We Paved Paradise, and Can’t Get Rid of Parking Lots

And, more and more of them are falling into "unregulated" territory

“There’s not enough parking downtown.”

Boy, is that a myth. The truth is, for a long time, downtown Edmonton has been home to too many parking lots — a lot of them unregulated and downright ugly.

Guess how many surface parking lots there are in downtown Edmonton?

How about… 275? That’s right, 275. And most of them are unregulated. There are no permits to govern them. And, because they’re not permitted, many don’t have lighting, paving or landscaping standards.

The City’s Downtown Plan, which came into effect 13 years ago, stated that there should be no more additional surface lots in the core. The idea was that many of these lots would be developed.

But, here we are, still with far more surface parking lots than we need.

The City’s Urban Planning Committee discussed the parking-lot problem this week, and then voted to send the issue back to administration for more brainstorming. They will discuss the parking conundrum again in 2024.

But the frustration from city councillors was clear. There is a clear plan to shrink the number of surface lots, and that’s been in place for more than a decade. But, because that plan doesn’t allow for any new lots to be regulated, more and more of the old lots have slipped into the derelict category. Because enforcement officers are stretched thin, there is no manpower to police the rebel lots. It’s not a single Catch-22, it’s a series of Catch-22s.

And, because of poor economic conditions, it’s not like developers are champing at the bit to transform these parking lots into office or residential towers.

“I’m just trying to understand, I’m really struggling with this,” said Mayor Amarjeet Sohi. “At the same time, we want to move forward on our City Plan, our ambitions of downtown and developing (it).”

Coun. Michael Janz was concerned that there is no push to fine the derelict parking lot operators. And, to him, even worse was the fact that the lack of enforcement was being discussed in a public meeting. Administration told him that if a citizen called 311 about the derelict lots, it would likely go into a long queue — and little or no action would be taken.

“If I hear this conversation at City Council, who will guard the guards?” Janz said. “I worry about that burning goodwill with some of the businesses that are working hard to be in compliance.”

Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, and Kalen Anderson, the executive director of the of the Urban Development Institute-Edmonton Metro, both advised the City to tread lightly when it comes to enforcing the rules on the derelict parking lots. Even if they are operating illegally, at least they are functional businesses — which is better than the alternative.

“If we’re lucky, five of these lots will be developed in five years,” said McBryan.

“Shutting down the lots as an enforcement outcome is almost a worst-case scenario, here.”

So, why aren’t these parking lots being replaced with developments, as the Downtown Plan envisioned in 2010? Anderson said that the downtown office vacancy rate is at a whopping 21 per cent. More people are working from home. Instead of more office space, we need to be talking about converting a number of office buildings into residential properties. Inflation and interest rates have made developers shy about downtown towers. It’s just more efficient to sit on the land and charge drivers a few bucks an hour to park their cars.

But Anderson warned the city needs to be a catalyst for change.

“It’s the absence of redevelopment and the opportunity cost it has for our community,” she says, warning that downtown buildings are already losing their value because of the vacancy rate.

“If our downtown asset classes fail, the tax burden across the city will rise”

McBryan and Anderson said the city needs to cooperate with the owners of these lots. And councillors even mulled the idea of going against the Downtown Plan, where temporary licences could be granted to the owners of unregulated lots.

McBryan said that, currently, only 45 of the 275 lots are paying levies to the Downtown Business Association, which is bad for everyone.

And unregulated lots are the ones with the cracked pavement and the weeds growing out of them. And that makes downtown ugly, which influences investors.

“It’s not the investors in Edmonton that need confidence,” said Anderson. “It’s the entire country that needs confidence, because that’s where the investment comes from.”