OEG Parks its Development Plan

The Oilers' ask for a five-year parking lot extension is a microcosm of an ongoing downtown problem

How long does a temporary parking lot need to exist till it becomes a permanent parking lot?

That was the question Mayor Amarjeet Sohi asked this week — but it won’t be one that’s answered right away.

The Oilers Entertainment Group and the Katz Group came to council this week, asking that permission be granted for a temporary parking lot north of Rogers Place to exist for another five years. If approved, the gravel lot that exists between 101st and 103rd Streets, will continue to operate till the end of 2028. If denied, then OEG would simply fence off the land and let it sit, until conditions are better for development.

That’s the Catch-22 that council faces, and why it decided to have a bigger discussion about parking lots in the downtown core on April 11. No decision was made on the OEG/Katz application for extension.

The plan for the land in question is for it to eventually become the Village at ICE District, with a mix of commercial and high-density residential development. About 2,500 residential units are in the plan, with allowances for student housing, as MacEwan University and NorQuest College follow through on their expansion plans.

For downtown advocates, developing north of 104th Avenue is a major hurdle. We live with the psychological barrier that downtown does not exist north of 104th. But, this summer, hundreds of people are expected to start moving into the first residential phase of Station Lands, Qualico’s north-of-104 development close to the EPCOR Tower. It’s a start.

But, OEG and Katz Group officials said that the Village at ICE District can’t go ahead at the moment for a variety of reasons, from poor real-estate economics, to issues of public safety downtown, to the fact that the area is not “shovel ready” for the development. Infrastructure like sewer, gas and electrical lines, are “antiquated” (their word) and can’t handle a neighbourhood of thousands of new residents.

“While we understand that temporary parking is not the highest and best use, these lots provide an important interim solution to parking needs in the area,” said Tim Shipton, OEG’s executive vice president of communications and gaming. Shipton also handles government relations for OEG. “The request for a five-year extension will provide OEG and the real estate group the time needed to continue its due diligence work, to secure the needed partnerships to develop, while also allowing for market conditions to improve.

“We will develop those lands, but, at the end of the day, we do need more time to do it right.”

But city councillors voiced their fears that these lands may not get developed, at all. Coun. Jo-Anne Wright asked point-blank if there can be a guarantee that development will begin at the end of 2028.

“There are no guarantees in life, but we’re committed to developing,” Shipton replied.

And Sohi wondered out loud if there needs to be requirements for the parking lot — such as the need for it to be paved. And he raised the almost philosophical question of whether or not the City starts to need to see the area as a permanent lot.

What the City can’t do is force the Oilers to develop. Like any landowner, there is no requirement to build. And OEG said the option, if it can’t allow Impark to continue parking cars, trucks and SUVs on the gravel, is to fence it off and let it sit. The risk is that it becomes an even greater eyesore.

“We can’t develop, until we change all the gas lines, or water lines,” said Fabio Guarducci, president of real estate for OEG and the Katz Group.

Coun. Anne Stevenson, whose downtown Ward O-day’min includes the ICE District, said that rubber-stamping the parking lot goes against “years of guidance” when it comes to City policy. And that’s why council has decided another, deeper conversation about parking lots needs to be had before it can decide on whether or not to accept OEG’s petition.

Council has been here before. Almost exactly a year ago, councillors heard that downtown is home to 275 surface parking lots, many of them unregulated. The City’s Downtown Plan, which came into effect 14 years ago, stated that no new lots should be added to the core. But that didn’t spur those landowners to develop those lots. They just continued to operate. And, as they did, more and more of them have slid into “unregulated” territory, meaning there’s lots of ugly, unlit parcels that either aren’t paved or have pavement that’s cracked.

The Downtown Plan hasn’t been able to spur development of the parking lots. That issue is still with council, unresolved — and the OEG ask just adds to that burden.

The City has a plan that encouraged the elimination of surface parking lots, but, in effect, the OEG situation is just another example where the parking lot is the only option at the moment. It’s a tough pill to swallow for urban dreamers.