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Calgary & Edmonton Real Estate A decade into redevelopment, Edmonton’s Blatchford airport site sits nearly empty

Ten years after Edmonton announced plans to redevelop the former Blatchford Airport, there is little to show, save for some light standards along unplowed roads.

Tim Querengesser/The Globe and Mail

A decade after the City of Edmonton announced a bold plan to redevelop a former airport into a community for 30,000 residents, the 217 hectares of land lies almost empty. The city has invested $135-million, removed 12 airplane runways, drilled more than 500 boreholes and installed some roads and sewers – but there is no housing and not a single resident.

Tom Lumsden, who became development manager at Blatchford in June, 2018 after a career in private land development, said in a November interview that the first stage of the project was complete and that officials were about to release six land parcels for home builders to bid on. But, he said, “right now, the housing market in Edmonton is not fantastic.”

Mr. Lumsden said the land parcels currently on offer for Phase 1 could result in up to 250 housing units and that the city had proposals from seven home builders. “There’s was lots of interest in the lots from developers,” he said. “Within the next few months, if the negotiations go well, we’re going to announce the builders.”

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But, as of this week, the city could not provide the names of any builders or an update on construction timelines. “The Blatchford office is currently signing land sale agreements with home builders for the first phase of residential development on the west side,” said Kristi Bland, a spokesperson for the project. “Our selected builders are now finalizing details. … We will be announcing who our first Blatchford builders will be to the public when the townhome product details have been finalized.”

The developers claim the project will have a district system that feeds heat and cooling to buildings.

Tim Querengesser/The Globe and Mail

The Blatchford project, which had set out to create new standards for energy efficiency and green living, was paused in 2016 as administrators stripped out several costly features. Now, frustration is mounting. When the Blatchford Twitter account boasted in January that the project will have a district energy system for its residents, former city councillor Michael Oshry shot back: “When? It’s been like 7 years.”

In October, when city officials requested a further $52.8-million to build the project’s energy infrastructure, some of which is near completion and would see buildings fed heat and cooling from a district system, Councillor Sarah Hamilton noted the lack of progress on construction. "We keep putting money into it and we don’t really have a good plan about how we’re going to start to get that money out,” Ms. Hamilton told the CBC.

Despite the delays, some in Edmonton’s development community remain optimistic. The board president of the Canadian Home Builders Association Edmonton region, Bryce Milliken, said in a statement that although Blatchford is several years behind schedule, his organization sees the project as a “unique” opportunity.

“The city has yet to release the names of the builders who have been chosen to build in Blatchford, but knowing our members represent some of the best home builders in the region, we look forward to seeing this project unfold,” Mr. Milliken said.

Last week, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology announced it was acquiring 13 hectares of the Blatchford development site, slated for “a future NAIT campus expansion,” with an option for further acquisitions.

But others say it’s now time for the City of Edmonton to concede it can’t develop the project itself in the current environment and cut the risk to taxpayers.

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Andrew Usenik, chair of the Urban Development Institute for the Edmonton region, which is an industry organization of land developers, said Blatchford was conceived a decade ago when Edmonton was mushrooming with people who were coming for the once booming economy. But today, the situation is far different. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is the worst the housing market has been since the nineties,” he said. He has called for Edmonton to put Blatchford’s development in the hands of private developers.

“I don’t think Blatchford’s a bad idea now. But what I do think is that the best stewards for executing Blatchford is the private sector,” Mr. Usenik said. “The private sector is quicker at delivering the service of land development. They’re more in tune with what people want to buy. I don’t think it’s too late for the city to reassess, to say, 'Let’s leverage what we’ve put into this.’ It’s an asset they can basically resell and get their money out of, and let the private sector take on the risk.”

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology announced it was acquiring 13 hectares of the Blatchford development site.

Tim Querengesser/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Usenik said he isn’t clear why Edmonton is steadfast on developing Blatchford itself. “This [project] has been heavily politicized and I think a lot of people have had good ideas, but it’s tough when you have people with different ideas and no one person steering the ship. I think that’s probably a fair assumption to say why this project has taken longer than some others.”

One question overhanging the development is the city’s commitment to energy-efficient, “green” technology on the Blatchford site – like its plan for a district energy system – and whether that emphasis would remain if put in the hands of private developers. Mr. Usenik noted the land’s location next to Edmonton’s downtown and its access to mass transit already make it relatively green. “I would rather live somewhere where I can hop on an LRT and bike into downtown than I would to be in something with district energy,” he said. “I feel that would be the majority of people’s opinions.”

Homebuilders have “a lot of reluctance” to engage with Blatchford, Mr. Usenik added. “The big question that I can’t answer and no one has been able to answer for me is what is going to be the end price of these units. And that will really dictate sales in the area. If at the end of the day the product is one that a majority of consumers cannot buy, well then that’s a problem.”

Many have compared Edmonton’s delays with Blatchford to Calgary’s success with its East Village, a redevelopment of inner-city land in that city that has been a partnership between public and private interests. The alliance has resulted in several mixed-use condominium housing projects and the recently opened, award-winning Central Library. By comparison, Blatchford has more or less been an initiative of the municipal government, Mr. Usenik said. “There has been some consultation from industry but I would say it was limited and a lot of the feedback was largely ignored.”

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