There used to be a time when we would see the words ‘scaled back’ next to a city-backed project and applaud City Council for making a prudent decision. So when a few headlines bubbled up last week that pegged the new Blatchford plans as ‘scaled back’, it was a refreshing change to see some Edmontonians aghast that we might be flirting once again with mediocrity.
How far we’ve come.
Certainly we have to watch our debt ceiling as we tackle projects like the Southeast LRT and rebuild our drainage infrastructure for changing weather. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to ‘mediocricize’ Blatchford.
Here’s my thinking:
The refinement from the first and extremely ambitious Perkins + Will plan for Blatchford to the current plan being recommended to Council are centred around four key changes.
The first is elongating a sci-fi inspired (my words) pneumatic garbage disposal system that essentially sucks all the waste from the community to one central location – the theory being, instead of multitudes of garbage trucks driving through the community, you only need one. As much I’d love to see one of these in action, investing $91 million in pneumatic waste collection doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when we are already making great strides in greening our fleet of city vehicles and diverting 90% our waste from landfill. With last week’s announcement on Enerkem’s waste-to-energy biofuel plant, we’re already ahead of nearly every city around the world on waste processing.
The second significant point of contrast is the removal of an on-site wastewater treatment facility from the initial plan. This facility would turn grey water from things like showers and sinks into reusable water for toilets in the community. Currently the Alberta Building Code prevents grey water reuse in public buildings, and while the idea is certainly attractive, the regulations haven’t kept up. Instead, we can save ourselves $25 million and tie into the existing drainage and treatment system, one that is already demonstrating innovation when it comes to water reuse on an industrial scale. We will also insist on low flow appliances throughout the community and build on our reputation as a water conserving city. There will still be rainwater capture for irrigation, and room for limited greywater re-use if the rules change.
The most significant change (~$157 million) is ruling out a biomass and deep geothermal district energy system. There are some fundamental questions whether a biomass plant is feasible given the amount of feedstock (i.e. wood chips) it would need to operate, and the transportation footprint it would require. And the deep geothermal just isn’t feasible. However, the Net Zero goal and the Carbon Neutral goal still apply, so the Blatchford project team is exploring two alternate district energy systems: a) a natural gas combined heat and power system that could save a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions; or b) a shallow geothermal ‘ambient exchange’ system that could heat and cool the community with renewable energy and offer the potential for full carbon neutral operation.
The fourth changes are adjustments to the layout and form. The high rises have been downscaled to mid-rises so that we’re not trying to compete with Downtown, and there is more townhouse or brownstone housing, which I think is key to bringing families with children to the area. The density remains approximately three times what would be found in a typical suburban development being built today, while still allowing us to improve sun exposure, and build stronger community connections. The park space has been reduced slightly but at 19% of the area it is still twice what would be found in a conventional suburban development.
I don’t think the recommended scenario for Blatchford is a compromise. In fact, I’d say it’s as close to a balanced triple bottom line – social, financial and environmental – as we could hope for. We’ll achieve the ambitious principles set out by council and still produce a reasonable return on our investment.
That’s prudent leadership.