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Developer lays out vision for East Gate development

In an ideal scenario, Garry Lapointe and his partners in Envision Ventures Inc. would see deep utility installation and grading work on their land in northeast Bonnyville start this year. More likely, if things progress, it will take place in 2011.

In an ideal scenario, Garry Lapointe and his partners in Envision Ventures Inc. would see deep utility installation and grading work on their land in northeast Bonnyville start this year. More likely, if things progress, it will take place in 2011.

Regardless of when construction actually starts in what's being called the East Gate development, Lapointe will still feel like it's dragging a bit.

“In my opinion, this development is about 10 years behind schedule,” says Lapointe, who is partners in Envision Ventures with local businessmen Roger Fortier, Greg Ducharme and Al Olszowka.

The project isn't behind schedule for Envision, of course, but for Bonnyville, Lapointe says, noting the amount of big box retail development that has sprung up in Cold Lake in highway commercial strips along Highway 28.

While Bonnyville has snagged industrial shops and hotels on its highway commercial lands, large retail “big box” or mall projects just haven't happened here, and Lapointe and his colleagues want to change that.

“Our whole goal has been to stimulate some kind of growth in Bonnyville,” Lapointe says during a low-key interview in the middle of his company's open house for the project, held last week at the Centennial Centre.

East Gate would certainly grow the community, from both the commercial and residential perspectives.

At buildout, according to the draft area structure plan put together for Envision Ventures, the 246.2-acre area encompassed by the East Gate area structure plan would include roughly 84 acres of commercial land, 94 acres of housing in several categories, and 43 acres dedicated to parks and recreation land and facilities. It's important to note the planning area includes existing development such as the Centennial Centre, Tim Hortons and the Best Western Bonnyville Inn & Suites.

The triangular-shaped planning area is bounded on the south side by 50th Avenue/Secondary Highway 659, on the northwest by Highway 28 and on the east side by Range Road 454, which extends north from 34th Street.

The area, when complete, could have a population of 2,825, an amount equal to about 43 per cent of Bonnyville's current population of 6,500.

The residential mix contemplated in the plan includes 206 low-density (R2) residential units on small lots, 784 medium density residential units — primarily in the form of residential mobile home park housing, and 72 high density residential units.

That would give the residential neighbourhoods within the planning area a population density of almost 38 persons per gross developable acre — a density that's significantly higher — and more affordable — than most parts of town. Unlike conventional Bonnyville subdivisions, the residential sections of East Gate would be without any large-lot R1 lots.

The compact development form would reduce infrastructure costs and be more pedestrian friendly. It would also create customers for businesses aimed at neighbourhood customers as well as shoppers coming from further away.

At the focal point of the project, facing Highway 28, the plan proposes a 42-acre shopping centre, one that would be in clear view of the 5,000 or so vehicles a day that pass by the property on Highway 28.

Lapointe makes it clear his company isn't in the shopping centre development business, and that it's seeking a specialized developer to take on that end of the project. The same is true for the residential sections of the planning area.

There's been interest in the shopping centre land, he says, though no commitments at this point, and none are expected at least until the plan gets the blessing of town council.

“There are about three tire kickers right now and we are stirring up some interest,” Lapointe says. Some of that interest has come from developers in Edmonton, while the project has also drawn a look from folks in Grande Prairie and Red Deer, according to Lapointe.

Have Envision's proponents talked to retail giant Wal-Mart?

“No,” says Lapointe, adding that talks with potential retail tenants in the project will be left up to the shopping centre developer.

Wal-Mart has been a growing presence in rural Alberta for the past decade or so, opening stores not only in regional service centres such as Cold Lake, but also in places smaller than Bonnyville, such as Stettler (pop. 5,843), or considerably smaller than Bonnyville, such as Pincher Creek (pop. 3,712).

Other retail tenants that may find this area worth a look in a mall property include Canadian Tire and Zellers. Both are now part of the Tri-City Mall development in Cold Lake.

A big challenge in developing the vision for East Gate has been assembling enough land to spread out development costs. That's because it's no longer feasible to develop land in the plan area 40 acres at a time, Lapointe says, because capacity in the town's sewer trunk line system needs to be expanded, and that presents a significant cost to Envision Ventures.

Existing commercial development in the plan taps into a sewer line on 54th Avenue, but new development will be dependent on a new trunk line going south from the development into the Beau Vista development area and beyond.

“The biggest constraint has been development costs,” Lapointe sums up.

Lapointe and his partners have certainly had opportunities to develop land along the highway on a more piecemeal basis, with inquiries from trucking firms and bulk fuel dealers looking for proximity to Highway 28, but they've stayed away from those proposals to date, because they don't fit with the overall vision for land that could become a neighbourhood as well as a significant economic draw for Bonnyville.

Drawing more business for the community is key, he says, because doing so gives the project the potential to help the downtown core rather than compete with it.

While Envision's partners have an idea about cost numbers, they're not yet prepared to talk about selling prices for land in the project for now.

“We don't know yet and we're not quoting any numbers yet until our costs are finalized,” Lapointe says.

For now, the developer is focused on the public and council accepting the plan's vision.

Following input from the open house, the area structure plan will be revised before being submitted to the Town of Bonnyville. Once that happens, the town will consider it for first reading.

Once first reading happens, the public will be able to offer formal input on the plan at a public hearing.

Lapointe says he hopes to see the plan through the town's approval process before the end of summer.

Planner Karolina Drabik says the comments gathered at the ASP open house were mostly neutral in nature, with interest coming not only from town residents but country residential residents to the east of the area in the MD of Bonnyville.

Close to 20 people took in the April 15 open house.

Road improvements

The proposed East Gate area structure plan envisions significant road network improvements to go along with commercial and residential development components.

An arterial road running northwest from the intersection of 50th Avenue and 34th Street on the east edge of town would run through East Gate and connect up with Highway 28, making it easier for residents in the southeast to access the highway without having to drive back toward downtown.

As well, the plan calls for upgrading of the existing intersection at Highway 28 and the 54th Avenue bypass. Traffic at that intersection can already back up at peak times due to Centennial Centre events and customers accessing Tim Hortons and the Best Western Hotel.

East-west traffic through the project would be handled by an extension of 54th Avenue east to the plan's eastern boundaries. It would cross the extension of 34th Street.

The two arterial roads would both connect to Highway 28, and allow development to spread out in an orderly fashion with good highway access.

The residential development nodes in the planning area would be adjacent to existing and planned residential areas in both the town and MD of Bonnyville, while commercial nodes would face Highway 28.