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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.