Sky’s the Limit

With the Muni gone and its building height restrictions lifted, Edmonton can finally grow up. Will it?

How high will Edmonton go?

Illustration by Jeff Kulak

In 1966, Edmonton was home to the tallest building in Western Canada, the CN Tower, which opened on the northern edge of a downtown dominated by walk-ups and warehouses. It was 111 metres tall, and its design – the boxy podium the tower sits upon, the curved facade, the vertical siding meant to exaggerate height – matched a modern aesthetic that defined the continent’s greatest cities. It was a statement that we were ready to join them and, literally, grow up.

We did, to a point. That tower was downtown’s first truly ambitious step away from bricks and mortar and toward glass and metal. Its tallest successor, however, EPCOR Tower, maxed out at 149 metres, or roughly two-thirds the size of the Bow in Calgary. We have a pretty skyline, but it’s stunted by national (and, therefore, global) standards, thanks to what Ward 6 Councillor Scott McKeen describes as an “invisible hand” pressing down on the city.

Attached to that hand was the long arm of the City Centre Airport, a few kilometres north of downtown. To pilots of descending aircraft, tall buildings are more obstructive than impressive, so Nav Canada, the company that manages Canadian airspace, kept the capital in check. Then, last November, the 86-year-old “Muni” was shuttered, relaxing its grip on the city and leaving developers – like that behind the recently proposed 71-storey Edmontonian (almost three times the height of the CN Tower) – to celebrate the fact that, barring principles of engineering and gravity, the sky is now the limit.

If, of course, conditions are right. To the positive, there is political will, points out McKeen, who is part of a council strongly supportive of infill and who’d like to see downtown’s population double. “For years, our downtown was moribund,” he says. “We didn’t care about it.” Now, we recognize that, here in Canada’s second-fastest growing city (Calgary had a slight edge, according to the 2011 census), bringing more workers and residents into the core would mean renewed vibrancy that’s fundamental to all aspects of its success.

In some ways, the direction of the condo market is another green light for loftier ambitions. Recent stats from the Edmonton Real Estate Board indicated pressure on first-time homebuyers to consider condos, given a shortage of lower-priced standalone homes. The result: A boost in year-over-year condo sales by about 15 per cent.

In other ways, that doesn’t count for much. There may be a multimillion-dollar arena staked out, and economic indicators such as GDP, building permits, employment and more that are forecast to hold strong and steady, but Edmonton developers are a cautious lot who know better than to create a situation in which supply outstrips demand.

“We’re not like Vancouver, where people are willing to buy a condo on a presale, hope the thing appreciates, and flip it in a couple years,” says real estate broker Robert McLeod, CEO of McLeod Project Marketing. Mostly, locals buy property as cash-flow rentals or homes to live in. Unlike Vancouver, out-of-towners tend not to get involved. “You can only sell so much real estate to people who are physically here,” says McLeod, who works frequently with developers looking to fill new condos, few of which he sees proceed without the backing of 35 to 50 per cent presales.

Logically, drumming up business would only get tougher with height, which will make turning the Edmontonian – or any other project of its size – into the capital’s pioneer of sky-high construction a challenge. Despite excitement last November when plans for the mixed commercial-residential building were announced, the Edmontonian was an unapproved proposal by developer BCM Homes. At the time of writing, it was in pre-consultation with the Edmonton Design Committee (which couldn’t comment on the project), the city’s advisory body for permitting new downtown projects. Approval by council comes only after committee recommendations and a public presentation of plans.

BCM – which would not commit to an interview despite several weeks of emails, phone calls and text messages to three members of the company – doesn’t have to build, of course. Sometimes, says McLeod, developers use project announcements for “testing the psychographics of the market.” He also points out that creating a plan that might lead to rezoning for higher density – a requirement for the proposed location, at 101st Street and 104th Avenue – can boost land value, making for a potentially profitable flip.

That can be a magnet for skepticism in the construction and real estate community. Shafraaz Kaba, architect and partner with Manasc Isaac and a former member of the Edmonton Design Committee, leans toward the latter of McLeod’s possibilities. “If they’ve never built a skyscraper before, the developer is probably unlikely to take on that risk,” he says. Completed projects listed on BCM’s website include no such structures. “Tall buildings are in the hundreds of millions of dollars to build.”

A flip worries McLeod less, because it still creates a high-density opportunity in a core where office space is in demand (vacancy is six to seven per cent, according to Avison Young) and at a time when more projects are moving from proposal to reality than previous years. That said, he’d agree with Kaba about execution, especially if no corporate tenant is ready to move in. Ultimately, construction “would surprise me because of the traditional nature and cautious nature in which development on that scale gets built anywhere,” he says, “let alone Edmonton.”

Likely, McKeen’s invisible hand was just one of several. Besides fiscal caution, plain fear sets a ceiling over the city. “I think we still have a psychological barrier to break through,” he says. Edmonton families, McKeen believes, struggle to picture life in his downtown ward. “We have to help people redefine the image, the mythology, of home. And home can mean a condo in a highrise.” Redefining would be ideological and physical, taking the form of new parks, rec centres, and year-round, street-level dining and shopping.

Fear may also be holding back industry, which grew accustomed to the restrictions of the Muni, built business plans around it, and so the skyline, too. It’s obviously comfortable keeping the status quo in the core, given recent condo-raisings. Icon Tower II, on 104th Street – currently Edmonton’s tallest residential building – hit just 112 metres; it will be surpassed by the Pearl, which will open this year at 119 metres. The arena-area office tower announced by the Katz Group in February will be no differerent, reaching just 27 storeys – only one higher than the CN Tower. It will likely slip seamlessly into the skyline.

Kaba believes the city is now ready for something much bigger (as long as it’s also ready, he adds, to refurbish shorter stock that will be vacated), but is willing to be patient. He worries about racing to the top. Like a flower in a bouquet, a tall building requires careful placement to preserve what he calls the “postcard image” of the city. To put a behemoth on the northern fringe of downtown, “It kind of creates an imbalance in our skyline.”

Whatever comes of BCM’s plan, credit may be due already for encouraging the city to think big, but not because, as McLeod says, “people’s perception is [that] we define any city by the size and calibre of the buildings.” Helping Edmonton grow upward could help address the pressing issue of sprawling outward. There may be a meaningful legacy in being a catalyst for that – a trade-off, perhaps, for bragging rights that tend to be short-lived.

The CN Tower was bested by the Calgary Tower (originally called the Husky Tower) a little more than two years after opening. More importantly, though, it lost its local title in 1971 to Coast Edmonton House, which soon bowed to Telus Plaza, then it to Manulife Place. In 1966, the tower and the future it represented would have been welcomed, even if it seemed out of place. Now, with it in the shadow of all it inspired, few probably pay it more than a passing glance.

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