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.

Mini-Edmonton
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?