If you spend a lot of time walking around the core, you’ve probably come to loathe surface parking lots. They disconnect the urban landscape, create grey dead zones and are a dirt storm’s best friend. But there’s a reason landowners love them: it’s cheaper to leave them as they are than to create livable spaces. Despite Downtown and Oliver’s progress to build on and up, the economic downturn may encourage landowners to leave parking lots fallow.
It’s happened before and it’s beginning to happen again. A parking lot at 99 Ave. and 104 St. was recently approved through an appeal process, adding 15 parking stalls where there once were residents. As well, owners of the International Beauty Salon building on 105 St. and 103 Ave. have applied for a demolition permit with no foreseeable plan to rebuild. (Editor’s Note: After publication, it was learned that the Katz Group, which had filled in a swath of parking lots for the Ice District, applied to rezone land into 800 new surface lots.)
“The challenge,” explains Mayor Don Iveson, “is that our tax system incites people to demolish properties that might have some economic life to them. That’s not useful to the neighbourhood in terms of streetscape, eyes on the street or even temporary arts [and] pop-up business space.”
The current property tax structure, mandated by the Alberta Government, is based on a property’s market value. If a developer has been granted a permit for future development, or holds land with an older building or warehouse, it can, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, become more rewarding to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot than to a pay tax on the pink hotel.
It’s what happened in the ’70s and ’80s and the reason downtown is still riddled with surface parking lots.
During the first oil boom in the 1970s, developers purchased low-rise buildings and obtained permits for high-rises as they attempted to create a more cosmopolitan city. But not all of those permits were used: “When everything crashed in the early ’80s it was expensive to maintain the buildings that hadn’t been taken down for high-rises,” says historian Shirley Lowe. It made financial sense for landowners to tear down useful buildings and create cheap parking lots.
“Instead of a warehouse district you have created a parking lot district,” says Lowe. “We did that to ourselves.” The city is working to change the environment of the core with the 2010 Capital City Downtown Plan. In part the plan considers how to reduce surface lots by 20 per cent through the only tool at the city’s disposal: zoning. There has been progress on 104 St., especially with the development of the Fox Towers and the Ice District. The current economic climate threatens to undo that progress.
The City would like stronger tools to combat the resurgence of surface lots and to encourage development. This can only happen if changes are made to the Municipal Governance Act, which is currently up for review. The City has made suggestions for revising the property tax structure so that it is not based on market value. If the City could adjust tax rates for underutilized properties, says Mayor Iveson, then property owners may have more incentive to build.
“That way there’s no tax upside for demolishing a good building,” he explains. If an empty property continues to be used as a lot, a higher tax rate would go into funding alternative transit options. It would provide a new tool to put an end to these eyesores.