The Million Dollar Parking Lot

A City of Edmonton original podcast


Carola Cunningham, CEO, Niginan Housing Ventures

Lyla Peter, Director, Development and Approvals and Inspections, City of Edmonton


[Narrator] So, this is a story about zoning and city planning in Edmonton… but I think it’s worth starting by going back about 100 years… to the year 1922 to Cleveland, Ohio, the setting of a court case called Euclid v. Ambler.

It’s 1922 and a real estate development company called Ambler owns 62 acres of land in Euclid, Ohio, a suburb just outside of Cleveland. And one day they get word that the village of Euclid has decided to adopt this new rule… You see, Euclid was this quaint little village and Cleveland had this industrial sprawl that was inching towards it. Euclid didn’t want their idyllic village to become an industrial backyard of Cleveland, so Euclid decided to pass a zoning ordinance.

Zoning was a pretty new idea in North America at the time. Six years earlier, New York passed one of the first comprehensive zoning plans and Euclid figured that if they used this new fangled thing called zoning, they could effectively stop industry from moving into town. Euclid passed a rule saying there are basically seven things you can do with land in Euclid. There’s three classes of building height and four classes of size. Anything else isn’t allowed. Industrial development, by design, didn’t fit into those rules. So as far as Euclid is concerned, mission accomplished.

But Ambler realty, who owns all of this land that they wanted to develop for industrial use, looks at these new rules and says – hey, these rules that you just passed make it so that we can’t do industrial development here. And that makes this land that we bought worth less money. So, we are going to sue you. Euclid v. Ambler starts in the lower courts and it goes up, and up, and up until it makes it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the Supreme Court makes the decision that it is within the village’s power to pass a zoning code. It is their right to say what you can and cannot do with land. And, all at once, something changes across North America. Something seemingly boring and invisible to the naked eye, but, nonetheless incredibly impactful.

In the 100 years that follow, out of that one rule, out of that one little case this whole world of things has sprung forth, and, to be honest, it’s not always cut and dry what’s been good and bad about that. Even in Euclid v. Ambler, part of the Supreme Court’s decision to side with Euclid was rooted in a-then-popular hatred of apartment buildings, which were broadly considered to be an immoral form of housing and associated with crime and poverty… so some stuff has changed.

That’s what this series is going to be about. Trying to unpack what works about the rules that govern how we plan and design cities… and what doesn’t… and what should be different. And since we’re from Edmonton, specifically the City of Edmonton, that’s where we work, that’s who’s making this, we’re going to use Edmonton as our case study with a new story that’s going to tell us something about zoning and city planning in each episode.

But, if you want to understand zoning in Edmonton, you gotta start with something even more interesting… more provocative… more compelling than zoning — parking.

People in Edmonton love to talk about parking and that talking can often sound like arguing. But to understand the relationship between parking and zoning in Edmonton it’s worth starting just off 96th Street and 106th Avenue, in the heart of Chinatown… at a place called Ambrose.

[Carola] We have a beautiful front yard that we always make look beautiful. We have staff that go out every morning and clean up the street. We believe, and I try to instill this in my staff and tenant, that the nicer we keep the place, the nicer you’re going to feel about your own self.

[Narrator] This is Carola. She runs the place that we mentioned earlier.

[Carola] [Speaks in Michif] My Christian name is Carola Cunningham and I am the CEO of Niginan Housing Ventures.

[Narrator] So the beginning part that you said, is that your traditional name?

[Carola] I said “Hi, how are you doing?” and then I said, “My belly button name and spirit name is Sky Woman”.

Ambrose Place is a permanent supportive housing and how it came about was, probably, longer than ten years ago now, several levels of municipal and provincial government came together and said in Edmonton, we have 50 people that are absolutely the hardest to house. And, the majority of the hardest to house people were from Indigenous ancestry. There were a group of seven tenacious Métis and First Nation and Inuit women that got together and said all these housing initiatives do not service our people in a good way.

And so we want to start lobbying government so that we can build our own and service the people the way we think they should be serviced. And, so that’s how it got started. And seven years after they came together, Ambrose began the build.

So, Niginan is a 42-unit apartment building with a covered garage downstairs and parking out in the back. The place is an amazing build. They really, when they designed it, thought about the sightline. So, wherever you are, mostly in the building especially if you’re at the front desk, you can see every part of the building so if there’s something happening or somebody needs assistance or has fallen, we can see it immediately and we can respond to that need.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the building but when you walk in the building, you will feel calm. And that’s always such an amazing surprise for most people that come to our building because they know we have chronic people in various addictions and yet the building is very calm during the day. What you’ll notice is that right when you come in, the ceremony room is right there, and there’s often medicines burning or someone is in there drumming. Someone could be in there praying, someone could be in there singing. And, it just, for me, I know when the medicines are burning they help counteract the negativities that addictions can bring. They just calm the building. And the people.

As soon as they walk in, although they may have had a rough day surviving on the street, they may have a few choice words for us because they’re still carrying that anger. But once they have been in the building long enough and people are happy always to see them and ask them how their day was and happy to see that they’re home, and they can smell home-cooked food cooking ready for supper, and they smell the medicines, and people are happy to see them, their behaviour will change right away. So, I would say that we have a very home environment, even though we’re an apartment building. And we’re all related here. We look at our tenants as our aunties and our uncle. And that’s how we treat them.

[Narrator] So that’s Ambrose Place — a 42-unit housing venture built on that philosophy of meeting people where they’re at.

But it has this one feature, this one physical part of the building that goes back before they were building it, to when they were getting approval to build it.

Now, here’s a question to think about. How much parking does a building like Ambrose need? A building that’s going to primarily be housing people who generally do not and generally will not own cars while they’re living there. How much parking does that building need?

[Lyla] My name is Lyla Peter and I am the Director of Development and Approvals and Inspections at the City of Edmonton.

[Narrorator] That’s Lyla. She oversees a team of about 115 or so people who focus on development permits. The Zoning Bylaw determines how much parking a building needs. Lyla’s group makes the decision about whether to issue a permit based on those zoning rules.

[Lyla] Since about the 1960s, cities across North America have been regulating parking. At the time, automobile purchasing was exploding and everyone was having their car, and a lot of urban planning was being focused on how to accommodate the car and kind of this like commuter lifestyle and suburban lifestyle. And Edmonton was no exception. So parking regulations were created. And for those who don’t know what a parking regulation is, it basically says if you build something, you must provide a certain amount of parking. So, you’ll often find that a single detached home will have two parking spaces. They’ll have a driveway or a garage. And then we compound that with if you’re building a restaurant… you have to have so many parking spaces for the number of tables that you have, or if you have an office building, you have to have so many spaces per square footage. And the idea was really to accommodate the impact that the car and parking was going to have because people were driving to these locations and needed a place to store their car. And so, it was a great intention. I think that’s one thing about urban planning is what’s good for now it’s always good for later.

[Narrator] So, you’re trying to build a building. You go to get your permits but to get permits you have to have a certain amount of parking, which makes sense, until you’re trying to build a 42-unit affordable housing venture where maybe not everybody owns a car and the zoning bylaw says that you need to build a parking stall for every one of those people. Suddenly that rule that makes sense here, here and here might not make much sense here. We asked Lyla about Ambrose.

[Lyla] It was developed in 2015. At the time, they were required to provide parking. And, once again, we’re talking about housing that is fully dedicated towards individuals who have experienced homelessness and are transitioning to different forms of housing. And so, while some individuals who are homeless may have an automobile, it is not a typical thing. So when they brought their development permit forward, they were required to provide parking. So the project has about 42 units, or it houses 42 residents and they were required to build 50 parking stalls. And once again, this is for a development for those who are experiencing homelessness and are transitioning out. And they had to provide 50 parking stalls.

The cost of this at the time apparently was a one million dollar parkade that they had to build out. It is a group that is a charitable organization that relies on grant funding and they had to raise an additional million dollars to provide parking. And, over time, in terms of debt financing, this equates to about $60,000 per year. So this is money, direct money, a million dollars for the parkade, $60,000 a year, that was going to support those individuals. And it could have been additional units, it could have been additional support. And when you hear that, you realize how challenging parking regulations can be because it’s assumed that everybody has a car and everybody needs a car. And we were told for Ambrose Place that it reduced the number of units by they were able to provide by about 25%. So once again, we could have been housing more individuals, but instead, we chose to house cars. And what’s even more frustrating is that they’re not housing cars. That parkade is largely empty.

[Carola] They had to no matter how hard they twisted the story, they had to have X amount of parking lots because they had X amount of apartment buildings, regardless of what the use was. That was the law of the land and it was totally unrealistic. Like I even look at, we have another build now over in the Belvedere area that we partnered with Right at Home with, and again we have this parkade. Not the covered part, but the whole tarmac that we had to have under this parking, and none of it’s used. None of it. And I just think, we could have had a garden there, we could have had all kinds of things, right? Because it’s only on such a small space, that if we could have got rid of that parking requirement, we could have done something else with it. Some grass, even.

[Narrator] If you spend long enough thinking about Ambrose Place, it starts to raise other questions about the rules that led to it.

because if you zoom out… if you take the conditions that led to a situation like Ambrose and scale them to the level of a city… you start to see some other issues emerge.

[Lyla] But back to parking. So parking regulations basically mean that every time you build something, you have to provide space for a car. But that requires space. And so as we start to compound this across the city, what we were finding is that we had a lot of spaces for cars. So not only are we building two spaces at say, your home, your place of residence, but now we’re building another space in half for your office building. So now your single car has two or three spaces that it could park in, and you start to compound that over the city. And it’s a lot of space, it is an excessive amount of space. And we service that space, there’s a, you know, water line running through the ground underneath that road going past that parking lot. And it’s not connecting to anything because that’s a parking lot. But that water line costs a lot of money, and the sewer line adjacent to it, and the electricity, all of that is running past these parking spaces. And they’re temporary in their use, because at one point the car is in your garage and at one point the cars in the parking lot.

[Narrator] And even if the use is temporary, it’s being paid for all the time.

So where does that leave us? If you’re going to try and figure out the right amount of parking for a city, the amount that makes sure that you’ve got enough but not a million-dollar parking lot in a place like Ambrose, you’ve got to start with some shared facts.

Zoning and land-use regulations are powerful and their impact often goes unnoticed.

How we regulate something seemingly simple like the minimum number of parking spaces a building has to provide, can result in really complicated impacts: housing affordability, inaccessibility, health and equity, things that impact vulnerable populations.

If we want to find a better way to do it, we’ve got to start by recognizing all of that.

Which brings us to what comes after the old way of doing things, to something called Open Option Parking.

So what is Open Option Parking? How does it work? And how can it help us get the right amount of parking?

[Lyla] The idea is that unlike parking regulations, which basically said you need to provide so much parking for this type of development, and if you don’t, you will either have your development refused, or it could be subject to a variance and then it could be refused anyways. Open Option says, look at your market demand, look at your site, and figure out what you need to provide for parking.

[Narrator] Which brings us to the former Colonel Mustard site on 124th Street, kind of a relevant case study here.

[Lyla] Well, a really good example would be there is a, I think on 124th Street, there was an old sandwich place that ended up having some infrastructure problems and eventually had to be closed and had to be torn down and a new building went into place. And that new building ran into challenges with parking because it was trying to, you know, fit the form of 124th Street. But actually, if they had to provide the right amount of parking, they would have had a very small building or they would have had to provide parking underground. And so, Open Option says, propose your building, show us what you want. And there are some situations where you’re not going to have parking on the site and your customers are going to use the street parking. It might filter into the neighbourhoods. But you need to make that decision and then your tenants who are going to come in are gonna be like, “Hey, we don’t have parking”. I need to understand that if we’re going to come into this space. And so, Open Option is about saying to the market, you determine, you know your market, you know your needs, you know what you need to deliver. That is how parking is provided.

And when we took Open Option parking forward to Committee into Public Hearing, we resoundingly heard back from industry in Edmonton that they were supportive of it. We know that all of our chain restaurants are going to continue to provide parking, we know big-box is going to continue to provide parking because that’s what their customer demands. They have their own market studies. And they know what their needs are both for the building and for their customers accessing the site. And rather than, I don’t know, negotiating over the square footage of your building and maybe reducing it to provide those extra 20 parking spaces, instead, it gives a lot more flexibility to the developer to build the building that they need and to provide the parking that they need.

[Narrator] And I think it’s so interesting, because like in terms of like reducing that space for a big box store, like Costco, it’s not going to have a huge impact per se. But then you look at Ambrose Place and reducing that space equates to reducing the beds and the services that they’re able to provide Edmontonians.

[Lyla] Correct. And, you know, one of the things that we soon landed on, like, we started to realize this Open Option Parking was a much more equitable approach to development, which was, depending on the needs of the development, you’re going to provide accordingly. And where there is no need, there is no need to provide, and where there is a need, you have the option, the ability to provide. So it creates, you know, it is a more equitable form, it recognizes the different needs and accommodates accordingly. But it does put the onus onto those who are delivering the product or accessing the product to make their choices accordingly. So yes, if a restaurant chooses not to provide parking, and I attend that restaurant, I am impacted by that choice. But I still am making a choice to go to that restaurant. And so now, I now need to make that choice as to how I’m going to get to that restaurant. If that restaurant is worth a $20 parking bill in a parkade, then it might be worth it. Or, I might choose to access it some other way, or not at all. For some people, it will mean that they don’t access certain spaces if parking is not provided, but that still becomes a choice.

But what does a place like Ambrose do given that choice? This parking lot that wasn’t a choice came at the expense of housing units, housing that some people in our city really need.

[Carola] I think if we were given the right to build, we would have done a lot of things differently. I mean, it’s beautiful, it works for what we’re doing. But for our people, we need land. Land is what connects us to our nationhood. We understand we come from the land and we will eventually go back to the land.

[Narrorator] So we asked Corolla to tell us about some of those people, the folks who might have had access to another bed instead of another parking stall that they might never use. She told us a story that we think is worth ending on about what we get back when we give people back that choice.

[Carola] We have a fellow, I’ll call him Rick.

And he came to us and he was referred by the HUoS team. So that’s a Heavy Users of Services. They’re always in conflict and interfacing with the Edmonton City Police. And so the one guy I’m going to talk about came to us. And, usually, every morning by the time it was 8:30 AM, he was totally inebriated to the point where he would want to fight or he was falling down and hurting himself. And in the wintertime, it was insane. How do you keep a guy like that safe?

Well, we started with his language because he’s an incredible Cree speaker. And we started to talk to him. And we asked him to share more of his knowledge around the language. And then we started talking about how the way he was living was hurting his health. And now all of a sudden, he was starting to eat food. And we were trying to help him manage his money by looking at buying alternatives, rather than drinking Lysol and vanilla and all of those things that really break down a person’s body.

So we move this guy (he’s been here two and a half years) right off of all the non-potables into alcohol to a 12% amount of alcohol content. And that’s where we started them on the MAP Program. That’s the Managed Alcohol Program. And we started to help him buy enough beer that would get him through the whole month so that he wasn’t panhandling, he wasn’t doing all the things that caused him trouble. And he wasn’t drinking bad stuff. And so we moved him from the 12% because once he was drinking the 12%, he was staying home more because his alcohol was at home. And so he’d be drinking in his room or up on the patio, wherever it was. And he started to really start to develop relationships with us. And then he decided that he was ready to take a decrease to a 5% alcohol. So now we’re managing his money, buying his alcohol, and he’s been handed out his alcohol daily, and through the month, and his escalation of behavior has dropped. So he’s no longer interfacing with police. He’s no longer riding the rails, he’s no longer doing all of these things that got him into trouble. And, nevermind, that costs taxpayers thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. So, now we got them on 5%. And about six months ago, we also ran a cannabis program – a managed cannabis program. He came to us and he said, this alcohol is killing me. I’m getting really, really sick. And I want to try managed cannabis.

And so we said okay. Now he barely drinks and he uses cannabis on a regular basis. And he is so much more involved in living. Living a life and not being inebriated by 8:30 in the morning, and not remembering the day. And people aren’t walking over him and saying he’s nothing but a dirty, drunk, old Indian. And now he wants to teach us Cree. And now he wants to buy things for his apartment. And now he wants to make connections with his family and his nation. And he’s having a life.

[Narrator] This story, the story of Ambrose Place, demonstrates why the City needs to look at what it regulates through land development and city planning, and how it can impact people.

At the end of the day, that’s what Edmonton is, a collection of people.

There is no silver bullet solution to these big questions, but when we take a closer look at some of the real impacts of these regulations, we can have a conversation about why we regulate the way we do.

If you are interested in that conversation — and the fact that you made it to the end of this episode would suggest that you are — we hope you’ll join us for the rest of Making Space. I’m Jenny Renner. Catch you in the next one.