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‘Not acceptable’: Edmonton allowing nearly 90% of downtown surface parking lots to operate unpermitted

The numbers are now there in black and white, detailing widespread non-compliance of surface parking lots in Edmonton’s core, but what to do about it is not as simple, officials insist.

A new City of Edmonton report has revealed that nearly 90 per cent of surface parking lots downtown – 245 of 275 – are operating without a current development permit.

About a quarter of them had temporary permits, which have now lapsed, councillors heard as the Urban Planning Committee met Tuesday to address the issue, among others.

Despite knowing of these unpermitted lots, city administrators are only doing “complaint-based” enforcement. A tougher approach, they said, would require more staff, more funding, and likely, more money to take cases to court.

Administrators said a permit crackdown is possible, but would probably result in the closure of many lots which could spark public frustration over fewer parking options. Maintaining the current state, increasing development incentives or the city buying up lots for park spaces were also options listed in the report.

It also stated many lot owners do not have a business license and, according to the Edmonton Downtown Business Association (EDBA), many are not paying required registration fees.

CITY HAS ‘TAKEN VIRTUALLY NO ACTION’

Coun. Ashley Salvador requested the study because the Ward Métis representative believes unpermitted parking operators should no longer be getting a “free pass.”

“Surface parking lots do not contribute to the vibrancy, safety, or success of our downtown,” she wrote in a blog post, stating the unpermitted ones are not being held to accessibility, drainage or landscaping standards.

“These property owners have made profits through appreciation and operations, while operating unpermitted businesses, and avoiding paying their fair share in taxes for many years.”

She also pointed out that rule breakers are operating at a competitive advantage over compliant companies and said the city has “taken virtually no action” to correct this for about a decade.

A map of permitted and unpermitted surface parking in central Edmonton in September 2023. (Source: City of Edmonton)

Salvador wants unpermitted operators fined and forced to pay a “fair share” of taxes, with revenues invested in programs incentivizing development, which she, staff and many speakers agreed was the ideal scenario.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi acknowledged the situation is a difficult one for operators because the city would prefer to phase out surface lots rather than permit them and encourage more, but city administrators said there are routes for operating within current city bylaws which some have done.

Coun. Anne Stevenson proposed a motion Tuesday asking city staff for options to promote vibrancy, safety, and beautification on the lots, as well as options for fines. She also wants city staff to come up with a new strategy for “engaging” with owners of non-compliant lots.

Her motion passed by a vote of 3-0 with councillors Keren Tang and Tim Cartmell in support. Committee member Erin Rutherford did not vote because she was absent. The report is due back in the first quarter of 2024.

‘TAKE IT OVER…MAKE IT A PARK’

Don McGarvey, a local lawyer whose mother owns a surface parking lot, said she cannot get a permit because the property is not big enough. It’s also too small to attract much development interest, he said.

He wants to comply with the city, but pointed out that fines and more fees would not be helpful because parking revenues barely cover the cost of existing taxes, insurance and accounting. He’d prefer to sell the lot to the city.

“We’re certainly looking for someone in the city to come to us and say, “Let’s talk.” Take it over, do what you will with it. Make it a park, make it a sightly venue, which is what seems to be the goal of all of this,” McGarvey said, adding the land value is about $2 million.

The leader of the EDBA suggests the city issue short term permits, with minimum standards for lot owners, in hopes of creating a baseline expectation for things like lighting, leveling and cleanliness.

Puneeta McBryan said the status-quo of unpermitted and unkempt lots is “not acceptable” but believes a crackdown will lead to vacant properties, which she calls a “worst-case scenario.”

“Simply aiming to shut down unpermitted lots, then we end up with more of these vacant lots with no positive social or economic activity taking place on those lots of any kind. And we have a couple of those too, which I’m sure you’re all well aware of,” she told councillors.

“Those are actually significantly worse for downtown vibrancy and the public realm and the economy.”

McBryan agreed with Salvador that, in a best case, the lots are soon developed, but believes there’s not a strong economic case for that right now.

She estimated that even with new incentives, maybe five of the 275 lots would actually become homes, businesses and offices in the next half decade.

“If speeding up development is what we’re looking for, we’re not going to get there with enforcement. Really, a strong and robust incentive program for construction…is one of the only ways that I believe council could speed up the development of these lots,” she said.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jeremy Thompson

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