Edmonton will officially join the skyscraper club with Stantec’s new tower

Stantec today unveiled their new headquarters, a 62-storey tower that will be built on the corner of 102 Street and 103 Avenue right in the heart of the Edmonton Arena District. Along with the Katz Group, WAM Development Group, and City of Edmonton, Stantec shared details on the new building which will be the tallest in Edmonton and one of the tallest in western Canada.

Stantec Tower

As expected, the new building will open directly into the public plaza in the Edmonton Arena District, and is being considered the “anchor” project. Construction on the $500 million project will begin this fall, with the new building slated to open in the summer of 2018.

It was back in June that City Council officially removed the Airport Protection Overlay, clearing the way for buildings higher than 150 meters to be possible. That height is significant. A building is generally considered a “high-rise” until it reaches 150m, at which point it becomes a skyscraper, at least according to most definitions. As of April 2013, there were 90 such buildings in Canada: Toronto has 56, Calgary has 16, Montreal has 9, Vancouver has 4, Mississauga has 2, and Niagara Falls and Burnaby each have 1. With the new Stantec tower, Edmonton will officially become a member of the skyscraper club!

Stantec Tower

The new tower will rise to 224 meters (or 746 feet), though officials today clarified that it could still rise higher. The design features 26 floors of offices and could accommodate another 2 floors if the market demand makes adding them feasible. The building will also include approximately 320 residential units taking up 33 residential floors. Another 2 floors are mechanical, and the first floor will feature retail.

“This new building will revolutionize the downtown landscape in Edmonton and will set expectations for future buildings in the city,” said Darren Durstling, President and CEO of WAM Development Group. “This tower is being designed, engineered and project managed entirely by Stantec, showcasing their vast capabilities and experience.”

The new building will have a dramatic effect on Edmonton’s skyline when it opens. The current tallest building in the city is EPCOR Tower, which rises to 149 meters (490 feet). Manulife Place, which was the tallest structure in Edmonton for 28 years, rises to 146 meters (480 feet). Down in Calgary, the iconic Bow tower rises to 236 meters (774 feet).

Stantec unveils new tower

Daryl Katz said the new tower will “set the tone for new buildings in Edmonton for years to come.” He called it “an extraordinary addition” to Edmonton’s skyline. Mayor Don Iveson joked, “I’m a tall guy, but I am intimidated by this!” He highlighted the building’s impact on Edmonton, saying it will transform our city’s image across the country. “This is an indication of what the power of investment in our downtown can do,” he said.

Stantec Tower

Stantec is taking about 450,000 square feet of the new building, or approximately 19 floors. They have signed a 15 year lease which of course includes naming rights (the official name is yet to be revealed). Today’s announcement was hosted at Stantec’s head office on 112 Street, one of four local offices that will be consolidated into the new building. Dozens of Stantec staffers were on hand to witness the unveiling.

“We are proud to have both our people and our designer’s work play a role in enhancing the vibrancy of the Edmonton Arena District,” said Bob Gomes, president and CEO of Stantec.

You can see Gomes and WAM President & CEO Darren Durstling literally press a button to reveal the new building with this GIF. Stantec Senior VP Keith Shillington said “our hearts were downtown” while acknowledging the proposal received some stiff competition.

Stantec unveils new tower

I am very excited about this building. Stantec, one of Edmonton’s biggest success stories, is making a significant commitment to the future of our downtown. On top of that, this building is the first major private project in the Edmonton Arena District. During the press conference, Mayor Iveson did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to suggest that if Manulife Place currently contributes about $3 million in annual tax revenue, the new Stantec tower could contribute $4-5 million into the CRL. That’s extremely significant. Just as the Bow tower “paid for” the Rivers CRL in Calgary, the Stantec tower makes the success of the downtown CRL much more likely. And hopefully it’ll allow us to attract even more private investment. For me, the “district” just became real.

Stantec Tower

If you look closely in the renderings, you’ll see a building directly to the north that features the word “hotel” across the top. I understand that the next big announcement for the Edmonton Arena District will include details on the hotel. It’s a very exciting time for downtown Edmonton!

You can see more photos from today’s announcement here.

Recap: Dîner en Blanc Edmonton 2014

Sharon and I dressed in white and joined hundreds of Edmontonians at our city’s first Dîner en Blanc event on Thursday, July 17. It was a rainy evening, but that didn’t deter attendees from taking advantage of the opportunity to participate in a unique visual spectacle in Edmonton’s river valley.

Here’s a description of the concept:

“At the last minute, the location is given to thousands of friends and acquaintances who have been patiently waiting to learn the “Dîner en Blanc’s” secret place. Thousands of people, dressed all in white, and conducting themselves with the greatest decorum, elegance, and etiquette, all meet for a mass “chic picnic” in a public space.”

In Edmonton the secret location turned out to be Louise McKinney Riverfront Park, a great choice for an event like this, with lots of space and a wonderful view of the skyline.

Audio Recap

For an overview of the Edmonton event, my thoughts, and more detail, check out my audio recap on Mixcloud.

Or you can download the MP3 here.

Photo Recap

Our group met at ATB Place downtown:

Diner en Blanc

After everyone had arrived and checked in, we started walking over to Louise McKinney Riverfront Park. It was funny to see all of the confused faces staring at us as we crossed the streets.

Diner en Blanc

It was a wet evening, so there were a lot of umbrellas and ponchos in the crowd. Sharon was happy with the clear one we picked up specifically for the event!

Diner en Blanc

We made it to the park to find hundreds of people busy setting up their tables and chairs in loose rows.

Diner en Blanc

The rain wasn’t too bad while we were setting up, but it started to get worse shortly after we took this photo!

Diner en Blanc

Food, wine, and water was available for pickup off to the side. Like most things throughout the night, we had to discover that for ourselves, as there wasn’t much guidance.

Diner en Blanc

There was some entertainment throughout the evening, including some dancers from Cavalia, and musicians up on stage. Again, there was no program or information about any of them.

Diner en Blanc

For the very briefest of moments, we saw the orange sun (thanks to the forest fire smoke). It didn’t last long though.

Diner en Blanc

We wondered why some people had tents and discovered that some enterprising folks decided to bring their own! There was no mention of tents on the list of prohibited items. Visually it does impact the effect, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on the list next year.

Diner en Blanc

At some point we noticed others lighting their sparklers, so we joined in an lit ours as well. It probably would have been good to wait until it was a bit darker, but I think everyone was tired of the cold and rain.

Diner en Blanc

The sky darkened and the rain returned, so we joined the growing number of people who packed up and left after the sparklers.

Diner en Blanc

We made the best of a wet situation and had fun! In the end though, we decided that we likely wouldn’t attend again next year. Lots of other people seemed to love it though, so I’m sure the event will be back again next summer.

You can see more photos of the event here. You can learn more about Dîner en Blanc in Edmonton at their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Downtown Edmonton’s momentum continues with exciting announcements

What an exciting time for downtown Edmonton! We’re in the height of festival season, with the annual K-Days Parade and Taste of Edmonton both bringing thousands of Edmontonians into the core, and we seem to be in the height of announcement season too. Here’s a look at some of the encouraging downtown-related news that has made headlines over the last week or so:

Jasper House & North on 106 Street

Toronto-based developer Brad Lamb has announced two new condo projects in Edmonton called Jasper House and North. Located on 106 Street at 102 Avenue, the 36-storey Jasper House will get rid of another empty parking lot downtown. Sales are expected to begin this fall, with construction starting next year.

Jasper House

If all goes well with Jasper House, Lamb would undertake North, a 40-storey tower that would be located on 105 Street at 103 Avenue. Together, the two buildings represent about $260 million of investment.

You can register to receive updates on Jasper House here. No website exists yet for the North project.

More: Edmonton Journal, Metro Edmonton

Stantec Headquarters in the Edmonton Arena District

This morning, Stantec announced that their search for a new headquarters has come to an end with the signing of a lease agreement for a brand new building inside the Edmonton Arena District:

“This agreement represents our commitment to the community of Edmonton and the downtown redevelopment,” said Bob Gomes, president and CEO of Stantec. “Our decision is the result of an intensive selection process over the last year, and we are looking forward to moving ahead with design and construction.”

The new building will allow Stantec to consolidate its five current Edmonton locations into one. As the news release says, it’s “a true commitment to the city’s downtown.” The company has about 1,500 employees in Edmonton. Their existing leases are all up by 2019. Back in May, Stantec indicated they had narrowed their search for a new home to downtown.

Proponents of the downtown arena deal will no doubt hail this as a major victory, while critics will point out that we’re simply moving around offices that already existed in Edmonton. I think it’s an encouraging sign for the arena district, and I hope Stantec’s decision will help to attract outside investment as the district evolves. We still aren’t seeing the promised dominoes falling, but at least this is a very encouraging step in the right direction. The Katz Group’s Bob Black said to expect further announcements related to the district, so let’s hope this is a sign of things to come!

The specific location within the EAD site hasn’t been announced, but there’s speculation it could be where the Greyhound Station exists today. Preliminary design work for the new building is underway, and Stantec anticipates sharing more information at a press conference in late August.

More: Edmonton Journal, Metro Edmonton

Alley of Light Pocket Park Redevelopment

Michael Phair has shared an exciting update on the Alley of Light project! The initiative has long wanted to redevelop the pocket park behind the Sobeys building adjacent to Icon I, and it looks like that will finally be happening.

“The City of Edmonton has awarded a contract to Paving Stone Plus and construction will likely begin in the week of July 28-August 1.”

The work involves new paving and stone work, new power distribution, security lighting, and LED bollards, new retaining walls, chairs and tables to seat 64, and landscaping.

Alley of Light Pocket Park

Downtown certainly could use more functional, attractive park space, so this is great to see. Kudos to Michael Phair and the entire Edmonton on the Edge team for persevering! Hopefully Scott Park on 105 Street and 102 Avenue will be moving ahead soon too.

Calgary’s Mainstreet Equity sees downtown opportunity

It’s not clear exactly where in the Edmonton Arena District that Calgarian landlord Bob Dhillon is consolidating land, but a recent article in the Journal highlighted his interest in Edmonton’s rapidly improving downtown:

“While many Calgarians look on with envy as the Edmonton Oilers plan a magnificent new building to play in, landlord Bob Dhillon sees only the opportunity.”

Mainstreet’s Edmonton portfolio currently consists of 3,683 units at 119 sites, according to the article. It’s great to see interest in the Edmonton market from a Calgary-based business!

Downtown Perception Survey

For all of these reasons and more, perceptions about downtown are changing. The Downtown Business Association is hoping to learn more about the opinions that Edmontonians have of downtown and is running an online survey. Preliminary results show that more than half of respondents say their opinion of downtown has become “more favorable” over the last year. The full results will be released on August 27.

Sign of things to come?

All of these new projects will join existing ones already underway, including the Fox Towers, Ultima, Kelly Ramsey Building, Symphony, new Royal Alberta Museum, and many others.

Kelly Ramsey Building Construction

This is what happens when thousands of people start living in the downtown area. Demand, demand, demand. The next few years are going to be extremely exciting!

Downtown Edmonton’s Sobeys on 104 Street will close its doors on July 31

After six years of serving the central downtown Edmonton area, Sobeys will close its 104 Street location on July 31. It’s a disappointing end to a store that, while full of promise at its launch in May 2008, never really lived up to its potential. It’s also a high profile loss for 104 Street, which has seen a number of businesses close over the last year or so, and a potential setback for Edmonton’s ongoing downtown revitalization.

Keri Scobie, Communications Manager for Sobeys West, confirmed the closure yesterday. “It was a really tough decision to make,” she told me. “We knew this was going to be a hot topic of discussion.”

Sobeys on 104 Street

Why has Sobeys decided to close the 104 Street location? The bottom line is…it’s all about the bottom line.

A spokesperson told the Globe and Mail late Wednesday that Sobeys had “identified a number of underperforming stores and we have made the decision to close these stores.” It appears the 104 Street location is one of those underperforming stores, and there approximately 50 in total across the country, according to a Sobeys news release:

“Sobeys has determined that consistently underperforming retail stores, representing approximately 50 stores (1.5 million of total gross square footage) and 3.8 percent of the total retail network gross square footage, will close. Approximately sixty percent of the affected stores are located in Western Canada.”

Sobeys is planning to close three other stores in Edmonton as well: Sobeys Mainstreet in Mill Woods at 6440 28 Avenue, Heritage Sobeys at 2011 111 Street, and Clock IGA at 15445 Stony Plain Road. Employees received letters upon arriving at work yesterday informing them of the planned closures. They’ll have the option of transferring to another location. “We have a lot of vacancies at other stores in Edmonton,” Keri said.

In order to get approval for its purchase of Safeway Canada, Sobeys agreed to sell 30 stores in Western Canada. Co-op agreed to purchase three stores in Edmonton and another three in the region, and the fact that the 104 Street location wasn’t one of them was seen as a vote of confidence from Sobeys. Now Sobeys has made it clear that assumption was invalid.

Two Urban Fresh locations in Toronto are also closing, but the second Edmonton location at College Plaza will remain open, as will ten other locations throughout Ontario.

From Urban Fresh to Closure

At the start, it seemed as though Sobeys wouldn’t have any problem attracting customers. “Again and again, the staff at the front door of the new Sobeys on Jasper Avenue and 104th Street smile and apologize, as they turn away would-be customers,” Paula Simons wrote in May 2008, just days before the store officially opened to the public.

When it first opened, the Sobeys on 104 Street was meant to bring a European-style market to downtown. It was the first location to bring Sobeys’ “urban fresh” concept to life – smaller, featuring local food, more prepared items, a cafe, and other urban-friendly amenities. Relationships with the popular City Market were touted, and excitement was high. While initial feedback was mostly positive, it wasn’t long before elements of the initial vision started to fall away. The building still retains the “urban fresh” branding, but that long ago lost any meaning.

Sobeys on 104 Street

In the summer of 2011, Sobeys on 104 Street caused an uproar in the community when it covered its windows with vinyl. Over the first three years of its existence, the store had fully transformed from “urban fresh” to just another grocery store, and residents saw the vinyl windows as the last straw. Sobeys responded to the criticism by meeting with the community and partially removing the vinyl coverings. The communications director at the time, Mike Lupien, indicated that Sobeys wanted to make the store work. “It’s a community store, it’s a neighbourhood store,” Mike said. “We want to be here, and we want to be here for the long-term.”

Today Keri elaborated on why the 104 Street location was identified for closure. “What happens is the size of the store impacts our ability to deliver our brand promise,” she said. “The smaller formats make it harder to deliver what we want to deliver.” She noted the coffee bar takes up quite a bit of room, and shoppers have complained about the smaller selection of products available. I asked her if any alternatives were considered, such as renovating and changing the layout, but she said “given the space and what we have, it was determined it was the best decision to close.”

As a resident on the street, I’m sad to see the Sobeys close. It was great to be able to walk down the block to pickup some milk or a last minute ingredient. I do think the store suffered from long lineups at the checkout (and no express or self-checkouts) and generally indifferent staff, and that made the experience of shopping there much less enjoyable than it could have been. Though prices did come down over the years, they were still higher than other locations, such as Save-On-Foods over on 109 Street.

What’s the impact on downtown?

Cecil Place is the name of the building that houses Sobeys Urban Fresh, named in recognition of the infamous Cecil Hotel. Developed by John Day who purchased the old hotel in May 2003, Cecil Place was designed by Arndt Tkalcic Bengert Architecture and cost $12.6 million to build (it took 14 months to complete). In 2007, it won an Edmonton Urban Design Award. Jurors commented at the time, “if you want to get people downtown this is the way to do it.”

100_0851
Cecil Place in March 2008, photo by Dave Sutherland

The closure is a loss for 104 Street and downtown, no question. It’s not fatal however, and with new condo towers well underway and the addition of Earth’s General Store in place of the old Pangea organic market further north on 104 Street, I don’t believe the loss of Sobeys will have a lasting impact. Demand will continue to grow as more and more people choose to live downtown and all those new condo towers fill up, and I imagine finding a new tenant for the space today will be much easier than it was back in 2007. Unlike in the past, 104 Street isn’t a gamble anymore.

Sobeys leased the space in Cecil Place, there will be no covenants impacting the ability of another grocer to move in. “That’s not applicable for this location,” Keri clarified. She said the majority of the Sobeys locations being closed were leased.

“If there is a positive,” Keri told me, “it’s that there is a lot of exciting development on the street really reinvigorating that neighbourhood.” However, the bright future of 104 Street wasn’t enough to save the store. “Closing the store was the best decision for us to make.”

What will replace the Sobeys? That remains to be seen, but there’s few other locations downtown that are as attractive as the corner of 104 Street and Jasper Avenue. If I could wave my magic wand, I’d love to see the location turn into a year-round space for the City Market. One can dream, right?

Sobeys in Edmonton

As for Sobeys in Edmonton, Keri told me that Sobeys remains committed. “We see Edmonton as a good market, which is why we’re investing here,” she said. Sobeys is opening a brand new location tomorrow morning in Newcastle at 16943 127 Street. “It’s a new concept store, the third in Western Canada,” Keri explained. “It features a revamped store layout, vibrant colors, and a focus on food discovery throughout the store.” Echoing what was said of Urban Fresh when it opened, Keri suggested the new store will “have a real market feel to it.”

In the cuthroat grocery business, competition is fierce, and Sobeys is constantly evaluating their locations. “We have had great success here in Edmonton,” Keri said, “that’s why we’re bringing the new concept store here.”

Unfortunately, the 104 Street store just hasn’t worked out for Sobeys from a business point-of-view. “We want to thank the community downtown who came in and supported the store,” Keri said.

Edmonton’s skyline can now officially rise higher

For all the noise that was made about height restrictions over downtown in recent years, they sure went away quietly today! At a public hearing, City Council made the removal of the Airport Protection Overlay (APO) official, passing Bylaw 16859 without debate. The zoning bylaw no longer references height restrictions, and buildings downtown can now rise to whatever height the market will bear.

Edmonton City Centre Airport

Section 810 described special regulations for the Downtown Development Area as follows:

“…the maximum Height of a development within the Downtown Development Area, defined in Appendix I to this Schedule, shall not exceed a Height of 815.34 m above sea level.”

Though the maximum height of each building varied with its specific location, in general, the overlay restricted buildings downtown to a maximum height of about 150 metres. The new EPCOR Tower was built to the maximum height allowed, rising to 149 metres, about two-thirds the height of the Bow building that now dominates Calgary’s skyline. Now, buildings can go even higher.

It was only a matter of time until the Airport Protection Overlay was removed, thanks to the full closure of the City Centre Airport in December. “The removal of the Airport Protection Overlay is considered to be an administrative process directly resulting from the closure of the Edmonton City Centre Airport which underwent significant public consultation,” today’s report read. Still, the outcome marks another milestone in the history of the City Centre Airport.

City Centre Airport

Our attention has now fully shifted to Blatchford, and rightly so, but the removal of height restrictions could enliven downtown’s development too. There are of course many examples of great cities that have managed to grow with height restrictions in place, such as Paris or London. Removing the Airport Protection Overlay in Edmonton isn’t going to change the fortunes of downtown by itself, but it is one more barrier out of the way. For a good discussion on what the removal of height restrictions over downtown could mean, check out this Avenue Edmonton article.

Photo Tour: Rogers Place construction is well underway!

Construction is well underway on Rogers Place, and yesterday morning the local media had the opportunity to see the activity from above and up close. You can check out the live view here.

We started off with a trip to the top of the EPCOR Tower. From there, you get an excellent view of the 9.5 acre site. When finished, Rogers Place will be about 60% larger than Rexall Place is today. It’ll seat 18,641 for hockey games, and up to 20,734 in a centre stage concert setup.

Rogers Place Construction Update

The former site of the Staples is now empty, and there was limited activity there yesterday.

Rogers Place Construction Update

The Baccarat Casino remains open, and will remain open for as long as they want. The City of Edmonton owns the land and is now their landlord, but the arena development will not encroach on the area where the casino is in any way. It seems strange to me that it could remain open next to the arena, but apparently there’s a strong possibility that’ll happen.

Rogers Place Construction Update

The LRT station is more or less finished, with just signaling to go. There will be some impact to the station once the 5,300 square foot connection to Rogers Place is constructed.

Rogers Place Construction Update

After the media had assembled, the brief press conference was held. On hand to answer questions were: Rick Daviss, Manager of Corporate Properties at the City of Edmonton; Bob Black, Executive VP of the Edmonton Arena Corporation at the Katz Group; Mike Staines, Construction Manager at PCL; Patrick LaForge, President of the Edmonton Oilers; and Dan Valliant, SVP and Project Executive for Rogers Place with ICON Venue Group.

Rogers Place Construction Update

PCL’s Mike Staines gave an update on the construction taking place. “We have around 30 of 400 columns in place, and two or three elevator shafts today.” There are about 150 craftsmen and craftswomen on site working. The steel and concrete structure will be erected starting this fall with two cranes that are three times the size of the ones there today. That work will take about a year.

Next we hopped on a bus to go across the street to see the construction up close.

Rogers Place Construction Update

The crew had setup a PCL flag to denote where Centre Ice will be. About 80,000 m3 of material will be excavated, with up to 300 truck loads removed each day.

Rogers Place Construction Update

Here you can see how deep they have excavated the site, and also the wall that has been setup to separate the arena project from the casino.

Rogers Place Construction Update

About 10,000 pieces of structural steel weighing 9,000 tonnes and 25,000 m3 of concrete will be used in the construction of Rogers Place.

Rogers Place Construction Update

Across the street, there is limited construction activity thus far. Eventually the Winter Garden will cross 104 Avenue, connecting the north and south sites. I expect that’ll be the focus of a future construction update.

Rogers Place Construction Update

Bob Black addressed questions about the arena district right away: “There’ll be much more to come in the coming months as the project evolves. I know that many of you will have questions on the district, and we will be providing details on that very soon. But today, the focus is on Rogers Place.”

Rogers Place Construction Update

Construction has been hugely impactful on the residents of Square 104, but the City of Edmonton’s Rick Daviss said that communication has been good and the City and Katz Group have been quick to take care of any issues that have come up. The City is meeting regularly with residents and business owners in the area.

Rogers Place Construction Update

Rogers Place is slated to open in the fall of 2016. It will bee the first LEED Silver-certified NHL arena in Canada.

Rogers Place Construction Update

You can see more photos of the construction site here.

In Edmonton, make it iconic

The Edmonton Public Library released a drawing today of the planned facelift for downtown’s Stanley A. Milner library. Pending funding from City Council this fall, Toronto’s Teeple Architects and Edmonton’s Architecture ATB would tackle the project. The total cost of the renovation is estimated to be $56 million.

new stanley milner library design

That figure includes asbestos removal and mechanical and electrical system upgrades, but it also means an attractive building, better suited to living alongside the other modern-looking buildings around Churchill Square.

“We really want it to be iconic,” said EPL CEO Linda Cook.

That word is what many people fixated on today. Iconic.

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That got me thinking, are we overusing the word iconic in Edmonton?

To find out, I decided to look at the frequency of the word iconic in Edmonton Journal articles over the last couple of decades. As a comparison, I looked up the same data for The Globe and Mail. Hardly scientific, but good enough. Here’s what it looks like:

As you can see, the word wasn’t used very frequently before the turn of the millennium, after which it trends up. But what’s interesting is that it went up for both articles in the Journal and articles in Globe. So that suggests to me it’s not Edmonton-specific.

What about “iconic design” or “iconic building”? Here’s what that data looks like:

Again, an increase after 2000, but more in the Globe actually. For kicks, I also tried “world class”, that other favorite phrase for describing new projects in Edmonton!

I was surprised to see that usage of that phrase is much more consistent and while it has gone up, it hasn’t gone up dramatically.

Finally, here’s a look at the Google Trend data for “iconic” and “world class” in Canada:

A pretty similar story.

I like the idea of a refresh for the Stanley Milner library. Should we pay $56 million to make sure it’s “iconic”? I’m not sure. But it’s worth debating alongside all of the other capital requests.

For another take on the whole Big-Shiny-Thing-itis, check out this post from David Staples.

Why does the University of Alberta want to be part of the Galleria project?

“The University has long desired to establish a significant campus in downtown Edmonton.”

That’s the first thing the Edmonton Downtown Academic and Cultural Centre (Galleria) business case from April 2013 identifies under opportunities and benefits for the University of Alberta. It sounds plausible, given the ongoing interest in revitalizing downtown and the University’s desire to play a role in the larger Edmonton community. But is it really true?

Here’s what columnist Paula Simons wrote in November 2001:

“Officially, a downtown campus isn’t an option. I’ve spoken to U of A President Rod Fraser, to University Provost Doug Owram, and to Jim Mitchell, the university’s vice-president of facilities. They all tell me it would be too expensive to build downtown, much more than developing land they already own in Garneau or southwest Edmonton. They say it would be too hard to find suitable space for labs and large lecture theatres. They say students and staff would feel isolated from campus life and facilities. They say it’s not their mandate to save downtown, but to serve the best interests of the U of A.”

That was around the time that the University of Alberta’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) was being developed (approved in 2002). It provides “a planning framework to accommodate and to guide physical development on University lands during the next thirty years.” Though it focuses on land and facilities that the University already owns, it does deal explicitly with the idea of a downtown campus:

ualberta lrdp

Though the plan has been amended a few times over the years, notably to incorporate Augustana Campus and most recently to incorporate updated plans for South Campus, that section has never been changed. “South Campus will accommodate much of the growth of the University of Alberta for the next thirty years” is what the most recent amendment says.

Even in 2005, when the University announced plans to buy the Hudson’s Bay building, it was not seen as a first step toward a larger campus in downtown or a change to previous plans. New President Indira Samarasekera said “the University of Alberta is a contributor to business, arts, and other sectors,” adding “we have an obligation to the community that we take seriously, and a downtown presence will build on that.” A few years later at the official opening of Enterprise Square, she said “that the University has finally crossed the river and found a place in the heart of the city is very significant” but also admitted that “it initially scared the heck out of me; we took a leap of faith.”

It was with some surprise then that Provost and Vice President Academic Dr. Carl Amrhein posted the following on the University of Alberta’s blog yesterday:

“The Galleria project is more than much-needed space for the University of Alberta—it is consistent with the university’s vision of an urban, linear campus connected by LRT where students, faculty and members of the public move freely around the city to access world-class teaching and research experiences offered at Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions. Imagine the vibrancy that 5,000 art, design and music students, faculty and staff will bring to the downtown core. Imagine the potential when students and professional artists interact through linkages with the Winspear, Citadel and Art Gallery of Alberta. The creative energy will be palpable!”

That seems to contradict not only statements by earlier University officials, but also the LRDP. Had the need for “an integrated campus environment” changed? Had the disadvantages about paying rent changed? Did student leaders now find a downtown location desirable? I reached out to Dr. Amhrein for clarification.

“There’s a technical point,” he told me, “which is that the Long Range Development Plan is concerned with real estate that the university owns and controls.” Given that the U of A would be leasing space inside the new Galleria project, it wouldn’t necessarily contradict the plan. He recognized the larger point however, and said “the argument for integrated locations is ease of mobility and the ability to move people around in a certain amount of time.” That’s where the LRT comes in.

Bay/Enterprise Square
Bay/Enterprise Square LRT Station, photo by Christopher Cotrell

“The feature that made Enterprise Square imaginable was the LRT,” Dr. Amrhein told me. “It meant that it was no more difficult to get from HUB to Enterprise Square than it was to get from HUB to South Campus.” He said the U of A’s first question then about the Galleria project was, “is there an LRT stop?” As both Churchill LRT Station and MacEwan LRT Station are close, the goal of an “urban, linear campus connected by LRT” is achieved at the Galleria, according to Dr. Amrhein.

In his blog post, Dr. Amrhein reiterated the University of Alberta’s key requirement for the Galleria:

“Yes, the university has identified climate-controlled access to the Galleria from the LRT as critical for our students, faculty and staff, and the patrons of the performances at the Galleria theatres and concert halls. A pedway is one solution, but there are others.”

He sounded annoyed that the pedway had become such a touch point in discussions about the Galleria. “The pedway is not a deal-breaker for the University,” he told me. Only “climate-controlled access” is a requirement. When I asked him to suggest alternatives to a pedway that could meet that requirement, initially he dodged the question. But asked a second time, he suggested the position of the buildings could provide the required access, citing the Telus towers and their connection to the LRT as an example. “Clever positioning with a plus fifteen would achieve the same result,” he said, noting that the project architects would have to rethink their plans to make that happen.

Dr. Amrhein told me the University requires climate-controlled access for three reasons. The first is the need to move faculty, staff, and students around campus in short periods of time. “When it’s dark and cold, there’s a disincentive to move around the facilities,” he said. The second is safety, which Dr. Amrhein said has been “completely lost in the conversation.” He stressed the importance of safety, saying that pedways are “well-lit and heated, and very visible” and that they often include security features. “There’s a personal safety issue here.” The third is accessibility of the performance venues for the community.

AuroraCollege_jm258
Dr. Carl Amrhein, photo by James MacKenzie

Back to the central question – why does the University of Alberta want to be part of the Galleria project? To answer that, Dr. Amrhein brought up Mayor Mandel and his vision to have all of Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions integrated and connected by LRT. “Imagine a medical student at NAIT,” Dr. Amrhein said. “That student can move from the classrooms at NAIT to the labs at the Walter MacKenzie Health Sciences Centre because of the LRT.” Integration across institutions like that would “put Edmonton in a very small group” of cities, Dr. Amrhein said.

It’s clear that Dr. Amrhein views the University’s participation in the Galleria project as something that will help Edmonton as a whole. “I hope it goes ahead.”

City Council takes a step in the wrong direction by supporting the Galleria Project

Well it just wouldn’t be a high-profile project without Council doing most of its deliberations in-camera (private) now would it? That’s exactly what Council did again tonight in considering the Galleria Project (items 6.5, 6.6, and 6.7). It’s a worrying trend.

Essentially what Council decided to do was move forward with building the pedway, at an amount of up to $30 million, and that it would purchase the necessary land and relocate the EPSB Maintenance Building at a cost of about $33 million, pending written confirmation from tenants of the project. This doesn’t mean the Galleria Project is a done deal, but it is a significant step in that direction. And I think it’s a step in the wrong direction, at least at this time.

Here’s the motion as passed this evening:

  1. That the Capital Profile number 14-17-5037 in Attachment 2 of the April 15, 2014, of the Sustainable Development report CR_1065, be amended to a total cost of $30 million.
  2. That subject to an agreement to share the total cost of construction for the Pedway, approved by Council, with land owners north of 103A Avenue benefitting from the construction of the Pedway Connection to the Royal Alberta Museum:
    1. the amended Capital Profile number 14-17-5037 to fund the Pedway, be approved, and
    2. a contract with Ledcor Construction in the amount of $4.4 million for the design for the construction of the Pedway, as outlined in the April 15, 2014, Sustainable Development report CR_1065, be approved, and the contract be in form and content acceptable to the City Manager.
  3. That the Galleria Project – Downtown Academic and Cultural Centre be acknowledged as an innovative development opportunity in downtown Edmonton and subject to the City receiving written confirmation of financing and financial commitment for the Galleria Project from the Province of Alberta for the University of Alberta, a major office building tenant, other office building tenants, and retail tenants, that the purchase of land and relocation of the Edmonton Public School Board Maintenance Building and Capital Profile number 14-17-5031, as set out in Attachment 1 of the April 15, 2014, Sustainable Development report CR_1066, be approved.

Wasn’t this project supposed to be mostly paid for by donations? Yet here we are, with the City taking on much of the upfront risk.

Galleria Project

Council decided on all of this after receiving a report full of potential risks. Here are some excerpts from one of the reports that Council considered today on the Galleria Project (emphasis is mine):

  • “The Foundation initially requested financial support for the Galleria roof, but has withdrawn that request given the preliminary state of the project and the absence of a clear design or plan.”
  • “The University of Alberta has confirmed its intention to relocate the School of Music and Department of Art and Design to the site, bringing potentially 5,000 additional staff and students to downtown. This relocation is conditional upon direct, climate controlled connection to the LRT (i.e. an underground pedway connection to Churchill Station).”
  • “On February 18, 2014, as a result of revised cost estimates for the pedway construction and land purchase, the Foundation requested additional funding that reflected the increased cost estimates. In addition, because of the design and construction schedule for the Royal Alberta Museum, the City was asked to fund the pedway design and associated utility relocations immediately. This work cannot be deferred to a later date.”
  • “In order to purchase the School Board property, the City will be responsible for all costs to relocate the School Board Maintenance Building Operations to an alternate site.”
  • “In order to protect for the opportunity to connect both the Royal Alberta Museum, the Galleria, and other new development north of 103 A Avenue directly to Churchill LRT Station, the decision to proceed with the design of the pedway, the commencement of required utility relocations, and commitment to construct the shell under the Museum forecourt must be made now.
  • “The request to the City to contribute towards the construction of a roof over the Galleria has been removed. The Foundation may return with a request for assistance at a later date once more information is available. It is considered premature to consider any additional funding for this component until the project further evolves.”
  • “The business case as developed by the Foundation identifies that the source of funding for the Trust, and in turn for the theatres, is from the revenues generated by the office space and retail leasing on the property. In the event that the revenues are not realized, then while there is no legal obligation for the City to assume the operation of the theatres, there is a risk that the City could be asked to provide financial assistance in order for the theatres to continue to operate.”
  • “It is difficult to define and quantify risks at this time as this project is still at the concept design stage. The Foundation has provided what information it has, but there is not sufficient information available to fully address many of the issues identified for clarification.”
  • “Critical assumptions have been made relative to office and retail lease rates, rate of office space absorption, retail market demand, financing costs, construction costs, fundraising commitments and availability of government grants. Should any of the assumptions made in the business case not be realized, there is a risk that the funding to build, operate and maintain the theatres will not be sufficient to achieve the goal of providing affordable space to the arts community.”
  • “While the Foundation is confident in their ability to secure an anchor tenant for the office tower as well as several additional tenants, no proposed tenants are under contract.”
  • “With several new office towers having recently been announced or underway in the downtown, vacancy rates are expected to rise, and given the existing vacancy within the EPCOR Tower, the ability to secure tenants in a short time frame is considered to be a significant risk.”
  • “Costs for the theatres are difficult to estimate as they are subject to considerable range depending upon the design; however the costs are at the low end of the range of recent theatre construction in Calgary and Toronto.”
  • “The Foundation or Cultural Trust will offset the anticipated net operating loss of the theatres with diverse and dedicated revenue streams from office and retail rental rates from the larger Galleria project. There is no contingent plan contemplated to continue the operations of the theatres if the projected revenues are not realized.”

Nevermind that the original business case called the four new theatres “financially self-sustaining”. Guess not. Or that it declared the project was “feasible” and “sustainable” or that it would “generate significant revenue.” Unless of course the assumptions are wrong. Or worst of all, that the City wouldn’t have to put in much money, because it was a unique “P4” model. Right.

Somehow, after discussing the project behind closed doors, Council was able to look past all of that risk and concern (not to mention the ultimatum about needing to decide today) to support the project. Furthermore, many of them made a point of expressing their support verbally, as if the proponents might see the motion not as a victory but as a loss.

Councillor Henderson called it “a remarkable opportunity for the city.” Councillor Esslinger called it “an exciting project.” Councillor Sohi said it was “a very innovative development opportunity.” Only Councillor Knack spoke partially against the motion, suggesting that it should be compared against other projects up for consideration as part of the next Capital Budget. Mayor Iveson too pointed out that more assurances are needed, but said “it’s entirely appropriate to further explore” the project. He said it’s a “very exciting concept.”

Councillor McKeen made the motion, and used his remarks in part to justify the use of an in-camera session. He essentially asked us to trust Council, to take their word for it that the proponents did their homework. I fully appreciate the sensitivity around confidential information that doesn’t belong to the City, but I fail to see why that means the entire discussion needs to be had in private.

Furthermore, Councillor McKeen said “I think we’re asking a lot of the proponent” and added “we have spent a lot of time on this.” Really? Given the glaring holes in the proposal and self-admission that it is still extremely preliminary, I don’t think Council is asking much of the folks behind the Gallera Project at all. And I certainly don’t think Council has spent “a lot” of time on this project, unless it all happened behind the scenes.

In general I think the land investment by the City is a good thing – I’d rather have the City own it than some speculator or foreign investor who will just leave an ugly and unsafe surface parking lot on it. I think it also makes sense for the City to be a key player in land assembly for big projects. But aside from that, I’m really at a loss for why this should proceed with City funding.

The word most commonly used by Council tonight to describe the project was “innovative”. They all seemed to find the proposed Cultural Trust especially appealing, despite the risk that it may never come to fruition if the anticipated revenues from the office space and retail leasing don’t pan out. Unfortunately no questions were asked about the success of such initiatives in other cities throughout North America. No questions were asked about the likelihood that such a scheme would work here in Edmonton.

Only one question came up about whether the project as proposed would actually meet the needs of the arts community. No one asked why other arts organizations aren’t lining up to support the project, however.

At no point in the brief public discussion tonight did any question come up about the potential impact this project could have on the arena, located directly across 101 Street. This despite the fact that both projects need significant retail leasing to happen in order to succeed, which means they’ll be competing against one another.

Galleria Project

And most importantly, no consideration appeared to be given as to whether or not this is the way we want to build our city. Is moving billion dollar projects around like lego pieces really the way to do it? Shouldn’t there be some concern about how they’ll all work together? Or maybe some sort of bigger vision or plan? At the very least, shouldn’t we understand whether or not we can afford the worst case scenario?

I’m all for building downtown and the positive vision that Council has for Edmonton. I fully appreciate the incredible work that Dianne and Irving Kipnes have done and will continue to do in Edmonton. But I’m finding it incredibly difficult to support the Galleria Project as it has currently been proposed.

Finding your way around downtown Edmonton is about to get easier

Walk around downtown today and you might notice some new signage. New wayfinding prototypes have been installed around Churchill Square, part of a pilot project being led by Walk Edmonton.

Edmonton Wayfinding

Each sign contains directions to nearby destinations, a map of the area the sign is located in, and information about the wayfinding project. Importantly, the directional information and the map contain time estimates for pedestrians. This should help pedestrians to orient themselves and make it to key destinations.

Edmonton Wayfinding

The Downtown CRL Plan (PDF) contains a catalyst project called Green and Walkable Downtown that refers to “a phased and coordinated program of street and public realm improvements” focused on pedestrians. It also highlights the notion of a wayfinding system:

“Wayfinding refers to the system of visual cues, such as signage and maps that people use to find destinations and navigate neighourhoods. In the downtown context, a coherent and effective wayfinding system is particularly important to pedestrians and cyclists.”

“The wayfinding signage that exists downtown today is inconsistent and in some cases incoherent or absent. There is currently a patchwork of signage systems. A Wayfinding System would include signage at street level for pedestrians. Web and mobile phone-based wayfinding tools could also be developed. All components will be well-integrated, sharing a mutual look, language, and logic that will facilitate movement.”

Edmonton’s current wayfinding is a mess. It’s a mix of different approaches, developed at different times, with no coherent system or plan. It’s not just the pedway either, it’s everything. I’m really excited to see this start to change, and just in time for what is perhaps the busiest construction period downtown has ever seen, with the LRT, arena, Royal Alberta Museum, and many other projects underway. Good wayfinding is about to become more important than ever before.

Edmonton Wayfinding

This is just a first step, and there’s lots more that could be done. I’d love to see a digital component as well, with a mobile site or apps or both. Connections could be made to ETS wayfinding, and of course, we need to fix the pedway signage!

The City is running an online survey to gather feedback on the proposed maps and signs. You have until May 4 to provide your input!

Edmonton Wayfinding Project

While the City has been working on wayfinding for a while, it was a group of interested citizens that really got things moving.

Tim Querengesser put a project up on Make Something Edmonton in March 2013. It was focused on the pedway, but it quickly attracted a group of interested Edmontonians. After a couple of meetings, they expanded their scope to wayfinding more generally.

Tim had moved to Edmonton from Toronto not long before starting the project. When he discovered the pedway he thought it was great, but found the signage to be very poor. After travelling to many large cities, he had seen plenty of examples of excellent signage. Tim figured he should try to do something about it. “In Toronto there’s a ‘don’t get involved’ culture,” he said, “but I really wanted to get involved here.”

Edmonton Wayfinding Project

Putting up a Make Something Edmonton page was all it took to get started. The group is now known as the Edmonton Wayfinding Project, and they’ve been a critical factor in the development of the City’s wayfinding effort. They’re all volunteers but they’re quite active. They have published articles on wayfinding, organized an installation at Harcourt House, have created a buzz in the media, and have met with the City numerous times to provide guidance and feedback.

There’s no question the group has had an impact. In fact, the City’s own report on wayfinding (PDF) says so:

“Wayfinding is also a topical item of conversation in the city as a result of to advocacy and projects improve use and navigation of the Pedway and River Valley Parks. The ‘Make Something Edmonton’ group are an example of grass-roots community interest that has raised the profile of wayfinding in the city.”

Have you ever wanted to change something in Edmonton but thought it was too difficult? Let this be an example of how anyone can make a difference as long as you’re willing to put in a little time and energy! It’s so exciting to see a group of engaged Edmontonians going after something they care about. Imagine what could be done if there were another dozen groups like the Edmonton Wayfinding Project!

Kudos to Tim and the entire team on your achievements thus far; keep it going! You can follow the group on Twitter at @WayfindYEG.