With another building boom predicted, city will add 40 new neighbourhoods
By Elise Stolte, Edmonton Journal
Photograph by: Ed Kaiser, edmontonjournal.com
EDMONTON - When evenings grow quiet, Michelle Ruediger walks with her son to the stormwater lake where the red-winged blackbirds whistle in the wind.
In the still half-empty Castlewood community this spring, she and eight-year-old Tyler watched goslings grow up and leave the nest.
But if Tyler wants to shoot hoops or find a playground, it's a 10-minute bike ride across busy 115th Street. The north-end community was approved 27 years ago, but won't have a strip mall until several hundred more lots have homeowners with wallets.
Ruediger loves it anyway.
The suburb allowed her and her husband to move out of a townhouse into a house of their own, on a street where neighbours crack winter ice together off the sidewalks. Their children gather in her basement for PlayStation marathons.
She drives Tyler to Baturyn Elementary School in an established neighbourhood nearby, and commutes to work in Redwater, 45 minutes northeast of the city.
During the real estate boom in the mid-2000s, Edmonton's suburbs grew by leaps and bounds. They grew out of sight, almost unnoticed by folks in mature neighbourhoods, until the Anthony Henday opened and drivers looking for a shortcut to Calgary spotted rows and rows of rooftops from the highway.
Today, as economic forecasts predict the city is about to boom again, the Edmonton Journal is launching a summer series on Edmonton's newer communities.
The city predicts 75 per cent of growth will be in new communities for at least the next decade. More than 40 neighbourhoods are already approved or under construction, some filling up faster than others, and a closer look shows a large variance in the quality and level of amenities.
Castlewood, for example, has only grass in the field where a playground is supposed to be.
Thirty kilometres south on Edmonton's opposite edge, Summerside has a swimming lake and a beach, plus two coffee shops, several banks, a grocery store and a children's clothing boutique, all within easy walking distance.
The shape of a neighbourhood can affect everything from the rates of obesity and diabetes to commute times and crime rates. But communities on the edge of Edmonton are growing up either rich or very poor when it comes to those things that can make neighbourhoods vibrant and complete.
"We got caught with our pants down with the rapid growth," says Coun. Ed Gibbons, whose north-end ward has three neighbourhoods struggling to build their first playgrounds.
A lot of hotdogs
Brintnell is selling hotdogs for its second fundraising BBQ this Saturday.
"But it takes an enormous amount of hotdogs to raise that kind of money," said Gibbons. "I'm pushing our developers to (help build playgrounds) now. Maybe I should have started pushing for that nine years ago."
The city recorded nearly as many service hookups on new lots in the suburbs last year as it did during 2005, the height of the recent boom. Already, about 30,000 people live south of the Anthony Henday -a ring road once seen as the far outer edge of Edmonton.
Eleven neighbourhoods are being built west of the Anthony Henday. To the north, growth has been slower and many communities have been under construction for years.
Only three areas of the city don't yet have development plans -the deep southeast, the southwest (west of the North Saskatchewan River), and the far northeast.
But construction on the northeast leg of the Anthony Henday is expected to begin as early as summer 2012, encouraging growth in that corner of the city as well.
The costs associated with suburban growth are well documented, often brought up by those living in mature neighbourhoods, angry at crumbling sidewalks and school closures.
But Edmonton has many factors preventing it from focusing growth on infill and empty parking lots downtown.
Unlike Edmonton's sister city to the south, "our jobs are not concentrated downtown," said Nancy MacDonald, a senior planner with Stantec.
"There are more jobs in the northwest than there are downtown."
In Edmonton, one in 10 jobs are downtown, about 67,000 in total. In Calgary, that rate is one in four, about 150,000 workers.
"That's just the reality of building here," said MacDonald, who also sits on a city task force aimed at renewing mature neighbourhoods.
"We're a service industry city. If you're in your huge truck and you're carrying your welding equipment, you're not getting on the LRT. You're driving to your workplace (which could be anywhere in the city)."
Plus, if Edmonton doesn't provide the type of new suburban housing people want, they'll move just outside the city limits, pay taxes there and still use Edmonton services, said north-end Coun. Dave Loken.
"The new wards in my area offer starter homes, new homes for young families and that's a big attraction. As long as I'm councillor, I want to see those choices there."
LRT plans crucial
The real challenge, said Bradley Leeman, a city manager who plans infrastructure strategy, is "our ability to keep up with the pace of growth."
Developers could use the land left within Edmonton boundaries to create high-density communities, full of amenities with a quick connection by LRT to downtown and the rest of the city. They could be walkable mini-town centres within the larger city, but only if developers know where and when the train line will be built.
That's an ongoing discussion. Brookfield Residential, the developer responsible for Summerside, is starting work on a large tract of land southeast of Mill Woods, a natural extension for the LRT line. But without fixed, reliable plans for LRT, they wouldn't plan around it.
"You would have to basically leave a hole in your community," said Louise Gibson, a senior development manager with the company, formerly called Carma Developers.
The city has to get funded LRT plans in place first if city services are going to be central. It has started that work already, finished the general vision and is working to decide details on the ground. But with growth speeding up again, they don't have much time.
"There are some (developments) where it's too late," said Leeman, referring to the possibility of having more than just houses in Castlewood or a hub centred around rapid public transit in Summerside. "It is what it is. There's just no getting around that.
"My fear is that the plans for transportation may be slower than development, because it's just happening so quickly."
But the will to change is there, he said, both on city council and in city administration. "Whether we do or not, time will tell."
Living on the EDGE
The Edmonton Journal is launching a summer series today called Living on the Edge, all about understanding the challenges facing Edmonton's suburbs and the people who live there. It's not a traditional series, because we have a beginning, but no defined end. And we can't tell these stories without your help.
Today, we invite you to join us. Write to us with your experiences living in or driving out to the suburbs. Suggest articles for the series, and comment on what we've already done. Describe your favourite places, nominate those making a real difference and tell us what keeps your community from being everything it could be. We'll read everything, re-post lots of it on the blog, and turn many ideas into articles throughout the summer. E-mail reporter Elise Stolte at livingedge@ edmontonjournal.com, comment on Twitter with the hashtag #yegedge, and follow our efforts online at www.edmontonjournal.com/livingedge. Of course, we always love to get comments the traditional way, too. Send a Letter to the Editor.