Why our debate about the tower won't discuss what ails The Quarters / by Tim Querengesser

Does The Quarters need an 80-storey residential tower to revitalize it?

The question is the only one on the table at the moment and will therefore demand our attention. But the question isn't what we need to ask about The Quarters. Asking it and only it avoids the problem we really need to talk about with our ailing downtown neighbourhood.

That's surface parking. 

Supplied: Alldritt Land Corporation 

Supplied: Alldritt Land Corporation 

To recap, Alldritt Land Corporation has successfully proposed to purchase city-owned land in the river valley, right beside the Shaw Conference Centre. On this land, it is proposing to build an 80-storey tower with multiple uses. 

Rather than debate the merits of this tower, reflect on its proposed height or opine about whether such a dense and vertical thing in an otherwise under-developed neighbourhood will build a livable, complete community, we need to ask why Alldritt is developing its hyper tall tower where it is in the first place?

And then: What does that say about the situation in The Quarters?

Alldritt is purchasing land from the city, which means it's required to jump through several extra and expensive hoops versus developing it on privately-owned land. Aside from the obvious — that the city-owned land is right on the river valley — this itself should have people scratching their heads.

All around the proposed tower site are lot upon lot of empty, privately-owned lots begging for a tower or four. But Aldritt didn't choose any of them. Why?

The reason is, I think, that no one wants to sell.

These lots are operating at the moment as businesses — as unimproved surface parking lots. That means they are mud pits with a pay machine added, and that they became that way after an owner knocked down an old, likely empty historic building, in order to dodge paying higher taxes, and is now raking in monthly revenue from, well, a patch of mud. 

Only one of these owners has a permit to operate their lot as a surface parking lot, as the city has admitted, though the city also has shown it has no interest in enforcing its bylaws.

The true, undiscussed problem for Edmonton's development aspirations in The Quarters is that those who own private land there see far less economic gain in selling it for development than doing what they're doing now, which is making money every day off an undeveloped lot. Meanwhile the city sees a lose-lose in being seen as taking away parking downtown from motorists, even though there's way more than enough. So it does little.

And then we end up with an 80-storey tower proposed on city-owned land. 

Sources have told me the city is trying to gain authority under the Municipal Government Act to tax surface parking at a higher rate than it currently is. That would be a huge step forward, and Alberta needs to hand that power over to cities as soon as possible.  

Numerous people have also told me the city is also working on a strategy to target surface parking. They know it's the problem. Hell, they know better than all of us. But they also fear those who perpetuate the 'war on the car' narrative will lose their minds if they actually take action.

Sadly, we all are losing with this situation — including $27 million of city money invested in the Armature in The Quarters. 

But hey, at least we have a lot of places to park.