— Feature —

The Yimby Hero

Michael Phair has made his career finding Edmonton’s way to ‘Yes’

MICHAEL PHAIR PULLED ON THE BUILDING’S ugly tin cladding and saw red brick underneath. This building was worth saving. “No one knew — including me — that it had any architectural value at all, until a couple of people working there dragged me over,” Phair says.
“I pulled back a little bit and I was like, ‘Oh my God, look at that — that’s brick.’”

It was 1999. Phair was peering at bricks of the Phillips Building, on 104 Street in downtown Edmonton. Midco Equities Ltd., owned by Bill Comrie of The Brick, had purchased the building and adjacent parking lot in 1981. It first wanted to erect a 25-storey of office tower, but the economic crash of the early ’80s erased those plans. By the mid-’90s, Midco next wanted to demolish Phillips Building and replace it with a surface parking lot.

Local residents wanted the building to remain. So they contacted Phair, who was a city councillor at the time, and asked for his help to save it. And he did. Preventing developers from demolishing the Phillips Building became one of Phair’s first major YIMBY wins. He’s had dozens more since.

What’s YIMBY? The acronym stands for ‘Yes in My Backyard’ and it’s the opposite of the far more well known NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). Proponents of YIMBY actively seek to obtain or keep things in their neighbourhoods instead of trying to keep them out. From tangible YIMBY successes like the Icon and Fox tower developments on 104 Street, to the new downtown bike grid, to less obvious achievements like establishing the AIDS Network of Edmonton, Phair has made a career out of saying ‘Yes.’

One cheery July afternoon, Phair sat in his eponymous park on 104 Street to reflect on what the street was like before he and other YIMBYs got involved — and how people who want to become YIMBYs can learn from his approach.

“Most people forget that this was all empty here,” he says, gesturing at the high rises surrounding us. “There were no buildings here at all, except on the corner.” That corner, on Jasper Avenue, was occupied by the ruin of the Cecil Hotel. Running north from the Cecil were empty lots, derelict properties and a few historic structures, such as the Birks, Metals, Phillips and Great West Saddlery buildings. Some had businesses but many were empty or partially vacant.

Saving the Phillips Building — Worthington Properties bought it in 2000 and converted it into loft apartments — was an early victory for 104 Street and also Edmonton in a broader sense. It marked a slow shift in local thinking and proved that a small group of dedicated citizens could shape the future of their neighbourhood.

After the Phillips Lofts were completed, in 2002, developers next proposed several high rise towers on 104 Street — the Century first, then the Icon towers, and later the Fox towers. But the original plans for these towers looked a lot different than what developers eventually built. That’s thanks, again, to the YIMBYs.

“There were a number of people living in the area who met with me and formed a kind of coalition group to push the city and developers that high rises were fie, but we don’t want ugly buildings — this is a historical area,” Phair says. “And, we don’t want this parking that you see everywhere. And we want podiums — which was not in the plans.”

But Phair knew fighting for improvements on individual projects was always going to be a losing battle. The key was zoning. Phair recognized changes were needed to prevent developers from proposing to build whatever they wanted on 104 Street. “The importance of the zoning, in the end, is probably what ensures that you are getting kind of what you’d hoped and wanted,” he says. Eventually, Phair and others got city council to change 104 Street’s zoning, in 2004.

But because council makes zoning decisions, Phair says, YIMBY groups seeking influence over what needs to be added to development proposals will need to make their case before that body. “It’s important that you have connections with the local councillors or MLAs, depending what the situation is, so they know what’s happening,” he says. “Even if they don’t agree or don’t push for anything, it’s always better if they know – but hopefully you can make allies out of them. Many members of council — hate to be blindsided. I’ve been that way a little bit, too.”

To become an effective YIMBY, then, Phair says you’ll need to get in touch with city administration to discuss zoning options in your neighbourhood, inform your local councillor and then meet with developers, property owners and other stakeholders about any proposed development. Developers usually aren’t keen to make changes to their plans, Phair says, especially ones that cost more money. This is why he says it’s critical to gain allies with positive voices — you can always find someone to oppose something, and often that negative voice is the loudest.

Phair says compromise is also key.
The zoning changes council made on 104 Street — which requires towers to have podiums for retail and commercial space, design elements reflecting the area’s historic nature, and parking set backs — doesn’t have everything residents asked for, Phair says, but it was a good compromise. “Quite frankly, 104 Street would not be what it is today if that hadn’t happened,” he says. “It made just this huge difference.” But sometimes YIMBY voices can’t make compromise actually happen. Chris vander Hoek, a former board member of the Oliver Community League (OCL) and intern architect with NEXT Architecture, says the Brewery District, in Oliver, is a good example of that. Vander Hoek was on the OCL board in 2013 when First Capital Realty and Sun Life Investment presented its initial proposal for the site. He says he remembers feeling alarmed when he saw it.

“Everything was internally oriented around the parking lot,” vander Hoek says. In response, the OCL worked to amplify the community voice. It hosted open houses and charrette sessions so residents could provide feedback to the developer. Initially the tone was optimistic, vander Hoek recalls, but that changed after the OCL met with the developers. “It became evident that they weren’t interested in compromising at all,” he says. “Their whole attitude was simply, ‘Let’s just build it now. Let’s build this hybrid suburban model and then when the LRT comes and when it becomes more urban, then we’ll just knock it down and build a new version that’s more urban.’”

Today, vander Hoek says Brewery District is not a walkable space, as Oliver asked it to be, because nobody likes walking across parking lots or among blank façades, “We saw that in the plans early on,” he says. But the YIMBY voice could not change it.

It should go without saying, then, that effective YIMBY campaigns require patience — often, a lot of it. Phair says Edmonton’s bike lanes are a perfect example of a project that required not just compromise and political support, but also heaps of patience.

“I live on 102 Avenue and we’ve been wanting a bike lane and arguing and yelling at the city for years to get that,” he says.

Phair chaired a working group on the downtown bike lane project that the OCL established five years ago. Things got bogged down due to the costs involved, and then delayed by the 2013 civic election. Phair remembers endless meetings with city administration trying to push them to take action, to no avail.

Meanwhile, though, the number of people working on bike lanes continued to grow. Paths for People, a nonprofit advocating for better cycling and walking infrastructure in Edmonton, formed in 2015; Phair is on the board.

The process seemed permanently stalled, Phair remembers, until a couple things happened. First, almost all of the senior management team at the city’s transportation department either retired or was let go. Second, Stantec offered to cover half the cost to trial downtown bike lanes.

“All of a sudden, very positively, it’s all happening,” Phair says. “We are busy now putting together some information for candidates running for city council and for the school board members, because there needs to be some work done on schools, encouraging bikes.”

The thing about YIMBY projects is that they can be about more than just buildings and bike lanes. They can be about building community supports for things that some in the community may even be fearful of. Phair has done that YIMBY work, too. In the early 1980s, he helped establish the first version of the Edmonton Pride Parade, as well as the AIDS Network of Edmonton (later renamed HIV Edmonton).

When the AIDS crisis hit Edmonton—the first case was identified on July 1, 1984 — no one was working on the issue locally. Phair formed the AIDS Network in response. The group worked out of his house at first, because no one would rent them office space. At the time, sexual orientation wasn’t protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act.

“There was a great deal of hatred —‘You deserve it; this is God’s scourge’ — every Bible verse that you could use, twisted,” Phair remembers. “We called ourselves the AIDS Network. We chose that name because we were clear that it needed to be more than just members of the gay and lesbian community. There needed to be other players. I think that was critical, knowing that in order to get what you want, and when you’re dealing with a situation that’s negative or difficult, is you look for others that need to be part of it.”

Some of those other players included local unions and churches, who were friendly to the cause, as well as contacts with the police and media. Savviness with media is critical to YIMBY, Phair says, especially when the issue at stake is contentious.

“Any major story about AIDS, we always got called for the local angle, and learned that you need to respond,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to put forward what we would think as the best foot, to put forward how we saw it and what we were doing — which then got through the media, got out that there were local people that had AIDS, there were local groups that were working on it to try to do things. We tried to sound reasonable.”

Sandeep Agrawal sees the YIMBY and NIMBY conversations through a planning lens. Agrawal is a professor and inaugural director at the University of Alberta’s Urban and Regional Planning Programs, where he focuses on the inclusion of human rights in urban planning. He is pushing Edmonton planners to look not only at planning legislation, bylaws and policy, but also to consider the Charter and human rights legislation, when dealing with NIMBY/YIMBY issues, like safe injection sites, supportive housing and potentially even adults-only buildings.

“Eventually, something that’s intangible becomes quite tangible in the form of use of land and a building and such — and then it becomes a planning issue,” Agrawal says. “Frankly, so far planners have yet to understand how these things affect their thinking, their practice and obviously their policies.”

The University of Alberta doesn’t have a course on NIMBYism specifically, but Agrawal teaches a course on land-use planning and policy that discusses it. “Land-use planning is all about uses of land and zoning, and when it comes to any kind of development, you have to deal with NIMBYism,” he says.

Awareness and education are ultimately what overcome NIMBYism, Agrawal says, since it’s often a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to change. Once people become aware of an issue and are exposed to it, more people come to accept it. Consider how absurd it seems today that someone could be denied office space based on their sexual orientation. This will undoubtedly hold true for everything from safe injection sites to bike lanes – it just might take a while.

Phair agrees. “I think in another eight or nine years, having bike routes will be so commonplace that they’ll just automatically happen, but it’s still going to take that time,” he says. Until your YIMBY victory has become permanent, he says, you just have to keep working on shifting the narrative.

“I can’t tell you how important I think it is to find some either positive voices or at least positive compromising voices,” he says. “As opposed to those that just don’t want it, period – and let them run the show and be seen as what everybody thinks and wants.

“Easier said than done,” he adds, with a laugh. “I wish it was that simple.”



SOCIAL MEDIA AND PRINT MEDIA: Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can help you nd and connect with people interested in working together, as well as to make you aware of what others are working on already. Consider physical newsletters, posters on bulletin boards in local businesses and ads in community newsletters, and local newspapers to reach community members who aren’t online.

CROWDFUNDING SITES: Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding sites can help grassroots organizations and startup dollars and help cover costs associated with public outreach and consultation.

CITY OF EDMONTON ZONING RESOURCES: There are zoning resources and information on the City of Edmonton website. Contact the planner who works on your area of the city for detailed information.

EDMONTON FEDERATION OF COMMUNITY LEAGUES: The EFCL can put you in touch with local community leagues and other associations and organizations who may be interested in working on YIMBY projects in their area. The EFCL also hosts seminars and work- shops on community issues.


YIMBY asks for DECL and OCL

MORE DENSITY DONE RIGHT: The design of developments is more important than just density or height. Still, increased density can bring more people to live downtown, and more amenities, which will make the area more sustainable in the long-term.

BIKE LANES: If built correctly, bike lanes can benefit all people. It’s all about offering more mobility options to engage a younger population who doesn’t want to own vehicles, and this can be augmented by car-share and ride-share.

MORE GREEN SPACE, LESS PARKING: Surface parking lots don’t make for the vibrant downtown we want. Some empty lots should be reserved for open green space and parks. Parks are people’s living rooms when they don’t have their own yard.

BETTER STREETSCAPING: Well-considered streetscaping is critical to the success of downtown for people as well as local pedestrian-oriented businesses.

REC AND COMMUNITY FACILITIES: Oliver has the population of a small town, yet many don’t drive, so we need recreation facilities close by. The Stanley Milner library in central downtown is out of reach for many Oliver residents, as are downtown rec facilities like the Don Wheaton YMCA.

SUPPORTIVE, AFFORDABLE AND FAMILY HOUSING: Oliver needs greater housing diversity to support inclusive, long-term human investment through socially responsible development.

FAMILY INFRASTRUCTURE: The downtown core lacks physical supports as well as services for families, like all-ages buildings, appropriate recreation facilities, affordable child care and even public washrooms.

This entry was posted in 2017 Fall, Feature.