Urban/Suburban Marketing in Edmonton: The suburbs are winning

Can you really have a “downtown vibe” in the suburbs? That’s what an article published in the Edmonton Journal back in February would have you believe. It focused on The ION in Ambleside and championed the seductive notion that you can have downtown-style living out in suburbia. Sandi Serr of Jayman Modus explained:

“We do have empty nesters, but the majority is the young people – very techie, very suburbia,” says Serr. "They want the lifestyle, they want it easy, they want the amenities, they want to live kind of in suburbia, but still have that inner-city feel."

Writer Jane Cardillo followed that quote with her assessment:

Ambleside offers all that. Walking paths connect the neighbourhood to The Currents, a retail area with restaurants, cafés and stores including Walmart, Safeway and Home Depot.

Walmart and Home Depot! Now that sounds just like downtown, doesn’t it? What is really meant by “inner-city feel” is of course the aesthetic of the building, not the location. But that doesn’t stop developers, builders, and others from making the misleading extrapolation. On the ION’s website the suggestion is even more explicit:

Welcome to the edge. A precarious balance for those who enjoy it. Close enough to downtown to enjoy the rush of an evening out while far enough away to relax for an evening in. A home as stylish as you and teeming with an air of sophistication. This is the heart of the city and pulses with the vibrance of urban energy. It’s contemporary, it’s chic. Live in the moment and welcome to the ion.

Close enough to downtown? Heart of the city? Vibrance of urban energy? You’ve got to be kidding me. Here’s where the ION is located on a map:

From where I live on 104 Street downtown, Google Maps estimates a 30 minute drive, and that’s not taking into consideration any traffic conditions.

I mocked the article on Twitter, and that sparked an interesting discussion with a number of individuals. To their credit, @AmblesideYEG jumped into the fray and suggested I head out to see for myself. So I did.

A Trip to the Edge

Sharon and I made the drive out to Ambleside on a warm and sunny Saturday in February. There was still some snow on the ground, but it was quickly melting. We were in the south side already, so we took Ellerslie Road to 170 Street. Any doubt about being on the edge of the city quickly disappeared.


It didn’t take long to find the ION itself, an attractive four story building located just east of 170 Street on Anderson Way SW.

The Ion

We parked in the back and went inside to see the show suites. Modern and well-appointed, there were no major surprises. We could definitely see ourselves in one of the two-bedroom suites.

The Ion

What we really wanted to know however, was whether or not living in the ION would be similar to living downtown. And that largely means proximity to amenities. One of the reasons we love living downtown is that we can walk to pretty much everything. The manmade lake behind the ION was fenced off, so we started walking down the sidewalk back toward 170 Street. We quickly realized that that’s where the sidewalk ended.

The Ion

So we got back in the car and drove to the other side of the lake. We really wanted to know how long it would take us to talk from the ION to The Currents, billed as “Edmonton’s finest new shopping destination.” We estimated about five minutes to cross the lake and started walking.


When we arrived at the south edge of The Currents, located on Windermere Boulevard, about twenty minutes had passed. We ended up walking another few minutes to the Tim Horton’s/Cold Stone Creamery for ice cream before heading back.

You can see a store directory and map for The Currents here. They’ve got all of the usual suspects for a power centre, including Walmart, Home Depot, Montana’s, nearly every bank, London Drugs, and Swiss Chalet. And like all other power centres, there are more parking lots than buildings.

the currents

Walking through the neighbourhood itself to get there was pleasant enough. It’s still very much a community under construction, but for the most part the sidewalks were in place and they have made an effort to make navigation easier.


And yes, there is limited transit service.

The Ion

So, it took about twenty-five minutes to walk from the urban-styled ION to the first amenities of The Currents. How does that compare to downtown? Not very well. Within twenty-five minutes of where we live on 104 Street, we can walk to at least two grocery stores, more than a dozen coffee shops, all of the hottest restaurants, nearly every arts organization and venue, Chinatown, the river valley, and much, much more. Heck if you walk fast you can make it across the river to La Poutine and Transcend Coffee or all the way to the High Street area (124 Street). There’s simply no comparison. Transit service does not improve the situation for Ambleside. Here’s an estimate of how far you can go from 104 Street in thirty minutes versus how far you can go from the ION in the same amount of time.

The ION is located south of Anthony Henday Drive which means you need a car to get there. The area is defined by the automobile. That’s why no matter what the ads say, almost no one is going to walk 25 minutes to get to the edge of a shopping centre. You need a car anyway, so why not use it to get around? Downtown, on the other hand, is defined by the pedestrian. You can walk everywhere, and excellent transit connectivity means you really can do without a vehicle.

Parking in Oliver

We thought a lot about our trip to Ambleside in the weeks that followed. I knew that I wanted to write something about my experience, but trashing the ION and the marketing and the area didn’t seem very constructive. Surely there must be something I could learn from the trip? A few weeks later it hit me.

We decided to visit the sales office for The Pearl, a new tower being constructed in Oliver at Jasper Avenue and about 120 Street. The tower itself is beautiful, and at 35 stories will offer some incredible views when it is completed. Perhaps a comparison with the ION is unfair, because prices for the Pearl start at $297,000 and quickly rise (the top suites are $1 million-plus) whereas at the ION they start at $174,455 and don’t climb nearly as high. Still, the ION was selling location, so I thought we might as well take a look at something that really does have location to sell.

The Pearl

Unfortunately, that’s not the message we got from the sales associate. After admiring the model tower, we asked her to tell us about the building. Pretty much the first thing she said was that you could get two parking stalls per unit! Each unit comes with one titled, heated underground parking stall but additional units are available for purchase. She explained that they want to attract people who are currently living in the suburbs, maybe with two vehicles, so the parking aspect is important.

I couldn’t believe it. The Pearl is located in the most densely populated neighbourhood in the city, with lots of restaurants and shops within just a few blocks, plus access to the river valley, downtown, and 124 Street, and the parking was the focus of the sales pitch.

I realized that the suburban developments are doing a better job of selling features they don’t even have than the urban developments are. What a wasted opportunity.

We need to do a better job of selling the core

No, condo living is not for everyone. But if you’re longing for an urban lifestyle, with access to everything, you’re not going to get that on the edge of the city. Maybe when Ambleside is further developed, some of the marketing messages will ring less hollow, but why wait? Downtown, Oliver, and other neighbourhoods in the core already offer what Ambleside can only dream of. Yet we don’t sell that.

I’m hopeful that things are changing. With the recent launch of the Ultima Tower, located on 103 Street at 103 Avenue, the proximity to amenities does seem to be front and centre (though they still emphasize the yet-to-be-constructed downtown arena more than what already exists). We need more of that kind of messaging if development in the core is going to have any hope of competing with the suburbs.

I don’t think everyone should live in the core, but I do want homebuyers to consider it. Downtown living will never beat edge-of-the-city when it comes to price, so we need to compete on other factors. We need to emphasize the strengths of living in the core and highlight the challenges with suburban living. And we need to be much more aggressive about it.

  • Great post, Mack. I work on Windermere Blvd. and when people ask if I live nearby, I have to contain myself from laughing 🙂 

  • Kelsey

    I live downtown as well and you want to know what I do when I want a quiet night in, I stay in like any ordinary person. Downtown isn’t as loud or wild or busy as most people think. It’s a great balance and I love the proximity to everything.

  • Nice post. I was thinking of your campaign to bring Edmontonians to the core when I read this article on urban research in the economist http://www.economist.com/node/21557313. The article doesn’t make an entirely convincing argument, but it does seem to suggest that your efforts may be in vain, ”
    Attempts to contain urban sprawl, long the prevailing paradigm of urban planning, for instance, could fall out of favour. ”
    It leads me to wonder if Edmontons rate of expansion outwards is significantly higher than the global average of urban sprawl. Some of the statistics are frightening, especially if you consider that Edmonton may be sprawling faster than the average city. Consider an Edmonton taking up twice as much space in 20 years as the article suggests is inevitable,  “the amount of urban land will double in only 19 years.”

    • Thanks for the comment Steven. You’re right, the continual expansion of our city’s limits is definitely cause for concern. I don’t think it is entirely a foregone conclusion however that the sprawl will continue. It’s an uphill battle, no doubt, but an important one.

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  • C.M.

    What an excellent post! You’re absolutely right – I think it’s the prices that attract most people to the suburbs. When we bought our (nearly 100-year old) house in Old Strathcona, I couldn’t help but notice that we could get a brand new house, nearly three times as big, for the same price in the suburbs. However, as a one vehicle family, we calculated that, in the end, it would actually be more expensive to live in the suburbs. We would have to buy a second car; double insurance, maintenance and gas costs; pay for downtown parking; pay more for gas and car maintenance due to increased use, etc. Not to mention what our time is worth – it takes my husband 5 minutes to drive dowtown, and it takes me a total of 15 on public transportation. If I need groceries, I can walk 4 blocks and pick up everything I need.

    It’s heartening to see how many young families are actually moving into my neighbourhood (primarily families that want to have a house and a yard, but don’t want to live miles away). I think it will be easier and easier to sell the core to the new generation of Edmontonians who are in the process of purchasing homes (i.e. the “gen Y”).

    • Interesting to hear that you did the math! I think too many people simply compare price and square footage and don’t really honestly consider the commute, let alone the costs associated with a second car.

      Great to hear young families are moving into the neighbourhood!

  • I love this post Mack. It’s exactly what Edmonton needs – development of the downtown. Build it and they will come.

  • Amanda

    I recently purchased a new condo, and was looking in the downtown, Whyte, and south side areas.  I looked at the Ion in Ambleside and ruled it out because I felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, so I definitely agree with you on that point that what they are selling isn’t what they are offering. Even when I went to look at their unit, I got lost because I didn’t realize it was in the development south of the rest of the condo developments, which were more conveniently located directly across from the Currents.

    I would encourage you to consider looking at other buildings of the south side for comparison (although I understand that you chose Ambleside because of their marketing). After a long search, I chose to purchase in Rutherford because of the size of the units available, the price, the nearby amenities, and where I work (Sherwood Park, with frequent business travel through EIA).  My condo actually is a 5 minute walk to many amenities including grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, banks, etc. 

    That being said, I do agree with you that homebuyers should consider all areas of the city, including the downtown core, and not shop with blinders on looking for only one area. Our city has a huge problem with people who identify with a certain neighborhood rather than living in the neighborhood that makes the most sense for their daily lives.

    • Good point Amanda, there are probably lots of comparisons with other buildings to be made that would help further this discussion. Thanks!

  • Pam

    what I like about your downtown walk in search of amenities is the diversity you find. Yes there are chain stores/cafes/eating establishments, but there are also many local/ independent  ones. Diversity is important.

  • Urban Ed

    The positive note is that they’re already selling downtown features, which means that this is something buyers are looking for.  Marketers lying to please the market isn’t exactly news, and this is a big step from just a few years ago when they would have been pushing the lake and other “benefits” of suburbia.

    I can understand why the Pearl needs to offer parking, and if it can attract people who currently think 2 cars is a requirement of a middle class lifestyle – and might later realise that it’s not – then that’s a good thing.  But it doesn’t make sense for that to be front and centre in the marketing.

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  • TWZ

    My partner and I own a condo on 121 St & 106 Ave – We decided we need a little more room, wanted to stay central (we are keeping the condo, too).

    I have been watching for years and have started to see signs that it’s time to invest in some of the traditionally “distressed” neighborhoods with projects like the Arena District, NW LRT line, Royal Alberta Museum, The Quarters + more.

    We bought a single family home in McCauley (Little Italy) August of 2012 and love the idea of having a house close to the action (plus who the heck doesn’t love the Italian Centre as their grocery store?!). Unlike Ambleside, our place is a 20 minute walk to the Downtown Core – and then a 10 minute walk to 2 LRT stations on 2 different lines.

    I cannot possibly fathom why anyone with half a brain is remotely attracted to an area like Ambleside. I definitely think that another marketing disaster is how silent infill builders are in relation to mainstream suburban builders.

    I am hoping that all the investment Downtown will draw people who want that lifestyle but in a house, like Calgary’s inner city.

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