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Critical Mass: Edmonton’s pre-arena downtown revitalization

Edmonton was told a half-billion dollar arena would save its downtown. So why is the core revitalizing before it’s even up?

Jun 11, 2014

by Alix Kemp

In 2010, the Katz Group promised Edmonton that a new hockey arena would revitalize the city’s languishing core. The problem and its promised $480 million solution were topics of divisive debate. David Staples, the Edmonton Journal columnist, wrote in 2011 that Edmonton’s “sad downtown” – which, he noted, had sat almost vacant during the province’s last economic boom – was “surely going to sit vacant for decades if this [arena] deal fails.” At the time, looking around the city’s streets at any time after 5:30 p.m., it was hard to disagree. Downtown needed a saviour.

     
Archive Photos Provincial Archive Museum

But before shovels began digging at the arena site in March, a strange thing was – and still is – happening in downtown Edmonton. Hustle and bustle have returned. Since 2013, nine new restaurants and bars have opened, adding more than 800 seats to the downtown hospitality scene. And those seats are consistently full on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. In 2012, the Downtown City Market extended into a winter season in the atrium of City Hall, and since then has added 25 new businesses to its winter vendors’ list, for a total of 124. In the summer, the City Market draws more than 20,000 people to 104 Street every Saturday, filling the area, known as the Warehouse District, as well as surrounding restaurants, coffee shops and stores. And just this month, Mother’s Market, the city’s second downtown farmers’ market, will open its doors at 109 Street and 103 Avenue, responding to what its owners claim is “crazy demand.”

“My wife and I were some of the first people to live on 104 Street, and after five o’clock, it was terrible.” – Bradley Gingerich

It’s tempting to attribute much of this activity to downtown businesses jockeying to benefit from the arena, which is expected to open in 2016. But most critical work on Edmonton’s downtown revitalization started well before Daryl Katz bought the Oilers, in 2008, let alone when he began pushing his downtown vision. So, if not the arena, just what is fuelling Edmonton’s unprecedented transformation downtown? In a word: people.

The number of people living in downtown Edmonton has nearly doubled in a little more than a decade, from 6,175 in 2001 to 12,199 in 2012. By 2024, it is expected to grow to more than triple the 2001 number, to 19,000. Why? It’s tempting to point to mega projects as the key to this change but it’s also unclear if they have actually made the difference. Regardless, there have been many of them. In the mid-1980s, the city created a mayor’s task force, chaired by Joseph Shoctor, a mainstay in Edmonton’s theatre community. Shoctor pushed for several revitalization “catalyst projects”: a new City Hall, completed in 1992; the nearby Winspear Centre, opened in 1997; and the pedestrian-focused Heritage Trail. Other plans were afoot, too. The Edmonton Downtown Development Corporation was founded in 1986, and during the period transit improved. Edmonton’s LRT opened in 1978, for the Commonwealth Games, but initially served only one section of the city. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, the LRT network was expanded, including a subway underneath Jasper Avenue. Yet despite hundreds of millions being invested in these projects, they did not significantly shift downtown’s ‘Deadmonton’ reputation. Staples, in a 1998 column about Edmonton’s suburban expansion – which was by then proceeding at a startling pace – wrote, “We’re well on the way to becoming an ugly, sprawling city with unrelenting traffic congestion and a dead downtown. In other words: Edmonton, Stupid City.” The arena, which will be named Rogers Place, is yet another mega project aimed, at least in its sales pitch to the city, at reversing this. Last year, after years of wrangling, the deal to build it was approved by city council.

So why have people come to downtown only now? Consider the story of the transformation of 104 Street, perhaps Edmonton’s busiest downtown promenade. That started back in the late 1990s, with a $3.1-million investment to upgrade the streetscape. And in 1997, the city created a downtown plan, which determined that the core was dying not because of a lack of buildings, or mega projects (though, to be clear, the recently completed Epcor tower is the first office tower built in Edmonton’s downtown in 20 years) but because of a dearth of residents. In 1999, the city acted on this, putting $4.5 million in play. It offered developers a $4,500 rebate for every new residential unit built downtown – and developers seized the opportunity, as well as heritage grants to restore historic buildings, adding more than 1,000 residential units, many of them on 104 Street. David Holdsworth, a heritage planner with the City of Edmonton who worked on the project, says the subsidy was essential. “Having the people move in started to change the dynamic of the street,” he says.

“It’s carving out its own personality. It’s not trying to be Whyte Avenue. It’s a bit different in a lot of ways; you’re starting to see downtown becoming the place to go for professionals and for a younger generation.” – Ian O’Donnell, development committee chair, Downtown Edmonton Community League

But there was a Catch-22. A downtown neighbourhood needs people. Yet to draw those people, a neighbourhood also needs businesses – grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, parks. The catch is that these businesses often will not set up shop until they see residents move in. But which comes first? In the case of Edmonton’s downtown, it was people. Bradley Gingerich, a senior vice-president at CBRE’s Edmonton office and an early adopter to living in the downtown Warehouse District, moving in 1995, says he faced a lack of amenities, stores that closed early and drunks that flocked to the street after dark. “My wife and I were some of the first people to live on 104 Street, and after five o’clock, it was terrible,” he says. The biggest challenge was the Cecil Hotel, once a landmark building that had become a flop house, anchoring the corner of 104 Street and Jasper. The hotel played host to several murders, stabbings and was a known haunt of pickpockets. It was a key obstacle to attracting both residents and businesses. Edmonton tried multiple strategies to attract people and business to the area. Along with the rebate for developers, the city partnered with businesses along 104 Street to install heritage-style street lamps, benches and wider sidewalks; this made the area more attractive to potential residents and new businesses, and crucially to the pedestrians that bring life to streets. In 2004, the city also convinced the downtown City Market, then running on 97 Street, east of the core, to relocate to 104 Street. And in 2005, the Cecil Hotel was demolished.

In its place came a Sobeys grocery store. And with that shift, suddenly downtown Edmonton had a hip new district. It had a vibrant catalyst. Ian O’Donnell, a project manager with Manasc Isaac Architects and a downtown resident himself, says the Sobeys store is like a snowball rolling down a hill. It’s both a signal that the neighbourhood is thriving and an essential element to attract more people and businesses. “A grocery store is something that is a really key piece of amenity to support residential growth,” he says. “And when you start to see things like the Sobeys go in, you know there are new people there.”

Why was Edmonton’s downtown once such a ghost town? Pictures from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s show a bustling core filled with pedestrians, street-cars and commerce. Many believe downtown’s fall was driven by West Edmonton Mall, which opened in 1981. The mall, or ‘The Mall,’ as Edmontonians call it, is in a neighbourhood that’s a 15-minute drive (or 30-minute bus trip) west of downtown. But there were other factors. A recession beginning in 1982 saw resource companies headquartered downtown begin leaving for cheaper office space outside the core. Then, between 1981 and 1990, the provincial government cut some 11,000 jobs, many of them located downtown. Soon after, two of downtown’s flagship retailers closed – Woodward’s, in 1992, and Eaton’s, in 1999 – and the core lost whatever appeal it still held as a shopping destination. Developers built on relatively cheap and incentivized greenfield plots outside the increasingly unfashionable downtown. Many residents moved to suburbs that were a short drive from the city’s many manufacturing and fabrication jobs and had more space for larger houses and more spacious yards. A host of neighbourhoods sprang up as Edmonton annexed the surrounding farmland, including Clareview, the Palisades, Millwoods and Heritage Valley, more than doubling the city’s geographic footprint. New malls, shops, restaurants and grocery stores opened to serve them. As the years wore on, the city’s increasingly empty downtown seemed unnecessary to visit – aside from perhaps working there.

Demographic trends have played a role in changing that. For more than a decade, the children of those who, between the 1960s and ’90s, abandoned Canada’s urban cores for car-dependent suburban utopias, have been moving downtown. That’s something Carol Neuman, the community co-chair of NextGen Edmonton, an organization for civic-minded 18- to 40-year-olds as well as a member of the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force, has seen firsthand. “This is a generation that’s less interested in being car-centred,” Neuman says, “and more interested in having public spaces and a different set of social infrastructure put in place.”

Fittingly, Edmonton’s growing number of downtown residents are younger than the city’s average – 38.5 per cent of those living downtown are between 20 and 35 years old, compared to only 20.5 per cent of those living elsewhere in the city. Neuman thinks that shift will accelerate. She points to MacEwan University and Norquest College, both of which are consolidating their campuses downtown and bringing as many as 25,000 more students to the core. “When you think about how that’ll change the flavour of the downtown area, it’ll be really massive,” Neuman says. “We can look to some other cities that have that sort of influence, and it brings some vibrancy and energy. It changes the daily rhythm of the downtown, and I think it’s really a positive thing.”

Bradyn Arth, a sales associate with real estate consultant CBRE, agrees, and points out that expansion of the city’s LRT network, scheduled for this year, along with other expansions further off in the future, will also give more students the option to live downtown, even if they don’t attend MacEwan. “We’re now at a point where the LRT services all three major school institutions, so you’re not necessarily bound to living on Whyte Avenue if you’re going to U of A, or up by Kingsway if you’re going to NAIT.”

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It isn’t just students and millennials driving migration to the city core, though. “It’s the economy,” says Gingerich. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s in-migration. More than 50,000 people moved to Alberta from other provinces in 2012, and the largest group was workers between the ages of 25 to 44. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of people in that age group living in Edmonton increased by more than 30,000. “We have a different type of person moving here now,” says Gingerich. “We’re hiring so many more engineers and professionals to work in the core. Years ago, the labour pool coming to Edmonton was working on the outskirts in fabrication.”

Those economic conditions aren’t just attracting new residents, either, but also new developers. In March, Toronto-based real estate developer Brad Lamb announced he intended to build two towers on 106 Street, saying that he was attracted to the city because of its high average incomes and young, urban population. He’s not the only out-of-town developer looking at moving into Edmonton, Arth says. “A lot of the eastern-based guys are coming here not because they’re out of opportunities there, but deals are tougher to find. There are more options here in Edmonton.” Many of those developers are looking at Calgary as well. But Gingerich says lower land costs make Edmonton an attractive alternative. “The price of entry is much lower in Edmonton than it is in Calgary.”

Restaurateurs are also being pulled into the downtown action and they are in turn feeding it. When Daniel Costa opened Corso 32, in 2010, the upscale, 34-seat Italian restaurant stood out along a barren stretch of Jasper Avenue near 104 Street. Since then, however, a host of new restaurants and bars aimed at a more urban clientele have opened nearby, including Woodwork, Tavern 1903, Cavern, Cask and Barrel, The Common, The Bower, The Phork and Craft Beer Market. Tricia Bell, who owns Cavern on 104 Street, credits Costa for launching a restaurant renaissance in a city long known for birthing banal chains like Earls and Boston Pizza. “Daniel Costa is giving a certain license to the rest of the city – he’s iconic,” she says. “What I’m most excited about is the growing food culture, and the appreciation for it.” Those restaurants, in turn, are attracting people to the core. “People need places to go to in order to stay in the downtown core, and that’s happening,” Bell says.

“It’s really a generational shift that’s prompting a lot of this renewal. This is a generation that’s less interested in being car-centred, and more interested in having public spaces and having a different set of social infrastructure put in place.” – Carol Neuman, community co-chair, NextGen Edmonton

More people also means more opportunity for restaurants. Larry Stewart, the co-owner and chef of both Hardware Grill and its new spin-off, Tavern 1903, says the evolution of the downtown was a critical part of why he decided to open his second restaurant. “The city as a whole has changed, with all these new conversions to condominiums,” he says. “They’ve really drawn people downtown.”

The municipal government’s role in revitalizing its downtown has been larger than just offering tax breaks and other incentives to stimulate growth. Despite a history of supporting whatever developers wanted to build – typically car-focused, low density and low cost strip malls – the city has started demanding smarter, more street-friendly buildings. Developers of The Century, a condominium on 104 Street, planned to install a street-level parking garage, but the city insisted that they add retail space to the ground floor and conceal the parking behind a brick façade, to fit with the area’s heritage character. The city then instituted regulations for the area forcing future developments to do the same.

When the original design concepts for the arena came out, O’Donnell was concerned that its inward-facing nature might take people off the streets. Thanks to push back from groups, including community leagues and the city itself, the concept was revised to better engage with the street. O’Donnell now says he’s optimistic about the building, which is expected to draw two million visitors every year. “That is a staggering number of people that are going to want to eat, shop, and perhaps live and work in the area,” he says.

But those two million people may not benefit the whole of downtown, with businesses closest to the arena getting the greatest share. Stewart says he’s not convinced it will have an effect on his restaurants. “It’s pretty far from here, so I’d probably say the direct impact will be next to nothing,” he says. “But you can’t measure, until it happens, what the spin-offs are.” Bell, whose business is just a few blocks from the arena, also doubts her business will receive a boost, but is excited about the residential towers going up in its vicinity.

And that is likely the largest force the arena has exerted in recreating downtown –that of inspiring other development by bringing attention to an area and dispelling the persistent myth that it’s a ghost town. “It put the spotlight on downtown,” says Arth. O’Donnell agrees. He says the arena is part of a larger whole. “It’s a collective momentum that is building upon itself and getting critical mass. It’s not just a commercial tower, a park or a new condo tower. Collectively, they start to build off of each other, and then because of that they draw more attention and more investment to those areas.”

The arena, then, won’t be the one thing that makes or breaks Edmonton’s downtown, although it has certainly increased the speed of change. Like other developments, the arena is benefiting from a renewed focus, a new migration to live there and a new prestige of its central location. Twenty years from now, the Katz Group will have the pleasure of looking at a vibrant, busy downtown, and it will likely take credit for it. But arena or not, that vibrancy was on its way.

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One Response to Critical Mass: Edmonton’s pre-arena downtown revitalization

  1. Kristin says:

    The arena is the chicken, for sure. Vibrancy came first!

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