It’s hard to believe one company could hold such power over land it doesn’t even own.I’m talking about Sobeys today, and its strangle-hold over businesses in Griesbach but there are examples of land sterilized by over-reaching grocery chains across the city.In Griesbach, Canada Lands is the developer. It signed a deal with Sobeys in 2013. It sold them the prime corner lot for a new urban-scale grocery store, then gave them a legal caveat covering the rest of the five-hectare commercial core that promised to allow no other grocery, butcher, flower shop or bakery.It doesn’t own that land but it still gets the caveat.It seemed like a good idea at the time. Attracting a grocery store is a major coup. But within months, Sobeys merged with Safeway, which has an existing store kitty-corner across 137 Avenue and 97 Street. That meant it didn’t want a competing grocery store in Griesbach and shelved the plans.Now nothing residents do will convince it to budge. Residents can hike across 16 lanes of traffic to Safeway. Or drive. So much for Edmonton’s chance to secure a walkable, urban community.“It’s totally bizarre access to food is a thing you can restrict,” says Shelby Corley, president of the Griesbach Community League.
Shelby Corely (President, Griesbach Community League) beside a site owned by the Sobey’s grocery store company. Residents in the community of Griesbach in north Edmonton are hoping to initiate federal and provincial changes needed to act on caveats. These legal agreements are hurting communities by allowing grocery stores and other businesses to sterilize land for years.
Larry Wong /
Last spring, ticked-off residents launched a letter writing campaign to try get the Competition Bureau of Canada involved. That proved fruitless. Now they’re making plans to go provincial, hoping Premier Jason Kenney will respond to the plight of small business.Barring that, they’ll raise the issue during the federal election, hoping changes to Canada’s anti-competition legislation could help.Locally, city council has convinced itself its hands are tied. I’m not so sure. But more on that later.Griesbach is one of Edmonton’s key infill sites. The Canadian Forces sold it to the federal development agency Canada Lands in the early 2000s, which created a plan for housing up to 14,000 people. It’s high density without towers and the commercial zone was supposed to be the heart. It was supposed to offer high-street shopping with a mix of homes and retail where everything needed could be accessed on foot.Instead, with no anchor tenant, development slowed to a crawl. Standing there Thursday, it’s easy to see why residents and business owners are mad.The Sobeys site is full of dense brush. That attracts people camping or dumping garbage; a pile of dead trees and a swampy area make it look like mosquito heaven. The rest of the commercial core is a mix of vacant lots, fast food joints and a few small businesses. It’s a half-constructed suburban power centre, not the urban village promised.Sobeys emailed a statement. It said they are “very proud” to serve residents at the Safeway, continue to review plans for the Griesbach site and have no further information to share.The competition bureau declined to say even if it’s investigating.
The southeast corner of Griesbach. Sobey’s originally planned to build an urban-format grocery near the intersection.
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Bev Esslinger, city councillor for the area, says council already debated the issue, and she met with Sobeys multiple times to try convince them to change. “Our hands are tied,” she says. “There’s nothing we can do.”This is what I thought, too. But then I spoke with Eran Kaplinsky, a University of Alberta law professor and research director for the Alberta Land Institute.He sees not one, but two ways the city could fix this. Only one depends on provincial help.First the province. It controls the Alberta Land Titles Act, which dictates when a caveat can be modified or discharged. But it could amend the City Charter regulations to let Edmonton create its own policy. Then the city could, for example, create a sunset clause so any competition-limiting caveat would soon expire.But even without a provincial amendment, council can expropriate land, he says. It would have to compensate Sobeys at market rate. But once it was owner, it could remove the caveat and resell the land.The current Municipal Government Act allows expropriation for any municipal purpose, says Kaplinsky. “Municipal purposes are now defined so broadly, the courts are likely to defer to the municipality.”Of course, council would want some clear policy around when to do this. Property rights are important. Critical, in fact. But they aren’t boundless. They come with a responsibility to play fair and some duty to promote the public good.What politicians need to do is draw a line. Set a clear baseline expectation for what this city will tolerate. Then step up and enforce it. If council promised to act after any significant site was vacant a certain number of years, I’ll bet its first expropriation would be its last. Companies would get the message. These caveats would be email@example.com/estolteRelated