Questionable Alignment with Edmonton’s Overarching Goals

 Degradation of the City Core

Beyond the questionable affordability of the Valley Line, another problem we perceive is the project’s inability to meet Edmonton’s overarching goals.

“The Way We Grow” states Edmonton’s principle goal is a more sustainable, healthy, and compact city. One of the ways the City aims to achieve this goal is through development of the downtown Quarters district. As “The Way We Grow” recognizes, people are attracted to an area based on its authentic livability – the integrity of its historical, cultural, environmental, and social spaces, as well as its walkability. This means, therefore, that an intact Chinatown, the Artery arts venue and Graphic Arts heritage buildings on Jasper Avenue, the popular Cloverdale footbridge, and the peaceful gardens and parks of the downtown river valley are exactly the kind of elements needed to ensure the success of the Quarters district (just as the protection of mature trees in Strathearn contributes to the livability of another central Edmonton neighborhood). We have proof of the benefits of protecting livability elements in Edmonton revitalization: Whyte Avenue, 124 Street, and 104 Street did not become popular neighborhoods and revitalization success stories by coincidence; each one of these areas prioritized history, heritage, culture, parks, social spaces, and walkability.

The Transportation Department’s recent report on the heritage buildings on Jasper Avenue reflects a lack of appreciation for the value of history, heritage and the arts, both intrinsically and as critical tools in urban revitalization. This disregard is similar to the Valley Line EISA statement regarding the Cloverdale footbridge’s “purported recreational and commuter use,” in which users were not even counted or uses described. It is perhaps not a transportation department’s role to value these things – but many would argue it is the role of city council to ensure livability elements are fully accounted for in urban planning projects. When Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge pushed the City to perform a count of footbridge users, it found that on Saturday, May 24, 2014, between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., 2,290 people used the Cloverdale footbridge; on weekdays, between 7 a.m. to 6 p.m, an average of 1,500 people used the Cloverdale footbridge. This has been a popular destination for people taking in the river since the day it opened in 1978.

However, simply commissioning studies and reports after a decision has been made is not sufficient. Nor is it possible to mitigate loss of these elements through an attempt to artificially create new ones, because history and heritage cannot be replaced, and integrity of social spaces happens only organically over time. If the City wants to achieve its sustainability and compact-form goals and prove it is serious about becoming progressive, it must act to preserve and invest in authentic livability elements. As New York City urban planner Amanda Burden emphasized in her TED Talk, “Lively, enjoyable public spaces are the key to planning a great city. They are what make it come alive….[Public spaces] can never be taken for granted.”[1] Despite sacrificing so many important public spaces in the city core, the Valley Line LRT’s Quarters stop does not even offer much in exchange: it will be located a mere 1.5 blocks from the Churchill stop.[2]

Note that each one of these losses ­– Chinatown, the heritage buildings on Jasper Avenue, the Cloverdale footbridge, the river valley gardens and parkland, and the trees in Strathearn – has met with resistance from community groups. Chinatown groups took the city to court, the heritage buildings prompted a special report and public hearing, the Cloverdale footbridge sparked the creation of a group with nearly 2000 members from across the city, the river valley parkland is covered by its own special bylaw created specifically to protect against the threat of transportation infrastructure development, and the mature trees incited a petition in the Strathearn community. As a Strathearn resident noted to an Edmonton Journal reporter, “This isn’t just about Strathearn. It’s about all neighbourhoods,” he said. “We want people to be aware of what the benefits of the trees are and our responsibility as urbanites. It’s all about making Edmonton a better place to live.”[3]

We thus question the strategic alignment of the Valley Line LRT to Edmonton’s goal for a “more sustainable, healthy, compact city” and the project’s goal “to promote compact urban form,” as the destruction of historical, cultural, environmental and social spaces in the city core works against these goals.

Sacrificing the livability of the core to serve the outskirts – especially as the city continues to construct new roads and widen existing ones – contributes to “doughnut development” and exacerbates the problem of costly sprawl. “The Way We Move” clearly acknowledges this point, stating, “It is well recognized that major roadway and highway investments tend to support and be consistent with a dispersed urban form and lower density development” (p.34). Yet the Transportation Department’s own 2014 report “Shifting Edmonton’s Transportation Mode” is a deeply contradictory and problematic document that indicates little awareness of doughnut development pitfalls and little willingness to lead a shift away from the status quo. This is, therefore, not a question of “temporary pain for long-term gain.” According to urban planning principles and our own examples in Edmonton, the gain in public transit will never offset the Valley Line LRT’s destruction of livability elements in the city core, and hence potential for sustainability and compact form of our city. We need a revised, holistic transportation plan performed by urban planners, not the Transportation Department. We need public transit that replaces cars, not parks and public spaces.

 Limited Transit-Oriented Development Opportunities

Another problem we see with the Valley Line LRT is that it does not offer maximum transit-oriented development (TOD) opportunities. The CPR route (the route originally foreseen for public transit development when Mill Woods was built in the 1970s, and on land just released to the province in January 2015) purportedly has space for an additional 40,000 people[4], would service Whyte Avenue and the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market, and would enable more direct travel for students traveling to the University of Alberta. It also makes use of existing infrastructure, meaning it involves low environmental impact on the river valley. The Valley Line LRT, on the other hand, runs largely through parkland and mature neighborhoods – areas with low TOD potential. While ERUPT supports the Edmonton Transit System Advisory Board’s call for BRT as a more cost-efficient technology than LRT, this alternative route nevertheless points to another major weakness in the Valley Line LRT planning. In fact, BRT’s use of existing transportation corridors means the route could be easily tweaked to increase TOD potential.

[1]https://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_burden_how_public_spaces_make_cities_work/transcript?language=en

[2] http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/ets/future_transit/se-w-lrt-interactive-map.aspx

[3]http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Possible+removal+boulevard+trees+worries+Strathearn+residents/11274756/story.html

[4] As per Valley Line LRT “EISA Amendments” public hearing presentation by architect David Hamilton, who helped plan Mill Woods in the 1980s.