Southpark highrise gets the go-ahead on Whyte Avenue

Edmonton city council gave the developers of Southpark on Whyte the green light on Monday, following a four-hour public hearing. The hearing was attended by community residents concerned the project would disrupt the heritage feel of the Old Strathcona neighbourhood. 

Mayor Don Iveson noted after the meeting that council did struggle with the decision. 

"It's changing absolutely the look and feel of a neighbourhood that's very special, I think, to all Edmontonians," he said.

"We struggled, I think, on this one... because it is such a substantial change. The question is, 'Do the design features mitigate against that?' And I think, overall, they do."

Height an issue for residents

The $250-million, 840-unit development will go up on the vacant Southpark Motors lot, now owned by Wheaton Properties. The lot has sat empty since 2009, when Southpark Pontiac Buick GMC Cadillac was combined with Don Wheaton Chevrolet one block west.

Strathcona community league president Maureen Duguay said the decision to rezone the property to allow for a 17- to 19-storey project was disappointing for some residents, who feel their input was ignored. 

The sheer scale of the development will be "visually disruptive," Duguay told the hearing.

But she said the main issue was council's "flip-flop decision-making." 

Southpark on Whyte will exceed the current four-storey height restriction in place. The city is currently working on Plan Whyte, which will offer guidelines for the development and redevelopment of the neighbourhood over the long term.

Residents have been asked for their feedback on that as well. Duguay said she hopes council listens. 

"I think I heard really clear today that Plan Whyte is very important and that is really a chance for us again to have our voice. So we will have to continue to work through that to preserve the character of Old Strathcona," she said.

Administration said Plan Whyte should be coming to council in the next few months. 

'Arbitrariness' to decision-making

While a number of councillors voiced concerns, in the end, only two — Ben Henderson, who represents the ward, and Andrew Knack — voted against amending the existing neighbourhood zoning. Both cited issues with the process.

Henderson said there was an "arbitrariness" to the way council arrived at the decision to approve Southpark on Whyte, since the existing guidelines are under review.

"I really hope this is the last one we do this way," he said during the meeting. "I hope people still come to the table." 

Stantec planner Simon O'Byrne, who has been working with the city on behalf of the developer for two years, said approving the rezoning necessary to allow for the building sets a positive precedent for council's commitment to revitalizing Edmonton's aging core.

"Downtown's really taken off in the last couple years and it's very important that Old Strathcona also see new investment and new people ... so that, if you will, it kind of keeps in pace with downtown," O'Byrne said. 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell