Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown: Evolving from urban fresh to neighbourhood store

On August 15, Sharon and I walked past the Sobeys on 104 Street Downtown as we do nearly every day. On that day however, something was different – the windows of the Sobeys were completely covered by a vinyl fruit-and-veggies-on-white design. I promptly tweeted my dislike for the change, and made a note to follow-up.

Sobeys on 104 Street
You can see the vinyl coverings, and on the left, that they actually create quite a lot of glare

Over the next couple of weeks, it became apparent that a lot of people disliked the new window coverings. Dozens of residents (myself included) contacted DECL to complain. Some took matters into their own hands, like Mark Gitzel who staged a sidewalk chalk protest. The existing thread complaining about Sobeys on Connect2Edmonton reignited with people complaining about the windows. Chris Buyze, President of the Downtown Edmonton Community League, sent a letter to Sobeys on August 17, one of many messages that Sobeys received during that time. While the vinyl window coverings themselves caused a bit of an uproar, I think for a lot of people the issue was seen as the last straw. Their urban Sobeys had slowly evolved into just another grocery store, out of touch with its customers, and now it was physically separating itself from the street.

The Sobeys on 104 Street opened as Sobeys Urban Fresh in May 2008, a “hotly anticipated grocery boutique.” With six Red Seal chefs, a sushi bar, a café featuring coffee from local roaster St. City Roasters, a sizable selection of local and unique products, articulated walls and large bay windows in the café, it was not your average grocery store. It was the first grocery store to open downtown since Woodward’s Food Floor closed (the Save-on-Foods on 109 Street is technically in Oliver). It wasn’t perfect, but people were excited by the new store.

Sobeys Urban Fresh
The Sobeys on 104 Street in May 2008. You can see the clear windows and the articulated wall on the right open with people sitting in the outdoor café space.

All of that is now gone. The sushi bar is gone, the local selection has disappeared, the café sits empty, and the windows were rarely open this summer. The signage still says “Urban Fresh” but it has become a lot like other grocery stores. For a resident like me, it raises the question of whether or not the store will still be there in the future.

It was in this context that I sat down with Mike Lupien, the Director of Communications for Sobeys West, this week. We met at Credo Coffee, just down the street from the store.

I first asked him about the windows. “It caught me off guard personally, I didn’t realize it was happening.” Mike told me that when comments first started coming in, he thought it was related to the bright orange signs advertising Sobeys’ new lower prices. He quickly got in touch with DECL however, and organized a meeting for the end of August to discuss the situation. “It was a great opportunity for us to tell them why we did it, but also for them to tell us their concerns,” Mike said. “We got a good understanding of where they were coming from.” I asked Ian O’Donnell, Development Chair for the Downtown Edmonton Community League, why they pushed for the meeting. “DECL has an inherent responsibility to engage and respond to situations that arise within the downtown boundaries. Part of our mandate is to ensure that changes that occur in or to our downtown are positive and continue to improve upon what we already have as a community.” Ian agreed the meeting was a productive first step.

DECL presented three primary complaints. The first is that the the vinyl windows violate elements of the Jasper Avenue Main Street Commercial Zone (JAMSC) bylaw and the Urban Design Framework for Downtown Streets as set out in the Capital City Downtown Plan. Secondly, because the vinyl diminishes the store’s internal/external visibility, it would seem to go against the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) guidelines. And thirdly, the vinyl is ugly. It creates a physical barrier and doesn’t fit with the rest of the aesthetic on 104 Street.

Sobeys on 104 Street

Mike told me there were four main reasons the vinyl went up on the windows. The first was visibility of the store. “When people are driving down Jasper Avenue, they never notice the store,” Mike said. “You only see the sign if you’re going west.” I told him I would confidently bet that the majority of the store’s customers are not driving to the store, and he conceded that was probably true. The people who shop at that store either live or work in the area, for the most part. Even if someone was driving home and noticed the store, they’d have to find parking if they wanted to stop, and with 25 Sobeys and 4 IGA stores in the capital region, chances are there’s one with a big parking lot closer to home.

The other three reasons make more sense. The sunlight streaming into the store has had a negative impact on the produce department, at times the cashiers have had problems with glare on their screens, and the addition of shelves and boxes along the east side makes for a less appealing view from the street as you look in the windows.

At the meeting in late August, the group discussed potential solutions. It sounds like DECL got their point across, because Mike confirmed that taking the vinyl down completely is what will ultimately resolve the issue. “We’d like to work towards that,” he told me. As David Staples reported this week, they’ve taken the first step and have cut the white around the fruit out of the coverings. “We’re also looking at what we can do inside the store to deflect the light,” Mike told me, confirming he has started discussions with a designer that Sobeys has engaged in the past.

Sobeys on 104 Street
Vinyl with the white gone

Turning to some of the other issues, Mike and I talked about the changes the store has undergone over the last three years. Some changes were made for business reasons, others were the result of feedback from customers. “We’ve adapted the selection to what people were asking for,” he said, and that’s why you no longer find products like camel or alligator. “The oyster bar didn’t go over very well,” Mike told me. “We were getting rid of more than we were selling.”

The windows have definitely been closed more lately than in the past, but for good reason Mike said. “We had a wet summer and lots of mosquitoes,” he said. “I know Evan, the store manager, wanted to have them open.” He also said that the construction of Icon 2 had an impact, as the amount of dust in the area significantly increased.

As for the local selection, Mike said they still try to offer local products. “We start as close to Edmonton as we can, and then move out.” In some cases there have been issues with suppliers, but the most common problem is that local suppliers just can’t keep up with the volume that Sobeys needs. He said they’re trying to find ways to address the problem. “We want to help local suppliers get to the point where they can work with us.”

Mike pointed out that there has been some positive changes as well. Prices are lower now than they were, the store now uses the same flyer as the rest of the Sobeys stores, and the assortment of products is larger than when it opened. “We’re going to expand further as well.” He told me they are keeping the coffee bar, but may reorient the space to make room for a few more shelves.

Sobeys on 104 Street

I told Mike that I felt much better about the store after talking to him, though I was still opposed to the windows. “If there’s something wrong, we want to know about it,” he said. “If there’s something missing, we want to hear about that too.” He’s confident that the window issue will be resolved as well.

“It’s a community store, it’s a neighbourhood store,” Mike said. “We want to be here, and we want to be here for the long-term.”

Why we love living downtown

Sharon and I decided to collaborate on this post. Enjoy!

Sharon:

When Mack and I first started looking into buying a condo in 2009, we knew what we wanted. It took a bit of time, however, to get my dad (who was also our real estate agent), on board.

For our specified price range, he told us we would be able to purchase a spacious, sparkly new condo on the edge of the city. State of the art fixtures, modern design, and that pull of the pristine is attractive to many for a variety of reasons. But not for us, given our current work situation, lifestyle and values.

Mack:

We made a list of our priorities, and chief among them was location. It was really important for us to live downtown, or at least as close as possible, given that we both work in the downtown area and a significant number of our extracurricular activities take place downtown. We wanted a high-rise condo with two bedrooms (so that one could be my office), plenty of natural light, and a decent sized kitchen. Walking distance to the City Market was also on our list, and being downtown we knew access to public transit would be good.

4th St Promenade

We ended up purchasing a condo last July in The Century, located at 10180 104 Street (right beside Icon 2). Our 12th floor space is on the southeast corner of the building, facing 104 Street. We got the two bedrooms, a great kitchen, tons of natural light, and every Saturday morning the market is on our doorstep.

Walking to work

Sharon:

I have to admit I was a bit gleeful when I typed in our answers to the “commute length” question on the National Household Survey earlier this year. For me: 12 minutes. For Mack: 8 minutes.

I work in Central McDougall, just north of downtown, while Mack works in the core. I recognize that we are both very fortunate to work close to one another (and don’t require vehicles for our jobs), so neither of us has to compromise with commute times. But we also actively chose to situate ourselves in a location where walking to work would be convenient and the natural choice.

I do have the occasional off-site meeting or event to attend, and find it no problem to hop on transit to reach my destination.

City Market Downtown - May 29
104 Street & Jasper Avenue on a rainy day last year

Mack:

When I started at Questionmark, our office was in the northwest by The Brick’s warehouse and I lived in the southeast. Every day I drove the Whitemud there and back. Some days it could take an hour each way. Next I moved to Oliver, close to the old Molson Brewery. That cut my commute down, but I was still driving and depending on weather or traffic it could still take quite a while. When we moved the Questionmark office downtown to the Empire Building on Jasper Avenue and 101 Street, I started taking the bus every day. It took about 15 minutes and I would generally check email and Twitter on the way. Now that we live on 104 Street, I can walk to work in less than ten minutes.

I have a lot of early meetings, so I often work from home until mid morning or lunch and then head into the office for the rest of the day. That’s an option now because of our location. I can’t tell you how transformative that progressively smaller commute has been for me. Not only am I healthier because I’m walking every day, but I have so much more time for other things.

Public transit

Mack:

We’re a one car household and we rarely drive more than one day a week – usually an afternoon on the weekend to shop for things we can’t get at the market or to visit family. The rest of the time we’re either walking or riding the bus or train. We’re less than a block away from the Bay/Enterprise Square LRT station, and with luck we’re just a few years away from being a block or two from a new stop on the Downtown LRT Connector.

4th St Promenade

Of course downtown also has the best bus service in the city, so if we need to go somewhere the LRT can’t yet take us, a major route is not far away (the 1, 2, 7, 8 and 100 are just a few of the major routes that are a block or less from our place).

Front yard farmers’ market

Sharon:

An objection we often hear about not shopping locally is the inconvenience of it – nowhere to park, limited hours, selection that rewards early birds. By choosing to live right on 104 Street – the home of the City Market – that isn’t a problem for us. And in the same way we value public transportation, supporting local farmers is another one of our priorities, so it helps when the barrier of distance is removed.

City Market Opening Day 2011

When we lived in Oliver, we made the 35 minute trek to the City Market most Saturdays. It was a pleasant walk, but was definitely something we had to plan for, and schedule into our weekend. Now, even when we have other commitments on Saturdays, it’s not difficult for one of us to run downstairs, grab the essentials, and go on with our day.

Built for pedestrians

Mack:

Though our street didn’t start life as a pedestrian-friendly roadway, it certainly is now. Every Saturday the street is closed for the market, and while there has been talk of closing it to vehicular traffic permanently, that probably won’t happen. Still, I often remark that 104 Street is the most walkable street in the city.

4th St Promenade

The sidewalks are wide enough that you’ll find benches along the street, and restaurants like Lit and Tzin feature patios. The sidewalks also are level with the road, which reduces the feeling that there are separate pedestrian and vehicle spaces. The single lane of street parking on either side provides a nice safety buffer as you walk. The lights are placed along the sidewalks for pedestrians rather than in the middle for vehicles. And the trees, while not as tall or old as the ones that formed a beautiful canopy on 122 Street where we used to live, add that special something to the streetscape.

The result? Day or night, vehicles drive cautiously down 104 Street and jaywalking is the norm. Pedestrians rule here.

Location, location, location

Sharon:

104th is arguably the most exciting street in Edmonton right now. With two wine bars, a liquor store, a diner, a fantastic cafe, and an artisan bakery, it’s definitely a food lover’s paradise. And with an organic food store on the horizon, who knows what else is in store in the future?

Our street also doubles as a venue for some of Edmonton’s coolest events – the annual Al Fresco Block Party is a great example, or dance performances that transformed the street into a stage.

K.O. Dance Project
K.O. Dance Project on 104th

Downtown is often associated with a "lack” of green space, but given our proximity to the river valley, we’ve never really had an issue with that. And better yet, we have Beaver Hills House Park, just down the block from us. With its mature trees and water feature, the park really feels like an oasis, despite its seedy history.

Beaver Hills House Park
Beaver Hills House Park

Amenities

Mack:

Coffee meetings are a regular part of most weeks for me. Very rarely do I need to meet outside the downtown core and when I do, I find the LRT or the bus works well enough to get me where I need to be. Most often though I can be found at Credo Coffee. The service is great, the vanilla latte is delicious, and it’s close to home – as in 100 steps or so. It’s my neighbourhood office!

Credo Coffee

I’m also a fan of the newest addition to our street, Bubble Buzz. When I need to get my hair cut, I stop in at blunt salon. If Sharon needs to pickup some bread on her way home, she visits Queen of Tarts. When we needed paint to create our red feature wall, we went to Carbon. Lunch or dinner in a pinch? Blue Plate Diner never disappoints. It’s amazing how much more time you have when you don’t have to spend as much of it travelling.

Sharon:

And though it isn’t quite the local food hub that it intended to be, there’s nothing handier than having Sobeys down the street from us. I can’t tell you the number of times it has saved us from having to drive down to a grocery store when we realized we were missing an ingredient for a recipe. It’s our corner store – something that has disappeared from so many of Edmonton’s neighbourhoods.

One year later

We had high expectations for our new place and neighbourhood when we moved in last July. Now a year later, it’s safe to say our expectations have been exceeded. We love living downtown!

Downtown
The view from our balcony

Reclaiming Edmonton’s Lost Spaces: Alley of Light

A couple of weeks ago I linked to the Edmonton on the Edge website, after I had come across their page on “reclaiming lost spaces”. The organization, which consists of members from the University of Alberta, Edmonton Design Committee, ISL Engineering, Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, and M.A.D.E. in Edmonton, among others, recently explored the idea of reclaiming two of Edmonton’s lost spaces: the alley behind Sobeys on 104 Street, and the alley behind the Melton Building on 103 Street. They settled on the alley behind Sobeys, and worked with around 40 individuals from the area to start imagining how the space could be transformed.

The project, led by former City Councillor Michael Phair and EIDOS Landscape Architect Peter Spearey, has been dubbed the “Alley of Light” and there’s an open house coming up on Sunday, December 5 for anyone interested to provide input. I live less than a block away from the alley, so I’m excited about the opportunity to help transform it into something more. Here’s what the alley looked like tonight:

Alley of Light

You can see that it is dark, and not exactly inviting. Even during the day, the alley does not “create a sense of ownership and pride amongst community members”, one of the goals of the Reclaiming Lost Spaces project. Aside from the Christmas lights in the tree nearest to the street, there’s not much there. Though I wasn’t sure what to make of them at first, the red illuminated cones outside Lit are a welcome addition to the street. They add some color and, well, some light!

Aside from Lit, one of the first things that came to mind for me when I heard the name “Alley of Light” was the Illuminate Yaletown event that I went to in Vancouver last year. It featured some impressive light-as-art installations, like this one:

Illuminate Yaletown

I’d love to see some improvements to the alley that would work both during the day and at night. Think of a water installation during the day that becomes illuminated at night, something like that. It’s a little difficult to see in this photo, but even during daytime events such as Al Fresco the space is underutilized at the moment. It would be great for the space to be welcoming both day and night.

Here’s one idea for the alley:

Alley of Light

The main idea there is the beams of light extending from the Sobeys building, as well as getting rid of the fence and smoothing out the park. There are all kinds of opportunities, and if you’d like to see some more or even provide your own, I encourage you to come to the open house:

WHO: You and your friends!
WHAT: Alley of Light Open House
WHEN: Sunday, December 5 from 2pm to 4pm
WHERE: Enterprise Square, Main Atrium
WHY: To help reclaim one of Edmonton’s lost spaces!

Next steps and additional information will be provided at the open house. Anyone and everyone is invited, so spread the word!