One of the toughest council decisions of the term looms next month and it has nothing to do with downtown redevelopment, a city hall salary review or affordable housing.
The downtown review has generated plenty of interesting debate, including lots of grumbling about the possible wallop taxpayers would take to realize the grandiose vision. Even more eyes are likely to follow the 70 Arlington Dr. debate when it resumes in August, as will the terms of reference for city hall pay review.
Lost in the shuffle is a seemingly minor text amendment to a city bylaw. Normally this is the driest of dry trivialities that even city hall geeks like myself give a pass (right up there with tangible capital assets). This one is different, mostly because of what it implies and who’s behind the application.
Triple Five Group has asked for the change to St. Albert’s top planning blueprint to pave the way for a ‘leapfrog’ development in the north. Essentially that means they want to develop land at the far north end of St. Albert ahead of raw lands immediately south. Big deal, right? Well, if you ask any sensible urban planner it is. Administration wanted council to reject it outright and provided a laundry list of expensive reasons why it would be bad from the cost of extending public transit, snow removal and garbage pickup to the premature urbanization of farmland. It could also open the door to leapfrog developments in the furthest corners of the city.
The bureaucrats might not like it, but city council has plenty of reasons to give the issue pause: taxes, taxes, taxes. Triple Five, which also happens to own West Edmonton Mall, wants to build a 75-hectare commercial development — once pegged at $300 million — representing a major property tax windfall and economic boost for the city. This type of development opportunity is rare in St. Albert, where commercial lots along St. Albert Trail can be counted on two or three fingers.
The dearth of commercial is primarily why council has spent so much effort trying to open up the annexed lands. Two years ago the city began talks with a dozen landowners about sharing the cost of extending services in the north. The costs proved so high, at $15 million, that all but two balked. The only ones with deep enough pockets are Landrex (currently developing Erin Ridge North) and Triple Five.
It’s tough to stick to your planning principles when growth is so badly needed, businesses are interested in St. Albert, and other commercial lots are popping up in Edmonton ready to lure our wallets away. It’s even harder in an election year when most council members ran on economic development platforms extolling the virtues of an 80/20 residential/non-residential tax split. Sending Triple Five packing would be a disastrous move, economically and politically.
If they’re out of the picture how do you kick-start development? Who’s left to foot the bill to extend services across St. Albert Trail? Take a look in the mirror. It’s either taxpayers or waiting a really, really long time for a motivated developer with a large enough chequebook. That’s the kind of election debate council needs to avoid.
Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Read his Civic Matters blog at www.stalbertgazette.com.