Downtown Chinatown

Have you been to New Chinatown? That’s what I’m calling Jasper Avenue and 109 Street. Within a block of this intersection nearly a dozen shops now serve Asian food. Stretch a few more blocks and the count jumps to include even a takeout shop that specializes in bite-sized duck necks.

Old guards like sushi-joint Kyoto, at Canterra, remain in New Chinatown. But what’s new are fast-casual and dessert places, some unique to Edmonton. Chinese Crepe sells jianbing, or Chinese crepes—and it’s the only jianbing shop in Alberta. Tsujiri, a Japanese chain for all things matcha, opened its first Canadian location outside of Toronto across from Save-On-Foods.

In Any-City-Asia, snacking is social. Snack places aren’t so much spots to share dishes but stories. And this is what’s so interesting about New Chinatown. Traditional Chinatowns in North America often cater to non- Asians, but New Chinatown doesn’t. Instead, it unapologetically brings Asian snacking culture to Edmonton. The shops are smaller, the colours are pastels, the fonts playful. The menus offer English but require experience. The staff will explain what, say, tapioca pearls are, but expect some serious side-eye if you ask.

So why this intersection?

To start, our first Chinatown is disjointed. Sunny Bong leads tours of it and says the first Chinese community was displaced and its buildings dismantled. Then, through the course of history, an influx of Indochinese refugees, and mismatches between planning and settlement meant that Edmonton’s Chinatown split in two, east and northeast of downtown. (You can learn about this and much more on his tours.)

Another factor is the North America-wide trend for urban Chinatowns to be overtaken by car-centric, suburban Chinatowns. Asian snacking culture is alive and well in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver; Markham, a suburb of Toronto; and in the 626 area-code of suburban Los Angeles. But unlike the ethnic ghettos created by racist policies from the past, these areas are statements of affluence. In Edmonton, there are a few pockets— roughly wherever there’s a T&T—but none has the concentration to be Edmonton’s Richmond.

Despite being downtown, New Chinatown is relatively car-friendly— another central factor. San King, who lives in the suburbs, says she’s constantly scouting good eats and has tried many places in New Chinatown. “Access is important,” she says. “Jasper and 109 are main roads. And there’s parking. Might not be free, but there’s parking.”

Demographics also play a role. New establishments are increasingly Mandarin-speaking, versus the Cantonese dominated Chinatown to the east. Hoi-Yee Wong attributes this to the “fourth-wave” of Chinese immigration. This is people, mainly from mainland China, and many are students. Indeed, 2016 census data for Edmonton shows there were nearly as many people speaking primarily Mandarin at home as Cantonese. And students like the New Chinatown corner. “This is a very convenient neighbourhood, especially for students,” Wong says. “A walkable area with LRT access.”

All these factors have given rise to New Chinatown. But San doesn’t like that name. “Many of these [shops] aren’t even Chinese.”

She’s right. From Korean bingsoo (shaved ice dessert) to Thai gai-yang (grilled chicken), New Chinatown is pan-Asian. Indeed, it’s not unlike the mix of food you’d find on offer in Any- City-Asia.

Maybe I should call it “Asian Corner” instead?

BY: JACKIE LEE

Jackie Lee lives, works and eats downtown. He is originally from Hong Kong and has snacked his way throughout Asia.

A League of Their Own

Go to any city council meeting or peruse the newspaper and you’ll undoubtedly find a community league representative advocating for what’s best for the neighbourhood. While this may seem normal here, even banal, the community league as an idea is a uniquely Edmonton creation.

Some say community leagues have shaped our city, provided first platforms to several political leaders and built a culture of civic engagement that other cities lack. But just how and why did Edmonton’s community leagues start? And where are the leagues going in the future?

The answer requires a look back into the past and into the future.

Boom Bust City

In 1917, residents of Jasper Place created a unique movement. The setting was a population boom. Edmonton had grown—from a sleepy town of 700 people, in 1892, to a thriving capital city of 67,243 in 1913. Edmonton had also, by 1913, amalgamated the City of Strathcona and the Village of North Edmonton. Wooden buildings were replaced with Edwardian brick and stone structures; utilities, bridges and roads were constructed; schools and hospitals were in place; business was booming. Land prices and real-estate investments were at an all-time high.

But not all was well in the booming city. Between 1904 and 1913, the City of Edmonton approved 274 subdivisions and moved its western municipal boundary from 142 Street to 149 Street. That carved out the community of Jasper Place (Crestwood) from the larger unincorporated community, now West Jasper Place. 1913 then ended with an unexpected economic collapse. Real estate speculators cut their losses. Subdivisions were left undeveloped.

Enter George M. Hall. Hall was an American journalist who came to Edmonton in 1912 as the Industrial Commissioner for the city. By 1913, however, Hall’s position was abolished. Regardless, he and his family continued to live in Jasper Place, which was isolated and had little infrastructure. Upset by this, Hall and the neighbourhood formed the Jasper Place Ratepayers Association (JPRA) in 1917. Hall travelled to the United States to research the Social Centre movement, which had formed Community Clubs in American cities, and the idea intrigued both the JPRA and the Horticultural Society. The University of Alberta provided an expert on the Social Centre Movement to speak when the two organizations held meetings with residents – and on March 3, 1917, they merged to form the 142nd Street District Community League.

The league advocated for modern sewer systems, better roads and sidewalks, and for social and recreational events to bring people together. The principles the league adopted ensured the organization was open to all regardless of class or ethnic background; that it would not be affiliated with any political or religious order and that members would be both men and women. Hearing all community voices was a central value.

The 142nd Street league’s work did not go unnoticed. In 1918, Bonnie Doon created its own league, advocating for water services and transportation. Strathcona organized in 1918 as well, and then came Westmount, in 1919. West Edmonton (now Calder), Riverdale, Terrace/Forest Heights, Calgary Trail (now Allendale), and Bennet School (now Cloverdale) all formed leagues in 1920.

The communities identified their individual needs but soon realized they were competing for limited resources. By 1921, The Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL) was formed. The first act of the Federation was to negotiate land for parks and recreation.

Through property tax defaults resulting from the earlier real estate crash, the City of Edmonton had become the owner of almost half of all the land in the city—between 1918 and 1920, the City of Edmonton took ownership of 70,000 lots. In 1922, the city happily leased a block of land to each community league, for one dollar per year; the understanding was that it would be developed and used as parkland.

Leagues Arrive in Oliver and Downtown

The West End Community League was formed in 1922, in time to take advantage of the parks promise. By 1923, the league developed Kitchener Park, convincing the Gyro Club, a volunteer service organization, to install playground equipment, the EFCL to provide trees and the Horticultural Society to contribute plants and expertise. An Edmonton Journal ad on May 10, 1923, asked that “all citizens having the good of the community at heart and desirous of providing a beauty spot…arm themselves with spades.” An army of spade toting citizens answered and 150 trees were planted.

On March 20, 1923, the call went out in the Edmonton Journal to “Citizens who have stubbed their toes and lost heels on worn out sidewalks, housewives who have moaned the dust of cinder walks, parents who want swimming pools and playgrounds in their district and all the public spirited citizens of the District of Oliver School.” At the first annual general meeting that year, further consideration was given to “the elimination of unnecessary noise, particularly at night, including domestic cats, shunting engine and trains, rattling street-car horns and whistles and crying babies in public audiences.” It’s unknown how successful the league was controlling cats and babies, and the community would be bordered by trains for decades to come. But the playground and swimming pool initiatives were resounding successes. The West End pool opened in 1924, following the openings of the South Side (now Queen Elizabeth) pool in 1922 and the East End (now Borden) pool, earlier in 1924.

In the 1930s, the league built a skating rink and clubhouse at 114 Street and 107 Avenue. Then, in 1961, Molson’s Brewery donated a building that was moved to 118 Street and 103 Avenue, to be retrofitted and used as a clubhouse. The building served as a meeting and social hall for the league until its recent structural failure last year.

In 1937, the West End Community League changed its name to Oliver Community League. The neighbourhood had taken the name of the school district and “West End” was no longer an appropriate description.

The 1930s and the Second World War slowed community league activities, but afterwards, returning veterans and the resultant baby boom reactivated things. Population growth saw major change arrive. From 1961 to 1966, 13 high rises were built in Oliver, and by 1973 there were 38 more. The family homes that originally stood through the community were being demolished, and families were leaving. Young, single people filled the smaller living spaces. Most saw themselves as temporary residents and a community league did not appeal to them.

Jasper Avenue – taken December, 1942

Development also overtook downtown—only most of the new buildings were offices and commercial towers. The once diverse community, which originally featured houses and apartments on both sides of Jasper Avenue, was razed and rebuilt as a centre of government and commerce. This development was fueled by an oil boom, and the vision was to become a modern metropolitan city. At the time that meant building single use communities—a commercial downtown connected to the suburbs by freeways.

Downtown residents during this period were still part of the Rossdale Community League. That league started as the Ross Flats Community League, in January 1929, and served the flats as well as the people on the hillside. There was no league for the top of bank community until 1931, when the new Rossdale Community League expanded its boundaries north to 104 Avenue, west to 109 Street and east to 97 Street. Construction of the James MacDonald Bridge, in 1970, spelled the end of the Rossdale and city centre connection. Although the Rossdale Community League revived itself, in 1974, the downtown neighbourhood had changed so significantly that it could not form a community.

Then, in 1982, history repeated itself: the oil economy crashed. Downtown, only half rebuilt, died—and this time, there was no diversity to regenerate it. The residential and small business communities were gone.

Fast-forward to 1997. The Capital City Downtown Plan identified an urgent need for a residential community and a budget for financial incentives to create housing. Bev Zubot and Mary Jane Buchanan were hired as Downtown Community Coordinators and tasked with seeking out and connecting the isolated residents of the towers. Posters inviting people to “Come Create Community Fun” led to a plan for Cornfest, now an annual event. In 1999, the organizing group formed the Downtown Edmonton Community Association (DECA) and, in 2003, they became an official community league.

“The community development program created opportunities for neighbours to interact, discover common interests, and work together to shape their neighbourhood,” Zubot says.

Future friendly

Chris Buyze moved near the newly improved 104 Street in 1999. He was attracted to the “cool heritage buildings” and the opportunity to live and work in the same neighbourhood. But he says the lack of amenities and places to meet people made him realize creating community was needed. For Buyze, the community league was the answer.

Today, Buyze has been the president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League for 10 years. He says his friendships and long-term connections have all been made through the league. And, now, thanks to a population that has grown from 5,300 in 1997 to close to 14,000 today, the league is healthier. There are 200- 300 active members; 13 are board members, others sit on committees. Buyze says many are there to enjoy the social events. DECL also involves itself in new developments, park planning, block parties, Christmas mixers, community clean ups and programs for kids.

“The community league is able to provide services and programs that the city cannot,” Buyze says. “It is a platform for people to achieve community needs and it leaves room for evolution.”

Like Buyze, Luwam Kiflemariam is a young professional who’s dynamic and articulate. She has lived in Oliver for four and a half years and she, too, is a board member. After volunteering with a number of organizations, Kiflemariam says she has found her niche with the Oliver Community League currently as vice president. Most importantly, she says it gives her a voice in her community, the opportunity to make friends, and a way to give back.

“I truly believe that human beings look for meaningful ways to contribute to society,” Kiflemariam says. “I think that Edmonton community leagues, such as Oliver’s OCL, offer residents a platform to connect with their communities in a safe and engaging way.”

Both leagues concede that urban isolation is real and wish more people knew that the league was there for them. And both leagues face the challenge of communicating with the large number of residents who live in secure buildings. The old method of door-to-door introductions is impossible.

Buyze says he would like more seniors to get involved, as well as people new to the city. He says he would like to hear more from the diverse populations that are coming to live downtown.

Nevertheless, Laura Cunningham- Shpeley—the new executive director of the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues and the former president of the Ritchie Community League—says leagues like DECL and OCL are becoming more important today, not less.

“Demographics are shifting,” she says. “Now, a new and even more diverse population has the opportunity to influence the shape of neighbourhoods in Edmonton.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Jasper Avenue looking west – taken November 24, 1962

Holding Station

A station for the westward expansion of the Valley Line LRT at 124 Street has some concerned but others cautioning to remain engaged and find solutions.

When City Council approved the LRT Valley Line expansion westward, from 102 Street to Lewis Farms Transit station, many residents and business owners along the route in the core expressed concerns, mostly with the 124 Street station.

The layout seemed to cut into space for cyclists and people on their feet.

“It’ll be more convenient,” said Wesley Tang, a 21-year-old downtown resident, “but I want to make sure that it’s safe for pedestrians as well.”

The proposed location and design of the station also seemed to mark a date with a wrecking ball for 13 homes and more than 20 businesses, including Western Cycle and the United Way.

Some business owners were not impressed. “I feel a little bitter about the whole thing,” said Wade Church, manager of National Audio Video on 124 Street, in an interview with the Edmonton Journal.

But others in the business community say it’s best to remain calm as the LRT discussion continues.

Jeff McLaren, executive director of the 124 Street Business Association, said he recognizes the challenges with the proposed station but ultimately feels that it will be a net positive. He also suggests to wait until all decisions are finalized before reacting.

“We support (the Valley Line). We see it as a great benefit to the area. We’re hoping it will alleviate some of the reliance on a vehicle, as well as relieve some congestion and the parking issues in the area,” McLaren said. “My first meeting [with the city on the LRT expansion] goes back to 2010. We’ve voiced our concerns and they’ve come back with whether they can address them or not. There’s no sense in getting all up in arms over something until we know exactly what’s happening.”

Coun. Scott McKeen, who oversees Ward 6 with downtown and Oliver within it, said he has been a strong supporter of protecting as many businesses and homes as possible, especially Western Cycle.

“I’ve met with Mr. Pahall, the owner of Western Cycle, and we’ve talked about a couple of options, whether he could find a temporary space during construction, and then reopen in an altered building, or a rebuilt building,” McKeen said.

As for the concerns surrounding bicycle paths and pedestrian crossings, McKeen said council’s priority was to make transit more convenient, not more difficult.

“Ideally, we want people walking and biking and taking transit,” McKeen said. “That is a clear priority for this council. But when you’re putting an industrial scale project through a community, there will be impact, and you try to lessen it as much as you can.”

McKeen also recommended following McLaren’s wait and see approach, and encouraged the community to remain engaged as the development continues.

“We are building an LRT for the next 100 years,” he said. “But we are only able to look at it from this time period. When we see it going through these areas, we only see the negative impacts and we can’t see, as the decades unfold, the revitalization that by all accounts will occur.”

PHOTO BY IAN SCOTT

Space Race

As the city’s first big-city sized towers begin to throw shadows across downtown Edmonton, ‘For Lease’ signs hang prominently in shop windows on 104 Street, on Jasper Avenue on 99 Street and within City Centre Mall. To an untrained eye, on some streets at least, it can appear that more spaces are empty than occupied. But is downtown’s retail scene actually struggling? Or is it, as some experts say, in a “holding pattern” as we wait for buildings and an expected increase in people coming to fill them?

First, let’s reflect on the changes to retail and business space in downtown and Oliver. When it comes to retail, several new developments have joined the market in the last couple of years, such as the Kelly Ramsey tower and the Brewery District. The big-box Brewery development alone brought 20,000 square-feet of retail space to Oliver in 2016, vacuuming up blue-chip tenants like TD Canada Trust from street-side retail spots on Jasper Avenue. Meanwhile, the Ice District will add a staggering 300,000-square-feet of fresh retail space when it comes online in January 2019 (for comparison, City Centre Mall, across the street, already with several empty retail bays, already offers more than 725,000 square feet). All the while, numerous new retail bays in the podium of the Fox Two tower and Kelly Ramsey are still up for lease. A few are taken, but definitely not all.

The story for office space is similar. With 18-million square-feet of total space downtown and a 16 percent vacancy rate, Edmonton now has almost 2.9-million square feet sitting empty and waiting for business tenants. That’s likely to mushroom when the Stantec Tower in the Ice District opens its doors and offers more than 20 floors to office tenants. Indeed, commercial real-estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield estimates Edmonton’s office vacancy will hit 18 per cent by the end of 2018. For comparison, Edmonton’s office-vacancy rate is less than recession-struck Calgary’s, at 27 percent, but significantly higher than Toronto’s (four percent) or Vancouver’s (six percent).

Developments have appeared just as Alberta’s economy left for a vacation in the south. And space needs for offices are also shrinking as the years tick by. In 2017, for example, North American offices average 151-square-feet per employee, down from 225-square-feet in 2010, according to real estate data provider CoreNet Global. Meanwhile, online shopping and changes in consumer spending patterns are disrupting old-school retail.

But experts say, despite appearances, all is fine. And they point to what they say are two very different markets for retail and office space, which, they add, are in two very different states right now, as well as the future demand these new developments will incentivize.

Are they right?

Jamie Topham, a partner with Cushman & Wakefield, estimates downtown Edmonton currently has a 5.5 percent vacancy rate for retail space. That’s nearly two points higher than the city average, at about 3.8 percent, but Topham says downtown retail is not in trouble. “If there’s an exodus [from retail in the core], I sure haven’t seen it,” he says. Instead, Topham says, the core is in “a holding pattern” that isn’t permanent. “Downtown is going to be really shaped and reformed after the Ice District gets fully up and going,” he says. “You’re going to see more demand from specialty leases from local businesses after the Ice District, when it’s established and bringing annual traffic counts. I think it’s going to get stronger and healthier as the arena district comes to shape, and other developers and landlords around the arena district amend their plans, once they fully understand the traffc this new development is bringing.” Optimism aside, it’s still unclear who will fill the 300,000-square-feet in the retail portion of the Ice District. So far, Ice District has confirmed a Cineplex UltraAVX and VIP Cinemas as anchor tenants, along with a JW Marriott hotel, a food court in the Stantec Tower, a Rexall drugstore and the already-opened casino beside Rogers Place — as well as an as-yet-unnamed grocery store and fitness centre.

The situation at street level is mirrored above in the offices. Vacancy rates there have more than doubled over the past two years but many suggest that’s due to new supply and businesses closing, rather than tenants vacating for other locations. Karnie Vertz, a principal with Avison Young’s office leasing and sales team,
says it’s nonetheless a good time to be an office tenant. “We’re not seeing any significant growth [in demand] in the downtown market,” he says, “though I think you are seeing some professional companies and some growth in the IT sectors [and] artificial intelligence.”

And just as with retail, the first glances that suggest struggles may be wrong, according to experts. Indeed, some say downtown’s high vacancy rates might actually be good news, as the vacancies and new investment mean there’s an opportunity for employers who may have never considered the area previously to come downtown.

Jimmy Shewchuk is one of them. Shewchuk is a business development manager with Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and says many new people are starting to “dip their toes” into downtown. As he says, the usual counter arguments – it’s too expensive, there’s no parking – don’t really hold up anymore. “You really see people’s eyes light up when you talk to them about talent retention and being downtown, and how much easier it is. If that’s the talent you’re looking for – young, energetic, smart talent – it’s much easier downtown as opposed to if you’re somewhere else.” Employees increasingly don’t want to work in an industrial park where it’s a 10-minute drive just to get a mediocre sandwich at lunch, he says.

The biggest shift is in car-commuting. “Really the biggest ‘Ah-ha’ moment that we have all the time is talking to [businesses] about parking,” Shewchuk says. He recalls a recent EEDC client who thought they needed well more than 30 parking stalls, based on a survey carried out several years earlier. But when they conducted the survey again recently, the number was actually 11. “It’s that point of clarity, of ‘Oh wait, our talent isn’t driving to work anymore — they’re taking public transit, they’re biking here, they’re walking to work because they live downtown now, so we don’t need that [parking] quite as much.’”

There have been some recent good-news stories to bolster the concreteness of this narrative, too. Chief among them is BioWare, Edmonton’s superstar videogame development company, which announced in November that it will relocate its more than 800 employees from its current south-side location on Calgary Trail to three floors of the Epcor Tower in late 2018 or early 2019, and occupy some 75,000 square feet of space. “We’re thrilled to be moving into a modern, state-of-the art facility and live in a space that empowers and inspires us to do our best work every day,” said BioWare General Manager Casey Hudson, in a news release.

Just a couple of weeks after this announcement, DynaLife announced it had signed a new lease for its current downtown location, in Manulife 2, which will keep its 700 health-lab workers in the core until 2022. Downtown champions celebrated this as welcome news. Still, shortly afterwards, the news was followed by an announcement that the provincial government is funding a new “superlab” location, at the University of Alberta’s south campus, meaning those DynaLife employees will relocate out of downtown in four years.

Another wrinkle complicating a clear answer on the state of things downtown is that 2018 should also see an increase in smaller businesses popping up — if even only for a few days, weeks or months at a time. That’s thanks to the city’s recent decision to join This Open Space, which EEDC recommended. The platform follows an Airbnb model, where prospective tenants can search for space downtown to occupy for shorter periods of time. The hope is that This Open Space will allow businesses to enter the downtown market to test ideas and products without the usual three- or five-year lease commitments.

PERHAPS THE HARDEST SIDE OF THE DOWNTOWN real-estate story for many to understand is building ownership. Experts suggest the reason there are so many aging, dated office buildings downtown — and why many storefronts and retail spaces sit empty within them — could be that the owners aren’t Edmontonians. In fact, they aren’t even people, really: many downtown buildings are owned by large institutional investors, like investment fund trusts or REITs.

“The guy that owns the office tower isn’t the person that lives in a cul-de-sac down the street,” Shewchuk says. “They’re not local owners.” Instead, the buildings and what’s in them are line numbers on a portfolio, he says. “So, it becomes, ‘Is it performing or is it not?’ No one’s walking by and saying, ‘There’s a couple of paint chips, we really need to fix that.’”

IN THE PAST, THIS MATTERED LITTLE AS LARGER (and often multinational) property owners such as REITs rode out lows rather than downgrade their pricing or invest in upkeep that appeared unnecessary. “We’ve had the luxury of being lazy for a long time,” Shewchuk says. “There’s a lot of space that hasn’t been upgraded because it hasn’t had to. I don’t necessarily blame those property owners for not, because it was full, or close to full for a long time.”

But now that things aren’t full, and new supply is arriving, some see opportunity rather than trouble. The arrival of new, highly desirable office and retail spaces on the downtown market is forcing some established landlords to change this indifferent approach. Experts say there has been a new emphasis put on quality, with increased investment in older buildings, more creative lease deals to entice businesses to set up shop.

And there has even been full overhauls of a building’s purpose, such as office conversions that transform old office space into something else, usually residential. EEDC has set up a task force to study these scenarios, which have already started to happen: in May of last year, Calgary firm Strategic Group announced that they will be converting Harley Court, a 1970s-era office tower located on 111 Street and 100 Avenue, to a mix of one- and two-bedroom residential suites.

It will be years before the effects of the Ice District can be measured by anything other than speculation. The company itself is bullish, however, boasting of nearly 2,000 new residents to its own 25-acre development and of 13,000 within a 10-minute walk, along with 75,000 daily employees.

BUT UNTIL THE STREETS ARE CRAWLING WITH PEOPLE and Edmonton is attracting new business investment outside of building office buildings, tenants who decide to stake a claim in the new downtown are in many ways hedging their bets that it’s sustainable to operate here over the long term.

To Shewchuk, homegrown growth potential is key. We may have failed to lure Amazon here to build its second headquarters, but we did lure BioWare, as well as Jobber, Yardstick and others. “Edmonton is a city that has always been built on entrepreneurship,” he says. “Opening the doors and making downtown very accessible to those two-, three-person companies that, one day, become 300, 400 person companies, would be great for us. We’ve never been a city that has done well chasing the whale. We need to focus on what’s always worked for us, and that’s creating the environment for a city that’s been built on entrepreneurship.”

Green Light for Winter Green Shacks

green-shack-1

You’ve seen them: the green sheds that mysteriously appear in nearly every community park across Edmonton each June—bringing kids crafts, sports and good cheer—only to disappear in September. If only these “Green Shacks,” a collaboration between the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL), operated year-round. Well, that could soon be the case.

Thanks to a 2015 pilot project they’ve extended the free recreational programming of eight shacks, including Oliver’s, well into the winter months. According to Cara Rose, a municipal recreation programs manager, the winter activities come as a part of Edmonton’s long-term vision to animate local community playgrounds year-round, and encourage children to appreciate the outdoors even in the colder months. That’s why you may have noticed kids frolicking at Oliver Park during 2016’s first snowfall.

City officials who coordinate the Green Shacks Program—which boasts about 275,000 visits a year—worked with leagues to determine the best places for winter programming. They considered factors like the child population of each area, past attendance and how much access to recreational programming each neighbourhood had already. “The City works very hard to ensure we are meeting the needs in a neighbourhood and providing varied and accessible recreational opportunities for families,” explains Sheila Muxlow, a community relations coordinator with the City.

In addition to regular programming, such as free-for-all dodgeball, painting and hide-and-seek, Green Shack coordinators had the chance this year to focus on winter-based activities like tobogganing, outdoor cooking and educational games. The fun took place during those chilly, darkening afternoons, but focused on light. For instance, kids had an opportunity to enjoy stargazing and then learn about diferent constellations around a warm fire. As Oliver Green Shack coordinator Ezra Comeau puts it, “Good programming can’t be restrained by weather. Children will always find a way to play in any conditions, and this winter programming gives children a perfect outlet for activity during our longest season of the year.”

The City is currently in the second year of its three-year budget programming, ending in early 2018. Oliver’s Green Shack can be found in Oliver Park (118 St. and 103 Ave.) from June till August, then again through October and November. For hours and activities, or to find another Green Shack near you go to efcl.org/2016-green-shacks.

Renovating Jasper Avenue, Oliver’s Living Room

Courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

Courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

It’s been a year since the City’s open house invited us to help dramatically makeover the west side of Jasper Ave. Another round of public engagement is in the works before the 18-month planning process, branded as Imagine Jasper Avenue, concludes with a finalized concept plan, tentatively in February 2017. Once approved, construction will take some years to start, says Edmonton chief planner Peter Ohm.

The project’s true purpose is to reconstruct Jasper’s road base, but under immense pressure from Oliver residents, council asked the transportation department to rebuild it as a “complete street”—one that will not exist entirely for the benefit of motorists, but also for pedestrians, cyclists and residents as a whole.

The project’s $19 million budget is approved, but it’ll only cover the roadway replacement. Streetscape work will require additional funding from the next capital budget once the concept plan is complete.

“Jasper Ave. is Oliver’s living room,” says Ohm. In the City’s most recent survey residents have made their top priorities clear: more sidewalk cafes and patios, street trees and landscaping, broader sidewalks for better movement and mingling, and more support of nighttime activities with better lighting.

“Certainly the question has to be asked, Where do we get the room for that if not from the traffic lanes?” says Ohm. “The answers will be coming.” In other words, they don’t know yet. But he acknowledges that sacrifices to car commuters will have to be made to find the right balance for the project as a whole.

TOP ANSWERS FROM A CITY SURVEY

What do people like most about Jasper Ave.?
1. Connects the community
2. Represents Edmonton’s history
3. Close to the River Valley

What do people dislike about Jasper Ave.?
1. Not visually appealing
2. Sidewalks too narrow
3. Doesn’t connect well to destinations off the avenue

Will the Emerald Tower Be Oliver’s Crown Jewel or Royal Pain?

emerald

One floor of street-level retail, three of parking and 41 of condominiums. Stack them in that order and you’ve got the Emerald Tower, coming soon to Jasper Ave. Without the invisible ceiling once imposed by the City Centre Airport, such grand buildings like the Emerald could become the norm in Oliver. So what could this evolution in our skyline mean?

“We’re going to see housing take different kinds of forms, shapes and sizes,” says Kalen Anderson. The City’s director of planning coordination says towers like the Emerald and 2015’s the Pearl, which share a developer, are a natural part of any Canadian city’s growth. “We have to stretch ourselves to think differently about urban living,” says Anderson, citing the influx of residents, new commercial space and neighbourhood vibrancy as reasons to grow to such great heights. “It’s up to us to see what we can achieve with these tall buildings.”

Not everyone is pleased about the project in its current state. Dustin Martin, the OCL’s civics director, wished the project were altered before it was brought before city council—and approved—in June. “From the urban design perspective, it’s better to have more eyes on the street, more active uses, more vibrancy,” says Martin. And while that’s achieved by street-level retail, he explains, the same goal is hindered by the podium’s three stories of coloured glass with little inside them but empty cars and storage. This model drives down the price of each condominium unit (a win for proponents of affordable housing) but does nothing for Jasper’s safety or image, he says.

But from the perspective of Regency Developments, below-grade parking would add about $50,000 to each residential sale, thus pricing out a lot of homebuyers. The Pearl, which has underground parking, hardly broke even, developer Raj Dhunna told the Edmonton Journal.

Martin is also concerned about its enormous shadow. “We don’t want to see a wall of towers shadowing our public parks.” That impact could be somewhat mitigated by a $200,000 donation to the OCL by Regency.

“That’s not something that we asked for; it’s something that they offered,” Martin says of the cash, which could go toward beautifying parks, upgrading playground equipment or a new community hall.

According to Anderson, donations to affected communities are a normal means for communities to redeploy resources and mitigate the upheaval caused by large-scale projects. But the OCL would rather have seen their concerns addressed more concretely. “I like to think that city council takes the input of communities seriously,” says Martin, “but in this scenario it didn’t seem to go that way.”

The Future LRT is Nostalgic

102 Street Stop

(Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected for errors. See footnote.)

Breathe easy: Downtown’s treasured summer festivals, such as Taste of Edmonton and Cariwest, won’t be displaced from Churchill Square by Valley Line LRT construction until next year, when major construction on the line begins in the core.

After the Mill Woods-Downtown line is finally completed, in 2020, expect to feel a touch of nostalgia. Rather than the underground stations Downtowners have grown accustomed to, the new line will operate at-grade, alongside traffic with platform access from the sidewalks, like an old-fashioned streetcar.

But don’t expect a quaint and boxy car with a uniformed conductor ringing his bell, either. The new line’s primary contractor, Bombardier, which has developed similar light rail systems throughout Europe, promises spacious trains with low floors, sleek bodies and easy access. This change, simple to many, radical to others, isn’t just less costly—it helps animate the streets with people coming and going.

The line will run alongside a single eastbound lane of 102 Ave. traffic and newly developed bike lanes, with stops (not stations) at Churchill Square and 102 St.

But until then, it’s business as usual in Churchill Square this summer: food trucks, festivals, basketball games and relaxing in the sun, free of noisy construction.

(Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that major construction around Churchill square was to begin in 2016, not 2017; that the line wouldn’t break ground until 2018, when in fact it broke ground in April 2016; and that construction was delayed. The Yards sincerely regrets the errors.)

The 102 Ave. Bike Lane’s Long Journey

A downtown Vancouver bike lane (Paul Krueger/Flickr)

A downtown Vancouver bike lane (Paul Krueger/Flickr)

Edmontonians have been asking for a bike-friendly core since the ’80s. This summer brings dream closer to reality.

Expect to see construction start on the Glenora section of the 102 Ave. Bike Lane, which stretches from 136 St. to Connaught Dr. It will become a “shared-use path” (a widened sidewalk with one lane for cyclists and one for pedestrians). Disruption to vehicular and foot traffic will be minimal and during off-peak hours.

The Oliver section, from Connaught Dr. to 111 St., will see the lane transition into a cycle track on the north side (a two-way painted road that’s separated from both cars and pedestrians) that continues through the “City Centre” portion of Downtown from 107 St. to 96 St.

Construction on the Oliver section begins in 2017; the City Centre track is to be completed alongside the new Valley Line LRT, which is at least four years away.

A completed bike network in 2022? That’s longer than many are hoping to wait. “Oliver has one of the highest percentages of bicycle commuters in the city,” says Dustin Martin, civics director for the OCL, which has advocated for it for years.

He would like to see delays remedied with temporary solutions such as plastic bollards or moveable concrete barriers. “[They] can be constructed quickly and cheaply and this has been done in cities across North America including Calgary.”

Go to Edmonton.ca/cycling for further updates.

The Renter’s Revival

A vision of J22, one of several forthcoming rental apartments, atop Planet Organic's new home. (Image: DIOLG)

A vision of J22, one of several forthcoming rental apartments, atop Planet Organic’s new home. (Image: DIALOG)

Apartment-hunting in Downtown used to feel like job-hunting. You had to pound the pavement, make repeat calls and offer up references
 to make the cut. Over the last decade, a large influx of migrants has driven vacancy rates down and rental fees way up, so with limited options rental costs across Edmonton have nearly doubled since 2005, to $1,259 for
 a two-bedroom. But the tables are finally turning in the renter’s favour.

In the last year, vacancy rates have risen from 1.7 per cent to 4.2 per cent and landlords are now offering all kinds of incentives to anyone willing to sign a one-year lease, including a free month’s rent. Developers have finally responded with new apartment buildings. Not only has this freshened up the outmoded existing stock, predominantly built in the 1960s and ’70s, but according to City of Edmonton chief economist John Rose, it’s resulting in a soft decline of rental fees.

“We are near record levels,” he says, pointing to the most recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation rental market report showing that more than 2,500 city-wide apartment units were under construction last year—double 2014’s already promising construction numbers. Many of these new residences are in the core: Mayfair Village North on 109 St., the Hendrix tower and row-houses in Oliver or the 10 storeys atop Planet Organic’s new home. Even more are proposed around MacEwan and the Ice District. “The important thing here is that a lot of it is dedicated rental. They tend to be less expensive than [repurposed rental] condos,” he notes. “Dedicated rental is a factor in preserving affordable housing.”

The waning economy is also a
 help to renters; new workers tend to ease into cities through rentals first before homeownership, but with job growth slowing in Edmonton, so too is demand. This slope might give some apartment developers cold feet, says Jandip Deol, Colliers International Canada’s associate vice-president
of multifamily. Towers that up until now were likely to open as apartments may, in the end, revert to condos. As well, buildings built in the last decade have the most vacancies, according to the CMHC. Unsurprisingly, they’re also about $450 more per month.

But Deol thinks the Downtown apartment market will grow because of its burgeoning amenities and appeal to young professionals willing to pay more for something they’ll never own—so long as the finishes are good as new. “A lot of people my age understand the value of renting—cash flow is king,” says the 31-year-old. “Living Downtown and walking to work, to the corner store for groceries, is appealing. But you can still get up and leave if you’re sick of the place, as opposed to being forced to hold onto your place because it’s not feasible to sell today.”