Love and Hate in the Edmonton Pedway

What should we stick in those walkways – dynamite or ideas?

Early one morning this October, Mayor Don Iveson rode an escalator from the LRT platform to the main pedway hall of Central Station, where a gaggle of reporters was waiting. Iveson walked past the throng, entered his friend Nate Box’s new coffee nook, Burrow, and started pulling espresso. But though he was deep within Edmonton’s pedway, Iveson was determined not to acknowledge it. 

“Every time something original happens in Edmonton, it’s noteworthy,” Iveson said, as he handed out Burrow’s first coffee at the caf’s grand opening. The noteworthy bit, Iveson explained, was that the underground space Burrow occupies has sat unused – like all other commercial pads roughed into the LRT subway – since Central Station was constructed 36 years ago. Iveson then credited Box for helping drive Edmonton’s food scene forward, making the city more attractive for residents and the thousands of new people moving here each year. “And now, to be able to do that right within our LRT system, because transit’s a big part of [attracting new residents], you know, it’s a really good fit.”

But notice, if you will, the absence of the word “pedway” there. Edmonton’s LRT is, of course, the backbone of its downtown pedway system. But while LRT is viewed as a messiah for downtown revitalization, the pedways attached to it are seen by some as the plague. A group of influential people so dislike the pedway system that one, Councillor Ben Henderson, recently said he’d “love to take dynamite” to it. Serving coffee at Burrow, then, Iveson kept batting the word away. He talked of how Box’s subway gastro-java shop was evidence of Edmonton’s new, “big-city feel,” and looked nonplussed when reporters prodded on the pedway question. Don’t places like Burrow, in the pedway, rob streets of vibrancy, one reporter asked? Burrow exists in a space that “isn’t so much a pedway” as it is an LRT station, Iveson said. OK, but isn’t the LRT system part of the pedway? “Well it is, but I’m not going to argue that with you,” he said.

Iveson’s discomfort speaking about a big part of our downtown redevelopment raises the prospect that the pedway conversation has itself become a problem. Thanks to our unprecedented construction boom, the pedway, like the LRT, is growing. On the same day that Burrow opened, Iveson later helped announce a new, 26-storey Delta Hotel, which will feature a pedway connection to the Oilers’ new, half-billion-dollar arena – which, you guessed it, features a pedway. Count them and you’ll find that Edmonton is building nine new pedways at the moment, with several more proposed. Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples has called this our “golden age” of pedways. And yet as developers build the underground walkways to connect an estimated five million new downtown visitors each year to LRT stations and amenities, several influential voices are attacking them. The result is a discomfort speaking of what’s happening while it nonetheless happens. It’s a situation that threatens to dampen downtown revitalization by robbing us of words and, worse, ideas.

The Pedway is Born

In 1962, Edmonton dreamt big. Thinking of the future, planners consulted with Frankfurt, Hannover and Rotterdam on a plan for a commuter train running from the suburbs to the downtown, even though we had less than 300,000 people back then. The train we built was big-city ambitious – a New York-style subway below Jasper Avenue featuring fast light rail. Between 1974 and 1989, the city invested $65 million to build the subway and the internal walkways that each of the stations contained, and more private walkways were built to connect it all. Eventually this walkway network grew to 13 kilometres long, linked 40 buildings and had 20 different owners. It became known as the pedway.

First, Edmonton had a case of pedway love. When it was built, it was an office-worker’s dream, sheltering car and LRT commuters walking in the downtown from Edmonton’s hated winters. And the pedway slowly highlighted a class divide, too – it created a way for downtown workers (the majority of whom, like today, didn’t live downtown) to avoid what they saw as sketchy streets. “At least there are no people you have to worry about bothering you in here,” one woman in the pedway told the Edmonton Journal in 1993.

Next came indifference. Between 1981 and 1990, the provincial government axed more than 11,000 employees, many of whom worked in downtown offices. Corporate workers were laid off, too, and downtown streets and pedways died. Buried within this, says Jim Taylor, executive director of the Downtown Business Association and co-chair of the Pedway and Wayfinding Committee with City Council, is the shift in perception about pedways. Parts of the pedway were shuttered during the period due to store closures, Taylor says. “There were dead ends that emerged. People stopped thinking about it as a system.” Though that’s changed, Taylor says negative pedway perceptions remain.

Next, however, came something approaching hate. In 2007, Scott McKeen, then a columnist with the Edmonton Journal, pushed for downtown to rediscover its mojo and argued that pedways were preventing that: “Close the damn pedway,” he wrote. In the column, McKeen claimed, as many urban thinkers have, that pedways allow people to stay inside and in turn starve outside streets of pedestrian life. His view is shared by several influential people in Edmonton and his disdain for the pedway has remained since he joined City Council. This September, when the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce released a policy in favour of the pedway, the ensuing Twitter debate saw McKeen insinuate that those who use pedways are wimpy.

In 2010, this view almost became policy when the city spoke with a consultant from Denmark on the Civic Precinct Master Plan. “I sat in a workshop … and listened to the [Danish] guy over the speakerphone say that one of their recommendations was to open the pedways to the elements, lower the temperature so people had to wear coats,” says Taylor. “So, if you had to put a coat on anyway, you may as well go out on the street. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And yet we still have at least three city councillors, and the mayor will talk about it a little, who aren’t fans of the pedways. It’s mind boggling.”

Research suggests most pedway users actually see the system positively, for its utility and weather protection. After interviewing 44 people in the pedway this summer and 59 people online, The Edmonton Wayfinding Society (which, full disclosure, I founded in 2013) found that 94 per cent of them described the pedway as “useful” and 76 per cent chose to walk in it due to weather. McKeen and others might want to take note: Few survey respondents knew how to get to a street from underground pedways, thanks to bad signage, and few used pedways exclusively, but rather mixed them with walks on streets and rides in cars, LRT or buses (and fully 27 per cent said they were using the pedway to avoid construction and sidewalk closures, and 20 per cent said they were avoiding cars).

Still, McKeen and the haters do have a point: Pedways are often easier than a maze to get lost in. Most in Edmonton are beige and anodyne to the point of laughter. Pedways can force people along set routes rather than allowing them to explore. And cities like Minneapolis have found that building too many pedways can turn downtown life inwards. All of these reasons mean that pedways are “a sort of non-place,” says Aidan Rowe, an associate professor of design studies at the University of Alberta. “One pedway is often like another pedway, which is like another pedway.”

Then there is cost. Each of the recent pedway debates – the proposed $30-million pedway demanded by the University of Alberta to be part of the Galleria project, the $30-million pedway requested by Northlands, or you name the pedway – have hinged on it. While Edmontonians may like using pedways, they sure like their public money spent on other things, such as the LRT, more.

But ultimately, the anti-pedway refrain is about street life. “The pedway detractors appear married to the belief that it is only through having people on outdoor sidewalks that we will achieve a vibrant downtown,” says James Cumming, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. Thanks to Edmonton’s weather and car culture, Cumming believes pedways actually add to downtown vibrancy, keeping people on their feet in the winter. “Having options for getting around encourages pedestrian traffic and vibrancy,” he says. By allowing negative talk to devalue pedways, the Chamber’s pro-pedway policy argues, we may in fact prevent projects that include them from realizing their full potential.

Can We Love the Pedway Again?

The DBA’s Jim Taylor talks excitedly of Edmonton’s new pedways, especially at MacEwan University that, with a few added connections (which may not be built, due to budget concerns and politics), could link internal walkways from 97th Street to Oliver Square. Similar missing, relatively cheap connections currently prevent walkers from getting to the Shaw Conference Centre easily from many parts of downtown, he says.

But Taylor’s main fear is the future. Today, he says, 80,000 people commute daily into downtown. When the arena district is complete, however, the number is expected to swell a huge amount when considering one million extra people will come through during just one hockey season.

“That’s an amazing number of people who are going to be in the downtown who aren’t in the downtown now,” says Taylor. “They will use the pedway system when the weather is inclement.” And yet, thanks to the negative tone of the debate, little is being done to prepare the pedway. “It needs people who don’t talk about it in terms of black and white, because the pedway system is not all-or-nothing.”

This grey zone is actually where most stand on the pedway. “Many thoroughly enjoy pedways at all times of the year,” says Ian O’Donnell, a member of the Top 40 Under 40 class of 2013 and the vice-president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League. O’Donnell was a vocal opponent to the Katz Group’s original, pedway proposal across 104th Avenue for the downtown arena. Regardless, he takes a more pragmatic view, even of the pedway at the arena. “Was it needed? I would say no,” O’Donnell says. “But seeing that we’ve included it, let’s ensure it’s bright, inviting and well programmed.”

Rowe agrees. Rather than dynamite, “We need to embrace pedways,” he says. “What’s needed now, though, is our shaping them, reclaiming them and seeing how they can move from non-places to unique and valuable places.”

Wouldn’t pedway detractors achieve the street vibrancy they desire more quickly by heeding that advice? By acknowledging the pedway is useful, is part of LRT and thus is a street system itself that needs to be improved rather than destroyed? Wouldn’t creating better signage and identification within the pedways help LRT riders, walkers and tourists to better walk our downtown? Wouldn’t embracing the lessons of Burrow – which is currently pushing for an indoor patio now, thanks to wild success – teach us that life in the pedway doesn’t rob the street, but instead adds to it by building the transit culture that other big cities have?

“Pedways are blank slates” in Edmonton, says Rowe. “They present the opportunity to be transformed from the mundane and forgettable to the special and unique.”

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