Smart growth debate worth following

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Smell that. The winds of politics are swirling and doesn’t it smell sweet!

The new year is just two weeks old and local political junkies are in their glory with drama at every level of government. In Ottawa, the question is whether to prorogue or not to prorogue (or cut and run), while here in Alberta all eyes are transfixed on a premier who hopes a cabinet shuffle can fix what ails his leadership.

St. Albert has seen a civic election race kick off 10 months before the big show, while council has started to tackle that heady urban planning concept called smart growth. While urban planning is far from a sexy election issue (if it even registers at all with voters), given the question at hand — what type of city do we want to become? — it’s a debate worth following.

What’s at stake goes beyond urban sprawl and changing the way we consume land. With its more compact housing forms intermingled with shops, services and green spaces, smart growth offers the potential to create distinct, self-sustainable neighbourhoods. St. Albert would still have the monster homes it’s known for, but higher densities would also provide more affordable options for an aging population, young couples, single professionals and families — in other words, diversity. If it gets that far.

Council has shown more divisions on smart growth than perhaps any other issue this term, voting 4-3 last week to continue with the process. Sure, council has had plenty of 4-3 votes, however it’s difficult to recall a topic where councillors were so firmly entrenched in their positions.

At one end is Coun. Len Bracko, whose passion for smart growth is so unshakeable he was at times last week uncharacteristically combative. Bracko repeatedly challenged developers about the need to move away from sprawl, but often missed the mark with his queries. A stern question quickly fizzled when he asked the Urban Development Institute (UDI) why it would have the audacity to get Randall O’Toole, a controversial U.S.-based urban planner with “zero credibility” to debunk smart growth for a group of locals. (It was the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce that had O’Toole speak). On another occasion, Bracko asked Melcor Developments’ manager Carol Wallace if she’d care to comment on studies that show low-density urban sprawl type development leads to physical inactivity. Not surprisingly, Wallace took a pass.

In the middle is Mayor Nolan Crouse, who at times appears skeptical of smart growth but seems willing to be the swing vote. If history is any indication, he’ll carefully weigh the information before reaching his own conclusions, keeping his thoughts largely private in the meantime.

On the opposite side of the divide is Coun. James Burrows, who if given the opportunity would have quashed smart growth months ago. Burrows is even offended by the term ‘smart growth,’ which implies any other development form is a fool’s game. “It’s disingenuous to suggest the St. Albert of today was not planned smart,” he said.

Burrows, who several times could be seen waving and nodding to the mass of developers in council chambers last week, is firmly on the side of the free market. Council should not dictate what type of housing or commercial is built in St. Albert. “I’m philosophically against that,” he said.

Just as skeptical is Coun. Gareth Jones, who has done plenty of homework on smart growth and isn’t sold on imposing a set of principles on all development in the annexed lands. Jones showed attention to detail when he asked how the city could spend all these months and dollars studying an issue without determining whether there is in fact a market for smart growth. Depending on the outcome of the upcoming debates, it’s a question voters might be well served to ask this fall.

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

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