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Jasper Ave Blues: What Does $5 Billion Get You These Days?

In Edmonton, the Downtown Business Association released a new report about potential downtown investment. It outlines 36 projects that are approved, proposed, or rumoured to be occurring downtown or in the adjacent Quarters area. Most readers will recognize that not all of these will go ahead – some will be shelved indefinitely, if not permanently and some will be scaled back. Yet, it paints a picture of what downtown might become, maybe not in 5 years (as the report suggests), but perhaps in 15-20.

I’ve grouped the probable, proposed, and rumoured projects into five categories: Commercial (office, retail, service), Residential, Major Facilities, Infrastructure, Public Space:

Commercial
This is the most problematic section. It proposes nearly 3.9 million square feet in commercial space (office, retail, and service), which seems…really high. For example, a City-commissioned report from 2009 anticipated that downtown would need an additional 3 million square feet in 2044, using baseline growth projections. In an alternative, and more positive, scenario, it projects demand to be about 4.5 million by 2044. All these projects going ahead would mean more than 85% of that would be available 5 years from now. This doesn’t add up, especially when – as our Mayor correctly points out – many businesses still don’t want to locate downtown.

(Update: DECL President Chris Buyze is more bullish on the commercial real estate market than I am. At this point, we have to agree to disagree, but he provided this Colliers report in support of greater growth).

Residential
In total, it proposes 2284 units, in addition to however many the Warehouse Incentive Program would contribute towards. Using the $10,000 per unit number from the Capital City Downtown Plan, that would mean an additional 1200 units for a total of 3484, which could translate to more than 5000 additional residents in five years (assuming roughly 1.5 residents per unit). Given that downtown grew roughly 130% in 15 years, growth of close to 40% in 5 years isn’t completely implausible. Note too that the region’s population grew by 124,924 residents from 2006 to 2011, and you can see demand for housing continuing to grow so long as the economy performs well.

Yet, the biggest threat to residential development downtown probably comes from its neighbours. Projects in Oliver continue to move ahead, drawing from much of the same pool of potential residents. Development on the City Centre Airport lands is also likely to start, providing further competition. For development in all three areas to go ahead as planned in the short term, Edmonton likely needs a huge economic boom, or a meaningful reversal of growth in the suburbs.

(Update: Buyze says the 10K grant isn’t happening. Not sure what the money will be spent on, but I can’t see this positively impacting my unit projections).

Major Facilities
The arena will go ahead, as will the Royal Alberta Museum. Based on estimated attendance, let’s say the arena will bring roughly 1,800,000 visitors; based on data from the early 2000s and accounting for growth, let’s give RAM 260,000 (if you think those are impressive, downtown Edmonton’s workforce would account for between 14,000,000 and 15,000,000 just by going to work regularly). In any case, all sorts of caveats apply when considering impact, such as that many attendees will go straight from the train or bus or their car to the venue and back, and many who do go out before or after an event already do so in the downtown area. The rest of the venues are still too much in the project phase to project well.

Infrastructure
The changes to Jasper Ave and completion of Capital Boulevard will help with beautification. The proposed enhancements are all welcome, though dependent on CRL revenue, which wouldn’t begin to be collected until at least 2015 – assuming the arena goes ahead that year and ancillary taxable development is build at the same time.

Public Space
What I said about the proposed infrastructure projects applies here as well.

What It Means for Downtown
All these projects added up provide a window into a possible future for downtown. Yet, it’s by no means assured, and not the only possibility. Many of these plans are just that – plans, with no money attached. Others are just ideas at this point. It’s likely that civic plans will once again be updated before all of these projects (or replacements) go ahead, meaning priorities may shift, if the market hasn’t led a shift already.

Citizens have to think about what kind of downtown they want, and whether what’s being proposed meets that vision. In particular, because it’s estimated that at least $2 billion of this investment (including $1.5 billion of what’s probable) will come from public funds.

For me, I see many projects I like in the report (additional residences, parks, cycling and walking infrastructure). But I also see things that are missing, such as no mention of the LRT (the downtown portion connecting the West and Southeast legs of the unfunded new line).

I 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 need to consider what the money can best be spent on in order to achieve the social, financial, and development returns we hope for. I hope citizens keep that in mind when reading this report and others like it.

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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.

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.

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.