A colorful window into downtown Edmonton’s transformation

Edmonton’s downtown is undergoing an incredible transformation right now. You can tell by looking up at the more than two dozen cranes located in and around downtown. You can tell by the dust and other construction debris that gets blown around by the wind. You can tell by the closed sidewalks and the detours that drivers face. And of course, you can tell by the energy and excitement that seems to be in the air whenever someone talks about what is happening downtown. This is no mere revitalization. To use the City of Edmonton’s words, it’s an “incredible renaissance coming to life” in the heart of our city.

This growth and momentum was the focus of a showcase that took place today on the empty and unfinished 16th floor of the EPCOR Tower. I’m not sure the organizers appreciated the irony of talking about new buildings and more development while we were standing in the middle of the last new office tower built downtown, one which remains only partially full. I know they wanted the view, but still.

A Downtown for Everyone

The statistics that Jim Taylor, Executive Director of the Downtown Business Association, and Scott McKeen, City Councillor for Ward 6, shared with us are impressive:

  • In just two years, the amount of underdeveloped land decreased by 17%.
  • Over 1 million square feet of land in the core comprises active construction sites. That’s the equivalent of about 62 NHL-sized hockey arenas.
  • There is 6.6 million square feet of floor area under construction, which is bigger than West Edmonton Mall.
  • Over 1,100 resident units are under construction and another 3,300 have been announced by developers.

“The new downtown vibrancy and momentum is unmistakable,” said Jim Taylor. “There’s about $5 billion in new condos, office towers, hotels, and infrastructure under construction or planned for our downtown.”

A Downtown for Everyone

Projects under active construction include Rogers Place, the new Royal Alberta Museum, MacEwan Centre for Arts & Culture, NorQuest College Singhmar Centre, Kelly Ramsey, Fox Towers, The Ultima, 107 Street Annex, Hyatt Place in The Quarters, and of course all the buildings in the Edmonton Arena District, like the new Stantec tower. These projects are for residential, commercial, post-secondary, and other uses. It’s great to see such a varied mix.

The highlight of today’s event was the new visual icon that is meant to tie the various projects together. It’s a window in the shape of an “E” and it comes with lots and lots of color.

A Downtown for Everyone

I’ll admit my first reaction to the design when I saw it a few weeks ago was negative. I still don’t get the “E”. It doesn’t say anything about downtown nor does it say anything about construction. I guess you can take it to mean that all of these projects are building a bigger and better Edmonton, but that feels like a bit of a stretch. The City seems indicate that the “E” is for everyone:

“Together, as a community, we are building a downtown for everyone, one that is economically strong, vibrant, global and inclusive. The visual style is bold, optimistic and confident. Everything our downtown, and Edmonton, truly embodies.”

That seems at odds with the approach Make Something Edmonton has taken. Instead of pretending that Edmonton is for everyone, MSE posits that it’s not, but that if you’re a maker, this is your city. Can downtown really be for everyone? I will say the design is growing on me though.

A Downtown for Everyone

Berlin did the work and I had the opportunity to talk to Michael Brechtel about it. He’s a partner and is in charge of creative for the firm. He was quick to point out what the design is not. “It’s not intended to be a new brand for downtown,” he said. “It’s meant to reflect this specific time and this specific place.” He talked about the excitement that people are feeling about downtown and said his team is no different. “We’re excited and we feel a sense of ownership over downtown”, he said, pointing out that most of his colleagues live somewhere in the core and many walk to work.

There are three aspects of the design that I really like. I love the fact that it’s a window. You’ll see that reflected in print and online, and hopefully also around the construction sites, with literal windows into what’s going on behind the hoarding. If I had to pick my favorite construction hoarding from around Edmonton, it would be the new Royal Alberta Museum, partially because of the window (but also the fact that its colorful, well-lit, etc). A window into what’s coming is a pretty straightforward visual metaphor and it works.

Another thing I like about the design is that it’s colorful and bright, something that construction generally is not. “This should feel celebratory,” Michael told me. I’ve written about the short-term pain that comes with construction, but Michael is right – there’s a lot to celebrate. He noted that color helps to provide that feeling but is also accessible and inviting.

The third thing I like is that there’s at least an attempt to tie the various projects together. Obviously it wouldn’t make sense for the Oilers to get rid of their own branding, or for the Kelly Ramsey tower to ditch its excellent signage. But adding the “E” could help to better convey the message that there’s something bigger underway here. “We wanted a fun, common visual connector to raise interest and show our support for downtown,” said Councillor McKeen.

A Downtown for Everyone

Of course, that only works if it is widely adopted. There were a couple of dozen representatives from the downtown projects in attendance today, so that’s a good sign. I spoke with Tim Shipton from the Edmonton Oilers and he assured me they are on board and are looking forward to integrating the “E” into their site along 104 Avenue. I hope others are planning to do the same.

It will be interesting to see what the City itself does with the “E” as well. So far they have run with the idea on the new downtown section of the website. They’ve added taglines like “put yourself in the picture”, “excitement worth waiting for”, and “who says cranes are an endangered species”. They communicate about what’s happening downtown more than anyone else, so including the “E” will be critical if it’s going to see any traction.

I would argue they need to do more than just marketing, however. The challenge is not selling Edmontonians on the projects, which I think more or less speak for themselves. The real issue is in keeping downtown functional and open while the construction is happening. The new Current Traffic Disruptions map is a good step in the right direction, but there’s so much more that could be done. Without question all the business and community partners have a role to play, but the City is in the best position to provide leadership here.

A Downtown for Everyone

Today’s gathering reminded me a little of last year’s Edmonton in a New Light event. The focus was a little broader that time, but the message was the same. “Something big is happening,” and we need to tie it all together to help share the story. With luck, the colorful “E” window will help to do just that.

Coffee Bureau and Lock Stock Coffee have revived Edmonton’s coffee district

There’s a buzz downtown and it’s not just because of all the construction taking place. It feels like Edmonton’s coffee district is back now that two new independent coffee shops have opened! Coffee Bureau and Lock Stock Coffee are now open on opposite sides of Jasper Avenue just west of 105 Street. I checked out both locations this week.

Coffee Bureau

Coffee Bureau is located on the southwest corner of Jasper Avenue and 105 Street in the Dental Building. It’s a small cafe with minimal seating and big windows.

Coffee Bureau

They serve ACE Coffee (Twitter, Instagram), a new local roaster from the folks behind LEVA Cafe. You’ll find a small selection of pastries too, like carrot-pineapple muffins and butter tarts.

Coffee Bureau

Couple Peter and Criss are the duo behind Coffee Bureau. Peter was formerly a barista at LEVA Cafe.

Coffee Bureau’s hours are subject to change, but currently they’re planning to be open from 7 AM until 5:30 PM during the week, and 9 AM until 3:30 PM on Saturday. Follow Coffee Bureau on Instagram and on Twitter.

Lock Stock Coffee

Almost directly across the street from Coffee Bureau is where you’ll find Lock Stock, nestled in-between Bower and Red Star Pub (which it is technically a part of). There’s a separate door though; it’s the dark one under the stairs to the right.

Lock Stock Coffee

Lock Stock serves Danesi coffee, which is an Italian roast that began in Rome in 1905. They also have pastries, baked in-house by Jesse who doubles as the barista (I hear the carrot cake is delicious).

Lock Stock Coffee

Red Star’s Sal Di Maio is the man behind Lock Stock. He told me they soft-launched a couple weeks ago and wanted to build up quietly. Now they’ve decided on the name and will be making themselves more known (they just started tweeting today).

Lock Stock will be open from 8 AM until 3 PM during the week, with Red Star opening at 4 PM. Follow Lock Stock Coffee on Twitter.

Edmonton’s Coffee District

It was just last fall that Burrow opened in Central LRT Station, and Transcend opened in the Mercer Warehouse on 104 Street, so it has been a great few months for Edmontonians looking for a caffeine fix downtown. I used to call the area around 104 Street the coffee district back when we had Roast and Transcend, but when they closed I figured it was no longer an appropriate title. Fast forward to today, and I think we can safely say the coffee district is back!

Here are the cafes you’ll find in the few blocks surrounding 104 Street:

  • Credo Coffee on 104 Street – the heart of the district, in my opinion
  • Transcend Mercer at 104 Street & 104 Avenue
  • Second Cup on Jasper Avenue between 103 Street and 104 Street
  • Remedy Cafe on Jasper Avenue at 103 Street
  • Coffee Bureau on Jasper Avenue at 105 Street
  • Lock Stock Coffee on Jasper Avenue between 105 and 106 Street

Also on 104 Street you’ll find Cavern and Dauphine, a cheese shop and bakery, which both serve a great cup of coffee.

Venture just a tiny bit further and you’ll find even more cafes. I suppose you could consider all of downtown the coffee district, from 101 Street to 109 Street, as Sharon does.

On the east side you’ll find Starbucks at the Empire Building, HSBC Bank Place, and City Centre on 101 Street, and of course there’s Second Cup, Good Earth, and two Tim Horton’s at City Centre too. Underground you’ll find Burrow and another Second Cup at Telus Plaza. There’s another Good Earth in Scotia Place. On 102 Street inside Commerce Place you’ll find Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, and McDonald’s (which has a separate McCafe counter).

On the west side, you’ll find Tim Horton’s and Starbucks on 107 Street, Good Earth on 108 Street, Second Cup on Jasper Avenue just west of 108 Street, and of course District on 109 Street.

And who knows what’ll come to the Edmonton Arena District in 2016! Good Earth has already listed a location opportunity for that area.

Lock Stock Coffee

A couple of other coffee-related items worth mentioning:

And with that, I’m off to drink another coffee!

Alley of Light pocket park takes shape in downtown Edmonton

It was four years ago that Edmonton on the Edge started focusing on the Alley of Light. Led by former councillor Michael Phair, the project aimed to reclaim a lost urban space, in this case the alley behind the former Sobeys between Beaver Hills Park and 103 Street. Since that time the group has organized a number of popular events in the alley and they’ve worked with the City to reimagine what it could look like. Any physical changes in the alley have been temporary (such as the year they painted the pavement with bright colors and designs), until now.

Alley of Light Pocket Park

One component of the Alley of Light is the pocket park immediately adjacent to the Icon residential tower. Funding to reconstruct the park became available as part of the Downtown CRL, and work began on the project over the summer. An update from Michael Phair outlined what would be happening:

“The work to be undertaken includes removal of existing paving stone, concrete curbing and paving, granular surfacing and amenities and will be replaced with new lock stone, concrete verge with standard and LED light up bollards, retaining walls, power distribution box, security lighting to match 104 Street, bistro chairs and tables (seating for 64), garbage receptacles, shrub and tree planting with bark mulch and irrigation.”

The work isn’t completely finished yet, but on December 18, 2014, Customer Appreciation Day on 104 Street, the newly renovated park officially opened!

104 Street Pocket Park

Michael Phair, Councillor Scott McKeen, DECL’s Ian O’Donnell, Jon Hall and Ed Fong of the 104 Street Steering Committee, Duncan Fraser from the City of Edmonton, and even Santa, were on hand to deliver remarks to mark the occasion.

104 Street Pocket Park

All of them spoke about the need for green spaces in the downtown area, and about the positive impact this pocket park will have on the quality of life for nearby residents.

Here’s what the pocket park looked like four years ago:

Alley of Light
Looking west

Alley of Light
Looking west from across the street

Alley of Light
Looking east

And here’s what it looks like today:

Alley of Light Pocket Park
Looking west

Alley of Light Pocket Park
Looking west from across the street

Alley of Light Pocket Park
Looking east

It’s a little hard to tell with all the snow, but much more of the park is actually usable now. Seating and tables need to be added however. I’m hopeful that some additional light will be added too, as the northwest corner is pretty dark at the moment (as you can see below) and already a few of the LED bollards are not working. Still, the work done thus far will definitely make the park more usable and attractive.

104 Street Lights

To my knowledge, the park doesn’t have an official name. But I would second the suggestion to name it after Michael Phair in recognition of all the effort he has put into the project! Michael has demonstrated that you really can get things done if you’re persistent, patient, and collaborative.

104 Street Pocket Park

Come on down to the promenade and check it out! And if you haven’t already done so, take a stroll down 104 Street at night too. The lights make for a pretty magical walk!

104 Street Downtown

104 Street Downtown

Just another reason to ❤ YEGDT!

Recap: Retrofutures – Edmonton’s Omniplex Debate

Last month I attended the first ever Retrofutures event, hosted by the Edmonton City as Museum Project. ECAMP is a project from the Edmonton Heritage Council that aims to tell the stories of the people, places, things, and moments that make Edmonton what it is. Retrofutures is a new event series they are trying to get off the ground.

The topic at this event was was the Omniplex, one of the big ideas that Edmonton was considering in the 1960s and early 1970s as the arena debate of that era raged on. The Omniplex was never built, of course, but that presents an interesting thought exercise – what if it had been built?

“The first Retrofutures project from ECAMP takes the case of Omniplex to explore these and other questions. When the idea was first hatched fifty years ago, Omniplex was one of the boldest ideas in urban planning in Western Canada.”

Dr. Russell Cobb has done some research on the Omniplex and started with a presentation on what the Omniplex was all about, as well as the context of the time in which it was being considered. If you haven’t already done so, check out his extensive piece on the Omniplex at The Wanderer.

Retrofutures: Omniplex

After the presentation, he led a panel discussion which featured Paula Simons and Alex Abboud. It was a great conversation, filled with interesting anecdotes and insights. Alex kind of took the position that we should have built it, while Paula took the opposite view. Much of the discussion centered around the impact the Omniplex might have had on downtown, and that raised all sorts of points about the LRT construction, West Edmonton Mall, etc. We also had a mock vote, to decide if we should have built the Omniplex or not. By a narrow margin, the room voted against the Omniplex!

If I have one criticism of the event, it’s that the Omniplex was talked about as if it was the only thing being considered at the time, when in fact it was just the most audacious in a series of arena proposals that failed before the Coliseum (Rexall Place) ultimately went ahead in the early 70s (it opened in 1974). I think you could look at three different plebiscites to support this.

The first took place in 1963. Voters were asked if Council should borrow $4 million to buy land for a megacomplex (which included an arena) to be built where the Citadel sits today. That vote failed. They were also asked if Council should borrow $10.25 million in debt to build the facility, and that vote failed too.

The second plebiscite took place in 1968. That time, voters were asked if they favored the construction of a “Trade Convention and Sports Complex” at a cost of $23 million to be operated at an annual deficit of not more than $2 million. That vote succeeded.

The third plebiscite took place in 1970 in a by-election, and that one was the Omniplex decision. Voters were asked if they wanted Council to borrow $26.4 million to construct the Omniplex – they said no. They were also asked if Council should purchase land north of the proposed site for parking. That vote also failed.

Throughout the decade, a series of arena proposals were put forward by local businessmen and politicians including Sam Hashman and Webb & Knapp. In 1966, after it was condemned by the fire chief, the Edmonton Gardens received a $670,000 renovation, extending its life a little while the arena debate continued. The Oilers moved to the Coliseum for the 1974-1975 season, and the Gardens was eventually demolished in 1982.

Retrofutures: Omniplex

ECAMP has said they plan to hold additional Retrofutures events in the future. Topics could include “what would Edmonton be like if we had not built West Edmonton Mall” or “what would have happened to Edmonton if the freeway through the river valley had gone ahead”. Should be pretty interesting! To find out about upcoming events, check the website and follow them on Twitter.

Have arenas on your mind? Northlands and the Arena Strategy Committee that I am a part of are doing an online survey on the future of Rexall Place. Fill it out and let us know what you think should happen with the arena! The survey is open until January 31, 2015.

Media Monday Edmonton: Meet The Yards

There’s a new, hyperlocal magazine now available in Edmonton focused on our city’s central neighbourhoods. The Yards launched last week at an event downtown, and soon it’ll find its way into more than 24,000 mailboxes in the Oliver and Downtown neighbourhoods. A collaboration between the Oliver and Downtown community leagues, The Yards will attempt to document and impact the major changes taking place in central neighbourhoods by redefining what it means to be a community publication.

The Yards Cover

I attended the launch event last Thursday and have since had the opportunity to speak with Jarrett Campbell, President of the Oliver Community League, and Omar Mouallem, editor of The Yards, about the project.

The Idea

The core idea behind The Yards is that central Edmonton is special. Downtown has been called “Edmonton’s living room” by more than a few community leaders, and together, Downtown and Oliver are home to many more people than the thousands who live there; thousands more work, eat, shop, and seek entertainment in the two neighbourhoods. Additionally, both neighbourhoods are undergoing significant changes. Multiple new investments, both private and public, are having a major impact and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Yards is a way for the community to chronicle those changes, and to shape the conversation around them. “A newsmagazine gives us the opportunity to showcase why living centrally is not only possible but favourable,” is what DECL President Chris Buyze wrote in his first message in the magazine. “We’re excited about telling our neighbourhood’s stories and discussing it with the broader community,” added Jarrett in his.

The idea initially wasn’t quite as grand, however. When Jarrett became president of the community league in 2012, he had a long list of things he wanted to get done, and while improving and modernizing the community newspaper was on the list, it wasn’t near the top. It wasn’t until about November 2013 that discussions began about what could be.

Jarrett simultaneously led his community league’s effort to handover the production of its newsletter to a third party and led the creation of The Yards, a balancing act which was definitely tricky at times. In the end the community league had to choose between two proposals, one of which was The Yards. “We [at The Yards] operated under the assumption this was going to happen,” said Jarrett, who recused himself from the community league’s decision on the matter. He was confident the idea and team would win the board over. The board’s final decision to move ahead came in July, and The Yards was born.

The Model

The Yards is published by the Central Edmonton News Society (CENS) in partnership with the Oliver Community League (OCL) and the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL). As a non-profit organization, CENS is made up of volunteers, but The Yards does have paid staff, and they do pay their writers. Omar is the magazine’s editor, while Vikki Wiercinski is the artistic director. No one is involved to get rich. “Everyone is doing this out of passion,” Omar said. “It isn’t lucrative!”

Jarrett serves as the primary link between the community leagues and CENS. He is President of the OCL Board of Directors and is Chair of the CENS Editorial Committee (DECL President Chris Buyze is Vice Chair of the Editorial Committee). Jarrett is listed as the publisher of The Yards, but hopes to see someone else move into that position in the future.

The Yards Launch
Omar, Jarrett, Vikki, and Chris

The masthead says “the Editorial Committee consults on story ideas and offers strategic support, leaving the decision-making and final content to The Yards staff.” Members include Alex Abboud, Justin Archer, Lisa Baroldi, David Cournoyer, Emerson Csorba, Cory Haller, Myrna Kostash, Milap Petigara, and Anne Stevenson.

In addition to advertising revenue, The Yards is funded by the two community leagues. OCL contributes $15,000 per year, which is what it was already paying for the community newspaper. DECL contributes another $5,000, and this is the first printed communication it has ever had. It’s the community leagues that make advertising appealing too. Their involvement means the publication can be sent to 24,300 mailboxes, which is far more than other organizations are able to achieve with Canada Post. Combined with high quality content, that distribution is appealing. “The value proposition is there,” Jarrett said.

When I asked why it was important for CENS to be a non-profit, Omar and Jarrett both seemed surprised at the question, as if they couldn’t see it working any other way. “Having a non-profit mandate allows us to support issues in a different manner,” Omar told me. “As a non-profit, we can be advocates.”

The Name

As Omar wrote in his first editor’s note, the name “harkens back to the old Canadian National rail yards along 104 Avenue” and serves as a way to look ahead without ignoring the past. On the website, the name is described as “a loving tribute” both to the rail yards and to “the role downtown has always played, as a gathering place for the whole city.” Fitting as it may sound, naming the magazine was no easy process.

“The Yards wasn’t even an option at first,” Jarrett admitted. Names like “53”, “Magpie”, “Centric”, and “The Crux” were considered and voted upon. After one round of voting, no clear winner emerged. That’s when Chris suggested “The Yards”. It wasn’t an immediate hit either. “I really didn’t like it at first,” admitted Jarrett. “But it is growing on me.” Omar loves that the name prompts a conversation with people about the history of the area, but agreed that “it needed to percolate a bit more” before the team felt confident it was the right name for the project.

The Content

Each edition of The Yards will contain messages from OCL and DECL, but the focus is on high quality, professionally written content. And while that content will certainly reflect the issues that are important to residents, it’ll go beyond what might have appeared in the old community newspaper. “The reality is many people come to Oliver and Downtown to work, to eat, for entertainment,” Omar said. He wants the magazine to reflect that, and to reach a broader audience.

Whereas the old community newspaper was often made up of submissions from non-profits, the new magazine is “run like a magazine”, to use Omar’s phrase. Instead of accepting submissions (and basically printing all of them), the magazine may choose to interview people to present more context around issues that are deemed worthy of coverage. If there’s an issue the community would like to see covered, they need to let the editorial staff know.

The goal is to have something that is relevant for much longer than the old community newspaper. “You could pick this up in six months and it’ll still be relevant,” says Jarrett. The first issue includes an article on empty nesters considering a move to downtown, a list of restaurant deals that can be found in central Edmonton, an events calendar, “a biography of downtown”, and opinion pieces on a “wet shelter” and designing safer crosswalks.

Omar also sees education as part of the magazine’s mandate. “I want readers to walk away from The Yards feeling like they have increased literacy on municipal issues,” Omar told me.

The Approach

While you can read The Yards online, it’s currently available only through Issuu, rather than via a developed website with permalinks for each article. But an improved website is in the works, and the team definitely want to have linkable articles. “I’d rather put money into content,” Omar told me. Right now, the focus is on growing the magazine.

“The Yards is modern and very visual,” Omar said. Vikki is largely responsible for that, drawing on her expertise as a graphic designer (she also organizes the popular Royal Bison craft fairs). For the first issue, they worked with local firm Studio Tipi on the illustrations. They’ve worked with Monocle, Alberta Oil Magazine, and many other publications in the past. Their flat, 2D-style illustration on the cover uses a limited color palette and feels both modern and timeless.

Another area of focus for The Yards has been social media. The magazine currently has about 450 likes on Facebook and more than 1000 followers on Twitter. “I think we’re already developing a credible voice on the area for those online communities,” he said. It’s through social media that many people find out about news and events, Omar pointed out, so it’s important for The Yards to have a presence there.

The Yards Launch

The launch event last week wasn’t just a way to build awareness about the new magazine, but is indeed a sign of things to come. “We’re applying some knowledge from modern magazines,” says Omar, pointing out that they have come to view events as a critical part of a successful magazine. “There’s a lot of value in events, because they bring the community together.” The plan is to host an event with a guest speaker in conjunction with the launch of each new issue.

The interview with Mayor Iveson at the launch event was recorded for The Yards podcast, another component that Jarrett and Omar hope to explore. They’re aiming to do one podcast per month for now, but again, the priority is the magazine and ensuring that grows successfully.

In addition to showing up in the mailboxes of residents in the two neighbourhoods, The Yards will also be available at restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses in the area.

The Community

Throughout our conversation, Jarrett and Omar reiterated that The Yards is a work in progress and they’re still figuring out how things are going to work. That applies especially to the relationship between The Yards and the community leagues. Right now the relationship is great, with lots of alignment between the community leagues and the editorial team. But a new community league board could change that dynamic, Jarrett admitted.

There’s also the matter of ensuring that the magazine reflects the entire community and not just the community league boards. “The community league doesn’t always reflect the makeup of the community,” Omar pointed out, noting the editorial committee is made up primarily of community representatives.

Though Oliver and Downtown are the communities behind The Yards, the stated aim is to serve central Edmonton, which includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Queen Mary Park and McCauley. “Downtown is all of the intrinsically connected central neighbourhoods,” Omar wrote in his editor’s note. “We believe it does us good to consider the sum of the parts and not get hung up on invisible lines.” It’ll be interesting to see how effectively the magazine reflects those varied communities.

Despite the risks, those involved see The Yards as a better model that will ultimately benefit the community. “For neighbourhoods that are changing so rapidly, the [old community] newspaper is not the best way to engage citizens on the issues,” Omar said.

The Yards

The primary goal is to produce quality content, which Omar and Jarrett hope will allow the magazine to grow. Having more advertisers will allow the magazine to include more pages, and Jarrett is confident that will happen. “Once people see the product,” he said, “they’ll get it.”

The Yards Launch

Omar feels the passion of those involved will shine through and will ultimately allow the publication to fulfill its mandate. “We’re civic-minded, engaged, and proud of our community, and we want to share that,” he said. “The magazine is a great way for us to shape the conversation.”

You can read the first issue of The Yards online now. Follow them on Twitter and on Facebook for updates.

Go underground for Edmonton’s newest coffee shops

It was a little disappointing to miss the opening of three new coffee shops last month, but on the other hand, it was nice to have new places to explore after we got back! In October, Transcend returned to downtown with a new location in the Mercer Warehouse, Credo added a second location on 124 Street, and after years in the making, Burrow opened in the Central LRT Station. I checked out all three locations last week.

Transcend Mercer

Transcend Mercer

Let’s start with Transcend Mercer. After the location on Jasper Avenue closed, I wasn’t sure if or when Transcend would be back downtown. It was pretty clear that if they did return, it would be at a smaller, more manageable location. While the new cafe in the basement of the building is smaller, it’s bigger than I was expecting! I’m not sure why but I envisioned something with either limited or no seating, but there’s actually lots of room to hang out at Transcend Mercer.

Transcend Mercer

I went for my usual – a vanilla latte – and looked around the cafe. There’s only one window, but the space is surprisingly bright, and I love the wood beams and ceiling. I understand they will be adding artwork around the room, so that’ll add even more color and visual interest. Speaking of color, the green counter, black wall, and brown accents definitely give you a “coffee” feeling!

I’m sure the new cafe will be frequented by everyone in the building, and it’s great to have another coffee shop on 104 Street. I’m also happy to once again be able to buy Transcend beans throughout the week! For more on Transcend Mercer, check out Cindy’s review here!

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

As you may know, Credo Coffee on 104 Street is my usual spot. It’s extremely close to home, has great coffee, and has wonderful service. The only downside is that because Credo is so popular, it can sometimes be difficult to find a seat. The new location on 124 Street is quite a bit bigger though, so hopefully that won’t be such an issue there!

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

The new cafe is located at 10350 124 Street in the new Limelight building (which is just down the block from Remedy Cafe). It can be a little difficult to see, given that there are no signs on the building except for a vinyl banner where Credo is located. They are the first tenant in the building, so I hope better signage is coming.

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

Inside is open and roomy, with lots of seating and also lots of bar space. Though Credo’s space is mostly below street level, there are lots of windows which means lots of natural light. Oddly there are a lot of power outlets up high (I guess for Christmas lights?) so you might need a long cord if you’re going to plug in a laptop (maybe they can add some outlets lower to the floor).

My favorite vanilla latte was as delicious as ever, and it didn’t take long to feel right at home. I know I won’t make it to this location as often as 104 Street, but it’s great to see another fantastic addition to 124 Street.

Burrow Central Station

Burrow Central Station

A coffee shop in an LRT station? Finally Edmonton’s cafe scene has gone underground! Burrow Central Station (part of the growing Elm Cafe family) is the perfect addition to our growing and increasingly popular transit system, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come. Again my expectations were exceeded – I anticipated finding Burrow tucked away behind one of the walls, but instead found it centrally located in the concourse. You can’t miss it, and now that it is there, I simply can’t remember what it looked like before. Burrow looks like it belongs, like it should have always been there.

Burrow Central Station

Burrow uses Four Barrel Coffee from San Francisco, which I had not tried before. I decided to stick with the usual on my first visit (ok, ok, and also my second and third visits) and ordered a vanilla latte. I was pleasantly surprised to see they make it with real vanilla bean instead of syrup! I will have to go try a simple brewed coffee one of these days. They have a rotating lunch menu with a grilled cheese sandwich too, also on my list to try.

There is no seating in the LRT concourse, but for grab and go it’s hard to beat Burrow. My office is right above in the Empire Building, so I foresee many, many visits in my future! Again, check out Cindy’s review here.

Have you been to these three new cafes? What did you think? If not, raise a paper cup as Omar says, and go check them out!

Wayfinding in Edmonton inches forward

At Executive Committee today, Councillors discussed a report which outlined why wayfinding is important, a strategy for moving it forward, and initial implementation options and costs.

Edmonton has very little wayfinding information for citizens or tourists and what we do have is confusing and lacks consistency. It has become clear that our city’s haphazard implementation of wayfinding within the pedway system is a disaster and is a mistake we should not repeat. The City’s push to see Edmontonians shift transportation modes is another big reason to support this initiative – finding your way around can be difficult if you’re not in a car. As Edmonton grows and attracts both more residents and visitors, the problem is only going to get worse. And like most things, the longer we wait to do the work required, the more it’ll probably cost.

wayfinding

The good news is that the City seems committed to doing something with wayfinding in a coordinated, strategic way. Administration understands and has articulated the benefits of wayfinding. The risk is that the funding to do it right may not be available.

Here’s an audio overview of today’s meeting & news:

You can download the cloudcast here.

Hooray for citizen action!

Would the City have come around to this position without citizen action? Perhaps eventually. But without question, the work of the Edmonton Wayfinding Project has had a significant impact. They’ve engaged citizens, they’ve conducted surveys and have done some other public engagement work, they have connected with experts in other cities, and they have pushed for collaboration with City Administration. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve shone the light on a topic that could have easily been ignored, and for no reason other than they want to make Edmonton a better place to live and visit.

The founder of the project, Tim Querengesser, was at Council today to speak to the report and to make his group’s case for the importance of progressing this work. The group published a discussion document today as well, which concluded:

“The Edmonton Wayfinding Society recommends City Council support the reports it is examining and follow their recommendations, with one caveat. The Society recommends the City reconfigure the roadmap toward a unifying wayfinding system for Edmonton to include the pedway/LRT system. Further, the Society recommends that its volunteer-driven research suggests a comprehensive study of pedway users, attitudes and behaviours is badly needed to create a wayfinding system that works in all nodes of Edmonton’s transportation infrastructure. In the interim, the Society also recommends that Edmonton introduce, immediately, guidelines for all new developments that add wayfinding as a factor that is examined. “

Be sure to follow @WayfindYEG on Twitter for updates.

Concern about costs

Today’s report included both a business case and a detailed strategy. The two hefty documents (a combined 97 pages) provide all of the necessary background and detail that you could hope for. The opening paragraph of the business case highlights one of the big problems with wayfinding efforts in Edmonton in the past:

“There have been several attempts to create a corporate wayfinding program in the City of Edmonton which have failed at the value for money decision. While it is understood generally that wayfinding offers many benefits to a growing city, it has not so far obtained support as a priority for the investment needed for citywide implementation.”

Cost dominated much of the discussion today too. Councillor Oshry in particular peppered Administration with questions about the cost of implementation, and argued after the meeting that we don’t need “the Buckingham Palace version of the signs.” He told the Sun that the proposed wayfinding strategy “seems excessive”. Mayor Iveson, however, said “to cheap out on these signs is probably a mistake.”

The overall cost of implementing the wayfinding strategy is estimated at around $10 million. That includes the development of signs, apps, plans, artwork, and more. It also includes the rollout of hundreds of physical signs. A big chunk of that cost, $5.5 million, is for the installation of maps at each existing LRT or transit station. Options for funding the project include: direct funding, which Council would need to approve; incremental funding, which would mean signs only appear as projects are completed; and revenue generation, which could be from sponsorship or advertising. Rollout options were also discussed, such as focused on downtown first and other areas later.

The business case concludes that “a pedestran-focused wayfinding system in Edmonton offers a positive benefit to cost proposition” and that “wayfinding has been shown to be a cost-effective means to overcome barriers to modal shift, a way to improve the local economy and a contributor to overall city liveability.”

Design standards

A lot of design work has already been done, which you can see in the report but also in the prototype signs that were installed around Churchill Square back in April. Future signs will include both “Walk Edmonton” and the City of Edmonton brand, and they’ll likely look a bit different than the prototype signs based on feedback and other lessons.

wayfinding

Icons are meant to be based on national or international standards, to ensure widespread recognition. The Benton Sans typeface is proposed for use across maps and signs, because it has good legibility at both large and small sizes, comes in a wide range of weights, and is a little more unique than Helvetica or other commonly used typfaces.

wayfinding

Consideration has already been given to colors, themes, cartographic elements (like the “you are here” markers), 3D landmarks, and incorporating the pedway.

Governance and maintenance

There was some discussion today about the need for a wayfinding czar, or as the detailed strategy calls the position, a “Wayfinding System Manager”. Harry Finnigan, who worked on wayfinding in Winnipeg and who spoke at Council today, said he wished they had implemented a similar position in Winnipeg. Ultimately though, Administration today decided they would rather have a team of people take responsibility for wayfinding, and Council didn’t push the point.

wayfinding

On the topic of maintenance and operations, the strategy identifies the importance of both a procurement strategy to efficiently buy and maintain signage, and an asset management database, to record information about each sign. That database of information is sorely lacking from the pedway system currently, and would certainly be important to have going forward.

The wayfinding strategy will be managed by Walkable Edmonton, under the Walk Edmonton brand. ETS and Great Neighbourhoods are the two main internal partners. Mayor Iveson also suggested that the Edmonton Design Committee be involved.

What’s next?

To some degree, the City is going to move ahead with its efforts to develop the corporate wayfinding program. At some point however, more funding will be required. There are four capital profiles being recommended for funding in the proposed 2015-2018 Capital Budget, which is when we’ll likely hear about wayfinding next. If those four profiles were funded, that would enable the City to complete roughly 60% of the wayfinding strategy.

That means Edmontonians need to keep pushing for wayfinding if they think it is important! Tell your Councillor if you want to see more funding go into this important project.

For more on wayfinding, check out the City of Edmonton’s website here and the Edmonton Wayfinding Project here.

Edmonton in a New Light

Tonight local business leaders gathered in the EPCOR Tower to celebrate a changing city. Construction is happening all over downtown Edmonton, our population is rapidly increasing, and our economic growth is the envy of most other jurisdictions around North America. It’s time to shed our humble past and proudly talk about the new Edmonton, we were told. It’s time to “think positive, talk proud, and speak loud.” It’s time to see Edmonton in a new light.

Edmonton in a New Light

Mayor Don Iveson, EPCOR CEO David Stevens, EEDC CEO Brad Ferguson, and Westin General Manager Joumana Ghandour all took turns at the podium to share their story and their thoughts on why this is such an exciting time for Edmonton. “There’s a transformation happening here,” Mayor Don Iveson told us in a speech that sounded a lot like the ones he gave on the campaign trail during last year’s election. “Edmonton is humble, sometimes to a fault,” he said, “but that’s changing.”

Edmonton in a New Light

The invitation for the event called it the “EPCOR Edmonton Business Leaders Reception”. I expected it to be similar to the 120th anniversary event that EPCOR hosted back in 2011, with brief remarks and a tour of the 28th floor balcony. But this event was much more bold and confident. Guests were invited to “celebrate Edmonton with EPCOR”:

“The opportunity for Edmonton to shine has never been better. Join our city’s business leaders as we begin the task of putting Edmonton in a new, dynamic light for the world to see. EPCOR President & CEO David Stevens and Brad Ferguson of EEDC invite you to a reception and viewing of the major construction projects in our downtown core from the 28th floor balcony of EPCOR Tower.”

In addition to the speeches, guests were treated to a sneak peek at some of the digital assets that EEDC and Make Something Edmonton have been working to create. “Edmonton is a billion dollar brand,” Brad Ferguson told us. “We just haven’t put much effort into it until now.” EEDC is working on the whitelabel video project and other assets so that Edmonton businesses can incorporate consistent messaging into their own brands and communications. The new storytelling tools are expected to be available early next year, some for a modest fee.

Edmonton in a New Light

EEDC is also planning to run targeted ad campaigns in select cities with a goal of attracting students, young couples, and offices to Edmonton’s growing downtown. “We’ve got to fill up all these new buildings,” Brad joked.

After the speeches were done, guests were invited to head up to the 28th floor balcony for a tour of the many construction projects happening around the EPCOR Tower. Here are some photos from above:

Edmonton in a New Light
The Edmonton Arena District

New Royal Alberta Museum Construction
New Royal Alberta Museum

Edmonton in a New Light
Fox & Ultima residential towers

New City Office Tower Construction
EAD Office Tower, which will be home to the City of Edmonton offices

Edmonton in a New Light
The new arena takes shape

Blatchford
Blatchford in the distance

Tonight’s event was undoubtedly a cheerleading session. So might consider it a call-to-arms for the local business community, an opportunity to say ‘get on the train now before its too late’. But unfortunately this sales pitch lacked the all important ask. There was no mention of next steps, beyond the “speak proudly about Edmonton” message and the promise of digital assets to help tell our city’s story. It felt a little incomplete.

That said, this is absolutely an exciting time for Edmonton, and it’s great that our city’s leaders are willing to stand up and say so. Not with the empty, meaningless, and outlandish claims of the past – “Edmonton is the best city, in the best province, in the best country in the world!” – but with a much more Edmontonian approach. “Something big is happening here, we can feel it, and we’re going to start talking a bit more about it.” We’re becoming a little less humble, and that’s a good thing.

Edmonton in a New Light

“The opportunity before us is to let the rest of the world in on the secret of why we’re all here,” Mayor Iveson said. It’s a message that those in the room should already know, but a little reinforcement doesn’t hurt. Hopefully tonight was the first in a series of nudges to get them to do something about it.

You can see more photos here.

Daryl Katz finally reveals some information about the Edmonton Arena District

At a media briefing attended by a select few journalists on Thursday, Daryl Katz finally revealed some information about the Edmonton Arena District. The event was timed to coincide with the launch of the new district website that has lots of photos, videos, and other information about the project. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

He pitched the journalists on the scale of the project and the impact it’ll have on Edmonton, and judging by the words that were written, it sounds like he did a convincing job. But incredibly, Katz also talked about an apparent lack of knowledge about the district:

“We have a world-class sports and entertainment district under construction now in the city and nobody really knows about it.”

Surely he doesn’t think Edmontonians lack awareness about the district. There have been lots of opportunities to hear or read mention of it. For instance, the phrase “arena district” was mentioned in 251 Edmonton Journal articles since 2008. We just had a big flashy launch for the new Stantec tower. Before that there was the new City of Edmonton tower. People at least know that there’s this thing called the “arena district”.

So he must mean that no one knows about the specifics of the district. The overall design of the project, what it will include, that sort of thing. We still don’t know all that information. So the question is, why? Because Daryl Katz and his associates have never wanted to talk about it.

It’s not like the question was never asked. Despite it being critical for the CRL which will help to fund the arena, no one from the Katz Group has ever been willing to say much about the arena district. That’s why journalists couldn’t find anyone who was participating in the project. Whenever the question came up, the answer was always, “we’re not going to talk about the district today.” Only very recently did that become, “we will be providing details on [the district] soon.” If there’s a lack of knowledge about the project, that’s entirely because the Katz Group refused to share any information about it.

Daryl Katz

I understand that Daryl Katz wants to try to control the message as much as possible, and that’s his prerogative. But to lament that no one knows about it after intentionally keeping everyone in the dark? That’s rich.

Stantec looks to the future with its new tower in downtown Edmonton

The story behind downtown Edmonton’s new Stantec tower isn’t just about the arena, it’s about an Edmonton success story making a bold bet on the future of our city. Stantec is the largest architecture company in Canada, and they build communities all around the world from right here in Edmonton. They’re an important part of both our city’s history and its future.

Keith Shillington

“People know Stantec, but they don’t know Stantec,” Keith Shillington told me over coffee at Credo on 104 Street, just a few blocks from where the new tower will rise. “This is an opportunity to tell the story.”

From Dr. Stanley to Stantec

Stantec began life in 1954 as Stanley Associates, founded by Dr. Don Stanley. The company grew very successfully until the National Energy Program in 1983 hit the firm hard, forcing major layoffs. But they weathered that storm and rebounded in a big way. By the 1990s, the company’s various assets were brought under the umbrella of Stanley Technology Group, and in 1994 the company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. In 1998, Tony Franceshini became President and CEO and he launched the Stantec brand. He also articulated a goal for the company: to become a billion-dollar company by 2008. He retired that year having achieved his goal.

Today the company has about 14,000 staff working in more than 230 locations all around the world. The company is listed on both the TSX and NYSE and boasted revenue of more than $1.8 billion in 2013. And under current President & CEO Bob Gomes, Stantec has a new goal: to be a top 10 global design firm. His message on the website recognizes the firm’s rich history and its bright future:

“We take pride in a long history of being part of the communities we serve. We started in 1954 as a one-person firm founded in Edmonton by Dr. Don Stanley. Today we are a public company with a diverse portfolio of clients across many sectors and geographies, both in North America and internationally.”

You can learn much more about the evolution of Stantec on their website.

The search for a new home

Last year, Stantec began the search for a new home in Edmonton. The company currently has about 1,700 local employees spread across four different offices: Stantec Centre at 10160 112 Street, the Devonian office at 11160 Jasper Avenue, the Scotia Place office at 10060 Jasper Avenue, and the Bell Tower office at 10120 103 Avenue. Leases on all of those spaces come due by 2019, making it the ideal time to start thinking about consolidation.

Stantec Centre

The requirements Stantec outlined were vague. At least 300,000 square feet of space, good transit and transportation links, and good amenities. The location was not specified, with the company open to either downtown or suburban proposals, a position that led to great alarm among downtown supporters at the thought of losing one of our city’s major employers.

Keith led the team that undertook the search and ultimately selected the tower that was unveiled yesterday. He’s a Senior Vice President at Stantec, and in company parlance, Keith is a Geographic Leader of the Canadian Prairies and Regional Leader of Alberta North. He’s an Edmontonian, and a proud one.

“Imagine the statement it would have made if we had gone to the suburbs,” he said, saying that while the company stayed open to all possibilities throughout the search, their “hearts were downtown.” In all, Stantec looked at 15 proposals for a new space, 9 of which were located in the downtown area. “They really blew us away,” he said, noting the decision was not easy. “It was fun as an Edmontonian to see the possibilities.”

An iconic building?

When Stantec announced that the search for a new space was beginning, Keith spoke to the Journal about the company’s requirements. At the time, he made a surprising comment about the design of the new building:

“Again, it’s going to depend on what comes back and what developers are prepared to do to meet our needs, but to be honest, are we looking for the iconic ‘wow'”? he asked. “That’s actually not Stantec. That’s not our culture.”

He told me the comment caused quite a bit of discussion internally. “Boy did I hear about that from our design folks!” Still, he maintained that being iconic wasn’t the goal. “Iconic was not written into the RFP,” he said. “Height was not as important to us as having the right space for our staff.”

Keith talked a lot about meeting the needs of staff. For three years straight, Stantec has been named one of Alberta’s Top Employers, and it shows. The new building includes enough space not only for the roughly 1,700 current employees, but also includes room for growth. “It shows confidence in our future,” Keith said. They’re not ready to talk about the interiors yet, but there’s no doubt the design will be geared toward ensuring Stantec has a healthy, happy workforce.

Connected to the community

The new building needed to meet the needs of Stantec and its staff of course, but the company also wanted it to have an impact on the community. “It had to have meaning,” Keith told me. “It couldn’t be just another building.”

I asked him to elaborate on that in the context of Stantec’s culture. “Connected,” is the word he used. “Our connection with the community is strongest when we’re downtown.” He pointed to the existing office on 112 Street as an example. “It’s about the street,” he said, noting the company has programmed 112 Street for all sorts of events for staff. They’ve hosted extremely popular food truck gatherings, for instance. That connection to the street is one of the things that attracted Stantec to the arena district. “The plaza allows us to continue that tradition,” he said.

Stantec Tower

Another interesting aspect of the new tower is the residential component, which will fill the top 33 floors. “It wasn’t originally in the plan,” Keith told me, “but we were open to the possibilities.” It’s another way for Stantec to be connected with the community they’re located in. They’ve done something similar with their new offices in Winnipeg (which features a hotel instead of residential units).

The downtown advantage

Stantec is a major supporter of downtown already, with its existing offices and through its people. For instance, both Keith and Stantec VP Simon O’Byrne are members of the Downtown Vibrancy Task Force. But the company knew a tower provided an opportunity to do more.

Keith said there were many reasons that being downtown made sense for Stantec. “LRT was a big factor,” Keith said, and admitted it was why some of the other downtown proposals were ultimately ruled out. Being located close to multiple LRT connections was just too appealing. “Cycling routes are also very important,” he said.

Many of the firm’s clients are located downtown and many staff already live there. “Over 50% of our staff are under the age of 35,” he said, noting that increasingly they want to live in the middle of the action. He said being downtown was “a big factor” in thinking about retaining and attracting staff. The trend in cities like Toronto has been for companies to move their offices back into the core from the suburbs, specifically to better tap into the large pool of young, highly educated workers that want to live centrally.

Then of course, there’s the arena district. With the new City of Edmonton tower, a rumored hotel, the arena itself, and potentially more announcements on the way, it’s shaping up to be an exciting area for years to come. If we can pay for it, that is. Keith and the team at Stantec knew they could have a major positive impact by building their tower within the boundary of the CRL, which is a key part of the financing for the arena. “It’s another way for us to support downtown,” he said.

A lasting impact on Edmonton

There’s no question the new building will have a visible impact on Edmonton, dramatically altering the skyline for years to come. But Keith wants the building to change more than just the skyline. “I hope we can inspire others to do more,” he said. “We need to seize the opportunities in front of us.”

“We love what’s going on here in Edmonton, and we want to be part of it.”