Back From The Brink
Call it revitalization or resurrection, the last 10 years of downtown development, compared to years previous, are just shy of miraculous.
August 29, 2016
photography by Curtis Comeau
Back in the mid-1990s, Jim Taylor would tour media types through the disaster that was downtown Edmonton. Then a city councillor desperate to spark revitalization, he’d lead his grim parade past boarded-up windows of the World Trade Centre, the Union Bank Inn, the old Bay building and more. “It was just black hole after black hole,” he says.
Today, as long-time executive director of the Downtown Business Association, Taylor likes to share with visitors a new perspective. The seventh floor of the 102nd Street Parkade, just off 103rd Avenue, offers a radically different view of downtown’s prospects. Directly below are the 25 acres and $2.5 billion worth of construction of the Ice District – including the arena, a hotel and two office towers – set to inject new life into the core.
This is the obvious high point of the attempt to create the centre for business, residents and visitors envisioned in Council’s 2010 Capital City Downtown Plan. But the arena complex is just part of a story of change that includes revolutionary decisions and an about-face in attitudes toward the area.
Much of the change began within the last 10 years, at the outset of which downtown was, by today’s standards, marginally livelier than Taylor’s days as tour guide. The new Art Gallery of Alberta was just beginning to reshape downtown architectural standards. The condo cluster of the Icon towers, Fox One, Ultima and more was mere speculation, and just 15.5 per cent of downtown land was residential. (According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, 93 per cent of the city’s growth between 2006 and 2011 was suburban.) Manulife Place, just 36 storeys, modestly reigned as our tallest building.
And the arena was only a possibility under investigation by a task force struck in 2007 by then-mayor Stephen Mandel, who wasn’t initially a champion of the core.
“Before I became a city councillor I didn’t understand the significance of what a downtown meant to the reputation of a city,” Mandel says. “People don’t come to cities to go to the suburbs. They come to the downtown. So I really believed it was essential we developed a vision for downtown that would be long lasting and begin to change attitudes towards our city – [those] of Edmontonians as much as anyone else.”
While Mandel admits the arena spurred the condo boom, (during rocky pre-project negotiation, when “we were about to cancel all the arrangements on the arena, the guys building those condominiums downtown called me in a panic”), amongst other projects, he also sees the story of downtown Edmonton as “way bigger than the arena.”
To illustrate, Mandel points to projects pre-dating the Ice District: expansions at MacEwan University and the conversion of the old Bay building in the University of Alberta’s Enterprise Square, construction of the Royal Alberta Museum and the art gallery, and the once-unthinkable 2013 closing of the City Centre Airport. Without the latter, Mandel points out, the 66-storey Stantec Tower – set to be Canada’s tallest building outside Toronto – would have been impossible due to height restrictions necessary for safe flying.
Chris Buyze, a downtown resident since 1999 and president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League for the last 10 years, had mixed feelings when he initially moved to the area. When the 37-year-old Avenue Top 40 Under 40 alumnus first arrived, “on Sundays you could shoot a cannonball down Jasper Avenue or 104th Street and not hit anyone.” However, he saw the potential and the opportunities available downtown.
Buyze sees downtown revitalization as being in its infancy. The area’s population increased over 20 per cent between 2008 and 2014 to 13,148, but he’d rather see more residents still than the million fans estimated to visit for Oilers home games alone. He sees recent rebuilds of Jasper Avenue and 108th Street, now the partially cobbled Capital Boulevard, as but a dent in wholesale streetscaping the core requires.
Still, advancements have him convinced that, as Mandel suggested, attitudes about downtown’s value have changed – most importantly those of City Council, which Buyze sees as more “sophisticated” about city building than past ones he’s known. Without this, for example, 102nd Avenue wouldn’t be slated to be reduced to a single lane of traffic to make way for the transit and cyclists Buyze predicts may have as much impact on the area’s vibrancy as the arena.
One of the strongest indicators of that altered perspective, however, is among the most subtle. In 2017, Alex Decoteau Park will be completed at 105th Street and 102nd Avenue as the first new downtown park since 2000. “For Council to make that investment is really important because it signifies that this is an area we value for future residential,” says Buyze.
Which is to say, he adds, “we really are only getting started” when it comes to turning into downtown that centre for business, residents and visitors – that true community Mandel also hoped for.
If so, the scale of change to come may be as tough to imagine as a 66-storey building spiking above the current skyline, its foundation still a forest of rebar as seen from the parkade this summer. What is clear, though, is hope for the future of the area. The boards are off the windows of Taylor’s downtown of old. Maybe doors have opened, too.
This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.