Don’t get too excited about supertall building proposals in Edmonton

There’s nothing quite like a skyline-defining tower to get people excited. Earlier this week a proposal for an 80-storey tower in The Quarters known as the The Quarters Hotel and Residences caught the eye of many. Developers Alldritt Land Corporation LLP still need to get approval for the tower from City Council, something they’ll seek within the next year. But is this proposal really something we should get excited about?

After decades without any new towers being built downtown, I completely understand the appeal of these proposals. Especially with recent examples to point to like Enbridge Centre and the new City of Edmonton Tower, both of which are very attractive buildings. Not to mention the Stantec Tower, which will finally get Edmonton into the skyscraper club. Closing the City Centre Airport and removing the height restrictions over downtown made these buildings possible.

Kelly Ramsey Hero Shot
Kelly Ramsey Hero Shot, photo by David Sutherland

But those are office towers, not residential towers, and they’re located in the heart of our commercial core. When we look at residential towers elsewhere in our downtown and the surrounding neighbourhoods, density is what should be important to us, not necessarily height. We want to increase the population of our core neighbourhoods, but we don’t need record-setting heights in order to achieve that. And in fact, such heights might actually be detrimental.

I wrote about this back in June when the issue of changing downtown land economics came up before Council:

“A really tall tower on one site might be appealing for the impact it’ll have on the skyline, for the apparent “prestige” that comes along with height, and for the increased profits and/or reduced financial risks for the developer. But it could also mean that instead of development occurring on multiple sites, only the tall tower goes ahead. Look at it this way: would you rather have three 20-storey towers or one 60-storey tower?”

There is one other potential benefit of the supertall towers aside from being attractive and it’s that in theory Council can negotiate with the developers to ensure there are public good contributions made in exchange for the height. The problem is that the last time that opportunity came up with the 45-storey Emerald Tower in Oliver, we didn’t end up with a very good deal. This is partly because there are no formal rules for those negotiations.

At it’s July 6 meeting, Executive Committee passed the following motion in attempt to change that:

“That Administration conduct further research and stakeholder engagement towards a formalized review procedure and incentive system to be applied to Direct Control Provision rezoning applications that add Floor Area Ratio in the city core and Transit Oriented Developments, and return to Committee in the First Quarter of 2017.”

Ideally this framework will be approved before the proposed Quarters tower goes to Council.

Downtown Skyline

There are other reasons to question proposals for supertall buildings, of course. Plenty of proposals have come forward and then quietly disappeared, such as the 71-storey “Edmontonian” tower that was proposed back in 2013. More recently, there are concerns about the vacancy rate downtown with the approved towers coming online and the impact that’ll have on the residential market. And on top of that residential towers like Brad Lamb’s Jasper House Condos which haven’t started construction yet are now lowering prices. For all of these reasons there’s no guarantee that the proposed Quarters tower will go ahead.

Yes, it would be great to see The Quarters develop into a vibrant part of our downtown core, and maybe this building could help us achieve that. A supertall building there could do for The Quarters CRL what the Bow Building did for The Rivers District CRL in Calgary. It’s certainly better than a giant hole in the ground! But I’m not convinced a single, supertall building is what we should be pursuing for the area.

A similar discussion is playing out in cities like New York, albeit at a very different scale. Here’s the criticism that Diller Scofidio + Renfro co-founder Elizabeth Diller had for the multiple out-of-character skyscrapers being proposed in New York City:

“I believe in planning logics where you have neighbourhoods, and you don’t just do one building at a time. We need more planning vision in the city than there is now, where there’s no thinking of the effect of tall buildings. I believe in planning, and even zones that are planned up high. There are zones and then logics, and they have edges. There needs to be a consciousness of the urban adjacencies and the products of what the building comes with.”

Edmonton absolutely needs to build up rather than out, but we need to consider the impact that approving one supertall tower will have on the surrounding area. Multiple tall buildings is probably more desirable than one supertall tower.

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”.

Happy Anniversary to the Art Gallery of Alberta!

This weekend the Art Gallery of Alberta celebrates the one year anniversary of its new building in Churchill Square. It’s hard to believe that it was a year ago that the ribbon cutting took place and Edmontonians were clamoring to get a peek at the beautiful facility.

And what a year it has been! Here are some of the highlights of 2010:

  • Attendance more than quadrupled since 2009 – more than 111,000 visitors!
  • Of that number, approximately 87,000 were paid admission, which significantly surpassed the target of 65,000.
  • The number of AGA members increased from 1650 to 5300!
  • A total of 17 exhibitions were presented, 5 of which were dedicated to Alberta arists.
  • Roughly 4700 people in total attended the 395 public tours that were given. In addition, 146 private tours were given to a total of 3150 visitors.
  • School programs grew from 5000 students in 2009 to 14,500 last year.
  • A total of 367 private and corporate events, 24 wedding receptions, and 62 wedding photos sessions took place.

Here are a few graphs to help illustrate the success of 2010:

One of the highlights for me personally was the Refinery series of events. There were three in 2010, and each one was more popular than the last. Over 1700 people attended Refinery, and 800 of those were at the most recent event (it was so popular, people had to be turned away). I wrote about the second Refinery here. The 367 private and corporate events is significant as well. I attended dozens of events that took place at the AGA last year, it’s a great venue.

And who could forget the exhibitions! From Edgar Degas, Francisco Goya, and Edward Burtynsky to Warner Bros., Jonathan Kaiser, and Laura St. Pierre, we had a little bit of everything. I particularly enjoyed the Warner Bros. cartoons and Janet Cardiff & George Miller Bures’ Storm Room.

While the building was the most obvious “new” thing from 2010, let’s not forget that the AGA launched a new restaurant, logo, a new website, and established a presence in social media last year as well. All of those things helped the organization win a variety of awards:

  • Metal Construction Association Presidents Award for Overall Excellence
  • Institutional Winner: Alberta Construction Magazine 2009 Top Projects
  • 2010 Edmonton Economic Development Corporation Recognition Excellence Award
  • Best Cultural Institution 2010 by See Magazine
  • Zinc Restaurant was named one of the Best New Restaurants of 2010 by Where Magazine
  • Allan Scott was named Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser by the Edmonton Association of Fundraising Professionals

Interview with Gilles Hébert, AGA Executive Director

The numbers for 2010 are certainly impressive. I asked Gilles to reflect on the past year. “It’s quite remarkable,” he told me. “The challenge is to maintain the momentum and continue to grow our audience.” In the first two months after the new building opened to the public, more than 30,000 people visited. “Lots of people came initially just to see the inside of the building,” Gilles said. Now he says people are coming back for the programming. “We exist because of the program, not because we have a cool building.”

Gilles said the AGA has seen the most interest in its contemporary programming, which he described as “pretty cool”. The success of the AGA’s contemporary exhibitions has driven interest nationally too. “People are looking to us for these big ambitious shows,” he told me. “They’re drawn in by the level of enthusiasm that is palpable in this community.”

Looking ahead to 2011, Gilles told me the challenge is generating buzz in places other than Edmonton. “There is no other institution like us in this province – we have a provincial mandate.” One of the ways the AGA is doing that is through social media. “We’re finding that these new forms of communication are really driving interest and allowing people to connect with what we’re doing.” He said their social media activities are actually becoming more valuable than traditional printed material and paid advertising, at least in terms of driving audience.

Gilles told me he is really looking forward to the celebration this weekend. “We are so proud to celebrate this milestone.”

Art Gallery of Alberta

Sunday Celebration

The anniversary celebration takes place on Sunday from 11am until 5pm. Here’s a brief description of what to expect:

The day includes the launch of the official AGA building book, presentations by the Citadel Theatre, Alberta Ballet and the Edmonton Opera, exhibition tours, as well as cupcakes for the first 500 visitors.

It should be a great day! You can see the event on ShareEdmonton here. And if you just can’t wait until Sunday, tonight is opening night for the Brian Jungen exhibition which features three sculptural installations.

If you’re taking photos this weekend, be sure to add them to the AGA pool on Flickr. Be sure to follow the Art Gallery of Alberta on Twitter.

You can see my photos of the AGA here. If you’d like a bit of background on the new building, check out my recap of architect Randall Stout’s talk.

Reimagine: Achieving a Sustainable Building Stock in Edmonton

A few weeks ago I attended Manasc Isaac’s Reimagine Tower Renewal Summit 4 (see my preview). John Woelfling from Dattner Architects in New York was the guest speaker, and he shared a wealth of information on the renewal of the Peter W. Rodino Federal Office Building in Newark, New Jersey.

Reimagine Tower Renewal Summit

John covered all aspects of the renewal project, from cooling & heating plant upgrades to egress improvements and façade upgrades. They were able to achieve a significant increase in the energy efficiency of the building, and it looks much nicer now too! A lot of the information was over my head, but you can download John’s presentation here if you’re interested (PDF, 10 MB).

Peter W. Rodino Federal Office BuildingPeter W. Rodino Federal Office Building

One slide in particular from John’s presentation stuck with me. To help set the context, he showed this graph:

As you can see, the vast majority of new office construction in Manhattan occurred back in the 1970s and 1980s. Why is that significant? Building codes and regulations were far less likely to consider energy efficiency at the time. An office tower built today is far more likely to be energy efficient than one built in 1970. It wasn’t until the Brundtland Report was published in 1987 that the term “sustainable development” was defined.

I have been thinking about that graph ever since, wondering if the situation here in Edmonton was similar, and trying to wrap my head around the problem of having an old and inefficient building stock. I spent some time on the website for The Way We Green, and came across this discussion paper from Klaas Rodenburg of Stantec. Titled Achieving a Sustainable Building Stock, the paper discusses the very thing I have been thinking about. Here’s a key excerpt:

Buildings are directly responsible for more than a third of all energy used and more than 50% of natural resources consumed in Canada. As a significant part of the problem, buildings also present part of the solution.

Although buildings look permanent, they are actually replaced or renewed on a perpetual basis. Municipalities can take advantage of this continual renewal cycle to significantly grow their stock of sustainable buildings by expecting higher standards for new buildings and encouraging existing building owners to engage in green renovations. Building codes are slow to change and focus on life safety, health and accessibility and not environmental performance.

The paper goes on to discuss voluntary rating systems such as LEED, and identifies strategies our city could employ to achieve a more sustainable building stock.

So what does our building stock look like? I turned to to help find the answer. They’ve got a pretty good database of Edmonton buildings – it currently contains 283 completed buildings. Of those, 183 have a “year built” associated with them. Here’s what you get with a little Excel magic:

Very similar to the Manhattan chart (though the SkyscraperPage data includes both residential and office buildings). Most of Edmonton’s buildings were built prior to the mid 1980s. Here’s what it looks like when you focus just on buildings that have 20 or more floors:

Yikes! All of the buildings on the right side of that graph are residential too: One River Park, The Century, The Jasper Properties, ICON I, ICON II, and Quest.

Obviously we need to ensure that any new buildings we are constructing are energy efficient. As Rodenburg says in his discussion paper, they must “exceed existing codes and standards by a significant measure.” I think that is happening to a certain extent – being LEED certified is something we hear quite a bit about now.

The graphs above suggest that perhaps we should pay more attention to our existing building stock as well. There’s a number of strategies we could use to make our older buildings more efficient, including the increasingly popular idea of reskinning.

Reimagine Tower Renewal Summit in Edmonton

Next Tuesday, Manasc Isaac Architects are hosting a luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald featuring John Woelfling of New York’s Dattner Architects (on ShareEdmonton). This is the latest in a series of events known as the Reimagine Tower Renewal Summit. Here’s the event description:

In this luncheon hosted by Manasc Isaac Architects, Woelfling will present on the renewal of the Peter W. Rodino Federal Office Building in Newark, New Jersey. The P3 modernization project utilizes a true re-skinning strategy, a first for North America. The smart skin increases energy efficiency, provides more effective fresh air ventilation, allows the building to be renovated while still occupied and dramatically transforms the building’s identity.

I was invited to the event and am looking forward to it. I’m not an architect (obviously) but I am interested in ways to transform Edmonton’s urban form, and this seems like a useful addition to the toolkit. Manasc suggests that “a reimagined building” (or a re-skinned building) can result in lower operating costs, reduced energy consumption, and improved day-lighting, among other things.

Some of you might remember Shafraaz Kaba’s talk at TEDxEdmonton last March, where he discussed the reimagining of the old Dell call centre building, now the Servus building. Here’s the before and after:

Servus Credit Union

Shafraaz pointed out that the benefits go deeper than just the exterior of the building. People are more productive when there is lots of natural light, etc.

One of the Pecha Kucha talks I remember most was Myron Belej’s from the very first PKN in Edmonton (slides in PDF here). He talked about Urban Color, and showed a before & after for a variety of Edmonton buildings. I remember being struck by just how much of a difference it can make when the building is not beige. Manasc Isaac’s ideas go beyond just color, of course, but I think the two are related.

Here are some more visuals from Manasc Isaac that demonstrate the re-skinning idea:

Stanley Milner Library
The Stanley Milner library downtown – it always comes up in discussions about redevelopment.

Chancery Hall
Chancery Hall

Associated Engineering
Associated Engineering building, apparently so ugly “it stops traffic in its tracks”. There’s a re-skin on the way for this building already.

If you’re interested in attending the event, you can register here. And if you’re in Calgary, they’re doing the event there too on November 10th.

Randall Stout on the new Art Gallery of Alberta

On Saturday afternoon, Randall Stout gave a talk at the Winspear Centre on the new Art Gallery of Alberta. As the lead architect on the renovation of the AGA, he could talk about the project like no one else. He started with some of his influences and favorite examples of architecture, and then moved on to the philosophy behind the design for the new AGA. He touched on the technology used throughout the design process, and the materials used for the building’s construction. He finished with some never-before-seen renderings and photographs of the new AGA.

As Sharon noted, one couldn’t help but come away from the talk feeling excited about the new Art Gallery. I was already looking forward to the new building for it’s unique and controversial design (both positive things in a city mostly full of plain buildings) and hearing Stout’s thoughts only furthered my appreciation for the design.

Randall Stout Architects, Inc. was named the winner of the Edmonton Art Gallery’s New Vision architectural competition on October 13th, 2005. Here’s what Stout had to say at the time:

“It is an honour to be chosen from among such distinguished colleagues,” said Randall Stout once he had been given the news. “I look forward with great excitement to crafting architecture that serves the Gallery’s New Vision of programming for the people of Edmonton and all of Alberta.”

The distinguished colleagues he mentioned included Alsop & Partners (London, UK) and Quadrangle (Toronto), Arthur Erickson/Nick Milkovich (Vancouver), Dub Architects (Edmonton), and Zaha Hadid (London, UK).

Though Randall Stout has been on the job for about four years, the project actually started nearly twelve years ago. That’s when the wheels were set in motion for the renovation of what was known at the time as the Edmonton Art Gallery. I think once we see the completed building we’ll look back and say it was worth the wait.

The most distinctive feature, the sweeping stainless steel wave, is known as “Borealis”. It is meant to reflect our city’s unique geography – the river valley cutting through box-filled urban spaces. While it will appear as one piece as you walk into the building, it is actually separate to ensure that cold outside temperatures stay outside.

Stout talked a little about designing for such a northern climate. He mentioned that the building was designed with winter in mind, and showed a rendering of the building on a very snowy day. He didn’t give specifics however, and said to wait for some nice weather-related surprises when the building opens. He also shared his admiration for local construction workers who braved the cold weather to keep the project on track.

Though the new AGA will indeed be linked to the pedway system and to Churchill LRT station when finished, it will not include a redesigned LRT entrance. Stout said that he went above and beyond the requirements of the competition by including the feature in his initial designs, but scrapped it due to lack of funding. He’s hopeful that the City might resurrect the feature in the future (and I am too).

Art Gallery of Alberta

Other interesting features of the new building include “the grand staircase”, the third floor terrace, a new restaurant/cafe, and a color-changing exterior. You can learn more about the building features here.

The new $88 million Art Gallery of Alberta will open to the public on January 31, 2010, roughly 1500 days after Randall Stout won the competition. To tide you over until then, the Art Gallery of Alberta is hosting an exhibit called Building a Vision, which features “the progression of the building from initial conceptual sketches and diagrams to pictures, models, and photographs captured throughout construction.” Don’t miss it!

Pecha Kucha Night: Edmonton #3

Tonight was Edmonton’s third Pecha Kucha night. Around 300 people attended the event at The Matrix Hotel downtown, and like PKN #2, it was completely sold out. There wasn’t even a waiting-list or at-the-door ticket sales this time! There’s clearly a lot of demand for this event, and I don’t think that’s going to change in the future. Make sure you pay attention if you want to have a chance at getting tickets for PKN #4!

For those of you new to the concept – Pecha Kucha was conceived in 2003 as a place for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public. Presenters are given 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide, so each presentation is 6 minutes and 40 seconds long. There are no formal Q&A periods, but everyone is encouraged to chat at the breaks. How to pronounce “Pecha Kucha” is a common question here in Edmonton. Is it “pet-cha-koo-cha” or is it “petch-ach-kah”? Edmonton Next Gen decided it was the former and started with an exercise to get everyone to say it aloud:

Mayor Mandel also said a few words (his attendance meant there were dozens of cameras and a couple video crews present), and then it was on with the presentations.

Tonight’s event didn’t have a theme, but I think perhaps it should have. In comparison with the previous two Pecha Kucha Nights, I found the presentations this evening rather weak. There was far too much self-promotion going on. There’s nothing wrong with talking about your work/projects, but I think focusing on the ideas/concepts is much more interesting. It would have been nice to see more diversity too – tonight was fairly academic. As Sharon remarked to me, the presentations at PKN #2 were more accessible – you didn’t have to be an architect or industrial designer to “get” it. Also: two of the presenters were from Calgary, apparently. Could they really not get two other Edmonton presenters?

Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3

The first two, Ben King and Tobias Olivia, felt almost like pitches for their respective organizations. Al-Arqam Amer was third, and gave an interesting talk about how architects should do away with floorplans and 2D representations and should instead make use of photorealistic 3D models. Cezary Gajewski then talked about communicating industrial design. The final presentation before the break was by Ron Wickman, who talked about designing with accessibility in mind.

Pecha Kucha Night 3Sharon, Peter, Cam

After the break Amber Rooke from The Works Art & Design Festival gave the oddest presentation I’ve seen to-date. She spoke about the festival, but I don’t think anyone was listening to her. Instead, they were focused on the mostly naked man posing on stage. Everyone in the audience was given a pad of paper and a pencil, and were asked to draw his various poses. Amber concluded by saying “6000 drawings were made in six minutes, imagine what we can do in 13 days.” I think the shock-value worked against her though.

Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3Pecha Kucha Night 3

Romy Young was up next to share his thoughts on photography – again, way too much “I” in his presentation. Milena Radzikowska followed with a presentation about a GIS-related project she’s leading with Mount Royal and Alberta Parks. Robert Lederer showed a bunch of random designs during his six minutes. The second last presenter was Thomas Gaudin, an industrial design student from the U of A. I thought this presentation was one of the best. He talked about Modernism and Postmodernism, and suggested combining them to result in something called Interface Architecture. He also said that South Edmonton Common is a worst case example of design, much to the delight of many in the crowd. The final presenter was Ryan Stark from the City of Edmonton, who talked about EXPO.

Once again there was a DJ, food, and a cash bar. I thought the seating took a step backward this time – we were spoiled by stadium-style seating at the TransAlta Arts Barns at PKN #2. Everyone seemed to be having a good time though, and the quality of the presentations notwithstanding, I think the event went really well. It’s great to see such a large group of passionate Edmontonians come together. I look forward to PKN #4!

You can see more of my photos here, and you can subscribe to the Edmonton Next Gen mailing list here.

New Concept for Edmonton Arena in The Quarters Downtown

Earlier today, local architect Gene Dub released some conceptual drawings and a video rendering of a new arena for Edmonton’s downtown. The project would cost about $300 million, and while Dub has talked to the Katz Group they haven’t made any commitments. According to Global TV, the arena would be on the third floor of the unique-looking, reverse-cone shaped building with retail underneath.

Dub surprised everyone by unveiling his vision at a public hearing for The Quarters Downtown redevelopment plan. The new arena would be located along 103A Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. I’ve drawn it on a map which you can see here. Currently there’s a whole lot of parking on the site and not much else. The visioning process for The Quarters Downtown began over two years ago. City Council approved the vision statement on September 26th, 2006:

The Quarters (Downtown East) will be a vibrant, healthy community comprised of five distinct areas, each with its own character, activities, and feel, structured around a unique linear park system running through the neighbourhood that provides a defining element for the community. The neighbourhood is well connected to the downtown core and river valley, yet has a distinct image that identifies it as a unique place in the city. Streets are improved with limited through traffic, making the streets safe and inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists. Large city blocks are broken into smaller, more inviting and walkable pieces. Activity abounds. There is a mix of parks, shops, employment, services, and housing. There is a diversity of ages, incomes, and cultures. Open space is surrounded by businesses and housing, creating a safe and inviting amenity year round. The Quarters is a place where community is important and pride and investment in the neighbourhood is evident.

I don’t think the proposed arena goes against that vision, but it’s not exactly a perfect fit, either. I’ve been critical of a new arena before, primarily because I don’t feel that public funding should finance the bulk of the project. I’d reconsider that if the arena was part of a redevelopment project such as The Quarters, however. It remains unclear whether or not the proposed site would be large enough for more than just the arena.

Here’s the video render:

It’s definitely eye-catching.

Wondering who Gene Dub is? He’s the architect behind Edmonton’s City Hall. His firm has received a number of awards over the years, including at least six for the glass-and-stone pyramids of City Hall. Dub also served one-term as a city councillor.

It’ll be interesting to see what becomes of this proposal – I’ll be keeping an eye on it. You can find more comments on the design here and here.

UPDATE (11/25/2008): The Edmonton Journal wrote about the concept here, with few additional details but comments from Dub and a couple councillors.

Something to keep an eye on: Microsoft Velocity

Last week I heard about a new project from Microsoft code-named Velocity. You can think of Velocity as Microsoft’s version of the very popular memcached:

“Velocity” is a distributed in-memory cache that provides .NET applications with high-speed access, scale, and high availability to application data.

Basically it’s a backend technology that helps to make websites perform better. Instead of accessing the database every time a page is requested, the website can often get the data it needs from the cache which is much faster than accessing the database.

ASP.NET has had caching built-in for years, but it doesn’t work in a server farm. That is, if you have more than one web server, there’s no way for all of them to share the same cache. Velocity makes that possible. For a good technical overview of Velocity, check out this post from Dare Obasanjo. Also check out Scott Hanselman’s podcast interview with two of Velocity’s architects.

We use memcached in Podcast Spot, and we’ve been very happy with it. It’s simple, efficient, and does just what we need it to do. Of course, our memcached installation is no where near the size of Facebook’s. I’ve read in a few places in the past that they run a 200 server cluster with 3 TB of memory solely for memcached. I’m sure it has grown since then too.

I have no idea how well Velocity will perform compared to memcached, or even if it’s full of bugs or not! I am eager to play around with it though, and it’s a project I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on. Velocity is a project from Microsoft that is long overdue, in my opinion.

Twitter doesn't know what's wrong

twitter Even occasional Twitter users will no doubt be familiar with the service’s frequent downtime. It’s a rare day when I don’t run into at least one or two “something’s technically wrong” messages on the site. That has prompted a lot of discussion about how to improve Twitter, and also some discussion about how things could be so bad.

I’ve been willing to cut them some slack. They’ve grown exponentially, and continue to do so. Then on Wednesday, Twitter founder Jack posted this on the official blog:

We’ve gone through our various databases, caches, web servers, daemons, and despite some increased traffic activity across the board, all systems are running nominally. The truth is we’re not sure what’s happening. It seems to be occurring in-between these parts.

Transparency is great, but surely they must have some idea about what’s wrong? I don’t know much about their architecture or systems, but it seems odd to me that they’d be totally stumped. It suggests to me that their architecture was never designed, and was instead thrown together over time. Now they’re in too deep to start over.

Twitter developer Alex suggests that the main problem is the system was originally put together as a content management system, when in reality it’s a messaging system. If that’s the case, fine, but messaging systems are not new. They must be able to examine and learn from some existing stuff right?

Posts like the one Jack made don’t inspire much confidence that they’ll be able to turn things around, but I sure hope they do. I really love Twitter. Maybe the $15 million in additional funding that they recently secured will help.