Since late August and the release of the City’s census numbers, there has been a great deal of discussion around the fact that Edmonton is experiencing significant growth (here are reports discussing growth pressures from Aug 19 Executive Committee), and that many different approaches are needed in order to accommodate all the new citizens that are coming to our booming city. One of these approaches is Infill, a topic I have written about previously here. Last night, my Council colleague Amarjeet Sohi and I attended a public meeting in the Larkspur community to discuss the advancement of another approach: Surplus School Sites.
Thanks to demographic and density shifts in our neighbourhoods (as once again shown in the recent municipal census data), we need to be creative with how we revitalize mature communities (where our population is dropping) and encourage a better balance of growth between the perimeter and the core of our city. Dispersing this growth and allowing more of it to occur in our mature neighbourhoods allows the city to make better use of existing infrastructure, which increases the city’s fiscal efficiency and performance. By accommodating more people within the city’s established footprint, infill also reduces the overall financial, environmental, and social impacts of growth.
Within this recent period of economic prosperity, we have seen a significant rise in housing prices. In fact, the average cost of a single family detached house in Edmonton is currently $435,584. This has meant that many young working people starting out, who previously might have been able to afford the purchase of a new home, have been priced out of the homebuying market. More are forced to remain in a tight rental market that is already at an exceptionally low vacancy level, or potentially begin to look at other regional or suburban markets where first homes are more affordable.
To help accommodate more of these homebuyers, and add them them to our infrastructure-rich established neighbourhoods, Surplus School Sites are being used to diversify our housing mix. The First Place Program builds on these sites, providing market-priced housing that is more affordable thanks to the deferred payment of upfront land costs. In order to ensure this program targets people who need it, there is a household income cap of $117K a year. First Place unlocks the housing market for these young working families who otherwise might not be able to purchase in Edmonton.
The City has launched a clear and comprehensive communication plan to ensure that residents who live, or are perhaps looking to live, around these Surplus School Sites are well aware of their development potential. This wasn’t always the case, especially with some of the early sites, but this Council is working to improve transparency around these sites. Today, for example, the City is talking to realtors to ensure they understand the approved land uses and are able to fully inform prospective future buyers who are looking to move near these sites. For those already living in the community, new signage is being placed at site locations and community members are being provided information and asked for feedback earlier in the process to improve engagement. For those sites that are currently in the planning and design stages, members of the community are being actively involved in the design of the development to make sure that these new buildings fit with the character of the neighbourhood.
Change in our neighbourhoods can be very challenging, and often the first reaction is resistance. I understand this. But to make sure that our City and our neighbourhoods can be as productive, livable, and inclusive as possible, we can’t let our fear guide us. While our city’s shape and form may change, my hope is that Edmonton’s welcoming spirit will remain intact. Surplus School Sites offer us the chance to let our city’s character shine through.