Edmonton River Valley of Dreams

City planners, developers, architects and environmentalists – they’ve all got designs on our river valley. But is it necessary to improve on what Mother Nature has already created?

High in the sky, 28 storeys above downtown Edmonton, I’m awestruck by the view of the river valley. But lawyer Sol Rolingher, chair of the River Valley Alliance, hasn’t invited me up the Scotia Place tower just to stare at the scenery. He’s brought me here to show me the future.

From my vantage point 110 metres up, it’s easier to see the big picture. I see the North Saskatchewan River and the green that flanks it below, snaking through the capital’s familiar landscape. But the man Mayor Stephen Mandel calls “Mr. River Valley” sees far beyond this – and imagines what this precious ribbon of green could become. Past the city’s bridges, legislature, baseball stadium and the old Rossdale power plant, Rolingher looks decades ahead and envisions what he calls “Edmonton’s answer to the San Antonio River Walk,” a place where, aside from athletic recreation, guests can find lodges, diners, nightclubs, museums and more. The river valley could be a recreational and hospitality district in the woods.

“We’d dredge out this area and redirect the river into a man-made canal,” he explains, referring to the low-lying land around the old power plant. “Water would flow past the old Epcor building, which might become a market or an aquarium. Then the watercourse would meander left of Telus Field and reconnect with the river around the Low Level Bridge over here. We’d line the watercourse with walkways, cafes, restaurants, brew pubs and boutiques, creating a river promenade.”

In the winter, Rolingher continues, the watercourse would freeze into a giant skating rink, much like Ottawa’s canal. Year-round, Edmonton would enjoy a fantastic urban riverfront, with all the benefits that Granville Island bestowed on Vancouver and The Forks gave Winnipeg.

A downtown river promenade is but one of many ambitious possibilities contained in A Plan of Action for the Capital Region River Valley Park, a $605-million vision for the future drafted by the River Valley Alliance, a not-for-profit corporation involving seven municipalities adjacent to the river. Each municipality is represented on the board by a combination of councillors and volunteer citizen representatives; the mayor of Edmonton is also on the board. Their united goal: to create the largest stretch of municipal parkland in North America – over 18,000 acres stretching from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan.

Despite overwhelming public support for the plan, the alliance does have its opponents. Some environmentalists and wildlife preservationists view further development of the iconic river valley as sacrilegious. Rolingher disagrees and points out the action plan, a product of years of intensive research and public consultation, enshrines three key principles: “preservation, protection and enhancement.” According to the plan, the valley in Edmonton’s core might be augmented by “smart” development, but other zones would remain pristine, or have new facilities dedicated to preserving the valley’s unique history and ecology. Rolingher hopes the goal will be realized with balance, recognizing the need to keep the river running wild, while still including ways for people to enjoy nature’s splendour in a more sociable fashion.

Rolingher is proud that the alliance’s far-reaching plan found favour with 88 per cent of the public following an exhaustive two-year consultation process from 2005 to 2007 that included input from town halls, focus groups, meetings with stakeholders and community groups, and phone surveys. The plan was unanimously approved three years ago by all seven municipalities along the North Saskatchewan River.

With the polished skill of a pitchman who made the River Valley Alliance’s case at more than 20 town hall meetings, Rolingher outlines more plans for the yet-unnamed regional river valley park. Priority number one is connectivity – creating an integrated, multi-use park linked by a continuous network of trails for biking, hiking, paddling, running or skiing its entire 88-kilometre length. The unbroken strip of green would become a world-class metropolitan park, potentially outshining both Vancouver’s Stanley Park and New York City’s Central Park in size and scope.

In the eastern part of the valley, the alliance hopes to reclaim gravel pits and former industrial sites. The environmentally disturbed areas could become leisure attractions, perhaps an outdoor amphitheatre for hillside performances at Horsehills Pond, a marina at Hermitage Park or a giant lake for swimming, sailing and whitewater activities. In the west, plans include new adventure trails connecting to the Devonian Gardens and Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre, while preserving environmentally sensitive wetlands currently threatened by ATV use and suburban sprawl.

“We’d capture the unique history this regional park represents – from dinosaurs to the fur trade and gold rush, then the coal era and oil boom,” Rolingher says. He dreams of reopening one of Edmonton’s old coal mines as an interpretive centre and a living museum where visitors can pan for the gold still found along Devon’s riverbanks. And his pice de rsistance from the past: a glassed-in riverside display of a four-tonne, 13-metre Edmontosaurus, the duck-billed dinosaur that roamed Alberta some 70 million years ago, located right on the riverbank at the bottom of Groat Road where its remains were unearthed.

Rolingher says 2009 zoning changes now allow vendors to sell their wares from carts and booths in the park. This summer, visitors could be strolling downtown trails while savouring an ice cream cone along with the valley’s beauty. No river-walk merlot and mignon la San Antonio yet, but it’s a start.

Rolingher recognizes the plan will take decades to complete, undoubtedly with changes along the way. The price tag is daunting, but he’s adamant the regional park is economically feasible. So far, the province has committed $50 million to the action plan; last year, the city approved another $35 million and plans are afoot to garner federal funding.

In the three years since the initial plan was approved, the River Valley Alliance has been using the funding, notably by partnering with the city and province to transform some rather undesirable land south of the Shaw Conference Centre into Louise McKinney Riverfront Park in 2008. With a Chinese garden and pagoda, the Shumka Stage for open-air dance and music performances, a floating public dock and magnificent, unobstructed views of the river valley from garden-lined walks, the new park is a postcard-perfect harbinger of what could lie ahead. The alliance hopes to soon construct a funicular “people mover,” like the one in Quebec City, for cable-car transport up and down the park’s slopes.

While Louise McKinney Park shows the potential for fulfilling the alliance’s plans, other river valley developments pose possible threats to the goal of creating the largest municipal park in North America. The on-the-ground reality is that many lands targeted for the regional river park are privately owned, and what happens on private riverbanks is outside the River Valley Alliance’s direct control. Edmonton City Councillor Linda Sloan, who believes in the action plan and its balanced strategy between preservation and development, worries it may be foiled by council’s track record of failing to preserve river valley access along the top of the bank.

Sloan compares the City’s original commitment to the river that runs through it, made more than a century ago, with what has happened since, and she is pained by what has been lost – and what’s currently at risk. In 1907, our three-year-old City had the foresight to hire Frederick Todd, a renowned architect and park planner in his day. Todd saw the need to protect and cherish land along the riverbanks, and the City agreed.

“An extraordinary legacy came from his vision,” says Sloan. “Because of Todd’s recommendations, the City retained the whole Victoria Promenade and bought terrace lands in the valley from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which later became Canada’s first municipally owned golf course and Victoria Park.”

Yet as the city grew, the desire to preserve public access to the top of the riverbank diminished. Sloan feels that no city council since Todd’s day can take credit for any comparable preservation. “We’ve let most top-of-bank land become developed and privatized,” Sloan says.

In 1985, Edmonton’s city council tried to stop that trend by adopting a top-of-bank policy to protect the places where we play along the river valley from becoming the same as where we live and work. Originally, the policy mandated 100-per cent public access to the valley and ravines in all future development, calling for public roadways on the crest and a minimum 7.5-metre greenbelt between new construction and the top of riverbanks. But a policy is just that, a policy not a bylaw, meaning it can be overruled by a majority vote of council. Over the past 25 years, the top-of-bank preserve and its protective policy have been slowly eroded.

As examples, Sloan points to current Whitemud and Blackmud Creek developments, where city council approved only 13-percent public access to the top of the riverbank and Cameron Heights, which has no top-of-bank allocation. Also on the horizon are developers’ requests for exemptions to the top-of-bank policy for a 32-floor condominium on the downtown riverbank called Raintree. Similarly, the 26-storey Tango condo development has already been exempted.

As far as blocking public access to our crown jewel, Rolingher says that’s not the alliance’s fight. “Our jurisdiction is the river valley; the City is responsible for what’s above.” He points out there is still access to the valley via trails where the tall new condos are proposed, so the park’s connectivity isn’t threatened. “Central Park has remained a preserve even while surrounded by skyscrapers,” he notes. “As long as there’s river valley access, how can you deny someone the right to build there? I’m not happy that city council keeps breaking its policy, but the decision’s theirs – and the people who voted for them.”

Graham Hicks, Edmonton Sun “Hicks on Six” columnist, sits on the River Valley Alliance board with Rolingher as Edmonton’s volunteer representative.  Taking off his Edmonton Sun hat to speak as an Edmontonian whose personal rule for living in the capital is that his home must always be within a few blocks of the valley, Hicks observes that the triumph of private development over public preserves is ingrained in Alberta’s culture. “We’re a conservative, individualistic province, and that’s reflected historically in our approach to landowners’ property rights. Jasper Park was created back when that could still be done, but imagine trying to carve Jasper National Park from privately held lands today,” he says. “In essence, that’s the challenge ahead of us.”

He adds, “The good news is we’re thinking about it, we realize what a gem we have, and the idea of this park has taken deep root.”

Hicks shares Sloan’s praise for Todd’s 1907 plan. “We have to celebrate how one amazing visionary had the plan to preserve the only real natural attraction Edmonton has. The river valley is the soul of our city,” he says. “I’m saddened we didn’t hang onto Todd’s ideas [for the top of the river bank].”

Hicks feels Edmonton has “done a pretty good job” with respect to the river valley, but gives the City a big fail on its top-of-bank policy. “It’s the damage of little slip-slidings over the years, as council votes time and again in developers’ favour. Our city needs developers, but the balance between public and private interests is currently out of whack. Edmonton has such strong developer-lawyer-construction networks.”

Yet Hicks remains optimistic the action plan will succeed. He’s also encouraged by the fact that the alliance is laying the groundwork for a statutory plan overlay, which would make the Capital Region River Valley Park agreement legally enforceable. “Then, if we succeed in getting federal funding, we’re away to the races,” Hicks says.

Rolingher agrees Todd’s early-20th-century vision of continuous access to the river valley “kind of got lost.” But he’s also old enough to appreciate how much the river valley has improved in past decades. “Just 50 years ago, there were no running trails or festival sites,” he remembers. “Where the Muttart Conservatory is today was the city dump, a smelly, unsafe no-man’s land. Fifteen years ago, Riverdale was an old brickyard.”

Rolingher feels attitudes have changed for the better. “In the 1950s and 1960s, people viewed the river valley as big water sewers, an impediment to get across,” he says. “But we woke up to its value. Today, as the city surges ahead, protection is in place. Edmonton is 10 times the size it was in the 1950s, and we want to develop this mature central area.” Rolingher adds, “The downtown river valley should be a place to go for that kind of urban fun, while still recognizing that protecting the river valley is doing the right thing.”

Todd recognized the need to protect our river valley from too much development when he penned these words in his original plan: “A crowded population, if they are to live in health and happiness, must have space for the enjoyment of that peaceful beauty of nature. Future generations would look upon it almost as a crime if these ravines are allowed to become denuded of their woods, or otherwise made unsuitable for public pleasure grounds.”

More than a century after Todd’s plan, the City continues to struggle to find the equilibrium between burgeoning growth and preservation. Hicks believes the alliance’s template for the next 30 to 40 years goes a long way toward defining “the right balance between leaving things au naturel and creating harmonious, non-tacky nodes of development.” Whether the action plan is strong enough to stand firm in the battle of private gain over public good remains to be seen.

As Rolingher gazes at the precious ribbon of green from his office tower, he sees the future of North America’s largest urban parkland spread out below. “The regional park is still a way off,” he says. “But it will come.”

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