Commercial: Nowhere to go but up

Fort McMurray unveils a plan to get its stagnating downtown core out of a tight corner

Fort McMurray, Alta.-now a city of almost 80,000 people-has doubled in population in the last 15 years, with equally dramatic growth expected in the next two decades. But just try to find a dry cleaner or a shoe repair shop there.

Complaints about shortages of stores and professional services commonplace to other similarly sized Canadian cities are frequent in Fort Mac. Even the mayor complains.

"We don't have a shoe repair person in Fort McMurray and we have one dry cleaner," says Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, of which Fort McMurray is a part.

The municipality estimates the oilsands boom town's existing population could easily support three times its current retail base. The city needs as much as two million square feet of new office space to come online by 2015.

Enter the municipality's City Centre Area Redevelopment Plan, which is based on a multi-use approach for the downtown where retail and commercial space, downtown residences and schools, and recreational space would coexist.

It envisions the population of the core, which extends four kilometres from the MacDonald Island Park recreation complex to the Waterways neighbourhood in the south, growing from about 13,000 now to 48,000 by 2030.

Most of that population growth and new retail and office space would be accommodated by allowing zoning changes that would allow downtown buildings to grow to heights of over 20 storeys in several parts of the core. Currently, the tallest building downtown is nine storeys.

The city plans to develop a number of "catalyst projects," such as new municipal offices downtown to kick-start the transformation of the core. A new performing arts centre and convention centre are included in the plans, as is an expansion of MacDonald Island.

"You'll see the face of our downtown change," says Blake, adding that it will look more like a "real city" with downtown high-rises.

Fort McMurray began life as a fur-trading post first established in 1870. Bounded by the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers and an arm of the Clearwater known as the Snye (as well as the Hangingstone River), the downtown area might have been a wonderful launching pad for canoes and Hudson's Bay Company traders, but it hasn't exactly been conducive to allowing for growth in a city projected to reach 200,000 residents and beyond in the future.

In fact, as the municipality's 94-page planning document points out, the population of the downtown core, reflecting those limitations, actually dropped from 25 per cent of the city's total in 1999 to just 16 per cent now. If the plan is successful it would see that decline reversed.

Chris Naudi of the city centre community development team for the municipality says growth has occurred in a somewhat haphazard way over the years.

"The downtown core has strip malls, low-rise apartments, some office space and restaurants, and even single-family homes," he says. "What we're looking at is revitalizing our city centre to make it a lively place where people will live, shop and play."

The plan would allow for walking and bike paths and would help create a "transit-friendly" downtown, he says.

Densities downtown would be increased significantly by an allowance for multi-use buildings, where people would live in high-rises and where stores and offices would coexist.

Naudi says the city will literally "grow up," as high-rises replace houses and strip malls.

"That's what people expect to see in a city centre," says the planner, who moved to Fort McMurray from Toronto five years ago. "When you think of a city centre you think of transit, caf├ęs, recreation and high-rise buildings."

There are also elementary and high schools downtown, as well as a campus of Keyano College, and they would continue to be a part of a vibrant core, Naudi says.

The president of both the local chapter of the Urban Development Institute and the Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corporation endorses the ambitious plan for Fort McMurray's downtown core, although not without a few caveats.

"It's aggressive and it's supported, but I don't know if it's achievable," Bryan Lutes says. "It's looking for a lot of large developments, and there are only certain groups that have the capacity to build in Fort McMurray."

The problem is cost.

The city has a reputation for having some of Canada's highest housing costs-an average single-family home can run more than $750,000-and commercial and retail land is no different.

"You need a minimum of three-acre lots to build on and lots downtown cost $3 million to $5 million an acre," he says.

With high-rises costing from $200 million to $300 million to build, Lutes is concerned about finding builders with deep enough pockets to support the plan. "The only investors who can do that are pension funds because they have the ability to be more flexible," he says.

The difficulty with attracting that kind of investment to the oilsands boom town is just that-its image as an oil boom town.

"I've been at some real estate conferences and the lenders have lending issues with Fort McMurray because they see the risks as being higher," Lutes says. "We're viewed as a one-product town."

Lutes says that will likely change as the city grows to a population of 200,000 or more, "because we'll have our own internal economy." Still, that remains a long way in the future, he admits.

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