Nov 13, 2014

Building our Main Streets

I have now lived in three of the four quadrants of the city in my 2.5 years here. One of the common threads between them all is our main streets. The places where we get bread, our groceries our liquor go to our local gas station along with dentists and accountants.

Some of these main streets are very short, I am thinking of Centre Street immediately north of the Trans-Canada. Some are long like 17th Ave in either direction. Some have it all or are pretty close, like 4th St. through Mission or 9th through Inglewood. Most have some degree of need for public infrastructure investment, as well as, new  commercial life.  Most are lacking in mixed uses, needing the residential population living above or beside the shops, so common to most cities 60 years ago.

Many of YYC’s established neighbourhoods have fewer people living there than say twenty years ago. The number of people living in each home is lower, both a function of residents aging and children moving and people having fewer children. The lower numbers of people impacts the ability of a neighbourhood to support commercial uses.

The darker the red the higher the percentage drop in the neighbourhood population over the peak for that community. We can see most established neighbourhoods have seen a drop due to smaller families, aging in place with fewer homes  turning over.

I was on a neighbourhood walk in Crescent Heights a year ago. Folks were talking about how they would like to see a coffee shop and other type uses along Edmonton Trail.  I asked them what sort of development they would want in order to get that type of use. The answer was some three storey  buildings with ground floor retail.  I responded that the trouble with Edmonton Trail is the lots face the side streets, not Edmonton Trail itself. So to assemble enough land to a depth of say 40 metres, a builder would have to acquire four or five lots on both sides of the block for a total of eight to ten lots and probably pay at least $650,000+ per lot for a land cost of around $5.5 million. That alone would be enough to kill any three storey building as the economics would dictate nobody could afford that land cost and make a profit. I mentioned to the folks the same land cost spread out over about two more floors might be the difference between getting services along Edmonton Trail with units above and just keeping the uses the same.

Edmonton Trail north of 16 Ave NE is an example where redevelopment along a corridor to bring new neighbourhood services, is complicated due to the existing land pattern.  The lots face the avenues flanking the block. If the lots faced Edmonton Trail, redevelopment would require only two lots. With them flanking the depth needed could be between four and five houses on both streets for a total of eight or ten lots.  The land costs then become prohibitive unless enough units can be built to make the land assembly and construction profitable.

And it is important to remember that a low density neighbourhood usually cannot support a small coffee shop, meaning the retail component would be challenging. This type of conversation is not only in Crescent Heights, I and our staff encounter it all over the city.

So we are embarking on our Main Streets work. A concentrated 18 month effort combining outreach, outcomes and economics to identify local vision for the main streets identified in our Municipal Development Plan.  There are 24 of these main streets and we plan to speak to everyone, residents, property owners and builders, along with professional advice on land and retail economics, planning and transit.

We want to create a flexible vision coupled with implementation strategies where the market realities indicate investment activity is near term. Our timing is critical given we are in the midst of a sustained building boom.


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