U of A steps closer to developing lands near south campus

The University of Alberta is forging ahead with plans to develop its land in south-central Edmonton.

Last week, through an order in council, the province granted the school permission to lease out some approved parcels for up to 99 years.

"It is something that this institution has been looking at for a long-term period," said U of A vice-president of facilities and operations Andrew Sharman. "And now we're at the point of being able to move forward."

In the wake of funding reductions to post-secondary institutions in the 2019 provincial budget, the school laid out a plan for managing the $44.2 million cut to its operating grant, including the possibility of activating its land trust — an arm's-length agency that has the capacity to manage leases and development of school-owned properties.

In an emailed statement Friday, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said the province was "pleased" to make the recommendation, citing the MacKinnon Report's recommendation that the school find ways to generate revenue beyond government grants. 

The order in council was first drafted in 2015. 

Sharman said the first parcel likely up for development will be Michener Park — a series of student housing complexes at the west end of the Malmo Plains neighbourhood. The existing buildings were already slated for closure this summer.

"It has great opportunity for redevelopment as the buildings on it are at the end of their life, or past the end of their life," Sharman said. "And with it being within the city boundaries, close to transit, LRT, main arteries in an established community –– that's definitely one of the priorities for development."

Next up would likely be the property known as the West 240 — an open field bordered by 122nd Street to the east, Whitemud Creek Ravine to the west, and the Grandview Heights and Lansdowne neighbourhoods to the north and south respectively.

University of Alberta

In 2019, a U of A official told CBC the school owns 26,000 acres of property across the province. It also owns a research facility on Vancouver Island. But there are no plans to lease or develop land currently used for research, Sharman said.

Sharman said the U of A looked to other school land trusts as inspiration: the UBC trust was formed in 1988, and by 2019 had generated more than $1.6 billion for the school's endowment fund. 

University of Alberta Properties Trust Inc. was created in 2015 and is overseen by a board of directors. But it has remained empty since its creation. With the order in council on the books, the process of transferring the identified parcels into the land trust is expected to begin in the coming weeks.

But Sharman said it's too early to say what will be built and when it might happen.

He said decisions will be "market driven" and the trust will work with joint venture partners and the private sector, as well as with the surrounding communities and the city's zoning requirements.

"I wouldn't see major return on our investment any sooner than five years, and again a lot of it will depend on the economy and what the market will bear," Sharman said. 

Paige Parsons/CBC

'Plenty of market'

Ward 10 Coun. Michael Walters said he expects adding housing stock and more amenities through mixed-use development at the Michener site would likely be welcomed. But there is "tension," he said, about the value of the West 240 area, given its proximity to the ravine and existing homes.

"That will have to be developed very thoughtfully over time," Walters said. "With the land trust being the mechanism to deliver that development, communities are going to have a greater say than if the university was to do it themselves."

Walters also said he isn't overly concerned about the university's land eating into the city's own brownfield developments, such Blatchford, Rossdale, or the Exhibition Lands. What's needed, he said, is a mindset shift to prioritize developments that increase density over sprawling further at the outskirts.

"There's plenty of land development opportunities, and plenty of market to support those land development opportunities," he said. 

University of Alberta

Not a surprise

"This is a new development, but one that has been expected for a long time," said Stephen Dobson, civics representative for the Lendrum Community League.

Dobson also sits on the South Campus Neighbourhood Coalition — a group that formed in 2010 in response to development happening on the university farm, during a time when the surrounding neighbourhoods felt like the school wasn't really consulting with them. 

Since the formation of the land trust, Dobson said, the communities in the area have been aware development could eventually come, so he doesn't expect anyone will be too surprised. And he doesn't expect any imminent changes.

A more immediate concern, he said, is that once Michener Park empties out later this year, the vacant buildings could attract trouble and become a derelict eyesore.