It began as a lofty vision: Transform the noisy, carbon-centric City Centre Airport into a green, eco-friendly, state-of-the-art community that will be an example for and the envy of the world. After years of back and forth, of arguments, legal battles, plebiscites, votes, more debates and more votes, the decision was finalized. The former Blatchford Field, 217 hectares of land, right in the heart of a major city, is ready for development. This is an opportunity unrivaled anywhere.
It’s ambitious, to be sure. But previous Councils and former Mayor Mandel were insistent: the latest in housing, for all incomes and lifestyles, both low and high density. New heating and cooling technologies, some of it fueled by solar and other alternative energies. Sustainable green spaces, with special wastewater handling methodologies. Parks, open spaces, town squares, unique waterways; a veritable Garden of Eden (Edenmonton?)
Of course, that was what all the planning documents and proposals said. There were nice models, beautiful renderings, lots of artists’ conceptions. And consultation. At least we thought so. But today we are facing reality. And it’s nowhere near as pretty.
Just getting the site prepared is running up against some serious cost escalation. It’s not just the money. The difficulties of operationalizing some kind of development on these lands are daunting. Things are so unclear now that some people are wondering aloud if they might have been sold a bill of goods to encourage a “yes” vote on airport closure. I estimate that we are about $100 million into this deal at this point. And for that much money, I have a lot of questions about what exactly was said by the City’s representatives during the redevelopment “community consultation.” And I wonder now if proponents among Council and Administration over promised on the environmental attributes and under stated on the true costs of implementation.
There are many decisions yet to come on the details of the redevelopment plan, but one decision Council can make right now, that will go a long way to answering questions, is to become a lot more transparent and open in its Blatchford discussions. Council’s most recent discussion had both public and in-camera sessions, but there was no solid reason to shut out the public from any of it. The public portion of the agenda dealt with some of the governance and operational challenges the project will face. The private portion was about the size and scope of the dollars involved. There was no compelling reason for this to be private. I wasn’t the only Councillor who wanted the discussion held in open session, but Council bowed to the request from Administration.
What is it about money and spending that has to go behind closed doors for even the most benign items? Whether it’s the new arena, the new downtown city office tower or some other issue with monetary sensitivity, it seems the city bureaucrats just don’t want to have any discussions—or scrutiny—in public. I get the sense that more and more of these items are being pushed into private, largely because it’s more convenient, and a lot less messy, for Administration.
Recently, Council was asked for a multi-million dollar decision on a new downtown City office tower. Administration gave us one option, to rent, and we had less than a week to decide. I was leaning more towards constructing our own building and operating it, but that wasn’t even presented as an option for us to consider. I’m pleased that a majority of Council agreed and sent Administration back to come up with some comparative numbers so we could be fully informed before voting on which way to go.
And that’s what we need with the Blatchford project too. Lots of options, fully costed, with all the variables. And with the discussion in public. Council may decide collectively to move some of the discussions in-camera. That’s always its prerogative, but we need all the information first. That’s why we ordered Administration to bring back another report that details the costs of the various models so that taxpayers could see exactly what we are getting into on this project, both in terms of what quality of life and green elements could be included and what their potential costs might be. Without full public disclosure, Council will be fundamentally abdicating our democratic responsibilities. I’m certainly not alone on Council in having a very strong desire to get everything out in the open.
You’ve heard a lot about an airplane’s black box recently as investigators hope to use the information stored there to find out what happened to a missing flight. Same with the Blatchford project. We need to get all the information about this project, its options and its costs out in the open so we can see what happened and make improvements to future endeavours. Council is scheduled to get a new Blatchford report in June. Until then, feel free to move about the cabin, but watch for the Fasten Seat Belts sign. It could get bumpy!