Surplus School Sites and the River Valley
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In 2006, the provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs agreed to exempt Edmonton’s City Council from parts of the Municipal Government Act in relation to 21 specific sites where a school was planned but never built, after the school board has transferred the land to the city (‘surplus school sites’).
As a result of the exemption, Edmonton’s City Council no longer needs to hold public hearings for affected residents when disposing of the sites to developers or making zoning bylaw changes to allow housing on the land. Affected residents are no longer able to appeal development permits to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board or the Court of Appeal. The exemption allows City Council to rezone and build on neighbourhoods’ greenspace without involving the public in the ways otherwise mandated by the Municipal Government Act for land in Edmonton and across Alberta.
This change caught the public by surprise because it appears to have occurred without notice.
As soon as the law was changed to eliminate public involvement in the use of surplus school sites, City Council commenced the First Place Program, which builds subsidized condos for first-time homebuyers whose income places them in the middle class.
The city offers the land to developers at a nominal charge.
The developers design and build condos, and sell them at market prices.
The condos are ‘affordable’ because homebuyers don’t begin to pay the city for the land for five years.
However, the condos seem to be ‘affordable’ only for the middle class. Buyers must be employed; they must not have previously owned a home; they must have a household income of up to $117,000 per year and a personal net worth of less than $25,000 – excluding a primary vehicle, RRSPs and the down payment required for the condominium unit – and they must be able to obtain financing, with or without a co-signer. They must have, for all intents and purposes, a middle-class income.
Buyers receive a federal $5,000 non-refundable income tax credit that provides up to $750 in federal tax relief for an eligible individual.
Buyers agree to live in the property for 5 years, during which time they don’t pay the city for the land. Land payments, when they begin, are interest-free.
After 5 years the condo can be sold onto the market, just like any other home – although there is a way to sell before the 5 years are up.
The city’s chosen developers are Rohit and Landmark. The preferred lenders are ATB, BMO, Servus, and Canadian Western Bank.
This is the project schedule according to the city’s website:
It is time to ask questions about the history, purpose, and value of City Council’s approach to surplus school sites, now that 10 years have passed since after the elimination of the public’s right to be involved in the disposal of neighbourhood greenspace.
Is the program needed to provide affordable housing for the disadvantaged?
The First Place Program is clearly intended to provide a government subsidy to middle-class buyers. The city’s website indicates that the program is intended for “teachers, nurses, tradespeople, police, fire response, social workers, recent post-secondary graduates and many in the service and health industry.” The city’s FAQs make it clear that this is not a social housing program because, unlike social housing, the First Place Program assists people who are not experiencing disadvantage.
When the First Place Program began, condominium prices were affordable; thereafter, it may be arguable that they rose to become unaffordable, even for middle-class buyers. The program could have been justified as a way of helping middle-class buyers into a first home that they might have afforded before prices rose. Prices have since dropped significantly.
There is a need for proof that middle-class buyers still need government subsidies to break into Edmonton’s housing market.
Is the program directing resources to the right places?
Certain neighbourhoods would like to attract a similar program to improve their housing stock and diversify their populations.
City Council lacks a citywide planning policy, so neighbourhoods in need of new family housing do not have the chance to benefit from the resources currently going to building on other neighbourhoods’ greenspaces.
Council needs to produce a defensible long-term citywide plan that contemplates the needs of all neighbourhoods equally and directs resources appropriately, so that no neighbourhood is left behind. This will require a deep look at the merits of the First Place Program.
Does the program take into account new information about flooding in Edmonton?
City Council has become aware that much greenspace will be needed for dry ponds to mitigate the recurring flooding Edmonton now experiences.
Citizens are asking Council to suspend the First Place Program and fully study flood mitigation before building on more greenspace, in case the leftover parkland is needed for dry ponds.
City Council expects a report on the matter in 2017, but Council has indicated that it will not reverse course, in spite of the potential for the First Place Program to cause land deficits that would adversely affect current residents as well as First Place buyers. Council will allow construction to begin on the greenspace already pinpointed for development, regardless of the consequences:
Responsible development demands that City Council suspend all development on surplus school sites pending a full investigation of the need to use the land for flood mitigation. Otherwise it remains entirely possible that the land around the First Place Program condos will be needed for dry ponds, which could result in land deficits that will affect all residents.
Is the program as critical as Council maintains?
Despite City Council’s insistence that surplus school sites are essential to Edmonton’s housing market, Council is in the process of reviewing the sale of two sites to private schools.
The potential sale of this public land to private schools raises serious questions about whether the First Place Program is truly essential to Edmonton’s housing market.
There is a need for proof that the program is as critical as Council claims.
What is ‘surplus’ land?
Referring to planned school sites as ‘surplus’ leaves the impression that land is sitting idle, doing nothing.
In reality, surplus school sites are greenspace that, from the outset, neighbourhoods have used as soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and parkland: ” ‘You’ll see teenage boys kicking balls around out there, little kids flying kites or playing in the park. But also the people who live here, gather there and talk to each other in the park.’”
Once built upon, this greenspace is gone forever. Rather than reducing facilities for soccer and other activities, Edmonton needs to protect its outdoor fields. Soccer is one of the fastest growing youth sports – the numbers are closing in on 30,000 in Edmonton.
As well, despite the sound of ‘surplus land,’ the amount of greenspace in neighbourhoods with surplus school sites is not excessive. Those neighbourhoods have populations large enough that they are nearly in a greenspace deficit even now, according to the minimum standards in the city’s Urban Parks Master Plan. Covering greenspace with buildings and bringing in more people will mean that some neighbourhoods no longer have the recreational land to support their populations.
However, City Council does not take residents’ objections into account; it approves all development on sites declared surplus by school boards.
For instance, “in the Haddow neighbourhood, the city plans to rip up the greenspace and build row housing right down the middle. ‘Give us a school first. And if you can’t give us a school, give us a say in how the land is used. That’s all we’re asking,’ said (Barry) Kossowan.”
Responsible development mandates that City Council revisit the First Place Program in the context of the greenspace required for the population that relies on surplus school sites for recreation.
Seniors’ Housing on Surplus School Sites
City Council has earmarked a number of surplus school sites for seniors’ housing.
The city’s rationale for building seniors’ housing on surplus school sites is that “Using these sites for seniors’ housing will help increase housing options available to seniors throughout Edmonton. By enabling seniors to downsize to smaller facilities within communities they know, existing housing stock becomes available to younger families with children. This helps to diversify neighbourhood demographics, making existing housing stock flexible for the changing needs of community members. Seniors don’t need to move away, and housing becomes available for younger families to move in. This makes a neighbourhood more stable and sustainable over the long term. As seniors transition out of their homes, these properties become available for new families, bringing renewed vibrancy and sustainability to local businesses and services.”
The irony here is that City Council has opened the door to skinny houses. Developers are encouraged to buy the existing housing stock as seniors move on, split the lot, and build two skinny homes that maximize profit but are unaffordable for the younger families who are supposed to move in as seniors move out.
However, the effect of building seniors’ housing on surplus school sites is to reduce available greenspace needed for the population that relies on surplus school sites for recreation. As one resident puts it, “the obesity problem is now and the cited peak forecast for the seniors’ housing is thirty years from now.”
Edmonton’s population is expected to increase. According to its Urban Parks Management Plan, it is reasonable for City Council to increase greenspace accordingly.