Joni Mitchell once crooned about how “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” but the City of Edmonton wants to turn back time and return a section of downtown land to nature.
However, one landowner isn’t ready to give up their property without having a say before city council.
Right now, gravel parking lots occupy four pieces of land along both sides of 107 Street between Jasper Avenue and 102 Avenue.
The city wants to create a 1.25- to 1.4-hectare “single, contiguous, well-designed public park” there, despite the fact that there’s a road running through the area, where a centralized LRT line could one day be built.
There is a handful of parks downtown, including the Michael Phair and Alex Decoteau parks, but with three acres of land, the proposed park would be much larger.
Coun. Scott McKeen said the green space would be good for families.
“Yes, there’s the river valley, but if you live downtown and you have mobility issues or you have children, it’s not easy to access the river valley,” McKeen said, adding the park could be large enough for activities like soccer or football.
City of Edmonton administration believes that building the proposed Warehouse Campus Neighbourhood Park would spark residential development in the area, which McKeen said has been the case already.
“The park was seen as an essential quality-of-life thing for the residents of downtown. But, being that, it also was a catalyst for further development,” McKeen said, adding that he has had conversations with major developers who said they have begun planning nearby projects because of the park.
“Development always follows infrastructure, and in this case, our plans for a park — which were well-known, the size of it — has encouraged the number of major developments.”
There are four pieces of land involved in the project, but only one is owned by the city. In February 2017, council gave the green light to begin the process of expropriating the other three.
Two of the property owners on the east and west sides of the planned park objected to the process, although the east lot owner later changed their mind and agreed to be compensated for their land.
In November 2018, city council approved the expropriation of the middle lot, adjacent to the land they already owned.
An inquiry was held over several days in late November and early December 2018, when arguments were heard from both the landowner and lawyers who work for the city.
The provincial government appointed corporate lawyer Sharon Roberts to be the inquiry officer and to conduct a hearing on whether the proposed expropriation was fair, sound and reasonably necessary.
Roberts determined that because there are other reasonable options, the proposed expropriation is not necessary.
She said because the land is on the other side of a road, taking it from the owner is “contrary to key components of the city’s objectives” because it won’t create a single, contiguous park. She said the park plan conflicted with the city’s own policy documents and site selection criteria.
Despite the inquiry officer’s findings, which are not binding, city administration is recommending council approve the expropriation anyway.
On Friday, city council will debate the downtown park project in a special meeting. McKeen said last month after the inquiry that the landowner in question came forward and wanted to speak to city council.
“It’s a major decision. It’s quite a large chunk of land that would make up part of this park,” McKeen said.
The meeting will also allow the public to share how the park plans have affected them.
“I think council would also benefit from hearing from the downtown residents, the Downtown Business Association and some of those other developers who have bought land, hired architects, gone through their due diligence to bring forward towers — I think, they would argue, because they assumed the park was there and the park was going to be a certain size.”
McKeen said Friday’s meeting date was set in order to meet strict timelines surrounding the expropriation schedule.
“I will be disappointed if we end up with a smaller park,” he said. “We make these decisions as a council and move ahead on them, and that affects decisions made by many other people.”
“We were hoping this would be a catalyst for downtown development and we’ve seen that already happening in a fairly subdued economy.”
Funding to build the park is set to come from the downtown community revitalization levy as part of a strategy to fund a number of catalyst projects..
City documents did not disclose how much the park may cost to build, nor did they divulge details on how the park may look or feel.
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