Land sales signal change could be coming to The Quarters

· The Pulse

Several city-owned lots in The Quarters are in the process of being sold to developers, giving at least one city councillor a glimmer of hope that there is legitimate progress to revitalize the 106-acre neighbourhood.

"There are some active land sales and I know (of some) solicitation of proposals," Coun. Anne Stevenson told Taproot. "So, that's certainly something that I think is important."

Two land parcels the city owns in The Quarters — the Koermann Block and lots close to Rowland Road — are now up for sale, and they carry incentives for developers of up to $1.5 million in city money to service the site into a state that can allow redevelopment. The city specifies it wants affordable housing on the listing.

A spokesperson in Stevenson's office confirmed the city will use the incentive money to "de-risk the investment and support the intent of having affordable housing on these sites."

Work to revitalize The Quarters, an expanse of land that's largely being used as surface parking across 18 city blocks, began with a community visioning exercise in 2006. The area was formerly Edmonton's residential and commercial hub before that activity shifted westward, leaving many of the original buildings to fall into disrepair. The announcement of Canada Place in the late 1970s is often cited as a significant change that pushed much of the remaining vibrancy (and buildings) out.

The city first started work on a plan for The Quarters in 2009. It anticipated that, once fully built, between 18,000 to 20,000 people would call the neighbourhood home, up from the current 2,500 or so residents. The plan roughly coincided with several other plans the city started at the time for redevelopment in the core, including Blatchford (2010), West Rossdale (2014), and the Exhibition Lands (2017).

Like many of those planned redevelopment sites, the amount of new housing added in The Quarters has been incremental. But unlike those sites, Stevenson said, The Quarters is unique because the city does not own all or most of the land — an important distinction. "I think that's a unique challenge to The Quarters and one that I think is at the heart of where we're at right now."

Beyond the incentives that offer public money to spur development in The Quarters, Stevenson said she hopes the city can change any specific zoning to cut potential barriers and continue conversations with existing landowners "to understand what barriers they see (and) what, from their perspective, are the pieces that need to be in place to help get them to a point of developing."

Finally, Stevenson said the city's new approach to parking-lot permits could offer a significant boost. The policy will allow existing lot owners to apply for temporary permits but also require improvements before those permits are issued. "Those (owners) who choose to not take that approach will be prioritized for enforcement," Stevenson said. "Either we're improving the streetscape or improving the look and feel of the area through enhancements, (or) conversely (we're) shutting them down and potentially creating a situation where the holding cost of those parcels, when they don't have active parking on them, maybe incentivizes property owners to develop or to sell on to someone who's more focused."

An LRT rolls eastbound into The Quarters, past several surface parking lots.

A Valley Line LRT rolls eastbound into The Quarters from downtown. The line, which saw $1.8 billion in public investment, is just one of many city investments that were hoped to catalyze redevelopment in the 106-acre neighbourhood immediately east of downtown. (Tim Querengesser)

But even Stevenson suggests there are limits to what the city can do, and these could become more central given the city's current financial situation.

The first challenge is the base amount of housing units built each year in Edmonton, which in 2023 was less than 15,000. Spread that number across several greenfield suburbs, infill in redeveloping core neighbourhoods, and several large redevelopment sites like Blatchford, and you start to thin out the change in all rather than concentrating it in one.

Stevenson said there is recognition at city hall that fewer than 15,000 new units of housing is "not going to cut it anymore" given the city's huge influx of new residents.

But a worrying data point on this front, which Stevenson confirmed, is that despite an increase of more than 100,000 new residents since 2021, there has not been a single new housing unit that started construction downtown in more than two years. Many factors are behind this, Stevenson said, including the end of the Economic Incentive Construction Grant, as well as interest rates, rent costs, and material cost. "Those are other things that may shift as well in the coming months that, again, may edge these projects into viability," she said.

A recent report on The Quarters in The Globe and Mail quoted developer Gene Dub, who owns the City Market apartments and the former home of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers Market in the neighbourhood. Dub said attracting new residents will be difficult due to social disorder, and that losing the market "was a very big blow" for the overall neighbourhood.

Edmonton has applied a community revitalization levy to fund $101 million in public infrastructure in The Quarters, including new drains, Kinistinâw Park, and the Armature.

The idea of spreading energy and money too thin may seem to make sense but does not apply to The Quarters, Stevenson said. "I think that we do see better returns when our investments are focused," she said. "(But) I don't know that that's necessarily the case with our larger redevelopment sites. They are each catering to very different markets, very different areas of the city. I really see with our land enterprise team a sharpening of the focus and really tangible, concrete steps being advanced in each of those larger (areas) — so Northlands, Blatchford, Rossdale, taking those really serious steps to enable development."

Stevenson said a municipality providing financial incentives to spur redevelopment is often viewed as outside its "core function," and noted rising costs mixed with falling support from other governments is forcing harder conversations about return on investment. Still, Edmonton has successful examples of using public money to incentivize redevelopment, such as at Railtown (just west of 109 Street at Jasper Avenue). These have resulted in positive returns to the tax base, she added.

"So, that's where I feel that it does fit within our mandate," Stevenson said. "It fits within our interest, certainly. But, you know, I appreciate my colleagues' cautions around our financial position and ensuring that we're not overstretching ourselves."