— Feature —

Why Small is Big When it Comes to Urban Design

In Edmonton’s core, where bigger appears to be better—bigger arena, bigger museum, bigger university—smaller isn’t just surviving. It’s thriving. Yet our streets don’t provide enough of these fine-grain, hole-in-the-wall businesses that let budding businesses take a risk, succeed, then grow.


Susan Forsey has two babies, and like any good mother, she pretends she doesn’t have a favourite. But she does. “You’re supposed to love all your kids equally, but this is my baby and I would have been happy with this,” she says, voice hushed, finger pointed at a reclaimed wood table in the corner of Cask & Barrel.

She and Wayne Jones, her partner in life and business, opened the 1,300-sq.-ft. bar in 2012 with the intent of providing good beer, wine and scotch to an older and refined crowd. When it first opened in the Confederation Building on 104 St., Forsey was there every day, open to close. But nowadays, Cask’s bigger sister Rocky Mountain Icehouse gets most of her attention.
  Nearly three times Cask’s size, the restaurant
 in the Jasper Block building one street northwest opened in July 2015 and Forsey calls it the colicky one of the two. “It’s way easier to open up a smaller place, and make sure it’s successful, than a bigger one,” says Forsey, who, like Jones, has 20-plus years in hospitality behind her. “This place could do the same amount of sales that [Icehouse] could do with half the staff.”

In Edmonton’s core, where bigger appears to be better—bigger arena, bigger museum, bigger university—smaller isn’t just surviving; it’s thriving. Yet our streets don’t provide enough of these fine-grain, hole-in-the-wall businesses that let people like Forsey and Jones take a risk, succeed, then grow. Anyone who’s walked Toronto, Montreal or a great number of cities’ downtown streets knows the sight of a trail of sandwich boards—each one indicating another small business. On one side of one block you could enter and exit a dozen doors. The store bays are long and narrow. Their owners, usually behind a counter.
 “You need to have a lot of really great small retail bays to have small business,” says Ian O’Don
nell, vice president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League. “That’s something we’ve been challenged by, because we’ve moved or redeveloped a lot of the older sites that Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal have retained.”

There is, however, a movement afoot to rewrite this in the core, and Lisa Baroldi, co-founder of the urban networking vehicle Designing Downtown, can point to the cause: “You’ve got really creative entrepreneurs pushing developers in different directions and making demands to do different things,” says the Oliver resident.

The Icon Towers on 104 St., developed by Langham Developments Ltd., are good examples
 of that push, what with those residential towers’ podiums playing host to a variety of small retailers and restaurants. Soon Langham’s Fox Towers will repeat this exactly one block north. More offices and towers along 124 St. and Jasper Ave. are being built or retrofitted with small storefronts, but our core still lags behind most other cities’, to say nothing of the small bays available on Whyte Ave. just across the river. But if the dozens of cranes reaching over the skyline mean anything, it’s that big change is possible.

Developers have their reasons for going “big.” Big tenants usually bring with them an established clientele and financial stability, plus having one large tenant instead of many small tenants is easier to manage. “It’s more difficult for mom and pop shops to provide a background and history and demonstrated financials than, say, a 7/11 or an Earl’s,” says O’Donnell. “So landlords will typically prefer to have a brand name.”


Eric Slatter is a leasing agent with Colliers International who’s worked on tenant agreements for commercial bays both small and big, new and old. Although the tendency for developers is to try securing large companies with predictable profits, he says carving out smaller retail makes financial sense for them. “If it’s a 3,000-sq.-ft. space, it limits how many tenants can use [it],” he says. “If you can divide that into three 1,000 sq.-ft. units, you would be able to charge a premium on each one of those square feet.”

But tripling the tenants could also triple the headaches, which is why many developers continue to develop sizeable spaces to attract tenants with sizeable reputations. Even then, it doesn’t always work out. Slatter points to the still vacant Sobeys on 104 St., kitty-corner to Cask & Barrel, which closed in the summer of 2014, seven years into a 10-year lease. “All your eggs are in one basket in that sense,” says Slatter, who represents the landowner.

Inside Coffee Bureau, one of several tiny retailers emerging in the core.

Coffee Bureau is one of several tiny retailers emerging in the core. (Mack Male/Flickr)

At nearly 20,000 sq. ft., the former Sobeys 
could fit 14 pubs the size of Cask. And while Cask is comparatively small, seating 77, when placed on the “small scale” it’s a monster. You could fit two TziN Wine & Tapas into Cask. And at least three Coffee Bureaus. It just depends on how you define small. Small can mean a farmers’ market stall or a food truck. In fact the city’s thriving food truck scene might have as much to do with a lack of appropriately sized commercial spaces as it does with the Food Network. As urbanist and The Happy City author Charles Montgomery said on a recent visit to Edmonton, “Food trucks are great, but they’re like an indicator species that says, ‘Yeah, you screwed that up’.” His point is that Edmonton has failed to offer small-scale restaurants space in the first place.

And that’s unfortunate because the smaller an entrepreneur starts the more room they have to grow. “And people who get that right,” says Baroldi, “they’re going to be incredibly successful.”

Annie Parent's cozy gift shop recently knocked down a wall to grow.

Annie Parent’s cozy gift shop Habitat Etc.

Just ask Annie Parent. She started out selling handmade terrariums at the City Market Downtown. When it was time to leave her work
in the pharmaceuticals industry and set up her dream gift shop, Habitat Etc., the 34-year-old chose a 550-sq.-ft. former office in 104 St.’s McKenny building, not just because it was close to the market but because of its size. She could have rented some- thing larger for the same price on a different street but, she says, “the challenge is finding a small space to start. The hardest thing in retail is having such large overhead in the beginning.”

Now a year into business, she has opened up the walled-off storage room to accommodate the growing number of customers interested
in craft workshops.

“It’s market-driven. So,
 at the very least, we need the City
 of Edmonton to minimize other barriers to establishing small businesses, such as parking minimums.” — Lisa Brown, Oliver Community League president

Starting a business, even one the size of a closet, isn’t easy. There are macro-hoops that micro-entrepreneurs have to jump through.

First, you need to find a space,
 which isn’t as easy as it looks. Nate
Box, for instance, searched for
two years before opening his first of 
five businesses, Elm Cafe, on 195 sq. ft. inside the base of an Oliver apartment. And then there’s the bureaucratic process 
of meeting building code and zoning regulations. Coffee Bureau, for 
example, was expected to have 
a barrier-free bathroom, even 
though it would take up one-fifth 
of the cafe. That’s because Bureau
 seats 10 people. If, in the future,
 owners wanted to add more seats,
 they’d have to also add another 
bathroom, a physical impossibility.

“We’re always asking developers to install small bays in new buildings when we’re discussing their rezoning applications, but there’s no guarantee that’ll happen,” says Oliver Community League president Lisa Brown. “It’s market-driven. So,
 at the very least, we need the City
 of Edmonton to minimize other barriers to establishing small businesses, such as parking minimums.”

Zoning bylaws regulating the
number of parking stalls a business
must have in order to open have caused many well-publicized delays for businesses, especially outside of Downtown proper, which has reduced parking requirements. The well-intentioned rule is supposed to accommodate commuter customers, but as public transit use grows and the inner city becomes more of a place to live (or a “lifestyle,” as Baroldi calls it), they’re becoming irrelevant. A pilot project will relax the rules in Oliver, on 124 St. and on Whyte Ave., but some would-be business owners would prefer none at all. Slatter, who worked on the 109 St. deal with the owners of the Common, says the fact that the restaurant and club had no parking stalls wasn’t a deterrent. The owners said they didn’t even need any—and if the line-ups outside the bar on a Friday night are any indication, they were right.

The City of Edmonton is open to relaxing rules to encourage more small business in our neighbourhoods. But, says Peter Ohm, branch manager of urban planning and sustainable development, fundamental to these potential changes is population density. “That’s key in having a foundation that gets people to support smaller businesses,” he says. “Smaller businesses aren’t going to come to an area if there aren’t people there to shop.”

In 2010, city council adopted a plan to revitalize the core through a series of catalyst projects and public investment, including attracting more residential development. According to the 2014 census, the combined population in Downtown and Oliver was sitting around 32,000 people. That’s up about 5,000 from 2008. With about a dozen residential towers proposed or in development, the population will only swell, which, in turn, could drive developers to carve out small spaces for the basic amenities their tenants will come to expect.

And that’s what makes Cask & Barrel successful, says Forsey. With its bar that easily takes up one-third of the entire square footage, Cask offers something big can’t: friendly familiarity. “I have customers that have been coming here for three years, and they’re my friends,” says Forsey, just moments after Ian O’Donnell enters and is greeted by name. “It’s almost like Cheers, right?”

Growing Up and Out

the commonThe Bar: The Common
Neighbourhood: Oliver
First Opened: 2009
Initial Size: 1,400 sq. ft.
New Size: 4,500 sq. ft., grew to 8,000 with basement addition
“The challenge was that it was just too small right from the get go.” —Kyla Kazeil, co-owner


Duchess-Bake-Shop-Edmonton-2-1024x682The Bakery: Duchess Bakeshop
Neighbourhood: Westmount
First Opened: 2009 Initial Size: 1,600 sq. ft.
New Size: grew to 4,500 sq. ft. with neighbouring bays, later added an additional 14,000 sq. ft. location in Queen Mary Park
“We wanted a space we could actually grow into, not grow out of.” —Garner Beggs, co-owner


barber ha

Photo: Grempz/Flickr

The Barber: Barber Ha
Neighbourhood: Strathcona
First Opened: 2011
Initial Size: 500 sq. ft.
New Size: 1,800 sq. ft.
“Initially we were really sad to have to move because we loved how intimate that space was, but in the end, it worked out for the best.” —Linda Ha, owner

This entry was posted in 2016 Spring, Feature.