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Council divided on smart growth

Initially it sounded like a smart idea. It was the spring of 2007 and council was knee-deep in reviewing the municipal development plan (MDP), a time when a number of land-use planning concepts were pitched by well-meaning staff.

Initially it sounded like a smart idea. It was the spring of 2007 and council was knee-deep in reviewing the municipal development plan (MDP), a time when a number of land-use planning concepts were pitched by well-meaning staff.

One of those concepts included smart growth guidelines, a checklist that would help ensure St. Albert neighbourhoods in the annexed lands are transit and pedestrian orientated, energy efficient and provide a broader choice of housing options. Smart growth works in the United States and will regardless of geography, council was assured at the time. Cities like Austin, Tex. and Mashpee, Mass. employ some measure of smart growth, with the latter being an early leader in planning neighbourhoods of mixed use and mixed income around a walkable town centre.

The devil came in the details later that October. Some 30 months later and we're only now getting into that detail with a fiscal analysis that goes to council Monday. Even when that report is presented, don't expect an immediate decision. Council is expected to turn the issue over to the Urban Development Institute (UDI) for feedback by the spring.

But whether it gets that far is debatable. A divide is already forming on council amid mounting pressure from UDI and the chamber to quash some of the more rigid elements they argue run contrary to market demands.

"I would say there's division on council as to how far we go," said Mayor Nolan Crouse, in an interview last week. "I wouldn't hide that I believe there's disagreement."

Crouse says he's "disappointed and surprised" it's taken so long to nail down a position on smart growth, an issue that's preoccupied the city's planning department with background reports, public open houses and even a Facebook page. It could turn into a colossal waste of time and energy if four council members agree smart growth isn't so smart after all.

Market demand

Coun. Gareth Jones is among the smart growth doubters. Jones, a frequent globetrotter in his day job with an oil-patch related business, has taken it upon himself to visit many high-density walkable communities, including parts of Portland, Ore., viewed by many planners as a smart growth capital.

Jones says he grew tired of "biased" pro-smart growth workshops put on by city planning and wanted to see real-life examples. What he's experienced makes him favour a smart growth hybrid, rather than taking on a wholesale change to the kind of development that's a proven seller in St. Albert.

Jones was rather evasive when asked if he or any other member of council was prepared to introduce a motion Monday to kill smart growth outright, but said he questions whether there's a market for it in St. Albert. The city lacks the employment base and public transit to make smart growth feasible on such a large scale, he said, something that hasn't been done in Canada.

"St. Albert is a very unique city in the way it has developed," he said. "I do believe we could have smart growth type pockets, but not the way it has been presented."

Chamber opposed

The St. Albert Chamber of Commerce recently penned its opposition to smart growth in a letter to council. The chamber's governance committee has spent considerable effort researching the issue, even setting up a videoconference with renowned smart growth critic, Randall O'Toole of the U.S.-based Cato Institute, a pro-free market libertarian think tank.

Incoming chair Mike Howes says the chamber fully supports concepts like walkable neighbourhoods, good trail connections and green technology like geothermal energy, but several aspects of smart growth do not make sense for St. Albert.

Howes said the city's failed flirtation with a park 'n' ride shuttle in Akinsdale illustrates how St. Albert residents are hesitant to park their cars in favour of transit. The bus doesn't go where people want it to, he says, noting employees at his own business, DKC Sparklean, do not take the bus into Riel Park because it means at least two transfers to get to work.

"As politically incorrect as it may sound, we are set in our ways."

The chamber also has doubts about form-based zoning, where low- and high-density residential would be allowed to coexist in the same area, perhaps even alongside commercial.

"It's the old not-in-my-backyard. Nobody in Erin Ridge wants a 10-storey or 20-storey apartment beside them so why are they going to want [it] in the new area?" Howes said.

"Mixing it up in the same neighbourhoods might be a bit of a stretch."

Chamber president and CEO Lynda Moffat said bringing in O'Toole, who had previously given a talk to the St. Albert economic development advisory committee, provided a counterpoint the smart growth debate previously lacked.

During his presentation, which was attended by some councillors, O'Toole said transit-orientated neighbourhoods don't work without heavy government subsidies because that's not what the market wants.

"Most Americans and Canadians want to live in single-family homes," he said, noting land-use regulations also lead to higher planning fees and "boutique cities" that are too expensive for the lower class.

"The result is you have a narrow range of people living in your region."

Unsustainable sprawl

Coun. Len Bracko is perhaps the most vehement smart growth supporter on council. He dismissed O'Toole as a credible source, lumping him in a category with pro-smoking lobbyists.

Bracko says St. Albert cannot afford to continue on its low-density sprawling course where 60 per cent of homes are occupied by one or two people. It's just too expensive to service and maintain.

"St. Albert as it is, is not sustainable," he said.

With some claiming peak oil has either arrived or is still coming, St. Albert needs to embrace transit, lobby for LRT and plan for the aging population, Bracko said.

Bracko also rejects arguments that St. Albert is too cold to expect people to walk to the grocery store, noting it's not -20 C most of the year. He also suggests developers need to drive the market, not follow safe patterns.

"We won't be able to afford the taxes as we know it. We can't compete with some of the other municipalities [in the region] that have industry."

Monday's report is perhaps the most anticipated of the council term and will no doubt help guide what's to come. But after more than two years of waiting, delaying the issue again makes little sense, especially if council asks for very predictable feedback from UDI (smart growth = economic calamity, so don't do it). By no means should council rush into a decision, but with the annexed lands still untapped, stalling is not a smart idea either.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Read his Civic Matters blog at