Jasper Ave Blues: Small Investments, Big Returns

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ve probably gathered that – while not inherently opposed to mega-projects – I am often skeptical of their value and actual vs. promised benefits. I tend to think that smaller, more creative investments can often yield greater returns. Having seen successful catalyst/anchor tenant projects in other cities, I think the key is for them to be built in scale with the surrounding environment, rather than overwhelming it. But I also believe, as I said, there are creative, cost-effective ways to improve the livability of an area as well. If you think of Whyte Avenue, High Street, and 4th Street Promenade – to my mind Edmonton’s three most successful examples of (re)development in the city core, you’d be hard pressed to name an anchor tenant or single driving project for any of the three. Rather, the sum product of various small(er) businesses and amenities is what makes each area so great.

Andy’s suggestion of chess parks in Edmonton got me thinking about such small investments. There are examples, both permanent and temporary, in downtown Edmonton of such small investments, and creative use of space. The Alley of Light, and the upcoming Blink pedway pop-up restaurant event come to mind.

Pocket Parks, and Target Activities in Parks
Having evolved, and been built (and rebuilt) over decades, not everything downtown fits into neat lines or parcels. That means that there are going to be underused spaces, or properties that don’t fit an obvious, conventional use. The aforementioned Alley of Light is one example of turning a dead space into something functional, and this can be built on.

Pocket parks are one way to fill this void. The 7th and Penn Parklet in downtown Pittsburgh is one of my favourite examples (it was created after demolishing an adult bookstore).

7th & Penn Parklet

As the Parklet, with its focus on public art, shows, there also need to be things that will get people outside and using them. My observation is that unless there is a specific event happening, most of downtown Edmonton’s parks go unused even on nice days. Why not try putting chess boards, or a bocce ball court, or something that will make them stand out and draw people in? The basketball hoops that go up in Churchill Square every summer are a good example of where this is already being done. Twitter exchanges with Andy and others quickly identified the following possibilities for a chess park downtown: the area behind Milner Library, the space just north of Scotia Tower, Beaver Hills Park on 105th and Jasper, along Rice Howard Way adjacent to patios. And that’s just off the top of our heads. There are numerous creative things we can do with public space that will encourage more use, and pedestrian traffic, in good and bad weather.

Art in Unexpected Places
Murals and statues are popular forms of art, but I enjoy seeing art in other places and forms, in particular when it transforms something that’s otherwise mundane.

Power and Colour

Throughout downtown Victoria, many of the power boxes are painted, bringing colour and life to otherwise unremarkable (aesthetically-speaking) objects.

Flora in Creative Places
Like with art, this is a way to bring character, and colour, to a street or building. A couple of my favourite examples:


The plants growing on this building in Boston (somewhere between Newbury Street and Storrow Drive) make it stand out amongst a row of identical brick buildings.


The potted plants along the edge of the parkade (background) add life to an otherwise sterile building in Chicago’s Loop.

Heat and Fire to Extend the Patio Season
It amazes me how little Edmonton businesses do to extend patio season. While only the heartiest Edmontonians (probably not enough to create a value proposition for business owners) would use a patio in -20 weather, I think a combination of heating, warm clothes, and alcohol to warm the blood would make patios a viable proposition when it’s around freezing, if not even a bit colder.

Cadillac Ranch
This patio at the Cadillac Ranch restaurant in downtown Cleveland has a fire pit to keep guests warm. This was taken on a November day, when weather (with the wind chill) was probably around freezing.

A couple of examples from San Diego. Yes, San Diego, with average low temperatures of 10 degrees celsius.


The heat lamps above each table at Fred’s Mexican Cafe on 5th make the patios hospitable late into the night, and allow guests the option of whether or not they want to use them.


Davanti in Little Italy not only has outdoor heaters for its back patio, but the patio itself is a creative use of space. They expanded and took over the back alley in order to add this section.

It just stuns me that they do this effectively in San Diego, yet neither business owners nor consumers are promoting this in Edmonton.

Improving the livability of downtown, and making it more interesting and amenable to spend time in (especially along the street) is a key, cost-effective way to make downtown a more interesting place to be. I noted some initiatives already underway, and I hope we continue to build on them, and pursue other initiatives of this type to improve our downtown.


8 Responses

  1. Good post, Alex. At the recent City of Edmonton WinterCity Strategy workshops there was a lot of talk about how Nordic countries embrace in winter (specifically Scandinavia). Councillor Ben Henderson spoke about his recent visit to Norway, Sweden, and Finland and examples he saw of how people in those northern countries embraced outdoor activities in the winter. Canadians like to talk about how much tougher we are because of the cold, but I can’t help but think we are faking it. We don’t embrace the cold or the type of activities, like outdoor heated cafes or, perhaps, chess parks, or other more active activities that could help our communities and city core become a little more vibrant in telling-winter months.


    • Thanks, Dave. Agree completely that we’re faking it regarding winter – at least to some extent. It’s a stark contrast with Scandinavian cities, from everything I can tell.

  2. Some really great examples there Alex! Extending patios into the shoulder seasons would really make a difference, and as you pointed out, it shouldn’t be that difficult to do!

    Good point about Whyte, 4th, and High Street and the lack of an easily recognizable anchor. I’m gonna use that!

    • Thanks, Mack! We could add Alberta Ave to that list as well, come to think of it. If there is an anchor tenant, wouldn’t it be The Carrot, which is about as far away from being a mega-project as you can get?

  3. Alex, clearly the University of Alberta anchors Whyte Avenue.

    124th is anchored by its collection of galleries.

    104th is anchored by its high-rise condos.

    • Jonny, thanks for your comment. You’re correct in that these institutions help support activity in their respective areas, but I disagree with the assertion that they “anchor” them.

      U of A certainly helps support Whyte Ave, but is too far removed to be a true anchor (especially when you get east of 109 St).

      Anchor institutions are considered large businesses/organizations that thus make development in the rest of the area feasible – and, de facto, would severely hamper the area if they left. 124 St would rebound fine if a handful of the galleries move on. If anything, it’s the proximity to residents of Glenora, Westmount, and Oliver with high disposable incomes that “anchor” the area.

      As for 104 St, most of what gone in there precedes the Icon Towers.

      • re: UofA and Whyte:

        Whyte Ave is practically impossible to differentiate from any number of University focused shopping and entertainment streets around the globe.

        Whyte Ave’s life didn’t extend to the U of A because retail shopfronts simply weren’t available until recently. With the development of College Plaza as retail, Whyte Ave’s Centre of gravity has shifted, and will continue to shift as retail space is added West of 109. Mark my words, if more retail is allowed to be buit, it will be filled almost instantly until we have a smooth transition right from 103 to 112. Including the churches and car dealerships, should they be allowed to transition.

        Compare this to how marginal development continues to be East of CP Rail.

        The other end of _stable_ Whyte is and will continue to be anchored by the 7 member Performing Arts Venue Cluster on 103 Avenue, and it wasn’t until the cluster’s genesis (catalysed by the Fringe Festival) that Whyte ever began to resurface.

        Any development outside those two anchors is always bound to be marginal and fluctuating.

        re: Condo’s and 104 Street:

        The beginnings of the 104 revival did precede the Icon towers, but did not precede The Century and The Legacy. Please note that I am not defending the architechture of _any_ of them, just that it is their larger numbers of residents which make it possible to reward the creativity of the entrepreneurs on 104.

        re: Galleries and 124 Street:

        Certainly the condos on West Jasper and the affluence of Glenora also allow 124 to flourish, but before the Gallery Walk Association, 124 Street was aimless and tending downward. Ask the 124th people themselves.

        In conclusion, obviously any would be shopping and entertainment district requires either sources of or destinations for human beings to “anchor” it. That would be districts also require effort and imagination on behalf of their retail proprietors is not in dispute, but that it would be fruitless without sheer amounts of sidewalk traffic.

  4. “7 member Performing Arts Venue Cluster on 103 Avenue”

    that should read “103 Street”, of course.

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