the site of Edmonton's Blatchford Redevelopment. Photo by Paul Gazzola
The site of Edmonton’s Blatchford Redevelopment. Photo by Paul Gazzola

Edmonton’s Blatchford redevelopment acknowledges the legacy of the land it is being built on, but will develop slowly.

By Paul Gazzola

On March 17, 2016, Edmonton city councillors voted unanimously to delay the development of Edmonton’s ambitious Blatchford project for one year. The decision to prolong the lengthy construction —which is slated to be completed anywhere within the next 20 to 25 years — has raised the eyebrows of Edmontonians, and questioned its feasibility. In taking a closer look, Edmonton could be on the cusp of creating a richly innovative district in the city on the land formerly occupied by the Edmonton City Centre Airport (ECCA), which at the time of its own inception, was known for much of the same.

Despite the stall, the dedication to constructing the 100 per cent carbon-neutral, renewable neighbourhood in the heart of Edmonton from both the city and its councillors remains steadfast.

“We’re committed to continue the work,” said Ward 2 councillor Bev Esslinger, who added that both the former and current council has never flinched from supporting the plan. “We’re not changing our mind at this point, we’re committed to the principles and we’re moving forward on that.”

The Blatchford redevelopment team is singing a similar chorus, remaining confident in the project.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, that we’re so close right now on this, to me, it’s not a matter of if it happens, it’s a matter of when it happens,” said Mark Hall, executive director of Blatchford Redevelopment. “When we get a decision on the district energy [sharing system] or the renewable energy on Blatchford, we’re ready to go.”

Legacy of the Land

To understand the initial motion as to why council made the decision to create the innovative, world-class sustainable neighbourhood of Blatchford, Edmontonians must first look at the legacy of the land it will inhabit.

The area under the microscope is north of downtown Edmonton and south of Yellowhead Trail, near Kingsway Garden Mall.

In 1926, former Edmonton mayor Kenneth Blatchford persuaded city council to purchase the Hagmann Farm, then the name of the site, while he also voiced support for aviation technology. Blatchford later set aside $400 of Edmonton’s municipal budget to clear the area of trees, in order to begin the construction of an airfield. In 1929, the downtown airport opened, making it the first municipally run airport operating in Canada, fittingly named Blatchford Field.

In 1939, the operations of the airport were given to the Canadian government, making the site a Royal Canadian Air Force flight-training centre. The value of the field only increased at the time. The airport’s operation became a vital vessel of transportation during World War II.

“During the Second World War, it was really important,” said Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, Edmonton’s former historian-laureate. “It was the home base of the northwest staging route, and that was the very route that brought new military aircraft from the factories in Montana all the way up through Alberta, and northern B.C., and through the Yukon into Alaska where Russian air force pilots would pick them up and then bring them over to that front against Hitler’s armies; it was really critical.”

Indeed, it was.

Metcalfe-Chenail says roughly 8,000 planes came through the ECCA during that period, and at one point it became the busiest airport in the entire world, with the largest amount of takeoffs and landings. According to the Edmonton International Airport (EIA), in 1943, a North American record of 860 planes passed through the airstrip.

Not only that, but the field was used to transport medicine, patients, food and mail to Northern Canada, prompting Edmonton to earn the moniker, “Gateway to the North.”

Blatchford’s idea was progressive at the time, later exalted as a significant development by the city and for all of Canada. The alderman envisioned a unique characteristic for Edmonton, to be known as a forward-thinking city.

According to City of Edmonton documents, Blatchford once said, “I venture to predict, if we could all return in thirty years, we should find a scene of progress beyond our most extreme imaginings.” Blatchford’s foresight was on point. The advantages of implementing the aviation infrastructure in Edmonton resulted in an array of benefits while also characterizing the city as dynamic municipality.

But as time passed, and Edmonton began fostering new agendas, it became abundantly clear that the height restrictions set forth in the city because of the municipal airport would limit the growth of downtown Edmonton.

On July 8, 2009, a slow closure for the downtown airport was announced. Edmonton city councillors, led by then-mayor Stephen Mandel, wanted something different and special built on the piece of land, due to the legacy that was left before it.

A year later, in May 2010, the city began looking for design firms that would be able to redevelop the area into an environmental-friendly, transit-oriented community for upwards of 30,000 Edmontonians to live in.

The city then began gauging as many design firms as possible, finally settling with Perkins+Will Canada in June 2011.

In August of 2015, ground broke on the land to begin construction of the development, but the current delay has stalled anything more than that.

“Since May of 2012, we’ve been working on the details around making that conversion — so basically, how do you go from having an airport to having a community,” said Hall. The steps along the way; some of them were administrative, some of them were legal, some of have been financial in the form of business cases being prepared and approved by city council for the redevelopment, and now we’re at a stage where we’ve got a design and we’re working on meeting some of city council’s goals around using renewable energy and ultimately getting to a carbon-neutral community.”

Wanted: Energy Alternatives

The decision by council to stall the project for one year is quite simple: councillors want to examine the viability of as many renewable energy sources in the neighbourhood as possible, and select a few to utilize going forward.

Three Blatchford energy strategies are outlined in the District Energy Sharing System Information Report to achieve a 100 per cent carbon-neutral community. They include energy conservation, by building high-performance infrastructure to reduce the neighbourhood’s thermal energy demand; efficiency, by utilizing the district energy sharing system (DESS); and renewable energy solutions.

The proposed energy plan would harness geo-exchange and sewer heat energy from underground, send it through pipes to a central heating facility, then distribute it to buildings in the community. The DESS alleviates the need for buildings to have furnaces, hot water tanks, and air conditioning, while also efficiently reusing additional heat energy emitted by the lights, humans and computers inside the buildings. It would also ideally work in tandem with another renewable source of energy such as solar or wind technology to make it 100 per cent carbon-neutral.

Councillors are not completely sold on the idea, in part because similar DESS operations have only functioned in much smaller settings, like at the University of Alberta, rather than larger developments such as a whole community, and not to mention it has a $236-million price tag.

“I think that when council looked at the business case for the DESS system, there is a financial cost to being innovative and to creating a system like that; that’s a little bit of a hurdle for the city to handle on its own right now,” said Hall, who also added that he and the city are hopeful there will be additional funding handed down by provincial and federal governments to help expedite the process.

The city has partnered with EPCOR to consider their alternative energy options.

“There’s a couple systems being examined,” said Esslinger. “One of the motions was a proposal by EPCOR to look at total solar [energy], but we didn’t have enough information—they suggested solar and wind.”

The lack of sufficient information on the two types of energy sources has caused council to use the current postponement period to better understand them, but solar panels were always going to be used in some capacity regardless, said Esslinger.

Another partial issue is that the solar energy required to power the area would need a solar farm. The size of the farm remains unclear, and one detractor of that option is it would take up valuable community space. But on the bright side, the price of solar panels has decreased significantly in the past few years.

Conversely, since the scheme has a lengthy timeline of up to possibly 25 years, new sustainable energy technologies are hoping to be included as they arise. It’s a facet of the blueprint that the city has supported since its inception.

“We think that the district energy system is a flexible enough platform to bring anything new in terms of potential sources of thermal energy,” said Hall. “What we’re trying to do is remain flexible in our implementation plans to be able to accommodate anything that comes along that furthers our ability to reduce greenhouse gases.”

No significant new technologies have been reviewed or added just yet, but the lofty timeline leaves plenty of room for that to change.

Government Support

Both Hall and Esslinger are optimistic that additional funding will be handed down to the municipal government for the redevelopment.

In Chapter 2 of the 2016 Canadian federal budget, released on March 22, 2016, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party of Canada delved into the details surrounding their investment into innovative and green infrastructure.

In the document, it writes that budget 2016 will give $125 million over the next two years to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in order to improve the Green Municipal Fund, and projects reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Created with the help of Canadian municipalities in 2000, the fund has allocated over $700 million to green infrastructure projects across Canada.

“We think it’s possible,” said Hall. “When we look at some of the policy direction and the announcements that have come out of both the provincial and the federal governments around low-carbon communities and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, we think the Blatchford project lines up really directly with some of those policy goals, and it’s a matter of seeing whether or not the programs that are announced at the provincial and federal level come with funding programs that are directly supportive of what Blatchford wants to achieve.”

There’s no denying that Edmonton’s Blatchford project fits the bill when it comes to the requirements warranting funding from the federal budget program. The catch is there are so many sustainability ventures underway in Canada that the money in the fund could be spread quite thin by the time it gets all the way west to Alberta if it does so at all.

“We’re waiting for the province and the federal government,” said Robyn Webb, an environmental engagement coordinator for Edmonton’s City Environment Strategies, noting her office’s patience for funding on projects of their own. “The province has made their broad strategy announcements, but they haven’t made their program announcements yet, likewise with the feds; so, yes, we’re waiting for them to say, ‘OK, this is what we’re actually doing.’ ”

Many offices are eagerly awaiting the federal and provincial governments to announce their intentions. Although, there is an advocacy strategy set forth by council to persuade both levels of government for economic support on the Blatchford site.

“It was part of the motion that we would direct to develop an advocacy strategy, and that the mayor was directed to work with provincial and federal governments to see if there was opportunities, because they’ve both been speaking of investments in sustainable technologies, so we wanted to make sure that we didn’t get ahead of that opportunity,” said Esslinger.

With the 2016 provincial budget set to be released on April 14, 2016, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has also voiced support for sustainable communities and utilizing renewable energy, which is also a pro for Blatchford, but Alberta’s weak economy leaves mysteries as to where the financial resources will be divided, including the sustainability sector. The projected $10.4-billion deficit doesn’t help much, either.

A Year in Limbo

As the city continues to investigate new forms of energy, and for the federal and provincial governments to decide whether they will provide financial support, the Blatchford site will move along in removing the infrastructure previously used by the ECCA. It’s uncertain how far the city will get in laying the foundation for homes, but for the time being, they will be tackling the redevelopment in a renewable way, so as to stay within the project’s eco-friendly operation.

“We’ve still got work that we will be doing,” said Hall. “[In] removing the buildings, one of the big focuses that we had at that stage was making sure we diverted as much of the material from the landfill as much as possible.”

In replacing the first six buildings on the Blatchford site, 92 per cent of the material was reused and recycled, even though two of the buildings were completely dismantled, then transported to a different area and re-erected.

“It wasn’t even recycling, it’s actually a flat-out reuse,” said Hall.

The buildings, asphalt, and concrete will be rehashed in the Blatchford community, saving money from sending the scrap material to the landfill.

As the year continues to progress, it’s hopeful that the city will answer some of the questions arising from the Blatchford Redevelopment.

Currently, it’s unknown whether residents will be able to begin moving into the community by the end of 2016, or even by 2017, as initially anticipated.

But despite the delay and uncertainty, the green development has the green light from the municipal government, and will not deviate from that—so it appears.

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