MacEwan University’s campus sits downtown on what must be the country’s most peculiar and challenging parcel of land. It’s on an old CN Railway site and is, therefore, long and slim, running two blocks north-to-south and about 14 east-to-west. “Our buildings are connected to one another like a train,” says the man charged with overseeing the university’s infrastructure, Stuart MacLean. “We’re very linear.” The layout affects everything about the university, from its physical design to its walkability to its relationship with surrounding streets and communities.
MacEwan is also unique in that it suffers from having formidable barriers — both physical and psychological — from surrounding neighbourhoods. Most of its buildings face 104th Avenue to the south, where six lanes of high-velocity, high-volume traffic divide it from Edmonton’s downtown core. To its north, on the other side of 105th Avenue, is a large swath of brooding commercial and light industrial properties that may have made sense back in the railroading days but now serve to separate the school from the residential communities farther north.
Those communities, Queen Mary Park and Central MacDougall, have proud histories as middle-class neighbourhoods but are now mostly known for the social ills they face, including homelessness, low incomes and a transient population.
Despite all this, MacEwan has grown steadily since it consolidated at City Centre Campus 25 years ago. It has opened a series of striking buildings — all in a row — in the intervening years. Most recently, it added the 40,000-square-metre Allard Hall to house the school’s visual and performing arts programs. A new Indigenous centre opened this summer, a student union building is under construction and, if university administration gets its way, all this is just the beginning.
MacEwan, which now caters to almost 13,000 full-time students, has a master plan to transform itself over the next 25 years from a linear, south-facing school to a more unconfined, 360-degree campus complete with a proper central quad. This will be accomplished through a mix of new buildings, additions to old ones, a giant atrium, green spaces and a focus on accessibility. Some of the plan is necessarily hazy at this early stage, and much of it will only be accomplished if the university gets help from students and staff, alumni, neighbours, all three levels of government and more.
In MacEwan’s open-concept sixth-floor administration space, MacLean outlines the university’s master development plan with the care and enthusiasm of a loving parent. “A lot of attention has been paid to the edges,” he says, pointing to a PowerPoint slide with a map of the campus on it. “They define and articulate the university and the university district by trying to represent easy accessibility to the university as a neighbourhood.”
One slide shows new buildings facing 105th Avenue in red and additions to existing buildings in blue. There’s a large new atrium arching between what are known as buildings six and seven, facing north, which would be used for events and ceremonies. There are enhanced streetscapes and improved crosswalks over all the major streets, including a number of raised crosswalks. Hundreds of surface parking spaces have been moved underground, replaced with green spaces.
MacEwan’s vice-president of university relations, Myrna Khan, says the master plan is not just about the built environment, but about MacEwan meeting its role in the community to be welcoming and inclusive for the communities in which it operates and realizing its goal of being recognized as Edmonton’s downtown university.
“We want to be a bridge, not a wall,” she says, “a bridge between what’s happening south of 104 where you have a business community and the neighbourhoods north of 105.” She says the university is working with several outside organizations to coordinate plans, including the City, nearby community leagues, community service agencies, and the Downtown Business Association. “With our unique location, we need to engage everybody to deliver on our vision,” she says.
The biggest change to MacEwan’s southern front will be the arrival of the Valley Line LRT in a couple of years. It will cut right down the middle of 104th Avenue, removing two lanes of traffic and bringing pedestrians right to MacEwan’s doorstep. “We’re hopeful that the LRT will provide some sort of a bridge across the avenue,” MacLean says. “It will allow many of our students access to the buildings and slow down traffic.”
But the greater changes will be seen on the university’s northern fringe, where four new buildings, including the new business school, will reorient the university from one that exclusively faces south to one that is open to surrounding communities in every direction. The City of Edmonton has redesigned and begun rebuilding 105th Avenue as a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly route into downtown, a development that will merge well with MacEwan’s plans, and together make that northern face welcome to students, residents and visitors alike. The aging commercial and industrial properties on the other side of 105th Avenue remain a wild card in the plan. They have been rezoned for residential and mixed-use development but, so far, developers have not shown much interest.
On the far side of the strip of commercial and industrial properties are the communities of Queen Mary Park and Central MacDougall. Randy Shuttleworth, a past president and current treasurer of the Queen Mary Park Community League, says some of the negative indicators are misleading and that his neighbourhood scores well on other indicia like walkability and crime rates. Regardless, he has closely followed MacEwan’s planning and is all for it. “The plans are great, and they’re going to have nothing but a positive impact,” he says. “MacEwan carries a lot of weight because they’re a major downtown landowner, they’re a university and universities tend to attract positive neighbourhoods. We’re hopeful their work becomes a kick-starter.”
In the short term, MacEwan will make enhancements to the library and the arts and science building and get to work on crosswalk upgrades. In the mid term, it will be the new business school, the addition of the atrium and further redevelopment of streetscapes and green spaces. In the long term, MacEwan wants to spread its wings and fly. “Every great city has a great downtown university and we want to embrace that role,” Khan says.