'Citizens are abandoned and angry': Public speakers distrustful of Edmonton district planning

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said council will continue assuring the public that there’s nothing in these policies, the City Plan, or zoning bylaws that restrict peoples’ movements

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A lack of trust and disagreement with city direction was evident from members of the public who spoke against Edmonton’s district planning at city hall on Wednesday.

City councillors heard a variety of opinions on the second day of public hearings, mostly critical, with more than 80 people registered to weigh in over three days of meetings. Edmonton’s district policy and 15 district plans are documents meant to guide where and how more dense housing and commercial buildings will be allowed in the future, with the goal of making it easier for people to find amenities closer to where they live and get around their neighbourhoods easier as the population grows to two million.

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Speakers opposed for different reasons. Developers and advocates with the pro-growth group Grow Together Edmonton argued the plans don’t allow for enough housing density, while some members of the general public argued the documents will encourage too much density or feared damage to historic neighbourhoods.

Feelings of distrust and of not being listened to were common themes.

Some said the city didn’t do enough public engagement, while others like Sheila Phimester told council the city focused too much on engagement with developers instead of the general public.

“Citizens are abandoned and angry,” she told council. “You’re clearly not listening to us in these public hearings.”

Phimester said too many areas of the city could see intense redevelopment with policies allowing for more changes outside the areas designated as nodes and corridors.

“Your bylaw amendments only seek to take us increasingly away from any source of normalcy and control over our hard-earned private properties,” she said. “There are only a few areas in Edmonton that will not be impacted by your extreme densification plans. You already have issues with blatantly inadequate infrastructure.”

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The city hosted various types of public engagement over several years going back to 2021.

Despite this, members of multiple groups, including Better Infill and the Park Allen Community League, also told council engagement was insufficient.

Of particular concern was the late addition of the policy that encourages higher buildings in some places outside of the “nodes” and “corridors”  — geographic areas where the city wants to encourage more redevelopment, such as along a busy street with existing businesses. That policy would make it more likely city staff will recommend approving rezoning requests that meet two criteria, such as being next to a transit station or a park.

“We don’t need to do a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach,” Marie Gordon with Better Infill told Postmedia. Instead, she said there needs to be a better understanding of how building types may work differently depending on the community.

“(We are) trying to encourage council to be open to what different communities have to say. They don’t have to impose this district plan on all of them because there hasn’t been that level of (close) engagement. We have been recipients rather than participants.”

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David Percy feared the district plans would destroy the historic character of Glenora, despite significant resources the city spent over the years assessing its heritage and how to preserve it.

“(The plans) guarantee the destruction of this irreplaceable historic heritage asset,” he said during the hearing.

John Collier told council he doesn’t blame developers for looking to make a profit, because they are entrepreneurs and that is their job. This policy will encourage taller buildings in more places, but he doesn’t think the city should be making changes expecting more housing to be built that is affordable.

“I am not aware that we have a housing crisis for rich people … we do not need policies that mostly serve to increase the supply of housing for those already well-off. We cannot rely on developers, on their own, to get affordable housing.”

Nicholas Rheubottom, speaking for the Infill Development in Edmonton Association (IDEA), however, said the plans are too restrictive on development and said the City Plan is working well as it is. His colleague agreed.

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“The plans as written make Edmonton’s land use policy framework a lot more complicated than it needs to be,” said Chelsea Jersak, also with IDEA. Jersak also suggested the city use gradients in district maps to show a gradual transition from where the tallest buildings will be encouraged in the “nodes” and “corridors” into the neighbouring communities.

Other speakers praised the plans on Tuesday, though many gave support with caveats. Council is expected to complete discussions and vote on the plans Thursday. If passed, the documents will be sent to the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board, then return to council for final approval late summer or early fall.

‘We are not restricting anybody’s personal choices’: Sohi

Others moved into the realm of conspiracy, fearing their ability to move around the city could be restricted despite no evidence of this in the documents. Many speakers’ comments referenced a misunderstanding of the 15-minute cities or communities concept.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, asked how the city can improve trust with citizens, particularly those worried about 15-minute cities, said council will continue assuring the public that there’s nothing in these policies, the City Plan, or zoning bylaws that restrict peoples’ movements.

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“People are free to live where they want to live, they’re free to move around wherever they want to go. We are not restricting anybody’s personal choices, all we’re trying to do is build a sustainable city where people have the choice of local living, local amenities, and diverse modes of transportation, and enable people to live the way they want to live and enjoy a quality of life at the same time try to build a sustainable city to everyone.”

Coun. Andrew Knack said it was “heartbreaking” when an elderly man with a disability, who relies on public transit, told council on Tuesday he was afraid of being locked down in his zone and couldn’t afford to pay tolls — neither of which are contemplated in any city policy.

“This is a person who genuinely feels like the government is about to do something really drastic. And I think the better approach was to try to engage them, show some humanity, to help make sure you understand where their fears coming from,” he told Postmedia.

The Ward Nakota Isga councillor said he’s been noticing a level of distrust around the concept of 15-minute communities for about a year. He’s made efforts to reach out to his constituents directly, often having hour-long phone calls to understand why they are concerned.

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“It often came back to this fear that the government is out to, whether it’s to lock them down or just control their lives. There’s no way in five minutes (during a public hearing) to try to break down that barrier of mistrust,” he said.

But Knack still made an effort to begin rebuilding trust. That’s why, he said, he asked multiple speakers through the public hearings if they can point out language in the district policy, district plans, or City Plan, that suggests the things they are concerned about.

He was encouraged to hear the answers have been “no.”

Knack hopes people who are concerned the city is trying to control their lives in this way can take the time to speak to their city councillors directly.

“Request a meeting face to face. Because I have found the more I’ve been able to have those longer chats … I think they have a greater understanding of how local government works, what we actually can and can’t do in the first place. And maybe just to humanize each other a little bit more.”

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