1. Lower construction costs
This route avoids the following costs of the city’s proposed route:
- 700 m tunnel from Chinatown to Louise McKinney Park riverbank (cost unknown)
- Demolition of the Cloverdale footbridge ($5 million)
- Removal of natural-area parkland around Mill Creek Ravine and re-naturalization of this area (cost unknown)
- “Signature” Tawatinaw Bridge ($65 million)
- The alternative route is approximately the same distance as the existing route.
These savings are partially offset by three costs associated with the alternative route, but the difference still favours the alternative route. The first of these additional costs is the elevated track down Grierson Hill as well as over the south bank roads to arrive at the Muttart station; however, elevated track is less expensive than tunneling. The second of these costs is a simple bridge alongside the Low Level Bridge; this bridge would not have to include a pedestrian platform (as these are already present on the Low Level Bridge and the Cloverdale Footbridge). The alternative route would also require the completion of an Environmental Impact Screening Assessment. These three costs would be offset many times over from savings generated from the above list.
Furthermore, the time saved from avoiding tunnel construction would, even with the time required for completion of the EISA, still likely lead to a shorter construction period overall. This would be highly beneficial to the City as it would mean avoiding the possibility of exceeding the Alberta government loan deadline (a potential political nightmare for the Mayor and City).
The North Saskatchewan riverbank just east of Louise McKinney Park—the site of the projected tunnel—involves major geological risk. This bank, which the Environmental Impact Screening Assessment (EISA) deems “marginal” in stability, is comprised of four layers of bentonite clay spliced into a soft bedrock of mudstone/siltstone. This is the location of numerous historical coal mines, one of which was excavated approximately 30 metres from the portal. (See Fig 3 in June, 2014 http://www.riverdalians.net/riverdalian/2014_06.pdf) As the AEON report in the EISA surmises, the large Grierson Hill slide of 1901, in which nearly 500 linear metres of earth gave way, resulted from a combination of fracturing in the bank as a result of coal mining and of heavy rains finding their way to a bentonite layer below which then became the slip plane.
This area also suffered landslides in 1910 and 1952, causing damage to houses and buildings. Figure 5.1 on page 68 of the EISA shows two ground cracks in the bank directly below the projected route on the north side of the river. Immediately above these cracks, at the edge of the bank, are a 94-unit luxury condominium and a smaller housing co-operative building. As an April, 2014 article shows, (http://www.riverdalians.net/riverdalian/2014_04.pdf) signs of ground movement have already deformed part of a brick wall in front of the luxury condominium. The projected line tunnels between these buildings.
When the Shaw Conference Centre was built in the early 1980s, the city did not properly anticipate the degree to which this bank was unstable. Costs to stabilize the riverbank rose from $32 million to $81.5 million within 18 months. The west side Grierson Hill has now been stabilized for Shaw Conference Centre and is a much safer option for construction than a tunnel through an unstable, mine-riddled riverbank.
- Shaw Conference Centre stop
Through the addition of a stop at Shaw Conference Centre, this alternative route greatly increases the potential ridership of the SE LRT line. According to the Shaw Conference Centre’s general manager, the conference centre hosts approximately half a million people annually. The City has also mentioned interest in expanding the centre in the near future.
- North River Valley access
By stopping at Shaw Conference Centre, this alternative route also offers north-bank downtown river valley access. This access would be useful to people participating in the various cultural and sporting events held in Louise McKinney Park each year. It would also benefit users of the river valley. As a result, the funicular potentially planned by the River Valley Alliance to be built under the Hotel MacDonald might not be necessary, and those funds could be directed elsewhere.
- Greater Quarters density
Besides adding a guaranteed high-use station at Shaw Conference Centre, this alternative route enables greater density of the Quarters area itself. The portal land could be built upon, and the entire tunnel area would be available for higher-density construction and the inclusion of underground parking lots. Apartment buildings and condominiums in this area would still have access to the same Quarters stop as in the City’s plan, so developers would only gain from the alternative route.
It should also be noted that, while the current parking lots through which the alternative route runs are prime real estate, so too is the top-of-riverbank area above the proposed tunnel; this land has an unparalleled view and has excellent potential for City use and profit. The tunnel (as well as train noise and vibrations) would seriously limit the potential use of this prime top-of-riverbank land, and would thus represent a huge loss of opportunity.
- Desirable real estate
It should be noted that the existing footbridge, parks and natural areas in the central river valley are a major draw for people to move into Riverdale, Cloverdale, and the Quarters. Access to nature is a rare real estate advantage that will only increase in value as the Quarters area and the rest of downtown Edmonton are more densely settled. The more natural, tranquil and genuine the river valley and park space in this area, the more rare—and hence valuable—this area will be to the surrounding real estate market. People understand that both improved transit and access to nature increase a neighborhood’s (and a city’s) livability. The seawall in Vancouver, the Breakwater in Victoria, and the riverside lands in downtown Calgary are popular natural areas for nearby high-rise residents and others searching for “special” places to walk. When asked why the lit waterfront walkway in West Vancouver is so busy (apparently from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.) one resident said nowadays we spend so much time indoors, we want a natural event when we go out.
Cloverdale Footbridge has evolved into Edmonton’s downtown seawall. As one person remarked on the petition urging the city to use an existing vehicle corridor rather than building the LRT through the current pedestrian-only area: “I am downsizing and hoping to find something in Cloverdale. I was shocked to hear the city was doing this....Why would I want to buy in an area doing this? Something had better change!” Another person writes: “I love living downtown, but sometimes the noise and busy lifestyle can wear on you. Having places like this to go running or walking across is a great way to escape the noise and relax. It is like a retreat in the middle of urban living. It promotes healthy lifestyles and is a main source of commute for many professionals. Please don't disturb one of the few peaceful areas of the downtown valley.”
The City of Edmonton greatly underestimated the popularity and significance of the Cloverdale Footbridge to area residents and other users of the river valley in determining the river crossing of the SE LRT route. The City finally counted the number of Footbridge users in the spring of 2014, and found that on a given weekday (May 20-22) between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., approximately 1500 people use the bridge, while on Saturday May 24 between 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. 2290 people used the bridge. Figures also show the footbridge is a noon hour destination. 300, 299, and 268 people, respectively, accessed the bridge between 12:00 and 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday May 20-22, 2014. The actual daily numbers were undoubtedly higher, as many people commute to work via the bridge before 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and a number of people use the bridge at night, especially in the summer months when it is light out past 9:00 pm. These numbers confirm the Cloverdale Footbridge plays a key role in the downtown recreational experience.
As Amanda Burden, NYC urban planner under Michael Bloomberg, has shown, public spaces—cultural spaces and green spaces—are what bring a city alive. They are what attract people to a city, and keep them there. New York’s High Line Trail now attracts millions of visitors every year. Yet she says, “No matter how popular and successful a public space may be, it can never be taken for granted. Public spaces always…need vigilant champions, not only to claim them at the outset for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them to ensure that they are for everyone, that they are not violated, invaded, abandoned or ignored”; see her excellent TED Talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_burden_how_public_spaces_make_cities_work?language=en. It should be noted that Bloomberg Associates, for whom Amanda Burden now works, is a non-profit group that offers consultation for cities around the world. The bidders for the SE LRT project might contact this group. Advice they might offer on this project could carry great weight with Edmonton City Council. See http://www.bloombergassociates.org.
There is historical precedent in Edmonton for persistent, successful resistance to transportation projects in the river valley. In the 1960s the City envisioned a freeway from Edmonton to Jasper Place through the MacKinnon Ravine. After ten years of planning and the actual felling of trees, the community resisted. Today, MacKinnon Ravine is a popular recreational corridor and was recently the site of the planting of an edible food forest, a project funded by the City of Edmonton Edmonton Journal Volunteers work in MacKinnon Ravine.
This conservation story is top-of-mind for many Edmontonians who support an alternative river crossing for the SE LRT. As well, in the 1960s, the City proposed a freeway over the river at the Footbridge’s current location and up through Mill Creek Ravine. At the time, 3,000 citizens signed a petition against this freeway and City Council ultimately abandoned the project. Today, Mill Creek is a signature recreational and natural corridor in central Edmonton.
A large community of Edmontonians who support LRT oppose the City’s plans for the river crossing portion of the SE LRT and see the need for an alternative crossing. Groups that have openly opposed aspects of the river crossing portion of the SE LRT include Chinatown, Riverdale Community League, Cloverdale Community League, Edmonton Folk Festival Music Society, the Edmonton Ski Club, and Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge. Riverdale’s Community Newsletter devoted most of its April, 2014 issue to the Valley Line. http://www.riverdalians.net/riverdalian/2014_04.pdf including the risk of tunneling next to the riverbank. Cloverdale polled its community in late 2013 and found over 67% of respondents felt if the City did not address their concerns regarding the siding and substation planned for the Muttart grounds, the community should withdraw its support for the route. Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge, meanwhile, has over 1,500 followers on Facebook and has collected approximately 2,000 signatures to date urging Edmonton City Council to make use of an existing vehicle corridor for the SE LRT to cross the North Saskatchewan River.
There is also widespread concern regarding the public-private partnership model of this project, especially since the Alberta government determined that such a model would lead to increased cost in the construction of Alberta schools. Private Interest Alberta and other groups are highly critical of the P3 model and are keeping a close eye on the costs of this project as a result.
It is clear a number of groups oppose the river crossing portion of the City’s S.E. LRT route. While interest in the issue ebbs and flows, a steady undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the City’s cavalier and opportunistic approach to what is commonly thought to be Edmonton’s greatest asset remains. Their concerns are legitimate and relate to cost efficiency, environmental stewardship, loss of a valuable recreation corridor, and legal interpretation of city bylaws. These groups are alert to the development of the project and in some cases are committed to physical protest to defend their concerns. It is in the City’s best interest to have the people of Edmonton behind it. A contractor group that could guarantee this for the City would not only have an edge over the other bidding groups, it would also be good for the contractor group’s own business to show that it is creative, progressive, and able to work with community groups.
One successful model the contractor group might emulate is that of the Calgary urban planning firm, O2 Planning + Design (http://www.o2design.com). This company is founded on a “nested” approach to all of its projects, meaning that projects first and foremost prioritize the environment, and that all design and construction happens within this framework. The company is internationally acclaimed and has won a number of awards for its work.