Oliver Community League’s past president Lisa Brown (right) and vice-president Luwam Kiflemariam, (left) who are opposed to a plan to swap city parkland to a developer in exchange for a development site in the centre of the neighbourhood.
Greg Southam / Postmedia
This deal stinks. It really does.Council will vote Monday afternoon on a request from Abbey Lane Homes to build a 24-storey tower right in a neighbourhood park along 104 Avenue.It would tear down the existing playground and cut mature trees. In exchange, the company would give the community a grassy lot in the middle of the neighbourhood, a spot where it wasn’t able to get support for the density it wanted.The city says these two pieces of land have the same value, even though the possible density is dramatically different according to area redevelopment plans. The sales agreement is going to council in private, to stay private until signed, and officials won’t even name the company that did an independent review of their appraisal.The Oliver community would also get $200,000 towards a new playground, $55,000 to kick off fundraising for a new hall and 55 tree saplings to plant at the new site.Abbey Lane construction manager Oscar Rutar calls it a “win-win” — a deal that would make a better park inside the neighbourhood, where it’s quiet, and move density where it belongs on the edge.I call it a deal for jellyfish: something that only makes sense in a city with no backbone. It’s as if Abbey Lane assumes it has a right to density anywhere.Here’s the history.Two years ago, Abbey Lane bought the 0.95-acre St. John’s School site on 120 Street between 103 and 102 Avenues, just south of Peace Garden Park. It’s zoned “urban services,” which allows for a daycare, group home, public library or similar uses but only up to 10 metres tall (three storeys).The developer paid $4 million for the site. According to several people I spoke with in the development industry, that’s slightly less than what the site would be worth if it was zoned for stacked townhouses or low-rise apartments, like the buildings immediately surrounding it.Instead, Abbey Lane proposed two towers, 10 and 12 storeys. They got flak from the community because it puts high-density in the interior of the neighbourhood, and would shade Peace Garden Park with its 87 community garden plots and more than two-year waiting list.
Abbey Lane Homes’ first proposal for the St. John’s School site. The white towers were proposed at 10 and 12 storeys. Peace Garden Park is just to the north.
The land swap idea came from a community resident who said, if density is needed, it would be better on the Oliver Park site, one block away where the 104 Avenue corridor plan generally calls for buildings up to 15 storeys.But that plan, which council passed in 2015, doesn’t call for a building on that site.Instead, planners argue small parks will be critical to making the high-density corridor livable, calling Oliver Park “an essential amenity” and recommending the city buy land for two more pocket parks. They envision thousands more residents living by the new LRT on that corridor and say accessible green space is key to an enjoyable neighbourhood.Despite the conflict, that 24-storey plan is the one heading to council’s public hearing Monday. If council approves the rezoning, the land swap goes to the next council meeting.
Abbey Lane Homes’ 24-storey proposal for the Oliver Park site on 104 Avenue.
Why is it a deal for jellyfish?Because the only reason anyone can argue those two parcels of land have the same value is if Edmonton’s area redevelopment plans are easy to change and council gives developers whatever zoning they ask for.Unfortunately, that’s normal for Edmonton.Land with the potential for high density development in Oliver is going for between $175 and $200 per square foot, according to the development industry contacts I talked to. That would make the 104 Avenue park site worth more than $8 million, double what Abbey Lane paid for the St. John’s site.Calculated another way, if you can fit 100 units on the south site without shading the garden, and 285 units is what Abbey Lane can build on the park site, at $25,000 a door, that’s a difference of $4.6 million.“This feels like a backroom deal,” said Lisa Brown, past president of the Oliver Community League, which opposes the swap. “If it’s really in the best interest of the city to develop Oliver Park, they should … sell it on the open market.”Council wants more density in core neighbourhoods. That’s a good goal because it reduces commutes, strengths the city’s bottom line and supports vibrant street life.But think about it. This isn’t Vancouver, where the market for condos is driven by a constrained supply. There, council gets more condos built when it rezones land to allow taller buildings.Here in Edmonton, many parcels have been rezoned already for high density. They’re sitting empty. What Edmonton lacks is demand. The only way for council to increase demand is for it to support the kind of livable, walkable green neighbourhoods this proposal could hurt.The best thing council can do now is deliver a unanimous “no.”Edmonton’s parks are not for sale, and no community volunteer should ever have to give evenings, weekends and holidays fighting such a firstname.lastname@example.org/estolteRelated