Another tentative step forward for Edmonton’s Blatchford community

Edmonton’s Blatchford Redevelopment project took another step forward today with Council’s approval of the implementation strategy. Will it be the ambitious, carbon neutral, “world-leading” project that has been described over the years? Not necessarily. But it remains the most significant development project in Edmonton’s history, a sustainable and exciting community that will bring housing choice for families into our city’s core.

Blatchford

Today’s Motion

Here’s the motion that was passed today:

That the Blatchford Redevelopment Project implementation strategy be approved and include the following:

  1. The development of a Capital Profile and a funding strategy for Council’s consideration
  2. The implementation of the development approach as outlined in Scenario 5a of Attachment 5 to the June 10, 2014 Sustainable Development report CR_1123rev, including the following key features:
    • Medium density residential, with high density in direct proximity to LRT station
    • Town Centre
    • Institutional lands (NAIT, school sites)
    • Major park (18.8%)
    • Urban agriculture
    • Low impact development
    • Irrigation system
    • Custom designed streets
    • District energy: ambient loop with geo-exchange (preferred: requires further evaluation) or gas-fired cogeneration (in proforma)
    • High performance building envelopes
    • Fibre optic network
    • Affordable housing
    • Education program
  3. The development of a preliminary timeline for LRT extension into Blatchford and the construction of the Blatchford NAIT LRT station and the Blatchford North LRT station that will accommodate and facilitate the development of the east residential area
  4. A report to be provided to Committee on additional liveability and sustainability features that could be implemented in Blatchford, for example, ambient loop systems, solar photovoltaic panels for homes and/or supplemental to our district energy system, a recreation lake, and accessibility and age-friendly features.

The motion passed 10-2, with Councillors Caterina and Nickel voting against it. Councillor Nickel said the motion didn’t do enough to “hold on to that original vision of being world-class.” Most of the yes votes cited the importance of point 4.

The target for Administration to return with the requested information is October 28, 2014.

What does it mean?

In short, Council decided today that maybe it didn’t need everything that was suggested in the original, award-winning design. The recommended scenario “includes all of the key design elements from the Perkins+Will concept plan and it optimizes investment in environmental and social sustainability features.” By “optimizes investment”, they really mean that features like the ambient loop, geo-exchange district energy system, and pneumatic waste collection system were cut to save money. The recommendation also reduces the size of the major park by about 10% to allow more room for housing. It results in a net profit of nearly $45 million, and would be built-out over 25 years.

The City argues that the modified plan will still provide family-oriented housing, create mixed-use and employment opportunities, and will accommodate NAIT expansion. It still positions Edmonton as “a leader in achieving sustainability” even though it doesn’t go as far as Perkins+Will originally envisaged.

A reasonable compromise

Mayor Iveson has written about the project twice in the last week. Today he shared his thoughts in advance of the Council meeting:

“I don’t think the recommended scenario for Blatchford is a compromise. In fact, I’d say it’s as close to a balanced triple bottom line – social, financial and environmental – as we could hope for. We’ll achieve the ambitious principles set out by council and still produce a reasonable return on our investment.”

That follows his earlier comments:

“Some of the grief Edmonton has endured for poor urban design over the last 50 years can be countered with a project of Blatchford’s scale. This is a story we can share with the world; as good of a reputation-smasher as we’re ever going to see.”

It was great to hear the rest of Council share both his desire to stick to the principles set out by the previous Council and his desire for something impressive.

In voting to move ahead with the modified plan today, Council reached a reasonable compromise. It’s not uncommon for projects to start out far more ambitious than they end up, and it’s Council’s job to try to find the middle ground between citizens’ ambition and Administration’s risk aversion. I think that’s what they did today. No doubt communication about the plans could have been much better, but that could be said of just about every City project.

What happened with Perkins+Will?

Clearly there were issues between Perkins+Will and the City during this process, resulting in the firm attending today’s meeting. Director of Urban Design Joyce Drohan did not mince words once prompted, saying that her firm was “extremely disappointed.” She also called the process “extremely disrespectful.” Before she could get too deep into her criticism, Mayor Iveson stopped her, saying there were other issues at play. He later said that Perkins+Will had “not been cooperative.” There was definitely some animosity present during the meeting today.

Is it just a case of two partners trying to find a way to work together on an ambitious and stressful project? Perhaps, except this isn’t the first time that issues have been raised about the City’s process. Where there’s smoke there’s generally fire. And as Tegan quite rightly pointed out today, “the problem is that the world is watching on this one.” For some reason, Perkins+Will felt they had no choice but to show up in person to publicly defend their work. That’s concerning.

A few Councillors expressed concern today at how the modified Blatchford plan would be received by the public. There’s no question that there’s a communications challenge ahead of Council and the City, but I don’t think it’ll be too difficult to get Edmontonians onside with a pragmatic approach to city building. The bigger challenge is ensuring future partners aren’t turned off working with Edmonton because of the way things were handled with Perkins+Will and the other firms that competed in the international design competition.

Bringing families into the core

Closing the City Centre Airport was a pivotal moment in Edmonton’s history. Finishing the consolidation of air traffic at the Edmonton International Airport, removing the height restrictions imposed on downtown by the Airport Protection Overlay (which could be official as of June 24), putting a distracting and wasteful discussion behind us – those were among the many reasons to support the closure. But the most important reason for me was always the opportunity to increase the density of our city’s core.

I’ve long seen Blatchford as an opportunity to enhance housing choice. It’s a project that will make it increasingly viable for families to live in the core. Imagine the impact of another 30,000 people living just a short train ride from downtown! We’ve already seen what can happen when you increase the number of residents.

Would it be ideal if the project were highly profitable for the City of Edmonton? Sure. Would it be great if the community was carbon neutral? Yes. Would I be thrilled to have cities around the world look upon Blatchford with admiration for its leading edge sustainability? Absolutely. But those things are all secondary for me.

Blatchford

Blatchford, opening 2016?

The expectation is that builders will start to pre-sell homes in 2016, with the first moving moving in late that year or early in 2017. There’s a lot of work to do before we get to that point, but it’s exciting to know that Blatchford will be a reality sooner rather than later.

You can keep up-to-date with the project here.

Two reasons journalists should learn to love Excel

I love Microsoft Excel, I really do. It’s currently the second highest item in my Start Menu, that’s how frequently I use it (now that I think about it, I should just pin it). I use it for all kinds of things – calculations, cleaning up data, and yes, generating graphs. It’s a really versatile tool, and it’s really easy to use (especially the latest version).

I often talk about changes I’d like to see in the mainstream media, and two important ones are context and presentation. There are so many stories that seem like they’re written in a vacuum. A story about housing starts is a good example, like this one from the Edmonton Journal yesterday. There’s 560 words there, words about numbers. Is that the best way to present that information? And even if you think it is, where’s the context? How do the housing starts this month relate to averages and historical numbers?

That’s the first reason that journalists should learn to love Excel – it can make providing context and better presentation easy. Here are three simple graphs, created with Excel, that tell you about housing starts in Edmonton.


This data comes from a PDF provided by the City of Edmonton. It shows annual housing starts since 1970. Copy and paste into Excel and you’re done!


This graph shows monthly housing starts from October 2008 until now. It uses data from the CMHC’s Reports & Publications section. Took maybe 10 minutes of copying and pasting.


This graph compares housing starts for this time of year from 2006 until now. Also comes from the CMHC.

Imagine if the article included graphs like these. The journalist could then focus on telling a more interesting story.

So, what’s the second reason journalists should learn to love Excel? Well, it can help them get their story right. Here’s what the Journal article starts with:

Despite a strong spring, the slowing trend in new-home construction became clear in October with housing starts dropping to their lowest level since June 2009 in the Edmonton region.

As you can see from the second graph above, that’s just not true. Is there a slowing trend? Maybe, if you just look from the spring to now. Was October the lowest level since June 2009? No. There were just 690 starts in August 2010. In fact, there were six months with lower housing starts since June 2009. I’m not sure what data the Journal was looking at, but it doesn’t appear to be CMHC data.

Add Excel to your toolkit. You won’t regret it.

UPDATE: Here’s the Journal story on August housing starts. Maybe if finding archived stories was easier, Dave Cooper, who wrote the story on October housing starts, could have consulted previous Journal articles to see that the lowest level was much more recent than June 2009.