyone up-to-speed on the issue, and on GEA’s efforts thus far. We heard from Elizabeth Smythe from GEA’s Local Food Team, Debbie Hubbard, who served as GEA’s representative on the Food & Ag Strategy Advisory Committee, and Monique Nutter, Co-Chair of GEA’s Local Food Team. Monique concluded her remarks with a call-to-action for citizens and a request that Councillor Henderson respond by October 22:

Unfortunately, pressures are mounting to push decisions on this land forward quickly in a way that denies the time to explore options and, more concerning, marginalizes the voices of citizens.

We are here tonight to ask our City Councillors to work with us to ensure the Citywide Food and Agriculture Strategy provides the necessary information to enable good decisions.

Finally, we got to hear from Councillor Henderson. “I’m not the one that needs to be convinced,” he started, gesturing to the empty chairs that had been set aside for his colleagues on Council. He received a loud ovation for his attendance from the crowd.

Asked whether he felt the strategy sufficiently answered questions about what to do with the land in the northeast, Councillor Henderson responded: “I absolutely do not have enough information yet.”

In his remarks, Councillor Henderson noted that whatever support might have existed for preserving the land in the northeast back when the MDP was passed now appears to be gone. What happened? The answer might be found in a blog post by former GEA organizer Michael Walters:

The campaign to “preserve farmland” in northeast Edmonton was never an either-or endeavor. It was never about opposing development. It was about making something amazing in Northeast Edmonton.

In short, he feels the conversation has shifted from wondering where our food will come from in the future to a debate over sprawl and farmland. A debate he feels is unwinnable.

It was a strategic decision to tie the creation of the Food & Agriculture Strategy to the development of the three Urban Growth Areas. Whether that was the right strategy or not remains to be seen, but at the moment things feel far more uncertain than they did three years ago. There are some good things in the strategy and it would be a shame to see them held up or abandoned because of the land use issue in the northeast. At the same time, what other leverage do proponents of preserving the land have? The Growth Coordination Strategy has already been made much less comprehensive, and the Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan has already been approved as a “framework”, rather than as a plan of Council as originally identified.

“What happens if we delay the entire strategy?” Councillor Henderson wondered aloud at the meeting. “I’m uncertain about what happens next.”

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

Councillor Henderson also reminded everyone in attendance that this is a regional land issue. “The essence of this is the fixation in this province with the primacy of property rights,” he said. Michael Walters notes the responsibility to deal with the issue has been floating back and forth for years:

The Capital Region Board has shown little courage in facing this question and in fact handed back the responsibility for addressing protection of farmland to the province in 2010. So for the City of Edmonton to pass this decision to the regional board cements an existing culture of timidity in dealing with this issue.

This is despite clear input to the Capital Region Board on the issue of preserving agricultural land:

In the quantitative survey, a significant majority (60 percent) of residents said agricultural lands should be preserved and protected. This support was consistent across the region.

How can we address the ongoing lack of action? How can we get City Council to pay attention? Liane Faulder says a “noisy, loud, foot-stomping and engaged” food movement is needed:

City council may well get away with doing precisely nothing of any substance to deal with the issue of urban agriculture because nobody is going to make them. There’s not a single council member who has shown any real interest in the urban food debate.

In other words, if you care about this issue, you need to get involved now!

GEA Local Food Ward Meeting

The next meeting takes place on Thursday evening at 7pm at St. Theresa’s Parish (7508 29 Avenue). Councillors Sloan and Diotte have apparently confirmed their attendance, and the councillors for wards 5, 9, 10, and 12 have been invited.

Don’t forget the non-statutory public hearing on the Food & Agriculture Strategy takes place on Friday, October 26. If you want to speak at the hearing, fill out this form.

Why hasn’t there been any public involvement for the Growth Coordination Strategy?

One of the most important sections in The Way We Grow, Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan, is the one that deals with the Growth Coordination Strategy. It is section 3.1 that earned the document the nickname “The Way We Sprawl” for specifying that just 25% of housing growth should happen in mature neighbourhoods. That shortcoming aside, the section is important because it aims to make land development in Edmonton more sustainable, predictable, and strategic. Section 3.1.1.6 explains the purpose of the Growth Coordination Strategy:

Develop a growth coordination strategy to address timing and phasing of new residential growth in developing and planned neighbourhoods. The strategy will relate to the City’s strategic goals, current and future public infrastructure investment, long term financial sustainability and the amount, location and pace of population and employment growth; and will establish:

  • Expectations for completing developing neighbourhoods
  • Expectations for initiating new Neighbourhood Structure Plans

Another important point is found in section 3.1.1.10:

The Growth Coordination Strategy will address demand for land, housing units, and housing choice at the regional, city-wide and sector level.

You might find the topic kind of dry but make no mistake, ensuring Edmonton can “manage future public obligations and growth opportunities” is of great importance to our city.

Edmonton from Above
Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Despite the importance of the Growth Coordination Strategy, there are just two full-time employees at the City working on it and thus far there has been no official opportunity for public involvement. The first public draft (version 6) of the strategy (PDF) was released in May, but I understand based on conversations with City employees that that is not the same document slated to go to Council in November. A new draft is currently under development that reduces the scope of the strategy, primarily by stripping it of any objective related to infill development. A similar document focused on mature and developing areas would be left to an as yet unplanned and unfunded follow-up project. That means that Council will be considering a document that no citizen has had the opportunity to provide input on, not to mention one that does not seem to meet the requirements specified in the MDP.

No one I talked to knows (or refused to say) why the timeline for this strategy was set so aggressively. There is no doubt in my mind that powerful, well-funded behind-the-scenes lobbying has taken place. After all, without the Growth Coordination Strategy, Food & Ag Strategy, and Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan, new development in Edmonton’s urban growth areas cannot take place. Furthermore, we know from the January 26, 2011 Executive Committee meeting (see this report) that the “discussions began between Administration and Industry on the content of the Growth Coordination Strategy” as early as July 2010.  I think that pressure from “Industry” partially explains why there hasn’t been any public involvement, but it doesn’t explain why the City has put so little funding into the development of this important document.

The Calgary Approach

Calgary has a number of similar documents and initiatives underway. One is called Geodemographics but the big one appears to be the Corporate Framework for Growth and Change:

The Corporate Framework for Growth and Change will guide the future sequencing of growth in Calgary to ensure investments in infrastructure and services are within the financial capacity of The City. The Corporate Framework for Growth and Change is an integral part of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and growth management.

Note both the timeline and frequency of public involvement for the development of that document. It began in February 2011 and the first public involvement opportunities – a series of stakeholder meetings, plus a blog post open to public input – took place in September and October of that year. A series of stakeholder meetings and forums have been hosted throughout 2012. To be fair, Calgary took a different approach, with Council approving a set of principles early on and the rest of the project unfolding in four phases, but the fact remains that a significant amount of public involvement has taken and continues to take place.

Another thing to note about Calgary’s project – there are at least ten individuals working on it:

A team from across City Departments called the Corporate Growth Management Project (CGMP) team, has been assembled to create the Framework for Growth and Change.

Edmonton and Calgary both pay lip service to managing growth, but only Calgary seems willing to back that up with the necessary funding.

Designing New Neighbourhoods

In contrast to the Growth Coordination Strategy, the Designing New Neighbourhoods project has unfolded much more predictably with multiple opportunities for public input. The outcome of that project is a set of guidelines for Edmonton’s new neighbourhoods. Section 4.1 of the MDP directed the creation of these guidelines, but unlike the Growth Coordination Strategy, technically nothing depends on their existence.

The draft guidelines are slated to go to Council “in early 2013” and already a number of public involvement opportunities have taken place. In May, there was a series of blog posts and an IdeaScale site was created to harvest ideas from citizens. The project team also encouraged the use of Twitter to suggest ideas, a positive step for public involvement at the City!

Importantly, the project also has a Design Team that is “made up of a diverse group of about 30 people from the local development, urban design, and home building industries, as well as members of the City’s Administration, the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, Edmonton’s Schools Boards, and the University of Alberta’s City-Region Studies Centre.” That same post talks about the inclusion of external consultants too.

The City of Edmonton’s page on Public Involvement states:

The City of Edmonton is committed to involving the people affected by the decisions it makes. We seek diverse opinions, experiences and information so that a wide spectrum of information is available to decision makers.

Designing New Neighbourhoods seems to meet that commitment, but unfortunately, the Growth Coordination Strategy does not.

The Ongoing Abatement of Section 3.1 of the MDP

I’m very concerned that the potential impact of Section 3.1 of the MDP has been continually eroded over the last two years. In February 2011, City Council passed a motion (item 6.16) that redefined eight Neighbourhood Structure Plans from “new” to “existing” which means they are no longer subject to the completion of the Growth Coordination Strategy and other documents. Futhermore, it authorized the preparation of six other Neighbourhood Structure Plans.

Only Councillors Henderson, Iveson, and Sloan opposed the motion. In his remarks on the motion, Councillor Henderson said “I really do think this is an undermining of what we passed in the MDP” and that “our tools to deal with how we grow and when we grow in this city – we’re giving them away.”

Why did this happen? It’s not as though Edmonton is running out of places for people to live. Prior to the motion in February 2011, there were 41 Neighbourhood Structure Plans approved (between 1984 and 2010) and at various stages of development. Together, those plans have a planned capacity of 116,000 resident units yet just 19,000 units have been developed. That means 84% of the development in those areas is still outstanding. There should not be such a rush to develop new land.

Again, I think politics are at play. Our current City Council has been good to the development industry, but with a new Mayor and Council slated to take office next fall, there’s no guarantee that will continue. Better to get as much approved now as possible, if you’re in the land development industry. Unfortunately for citizens this means our city continues to sprawl, more or less free of any restrictions. Sooner or later the cost of that sprawl is going to catch up with us.

Was today’s downtown arena news a setback or a setup?

Today behind closed doors City Council discussed a request from the Katz Group for more public money for the downtown arena project. In a letter to City Manager Simon Farbrother, the Katz Group’s John Karvellas wrote:

“…we believe the City has significant capacity beyond its commitment of $45 million to help fund the arena, which by all accounts is the catalyst for the CRL itself and which can help to fund so many other important projects to benefit downtown and the entire city.”

Council voted simply to reaffirm its commitment to the funding arrangement that was agreed upon nearly a year ago. Though the Katz Group letter outlines rising costs, it seems as though the request was actually for new concessions. And that didn’t sit well with Council. Only Councillors Sloan and Diotte voted against the motion (they had also voted against the funding deal).

Much of the discussion about today’s news has focused on the absurdity of a last-minute request from the Katz Group. Many have been critical of Daryl Katz’s decision to remain quiet and unseen, suggesting the approach has led to distrust among Edmontonians. And of course, Mayor Mandel’s statement that “frustrated” is a better word than “optimistic” has for many turned the arena from a done deal in to a big question mark.

But I’m not so sure. What if instead of a major setback, today was actually a major setup?

There’s a few things that don’t sit well in my mind. First, the timing is highly suspect. Two weeks ago the Downtown Business Association released a report that suggests $4.8 billion of investment could take place downtown in the next five years. Last week the Chamber of Commerce warned of a “massive setback” if the arena is not built. In between all of that, the province announced its financial outlook and said that revenues will fall short of projections, so a boost from that level of government doesn’t seem any more likely now than it did a year ago. Were the DBA and Chamber announcements simply well-orchestrated PR efforts designed to try to force the City’s hand? One wonders how much influence the Katz Group exerted.

Secondly, there’s much more than just the arena riding on the CRL. Municipal projects including the arena make up half of the DBA’s forecasted $4.8 billion, and most rely on the downtown CRL being approved. If there’s no arena, there’s no CRL, and if there’s no CRL, it’s back to the drawing board on how to fund all of the other initiatives. Talk is cheap yes, but I really do think that most on Council believe in the importance of a strong downtown. The prospect of putting all of the positive momentum and recent progress at risk must not be sitting well with them.

Thirdly, I just can’t get past that suggestion in the widely-circulated Katz Group letter that the City actually has the ability to contribute more money than previously agreed to. That seems like an odd thing to bring up now, at this juncture. Whether it is true or not, the seed has been planted.

Lastly, I think the Katz Group’s statement from this afternoon is quite strange. It focuses on the amount of time and money the organization has invested into the project, but remains optimistic about getting the issues resolved:

“The Katz Group is committed to continuing to work with the City to find creative solutions that work for both sides so that we can get on with the business of ensuring the Oilers’ long-term sustainability and accelerating the revitalization of the downtown core.”

Even more interesting, the statement seems to leave open the possibility that a larger deal can still be arranged:

“We have also offered to pay a fair share of arena construction costs above $450 million as part of a comprehensive package that makes economic sense.”

All of these things have me feeling as though today was more of a setup than anything else. Definitely to position the agreed upon $450 million limit as too low, and maybe even for a white knight to swoop in and save the deal, as I tweeted this afternoon. Could Katz himself now come forward in public with an increased financial offer and make Council look like the bad guys for refusing to match the increased funding requirements? Could someone on Council, perhaps someone angling for the Mayor’s chair next October, have a trick up his or her sleeve? Or perhaps most intriguing of all, could this finally be an opening for the province to step in and look like the heroes for salvaging the deal?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

City Council data now available in Edmonton’s open data catalogue

Yesterday Edmonton became the first city in Canada to release “a fully robust set” of City Council datasets to its open data catalogue. A total of five datasets were released, including meeting details, agenda items, motions, attendance, and voting records. There are now more than 100 datasets available in the catalogue, with more on the way.

Here’s the video recording of the news conference:

The City also produced a video about the new datasets:

The Office of the City Clerk is responsible for managing Council & Committee meetings, boards, elections, and more. The release of this data (referred to as “Clerk’s data” by some City employees) is another example of the way that office has embraced technology over the years. Kudos to Alayne Sinclair and her team, as well as Chris Moore, Ashley Casovan, and the rest of the IT team for making this data available!

I’m really excited about the potential for this data. The information has long been available on the City’s website, it was just locked away in meeting minutes as “unstructured” data – possible for humans to read relatively easily, but not for software. Now that it is available as “structured” data in the open data catalogue, applications can be written that take advantage of the data. You can find the data under the City Administration tab of the catalogue. Unfortunately the datasets only go back to June 1, 2011 instead of the start of Council’s term in October 2010. Currently, the datasets are updated daily.

I’ve now had a chance to look through the data, and while it looks good, it is unfortunately incomplete at the moment. There’s quite a bit of data missing. I would love to do some statistical analysis on the data, but with so many missing records there’s a good chance that my conclusions would be incorrect. I have already summarized my findings and passed them along to the team, so hopefully they can resolve the issues quickly!

I have already added functionality to ShareEdmonton for this data, and as soon as the datasets are fixed, I’ll release it. I hate to say “stay tuned” but there’s not much choice right now!

Budget 2012: Ten unfunded growth projects that caught my eye

It’s budget time, and I have been looking into the documents that were released last week.

At the very end of the 2012-2021 Capital Investment Agenda, there are some really interesting tables. One is “Approved & Recommended Growth Projects” – projects that have previously been approved or that Administration is recommending. The list of recommended projects includes the seat replacement at Commonwealth Stadium, the South East Community Leagues Association Skate Park, and a number of other projects you may have heard about.

The last table is perhaps the most intriguing, however. It lists 77 different “Unfunded Prioritized Growth Projects” totaling a little over $1.5 billion. Most of these simply will not get funding in the 2012-2014 Capital Budget because there is just $9 million available for allocation to these projects:

In the 2009-2011 Capital Budget, Council made decisions to commit $883 million of future funding for growth projects in the 2012-2014 time frame. The result of these decisions means only $254 million additional funding is available for growth projects and $245 million of that funding is constrained as Retained Earnings or Developer/Partner funding. This leaves $9 million available for allocation to other priority growth projects.

That said, I’m sure we’ll see some creativity as Council digs into the budget.

Here are ten unfunded growth projects that caught my eye:

  • 12-60-1753: Closed Circuit Television (#6)

    Total Cost: $2.35 million, $1.7 million to become compliant

    Less exciting than it sounds, actually. The Province has revised its policing standards and those changes take effect December 31, 2013. This project is all about extending the existing CCTV coverage to enable EPS to meet the new standards.

  • 12-28-4149: Louise McKinney Riverfront Park Masterplan Completion
    (#23)

    Total Cost: $6.5 million

    The vision for Louise McKinney was approved by City Council way back in 1997, and it still isn’t done. This project would see the completion of the Grand Stair, two viewpoints, four gateways, Shaw Conference Centre linkages, and the redevelopment of the parking lot. It would be great to see us actually finish this project before embarking on too many more new ones.

  • 11-66-1293: SMARTBUS (#25)

    Total Cost: $34.433 million, $3.4 million of which was previously approved

    For me this one is a definite no-brainer. SMARTBUS technology includes Automated Stop Announcements, Computer Aided Dispatch, Automated Vehicle Health Monitoring, and Automated Passenger Counters. It also includes Automated Vehicle Location and Real-Time Customer Information, which will finally make it possible to see where your bus actually is, rather than just where it is scheduled to be. I think a lot of Edmontonians would strongly support this one!

    The previously approved piece of this was the 50 bus evaluation and that is expected to be completed by September 2012.

  • 12-21-7227: Winspear Centre Expansion (#44)

    Total Cost: $3.5 million

    The planned expansion would accommodate a multi-purpose facility for arts initiatives, studio space for youth, and rehearsal space, among other things. The expansion would take place on the east side of the building onto surplus City lands between 102 and 102A Avenue adjacent to 97 Street. The plan is for construction to take place in 2014. The Winspear received $50,000 as part of the 2011 Operating Budget to help with the preliminary concept planning.

  • 12-75-3514: New Downtown Office Tower (#57)

    Total Cost: $140 million

    This project is part of the Edmonton Downtown Civic Accommodation Plan which focuses on strategies to support growth and expansion of City services and programs. The choice is either to lease existing building space or to construct a new civic office building. The $140 million pricetag is just what would be part of the 2012-2014 budget – the total amount of the project is currently $600 million.

    Analysis has not yet been completed, and the project profile states that “a financing strategy must be developed” if constructing the new office tower is recommended. The consequence of not building a new tower is that “the City will continue to lease a large amount of office space from the private sector.”

    This project isn’t an immediate one, so I don’t expect any major news will come out of the budget discussions. I’m glad to see the commitment to downtown, however.

  • 12-17-0373: 104th Street Funicular (#60)

    Total Cost: $20 million

    This project has been in the news quite a bit lately, usually in relation to the Rossdale redevelopment project. The idea is to “provide a way for people to move from the West Rossdale flats to the top of the bank thereby creating a more walkable area.” In other words, the hill is too step for most people! This project is specifically mentioned in the Capital City Downtown Plan actually, as part of the focus on River Valley Promenades.

  • 12-17-0371: Downtown Lands Acquisition (#71)

    Total Cost: $4 million

    Given the recent decision to purchase the land for the downtown arena, this project caught my eye. The land in question is located at Jasper Avenue and 100 Street, in front of Hotel Macdonald. “It is presently owned by a private developer who has publicly expressed an interest in constructing a condominium tower on the site. Purchasing this park will protect and preserve it in its current state, ensuring that the existing amenity space and historic view corridors are maintained.” Um, take that Occupy Edmonton!

  • 12-21-1200: City Collections Repository (#74)

    Total Cost: $29.539 million

    The proposed 55,425 square foot building would house historical artifacts from the O’Keefe Building and would also serve as the off site storage centre for the City Archives. “The building will be designed to allow for growth in both collections for 25 years.” The building was recommended by Lundhom & Associates after looking at the existing facilities and the collections. I think a new facility with proper temperature, humidity, light, and dust control systems makes a lot of sense. It’s important to preserve Edmonton’s history.

  • 12-21-5674: Medium Sized Stadium (#75)

    Total Cost: $53.016 million

    New stadium?! The proposed stadium would feature artificial turf and seating of 8,000 “with opportunities for increasing the seating further through temporary or expansion of seating for a total capacity of 20,000.” This project is intended to meet the needs for “certain amateur sports, professional soccer, FIFA and other championships and concert events.”

    Telus Field is one of the other venues identified, along with Foote Field (2,770), Clarke Park (1,300 seats), and Commonwealth Stadium (60,000 seats) but it lacks parking and LRT services. This new stadium would fit nicely in-between those facilities and would presumably be built close to the LRT, though the project profile does not mention a location.

  • 12-21-7663: CKUA Expansion (#77)

    Total Cost: $5 million

    I was wondering how CKUA could afford to move into the former Alberta Hotel, recently reconstructed just west of Canada Place on Jasper Avenue. Sounds like it is City of Edmonton to the rescue! The justification for supporting this is that it is adjacent to The Quarters, it would maintain and preserve a historic resource, and because “CKUA would offer below-market leasing space to other non-profit organizations.”

I encourage you to take a look through the budget documents, there’s a lot of really interesting information there!

Roundup: Reaction to the latest downtown arena vote

On Wednesday afternoon, City Council approved a financial framework for the new downtown arena. The vote passed 10-3, with Diotte, Iveson, and Sloan voting against. Council also agreed to spend $30 million to complete the design of the arena to 60%, to enable contractors to bid on the construction project with a Guaranteed Maximum Price of $450 million. From the news release:

“A new downtown arena is a catalyst for revitalizing downtown. This is a fair agreement and will help sustain NHL hockey in Edmonton while increasing economic activity in the city,” says City Manager Simon Farbrother. “It will also improve land values and the livability and sustainability of Edmonton for all citizens.”

John Karvellas from the Katz Group also issued a statement:

“We very much appreciate City Council’s strong vote of support for the downtown arena, as well as the considerable time and effort Mayor Mandel and City Administration, in particular, have put into this project. We will work with the City administration to understand the implications of the new elements of the deal introduced in today’s motion in the context of the agreements that need to be completed by month-end.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also shared some comments:

“I am thrilled for the City of Edmonton and I want to congratulate and thank Mayor Mandel and Daryl Katz for their hard work and commitment. The future of the Oilers couldn’t be brighter.”

I was paying attention to the meeting on Wednesday, and as the vote approached I tweeted much of Council’s final remarks. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Mayor Mandel: “I have not had one, not one call since SLRT opened about what it cost us to build.”
  • Mayor Mandel: “Today is about making a decision to change our downtown.”
  • Mayor Mandel: “This is a project about Northern Alberta, it’s not just about Edmonton. The province should come to the table.”
  • Councillor Anderson: “Thank goodness he lives here.” (referring to Daryl Katz)
  • Councillor Anderson: “I believe that the casino and the gravel project would sit for another several decades if this does not go forward.”
  • Councillor Anderson: “We all have to remember however, that no matter how we vote on this, it is still subject to $100 million appearing from somewhere.”
  • Councillor Batty: “I applaud Daryl Katz for his perseverance.”
  • Councillor Gibbons: “Hopefully we can work toward keeping Edmonton on the map.”
  • Councillor Gibbons: “We’ve done such a good job of growing out, maybe we can grow back inside.”
  • Councillor Gibbons: “I’ve travelled all over the world, and a great city has to have a great downtown.”
  • Councillor Leibovici: “We do have a downtown that needs a bit of a lift.”
  • Councillor Leibovici: “Do we need an arena? Yes. Do we need to change what we have? Yes.”
  • Councillor Leibovici: “A lot of this reminds me of the airport debate.”
  • Councillor Sohi: “I know it’s not a perfect deal, but it’s a reasonable deal that I can defend to the people I represent.”
  • Councillor Krushell: “It’s time to tell the Prongers of this world that Edmonton is not just a city with great people.”
  • Councillor Krushell: “The project will play a key part in revitalizing our downtown, and that is why I am supporting this.”
  • Councillor Loken: “This is a game-changer in my mind.”
  • Councillor Loken: “This is about Edmonton, this is about vision, this is about the future.”
  • Councillor Diotte: “There’s no reason to agree to a bad deal.”
  • Councillor Diotte: “I think we can all agree that the majority of Edmontonians want to see a new downtown arena.”
  • Councillor Sloan: “I maintain grave reservations about the costs and associated risks that the City is undertaking.”
  • Councillor Sloan: “I am further concerned that a lack of clarity has resulted in both Council and Admin losing face in the public.”
  • Councillor Caterina: “I’m comfortable that this is a much fairer deal than what was brought back from New York.”
  • Councillor Henderson: “I’m prepared to continue moving forward because I think at this point that our interests are being served.”
  • Councillor Henderson: “I don’t think the arena by itself is the magic wand.”
  • Councillor Iveson: “Nothing would anger me more in my old age than to see this debate play out again in my lifetime.”
  • Councillor Iveson: “I’m sold on what a new arena can do for our downtown, but I believe a better deal can be found.”

Slowly but surely, our Councillors are becoming more familiar with the tools and technologies available to them. Three Councillors blogged their final remarks, something I’d like to see the norm rather than the exception.

Many people tweeted about the news on Wednesday, and as I showed in my brief analysis, the response seemed to be mostly positive. There was also a fairly active thread on Connect2Edmonton about the deal.

Here’s what Paula Simons wrote about the deal:

“On Wednesday, Mayor Stephen Mandel described the arena as something to benefit all of northern Alberta. Sohi called on Edmontonians to petition Premier Alison Redford for financial support. Indeed, the province may be more willing to come up with the necessary cash, perhaps by some sleight of hand with casino money, now that the city and the Katz Group have come to terms. But this story, dear readers, isn’t over. We’ve just taken a whole new plot twist.”

Here’s what John MacKinnon wrote:

“Now that Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s downtown arena project is a qualified ‘go,’ maybe people can focus on what should have been the main issue all along: how this facility will help transform Edmonton’s downtown.”

Here’s what Gary Lamphier had to say:

“As I’ve said repeatedly over the past couple of years, I’d love to see a new downtown arena. But not at any price. I don’t think this deal represents anything close to an equitable sharing of risks and rewards between Katz Group and city taxpayers.”

In that same article, U of A sports economist Brad Humphreys shared his thoughts:

“It’s a terrible deal. They’re still short $100 million and I don’t see it going very far until they come up with the remainder of the funding.”

Here is what David Staples wrote:

“So did we get fleeced? Not even close. This is a good deal, far better than the existing Oilers deal at Rexall, and certainly right in line with what we see in terms of public/private funding models for new arenas in other NHL cities.”

Here is what Terry Jones wrote:

“The late great city of Edmonton has dared to be great again.”

Northlands CEO Richard Andersen hasn’t made many statements since the vote, but the Sun quoted him yesterday:

“We want to move on and get busy doing the other things we do. This is a huge distraction.”

Oilers star Taylor Hall tweeted his reaction to the news:

“Excited news on the new arena for Edmonton. In other news @ebs_14 and I got iPhones and they put BlackBerrys to shame.”

Here is what Yukon Jack wrote in his column:

“Finally! Finally another step in the downtown arena project. To say this thing is moving at a glacier’s pace is an insult to climate change.”

Bruce Urban, owner of the Edmonton Rush, is a fan of the project:

“It’s very exciting. Let’s picture Downtown Edmonton with this beautiful arena, the businesses that will follow, the restaurants and entrepreneurs who will follow. It’s very exciting for the city.”

The Calgary Herald asked Flames CEO Ken King to comment and received this statement:

“The news coming out of Edmonton regarding their new building is wonderful.  A state of the art new facility will be a great boon to their community and create a viable future for their team.”

Writing for the National Post, here is what Jesse Kline had to say:

“This is nothing more than corporate welfare, and by threatening to relocate the Oilers, Mr. Katz was essentially threatening to make business decisions based on how much money he can extract from local governments, rather than what city is the best market to do business in.”

The Edmonton Sun said that with the deal done, it is time to move on:

“City council has decided to proceed with a package that will see a major chunk of downtown Edmonton revitalized. It has been an acrimonious two-year debate, and the sensible move at this point is for the city to move forward together.”

The Edmonton Journal said the decision was the right call for our city:

“In this corner, the belief is that all Edmontonians will benefit – from economic spinoffs boosting the tax base, from the proliferation of non-hockey entertainment options that they will use, from the greater future attractiveness of Edmonton as a place to live, and from the fact that NHL hockey will now be guaranteed to remain a key part of community pride for at least the next 35 years.”

I’m sure I have missed some reaction, but I think the quotes I have highlighted are fairly representative.