Don Iveson talks LRT, the economy, infill and more with Metro
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As 2015 comes to an end, Metro sat down with Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson for his take on a year of delayed projects, departing city managers and other big changes.
Metro: Let’s start with the Metro line. This week you talked about it being “not a total disaster,” but are you still frustrated by it?
Iveson: I think everybody is frustrated and we hear that frustration from our public, but it is running, which is something. I really want to thank and recognize the creativity of our staff who not withstanding the software isn’t all there, found a way to turn it on for back to school.
And, 10,000 people a day are using it, voting with their feet and we look forward to serving them even better when the safety certificate is validated
People were held accountable, significant personnel changes have come about as a result of challenges with the Metro line and other projects. Structural changes have come to this organization with the creation of the Infrastructure Services department.
Metro: With the Metro line, 102 Avenue Bridge and the Walterdale, do you worry that with these three big, costly, visible projects all having problems that you undermine the confidence people have in the city to do big things?
Iveson: I would see it differently. We have an opportunity to reassure that they can have confidence that the city most of the time delivers on time and on budget performance.
We have happened to have three significant challenges this year. When you look at the three of them they don’t have the same problems. They have different issues.
I think we have learned a lot of valuable lessons and I think long term citizens’ confidence in our ability to deliver projects will be based on whether us saying we have learned lessons from these projects, actually produces better results in future.
Metro: Are you eager to see the Valley Line move ahead this year? Until not it’s been about design and the bid, but we should see construction in 2016.
We have been doing a lot of planning on a lot of projects and just as it has been satisfying to see the downtown arena actually turn into a building, to see shovels get turned at Blatchford and that community beginning to take shape, it will be good.
We have already seen some construction on the Valley Line with utility relocation, but in the coming years it will become much more significant and it’s actually going to create a lot of jobs. That will be good for the city in a softer economy.
Metro: Are you worried about the economy in the year ahead?
Iveson: I am hearing from business and from economists that 2016 could be a tougher year for Edmonton and that we may see some more layoffs, because of continued softness in the oil price.
On the flipside, that slowdown in one part of our economy makes spaces for other things to happen. We’re looking forward to taking advantage of some much more competitive pricing for labour and materials to do more infrastructure work.
It’s not all stop. It is definitely a big adjustment. With the climate deal and the provinces climate plan there may be significant changes to the oil industry coming over time, but I think that is as much an opportunity for innovation.
I am confident in the resiliency of Edmontonians. Even though it may be a tougher year next year, we have survived a lot worse.
Metro: With respect to the review of city services, is there anything you have always wondered about whether the city should be in the business of?
Iveson: I think there are a number of programs, particularly around economic development that are right now duplicated between stuff happening in the region, stuff the airport authority does, stuff EEDC does, stuff Northlands does and stuff we do.
At the same time, as we are looking for example at our service level and budget review a lot of what is happening around regional economic development opportunities there could actually create some efficiencies.
Either allowing us to have the resources we put in today to go way further or have the resources maybe get better value and materialize some savings to get a better result or shift around the resources and maybe get a better value.
The outcome is not necessarily should we put less money into it, but can we make the money go further.
Metro: Without getting into Simon Farbrother personally, but with regards to the structure of the job, both now and going forward do you have the right structure, right expectations for a city manager?
Iveson: I think the expectations shifted over time, as the city matured and the role evolved. Council has to always decide if you have the right fit and we decided we needed to make a change, though are grateful for the work Mr. Farbrother did for us for five and half years.
Metro: What about going forward?
Iveson: We have certainly given that a lot of thought. The search profile will go public this week or next, but we have already had a lot of interest. Regardless of what the job description says there are a lot of highly capable public administrators who are excited about working with the City of Edmonton.
Metro: Bringing the tax increase down this year involved moving money that you weren’t expecting into the neighbourhood renewal program? I am wondering if you think there is still work to do to find bigger savings?
Iveson: It wasn’t just moving money around it was also making some assumptions about savings. If you pre-allocate savings from future projects to come over to neighbourhood renewal, you’re saying you are not going to use those savings to increase the scope of work.
What we have done is really prioritize the existing scope of work we have and using savings to do that and not the tax levy to do that.
Metro: With the changes council made this year on infill development, do you think you are on a path toward a denser city?
Iveson: Slowly, but surely yes.
We are at 14 per cent of our units this year that were infill units, which means 86 per cent of it was green-field units in new communities and we set a goal a few years ago of at least 25 per cent coming from infill.
I think Blatchford is going to help us with that as it comes online. Transit Oriented developments along the new LRT line that we are building and will build in the future will substantially help that.
That can happen at Bonnie Doon. That can happen at Meadowlark. That can happen at dozens of sites like that across the city over time and that and the downtown is where we are going to get the significant unit count.
In order to help better utilize existing infrastructure in low density neighbourhoods and in order to help populate school and support local businesses there are opportunities for very modest densification in existing communities.
By making the change to allow subdivision of 50-foot lots more or less everywhere that has opened up one more choice in the housing market.
Metro: Do you worry about losing any of that infill development in a slower economy?
Iveson: I think the demand is strong either way, especially when construction prices are lower. For smaller builders, more aggressive prices on trades is probably going to make a bigger difference for them, I think from a cost point of view it might even be smarter.
I think some builders won’t do well in this environment others will do very, very well and be able to increase the supply of housing.
The better construction practices that council has called for will also be good for business.
Metro: You have a new government in Ottawa and new government at the legislature? Do you think these two governments bode well for the city?
I think the federal government in particular is really speaking our language when it comes to the investments they want to make in transit.
We look forward to working with them on housing, which I think they understand is a big part of the solution whether it is to reconciliation with Indigenous People’s or refugees who need a lot of housing if we are going to be in the refugee business, which we should be.
There is a lot of alignment with the new government and the priorities our council has articulated. It is very early days and it is all honeymoon still and we will get down to brass tacks in the new year, but they have reached out.
I have already had two federal ministers come visit me here.
The provincial government is obviously still dealing with a lot of transition, but they have worked really closely with us on the municipal government act changes. We are diving deep now into the work of the city charter.
Instinctively they want to do some of the same things we want to do, particularly on housing and transit. I think that bodes well, not withstanding their fiscal situation is more complex.