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Banff council passes redevelopment plan for railway lands

“We have a plan that aims to put this landmark destination back on the map for visitors, while integrating elements of a community hub for residents to explore and take advantage of,” said Mayor Corrie DiManno.
The train station in Banff on Thursday (March 14). MATTHEW THOMPSON RMO PHOTO

BANFF – A redevelopment plan that paves the way for a multi-modal transportation hub at the railway lands at the west entrance to Banff has been given the green light by town council following years of community debate.

Many years in the making, the controversial area redevelopment plan (ARP) passed second and third reading on Monday (June 24). It will now be forwarded to Parks Canada, which has ultimate authority on land use and development in the national park townsite.

Officials say the plan aims to reduce vehicle congestion, carbon emissions, and environmental impacts by integrating a range of mobility options centred on accessibility, efficient connectivity, and transfers to destinations within the townsite and surrounding national park without the need for a private vehicle

“We have a plan that aims to put this landmark destination back on the map for visitors, while integrating elements of a community hub for residents to explore and take advantage of,” said Mayor Corrie DiManno.

“This gateway into our community will set the stage for what it means to seamlessly travel and move through Banff and Banff National Park, becoming a model for other communities to strive towards.”

Jan and Adam Waterous developed the ARP as part of their vision for a multi-modal transportation hub on the railway lands at the west entrance to town, complete with restaurants, retail stores, housing, and intercept parking for more than 1,000 vehicles.

Through their personal holding company Liricon Capital, which also owns Mount Norquay ski resort, the Waterous’ secured a lease from Canadian Pacific Kansas City Railway to put forward their ARP for about 17.5 hectares of land on the north and south side of the train tracks.

The Waterous’ want an aerial gondola from the railway lands to the base of Mount Norquay ski resort, which was intended to help pay for the plans in the ARP.

The couple is also behind a push to bring passenger rail back to Banff from Calgary.

Jan Waterous said the railway lands will be the first infrastructure project that follows recommendations from Parks Canada’s expert panel on moving people sustainably to create a multi-modal transportation hub including intercept parking, aerial transit, and passenger rail.

“The railway lands will be the first collaboration between government and the private sector to create integrated transportation systems to decrease the reliance on personal vehicles which will enhance wildlife corridors and improve the visitor experience across Banff National Park,” she said in an email.

“The railway lands will be the first project to serve as the foundation to support high volume mass transit to reduce transportation emissions which will support the Banff National Park Net Zero 2035 initiative, which is focused on making Banff North America’s first net-zero emission community.”

Council made several amendments to the plan, including removing specific reference to an aerial gondola in favour of an emphasis on future multi-modal forms of mass transit and mobility options consistent with the recommendations of the expert advisory panel on moving people sustainably in Banff, which includes aerial transit.

Parks Canada has consistently said no to an aerial gondola, and while the agency has not publicly raised specific concerns about intercept parking on the north side of the train tracks, they did release information showing it forms part of a critical and heavily-used wildlife movement corridor.

It is unclear if the amendments made by council will address Parks Canada’s concerns over conformance with park laws and policies about the gondola, which they say goes against commercial development rules and amounts to de facto expansion of the Norquay ski hill.

Natalie Fay, a spokesperson for Banff National Park, said the Town of Banff will now submit its approved ARP to Parks Canada for review as per the established process.

"At this time, we do not have a set timeline for review, but will begin the review promptly once we receive the approved version of the Town of Banff’s ARP," she said.

DiManno said she believes the amendments help to strengthen the plan as well as better align it with the recommendations of the expert advisory panel and policy direction in both the Banff National Park Management Plan and Banff Community Plan.

“It now takes a more holistic and broad view of how this multimodal mobility hub can support future modes of transportation,” she said.

“It’s a practical approach to reconfiguring the site to provide both a strong sense of arrival and to welcoming visitors and encouraging people to get out of their cars and explore Banff by bus, bicycle, and foot.”

Conservation groups had called for no development on the north side of the tracks, arguing the addition of another 400 stalls by the Fendlands rec centre would compromise an already narrow travel route for animals like bears, wolves and cougars in the Fenlands-Indian Grounds wildlife corridor.

They worry the cumulative effects of development in the Bow Valley, which includes recent approval of a massive housing development on Three Sisters lands in Canmore and a proposal for a gondola at Silvertip, will make it even harder for wildlife to travel through this busy region.

Coun. Grant Canning said he believes the expansion of the parking lot at the Fenlands within the ARP is a medium-term solution providing visitors with more opportunities to get out of their cars.

“I believe the lot can be created in a way that addresses the concerns around wildlife corridors while creating opportunities to increase transit ridership around the park,” he said.

Canning took a couple of shots at Parks Canada over Banff’s parking and congestion problems, saying the federal agency has not offered any viable solutions to address this ongoing issue, which he believes this ARP does.

He said Parks has not only failed to address the lack of available parking in and around the Town of Banff, but has actually made it worse, pointing to the seasonal car-free section on the eastern end of the Bow Valley Parkway.

He said cyclists are parking their vehicles at the Fenlands parking lot or the existing train station parking lot before heading out to bike the parkway.

“This wonderful visitor experience has only added to the parking woes in town with no plan to address the added problem Parks Canada has created,” he said.

“Worse yet, the sentiment seems to be it’s a Town of Banff problem, let them deal with it, but don’t worry we’ll just create a new attraction next to town.”

Randall McKay, manager of special projects and strategic initiatives for the Town of Banff, said the historic Banff railway station and associated station grounds have been a cornerstone in the evolution of Banff and railway tourism in Canada.

As a gateway to the mountain west and part of Canada’s first transcontinental railway link, the railway helped to shape transportation in the region, he said.

“The area redevelopment plan builds on this historic context to strengthen the identity of the site and key gateway into the town,” he said. 

McKay said the level and amount of enabling and guiding policy direction is indisputable, some of which dates back to incorporation of the town in 1990.

“I am very pleased it was carefully considered within the context of the final draft of the plan presented to council,” he said.

“My hope is that the project proponent will be able to move forward with a number of the short and medium-term initiatives, including much needed housing and the restoration of the site, following completion of the strategic environmental assessment.”

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