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Jasper Ave Blues: The Employment Challenge

A recent blog post by Edmonton Journal writer Elise Stolte caught my attention. In it, she highlights a project approved but on hold, to be located on the popular 104th Street, Edmonton’s ‘Warehouse District’. The reason? Melcor – the developer – can’t find tenants.

Riding By

It seemed curious at first, given the wave of recent announcements of new condos, and renovated and reopened buildings such as the Jaffer and Mercer. Many, including myself, have trumpeted the growing appeal of downtown – in particular 104th – for businesses and residents alike.

In her story, Stolte quotes Dan Eggert of Melcor (disclosure: Dan is a friend), who makes what I believe is a salient point about Edmonton’s economy – that many of Edmonton’s current employers don’t prioritize downtown. One could go further and identify the fact that many of Edmonton’s leading industries just aren’t suited for a truly urban environment too – particularly industries in the petrochemical, and manufacturing sectors, amongst other highlighted by EEDC. It’s one of the major reasons Edmonton and the region’s business activity is spread out – almost node-like – rather than being centralized to the degree that of other cities’ might be.

While diversifying Edmonton’s economy would be a positive move, it is much easier said than done. It is also fraught with risk, should government be tempted or pressured to incent certain developments. Michael Porter, a leading expert on the competitiveness of regions, has written about how this process of “picking winners” rarely works out.

Something to think about, then, is what is – in the short to medium term at least – the most efficient way to encourage greater development downtown, knowing what Edmonton is. Business growth in the area will most likely continue, but may have limited potential right now. A better strategy may be to continue encouraging – and where it makes sense providing incentives for – residential development. Build that, and restaurants, cafes, pubs, and other commercial establishments will follow to serve the growing market. One might even go so far as to think at least a handful of these new downtown residents will be entrepreneurs who may want to set up shop close to home.

It’s a realistic and achievable goal for Edmonton to increase downtown activity, and fast (though I disagree with some of the ways it’s attempting to do so). Activity comes in many forms, and right now it looks to me like building a stronger and larger residential community is the most effective way to go.

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Jasper Ave Blues: Bright Lights on 4th

For all the talk about the challenges facing downtown Edmonton, few would dispute that there are success stories. 104th St – being rechristened 4th Street Promenade – is my pick for the biggest one. With two announcements about new tenants in the past two days, things keep looking up.

Scaffold
Workers take a break from renovating the Jaffer Building on Jasper and 104th that will soon house a 7-11 and whiskey bar.

First, it was announced yesterday that the historic Mercer Building will be renovated. Reopening this spring, it will house a tavern, coffee bar, and high-end furniture rental company. A day later, the owners of an under renovation building announced that a 7-11 and to be announced whiskey bar will be moving in.

3 blocks apart, they bookend the revitalized stretch of 104th St (further to the south, the McKay School district feels like a separate entity). The Mercer Building is across the street from MacEwan University, and the proposed future home of Edmonton’s new hockey arena). The Square 104 apartments across the street, and the new Quest condo tower one block to the west should help provide a local consumer base. The Jasper Ave project promises to add another high-end bar to the blossoming pub/restaurant scene in the area.

Astute readers will note that both developers cite the downtown arena as a reason for going ahead. While I remain skeptical 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 downtown.

Oddly, though, I’m most encouraged by the 7-11. One of the risks inherent in revitalization is a theme park-ization of the urban core. That is to say, the development of attractions that draw visitors, but don’t build a permanent base of residents. Arenas, concert halls, restaurants, and bars can all contribute when done well, but if everyone leaves after the encore or last call, you’re not building a neighbourhood so much as a destination – and successful downtown have to be both.

Mundane as it sounds, I see a new 7-11 as a sign that there’s a permanent population that justifies its creation (many new residences have been created on or around 104th). We want our neighbourhoods to have fancy bars and restaurants, but if they’re to be truly livable, they also need convenience stores and dry cleaners.

This week’s announcements make me think that, at least along this stretch of downtown, we’re making progress on both fronts.