Long before the Alberta Avenue Revitalization Initiative was launched, area residents have been the driving force behind efforts to improve 118 Avenue and surrounding communities.
In November 1992, a coalition of residents and business owners formed the Avenue Revitalization Project (ARP) to address issues around disrepair and crime from NAIT to Capilano (now Wayne Gretzky) Drive.
One of ARP’s first tasks was dealing with plans for a strip mall on the land where the Cromdale Safeway now sits. The original car-oriented design, surrounded by coniferous trees and poorly lit, was almost impossible for pedestrians to access. Group members took action on two fronts. First, they convinced the city to change the land use bylaw to prevent certain types of businesses (like nightclubs or arcades) from setting up shop. Second, community members worked with the property owner, who agreed to adopt crime prevention through environmental design principles on the site.
Over the years, a number of groups have formed to work alongside community leagues and the Alberta Avenue Business Association to create a vision for what we wanted our neighbourhood to become. The Community Action Project, the Commonwealth Stadium Neighbourhood Alliance (prior to the 2001 World Championships in Athletics), Community Response to Urban Disorder (CRUD), and Arts on the Ave have all proven to be effective champions.
Things really turned around in 2005, when the city appointed a full-time staff member to coordinate volunteer community efforts and council began to make significant capital investments in revitalization. Tens of millions of dollars was spent on everything from improved pedestrian lighting to planting trees on the widened sidewalks. New garbage receptacles, bus stops, and bicycle racks complemented the efforts of business owners who participated in initiatives like the Façade Improvement Program, a matching grant available for businesses and property owners who undertake exterior renovations in Business Improvement Areas.
Over the past 20 years, Alberta Avenue has transformed from a place to avoid into a destination for people from across the capital region. Along with well-attended events like Kaleido Family Arts Festival and MuttStock, we are home to dozens of thriving local businesses that keep our sidewalks busy year-round.
A persistent thorn in the side of rejuvenation has been derelict properties. Constrained by provincial legislation which dictates that as long as a property is structurally safe, there’s little the city can do.
Property owners may have a number of reasons to allow a building to remain derelict. Foremost is avoiding the higher property taxes resulting from improving a building. Those of us who hoped recent amendments to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) might provide avenues to more aggressively deal with these property owners were disappointed.
In 2002, Winnipeg passed the Vacant and Derelict Buildings Bylaw. Considered the most stringent bylaws related to vacant and/or derelict properties in North America, it enables stiff boarding fees for residential and commercial properties, with the most extreme enforcement provisions in the bylaw allowing the city to take possession of a derelict building with no compensation to the owner. Before the city takes title, they must provide the owner several opportunities to correct the property and appeal the decision. They must also have a redevelopment plan for the site. In many cases, this has involved passing the property over to a community or non-profit group for a nominal fee, turning an eyesore into a benefit. Between Jan. 1, 2010 and Nov. 30, 2016, the program dealt with 1774 vacant or derelict properties.
The problem in Alberta isn’t that municipalities don’t have the authority to confiscate properties. Rather, the problem is municipalities can’t impose fines and increase tax burdens on derelict property owners, no matter how negatively they impact surrounding properties and the community as a whole.
Albertans have been invited to have their say about further amendments to the MGA until Jan. 31, 2017.
Those of us who want to see the blight of derelict properties removed from our landscape might want to ask the provincial government to make the legislative changes our cities need to do so.
Send comments to Minister Danielle Larivee via Minister.MunicipalAffairs@gov.ab.ca.
Featured Image: Supplied by Alberta Avenue Business Association http://www.alberta-avenue.com/gallery/