Strange Brew

A castle without its defences // Meaghan Baxter
A castle without its defences // Meaghan Baxter

How the city squandered the development opportunity of a lifetime

Greg Lindgren hands me a little red flashlight and leads me to a blue door on the north side of the Molson Brewery castle. There’s a taped-up sign advising face mask protection but the project manager for First Capital Realty has more pressing concerns: “Hopefully there are no residents.”
There are none to speak of, just squealing pigeons turning 40-some massive steel tanks into their nests and leaving their sticky, white rent on the concrete floors. My spotlight reveals relics from 95 years of beer-making—shattered fluorescent lamps, rusted bolts and metal sheets burglarized of their copper value and piled like pistachio shells.

The property has changed hands several times since the last beer was bottled in 2007. The latest owners, First Capital Realty and Sun Life Financial, bought the former brewery lands and adjacent Crosstown Motors site for $32 million in March—not for the iconic building but the prime real estate it sits on. Structurally and architecturally, it’s an intimidating building to repurpose, which is why the owners declined applying for heritage designation when the city invited them to do so. They’re optimistically negotiating with provincial and municipal boards about how, if at all, it can be adapted, but in the meantime the future is uncertain.

However, after walking up steep steel stairs, stepping over Budweiser cans and porno-mag discards, I enter the windowed, brightened fourth floor and find a more optimistic view of the site’s future. From up here, the panorama—13 fenced-in acres of brownfield—is currently a blight, but its location within Edmonton’s dense Oliver neighbourhood is also a gold mine of opportunity. It could be an urban oasis mimicking the trendy brewery districts of Toronto and San Antonio—apartments atop restaurants, maybe a florist, a bakery, rows of brick storefront facing wide sidewalks where fixies, strollers and walkers alike lead to and from the future West LRT line in a more urbanized, sustainable and connected city.

Last spring, when acclaimed writer and longtime Edmontonian Myrna Kostash first learned of a coming development on the derelict lands, she, like many in the Oliver and surrounding neighbourhoods, celebrated the news. And then she saw the drawings.

Eleven buildings that dwarfed the brewery—now a glass hybrid—and each one turned away from the streets, metres apart and separated by parking stalls—500 of them on the surface and 400 underground. “We don’t need another Oliver Square,” she says.

Kostash speaks of the retail directly east of the Molson-Crosstown site. When the big-box magnet went up in 1991, it was hailed as a turning point for the former rail yards. But it came when the desperate city would accept nearly anything it could collect taxes on. Twenty years later, Oliver Square’s suburban design is outmoded if not outright embarrassing.

While the brick finishings and lessened parking is an improvement, First Capital doesn’t think a streetscape-oriented development is viable. Too many Edmontonians drive, public transit is lacking and there are currently about 2500 apartment units under construction in the area—a 10-year supply. In another decade, maybe when the planned West LRT is completed, the new buildings can be demolished and reconstructed into an urban centre. But until then, this is what the market allows, says Ralph Huizinga, the Calgary-based manager representing First Capital. The city doesn’t even have an LRT station design, let alone funding, so he has no assurance it will even happen.

There is irony here: on one hand, we’re talking about repurposing a structure that’s lasted four generations and on the other, building something so temporary it won’t even last half a generation.

Really, if what the residents wanted might mesh with the city’s downtown vision, it doesn’t with the developers’ culture. First Capital is known more for Northgate and Longview, the unsightly strip of retail on the south side of 104 Avenue home to Jiffy Lube and Subway. And Oliver Square? That was purchased by its partners, Sun Life Financial, many years ago.

Oliver Community League president, Jarrett Campbell, feared they were about to squander the opportunity and helped organize a series of design consultations attended by representatives of neighbouring Westmount and Queen Mary Park residents. The neighbourhoods have seen an influx of young people over the past decade and their values were clear in the charrette.

[Full disclosure: Jarrett Campbell is my friend. Another disclosure: I live in Queen Mary Park. A final one: As the library’s writer in residence I’m employed by the City of Edmonton, which approved of the rezoning proposal in late August.]

“I was struck by how much the young people wanted access to public transit, want to be close to downtown, parks and independent small businesses,” Kostash says. “This [development] seemed like an ideal opportunity to be living these values.”

The constructive criticisms were relayed back to the owners. But the adjustments, like widened sidewalks and landscaping, were window dressing, Campbell says. “They made a couple of superficial changes when our problems were fundamental.”

Leading up to the hearing, Campbell and Ward 6 Councillor Jane Batty had countless conversations.

“There was never a time when she said she wouldn’t support the community,” he says. So he was stunned when the general business rezoning passed, 10 – 3. Not only did Batty vote in its favour, but she seemingly led First Capital with questions about its good reputation and willingness to hear out the community that painted it in a very positive light.

Batty denies leading them, though she acknowledges she may have suggested support for the community in past conversations. However, she says she didn’t have all the facts about the marketplace until she met with Huizinga and Scott Mackie, manager of the Current Planning division that oversaw the application.

Some good came out of the vote—a motion by Councillor Amarjeet Sohi to develop a plan to urbanize 104 Avenue—but the city is already a piñata of plans. It’s action that’s lacking.
Don Iveson is the only councillor running for mayor who voted against it. First he tried combining two zoning laws that wouldn’t force the developers to get constant approval but assure a certain quality. A similar bylaw is in place in the Warehouse District. However, his mayoral opponent Councillor Karen Leibovici called it “blackmail.”

“He was trying to put the proponent on the spot,” she says. Of course, the proponent put council on the spot, too, saying the site looked like “Downtown Beirut” and claiming they’d lose a season of construction and $2 million on further delay. Iveson maintains that it could have been a “quick turnaround”, but Leibovici thinks even a year delay is too long. “It was important that the site would not remain a disgrace the way it is now.” She says that First Capital could develop a town-centre concept over time, even though the general business zoning she approved would not force them, and “the promises they made will be remembered by council, and by me as mayor.”

“I was trying to come up with a win-win-win,” Iveson says. “But it became clear that there was no will on council to do any more work on this, and once that was clear I said, ‘OK, I just can’t support this.’ … But not for lack of trying.”

Indeed, the hearing lasted almost five hours, with community members pleading that council live up to city’s touted downtown ambitions.

But even with their voices heard, did council get the full story? As it turns out, the community members weren’t the only ones asking for fundamental changes.

Dismayed, insiders from the administration have opened up to Campbell and me over the past month to explain how something that contradicts sustainability, density and walkability—virtues espoused in the city’s long-term vision documents—could pass through planning in the first place.

It started downtown, inside the HSBC tower. The development permit for rezoning was circulating among the many units of Sustainable Development. Usually with a property like this, that carries both heritage and access to a future LRT, the city would get “Direct Control” zoning, meaning it lays out a prescriptive design and nothing gets built without city approval. The owners didn’t want that; they applied for CB2, a general business zone, as well as AP, a high-rise apartment zone to eventually convert retail into mixed-use.

By the time the internal-review file made it back to the 13th floor and landed on Current Planning manager Mackie’s desk, it had several letters of nonsupport. The files are not available to the public, however a memo from Mary Ann McConnell-Boehm, Director of the Planning Initiatives section, which oversees transit-oriented development, was leaked to me through Campbell.

It reads, “On the basis [of the] design drawings that have emerged [Planning Initiatives] has serious concerns and cannot support the application as submitted.” The three-page document lists many conditions required for approval, including street-facing entrances and an elimination of street-facing surface parking.

Another letter from heritage planner David Holdsworth worried that the character of the castle would be lost and that CB zoning would give the city no influence over its future. Too much has already been lost and the streetscape is poorer for it, he wrote.

Holdsworth, Erik Backstrom (senior planner of Transit Oriented Development) and Travis Pawlyk (senior planner on the Molson-Crosstown file), declined to comment. McConnell-Boehm was on vacation. However, Peter Ohm, manager of Urban Planning and Environment Branch, explains that it’s rare for these comments to make it into council’s report.

“They’re not going to attach comments that were resolved,” he says. But few if any of the conditions I read were adapted and nary a hint of the internal dissent made its way into the materials council was to vote upon.

Inside Mackie’s 13th-floor office there is a personalized bobble-head on the window ledge. Behind it, a five-by-seven-inch framed picture of the downtown skyline. Behind that, the flattened urban reality that is Edmonton’s parking lot-riddled core.

“They (First Capital) were not interested in applying for a direct control because it’s more work, more costly and takes more time,” Mackie says. He’s asked for some certainty over the outcomes and the compromise was to offer a site plan of its longer term vision (residential towers and transit-oriented development) on which to approve the zoning application. That’s why council was allowed to see drawings in the first place, even though they weren’t voting on the development; they were voting on rezoning. One could say the sketches were required to trust the developers. Another, that it manipulated council.

Affable as he is, Mackie has upset many within the administration. He has a reputation for pushing development through and critics also take issue with the fact that someone who’s not a fully accredited planner is in such a senior position. Mackie, who was hired from Calgary’s planning department in 2009, has an MBA, though he’s done eight years of planning course work and is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

“My MBA background seeks the balance between the business interest and planning interest,” he says.

There are systemic issues too. The many staff in Sustainable Development, renamed from Planning and Development a few years ago, are divided between several floors and buildings. Not even Current Planning, the biggest and most generalized branch, is on a single storey. Might this explain the Molson-Crosstown site’s lack of coordination on the transit-oriented development guidelines? Sure, but the guidelines’ language is weak; the word “encourage” appears more than “shall” or “must,” so, without direct-control zoning, there’s little to compel developers to follow them. As well, the department lacks a financial advisor, so when developers say the market can’t support a denser development, there’s rarely, if ever, an independent assessment.

And then there are cultural problems—new-school and old-school planning principles butting heads as they are in Calgary, Toronto and countless other North American cities. The renewed vigour of urbanism, led by theorists like Richard Florida, have made urban planning a sexy pursuit. Inspired, passionate young graduates enter the field to build cities they take pride in, but often confront an unmoveable old guard.

Mackie says it’s not the development he’d wished to see, but it’s a good one. He won’t call it a strip mall. According to him, a strip mall is more like what you see in the non-pedestrian friendly shopping district known as South Edmonton Common. Those are anchored by a big-box retailer and have five car stalls per 1000 square feet. This is anchored by a big grocer and only has 3.5 stalls per 1000 square feet.

Comparing a downtown development to a suburban one does him no favours. That aside, it’s impossible to look at the Molson-Crosstown site plans, stare into the gulf in the middle and not see a strip mall.

“I don’t disagree that we need to push for good design,” Mackie says. “The question is what do we have to work with and what do we have to leverage?”

It would be unreasonable to prescribe pedestrian-oriented design because the pedestrian activity doesn’t exist yet, he says. Of course, why would it exist when the avenue has been strip-malled for 20 years and disconnected with massive modular condos and obtrusive fences?

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