BANFF – Banff’s elected officials have passed first reading of a redevelopment plan for the dilapidated railway lands that calls for a multi-modal transportation hub and visitor arrival centre at the west entrance to the tourist town.
Before a packed gallery on Monday (Dec. 11), council passed first reading of the area redevelopment plan (ARP) – a statutory plan that guides land use and development decisions on the railway lands over the next 10 to 20 years – and set a public hearing for March 20.
Council was given legal advice ahead of time on process and procedure for contemplating the ARP – a plan that paves the way for the return of passenger rail from Calgary, an aerial gondola to Mount Norquay ski resort, a satellite commercial area from downtown, and intercept parking.
Mayor Corrie DiManno was quick to stress that passing first reading was not a statement for or against anything in the plan.
“The railway redevelopment area encompasses a high profile area of our town, including an entrance to our community, so it is important we receive feedback from the public on this bylaw,” she said, noting giving the go-ahead to first reading allows for a public hearing.
“Council has received many perspectives and opinions to date, but council is obligated to make its own determination and a critical part of its determination included feedback from the public,” she added.
“To be clear, approving first reading is not an endorsement for or against the bylaw. It simply allows us to proceed through the process and hear from the community.”
The long-awaited ARP covers the development potential for the 17.5 hectares of land on the north and south sides of the railway tracks leased from Canadian Pacific Railway by Liricon Capital, which also owns Mount Norquay ski and sightseeing resort.
The proposed concept plan calls for a mix of commercial uses from restaurants and bars to sports equipment rentals and retail stores within five commercial buildings and three repurposed heritage passenger train railway cars. The company has secured a commercial development allotment handed out through the lottery process under the federally legislated commercial growth cap.
Railway Avenue will be redesigned as a shared street supporting a pedestrian promenade, walkway, vehicle traffic, and cycling connection to the Legacy Trail. Rehabilitation of the 1910 federal heritage railway station, an amphitheatre and medium-density residential housing are also part of the pitch.
In addition to the existing 500-stall intercept parking lot on the south side of the tracks that opened in 2019, the plan proposes 600 stalls on the north side, which is down from the previous 2,000 in order to improve the important Fenlands Indian Grounds wildlife corridor.
The ARP also speaks to terminus infrastructure to make way for a future aerial gondola from the train station lands to Mount Norquay ski and sightseeing resort – which Parks Canada has consistently said no to – as well as the return of passenger rail from Calgary to Banff.
Liricon officials say one of the key goals is to reduce vehicle congestion, carbon emissions, and environmental impacts of transportation through the integration of a range of transportation options aimed at getting people out of their private vehicles.
“We are proud of this ARP,” said Jan Waterous, managing partner of Liricon.
“It’s a plan that is right for the railway lands, the Town and Banff National Park and brings us all back to the future by reimagining the historic railway lands as the gateway to the national park.”
In presenting the draft ARP to council, Randall McKay, the Town of Banff’s point man on the plan, said the railway lands have been much loved but seemingly long neglected since the municipality’s incorporation in 1990.
“After 34 years, we finally have something tangible before us – an integrated vision to bring the railway lands back to life, a vision for placemaking and a vision for rehabilitation and restoration of a cultural heritage landscape at the key gateway to the townsite,” he said.
“It has sat for so long almost like an unwanted child or a castaway operating primarily as a freight and operations yard with very little reason to go there. I find it amazing the community has tolerated it in its current state really for so long.”
McKay said the ARP is a high level plan that does not authorize specific developments, adding any project contemplated in the ARP requires further regulatory approvals.
“I think it’s important that both council and the public understand this,” said McKay, who is the municipality’s manager of special projects and strategic initiatives.
“Some of the proposed initiatives, in fact, may or may not ever come to light, nor does it compel the project proponent or the municipality to undertake any of the projects referred to in the ARP.”
Waterous said there will be plenty of time to assess the projects detailed in the plan down the road.
“In fact, many of the components outlined in the ARP – components like the passenger train and aerial transit and possibly environmental assessments of any projects – require approvals far beyond the jurisdiction of the municipality,” she said.
While the expert panel on moving people sustainably in the park spoke to transit hubs in the townsite and aerial transit, Parks Canada has repeatedly said no to an aerial gondola because it does not comply with existing policy and law.
Previously, the federal agency has raised concern a gondola could be viewed as defacto expansion of the ski hill, setting a precedent for other ski resorts, and could be seen as a threat to the national park’s UNESCO world heritage designation, given protection of viewscapes was key criteria for inclusion.
In a Feb. 10, 2023 letter to the mayor and town council, Banff National Park superintendent Sal Rasheed said Parks Canada supports redevelopment and revitalization of the Banff train station lands as long as everything conforms with law and policy.
Following detailed reviews of a number of draft ARPs submitted by Town of Banff administration, Rasheed said in all cases Parks Canada’s reviews determined the draft ARP did not comply with policy and law, and changes suggested to bring the plan into conformance had not been addressed.
Rasheed indicated some projects like the gondola terminus would challenge the federal agency’s ability to recommend final ministerial approval.
“This could lead to an untenable situation for both of our organizations, with council approving an ARP that Parks Canada is not in a position to recommend for minister approval, as required under the Incorporation Agreement before the ARP can legally take effect,” he said.
Based on first reading having now passed, it is expected Parks Canada will respond to the ARP in the next 30 to 45 days, with information publicly available at the March 20 public hearing.
Should a gondola terminus ultimately not be considered, the ARP indicates the revenue stream from the gondola – which would provide the economic sustainability for free intercept parking, wildlife restoration and off-site improvements – would be replaced by charging for parking and result in adoption of a user-pay model.
During the Dec. 11 meeting, Waterous said Liricon has created an integrated plan that provides for free intercept parking based on a revenue model from aerial transit.
“This is necessary since the commercial component of the ARP is very small – 2,500 square metres of new space or less than two-thirds of one per cent of the Town of Banff’s commercial footprint,” she said.
“This model does not rely on community tax dollars or Town of Banff financial support to reduce the impact of personal vehicles.”
The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) called for council to defer decisions on the ARP pending the outcome of an environmental assessment, specifically Parks Canada’s detailed impact assessment process, of environmental matters and the related gondola issues.
“The ARP as presented is dependent upon approval of the gondola, which is dependent on an environmental impact assessment,” said Jess Harding, speaking on behalf of the group.
“If the gondola is not approved, the ARP includes provisos which may impose constraints on the town in future.”
BVN also believes the ARP should not proceed until the current community plan review is complete, noting the community needs to determine if this ARP is consistent with an updated community plan and not a community plan that is now 15 years old.
Harding said none of the regional environmental groups support developments north of the train tracks, noting there are significant environmental concerns all the way up to the Mount Norquay ski area boundary.
“Among other environmental issues, this proposal involves questions about the future effectiveness of a nationally significant wildlife corridor and the loss of undisturbed national park lands to build a parking lot and the gondola infrastructure,” he said.
“The proposed gondola for the town and the larger environmental issues can’t be separated. We’re in a national park. All these things are connected.”
McKay said the municipality believes a strategic level environmental assessment will be required for the ARP at a minimum.
“We will get advice from Parks Canada on that as we go through the process, but typically a strategic level assessment is not conducted until the draft plan has been completed,” he said.
“We’ve been certainly trying to work through that as we go through these steps in developing the plan.”
Several businesses spoke in favour of moving forward with the ARP, including the previous leaseholder of the railway lands.
Shawn Birch, president and CEO of Banff Caribou Properties, said the redevelopment of the lands is of vital importance, including the intercept parking lot already open.
“I think the last summer or two summers at least without that use, the town would have managed a lot differently and would have been a lot worse off without that,” he said. “That’s just a taste of what the potential is for that site.”
Birch said there are many challenges that come with the site.
“It’s a very difficult site to make economically viable,” he said.
“I think it’s important town council supports the ARP, moves it forward and gets to the next steps with public input and then hopefully eventual approval.”
Ebony Rempel, CEO of the YWCA Banff, voiced support for moving forward with exploring the ARP, including consultation, noting the Y is committed to sustainable development while addressing evolving needs of the community.
“We really feel like the ARP addresses some of the root causes and challenges faced by our community, and specifically folks that we serve. Primarily, it offers options to alleviate the strain of private vehicles into our town,” she said.
“Less cars in our limited space, we do feel would improve daily experiences of both our residents and visitors, knowing that most of the folks that we serve and live on site don't have personal vehicles.”
Rempel said the No. 1 component of the ARP the Y supports is around the railway service, which she said provides a convenient and affordable option for people to get into Calgary.
“Many of the folks who are living on site, which is over 200 right now, are low income and most vulnerable in our community,” she said.
“The Y spends thousands of dollars each year in getting people to and from Calgary for medical appointments, different types of supportive counselling and so having this safe affordable option, we feel would really support our organization.”
McKay said he wanted to dispel some myths about the use and history of the train station site.
He said the CP station historically served as an important, and for some time, exclusive visitor arrival centre for the town and four mountain national parks.
“This role was most evident when the CP station functioned as a passenger rail terminal between late 1800s and the 1970s,” he said.
“The lands on both sides of the tracks really were heavily utilized as part of the once thriving passenger train station."
McKay said there were multiple buildings on the north side of the tracks, including railway warehouses, water towers, staff accommodation, an icehouse building, an oil storage building, and at one point, a dairy farm.
He said a 1957 aerial photograph also shows there was a very active railway depot and operational siding for both passenger rail and freight operations, “so you can really see that this was not pristine wilderness by any stretch of the imagination.”
“Unfortunately, though, the golden age of trans-continental railway travel prospered for many years but gradually and sadly came to close in the late 1980s,” he said.
Meanwhile, Coun. Ted Christensen’s wife, Barb Kosterski, wrote a letter to council in support of the ARP, raising questions about the potential for conflict of interest for the veteran councillor.
“Although my wife has stated her position, in my opinion, I do not have a conflict of interest,” said Christensen.
“I am entering into this matter with an open mind, free of bias, capable of persuasion. I will make a decision based on the information provided during the public hearing process and on planning considerations.”