A Neighbourhood Redesign Strives to Revitalize the Area Next to Commonwealth Stadium

In 1978, the City imagined transit-oriented development would transform the area surrounding the new Commonwealth Stadium. Now, those dreams may finally be realized.

Photos were taken in March 2020. Photograph by Paul Swanson.

Those with even the tiniest twinges of civic pride hate it when someone puts their city down, justified or not.

Back in 2015, I was at Commonwealth Stadium, covering the Women’s World Cup along with dozens upon dozens of journalists from around the world. Edmonton had been selected to stage more games at this prestigious tournament than any of the other Canadian host cities. But I didn’t hear a lot of positive feedback.

An Australian journalist told me I could take solace, because “at least it wasn’t as bad as Winnipeg.”

And I watched as a Dutch crew left the press area, with their leader declaring in her best English, “goodbye Edmonton, I hope to never see you again.”

Why were they sour? Visitors from around the world were put up at various hotels around the city, but spent the better part of their days at Commonwealth Stadium. There weren’t really a lot of buzz restaurants or great coffee shops close by. Those who shuttled from hotel to stadium and back again couldn’t step out of the press area and find a great place for a sandwich and a drink.

Photograph by Paul Swanson.
Photograph by Paul Swanson.
Photograph by Paul Swanson.

Fast forward five years, and the Stadium Yards will be part of a total neighbourhood transformation. In addition to the estimated 1,000 residential suites, a complete rethink of the Stadium LRT station, the addition of a multi-use trail and the elimination of fences that cut Commonwealth off from the surrounding area are all pieces to the puzzle.

The project, which broke ground last fall, would be the realization of a vision that’s more than 40 years in the making.

Let’s jump in a time machine and head back to 1978. We are in an era of bell-bottoms and Firebirds with t-roofs and the Bee Gees. The LRT’s Stadium station opens in April of that year, with the brand-spanking new Commonwealth Stadium across the street. The City of Edmonton hatches a plan for “transit-oriented development” (we put that in quotes to show that this was a fairly novel concept back in the day). Plans are made for high-density developments and new businesses to surround the stadium and LRT.

But, it doesn’t happen.

Erik Backstrom, the senior planner with the City of Edmonton’s City Planning Branch, looks back at some of the mistakes that were made four decades ago.

“The idea was that ‘If you zone it, they will come,’” says Backstrom. “The idea was to do transit-oriented development in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it didn’t work.”

Why? Because the tracks split the stadium area from any proposed developments. To get to the river valley from the stadium, you’d have to cross the tracks, which were fenced off, or walk underground through the station itself. As well, there were still pockets of industrial buildings, some of which sat vacant, which wasn’t all that palatable for developers. Who wants to live next to a lumber yard or a cement plant? And, well, where were the sidewalks?

So, a lack of connectivity and infrastructure, and an intimidating track all worked together to keep the area from realizing its potential. But the dream of revitalizing that area never died.

Photograph by Paul Swanson.
Photograph by Paul Swanson.

Let’s get back in the time machine and set it for 2014. The city announces $14 million worth of infrastructure upgrades for the area, and Brookfield Residential purchases seven acres of land to the east of Stadium LRT station from the Muttart family. With new pathways, plans for a revitalized LRT station and new roads on the blueprints, the connections that the neighbourhood needed were put in place.

Brookfield subdivided the land it purchased from the Muttarts into four plots, three of which were purchased by Rohit.

People should start moving into the Stadium Yards by the end of 2020, in low-rise residential rental properties. There’s a mix of commercial space in the area. According to Russell Dauk, vice president, land and commercial for Rohit, the development, when finished, will have four plots containing around 1,000 residential units. Rohit’s three blocks could make up 750 of them.

The area will feature two new urban parks, both designed by Claude Cormier. He is the Montreal-based landscape architect who designed Toronto’s Sugar Beach, an area of once-industrial waterfront area that was transformed into a sandy urban playground.

The builder, developer and city planners worked together to rethink the streetscape. “The city and Brookfield did the horizontal design, we’re doing the vertical,” Dauk says. Traditionally, in mixed-use development, residential units take the upper floors while retail bays take the ground level. But, taking cues from other urban rethinks in Ritchie, Oliver and downtown, the decision was made to create freestanding buildings, with raised ceilings, as the retail spaces. For people who walked through the neighbourhood but didn’t live in one of the developments, they wouldn’t feel like they were out of place if they walked into a business and tried on some clothes or sat down for coffee.

Rohit commissioned “The Cut,” a pitch competition which saw entrepreneurs vie to become the first business to reserve a spot in the Stadium Yards’ 2,500 sq. ft. (plus a mezzanine), park-facing, commercial bay. Five finalists were selected from 47 submissions. Those five sets of entrepreneurs pitched in front of a crowd of 400 people at MacEwan University’s Triffo Theatre in February. The six-person, local judging panel, which included ATB’s Entrepreneur Strategist Aimee Parker, and Oodle Noodle President Jay Downton, selected the pitch from Jack’s Burger Shack. Yes, that Jack Burger’s Shack, which has become a staple in downtown St. Albert. Jack’s won $125,000 that will be put towards the business (plus other small business supports), and spot No. 1 in the Stadium Yards’ commercial development.

Residential areas will be rethought, with influence from hotel design. Common areas will be placed where the penthouses usually go. And residents will get together on the top floor, to enjoy the view and socialize. Fire pits will be placed in common amenity areas to act as gathering spots. Rohit reached out to Edmontonians to find out what they like and what keeps them from moving into apartments. In response to the feedback, the builder is creating music and all-purpose meeting rooms in the development. Residents who like to jam can go to a soundproof room that’s even ready for recording. And, with more and more people working from home, the need to have business rooms to work in was important. In fact, Dauk says that even the idea of room service has been bandied about.

“Part of being a player in this is that you are not only looking after your own development, but you want to make it so everything in the neighbourhood gets better,” says Dauk. “Good design is good design. But the thing about good design is that you don’t know precisely which small detail elevates the living experience.”

Photograph by Paul Swanson.
Photograph by Paul Swanson.
Photograph by Paul Swanson.

Many of us are familiar with the story of the elephant’s foot. It tells us that if an elephant’s foot is tied to a post, even by the flimsiest excuse for rope there is, the animal won’t escape. The animal believes that it is trapped, and that’s enough.

Humans aren’t that different from the elephant tale. If we perceive even the smallest barriers, we turn them into massive walls. When formulating their plan for the Stadium Yards, City planners, the developer and builder had to consider the barriers that had basically broken up the neighbourhood.

The first order of business was the LRT track, which runs north-south just to the east of Stadium Road and crosses 111th Avenue. Stadium LRT station looks like a bunker that was mistakenly placed above ground rather than below it, with narrow entrances that cause massive bottlenecks during high-traffic times.

There is an existing walking/cycling path on the west side of the LRT tracks that leads to downtown, but another has been added on the east side. A new urban street, Muttart Crossing, will connect Stadium Road to 84th Street.

“What we wanted to make sure is that the new neighbourhood is super walkable,” says Backstrom. “The LRT corridor is actually an impediment to that. Now, with the new road, it’s a short walk from the Stadium or the recreation centre to the development and to the river valley.”

The new Stadium LRT station will have an open-concept design and feel, much friendlier for pedestrians. Crosswalks will allow pedestrians and cyclists to get across the tracks, and easily move from the newly developed neighbourhood to the station or across Stadium Road to the Commonwealth Recreation Centre.

“It was a matter of reconnecting all of the pieces,” says Dauk. ”The amenities were here. There’s a great grocery store and a recreation centre and transit. But there were some barriers and a hole in the middle. The City has removed those barriers and we’re working on filling it in.”

This article appears in the May 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton.

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