We need to talk about surplus school sites.
On February 1, Council’s Executive Committee will discuss the current inventory of school sites, school board plans for those sites, and what the City should do with the spare ones.
The first question for many is: Why do anything? Why not just let them be green spaces?
I wish it were that simple.
In 2020, City Council passed the City Plan, which outlines Edmonton’s planning policies for the next decade at least. It emphasizes higher density, mass transit and active transportation, and includes the goal of 15 minute neighborhoods - everything you need to work, live, play and learn within a 15 minute walk of your home.
There is an emphasis on redevelopment and infill to maintain the current footprint of the city and limit further sprawl. The City Plan encourages lot-splitting, commercial / residential mixed-use developments, and filling in empty spaces within the city.
In a lot of ways, infill makes sense. It costs money to maintain city infrastructure, patch potholes, replace underground pipes and cables, plow snow in winter and cut grass in summer. If we can add more residents, without adding many more pipes and wires and roads, the cost per person of maintaining our city goes down.
A neighbourhood with more people walking and riding through it is not only more vibrant and livable, which adds to property value, but it is also more lively and safer, as residents more actively look out for each other. A busier neighbourhood with more people in turn supports more community businesses, restaurants, coffee shops, specialty shops and other places for us to gather.
Infill sites also provide an opportunity for the city to offer land for the development of more affordable and supportive housing. In the suburbs, affordable housing is usually provided through a non-profit housing agency that offers rental accommodation at below market levels, in a building that may also contain units that are full market value (unsubsidized) units. Generally, the mix is 50% or less subsidized units in a single development.
There are also other models. For instance, The Greater Edmonton Foundation, provides subsidized housing for seniors. Their lodges also provide modest social and health supports.
We know that affordable housing is not only an integral part of the social security system that makes Canada the wonderful place that it is but it is an investment in the dignity of people, whether they be recently unemployed single residents, newcomer families, those overcoming chronic homelessness, seniors, etc.
The challenge is finding the balance between housing types. The City Plan emphasizes high density developments, condos and apartment towers. Whereas our development community tells us there is more demand for ground level entry homes - houses, duplexes and townhouses. We need to strike a balance between the City Plan vision and what people want.
The City Plan includes a vision statement that “Edmonton’s city design [will foster] a sense of place by celebrating our unique attributes, diversity and opportunities within the region.” Do lot-splits and skinny houses have a place in a mature neighbourhood where the “unique attribute” is wider streets and larger properties? Are we losing the uniqueness of that neighbourhood? Or is this move toward lot-splitting just the natural evolution of a community?
Perhaps the unique aspect of the community is its lack of variety, its lack of housing choices, its lack of amenities. Or perhaps what that community needs is more housing options across the spectrum so that some of the housing is more affordable for young families just starting who want to live near their childhood home, or so that empty nest can downsize without leaving the community and friends and neighbours that they have.
How do we strike that balance?
Vital to any neighbourhood are its other amenities like recreation centres, commercial developments, schools, libraries and green spaces. Which brings us back to the existing surplus school sites.
All neighborhood plans include city owned land being set aside for use by school boards. According to the Joint Use Agreement between the City and the Public, Catholic and Francophone school boards, when one board declares a site “surplus”, the other two boards have the right to use that site for a school of their own. If none of the boards want the site, then it returns to the city.
The City can then generally use the sites for any city need including a library, fire hall, swimming pool, etc. Right now, the City prioritizes affordable housing needs with surplus school sites and will work with housing providers to add affordable higher density housing.
In Ward 9 (Pihesiwin), there are 2 surplus sites: Ogilvie Ridge (development plans are in process) and Henderson Estates (no imminent development plans). There is a site in Haddow which is also being discussed by the school boards to determine if it is surplus to all of their needs. Additionally there are new schools planned in Glenridding, Keswick and Chappelle due to the significant growth in these areas.
There is a lot to think about and talk about here between building for the future and maintaining the special qualities of our communities that we have now. I’ve worked with many of our communities over the past 3 years to ensure that conversations are happening about surplus school sites and other developments and that community feedback is taken into account. If you have questions about something happening in your community, let me know.
On surplus school sites, please share your thoughts before next week’s February 1 meeting. I encourage you to comment on this post, send your thoughts to [email protected] or call 780-496-8130.