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Palliser Trail area plan adopted, proceeds to next stages

“I really think this is our last opportunity to really house the backbone of our community,”

CANMORE – A much-discussed Town-led housing development that aims to bring more than 1,000 affordable housing units to Canmore will move ahead.

The Palliser Trail area structure plan (ASP) received unanimous support from Canmore council at its Tuesday (Nov. 7) meeting.

Mayor Sean Krausert called the plan both a “gamechanger” and a “monumental moment in the history of the town”, with council adopting the ASP that will see both the Town and Canmore Community Housing aim to significantly add to housing inventory in the community.

“Right from the start of moving forward with this ASP, it became a priority of this council as council decided we were going to take bold initiatives to address housing,” he said. “We need to celebrate this for a second and then we need to look forward to the next tasks such as updating the land use bylaw and ultimately getting concurrent projects going in the coming years initiated by Canmore Community Housing (CCH) and the Town of Canmore.”

The plan is expected to be built out over the next 10 to 20 years and the ASP estimates to create roughly 1,300 housing units, including about 1,000 affordable units.

As part of the ASP, mixed-use commercial and residential are planned, ranging between three and six storeys.

The online engagement process had 1,636 participants and 199 submissions. The feedback was largely supportive of the project, particularly the need for affordable housing, but concerns about density and building height were also expressed.

“It’s going to be a change and with any change there’s going to be some bumps in the road, but hopefully people can get behind this,” said Coun. Jeff Hilstad. “I’m excited we got to this point.”

Civic areas, an expansion of the multi-modal transit network and public transit, plazas, parks and possibly adding a pedestrian crossing above or below the Trans-Canada Highway are also planned.

As part of the plan, all new development would be encouraged to be near net-zero, solar and electric vehicle-ready and no short-rentals would be permitted.

The lands set aside for development have split ownership between the Town, CCH and the province, making it publicly held lands rather than set for private development.

“This is a flagship opportunity for Canmore since we own these lands and have a great deal of control over it,” Coun. Jeff Mah said. “I think it’s really important to shoot high and not water down our vision.”

Stoneworks Creek still has mitigation work to be completed to minimize flood risk, but pre-construction is underway and construction is expected to start next year and take about two years.

The area also has a Palliser base station and employee housing in the area as part of the proposed Silvertip gondola that is under review by the province.

Shortly before the provincial election, the Conservative government committed to gifting 2.3 hectares of land valued at $8.7 million. The lands would be transferred to the Town when a plan was brought forward for development and needed to be shifted to the Town by early 2026 at the latest.

The passing of the ASP is the first step, with subsequent development stages to come forward and multiple projects likely to begin in the next 12-24 months.

“At this juncture, the best hand we have as a council to help our community is to leverage these public lands to support the residents, workers, businesses and economy of the town of Canmore,” said Coun. Tanya Foubert.

While a large amount of feedback was given to council at the public hearing, Town staff said the Palliser Trail ASP remained unchanged due to the high level nature of it and subsequent processes such as subdivision and development permit stages to follow.

Among those who spoke or submitted letters were the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA), CCH and Tourism Canmore Kananaskis.

A staff report outlined BOWDA’s housing action committee concerns about economic viability and maintenance costs as needing additional work to look at consistencies with Town guiding documents.

It noted “operations and maintenance costs of theoretical future development are not the subject of ASPs; rather, they are considerations for project proponents during land acquisition and development planning.”

“This isn’t going to be a fixed document that’s adopted today and necessarily stay the same forever,” said Joshua Cairns, a senior development planner with the Town and the lead planner on the file.

The report added future development stages such as subdivision and development permits would address infrastructure issues, while council could consider amendments to the Municipal Development Plan and land use bylaw if standards change or new information is brought forward.

Issues raised about language and the possibility of deterring future partnerships for development were deemed by Town staff in the ASP as having enough flexibility “strikes an appropriate balance of direction and flexibility” to help attain the plan’s goals.

“The plan does allow for considerable flexibility, whether it’s the plan’s estimated unit counts or allowing the developer such as the Town or CCH the ability to either target different income housing or income spectrum,” Cairns said. “That really reflects the reality we know there are uncertainties when it comes to developing such a large undeveloped area.”

Concerns on incentivizing or encouraging green energy were ultimately considered by Town staff to be minimal since they found the upfront costs were relatively minimal, while ultimately “offering significant reductions in the ongoing operational costs of the building – resulting in a positive financial return once life cycle costs are considered.”

“While private developers constructing and selling market condominiums may express concern about potential impacts such a requirement may have on profit margins and project viability, it is imperative that new non-market units are designed to maximize both immediate and long-term affordability while also ensuring the livability of these units – objectives that the near net zero requirement effectively addresses,” stated the report.

Though the report noted the information was appreciative, “no new information has been shared that materially affects or requires amendments to the plan.”

Council also directed Krausert to advocate for changes in provincial policy that would allow a municipality or a municipally owned subsidiary such as CCH to not include affordable housing projects towards a municipal debt limit.

The province sets the debt limit at 1.5 per cent of annual revenue, but Canmore has a self-imposed restriction of 75 per cent of that. Without a change in provincial policy, it would likely make a municipality unable to have multiple housing projects simultaneously.

Krausert said real estate “is a different animal since it actually does have a market value,” allowing it to be more secure than most other infrastructure projects.

Krausert pointed to this as an example brought up when Premier Danielle Smith spoke in Canmore at the Oct. 12 BOWDA luncheon and expressed wanting to hear from municipalities about ways to eliminate roadblocks to creating housing.

“This is just a policy change. It requires no money from the province. It really empowers us and enables us as municipalities to do this well,” said Foubert.

Coun. Joanna McCallum, who has pushed for such a project going back to the last council term, said she was “happy and honoured” council saw the potential for housing in the Palliser area and has reached this point.

“I really think this is our last opportunity to really house the backbone of our community,” she said. “We also have an amazing opportunity to lead, which you can see in the document itself, and I agree I wouldn’t want to water down one word of it.”

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