Recap: Designing Downtown – Between Two Cities

Tonight Sharon and I attended a panel discussion at the Art Gallery of Alberta organized by M.A.D.E. in Edmonton called Designing Downtown: Between Two Cities. It was an interesting evening for the event to take place, because across the street at City Hall our City Council was discussing the proposed downtown arena project (they voted to move ahead with negotiations) and also because today was Vancouver’s 125th birthday. Ryan Jespersen was our host for the evening, and Todd Babiak was the moderator for the discussion. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time for that discussion to take place – the panelists used most of the time for their “introductions” (as is often the case).

Gene Dub, founder and principal at Dub Architects Ltd., kicked things off with a little show and tell. He talked about some of the projects he has worked on since establishing his firm in 1975, and highlighted four things that he has tried to focus on with his downtown development efforts: housing, heritage, infill, and commentary. Some of the interesting projects he showed pictures of included the City Market Affordable Housing, the Alberta Hotel, the McKay Avenue School Restoration, and City Hall.

Gene talked about the Seventh Street Lofts project as well, noting that it is a unique mix of a 1950s building, a 1929 brick building (the John Deere warehouse), and a new infill building in the middle. It turns out that when he purchased the northernmost building (1950s) he tried but failed to purchase the small parking lot right on 104 Avenue as well, which I have embedded above. Tonight he told the audience that he has since purchased that lot, and has plans to build an office tower there. He showed a rendering of a beautiful glass building!

107 Street Annex
107 Street Annex, courtesy of Dub Architects

Next up was Mathew Soules, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and the director of Matthew Soules Architecture in Vancouver. As much as I loved listening to Matthew’s very cerebral talk about Vancouver, it was his section of the evening that caused us to go completely off schedule. He had some really interesting things to say about Vancouverism, and I thought he did a great job of breaking it down and explaining it. The fact that the model can be broken down into building blocks is fascinating. One of the more interesting things he said about coming back to Edmonton was that it was refreshing compared to Vancouver. That is, the environment there is so “total” – completely planned, manicured, etc. – that it tends to lack the grittiness and messy vitality that Edmonton has.

Designing DowntownDesigning Downtown

Our third speaker was Shafraaz Kaba, an architect and planner at Manasc Issac Architects Ltd. right here in Edmonton. He spent some time talking about the firm’s interest in reskinning or “reimagining” existing buildings, a discussion which inevitably led to some more negativity directed toward the Associated Engineering building! He also talked about the Capital Modern Tour that Sharon and I went on back in 2008 (Shafraaz was our tour guide on that excursion) and made mention of the importance of preserving buildings such as the CN Tower. Shafraaz also had some of the most memorable statements of the evening, saying for example that “Edmonton has all kinds of plans, we’re good at making plans – what we’re not good at is implementation.” He also posed the very thought-provoking question, “why in the world do we have air conditioning in Edmonton?” Surely there must be a better way to heat and cool our buildings by making better use of our natural climate!

Our fourth and final speaker was Trevor Boddy, a graduate of the University of Alberta who is now a Vancouver-based architecture critic/curator urbanist. He has written books and articles, and is currently working on the TownShift: Suburb Into City ideas competition. He touched on Vancouverism as well, but showed it from a different perspective than Matthew. He also made some memorable statements, most notably: “Edmonton only gets one more chance to get downtown right.” I really liked some of the examples he showed (such as powering a water feature using the heat generated from a server farm located underneath) but I also thought he made some of the best points. He said you can’t fix downtown without also addressing some of the issues in the suburbs, that the arena project is a 1970s way of solving the problem, and that one of the most painful things Edmonton needs to overcome is the way our metropolitan governance model works (I really agree with the last point).

Designing DowntownDesigning Downtown

By the time we got through all of that, there wasn’t much time for questions, and to be honest my mind had started to drift toward the arena issue at City Council! One of the obvious questions that was asked was how the lack of an architecture school has harmed Edmonton, to which Trevor had a great response. He said that you get the school after you have the architecture, not the other way around, and pointed to organizations such as M.A.D.E. and Edmonton on the Edge as the foundation for what could eventually become an architecture school.

The key takeaway seemed to be that getting the discussion happening, with events such as tonight’s panel or the upcoming PKN X, is the key toward cracking the downtown nut. Thanks to all of the organizers for making the event happen! You can see a few more photos here.

UPDATE (4/18/2011): I added the 107 Street Annex rendering, courtesy of Dub Architects. It is labeled “Lot 162, Block 6, Plan B2”.

6 thoughts on “Recap: Designing Downtown – Between Two Cities

  1. Great recap, Mack! There were at least twenty or so people that showed up too late to get a seat (myself included) and this really helps to fill in some of the blanks.

    I’m curious to know, though: what did Gene Dub meant by ‘commentary’ as a core element of downtown design?

    1. I think the point is that we lack a coherent one that is charged with taking the region as a whole forward. We now have the Capital Region Board, but there was a lot of pain to get to that point. Trevor made the point that currently it seems like Edmonton deals with the problems, while the suburbs get to be just for the families and are able to undercut the City for business, etc.

      I see the problem in other ways. A little more concretely: why do St. Albert and Strathcona County have separate transit authorities? Why doesn’t ETS just manage all of it? Taxes, politics, ego, etc. That’s what we need to overcome.

      1. Good to see that you’ve heard of the CRB http://www.capitalregionboard.ab.ca/ It didn’t appear to me that the panelists have heard of it. One of the CRB’s objectives is to begin to get the word out. Of particular note is that it has a governance model that is working to curb sprawl. Edmotnon has a veto on the board and yesterday’s board meeting, which is open to the public, was a perfect example of how it works.

        The County of Leduc and City of Leduc submitted plans for 2 new town centres at conventional subdivision density, yet they have no abilty to provide transit services to these towns or other key supports like social services, fire services or infrastructure. Edmonton opposed the application because their plan was in excess of what the CRB Growth Plan has allocated to Leduc County and Leduc City for their portion of growth in the region over the next 35 years and it went agains a principle of the CRB Growth Plan to reduice the foot-print of the region. As a result of our position and that of many other municipalities the Leducs withdrew their application before it could be voted on.

        CRB is presently working on how to move towards fully integrated transit in the region, but as you point out, politics and municipal autonomy get in the way and have to be overcome incrementally.

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