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$100 Million for Downtown Edmonton

Much has been made in recent days about Premier Stelmach’s statement that provincial Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funds could potentially be used to cover the $100 million missing in the arena funding puzzle. Many prominent Edmontonians, notably Edmonton Journal Urban Affairs columnist David Staples, have been vocal champions of the downtown arena project. Last Friday, David promoted the #GoDowntown hashtag on Twitter, encouraging people to use it and tweet their support for the project.

In response, I posted the following two things:

Fortunately, as you can see, David agrees with my statement in the second post.

I work downtown, and live downtown-ish (three blocks west of its technical boundary). I live here by choice. I enjoy the proximity to amenities (like the river valley trails for running and biking), the ability to walk to restaurants, pubs, and shopping, and the diverse, interesting neighbourhood that surrounds me. I’d like to see our downtown area continue to flourish, but I recognize there’s lots of good things going on, and it has made tremendous strides over the last decade or two. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and downtown Edmonton is heading in the right direction.

Getting back to my statement about the best use of $100 million, my issue with this funding going to the arena is not that project in and of itself. Rather, it is my belief that $100 million could do so much more for our downtown spent in other ways. I spent a few hours last night brainstorming how that could happen. As a caveat, some of the costs are estimates, but this gives you an idea of what $100 million could go towards.

Housing
– 1500 New Housing Unit Grants at $10,000/unit ($15 million)
– 400 New Family Housing Unit Grants at $25,000/unit ($10 million)
– 150 New Live-Work Spaces Grants at $25,000/unit ($3.75 million)

In the Capital City Downtown Plan, one of the strategies set out is a $10,000 per unit housing incentive grant in the Warehouse District. This could be expanded to the whole downtown, and help kickstart proposed projects. The Aurora project has long been on hold, and recent Edmonton Journal articles mention a proposed development in Chinatown, and interest in 40 and 50 story towers on 104th St.

Additionally, this grant could be used to encourage development of different types of units. Family units (2 or more bedrooms) are scarce, and a higher level of subsidy could encourage more family-oriented housing to be developed. Similar, live-work space is identified in the downtown plan for artists, but it could just as easily be used by any number of professions. Both would compliment and diversify the housing options available downtown. Most importantly, I estimate more than 3500 residents move in to those units (based on 1.5 per regular unit, 3 per family unit). That’s 3500 people living downtown, shopping and using amenities every day.

Preservation and Conversion
– BMO’63 Building and Odeon Theatre ($12 million)
– CKUA Building ($5 million)

While it was lamentable that City Council chose not to pursue any action in trying to save BMO’63, it’s not too late. While “demolition” may begin shortly, it’s unlikely to affect the structure for a while, as the asbestos must be removed first. So suffice to say, MSI funding could be used to compensate the owner, or purchase the building outright if action was taken quickly.

What could be done with these properties? Well, Magic Lantern Theatres, which until recently operated the Garneau, contacted GE Capital about taking over the Odeon Theatre. And with BMO’63, you could probably fit around 200 FTEs into renovated office space (similar to the Empire Building), and a restaurant/lounge on the main floor. In conversation, Martin suggested a ‘Corso64‘, which I think is a brilliant idea.

What about other ways to increase employment downtown and activity on Jasper Ave? Well, the CKUA Building is for sale, with its current tenants set to move shortly. Having been in that building, I recognize that it may be problematic to renovate for some purposes, but it does have a decent stock of office space already. There is also the space to renovate the main floor and put a restaurant/shop of some sort in. The property lists for $3.2 million, so an additional investment from the City and other investors could turn it into some form of office space for small companies or startups, or studio space for artists, to name two possible outcomes. You could probably fit another 200 or so employees in there.

Capacity Building
– Start-Up/Tech Space ($500K)
– Non-Profit Centre ($5 million)

The Edmonton Champions project calls for:

establishing physical creative and entrepreneurial hubs where the collision between great ideas and people can happen. Places where startups grow, events happen, and community gathers.

A grant to secure and convert space in the downtown core would help accomplish this. The DIY attitude of entrepreneurs would likely lead to them raising additional funds or completing additional work themselves. This space is key to growing our tech economy.

In terms of additional capacity-building, space for non-profits can be hard to come by. Providing affordable office space where they can be housed, and can learn from one another is a strategy that can strengthen Edmonton’s non-profit centre. There is an existing model too, with the Percy Page Centre, which houses many of Alberta’s sporting organizations.

Public Spaces
– Signature Art Piece for 105th St Park ($5 million)
– Renovation of Churchill Square ($10 million)
– Indoor Market and Community Centre ($7.5 million)

The downtown plan calls for a new park in the Warehouse District, and I’m told it will be going in by early next year at 105th St and 102 Ave. Commissioning signature art and attractions is a way to generate interest and activity. There’s a lot of synergy with the growing residential population, and attractions like the City Centre Market and MacEwan nearby. In terms of art and attractions, I’m thinking something unique like Avnish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Millennium Park in Chicago.

The renovations to Churchill Square could take many forms, but would be designed to increase activity and make it a year-round space. And if nothing else, the concrete would go.

Riding By

The City Centre Market, which operates on 104th St from May-October, has been looking for winter space. With the Ford dealership vacating its old space on 106th St and 103 Ave, there is a possibility to convert its old showroom into a market and community centre. I’m imaging a development like Reading Terminal in Philadelphia. The Saturday Market could remain the focus, but it could also feature a series of permanent vendors open every day, with the market space being used for different purposes outside of Saturdays in the winter.

Streetfront Initiatives
– 25 Storefront Conversion Grants at $50,000 each ($1.25 million)

An identified challenge is that many street level spaces are not pedestrian-friendly, or not being used at all. These grants would encourage development of streetfront retail space, converting shops in places like City Centre Mall outwards, and filling in empty ground-level space in many highrises along Jasper Avenue. This is another priority outlined in the downtown plan.

Green Energy
– 50 Green Energy Grants at $50,000 each ($2.5 million)

These grants would be used to encourage residential and commercial buildings to invest in green energy – solar panels, geo-thermal (if possible), green roofs, etc.

Infrastructure and Transportation
– 3 Pedestrian Bridges over 104 Ave ($15 million)
– SmartCard system for parking and services ($5 million)
– Bike Lanes, including North-South and East-West main arterials ($1.5 million)
– Bixi Program for City Centre ($1 million)

I do agree with David Staples that connectivity over 104 Ave is a problem. I don’t think we need a winter garden to be the focal point, and to draw activity away from the street, but strategically placed bridges could help connect the North Edge to downtown, increase pedestrian safety, and add a nice architectural touch to 104 Ave. Think one around 102 Ave, 105 Ave, and 107 Ave (near the future LRT stop in front of MacEwan). In terms of design, the three could all be linked, or similar, like a pedestrian version of the Three Sisters bridges in Pittsburgh.

An additional amenity for residents and visitors alike would be a Smartcard system. This could replace parking meters and also be used at other city facilities. Philadelphia has largely done away with metered parking. The Smartcard system is similar to Impark, you have one terminal on each block, and you pay with your card and print a ticket.

I find Edmonton has pretty good bike paths, but outside of the Railtown path, is missing dedicated lanes. A need for dedicated North-South and East-West axis was outlined in the downtown plan, and this would improve commuter cycling within the downtown core.

Additionally, for those who live in the downtown core, or spend time there, a Bixi system would be beneficial. It would encourage short-term trips, providing an alternative to car transportation for meetings and errands.

Next post: I attempt to quantify the impact of $100 million for an arena vs the $100 million investment I laid out above.

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