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    July 2011
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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.

– 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.


11 Responses

  1. Wow. When you lay it out like that, even a quarter of that stuff could change our downtown.

    2+ bedroom units would be a big one, as you’d more quickly fill downtown with residents and need to diversify the entertainment and amenity options for families.

  2. Fantastic job, Alex.

  3. While I like some of the ideas in this post (Streetfront Initiatives,Preservation and Conversion, some capacity development) – some are less than desirable.

    1. Residential development incentives likely won’t help anything. Downtown is already filled with ‘luxury’ (read: overpriced) condos, particularly in the ‘warehouse’ district (I prefer to call it the ‘parking’ district). Giving developers $10k to $25k per unit is just that, giving it to them. Housing prices will rise to meet demand (the market is ridiculously skewed right now however, due to the bubble which from which housing prices will not drop – no one is selling it at a loss) and the supply will simply sit unused as cheaper homes remain available in the’burbs. Add to that city councils terrible transit plans which essentially subsidize more suburban development by building free parking for cheap transit which only gets used to shuttle people to and from downtown when they have to go for work. My belief is that the money would simply end up in developers pockets either as a premium on their projects or a cost reduction allowing them to sell the same units which are already glutting the market (Icon, Quest, Pearl) and are completely out of reach financially for younger couples, familes, etc…)

    2. Infrastructure. We need less parking, not more and what we do have does not need help – it’s just enabling more cars to come in for a minute and leave again. A German study found that cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users spent more time and money in commercial districts than auto users. Each parking space we (the city) operates is a huge drain on the city. If you walk through the ‘warehouse’ (or any other part of downtown) on a Saturday afternoon you would be hard pressed to find any parking lot which was even close to capacity – add to that the extremely inexpensive city operated on street parking and we are offering yet another incentive for people to not stay downtown for any length of time. In California they found that as road capacity increased so did sprawl and it is likely that parking capacity will create the same effect.

    Also, why should citizens pay (especially non-drivers like me) for a ‘smartcard’ system for cars when we can’t even get something remotely smart for transit? I have to line up every month to get a bus pass because the city refuses (I have asked them, repeatedly) to provide any other option. I have never gotten a straight answer as to why this is, either.

    As for adding pedestrian overpasses – they are simply another way to accommodate more traffic by marginalizing the activities we wish to foster. Pedestrian overpasses tell the world that people are less important than cars and should walk farther, and with more difficulty than cars should be allowed to move. I realize it is a cheaper option than underpasses for traffic, but it also sends a clear societal message that people come second.

    Some more (a lot more) bicycle parking would be appreciated, as would some better transit shelters and better locations for transit stops. Waiting on 102 ave and 101 street after dark for a bus? I’m glad I am a relatively fit young male – because that stop would be terrifying for anyone else, I imagine. That is only one example, there are many more.

    In the end I believe that streetfront commercial and better pedestrian facilities (why is 2/3 of downtown eyesore surface parking?) would help a great deal, combined with some more realistic housing options (cheaper condos which aren’t total dumps, maybe offer subsidies to recently graduated or current students or persons new to the city). A properly developed (and located) arena project COULD help with the first two, but alas, the city decides to maintain acres of parking on Jasper ave and push what could be some positive development to the edge of downtown, likely because they can c0-locate another wonderful parking structure next to a single-purpose, closed 3/4 of the time arena. As it stands whatever money we get will likely be wasted by city council on pet projects such as unnecessary suburban transit and more infrastructure for cars and not people.

  4. […] are positives, as noted, in the report. Based on my last post about downtown investment, readers can correctly assume that I’m happy to see promised […]

  5. […] $100-million could go a long way toward a lot of things. […]

  6. […] about the value proposition from a public investment perspective, and think it could yield more return on investment in other ways, I am thrilled that it’s prospect appears to be boosting investor confidence in […]

  7. […] firmly on the side of an incremental approach. I believe people are already voting with their feet for what kind of downtown they […]

  8. […] Are we allergic to public space? Are we afraid of each other? Determined to micro-manage every aspect of our interactions into oblivion? Why do we have to invest so heavily in private projects (which seem to inevitably lose us money) when we could invest that same money in public projects that will yield tangible benefits? To me, ensuring that transit is tip-top and accessible, investing heavily in libraries and public recreation centres and bolstering services that benefit seniors are all things that make our city healthy. Just imagine how much we could do with $450 Million dollars! (Alex Abboud has written about this). […]

  9. […] on its “$450-million” budget I thought I would simplify the reason this project – and absolutely nothing else in the world that you could spend half-a-billion dollars on – holds the key to Edmonton’s […]

  10. […] will continue to hammer the point about opportunity cost, and it needs to be said again here. In particular when dealing with the public investment side, we […]

  11. […] So, if the project got delayed, downtown would see its investor confidence shaken in the short term, but creative organizations and entrepreneurs would find a way to forge ahead. And as I said on Twitter, imagine if key decision-makers devoted even a fraction of their efforts that have gone into this project into supporting small-scale ventures that could yield big results (I put forward some ideas here). […]

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