Challenging the U of A: Leading with purpose in housing and land use planning

City Council recently approved a rezoning across the street from the U of A and it got me thinking about all the underutilized or unused space on the U of A main campus.

The expression I often hear at city hall is “highest and best use of city land” – in other words, land that brings benefit to the community (eg, a park or public space) or land that generates revenue for the city to offset taxes and pay for services (Industrial, commercial, residential in that order) 

But what if the University of Alberta could generate revenue and mitigate the housing and climate crisis? The university already has the vehicle: the U of A Properties Trust, an arms length development corporation that pays dividends back into the U of A through innovative developments and land leases.

The University of Alberta plans to increase student enrollment from 44,000 to 50,000 by 2026 and further up to 60,000 in the next decade. That is an enormous amount of growth that, without rapid adaptation, will doubtlessly cause higher rent and housing costs, traffic on our roads, and other opportunities/challenges.

It’s been over a decade since I served two years on the U of A Board of Governors and time in student leadership. One of the primary concerns with developing land on the main campus was a forgoing of future academic needs or purposes. I’m sensitive to those concerns, although I know they have been right-sizing other buildings and the ongoing deferred maintenance challenges. The primary function of the University should remain an emphasis on teaching and learning… but surely we can all agree it’s time for a conversation about surface parking lots.

One of the reasons I’m bullish about welcoming redevelopment in central Edmonton, especially near the U of A, is that it is one of the most accessible places to live car-lite in our city. Between excellent public transit, carshare, and bike share – you can access great transit options here and save a ton of money compared to other city areas.. Two of the most important things we can do for the planet in our climate emergency are building less car-dependent cities with more efficient housing and buildings to live and work in. We know the U of A has ambitious climate and sustainability goals -- their land use planning activities could enable thousands of more people to live and work car-less with a much lower carbon footprint.

Carshare taking 7 cars off the road Video:

For example, across from Lister Hall is a large parking lot at the Butterdome. The U of A could easily transition this building into a mixed commercial and residential – for instance, a grocery store on the bottom and housing atop. 

Even a small six-story apartment on that site (half the size of the 12-story Lister Hall development) would be a much better use than a usually vacant public parking lot. When there are special events, there are numerous parkades in the area that could be utilized. For example, a quick walk to Jubilee, Engineering, Student Union Parkade, and many more.

Another enormous redevelopment opportunity is the HUB mall parking lot. It is incredibly large.

On Saskatchewan Drive, there is a ton of underutilized space where the Alumni House and the Ring Houses used to be. 

I long for developments that are not studio to two-bedroom rental options either. I would love to see three and four-bedroom, point access block, European-style villas that could welcome families of staff or graduate students or post-docs so that they could all live, work, and play on campus. We lack imagination in western Canada about what housing options are available– not just the missing middle but exploring the kinds of apartments that are truly family-friendly and welcoming.

These are the green eco-districts we highlighted in the "Better Buildings, Better Communities" lecture by Seattle Architect Michael Eliason last year (Video)





The U of A footprint is huge. There’s also the Campus St. Jean area, the South Campus, the West 240, and several others. West 240 is an enormous land parcel, although some have suggested that we hold off developing this agricultural land until we have completely filled in the main campus first. 

What about the south or main campus lands? The opportunity is enormous, and because it is already serviced and supported, there would be a humongous tax uplift rather than increased taxes and financial calamity from further suburban sprawl.

There is finite space, market demand, construction financing, and humans to house. This would likely reduce demand for higher density developments in the Windsor Park or Belgravia neighbourhood, which are currently the receivers of much of the housing pressure, much as Garneau did in past decades.

Repurposing Big Box Retail Sites for Housing (Video):

Sprawl is jacking up our taxes and environmentally and fiscally killing our city. We have to build up, not out. Despite our provincial government’s recent attempts to wrap it in proverbial plaques and red tape, the U of A is the beating heart of our city and will be for the next century to come.

Curbing Sprawl (Video):

Thank you for reading; I would love to hear your feedback. I will be relaying your concerns at my next upcoming meeting and with the University Vice-President or opportunities with Edmonton planners. 

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