This Land is our Land… and our sacred cow.

The City of Edmonton has big dreams. We recently, with the help of thousands of citizens, created Vision 2050 which focuses on 4 big goals. Those goals are Regional Prosperity, Urban Places, A Healthy City, and Climate Resilience. And we are about to debate our next four-year Capital and Operating budgets, the outcomes of which should be in alignment with that vision and our goals. But today I want to talk about City-owned land and how we could use that land differently to aid in future budgets. 

Edmonton the Land Baron!

Image result for edmonton land photo

The City of Edmonton owns a lot of land – a lot. In fact, we own ~ 12% of the land in Edmonton’s corporate boundaries. Some of it is used for City purposes, which makes a lot of sense and offers little controversy. We use land for parks and buildings that have an overtly municipal function such as recreation centres, police and fire stations and various other city services.

The City’s Real Estate branch oversees land and these properties, and in addition to the more obvious land holdings, we have thousands of parcels of land that are categorized as Land for Municipal Purposes, which is code for “we haven’t quite figured out what do with it yet.” These pieces of land come to us as remnant parts of large transportation projects or land that the city has acquired through other means over the last few decades.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the City also has its own land development arm called Enterprise Land Development. Most citizens know about Blatchford, the old city centre airport lands, and may think this is what I am referring to. But Blatchford is its own development project independent of enterprise land.  

Enterprise Land Development is our effort to play, primarily, in the suburban land development business. The original argument was that by gleaning some revenue from selling serviced lots in the suburbs, we could pay some of the bills associated with the ultimately required municipal purposes. The problem with this, however, is that I can’t see how the land we’re developing in the suburbs – or even how our current approach to managing the parcels saved as land for municipal purposes – serves the vision and the goals I referenced off the top.

It’s time to reset and refocus

So far this term I have given a lot of energy to two key areas for Edmonton; the new City Plan (Municipal Development Plan and Transportation Master Plan) and the Affordable Housing Investment Plan. These two issues are deeply entrenched in the goals of Urban Places and a Healthy City. Over the past five years, Council has worked hard to press a densification agenda that ultimately makes our city more environmentally and financially sustainable. We have also worked hard to lobby other orders of government to work with us and do their share financially to build necessary affordable housing units in Edmonton. We need close to 50,000 units to meet our core housing needs.

What would help pave the way for success on both of these fronts would be if we began to use our land inventory differently. Here’s how.

After all these years of talk and dreaming about the potential for development in West Rossdale and hearing how complicated and expensive it is to develop there, we could sell that land to “actual” developers and sell other City-owned land strategically in order to afford to service West Rossdale in a way that attracts the necessary private sector investment. The payoff for the City is that it helps us achieve the urban shift – or, more aptly stated, the investment shift – required to finally see development, meaning a vibrant mixed use urban and commercial community for tens of thousands of Edmontonians on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. Doing this would create a tremendous and efficient new tax base through an highly livable urban district and would attract the young professionals who underpin the growing technology economy every smart city yearns for.

As for affordable housing, the City’s contribution must be land. We cannot afford to build and operate the necessary numbers of affordable housing units with property taxes alone. The Provincial and Federal governments must be committed to this and they are now more than they have been in a long, long time. What cities like Edmonton can contribute to affordable housing projects is the land.

Every night we still have more than 1500 people sleeping in our river valley or in shelters. We are wasting gobs of money on policing and health care that wouldn’t need to be wasted if Edmonton had sufficient housing supply. This is a major problem and the solutions are at our fingertips. We need to comb through our vast land supply and figure out how to strategically liquidate land not actively advancing a clear City goal, and use that money to purchase land that will help us meet goals like the development and construction of affordable housing.

We talk a great game about building a denser city with a vibrant core. So why then are we developing suburban lots, as a City corporation?

And we yell and scream about needing more money for affordable housing, but we don’t consider land for affordable housing as serving a municipal purpose.

We also have considerable goals around increasing our supply of industrial land leading to a higher non-residential tax base and many other needs that our lands supply and its value should be more precisely aimed at.

Next steps to use our land more strategically

Some direct questions that we need to dig into are where our current approach to land management and development aligns and doesn’t align with our city vision/goals and what is the value of the land parcels that don’t align with our city vision/goals and how can that value be leveraged more strategically.

I feel our approach to land development and land management has been a sacred cow for Council for decades. There are reports coming to Council soon (November 13th Executive Committee) about how we govern the land we own. We need to move rapidly past the governance question and get straight to the question of purpose.

It’s time to bring the sacred cow itself into the ring and sharpen our blades.

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