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Smart growth debate begins

Emotions ran high Monday night as a long list of prominent area developers approached city council, claiming smart growth in the annexed lands isn't so smart after all.

Emotions ran high Monday night as a long list of prominent area developers approached city council, claiming smart growth in the annexed lands isn't so smart after all. The argument ran contrary to a fiscal impact analysis which suggested higher-density development over a smaller area will lead to lower property taxes in the annexed lands.

Council received an overview of how smart growth-style development would affect the city's bottom line. The municipal fiscal impact review included smart growth principles that call for more compact, higher-density development, walkable neighbourhoods, and easy access to transit, shopping and businesses.

Most of the developers who approached council expressed support of some smart growth principles, but warned against incorporating them into the entire 1,337-hectare annexation area since there isn't a market demand for such housing.

Michael Mooney, executive director of the Edmonton chapter of the Urban Development Institute (UDI) has lobbied in favour of increased housing densities in St. Albert, along with smaller lots and more duplexes.

Will it sell?

But before council adopts any smart growth principles, Mooney said the city should first employ a market demand analysis, arguing the demand for higher-density is lower during the economic downturn than it was a few years ago during the boom.

The communities of McKenzie Towne in Calgary and Terwillegar Towne in Edmonton were designed around many similar smart growth principles, said Mooney, but has left the developer vowing it will never do it again due to the lack of interest for commercial properties.

Other research collected in the council report was largely U.S. based, where smart growth principles are typically applied to infill development in mature neighbourhoods.

If the commercial retailers aren't there, residents are still forced to use their cars and do their shopping elsewhere, Mooney added.

"We are having very troublesome times trying to get our heads around what the market will do with this new concept," she said. "There is so much that has to be brought into it."

Other developers expressed concerns about infrastructure costs, how functional a walkable community really is in a winter city, along with the difficulty in attracting retail businesses every square mile — which is one of the principles of smart growth.

According to Carol Wallace of Melcor Developments Inc., businesses will not locate in an area until there is an established population, which the undeveloped annexed lands do not have.

Wallace said even a simple pizza restaurant requires a population of 25,000 people within a five-minute radius, while privately owned boutique stores require 10,000 people.

Wallace suggested the annexed lands could in all likelihood support three areas of main street commercial development, but it's still difficult to change societal shopping behaviours.

"Every area structure plan requires some commercial, but our society has already stated it's driven to the larger shopping areas, especially since we are a winter city," said Wallace, who suggested applying smart growth principles to certain areas as opposed to widespread lands.

More people, smaller tax bill

The fiscal impact review suggests there is a modest overall benefit to smart growth versus conventional growth.

With smart growth, the population would grow to 50,396 — an increase of 87 per cent compared to the conventional model's population of 26,982. Full build-out in the conventional scenario would take 30 years compared to 48 years with smart growth.

At full build-out, municipal property tax rates would be 7.8 per cent lower under the smart growth model than with conventional. That equates to about $229 in taxes per household.

Smart growth calls for higher population densities than conventional. St. Albert currently has 15 to 17 units per dwelling unit, while smart growth call for 42 units per dwelling unit. That density is even higher than proposed regional density requirements that call for 25 to 30 dwelling units per hectare for St. Albert.

After much debate about whether to continue with the smart growth review, council voted 4-3 to open up discussions with developers and groups like the St. Albert Chamber of Commerce and St. Albert economic development advisory committee.

Administration will come back with a list of recommended smart growth principles by March 1.

It's a move that doesn't sit well with Coun. James Burrows, who doesn't believe it's council's job to tell developers what they should do with their land.

"To arbitrarily say that all 1,300 hectares in the new St. Albert should [include] smart growth principles to me is a recipe for planning disaster," said Burrows, who isn't against developers coming forward with their own smart growth ideas. "All this does is delay our planning again. The Terwillegar Towne and McKenzie Towne experiments are failures, so why are we trying to re-invent that wheel?"

Coun. Lorie Garritty doesn't necessarily support all of the smart growth principles either, but isn't willing to kill the matter just yet. Instead, he would like to see the development of a 'made in St. Albert' model that would suit everybody's needs.

"We don't know what it's going to look like yet, but I have faith it's going to look like something that's acceptable to all of us," he said.