News / Edmonton

Design committee points lens on Edmonton's growth

Two recent projects have been approved by council without the committees seal of approval

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then, for Edmonton’s evolving skyline, one of the most important eyes is the city’s design committee.

Established in 2005, the committee has been slowly weighing in on parks, shopping centres, skyscrapers and even arenas.

But two of the city’s most significant new projects this year — the Emerald Tower on Jasper Avenue and the Mezzo just off Whyte — have both gone ahead without the committee’s stamp of approval.

Mezzo developer Matt McLash said he respects the work the committee does and took his project there for a first review.

But he declined to make the changes the committee suggested, both because they would have been too expensive and because it would have taken two or three months to appear before the committee a second time.

He said while he wants the best design for his projects as possible, he also has to deal with practical realities.

“You want to be successful in design excellence, but you also want to have projects get built,” he said.

Dnyanesh Deshpande —  an urban planner who was the city’s principal designer for four years —  has been on the design committee for the last two months.

He said the committee has a clear set of standards for what’s looking for, including strong urban design, projects that respect their neighbourhoods and winter city design principles.

“They have established some really good urban design principles that the committee is looking for and in the end it is about the public good,” he said.

The committee is composed of architects, planners, landscape architects and engineers and Deshpande said it can provide valuable advice to projects coming forward.

He said the city’s zoning rules are just basic guidelines and if the Edmonton wants to truly build a great community it needs a design voice.

“Zoning doesn’t have the power to create excellence,” he said.

Deshpande also stressed the committee only gives advice — ultimately, council decides.

Coun. Michael Walters said he values the committee's input and it’s hard to vote for a project that doesn’t have their support.

“It weighs pretty heavily on me,” he said.

Walters said the committee, with its roster of experts, can help the city ensure projects come forward that help take Edmonton forward.

“They have a much deeper understanding of context as design professionals,” he said.

Still, Walters said he would like to see the committee become more nimble so projects can move through the process more quickly.

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