Big Idea 2011: Downtown Dream

Big Idea 2011: Downtown Dream Is the City finally ready to revitalize the Quarters? by Charles Rusnell Illustration by Graham Roumieu Tightrope walker Karl Wallenda fell to his death in 1978, at age 73, while attempting a walk between two hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His family blamed…

Big Idea 2011: Downtown Dream

Is the City finally ready to revitalize the Quarters?

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Tightrope walker Karl Wallenda fell to his death in 1978, at age 73, while attempting a walk between two hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His family blamed disconnected guidewires. Poor planning and preparation, in other words.

As the top city planner and all-around visionary in charge of the Quarters Downtown, Walter Trocenko knows he’s up on the wire. But he insists the Quarters is not going to fail this time – and certainly not because of a lack of planning.

“I am a firm believer in this project,” Trocenko says of the City-led redevelopment of the 18 city blocks that extend from 97th Street to 92nd Street, and from 103A Avenue to the top of the river valley. “The time is right.”

The east side of downtown Edmonton has been an open sore for decades, an urban wasteland of weed-strewn parking lots, scummy bars, dive hotels, drunks, druggies, hookers, pimps and avert-your-eyes squalor. At least two past attempts to revitalize the area have failed for various reasons, depending on who you talk to.

But this time, it seems to be coming together. The economy is on the rise and the province has pumped some housing money into the inner city. However, the “key ingredient,” says Mayor Stephen Mandel, is Walter Trocenko.

“There is no question among the council that he was the right man in the right place at the right time for this project,” Mandel says. “The passion and enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit he brought to this project was extraordinary.”

Writer Candas Jane Dorsey has won awards for her science fiction, but as vice-president of the Boyle Street Community League, she’s a realist when it comes to the kind of urban social engineering that always seems to put capitalism before community.

But, like the mayor, she also ascribes to the Trocenko right-man, right-time theory. She says she respects Trocenko because he spent decades learning the planning craft (his first big project was Rice Howard Way in the early ’80s). She cautiously supports the Quarters Project because of his team’s sincere efforts at inclusiveness, its sensitivity to preserving heritage buildings, such as the Koermann building on 96th Street, and because of its vision for how an inner-city neighbourhood should work.

“For years, the city grew by sprawling, and by depending on the automobile, and now we have some planners who are trying to create plans that depend on the opposite: higher density, pulling people back into the centre of the city and providing services they need right there,” Dorsey says.

She adds, “In some ways it’s a perilous endeavour, but it is also an admirable endeavour in terms of what we need as a city.”

That isn’t to say the planners ignored the importance of private investment. To the contrary, they went after it with a vengeance.

“It’s always been about attracting the money, attracting the investment to the area,” Trocenko says, “but in a way that is sensitive to the community’s needs and expectations.”

Of course, that means near-endless meetings to build consensus, which, in turn, slows the process – and developers normally don’t have the words slow and steady in their lexicon. But somehow, developers have been patient.

“There seems to be a big partnership going on,” says Claudio Raimondi of BCM Developments, which is planning to break ground before year’s end on a 27-storey tower at the corner of 95th Avenue and Jasper Avenue. “The revised version of the plan is already three or four years old but everyone is trying to follow that particular mandate, and so far, month by month, it always seems to be moving forward at a nice steady pace toward the goal of revitalizing that area.”

Recently, council approved $56 million in spending for infrastructure in the area, to be repaid from a special tax levy on new development.Another $110 million can be approved down the road. With that taxpayer commitment, Trocenko and his team are up on the wire and there is no turning back.

 “I would like to have six cranes on the horizon on the east side of downtown by March of 2012,” he says. “And if that happens, and we’re very close, that will be a game changer.”

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