Women Say We Need Change

These are important times for women. Strong women are finding their voice, having been silenced for so long. Women everywhere are being empowered to share their stories. The issues we’re seeing come forth on television, in Hollywood are now happening in our own downtown streets.

Our spring issue is dedicated to the women of Central Edmonton, the women in our lives that do so much and are the lifeblood of our families, friends and community. Even today these women face challenges, prejudice and other injustices that make us collectively shake our heads in disbelief.

The Yards decided to tackle these tough topics, like the abrupt closing of The Needle Vinyl Tavern, and the rumours that surrounded it. The Needle was a wildly successful bar that supported LGBTQ events and was host of local bands. The news of alleged inappropriate behaviour came as a shock. Little did we know that the opening of Rogers Place would also see women residents raise intimidation and safety concerns. Many visitors don’t see downtown as a neighbourhood where people live, let alone women.

We also wanted to celebrate the many achievements of women who contribute to creating a safe, welcoming and vibrant downtown neighbourhood. And we wanted to highlight the stories of those who work in downtown’s culinary scene who have gone above and beyond to show us how the hospitality industry can show leadership by addressing some of the issues women face.

One such program that helps women feel safer in bars is the Best Bar None program by Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. The program “demonstrates a continuing commitment to providing top-notch service in well-managed and safe environments.” In February 2017, the voluntary program expanded to include a written policy that covers sexual harassment. At their eighth-annual awards night in November, several downtown bars, including Central Social Hall and Kelly’s Pub, were recognized for their efforts.

What recent events have shown us is that these policies are not enough to ensure people feel safe working in, living in and coming downtown. We must admit we have a problem and all take steps to work collectively to ensure our communities are safe for all people.

Chris Buyze

President, Downtown Community League

Design Can Limit Safety

IN FEBRUARY 2014, I TORE TWO ligaments, my meniscus and tendons while skiing. I would two require surgeries. I spent six weeks on crutches in 2014, as well as five weeks in 2015 and four weeks in 2016, all during winter months. The injury allowed me, if only for a short time, to see our city through the eyes of a woman with a disability.

It wasn’t until our board started discussing concepts for this issue of The Yards that I recognized how vulnerable I was while I recovered. I couldn’t put weight on my right leg so I couldn’t run. Being an able-bodied woman, I had always taken comfort knowing I could at least sprint if I had to escape an unsafe situation — a tactic I’ve had to use in the past. But on crutches, if someone had followed me home or tried to hurt me, I would have had little defense. Given that it was winter, I was often traveling in the dark, too.

Perhaps naïvely, I did not reflect on my safety at these times. Still, it became apparent Edmonton is not disability friendly. My only modes of transportation were walking (or more accurately, crutching) and public transit. And Edmonton’s design flaws became apparent: Ramps from the sidewalk to the crosswalk often deposited me right onto the roadway, if a ramp existed at all. Pedestrian-triggered crossing lights often had “beg buttons,” and these were placed so inconveniently that it was difficult for me to flick the button and cross the street in time. Streets coated in ice and snow made my movements treacherous and risky. Even door power-assist buttons were awkwardly placed, resulting in me being hit by a door more than once.

Many argue city designers should adopt a limited-mobility lens in order to accommodate not only those with disabilities, but seniors, children, parents with strollers, and people with carts and walkers. Doing so, some argue, will see cities create pedestrian bump outs, ramps at every crossing, shorter crossing distances on roads and the accommodation of pedestrians through construction zones.

I agree with this view. From improved sidewalk lighting to land-use planning policies that increase the number of people on the street, there are numerous way to make our cities safer — for all. We’ve all been young and, hopefully, we’ll all be old. Our mobility will eventually be limited. That’s why inclusive design and policies must include each and every one of us.

Lisa Brown

President, Oliver Community League

Around the Core: Spring 2018

Edmonton the Big City

Crashed Ice | MARCH 9

This is the series finale for a Red Bull-sponsored extreme sport that feels right at home in Edmonton: ice cross downhill. For this time around, following the first event in 2015, the course location has yet (as of press time) be confirmed but those in the know predict a spot near downtown in Rossdale with a hang-out zone at the Shaw. The last time Crashed Ice came, more than 70,000 people came downtown for it. Expect crowds.

We Like to Party

La Traviata | MARCH 1,2,3 & 8,9,10

Go back to the pleasure-crazed 1920s through a Verdi classic opera staged in the most unlikely, and yet, most perfectly suited of downtown venues — Chez Pierre Cabaret. Don your jazz age clothing and prepare to escape into a Paris of another era. Doors, 6pm; show 7pm sharp. Chez Pierre Cabaret, 10040 105 Street.

3rd Annual GLOW Festival | MARCH 22-24

Everyone loves a parade. This one is right on the edge of the core, in The Quarters, and it’s a night parade of animated lanterns that have been made by community members. This is a great way to celebrate the equinox and the coming of summer’s long, late nights of twilight. 6pm – 8pm (March 22 & 23); 7:30pm – 11:30pm (24), Boyle Street Plaza, 9538 103A Avenue.

Edmonton Beer Fest | APRIL 13-14

If you love beer, and learning about beer, and sampling beer, and talking beer snobbery,
and generally anything else about beer, this is probably your version of heaven. Five-hundred beers to try, entertainment — and one imagines very long lines to the washrooms at peak periods. Go thirsty! 4pm – 10pm each day, Shaw Conference Centre, 9797 Jasper Avenue.

Let’s Build Community

Drop-In Basketball | BEGINS MARCH 9

Enjoy a pickup game or just shoot some hoops at this regular drop-in basketball event open to the whole Oliver community. 7–9pm, Grace Lutheran Church, 9907 114 Street.

We Believe: Let’s Move Forward Together | MAY 16

The fifth annual fundraising and awareness gala for the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton will feature Tarana Burke, a co-creator of the international #MeToo movement. 5pm – 9pm, Shaw Conference Centre,
9797 Jasper Avenue.

City Market Downtown | MAY 19

It comes outside again on May 19. 9am – 3pm, 104 Street/102 Avenue.

What I Wish I Knew

NAVIGATING THE DOWNTOWN WORKPLACE isn’t easy, especially when you’re a young woman professional who can still face a glass ceiling. In response, Lesley Vaage and Jodi Goebel — both professionals who work downtown for the City — have created What I Wish I Knew, a group that aims to help young (and older) working women of all stripes share advice and help each other. The group works to shift trends, including those demonstrating that young women can still be held back in their careers by traditional professional structures.

Q: TELL ME HOW THIS PROJECT FIRST STARTED.

GOEBEL: As many career folks do, Lesley and I often found ourselves chatting about work, and some days were frustrating. We started discussing how to share some of the things we wish we’d known five or 10 years ago. For young women, there are lots of easy fixes to things that seem really challenging.

VAAGE: I always tell the story of a friend of mine who’s in her mid-twenties. She was talking to me and explaining how she had frozen in the middle of a meeting with her boss and some other managers. I kind of know what to do in that situation. There are actually ways to get through this.

Q: WHAT DO EACH OF YOU DO FOR THE PROJECT?

VAAGE: We really worked in all of the minute details for the first event: finding a space, getting the speakers organized. Now we’re looking towards a model in which the volunteers can get onto that, and Jodi and I can start to focus on some of the larger pieces.

GOEBEL: For the first event (in September of last year), it was just all hands on deck. From there, we worked together to put some structure around the organizing committee and engage some new volunteers. Someone usually tries to keep a closer eye on how the event is getting up and running.

Q:WHAT HAVE YOU ACHIEVED WITH THIS SO FAR?

VAAGE: We found a need for this type of support work for young professionals. What we’re really doing is building a community for young professionals in Edmonton, to help them and to train them on the skills you don’t necessarily get when you’re at school.

GOEBEL: We’ve been blessed with a lot of good anecdotes. I ran into a young woman at coffee last week who said she’d actually changed careers as a result of our second event (in October). And it doesn’t matter if you’re 21, at your first job, or you’re 41, on your second contract renewal. It’s sort of staggering how rare it is to have a conversation about the day-to-day things we can make easier for each other.

Q: HOW DO YOU TWO HOPE THE PROJECT WILL PROCEED FROM HERE?

VAAGE: We have a few events in the calendar that we haven’t announced yet, but we’re really excited about the themes we’re exploring.

GOEBEL: We had to regroup really quickly in the fall last year to say, “Okay, you know, there is a demand for this, so how are we going to meet it?” Our ultimate vision is to be able to say that with these grassroots conversations, we’re actually driving more equitable workplaces in Edmonton.

Cooked to the Core

WOMEN ARE INTEGRAL PARTS of making Edmonton’s downtown scene as rich and vibrant as it is. But the contributions of women like Lynsae Moon and Mai Nguyen in the establishments that provide our third spaces, as well as our nourishment and entertainment, are often under-sung. Here’s a needed celebration.

Lynsae Moon

Lynsae Moon, co-owner of The Nook Café, says the way she is perceived depends on what people are expecting.

“Being a woman in hospitality is pretty palatable and common,” she says. People accept her in a servile role,
she says, but less so in a business role. She says many who go to The Nook on business still tend to look for a male manager.

Moon first started working in a café when she was 16, and soon developed a deep connection to the industry. “It’s an extension of who I am,” she says.

Establishing a café of her own was something that was “brewing” in her for a long time. About a year ago, she asked her mother, Marnie Suitor, to co-own the business with her. Suitor, a businesswoman by trade, handles overarching business affairs for The Nook; Moon deals with “day-to-day operations.”

Moon says one thing she sees as a unique detriment to her experience as a woman in the hospitality industry is social media. While she does see valid criticisms of her work online, she has also faced personal attacks. She says these kinds of attacks would not be happening if she were a man.

Nevertheless, Moon persists. All of The Nook’s staff are marginalized in some regard, many because they are women. That kind of intersectionality and inclusion is something Moon considers integral to her business model. She cites the café’s reputed suspended coffee program — which allows people to buy coffee in advance for someone who needs one — as being a part of that.

Going forward, Moon says she hopes to grow The Nook and the core that it’s located in. “I’m excited to be a part of that.”

Mai Mguyen

When Mai Nguyen attended Gold Medal Plates, a high-level culinary competition, in 2017, the lack of women caught her attention.

“I remember this one MC on the stage saying he was so proud of the diversity on the stage,” she says, “but I was just like, ‘You don’t have a single woman on there.’”

Nguyen, who was a contestant on season four of Masterchef Canada, on CTV, says Edmonton’s downtown food scene thankfully does not suffer the same problem. Many of the area’s restaurants have many women in senior positions, she says.

Nguyen started out studying general sciences, with no inclination toward food. When that didn’t work out, she pursued a double major in food technology and nutrition. The jobs in the field weren’t creative enough for her, though, so she changed paths.

Upon receiving a health and safety diploma from NAIT and working in that domain for a year, Nguyen applied for season four of Masterchef Canada. That’s where she found her true culinary calling.

“I had such a blast on the show; I decided to basically change my life,” she says. She came in fourth place on the show and into a new vocation in life.

Coming back to Edmonton, she looked for any restaurant who would take a chance on a relative newbie. Arden Tse decided his Prairie Noodle Shop could take that chance. Nguyen’s dumplings have proven to be a hit at the restaurant.

Nguyen recently incorporated her own food company, Gourmai. She also blogs and hopes to one day become a private chef making canapés. For now, though, she’s doing some time as a line cook. “Just learning the trade, for me, is really important,” she says. “You just want some credibility.”

OCL Spring Events

Civics Committee| MARCH 12, APRIL 9, MAY 14

Join this fully engaged committee that meets on the second Monday of the month to discuss developments in Oliver. 7pm, Grace Lutheran Church, 9907 114 Street.

 

Events and Programs Committee | MARCH 21, APRIL 18, MAY 16 

If you like event planning, this is the committee for you. 6pm, Nosh Café, 10235 124 Street.

 

Annual General Meeting | APRIL 18

Review financials, vote in new directors, learn more about OCL and what we’re up to. Mix and mingle with neighbours. Registration starts at 6pm, program at 7pm, Grace Lutheran Church, 9907 114 Street.

 

Balcony Gardening Workshop | APRIL 22, 29

Bring your balcony or small outdoor space to life! Learn space planning and design, choosing appropriate plants, creating productive balconies, and more! A small $5 fee goes towards our garden Capital Fund, and donations are always greatly appreciated. Location To Be Announced

 

“May the Fourth Be With You” Potluck | MAY 4

Join the Oliver Community League and Grace Lutheran Church for a spring potluck. Bring your favourite dish to share with friends and neighbours. 6pm, Grace Lutheran Church, 9907 114 Street.

DECL Spring Events

Urban Kids Playgroup | FRIDAYS, 10:30AM – 12:30PM 

Our playgroup has returned on Fridays! Parents (and their tots, ages 0 to 5) can join us for coffee, snacks and a chance to get to know other families living downtown.

 

Urban Kids Family Night | MARCH 16, APRIL 20, MAY 18, 6-8PM.

Our monthly family night continues for kids and parents. Join us for games, talent shows and more.

 

DECL Noon-Hour Yoga | THURSDAYS, 12:10PM – 12:50PM

Free noon-hour yoga at DECL! Take a break to breathe and relax your mind with Irma and Jessica, enjoy some flow and Hatha practices at lunch! All levels welcome and beginner friendly! Space is limited, please register at declyoga@yahoo.com.

 

Spring Clean-Up | MAY 6, 10AM

Our annual Downtown clean-up coincides with the River Valley Cleanup. Meet at DECL at 10am with work clothes, we will supply the coffee and tools!

 

Annual General Meeting | APRIL 24, 6:30PM REGISTRATION, 7PM MEETING

Join us for updates on the business of the league, as well as special guest presentation by Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum and more! Want to join our board? Contact us at info@decl.org to find out more.

5 Ways to Wake Your Bike From Winter Slumber

Unless you’ve been sleeping beneath a rock, you’ve seen the downtown bike grid. And while an increasing number of us are cycling year-round now, thanks to this necessary infrastructure, a lot of us still keep the cycling to spring, summer and fall. So, if you’re in that camp and you’re now eager to get your hibernating steel horse back out on the urban grid, we’ve got you covered. Brahm Ollivierre, the mustachioed roving bike mechanic behind Troubadour Cycles, gave us his top five tips for spring bike rejuvenation.

1. RUBBER

First things first, Ollivierre says: Check your tires and tubes. “A bike that can’t roll isn’t much of a bike after all,” he says. “Be sure to check the side of your tires for the ideal pressure range (usually indicated in psi), and then inflate. If the tire won’t hold air, or goes soft over a 24-hour period, it’s time for new tubes. Once inflated, check the tire itself for cracks or worn out spots, which would indicate the tire needs replacing.

2. WHEELS

Ollivierre says the next check needed is your wheels. Lift up your bike and give each wheel a spin. “Check to see if the rim seems to wobble side to side or dip away from the brake pads at all,” he says. “If so, give each spoke a wiggle by hand to see if there are loose or broken spokes.” If there are loose spokes, take the wheel to a trained bike mechanic, immediately, Ollivierre says. “Wheels that are out of true only get worse and more expensive to fix if ridden on, so it’s best to repair them early.”

3. BRAKES

“Just as your bike needs to roll, it also needs to stop,” Ollivierre says. What to do? “Check to make sure your brake pads are tight and hitting the rim or disc rotor properly, not rubbing on the tire or dropping below the side of the rim.” Next, test ride the bike to see if it stops quickly. “If your bike won’t stop satisfactorily, the brakes need adjusting, and possibly brake-pad or cable replacement.”

4. GEARS

Take a test ride and shift your gears, Ollivierre says. “If there is any hesitation in shifting, loud clicking or grinding noises, a slipping feeling in the pedals, or sagging in your chain, have a bike mechanic take a look at your bike.” If you’d like it to be Ollivierre, he’s at troubadourcycles.com

5. FRAME

Next, it’s time to clean your velo, Ollivierre says. Grab a rag, a bucket of water with diluted cleaner (he recommends Simple Green) and wash away.“It is probably best to stay away from the temptation of a pressure washer for this job, which can push water into places it shouldn’t be,” Ollivierre says. “While you’re cleaning the bike, keep an eye out for loose bolts or components, as well as any damage to the bike.” Finish the cleaning with one drop of chain lube on each link of your chain, he says.

Safe riding.

Creative Awareness

ON THE STREET, MEN HAVE YELLED AT me, touched me, trapped me to talk to me and tried to get me into their cars. My stories are upsetting but common. Street harassment is the reality for women, non-binary, Trans, and queer people in the core.

Indeed, downtown Edmonton has a street-harassment problem. I live here, and it’s impossible to go through a summer week without someone yelling at me or invading my personal space to try to force an interaction. And while this isn’t a new phenomenon, the way downtown is being developed means it’s growing. New developments are drawing more people downtown, and shifting some of the party culture away from Strathcona and into the core.

What we need to do now is to get creative to find ways to increase awareness around how common this all is. Thankfully, we are starting to do just that.

Locally, small efforts have been made, like the Transit safety campaign, which displays ads encouraging riders to look out for one another. But my favourite project so far is the This is What it Feels Like exhibit, at MacEwan University, which invited participants to step inside a dimly-lit booth while comments women hear yelled at them are played back to them.

Sitting in the booth, you’ll hear: “You’re pretty — for a native girl,” and “You’re beautiful — smile for me.”

And every once in a while, on some downtown construction board or a light post, I spot a stencil from artist Tatyana Fazlalizadah, wheat-pasted to a street light or construction barrier. It will feature a woman of colour looking regal and serious above the words, “Stop telling women to smile” or “Respect women.”

These kinds of projects give me hope. They let people know about the issue. Art is uniquely able to help us experience what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.

Still, moments experiencing street-harassment can limit a woman’s life. They can dictate what we wear, where we go. It used to be that you had to expect this: Men are awful, we’re told, and it’s our responsibility as women to deal with that. Cover up. Don’t go out at night. Be a good girl.

We have to do better than that for future generations. We have to because street harassment is more than just words, and it will take more than the government to solve our problems.

When I tell men my stories of street harassment, the common refrain is that they have never seen anyone being harassed. Sometimes they have their own stories of dealing with drunk and boorish men and women. Sometimes, they say, they wish people would also yell ‘compliments’ at them the way I apparently get them. Sometimes, they ask what I was wearing.

It is tough to have your experiences dismissed. That needs to change. It’s up to people to change their culture. Women are speaking out in historic numbers about sexual violence. It is up to all of us to listen.

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.”