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Month: January 2011

Due Dilligence

Today City Council voted to approve conceptual plans for the West and Southeast LRT corridors.  Administrations latest recommendation to utilize 156st instead of Meadowlark Road was rejected as Council choose to stick to the original corridor, established in 2009 in Transportation System Bylaw 15101.  On the surface, the tone of discussion today leaves me with the impression that the opportunity to serve the retail oriented front-side of Meadowlark Mall facing 87ave & 156st, the opportunity to serve high-density developments in Whitehall Square, and the opportunity to increase population density in the communities of Lynnwood and Laurier Heights, two of the least dense communities in West Edmonton, was sacrificed in order to move this on to detailed engineering and skip the public hearing which would have been required to amend the original bylaw.

Meanwhile, the provincial government is looking at an estimated deficit of $5 billion with a Health System in crisis, while the federal government has seen it’s expenses increase by over $2 billion while watching revenues drop by an even greater sum.  “Fiscal responsibility” isn’t the sole domain of civic politicians, and while it may be easy for a Councillor from Ward 5, 6, 7 ,8, 9, or 10 to move along a contentious LRT corridor in another Ward, it’s just as easy for an MLA from Calgary-Shaw or an MP from Ottawa Centre to look at a request for $2 billion in project funding from a municipality, and vote against it.

There’s no doubt that our municipalities carry a burden that’s hard to shoulder on property taxes alone, and light-rail is an incredible asset to a city, but it can’t be built without support from higher levels of government, and given the current economic realities faced by our province and country, no amount of optimism can change the reality that any possibility of fast tracking the West LRT likely went out the door with Edmonton’s Expo bid.

We’ve definitely seen a desire from Councillors to put the issue of corridor selection to bed.  Yes, this LRT expansion is decades over due.  Yes, the contention over the West route must have seemed like punishment to many Councillors.  Yes, city administration needs an approved conceptual plan to move on to detailed engineering, Yes, Councillor’s time to debate an issue is limited, Yes, the massive debate that began with an 87th avenue proposal took a large amount of Council’s time, and Yes, the City will need to have a route approved and shovel ready to seek the provincial and federal dollars needed for construction.

The realities are that much of the process, contention, and debate surrounding the WLRT was of Council’s own creation, with continual, Council initiated delays, the change of route selection criteria in December 08, and the seemingly public reprimanding of city staff for their original recommendation in favor of connecting West Edmonton to the University area via 87th avenue.  The dollars needed to expand LRT through downtown, and to Lewis Estates, Mill Woods, North City Limits, and Heritage Valley will likely trickle in as the economy slowly recovers. The time is/was available for Council to look beyond the proposed “redevelopment potential” along Stony Plain Road, and look closely at the impacts and risks of retrofitting surface running light-rail through a narrow right-of-way, and active business and community revitalization efforts which can ill afford to be placed in a holding pattern during the years required for funding requests and eventual construction, and compare it with the benefits of a 107ave alignment, a corridor with the right-of-way to accommodate it, the opportunity to provide service to a larger portion of West-Edmonton, and which would likely have been supported by several communities along it, such as North Glenora.

As a resident of Jasper Place, I’m left hoping that this decision will at least be followed by strong action and decision making by Council in support of local revitalization, however the distant timeline for neighborhood renewal in Canora, the lack of consideration for a 100ave/SPR LRT couplet configuration which potentially could have lessened some of the impacts to SPR, and the denial of a one-time funding request in this year’s budget for local area planning, especially given the outdated studies such as the 100ave planning study currently in use, creates concerns about the area’s future over the next 10-15 years.  Many of the problems faced by communities such as Glenwood, Canora, and West Jasper Place have their roots in decisions made by the City of Edmonton in the years following the amalgamation of the Town of Jasper Place, and it’s going to take strong decisions to overcome them.  This West LRT corridor isn’t one of them.

Washington St. – Hillsboro, Oregon
Source – ci.hillsboro.or.us

Turn Right at 107th

Below is a letter to the editor of mine which was published by the Edmonton Journal in December of 2009, just prior to Council approving bylaw 15101, which established among other routes, a west lrt line utilizing Stony Plain Road.

Between presentations to Council, letters, press releases, community notices, FOIP requests, opinion pieces and blog posts, I don’t care to count how many thousands of words I’ve written about the West LRT.  With the ability to connect West Edmonton to the existing line via the University area, the destinations it will be extended to, and the opportunity to build a unified back haul LRT system across our city, I’ll always consider the former 87th avenue option superior to a low-floor line traveling down Stony Plain Road, through a number of accessibility issues, and question marks standing between it and redevelopment potential, before connecting to the downtown circulator and heading off to Mill Woods.

With the Federal Government refusing to advance Edmonton’s 2017 Expo, the sense of urgency to present the West LRT for Provincial and Federal funding is gone, and it showed at a public hearing this past December when Council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee choose to advance the proposed West LRT conceptual plan to Council without a recommendation and endorsement.  The public criticism at the hearing, of a flawed, and disjointed public involvement process wasn’t a surprise, neither were some concerns and criticisms brought on by more detailed conceptual planning.  The effect of the expo bid on Council was evident on the hearing’s second day, when Council spent time asking questions of administration.  The process of WLRT selection began with 87th avenue, and seemingly ended with Stony Plain Road, without ever featuring a significant look at 107th avenue, a fact pointed out by Mayor Mandel on December 9th.  The Mayor referenced the limited consideration of 107th avenue, and asked questions relating to the ability to serve the SPR commercial district from a single stop at 156st, and the additional ridership potential of a 107th avenue alignment. Given the time available to ensure the best possible corridor for West Edmonton, I think it would be beneficial for all involved for Council to take the opportunity, beginning on January 19th when detailed conceptual plans on are on their agenda, to begin the process of splitting the West LRT from Transportation Bylaw 15101, and referring the corridor back to administration with direction to begin a public consultation process, and detailed route analysis for a 107th avenue corridor.

Another strong point made during the public hearing in December, was by Councillor Leibovici in regards to the future of the Jasper Place Transit Terminal and Jasper Place Revitalization Strategy.  The strategy, crafted in consultation with the community, and approved by Council in early 2009, included a plan to revitalize the northeast corner of the Glenwood Community, by reconfiguring the JP Terminal/Butler Park area as a multi-use townsquare for Glenwood and neighboring communities.

Like most strategies and work plans in the revitalization area, including the proposed Stony Plain Road workplan, the plan has remained in a holding pattern, pending further decisions regarding the West LRT.  The funding and civic resources currently assigned to the Jasper Place Area, are a limited-time opportunity for the communities bordering Stony Plain Road, and indeed in demand in other locations in the city.  Utilizing 107th avenue for the WLRT provides the ability to serve the Revitalization Area with a future LRT stop, without significantly impacting current workplans and revitalization efforts.

Another aspect that must be considered is the environment which is being created for current and future redevelopment.  An LRT alone is not, and never has been, a single-solution to redevelopment and revitalization potential.  In December 2009, I delivered a case study presentation to Council comparing Stony Plain Road and the proposed WLRT corridor to Washington Street in downtown Hillsboro, Oregon.

Presentation Text

Presentation Pics

Both streets share a similar set of characteristics (accessibility, right-of-way, social/physical environment), with the proposed WLRT providing a similar level of service to SPR as the Max Blue Line does to Washington St.  Comments from Hillsboro note that the vibrancy of area has declined.

It was a quote from George Crandall of the consulting firm, Crandall Arambula, in which referencing Hillsboro, he noted that subtle differences can greatly affect the vitality of the area.  The same consulting firm is drafting the City of Edmonton’s Transit Oriented Development Guidelines , and a related Planning Academy Course.  Through the consultation process for both, I’ve had the opportunity over the past few months to meet Mr. Crandall, and attend several sessions conducted by the firm regarding TOD planning and development.  Throughout the sessions, a number of key themes were stressed as elements of successful TOD retail development (of note for a commercial corridor such as SPR), such as:

Complete Streets

Connection to the Station

Located on a street with curbside parking

Located on a street with adequate drive-by traffic

One item of note in particular was the creation of Transit Oriented main streets, existing adjacent to, not as, transit corridors.

A scenario which would seem to create a far more viable future for Stony Plain Road, should it be provided an LRT transit stop on a 107th avenue alignment, while maintaining through traffic, available parking, and side street access, without having to sacrifice any of it’s access ways, right-of-way, or potential re-development sites, to accommodate an LRT transit corridor.

As I’ve previously posted, documents obtained via a freedom of information request show a negligible difference in ‘potential’ redevelopment sites between 107th avenue and Stony Plain Road.  Combined with the ability to still provide rapid transit access to SPR and it’s neighboring revitalization areas, without significantly hindering local revitalization, the enhanced right-of-way along 107th, and the potential for increased ridership, with time available to consult the communities involved, and develop a conceptual plan, Council would do well to take the opportunity on the 19th to refer the WLRT back to administration.

__________

As an active participant in the West LRT debate, I read with interest Paula Simon’s latest foray into advocacy for the Stony Plain Road LRT corridor. When the proposed amendments to bylaw 15101 started piling up last Friday, it seemed obvious that council was unprepared for two days of significant, well researched, and well-spoken opposition to the Stony Plain Road route.

Since the start of what’s been a long, drawn out, and frequently delayed process for selecting a corridor for much needed and long-overdue light-rail expansion, there’s been no shortage of ideological arguments for the SPR “everything to everybody” route. “It’s a people mover, a commuter route, a revitalization engine for downtown and the Jasper Place area, a streetcar like system to encourage shopping, dining, and walkability like Portland’s Pearl district, the route of the future, a round-the-city link from Millwoods to WEM. But there’s no consensus.”

Before we play fast and loose with a multi-billion dollar investment, there is still a strong case to made for the 87th Avenue route; as well, there are questions to be answered, and potential fatal flaws in the proposed SPR corridor that must be addressed.

The most heavily weighted of the latest criteria for west LRT expansion is Land Use/Compact Urban Form.

As Paula addressed in her article, communities along the SPR corridor are as a whole, far more compliant with the goals of higher density land-use than those along the 87th Avenue corridor.

Unlike their counterparts to the south, they are neither stagnant in terms of growth, nor severely lacking in higher-density housing developments. Citizens of these neighbourhoods enjoy strong ETS bus service to the downtown area, and are less likely to own a vehicle than their fellow Edmontonians in neighborhoods to the south.

The best option for building a compact urban form, and encouraging more residents to leave their cars behind, would be a link across the river which divides our growing city, providing an opportunity to encourage transit use in some of Edmonton’s least dense neighbourhoods.

At the same time it would link the west-end to a bounty of employment opportunities in the city’s second largest employment centre, providing quick, permanent access to the Uof A, U of A hospital, the Stollery and the Cross Cancer Institute, as well as one of the top transit hubs for Edmonton’s existing LRT infrastructure.

At the same time, it would provide such benefits as opening up access to one of our top tourist destinations, and provide an exciting opportunity for much-needed affordable housing for future university students.

That said, the ringer which seems to have won the tug of war between 87th Avenue and SPR is the potential for transit-oriented-development, and transit-oriented development-based revitalization, both of which are by far more mythological than factual in this city and climate.

Can tranist-oriented development succeed in a narrow right-of-way where transit stops will be few and far between, side-walks are narrow, access for persons with disabilities is questionable, pedestrians will constantly have to cross a busy street to reach the centre-lane transit stop, and bicyclists will be squeezed out of the narrow remaining traffic lanes by heavy traffic?

Can it occur on a mass scale at all in a city where it has failed to take hold despite decades of light-rail service in the city?

Yes 87th Avenue will require tunneling under “heritage neighborhoods”, an argument against 87th Avenue which swings dangerously to the NIMBY.

However, there is almost no risk posed to the “historic homes” in question, while never have a small group of river valley residents been promised an isolated, untouched, rural setting in the city’s core, nor have the same been promised that much needed river crossings to connect the city would be kept from the view of their backyards.

At a time when we are setting aside future road expansion for the growth of our transit system in order to reduce the number of vehicles from our congested roadways, we’ve been handed a shining opportunity to build a world-class LRT system along 87th Avenue to serve some of Edmonton’s top amenities. This can be done without compromising any of our arterial or collector roads, appropriating property to accommodate hair-pin turns, or compromising any much-needed revitalization efforts

And perhaps most importantly, it will give us a chance to encourage a new generation of transit riders, rather than simply shifting transit users in a dozen mature communities from one form of transit to another.