Eco-vision sounds great, but …

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Depending on who you talk to, the St. Albert of tomorrow could be an eco-friendly oasis where residents leisurely bike or stroll to high-powered jobs, or the annexed lands will remain little more than empty farmers’ fields.

Reality probably lies somewhere else entirely.

The two very different, very bold predictions for St. Albert come courtesy of developers with a stake in tapping into parts of the 1,337 hectares in the north.

The more optimistic scenario is called the Avenir concept, a proposed $1.6-billion mixed-use development west of North Ridge. The 135-hectare site would invest in clean-technology companies in a large-scale laboratory campus platform, creating up to 8,000 jobs.

This high-tech vision for Avenir, which in French means “future,” would coincide with a large “smart growth-style” walkable residential area that would be home to 10,000 residents.

That’s a sizeable shot in the arm for local economic development, the kind of vaccine the city desperately needs to relieve pressure on heavily taxed homeowners. So it’s more than a little eyebrow-raising when a $1.6-billion plan garners little more than passing interest from city hall.

Mayor Nolan Crouse said last week he doesn’t know what to think about Avenir because he hasn’t seen a plan with substance. The plans he has seen haven’t exactly bowled him over. When interviewed last spring, Crouse said council’s first focus is to create a light industrial park in the northwest, not residential. “I don’t know if I’m on board,” he offered.

City manager Bill Holtby called the plans creative, but put things in perspective when he called them a “trial balloon” designed to capture media attention (and investors, perhaps?) with the goal of pressuring council to bend on land uses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In contrast is an equally bold, though dour inference of depressed development activity in the annexed lands. This message also comes from the development community through their formalized lobby arm, the Urban Development Institute (UDI).

The doom and gloom forecast was in response to the city’s new offsite levy rates, which will charge developers fees to help pay for new roads, water and sewer lines in the annexed lands. UDI has historically opposed such charges — even taking the City of Leduc to court in 2005 over a fee structure it deemed unfair.

Levy costs are typically offloaded onto homebuyers, a $30,000 cost per lot, according to the UDI’s math. In a tersely worded letter, UDI warned the city about levy amounts that could make St. Albert unaffordable to homebuyers, urging council to prevent this from happening. “Cities stagnate very quickly when people stop moving in,” wrote UDI chair Patrick Shaver.

There’s no question the city’s levies are high and growth hasn’t exactly surged recently, but warnings of stagnation are a bit much. St. Albert already is a more expensive place to live, but that doesn’t stop people from moving here for quality of life. As some councillors pointed out last night, other communities will face similar levy pressures as they grow and expand beyond their boundaries.

It’s only natural for public officials to expect some push and sway over how to develop the annexed lands. It’s up to council to sort out which is just hot air.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Read his Civic Matters blog at www.stalbertgazette.com.

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