Jasper Ave Blues: Downtown’s Heart is Already Alive and Beating

Edmontonians were abuzz earlier this week when new images of the proposed downtown arena were first released, leaked by Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples, then officially posted by the City of Edmonton.

Overhead shot of proposed new arena and adjacent office tower to the south (City of Edmonton)

Initial reaction to the design was largely positive; I include myself in that group. If nothing else, it exceeded my expectations. Writing about it in the Journal the next day, David Staples called it ‘a sleek, futuristic heart transplant to pump some life into our downtown.’ A critic might call this hyperbole, but at the very least I believe we owe David the right to take some poetic license with his words. Nonetheless, the message behind it points to the thinking and motivation of many arena advocates, and why many – including myself – have been critical. It highlights two different visions – if not inherently opposed, then often conflicting – of how to build a vibrant downtown. One is a big-scale, big-project, top-down approach. The other is grassroots, supporting a series of small, incremental steps that – together – create a large cumulative impact.

“the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like”.

– Jane Jacobs, ‘Downtown is for People

If we examine downtown Edmonton through this lens, we see that the most successful endeavors are coming not from the top down, but from the ground up. Churchill Square struggles to create vibrancy; City Centre Mall turns it back to the community. Meanwhile, new condos are in high demand, 4th Street is booming, and you can’t get a table at Corso32.

Jacobs’ article points to the value of people – both as intuitive judges of what makes a downtown work, and – in my mind – the ones who truly bring value to downtown. I believe the heartbeat of any successful community is its people. People drive business growth, they drive good government and civic institutions. They drive activity, and create places other people want to be. By this metric, downtown Edmonton’s heart is alive and beating.

This is evident in downtown residents like Mack Male and Sharon Yeo, who are bringing activity to the area with events like What the Truck? and Blink Edmonton. In entrepreneurs like the Start Up Edmonton group and my friend Justin Archer (and the rest of Unit B) who are creating vibrant new work spaces in older buildings, and the many other business owners bringing life to downtown with new restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, and retail locations. It’s evident in the hard work of the Downtown Edmonton Community League and the 4th Street Promenade Steering Committee. It’s demonstrated by the commitment of civic institutions like the Edmonton Public Library, who are building a downtown more inclusive of the most marginalized citizens through its new outreach office, and Edmonton Police Services, with its efforts to assist vulnerable persons through its downtown division.

To use the heart transplant metaphor, both sides of this debate can agree that the patient – downtown – needs rehabilitation. One side would argue that only a major transplant – a dramatic gesture in spite of all other courses of action – can bring it back to health. The other would point out that incremental steps and changes over time have already made a difference. The transplant is an option, but it’s by no means a guarantee for success, and the process comes with inherent risks (including failure). The incremental approach will take longer, but is ultimately the more prudent course.

I’m firmly on the side of an incremental approach. I believe people are already voting with their feet for what kind of downtown they want.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, life is a series of successful gestures, so too is a vibrant community. We don’t need a transplant. We need to recognize, celebrate, and support the things that are making a difference. The sooner we recognize that downtown’s heart is alive and beating in the citizens investing in making it a better and better place, and start focusing on supporting and scaling up the things that are giving it more and more life, the sooner we’ll achieve the downtown we all want for our city.


12 Responses

  1. I agree Alex. Since there WILL be an arena, I think there are ways to explore doing both at once: to create a top-down piece of infrastructure or a master-planned renovation that is informed by a bottom-up spirit. The Distillery District in Toronto is a perfect example, and I think the Katz Group is open to incorporating that bottom-up energy into what they’re doing. It would be nice if we could get past the shivs soon and start working together on this. They are reaching out to some of those bottom-up organizations you rightly mention. If that bottom-up spirit is not incorporated into what the City of Edmonton and Katz Group are doing, because some people refused to take part in something they opposed, I’m not sure whose victory that will be.

  2. I can’t help but read Todd’s comments and think that he read something entirely different than what Alex posted. Or that he just read into it what he wanted. The entire point is that you can’t do both at once. This is especially the case when public funds are being used to support the megaprojects, which means they aren’t available to aid in other, smaller initiatives. To quote Alex: “It highlights two different visions – if not inherently opposed, then often conflicting – of how to build a vibrant downtown.”

    I also don’t agree with the idea that those opposed to public funding of the arena should just get past it and get on board. There is still $100 million of public funding missing; even if it wasn’t, citizens have every right to voice their complaint about what they perceive as a misappropriation of public dollars. What Todd is calling for is a bizarre, and dangerous, combination of fatalism and boosterism. I for one am not interested in sitting around the campfire singing “Kumbaya” with Mr. Katz and Mr. Mandel. I’ll leave that to Todd’s former colleagues at the Journal.

  3. You left one important player off your bottom up list; the Downtown Farmers Market. AT seven years of age it is the granddaddy of 104 street revitalization. Now the move to city hall in the winter is bringing life to that precinct as well.

    • Jon – good point. I couldn’t recognize every person and group making a difference in downtown. The market is a big one (and one of my favourites), especially in the summer.

  4. Why can’t you do both at once, Andy? Cities all around the world have managed to do both at once, top-down and bottom-up. It isn’t easy and it isn’t operating that way at the moment but it could if the groups Alex mentions were to be invited into this process: entrepreneurs, artists, community groups. I didn’t write about this when I was at the Journal for a good reason: I was conflicted about it. But if we’re building an arena — we, because we have a public stake in it whether you like it or not — ought to collaborate. This isn’t Vichy France. It’s a hockey arena.

  5. My opinion falls somewhere between Andy’s and Todd’s. Yes, you can do both at once, but Andy correctly points to the opportunity cost of mega-projects (from a financial perspective, as well as the land and the amount of time/energy people are putting into it). I’m not inherently opposed to a downtown arena, but I think we should be realistic about what it is and not view it through the prism of ‘revitalization’. Will it succeed? Maybe. Depends on your definition of success, of course. But I’m in large part wary of mega-projects because the history of them over several decades (in this city and others) points to underwhelming performance, and broken promises from the proponent’s original proposal. My biggest wish for downtown is to see more people living and working there, which will then spur future development (those people living there are going to need grocery stores, coffee shops, etc). The opportunity cost of that much land and public dollars is huge.

    What I have said all along is that investing in small-scale projects is a better investment, and I maintain that. My earlier post I linked to makes it clear that I believe we’ll see greater impact for downtown by investing $100 million across a variety of projects, rather than one arena.

    If a citizen opposed something, it’s up to them individually to decide to what extent they will participate/support it once it’s been approved. Both are legitimate courses of action. The big question is whether or not we can infuse the principles of small-scale development into the arena project? History says probably not. However, initiatives like focusing on preservation and repurposing of existing building stock in the area (rather than bulldozing and rebuilding), and focusing on high-level principles, rather than master planning, would be positive steps.

    • The executive summary version of this is “yes, you can do both at once, but the small-scale work will suffer at the expense of mega-projects”.

  6. But Alex, you dismiss the “anchor” idea right out of hand, no?

    As if 20,000 people milling around won’t spur a competition for their attention. You have to really suspend your disbelief to read this kind of stuff.

    • That 20,000 number is misleading. You’re really talking about 45-50 nights (counting pre-season and assuming a playoff appearance) when the arena will be full for hockey. Junior Hockey and Lacrosse draw significantly less (probably closer to 5000 average) and the capacity of the arena for concerts will be diminished (and probably not sell out most of the time).

      In addition to that, we have to consider that:
      – downtown is already capturing some of the pre-game/post-game entertainment crowd.
      – other areas will still compete for it.
      – the arena itself will capture much of that business, rather than seeing it spill over to the surrounding area.

      There seems to be this misconception that by putting restaurants and bars around an arena, people will automatically want to go there. Will making it convenient help? Yes (but possibly at the expense of Whyte Ave, Jasper Ave, etc. which is already capturing some of this crowd). Most of all, it’s not going to change the demands on people’s time. An arena district won’t mean they no longer have to go home in between work and the game to let the dog out, or pick up the kids from school, feed them, and wait for the babysitter to arrive before going out again. It won’t mean that people no longer have early morning meetings the day after hockey games.

      What I’ve said throughout this is that I’m interested in what’s going to have the most impact. While I feel it’s overblown, I’ve never suggested the arena will have no impact at all on the area.

      My challenge to you, and other arena advocates, is this. Rather than throwing out statements like “20,000 people milling around” and assuming the benefit is self-evident, describe exactly what success will look like. What kind of uptake should downtown bars and restaurants see on a Wednesday game night compared to a regular Wednesday? How many businesses should we expect to relocate to the area? And how will this happen without adversely affecting those types of businesses in other parts of the city?

      Once we have an idea of what the arena is expected to do for downtown (besides the shell game of ‘new tax revenue’), we’ll be in a position to evaluate whether or not it’s actually a success.

  7. For starters, your 45-55 nights of capacity doesn’t seem to include concerts. Is that an intentional omission?

    For seconders The Rush have averaged 11,000 in their first season, and around 8,000 since, while the Oil Kings averaged around 5,000 to begin this season, but around 7,000 since the World Junior Champs. You can argue that I am overstating the 20,000 (but I wasn’t intending that to represent anything but a rounding of the top end), but I’d just as soon argue you’re on the pesimistic side. Regardless, 5,000 is actually more than [Winspear sellout+Citadel sellout (all 5 theatres)+a crowded AGA+a crowded Milner] (which the arts district simply has never gotten, with around 3,000 being a big night.) not to diss the arts or anything, just to point out 5,000 is actually a significant wave of people, the likes of which downtown simply _does _not _see_ in the evenings currently.

    For thirders, the hardest time to draw people is winter, and that’s when I admit the thing draws most of its 20,000 class crowds. That makes it especially valuable for places depending on walking traffic year-round. Summers have festivals and patios. Winters are the tough one.

    For fourthers, whatever the math, why not just look critically at the stunning corelation between downtown arenas and downtown vibrancy? You and Andy and Colby could argue that Vanc, T.O., Montréal having downtown arenas and far and away better downtowns than any other city in Canada is a coincidence, but why does that coincidence extend to virtually any downtown with an NBA or NHL arena? Rather than a coincidence, it’s just a _big_ coincidence?

    But anyway, to at least address your challenge, in the spirit that you’ll consider attempting mine. In short it’s a question of dynamics, not percentages.

    1 – A restaurant like Corso32 obviously can’t expect any increase. Once you’re at capacity, you’re at capacity. This goes for any place that typically has a lineup. Does that mean measuring Corso’s statistics is useful? No. Utterly pointless.

    3 – How much would you expect a bar South of Jasper Ave to benefit on game night? – Not as much as a bar on 104 and 104.

    4 – How many bars are currently on 104 and 104, and how does their capacity stack up to the arena? – Exactly.

    I hope you’re getting the point about dynamics, because if you seriously need to have an answer in terms of percentages, I’m only going to refer you again to Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and L.A., where arenas related in concept to ours have actually been tested.

    Alex, the way it works is simply this:

    What the arena will do is bring regular, large-up-to-tidal waves of opportunity (wallets and eyes on legs) directly downtown, and it is up to the proprietors to attempt to catch those eyes.

    At the beginning it could absolutely swamp everything within two blocks, for an hour or more before and maybe after every event. But right from year two, it’s going to be a competition of who can find a business plan that appeals enough to slow people down.

    So a restaurant like Corso32 won’t necessarily increase its sales, and a restaurant with little going for it won’t necessarily either, but what should happen is we get other busy and attractive proprietorships to go along with it.

    The total capacity of restaurants and whatnot simply cannot go much beyond the amount of people around, and the arena is only going to increase that potential maximum.

  8. (oops, and the conclusion is:)

    It will remain the domain of the proprietors how that potential is chanelled.

  9. I appologise I’m a bit scattered (my excuse is waking up too early to test out the new YEG-LRT transit service) but I neglected the final part of your challenge:

    “And how will this happen without adversely affecting those types of businesses in other parts of the city?”

    Number one, anyone who tries to tell anyone that this is a “zero sum game” will be completely unable to explain the economic base of Las Vegas. Zero Sum Game only works if the city has a wall around it. Edmonton already punches way over its weight with WEM bringing in more visitors than the Rocky Mountains get, and producing a safe, attractive, and exciting downtown to go with WEM can definitely add to our net-visits. Downtown, while it’s finally gotten its pulse back, has been indisputably our weakest point since the 2001 airport expansion removed its competition. A negative (relative to any downtown of the largest 20 CDN cities except Regina) turned to a positive, in a way is a double positive.

    Number two, we have to consider the present situation. While you point out that some pre-post-event energy is already spent downtown, really it’s a fraction of the people attending the events themselves. If it turns out the majority of people eat microwaved dinners at home on these evenings, it would only be affecting the frozen-prepared-meal industry negatively, and how much of that is based in Edmonton?

    Number three, while I guarantee that Northlands will be changed, you have to understand or admit that Northlands today consists of an adequately competitive break-even trade show hall, a money losing and horse track (before the provincial government’s subsidy), a money losing arena (before the City’s expiring Oiler-retaining subsidy), and a wildly profitable parking lot complex. Ask yourself seriously Alex, with all our urban ambitions, how much would we miss a 1.1 km long surface parking lot?

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