Megaprojects aren’t enough to revitalize Edmonton’s downtown

Edmonton’s downtown has been the centre of attention lately, with a number of exciting megaprojects making headlines in recent weeks. As someone who has bought into the “as goes your downtown, so goes your city” mantra, I think the progress is good. But I firmly believe we need more than megaprojects to turn downtown around, and I’m not sure the little things that will positively impact downtown get the attention they deserve and require.

Downtown Panoramic

The most talked about megaproject is of course the $450 million arena:

“I’m elated. This is, to my mind, the start of a dream come true to rebuild our downtown.”
– Mayor Mandel, City of Edmonton and Katz Group reach arena deal (Archive)

Another megaproject is the $340 million Royal Alberta Museum:

“The aspirations of the city to revitalize its downtown, complete (with its) arts district, meshed with the province’s need for a new home for the Royal Alberta Museum.”
– Premier Stelmach, Royal addition to downtown (Archive)

Yet another megaproject is the $275 million redevelopment of the Federal Building:

“A different type of downtown? Step by step, piece by piece, we’re putting the puzzle together.”
– Paula Simons, Federal Building quietly takes shape (Archive)

Another one is the City Centre Airport, which Jim Taylor talked a lot about at the DBA luncheon yesterday. There are lots of other headlines and articles related to these megaprojects, and all seem to convey the message that collectively the megaprojects will revitalize downtown. Or that interest in downtown as a result of these projects is enough. But for these megaprojects to return the fullest return on investment possible, we need to do more. We need to make many, many smaller improvements in conjunction with the big ones. We can’t forget the little things!

To me, increasing the number of downtown residents is the key to downtown revitalization. We need a good mix of residential densities, types, and uses in the core. And we need more of the people who work downtown to choose to live there as well. Just having a new arena or museum isn’t going to be enough to get people to make that choice.

Photo by Jason Bouwmeester

The good news is that there are lots of small things we can do to make downtown a more attractive place to live, work, and play. Here are ten ideas that I have been thinking about, in no particular order:

  • Relax jaywalking laws downtown. I’ve had colleagues from London visit and they’re shocked that people wait at red lights! There and in many other cities, pedestrians are free to cross whenever the street is clear. I will readily admit that I cross the street on red lights all the time when the coast is clear. I think we need to make downtown a better place for pedestrians. It might seem like that’s what jaywalking laws are meant to do, but I think they actually reinforce the idea that vehicles have the priority instead. We need vehicles to slow down, and to come second to pedestrians.
  • Add scramble intersections. These are the intersections where traffic stops in all four directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the street in any direction, including diagonally. Again this helps to make downtown a more walkable, friendly place for pedestrians. This has been suggested for inclusion in the Jasper Avenue New Vision revitalization project, but we need to ensure it happens.
  • Prioritize downtown street cleaning. As soon as the snow is gone, the streets downtown should be cleaned. First impressions make a difference, and visitors are not impressed when they step outside and find themselves in a huge cloud of dust and gravel.
  • More projects like Todd Babiak’s Interventions and the Alley of Light. We need to make better use of underutilized spaces, and we could definitely do with some additional color and flair downtown. Let’s treat more of our blank walls and empty parking lots as canvases ready to be put to use. Maybe we need a community-edited database of available spaces?
  • Make public art a priority. Related to the previous point, development projects are supposed to include funding for public art, but the rules are not enforced. Capital Boulevard is moving ahead without funding for public art, for example.
  • Improve transit information displays. Downtown is already our primary hub for transit, and that role is going to be reinforced by the LRT expansion, particularly with the Downtown LRT Connector. Let’s add digital display boards to the big bus stops. They could use scheduled information for now, and be switched over to live GPS data when that system goes live across ETS. Let’s make the experience of using transit downtown even better than it already is.
  • Get rid of the portable toilets and add permanent ones. Having a place for people to go is better than having no place at all, without question. But why half-ass it? Let’s spend the (relatively small amount of) money to add permanent toilets downtown. There are lots of examples to draw upon, such as the beautiful and highly-effective public urinals that Matthew Soules Architecture designed for Victoria.
  • Add recycle bins alongside garbage cans. You may have seen the nice, silver receptacles that combine garbage, paper, and bottle recycling around the city, but there aren’t many downtown (aside from Churchill Square). We’re already a pretty green city, and this would help drive that message home downtown.
  • Require green roofs on new developments. They’ve done it in Toronto, why not here? There are many, many benefits that come from green roofs. And hey, we’ve already got one thanks to Williams Engineering.
  • Get rid of parking minimums throughout downtown. There’s a five-year pilot project in place for the warehouse district, but I think it’s a no-brainer. If you can sell a condo or rent a space without parking, then why not do it? Otherwise we’re effectively just subsidizing vehicles. This is a good way to spur development and hopefully infill, considering that it can cost developers between $30,000 and $70,000 per stall to create.

I’ve got my share of “bigger” ideas as well, such as doing whatever it takes to make the space behind the Stanley Milner library a proper usable square, perhaps alongside a larger revitalization of the building. Another one would be closing Rice Howard Way to vehicles and extending it to the top of the river valley.

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface with this list, but the point is that there’s a lot more that goes into downtown revitalization than megaprojects. What are your ideas?

33 thoughts on “Megaprojects aren’t enough to revitalize Edmonton’s downtown

  1.  I recently moved into the McCauley area, mostly because there’s no way I could afford my first choice (Oliver or Strathcona). One day last summer while walking my dog I discovered the area between say 112ave and 116ave and 92 street and 82 street – this has got to be the cities best kept secret…. Nice homes, a nice mix of architectural style, generally well maintained with mature trees and a generally quiet area. People moving to the edge of the city to get a yard and a garage might be well served by viewing homes for sale in that area… but a friend of mine who recently moved here from Toronto tells me that her real estate agent actively discouraged her from looking at that area at all.

    Maybe another “little” thing we could do is get the real estate agents on the same page as the city planners about what’s needed to ensure this city grows in a sustainable way and a way that’s appealing for residents. I’m all for new infill development, but the truth is that there are great homes that already exist in nice areas close to the core, but I think a lot of times they don’t get seen by the kind of home buyers that bring life back to a community (like young families). My own real estate agent didn’t want to show me homes in the McCauley area and it took me a few weeks of insisting and sending him links before he really got the hint that, yes, I DO want to live there. I knew that it was really important to me to live within walking distance of downtown, restaurants and good groceries; not everyone is so certain of their choice of neighborhood.

    1. Sharon and I were also very certain and stood firm on our decision to buy downtown. I don’t know if getting real estate agents on board is the right approach – they’ll please the customer, it’s the customer that needs to be willing to make the decision. 

    2. Good post although I don’t think McCauley (at least parts of it) will work for everyone. Other older areas to check out near DT are Queen Mary Park (my ‘hood), Westmount and (for a bit more susbrban feel) Prince Rupert. Mature trees, ethnic diversity, good public transit, nice parks and a mix of bungalows/walk-ips/ condo conversions– what’s not to like ?

  2.  Jaywalking laws are absolutely NOT designed to make places more pedestrian friendly. They were first developed to redefine the street as a place where cars belong and pedestrians don’t. Prior to the invention and subsequent popularity of the automobile, people walked on the street. The street was for people. When cars came along, people were relegated to the sidewalks.

    1.  I totally agree, mate. Having lived in London and Liverpool, it was a shock to the system when I found out that jaywalking was so regulated here, and that seriously, no one broke the rules. Not that I care, mind, the British system of ignoring traffic lights is too ingrained in me 🙂

  3. Thank you Mack!!! Finally a sensible approach to downtown… wonder what it’ll take for the city to listen.

    My daughter and I use the downtown library very often, and there are many days where I have felt that I would have loved to have a little green space or park behind the library where I can have a coffee, and let her run around. I don’t really feel comfortable with her running free in that big concrete Churchill Sq.

    Plus, why would you want to move the RAM? Personally, I love it where it is, with all that beautiful parkland surrounding it. Why not add a couple extensions to it, and make it better and more interactive, say, like the World of Science instead?

    I’ve been having an argument on Twitter with someone who thinks ‘its the turn of downtown now’. But lets face it, we all live in the city, and we all use the downtown, the key is to make it into an accessible place where we feel happy coming  in. Its not about turns, its about making sure that people live in a happy, friendly city where the downtown is a happening place, not just for its residents but also for the people that come in on a regular basis. Why not use Whyte Ave as a model, with its quirky independent stores and a really accessible atmosphere?

    1. Whyte Avenue is a great area of Edmonton, but it is and always will be different than downtown, and I think that’s a good thing. Whyte will never be as dense as downtown. 

  4. I just got back from Europe: Pedestrian-only streets with trees and flowers and LOTS of sidewalk cafes – that’s what brings people out – to stroll; to meet, eat & drink, to see and be seen. 

  5.  I’m a huge supporter of green roofs. Retrofit what you can. How beautiful would it be to look out from your office window or while strolling downtown and see more green integrated with buildings. Let’s take that a steep further and look at making the green roofs like a healing garden. Lois Hole women’s centre did a wonderful job. Encourage people to eat their lunches on the roof. Better pedway maps. How many times have I looked at those current maps and been lost. More pedways for winter walking. This is not a little idea but new solor panal window panes are being used in Chicago highrise.

    1. I disagree with adding more pedways. The pedway system is, arguably, at least partly responsible for the death of downtown. If people don’t have to actually go outside to get from place to place, they tend not to. This results in lost business for street-level shops who then close and move to greener pastures (or into the malls). This trend has been starting to reverse itself, which is great, but I don’t thinking adding even more pedways is the solution to a more pedestrian friendly downtown.

      I know it’s cold in the winter, but I still think the pedway system—though convenient—is hurting downtown revitalization more than it’s helping. 

      1.  Pedways are essential in Calgary, and have not had the effect you describe.  Although Downtown Calgary doesn’t have the shorter buildings, set back with green and airy feeling, I believe Edmonton could integrate pedways successfully. It’s no fun getting around in winter, and if there was an effective, well-planned pedway, I’d argue that businesses near access to pedways might have *increased* wintertime business.

  6. Oh, I also wanted to add something to my earlier comment, before the Oilers fans get after me. I do support a new arena downtown, and I think it can revitalise the . I have seen firsthand in Liverpool (where I previously lived) the difference an arena can make (the Echo arena, not a sports one, but a huge concert venue). What I strenuously object to is the City paying for part of it and not getting any of the profits. To me it smacks of getting the public sector to shoulder the risk while the private sector takes all the profits. Plus, lets face how many lower and middle income families are going to get to go to the arena, either to watch games or concerts?

    I ran this concept past a friend of mine from the UK. I likened it to Arsenal FC asking the City of London to pay for their new stadium, while keeping all the profits. He told me that the proposal would have been laughed out of the council. And that’s what gets me about this plan, and not the fact that its downtown vs suburbs.

    1. Another unfortunate aside of the current arena arrangement, is that there are areas “reserved” i.e. dressing areas, concessions, for the Oilers and not available for the OWNERS’ use (i.e. US) when events are held. How can that be? The tenant that rents the space for less than 1/3? of the year dictates how the owner can use the facility?

  7. I’d add: do everything possible to prevent the Sobeys at Jasper and 104 from closing. To attract and keep residents downtown, there has to be access to basic amenities. And it is high time we repeated the earlier successful use of incentives to promote building additional residential space in the core. Ten million on that would so more than all e mefaprojects put together, because it would add to the critical mass needed to sustain and grow our downtown businesses and food scene.

  8. I’d add: do everything possible to prevent the Sobeys at Jasper and 104 from closing. To attract and keep residents downtown, there has to be access to basic amenities. And it is high time we repeated the earlier successful use of incentives to promote building additional residential space in the core. Ten million on that would so more than all e mefaprojects put together, because it would add to the critical mass needed to sustain and grow our downtown businesses and food scene.

    1. I think that’s a good point. We really can’t afford to lose the Sobeys. I’m in favor of the use of incentives again as well. It worked in the past! 

  9. Too much of this makes sense so it’ll never fly.

    I’m in Bilbao right now, clearly they’ve gone the megaproject route and although it looks pretty and is certainly world-class, I look around and there’s still hardly any people around. It’s not a white elephant, but no amount of megaprojects will make a city a destination.

  10.  Yay! Scramble intersections. I was thrilled to see them when I visited New York 12 years ago.  Why Canadian cities don’t employ them, I don’t know. There’s no point spending, no, wasting money studying something that has been done elsewhere. Skip the money wasting step and jump ahead.  Green roofs, pedway improvements, motorcycle/scooter parking at reduced rates/FREE!, secure bicycle parking, bike lanes, walkable areas for tourism. Street maps of the area are needed *everywhere* so folks can get ideas of how to get around via pedway, LRT underground walkways, +15… 

  11. San Jose, CA, had some success with projects specifically designed to encourage seniors to move to the centre of the city. Downtown will need a school if there are to be more families in the area. Don’t forgot the Quarters redevelopment, upwards of 20,000 people between 92 and 97 St. will make a big difference. I agree with better transit displays, and better transit signage is also a good  idea. I like the changes in Churchill Square – the tables and chairs, the BB hoops – more of that in all the downtown parks, please. Moving forward with better streetscape design is important.  What about using captured waste heat to funnel heat to sidewalks. And patio heaters? Proper bike lanes are needed. 

  12. I think that the upcoming projects will be great, but I agree that we need to make street navigation easier in the city.  For example, a 102 Street at Commerce Place/Manulife has minimal traffic and could benefit from a pedestrian crosswalk halfway.  Intersections along 102 Avenue could benefit from scramble crosswalks, and would encourage more people outside, even in winter.  There are long blocks going north-south west of 101 Street, and east-west east of 97 Street.  There could be more crosswalks on the less busy streets.

    For the streets, get the MadVac (or whatever the name is for the vacuum) out around the Easter weekend to clean up the dirt.  Even cleaning up the gutters would go a long way, and it wouldn’t take that long.  Also, that truck that melts the snow could be used by the city to clean up any windrows (full of sand and rocks).

  13. Objects for investment. Agriculture. Climate. Shipbuilding. Yacht Construction. Modernization of a hydro power plants. Management projects.Objets pour l’investissement. L’Agriculture. Climat. La construction navale. Yacht Construction. Modernisation des centrales hydroélectriques. Gestion des projets.Mega sources of fuel. Mega sources de carburant (combustible). Mega Quellen des Kraftstoffs.Objekte für Investitionen.Landwirtschaft.Schiffbau.Neu Schiffkonstruktion,Jachtkonstruktion. Modernisierung der Wasserkraftwerke.Verwaltung-Projekte.Neue Konstruktionen der Schiffen und Jachten. Geschwindigkeit + Energieeffizienz + Einsparung von Kraftstoff. Neue Konstruktionen der Wasserkraftwerke.New construction of ships and yachts. Speed + energy efficiency + savings of fuel. New construction of hydropower plants.Les nouvelles conceptions de navires et de yachts. Navires à grande vitesse + économies d’énergie + d’efficacité de carburant.Nouvelle conceptions de centrales hydroélectriques.Новые конструкции кораблей и яхт. Скорость + энергосбережение. Новые конструкции гидроэлектростанций.
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    Для гидроэнергетики: увеличение производства электрической энергии на гидроэлектростанциях без существенных вложений. Недорогой инженерный механизм. Технологии регулирования климата. Технологии избавления от засухи, снегопадов, наводнений, ураганов, штормов.
    Управленческий проект: поставки большого количества недорогой воды для товарного сельского хозяйства на месте пока еще пустынь – для засушливых регионов с дефицитом воды и дешевой электроэнергии.
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  14. Completely disagree with the idea of relaxing jaywalking laws. I like downtown and often spend time staying late after work but when I drive home I’m not stopping for jaywalkers. As much as you might like walking, the reality is far more people drive and yes, the metal vehicle moving at 60km/hr should have priority over someone who can wait for the light to change. Really, are you so impatient so important that you can’t wait 30 seconds for the light to change and then cross safely.

    1. Actually, you’re wrong – everyone walks, even if it is just two and from the car 🙂

      When it’s minus 30 out, the pedestrian should have to wait instead of the person in the nice warm car? When it’s plus 30 out, the pedestrian should have to wait instead of the person in the nice air-conditioned car?

      It’s not about being impatient. If pedestrians were free to cross when they felt it was safe, you as a driver wouldn’t even notice. Not everyone is going to be safe though, so cars driving slower is better than pedestrians always having to dodge crazy drivers. Shifting the burden on to the pedestrian is a relatively new phenomenon, pushed by the automotive industry with success.

  15. In the spirit of small issues: why is there so often a horrible smell coming from the drain right at the south west corner of Churchill Square. Waiting for the light to change to cross the avenue to the library can be almost nauseating due to the smell.

    Just confirms all the worst stereotypes about downtown being dirty and nasty.

  16. There are some good ideas, but until developers start building larger condos with a pricetag families can afford, the only people who will live downtown will be younger professionals and seniors. I would love to live downtown, but if you have a family, it’s next to impossible to find a decent sized place that doesn’t cost close to a million dollars.

    Some people might say buy a small house in Oliver then, which is fine and dandy, but you better hope you don’t get a lemon and spend thousands of dollars fixing foundations, furnaces and everything else in your ‘new’ 100 year old home. I think ECCA will alleviate some of that, but I’d like to see someone build 3/4 bedroom condos/townhouses somewhere close to downtown. It doesn’t take anymore space – just build up instead of out.

    I also think more art and more displays downtown would help too. I’ve travelled overseas lots and one of the things that always struck me about other centres (London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, etc) is the use of stunning visual displays on their major buildings (including the use of LED lighting at night). Some people might think they are an eyesore (like those who can’t stand the LED screens at Whitemud), but seeing a building change colour from red to purple to blue to green to yellow and back to red is stunning IMHO. If we continue to think small town, we’ll always be small town.

    Another downtown festival (or three) over the winter would be nice too – I love the summer festivals around town, but the dearth in winter is abymssal. I was pleasantly surprised last year when I went down to Churchill Square to watch a Lion dance for Chinese New Years and saw a number of temporary buildings erected in the square. Those buildings should go up in December and stay until the snow melts if you ask me.

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