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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.

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Jasper Ave Blues: The Pedway Trap

You take the skyway, high above the busy little one-way
In my stupid hat and gloves, at night I lie awake
Wonderin’ if I’ll sleep
Wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street

Skyway, by The Replacements

The other night, I saw a story about the skyways in the winter city of Minneapolis, once hailed as a saviour for downtown, and now posing problems as the city attempts to create more street-level activity in the area. This seems to mirror the on-going debate in Edmonton, where it’s many pedways, connecting buildings through above or below ground indoor tunnels, are a god-send on -30 days like last week, but also serve to divert pedestrian traffic indoors.

I’m far from the first person to flag this. Scott McKeen, when he was a columnist at the Edmonton Journal, wrote a handful of columns arguing that they have a detrimental effect on downtown activity.

View from Pedestrian Overpass
Photo by mjb84, using a CC BY 2.0 license.

Scott’s points, and those of the critics in the article, are well found. Pedways/skyways/plus 15s (for Calgary readers) turn downtowns inward, keeping activity inside, away from the streets. Sometimes, you’re thankful for this (on -30 days, I love being able to use the pedways), but the ultimate cost to downtown activity has to be weighed against the days when using the pedways is more than just a simple convenience. The number of days it’s uncomfortably cold (even in Edmonton) are small, and designing an urban environment around extenuating circumstances can yield poor results (think of how parking minimums are designed for peak periods of use, which happen very rarely throughout the year).

Ultimately, one of the advantages of a downtown is the way it brings people together, in formal and informal ways. There’s a serendipity that happens when people conglomerate in dense, highly used spaces. Connections are made and nurtured, leading to greater intellectual, social, and business activity. Life is centred around activity, particularly on the street. Anything that competes with that makes it harder for a downtown to realize its potential.

Coming back to Skyway, how does the song end? With a paean to a missed connection, and the segmentation caused by the pedway/skyway system:

Oh, then one day, I saw you walkin’ down that little one-way
Where, the place I’d catch my ride most everyday
There wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway

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.

Jasper Ave Blues: A Preamble

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Over the next…indeterminate period of time, I’ll be undertaking a series of posts about Downtown Edmonton. Readers will have surely noticed my interest in cities and urban environments. The urban core – in particular its downtown – is at the heart of any successful city/region.

I spend most of my time right now downtown and nearby. I work downtown, and live three blocks west of its technical boundary. When I’m home, I’m downtown at least 6 days of the week – every work day, plus at least one day on the weekend, whether it’s working out at the Y, going to a concert at Starlite or the Winspear, having dinner or drinks with friends, or of course, the market on Saturday mornings in the summer.

On the bright side, interest in downtown’s future and well-being is the highest in the decade I’ve closely followed Edmonton civic affairs. On the media front, CBC AM is in the middle of a series called Downtown at a Crossroads, and several Edmonton Journal writers (particularly David Staples) have focused heavily on downtown. City Council, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and the Chamber of Commerce are all active champions. The Downtown Community League is doing excellent work, and I see a real pride among many citizens in what’s happening. On the downside, interest doesn’t automatically lead to progress. Done poorly, it could end up having an adverse effect, and there’s also a danger that boosterism and the desire to see something – anything – happen, may override due process and judgement on what is truly beneficial. This series will be my contribution to the discussion, analyzing downtown’s current state, proposals for new ideas that come forward, and putting forward my own ideas about what can make our downtown even better. I hope others will respond, engage, and contribute.

The title of this series might imply a strictly negative view of downtown in its current state. Nothing could be further from the truth (I just liked the title, thought it was catchy, and don’t have any better ideas right now). While our downtown isn’t the best, or maybe even in the top 10 downtowns I’ve visited in the past few years (to be fair to Edmonton, I’ve been to a lot of cities in that time), there are a lot of positive things happening. Edmonton’s downtown has made tremendous strides in the 15 years or so that my memory extends back. New residences are popping up, ranging from the higher-end Icon Towers to the Mayfair Village affordable housing development. 104th Street has exploded, boasting a roster of coffee shops, wine bars, restaurants, and shops that rivals High Street or Whyte Ave – in quality if not in quantity. Nothing beats spending a Saturday morning during the summer at the outdoor market on 104th. A couple of years ago, none of Moriarty’s, Tres Carnales, Corso32, or Pampa existed. Now, we have a strong restaurant scene downtown. Our downtown would be virtually unrecognizable (in a good way) to someone who left two decades ago and had yet to come back.

Anecdotally, the strongest point for downtown I can say is this. When I moved back to Edmonton 6 years ago and for a while afterwards, I couldn’t imagine I would choose to live downtown over other areas in the city. When I last moved just under 2 years ago, the downtown area was by far my preferred area to end up. That’s somewhat due to having worked downtown for the past 5 1/2 years, and having gotten to know the area better. But mostly it’s because of the improvement I’ve seen in that time. But our downtown can still be so much more. This series is one way I’m aiming to help make that a reality.