Online shopping is booming but so is Downtown, due in large part to retail expansion, including 300,000 sq. ft. in the Ice District alone. What, then, will get the neighbourhood’s residents – 40 per cent of whom are Millennials – off Amazon and into stores?
Experts say it’s experiences. The role of bricks-and-mortar locations is changing in the retail world. Storefronts are less points of sale than places to entertain and make customers feel an emotional connection to products or brands.
According to a report by the Downtown Business Association, called The Future of Retail in Downtown Edmonton, Downtown residents value such experiences and frequently seek them out, often for some ‘try before you buy,’ before returning home to their laptops and clicking ‘Proceed to Checkout.’
“We don’t buy things anymore,” says Jimmy Shewchuk, business development, trade and investment manager at Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. “We buy experiences. Even if we are buying things, we’re buying an experience. The concept of selling things out of four walls as a business model, if it’s not dead, is on life support right now.”
The DBA report says this falls into the growth of so-called omnichannel retail, or the integration of online shopping with experiences and entertainment in physical locations.
Shewchuk says global brands like Burberry have been hitting the mark with converting real-world experiences into sales. “That bricks-and-mortar piece is part of their very robust business model that sells online and engages with its fans,” he says.
The new retail experience often starts with social media and continues when a customer enters the store, is greeted by staff as well as some less obvious cues – lighting, music, atmosphere, aesthetic. If the in-store experience is successful, many shoppers still leave empty handed, preferring to finish the transaction from the couch, after reading reviews and comparing prices.
Shewchuk says Downtown has yet to see much of this new trend in its retail environs. That’s likely to change.
“The onus is on a retail location to create that experience and it works kind of symbiotically with a city that’s going to create the greater experience of walking the area,” he says.
The City of Edmonton has invested heavily in downtown revitalization, including public dollars to subsidize parts of what’s become the Ice District. But some locals are raising concerns that area’s focus on entertainment and retail giants is pushing out small businesses.
Glenn Scott, senior vice president of real estate for Ice District Properties, doesn’t share these concerns.
“We’re trying to make it a mix, so people will have the amenities they want to live in our area, in the Ice District, and to work there,” he says. “That’s really what we’re trying to provide, so hopefully we’ll hit all or most of those needs. We’re helping, we’re not hurting.”
Scott cites taxes, a higher minimum wage and competition with Amazon for the reason some retailers in the area are struggling.
Still, the Ice District has a lot of retail space to fill and recently had to redesign one of their yet-to-be-built towers, after a major tenant pulled out, so their ultimate effect on retail in the downtown won’t be immediately clear.
Scott says he’s confident the growing downtown population will have all their needs taken care of.
“There’s going to be thousands more people living downtown which will be a great thing for downtown. It’s got to be a place that can work for everyone,” he says. “West Edmonton Mall kind of created a big hole [downtown] and now there’s a counter trend and I think it’s really exciting for Edmonton.”
– With files from Tim Querengesser
Downtown retail, by the numbers
86 Percentage of downtown residents who say they would like another grocery store in the neighbourhood
20 Percentage that Albertans spend dining out over the Canadian average
11,600 Number of residential units downtown under construction or proposed for the next decade
A developer’s intentions to erect a tower beside one of the core’s most spectacular historic buildings has put the future of a beloved green space in question. Toronto-based development company Great Gulf and Calgary-based ProCura have jointly applied for a re-zoning permit to build a 55-storey, mixed-use building — equal in height to the current JW Marriott — on what’s currently Frank Oliver Park, just north of Hotel MacDonald.
The application leaves the future of the small but much-liked green space uncertain. According to a letter provided by engineering firm Stantec, on Green Gulf’s behalf, “[t]he proposed development will… still [retain] publicly accessible open space on the south portion of the site.”
Chris Buyze, president of DECL, said the land the park currently occupies is privately owned and was sold by the owners of Hotel MacDonald. Still, he said, many who live downtown feel a connection to it. “We have a lot of residents who have concerns about [Frank Oliver Park] being developed,” Buyze said. “I do think that any new development has to be better than what it’s replacing.”
Despite this, Buyze said DECL has not taken a formal stance on the potential development or sought community feedback. The proposed tower raises questions about the future of Frank Oliver Park — a park whose name has been controversial in some communities for decades but has come to be known by the mainstream to be problematic in recent years, too.
Some see this as an opportunity, however.
Jennifer Ward, an Umpqua-Algonquin woman and a sessional instructor in education at the University of Alberta, said the park’s name is a colonial artifact. “Frank Oliver, as we know, historically, he was a major player in the reason why the Papaschase First Nation lost their territory,” Ward said.
But Ward also said she sees redevelopment of the park as an opportunity for reconciliation.
“I think development is good. And I think there can be some positives with development and looking at, ‘How do we develop space that’s conducive to the land? And not just art. Art is one thing and art is beautiful, but I think we need to move beyond that.
I just think participation by Indigenous peoples and communities go a long way.”
Stantec and ProCura did not respond to requests for comment.
You’ve heard the grumbling—or you’ve grumbled it yourself: “Downtown parking is a major pain!” The prices seem to have skyrocketed. The stock of stalls feels like a shadow of its former self. And if things couldn’t get worse, we now have to memorize Rogers Place’s schedule if we plan to use metered parking after 6 p.m. But how much of our Downtown parking woes are warranted? What’s hyperbole and what’s myth? And to what extent does our “suffering” have to do with being spoiled with abundant and cheap parking for so long in this city?
The reality is our parking woes are blown out of proportion. Although the construction boom of the last few years has gobbled up a few parking lots, there are still 9,000 parking stalls within a five-minute walk of the Ice District—enough drivers to populate half the seats on game day—plus 9,000 more just five-minutes further. These stalls can be hard to come by at ofce hours, but during evenings and weekends the mostly sit empty. That is, until the arena opened. Now we’re seeing lots function the full day.
When it comes to prices, it’s true that the evening rate can be as high as $36, or as low as $9, according to Parking Panda (an app that lets you reserve your spot ahead). But keep in mind that it was subsidized by abundance for a long time. In 2010, according to Colliers International, Edmonton had the lowest parking rates of Canada’s six metropolises, with a median price of $14 per day (compared to Calgary’s $22 and Toronto’s $23). That’s been on a steady rise—but so has our Downtown skyline. And if people find alternative ways to get downtown then the prices around Rogers Place may soften.
Also: there’s Uber. And Pogo Carshare. And TappCar. It’s actually a great time to leave your car behind for these services. Taking all alternatives into consideration, the City of Edmonton predicts a Rogers Place event only needs about 6,000 stalls.
“But why would I trust the City after they botched the arena by not building a parkade?” you ask. There’s some truth to this: underground parking for 2,000 vehicles will gradually be made available until completion in 2019, and certainly the City did people with disabilities no favours without this. If the City is unprepared, it’s because WAM and Katz Group built Rogers Place at a staggering speed to beat the end of the Oilers lease at Rexall Place. However, the temporary gravel lot north of the arena is a proximal and temporary solution. But we should not get comfortable with it—the biggest impediment to our revitalizing core would be placating more surface parking at the expense of more retail, residences and Downtown vibrancy.
That said, street parking is important for street retail. Small businesses rely on it for turnover, which is why DECL is opposed to allowing five-hour limits during events. In a lot of ways, our parking woes are symptomatic of Downtown—and Edmonton— being very much in a “teenage” stage of development. Mass transit is not fully developed, bike lanes aren’t installed yet and ongoing construction hoarding (see p. 16) is frustrating to say the least. But it will pass, and at the other end of this is a matured Downtown that we’ll be happier to spend time in—no matter how we get there.
For the past 20 years, renting in the core meant choosing between out-dated walk-ups or privately owned condos with less-than-attentive landlords. But that’s changing, as more purpose-built rental apartments come to market, including two premium towers that could shake up the rental game.
Both the Mayfair on Jasper by ProCura and the Hendrix by Edgar Development include all the features you would expect in a brand-new home: high-end kitchen appliances, in-suite washer and dryer, pet-friendliness and balconies with stunning views of the city (and, in the Hendrix’s case, the river valley). Not long ago, Edmontonians had to flee to suburban apartments for such perks. But it’s the lifestyle amenities—from car-shares to rooftop lounges—that set these properties apart. Here’s how they stack up.
The Mayfair on Jasper
10803 Jasper Ave.
Mayfair is defined by its podium: a street-level amalgam of restaurants, cafe and gym. The perks don’t end there; concierge and car-sharing services sweeten the deal. The Mayfair has two rooftop lounges, the wide open North Green Roof for mingling and the secluded South Green Roof for tranquil relief. Meanwhile, solar panels and cogeneration—a technology that turns waste into electricity— make it an environmentally friendly choice.
Building Amenities: Concierge service
Dual “green roof” areas
Close to: Corona LRT station
9733 111 St.
Weighing in at 30 storeys, the Hendrix is the taller of the two. It incorporates the J.T. Ross house into its visage (see p. 15), repurposing this heritage building (once a home for unwed mothers) into a boutique office space. Architectural firm Dialogue included several amenity spaces that promote a community vibe, including a movie theatre, 24-hour fitness centre and rooftop lounge.
Frank Oliver Park’s flowerbeds and manicured shrubs are a brief square of colour opening the vista of the Hotel Macdonald. It’s accessible to Edmonton’s many residents and visitors. And it’s for sale.
It may come as a shock, but like the Melcor-owned park on 102 St. and Jasper, or the proposed urban balcony project in the Quarters, Frank Oliver Park is an example of private property posing as a public space.
When ProCura bought it from the Fairmont, in 2009, chief operations officer Randy Ferguson said that it should never be blocked by a tower. Today, judging from the sign for a future development on it, there’s nothing holding ProCura to that earlier promise. Grant Pearsell, director of parks and biodiversity with the City of Edmonton, says if the park space disappeared it would work to find replacement space, but that does nothing to protect the glorious view of the Hotel Mac from Jasper Ave.
As downtown redevelopment takes hold, and land prices increase, Pearsell says the City is looking to relationships with private developers to ensure park space is provided. Most recently, it worked with NorQuest in its redevelopment to include park space. “That’s a way to make our dollars stretch further.”
But finding green space is always more difficult in the heart of Edmonton. Municipal urban planners calculate the amount of necessary park area at 1.4 hectares per thousand people, and they take into account private park spaces. But what happens when those spaces are developed? asks Justin Keats, DECL’s former garden director, who is now with the OCL. “We need more of a guarantee these spaces can be around longer.”
The OCL knows first-hand how difficult it is to navigate private parks and land swaps. The community’s Peace Garden Park has moved three times since 2009. The City owns the land the garden now occupies, and leases the space to the OCL for free.
“Parks are integral to our health and to reconnect with nature within the hustle of the city,” says Keats. “We need to be able to spend more time emphasizing what these spaces do for people. And you can’t always put a dollar value on this type of thing.”
If you spend a lot of time walking around the core, you’ve probably come to loathe surface parking lots. They disconnect the urban landscape, create grey dead zones and are a dirt storm’s best friend. But there’s a reason landowners love them: it’s cheaper to leave them as they are than to create livable spaces. Despite Downtown and Oliver’s progress to build on and up, the economic downturn may encourage landowners to leave parking lots fallow.
It’s happened before and it’s beginning to happen again. A parking lot at 99 Ave. and 104 St. was recently approved through an appeal process, adding 15 parking stalls where there once were residents. As well, owners of the International Beauty Salon building on 105 St. and 103 Ave. have applied for a demolition permit with no foreseeable plan to rebuild. (Editor’s Note: After publication, it was learned that the Katz Group, which had filled in a swath of parking lots for the Ice District, applied to rezone land into 800 new surface lots.)
“The challenge,” explains Mayor Don Iveson, “is that our tax system incites people to demolish properties that might have some economic life to them. That’s not useful to the neighbourhood in terms of streetscape, eyes on the street or even temporary arts [and] pop-up business space.”
The current property tax structure, mandated by the Alberta Government, is based on a property’s market value. If a developer has been granted a permit for future development, or holds land with an older building or warehouse, it can, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, become more rewarding to pave over paradise and put up a parking lot than to a pay tax on the pink hotel.
It’s what happened in the ’70s and ’80s and the reason downtown is still riddled with surface parking lots.
During the first oil boom in the 1970s, developers purchased low-rise buildings and obtained permits for high-rises as they attempted to create a more cosmopolitan city. But not all of those permits were used: “When everything crashed in the early ’80s it was expensive to maintain the buildings that hadn’t been taken down for high-rises,” says historian Shirley Lowe. It made financial sense for landowners to tear down useful buildings and create cheap parking lots.
“Instead of a warehouse district you have created a parking lot district,” says Lowe. “We did that to ourselves.” The city is working to change the environment of the core with the 2010 Capital City Downtown Plan. In part the plan considers how to reduce surface lots by 20 per cent through the only tool at the city’s disposal: zoning. There has been progress on 104 St., especially with the development of the Fox Towers and the Ice District. The current economic climate threatens to undo that progress.
The City would like stronger tools to combat the resurgence of surface lots and to encourage development. This can only happen if changes are made to the Municipal Governance Act, which is currently up for review. The City has made suggestions for revising the property tax structure so that it is not based on market value. If the City could adjust tax rates for underutilized properties, says Mayor Iveson, then property owners may have more incentive to build.
“That way there’s no tax upside for demolishing a good building,” he explains. If an empty property continues to be used as a lot, a higher tax rate would go into funding alternative transit options. It would provide a new tool to put an end to these eyesores.
Photo by Paula Kirman / flickr.com/photos/raisemyvoice
Standing alone on the Living Bridge, an abandoned railway turned garden on 97 St., I noticed few things out of place beside the kale and tomato planters: dirty discarded jeans, filthy tees, empty creamers and food wrappers. I poked at an empty chip bag with my foot; it folded in on itself and revealed a bloodied syringe underneath. There was no one around, but there were signs of human life everywhere.
It was an overcast fall day. I’d just climbed the skeletal metal staircase to the bridge, a place I’d only previously seen from the smudged bus window. It was conceived by artists and designers Chelsea Boos, Carmen Douville and Erin Ross in 2013 as an urban intervention to beautify an “unused” space by transforming it into a community hub/edible garden. Though privately owned by Qualico Communities, the Living Bridge is otherwise a very public space.
Community gardens are often built on the ideals of accessible space and public ownership. The Living Bridge is fully maintained by volunteers who lay no personal claim to anything planted, but collectively keep the garden alive. The bridge’s website states its purpose “is to foster pride and community engagement for the Downtown Edmonton, McCauley and Boyle Street neighbourhoods that intersect its borders.” Set about halfway through Chinatown—right on the corners of these three distinct neighbourhoods—it acts as a nexus, at least in a geographical sense.
While Downtown holds a lot of business-class wealth, Boyle Street and McCauley tend to be remembered for crime, prostitution, drugs and homelessness. Seldom are these two neighbourhoods recalled for their diversity; the area is also home to a large Aboriginal, East Asian and African population, as well as an artistic community. Long-time resident Timothy Anderson belongs to the latter. The author and MacEwan University instructor recognizes that the garden’s traces of poverty make some residents uncomfortable—the syringes, abandoned wardrobes, hollow remand jail towering above—but he reminded me that “ownership” is a fluid concept, and the ways we express pride over anything, whether spaces or objects, are subjective.
Surrounding the garbage—or perhaps tucked between it—the Living Bridge is divided into 24 planting beds made of temporary twine planters with a mix of flowers, brush and edibles. The local food movement was trendy when the garden started up, but no one really eats the produce, explains garden coordinator Stephanie Bailey. Like several urban DIY fads and movements, it’s a marker of self-sustaining communities and liberal identity. But ultimately, small urban gardens like this just aren’t a viable form of food security on their own. Bailey (who has since left the coordinator role) is more hopeful about the bridge’s potential to unite communities. “As opposed to other urban community gardens where you would pay for your plot, this was everyone’s garden,” she said. “So you can help garden whatever plot you want.”
When she started managing the project in 2014, she wanted to preserve its initial “by and for the community” ethos. The garden was planted by volunteers, primarily from a young and professional creative class, who didn’t all live in the area and couldn’t necessarily speak for its residents. So with the support of Boos, Douville and Ross, Bailey recruited 65 community members from Boyle Street, McCauley and Downtown to tend to the garden. The result was a mix of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but Bailey still wondered if so many different types of people would be meaningfully engaged to take collective ownership over a single project.
Photo by Paula Kirman / flickr.com/photos/raisemyvoice
Almost as quickly as a garden went up, so too did a camp; people started staying overnight. And the City of Edmonton, which helped get the project off the ground by supplying fertilized water, decided to retract its involvement with the Living Bridge last year.
Nearby, Mary Burlie Park was already known for violence, one City representative indicated to Bailey, and administrators took issue with the garden’s potential to attract “loiterers” and extend these issues. “I never once had any problems with people from Mary Burlie who were spending time on the bridge,” says Bailey, but she doesn’t deny the risky activities that occur on the bridge. (The city employee who worked closely with the Living Bridge organizers was unavailable for an interview.)
She recalls an organized volunteer cleanup that turned up hundreds of needles under a big water barrel. Clearing the bio-waste is obviously necessary, but she says it is also important that Edmontonians are exposed to the area’s realities of poverty and addiction. One businesswoman, Bailey recalls, had never seen a drug needle before. “[She] had no idea this was happening here,” says Bailey.
No one wants to see dirty needles on their footpaths—and that includes the people who use them. But the City’s concern with safety seems to adhere to a very particular definition of “safe.” What activities, what kinds of people, count as unsafe? And whose safety and sensibilities are top priority?
“Where do you want people to go?” asks Timothy Anderson, who is still bothered by the City’s decision to remove drinking water sources used by the homeless community from Giovanni Caboto Park a decade ago. He tried to remedy the situation by keeping one of his outdoor hoses out for the homeless, but his neighbours weren’t fans of the crowds it drew. “Most of the time they’re just hanging out, laughing, joking, finding what fun they can in their lives. They’re not quiet, but why do people find that so offensive? If I saw two or three of the students from MacEwan on the sidewalk in exactly the same position as a clump of homeless people, would I feel that that was something that shouldn’t be there? The answer is ‘no.’ So why do people find that so threatening?” Ironically, it seems that the street-entrenched communities of Edmonton are forced to live in the shadows while existing in the spotlight.
Months after my first visit last fall, I returned on a sun-drenched spring day. Again, I found myself alone, but I ventured past the freshly sown seeds into Mary Burlie Park and met a couple of people sitting under a tree.
They asked me if I had the time, and I asked them what they thought of the bridge. One man, who has been homeless for a year, called it “awesome.” He added, “It’s a crosswalk for the homeless. It’s history,” and he’d hate to see it torn down, which he thought was inevitable.
He was talking about the bridge itself, and not necessarily the newly added gardens, decorative planters and seating. Those are benchmarks of revitalization, which he had mixed feelings about. Pointing to the Ice District and future Rogers Place, he said it will expose many middle-class Edmontonians to homelessness and poverty, and, ultimately, increase prejudices, particularly against aboriginal people.
Edmonton, he believes, is trying too hard to make itself perfect, or at least look that way, covering up its economic disparity and pushing the people pegged as “problems” further into the peripheries. Given all the redevelopment, he said it’s hard for him to care about the Living Bridge, since he considers it temporary anyway—like a placeholder until it’s sold.
The other person in the park, however, felt differently about the bridge. “I’m homeless and Aboriginal,” she stated, “and I love this garden.” She told me that she camped on the bridge for a whole year—weeding, watering and planting in the garden whenever she could during the growing season. One group of gardeners had brought flower bunches but only planted half of them—and never returned. “I couldn’t stand to see [the plants] die,” she said. So she tended to them herself. Gardening is “spiritual and therapeutic,” she said. “It helps me think less about my plights.”
Bailey acknowledged the irony of the Living Bridge to me: Some people, including City administrators, object to people using the bridge to camp, yet harbour no qualms about artists—many non-residents—coming in and altering the old rail-yard to their whims. Nobody had a problem with her reimagining the site because “I’m just a middle class, white kid,” Bailey stated matter-of-factly.
What people forget about “urban interventionism,” Bailey explained, is that one rarely reimagines an “unused” or “neutral” space; someone has probably already been using that land. Before they were flowerbeds, they were human beds. Though street-entrenched people are seldom credited or even acknowledged for building their own definition of community, the Living Bridge offers a space that allows them, and others, to cultivate a unique sense of pride in their own neighbourhood.
She recalled one late night when she’d biked by the bridge and noticed a knocked over water barrel. Bailey struggled to lift the heavy container until three men camping in the garden came to help. Then, as she left the bridge, someone walked over to the barrel, and she heard the men tell the person not to play with it. “It was like 24-hour surveillance.”
When Tina Wang set out to open a coffeeshop along Jasper Ave., she didn’t expect to have to provide 30 parking spaces. “It’s a small area,” says the owner of Bru Coffee + Beerhouse, with almost as many seats as the city required car stalls. “Most of my staff come to work by biking. My target client is the neighbours, not the south and west-end drivers.”
The prior business zoning was for a convenience store, but when Wang changed it, and thus the business license, to a restaurant, a city bylaw required an unrealistic amount of parking for a main-street eatery. She applied for a variance—a leniency on the required minimum car stalls. Lawyer fees and maintenance costs compounded while Bru’s opening was delayed for two months, she says. Her variance was finally approved and Bru opened in September with nine spaces.
Currently businesses must provide one parking space for every 3.6 square meters of public restaurant space—one of the highest rates of any major Canadian city. Bru is just one example of Oliver and 124 St. businesses tangled in strict parking standards, but a City pilot project drafted to lower requirements for restaurants in the areas, as well as in Old Strathcona, could change that.
The goal is to find an acceptable balance between parking supply and business needs, says Colton Kirsop, a senior planner with the City. His department, Sustainable Development, is forming the pilot along with Transportation, which began assessing current parking patterns in Oliver last year.
“The existing parking requirements are a huge hindrance to businesses setting up.” —Lisa Brown, OCL president
The pilot is the first update to the 1953 bylaw in 14 years. In 2001, the bylaw was amended to reduce parking requirements in Chinatown, Whyte Ave. and Little Italy by 25 per cent. Kirsop points to the downtown’s wall-to-wall retail and repurposing of warehouses on 104 St. as successfully reduced parking requirements. “Without variances,” he says, “it’s hard to build a sense of community and a vibrant commercial scene.”
The high cost of excessive parking requirements doesn’t just discourage new neighbourhood businesses; the bylaws discourage walkability, density and transit use, and are antithetical to the City’s own attempts to promote these principles. The OCL would like to see its business areas earn similarly reduced requirements.
“The existing parking requirements are a huge hindrance to businesses setting up,” says president Lisa Brown, who filed a letter of support on behalf of Bru last February.
Jeff McLaren, executive director with the 124 Street Business Association, says the businesses he represents have thrived due to parking variances like Bru’s, because they’ve allowed restaurants and bars to set up. McLaren commends the pilot project, adding that the data on parking would be welcome as a lot of feedback is anecdotal right now. “Something needs to change,” says McLaren of the City. “It’s just figuring out the exact details now.”
Those who support minimum parking requirements worry that without them visiting customers will park on residential streets. “You can’t ban parking without a major backlash,” says Coun. Scott McKeen, who finds the current rules restrictive.
The councillor urges investments in public transportation, cycling infrastructure and late-night transit, which could help ease this car-dependency. A report is expected back to city council’s executive committee with recommended changes as early as February 2016.
“For the Love of Winter” sounds like something you’d get in your Christmas stocking, but it probably wouldn’t fit. At 152 letter-sized pages, the City of Edmonton’s draft of winter design guidelines is, by some experts’ estimates, the most comprehensive in the world. When council inevitably approves a version of it in 2016, it could help shape our architecture and public spaces for decades to come.
For many, “winter design” means good insulation and a decent furnace — not colour, lighting, entryways, setbacks, heated patios or street furnishings. But the principal planner, Nola Kilmartin, who’s since left the city for private architectural firm Kennedy, can sum it up in a few words: “Good winter design is good year-round design.”
She means designing buildings to block winds, maximize sunshine through orientation and add some zest to winter-scapes through colour and light. Yet much of our design choices — particularly downtown — seem imported from southern climates or engineered for our discomfort: drab colours; sharp-cornered buildings that accelerate windspeed; Melrose-style open walkways that absorb snowmelt into the concrete and create condo nightmares.
There are full blocks absent of a single operable door, thus leaving sidewalks with little to no activity, a state which Kilmartin says is psychologically straining. “If you’re going to be outside walking around you don’t want to feel like you’re in a desolate wasteland, where you’re being windswept by northwesterly chills causing you to freeze off your face.”
However, there are signs of change, even without the encouragement of 2011’s Winter City Strategy (the impetus for the design guidelines). The Cactus Club’s fire-lit patio comes to mind, as do the colourful lights that’ve made the High Level bridge most noticeable during the season’s long nights. “It’s now an icon all year round,” notes Ian O’Donnell, chair of DECL’s development committee.
He would like to see the guidelines strengthened. Even with council’s approval they’ll be little more than suggestions; the policy equivalent of a best-before date. He thinks they should be a requirement, like land-use zoning, which determines what types of development can exist in certain areas. “We can’t just put them out to market and let them be.”
To that point, the City is preparing pamphlets for business-owners, builders and other private interests to help educate them on the big and small ways they can make Edmonton a great winter city. Don’t worry — it’ll only be a few pages long.
Small Ways to Make Your Business More Winter-Friendly
• Maintain your front landscaping year-round
• Enter through your front door to animate the streets
• Put chairs outside — and wipe them
• Add small-scale street furniture like sandwich boards
• String lights in your windows to help illuminate streets
Remember that time on a Sunday in Edmonton when you had too many options for things to do and the Downtown and Oliver streets were crowded with people?
Of course you don’t. On Sundays, downtown can feel like a sleepy town you pulled into off the highway. To find a good coffee or a new pair of shoes, to hem a pant or fix a phone, to find out whether the new “it” restaurant lives up to the hype, can feel like you’re living an episode of the Amazing Race.
Actually, it often feels that way after six o’clock each day, but Sundays are guaranteed snoozers. The cafes are closed; a majority of bars are silent; offices are locked. And, thus, the sidewalks are barren. Even our autobahn-width streets and free street parking, a friendly plea to incoming shoppers, if nothing else, are lightly trafficked.
None of this holds as true in many of our suburban spaces. They don’t hold true on Whyte Ave. neither, where at least the shops stay open till five and popular restaurants like Meat and Ampersand 27 are open … late … seven days a week.
Since the post-millennium downtown revival, we’ve added close to 10,000 people to our core neighbourhoods. Many of them are young, make decent money and live interesting lives. Yet so many of the businesses in their neighbourhoods don’t cater to them. Instead, their business hours serve the ephemeral office crowd that drives in and out, for five days and 40 hours a week.
There’s no reason for this other than culture. We’ve allowed Sunday shopping far longer than other cities. (Halifax, for example, only legalized shopping on the Lord’s Day in 2006, a decision that took far longer because of its deep Christian past. But while commerce took a step forward, the amended bylaw didn’t transform Halifax’s already bustling weekend streets; those were baked into the waterfront’s DNA.) It’s not like we don’t get out on Sundays, either. Down in the river valley, the trails and pathways are busy arteries of recreational life. But up in the downtown, it’s tumbleweeds.
Meanwhile Old Strathcona is a nexus of activity. Perhaps that’s why the City thought of Whyte first when piloting the possible car-free Edmonton, an effort to shut down the street for pedestrians for a few hours on select days. Maybe downtown businesses would benefit from it more.
It has worked elsewhere. Since the ’90s, Ottawa has closed Colonel By Drive to traffic every Sunday for pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, pets and all other forms of foot-based life. The results have been transformative. Colonel By Drive winds along the Rideau Canal (Ottawa’s version of our river valley) and ends up right downtown. Effectively, the route feeds pedestrians onto Ottawa’s once-dead Sunday streets. And since Sunday motor traffic is nearly absent anyway, few complained.
Imagine if we did the same downtown, and not just to accommodate nightlife, as it’s been proposed for Whyte, but day-life. On Sunday, we pick a road or two, which are hardly being used by motorists in the first place, and throw them open to people walking, biking or just loitering. We encourage businesses to extend not just their hours, but patios. Invite food trucks and kiosks. Buskers, too.
We can’t force businesses to open and treat downtown as more than a roofless stadium for the service sector. What we can do, though, is bring people here on Sundays, much in the way that festivals already do, only this wouldn’t have any planned programming—just whatever happens when we hand over our downtown to the people.
Tim Querengesser is president of The Edmonton Wayfinding Society.