Want to solve the space problem for the arts in Edmonton? Stop shaving that yak!

In software development there’s an expression we use to avoid scope creep. “Don’t shave that yak!” we’ll say. It’s shorthand for staying focused and working on solving the problem at hand, not other problems that we might notice along the way. As far as I know the phrase comes from a Ren & Stimpy episode and was coined by Carlin Vieri, a Ph.D. at MIT back in the 90s.

“Yak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.”

I quite like Seth Godin’s example of yak shaving. This GIF illustrates it well too:

yak shaving

I was chatting with someone in the arts community recently about the Edmonton Downtown Academic & Cultural Centre project, and I remarked, “I just don’t know how we got from ‘arts organizations need space’ to ‘a $1 billion project is the answer’.” But thinking about it later, I realized that I know exactly how we got there. We’re shaving the yak.

It was back in November 2011 that the Mayor’s Arts Visioning Committee released its recommendations for how we could “lift Edmonton to international recognition as a city of the arts by the year 2040.” They followed a public engagement process, learned about the challenges facing the arts in Edmonton, and developed recommendations to try to address them.

One of the challenges identified was space:

“Edmonton artists and arts advocates described a critical need for additional creation, rehearsal, exhibit and performance space. Developing or designating new arts space is paramount to the vision in this report.”

It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a new challenge – The Art of Living identified it in 2008 too. As a result, many of the recommendations dealt with space. The third recommendation was titled “Downtown Arts District and Performance Centre” and was relatively simple:

“The City of Edmonton endorse, in principle, a landmark performing arts centre (PAC) downtown, and designate land for such a development in the city core.”

The report goes on to detail the need and provides background and context. I understand from my conversations with those in the arts community that there is a real need for more space, especially smaller, black-box space that is multi-purpose.

So that’s the problem we’re meant to be solving: a lack of performance and rehearsal space. How did we start shaving the yak? I think it went something like this:

City Council put up $100,000 for the newly created Edmonton Performing Arts Centre Foundation to develop a business case. In developing the business case, the foundation connected with the University of Alberta which expressed a desire to link its music and art & design programs with the downtown arts community. There’s not enough money for all of that, so the vision needed to be made broader. The “revitalize downtown!” mantra evidently worked for others, so the group decides to go after that as part of the vision. To compete with the other big, fancy space known as the arena, a big, fancy space known as the Galleria was designed. In order to pay for that, a commercial office tower was added to the plan, along with a new campus for the University of Alberta. But those projects were deemed unrealistic unless there was a connection to the new Royal Alberta Museum and the LRT.

Before you know it, the group has taken arts out of its name completely, and we’re talking about a $40 million dollar pedway.

Weren’t we supposed to be finding new space for the arts? Stop shaving that yak!

The lights are on at Edmonton’s Outdoor Neon Sign Museum

Dozens of Edmontonians braved the cold tonight to join Mayor Iveson, Councillor McKeen, Councillor Knack, and Downtown Business Association Executive Director Jim Taylor for the official launch of the Edmonton Neon Sign Museum on 4th Street Promenade. After probably a bit too much talking, the signs were introduced and the lights came on one-by-one.

Neon Sign Museum

Here’s an overview of the museum:

The primary purpose of this project is to develop an outdoor historic neon sign museum in downtown Edmonton to celebrate the history of neon signage in the city, and to create an engaging outdoor space for cultural tourism as part of the bustling 104th Street Promenade. This unique museum fosters activity and walking traffic in the surrounding area, acting as a light-based form of urban beautification for downtown Edmonton.

The project has been years in the making. Work began in 2008 and the museum has been consistently championed by city planner David Holdsworth, who originated the idea.

The City of Edmonton Heritage Planning has been collecting the historic neon signs at The City of Edmonton Archives over the past few years, salvaging them from both demolished buildings and from buildings where new businesses moved in and removed the signs. The City has collected twelve signs that represent some of the early signage styles and iconic signage forms in Edmonton. The Museum will continue to grow as additional signs – a goal of 30 total – are added in the coming years. Each of the current signs has an accompanying plaque with text panels that tell the stories of the signs, and by doing so the signs speak to the history of Edmonton.

For more on the history of the project, check out Omar’s piece.

Neon Sign Museum

The museum currently features signs from Mike’s News Stand, Canadian National Railway freight-telegrams, Northern Alberta Railway, XL Furniture, W.W. Arcade, Cliff’s Auto Parts, an unidentified drugstore, and Canadian Furniture. Signs still to come are from the Princess Theatre, Pantages Theatre, the Georgia Baths, and a second sign from the W.W. Arcade.

Neon Sign Museum

Sponsors of the museum include the City of Edmonton and the Alberta Sign Association, and community partners include TELUS, the Downtown Business Association, and The Places.

You can see more photos here. Stay tuned for much better photos from the local Flickr group as well!

Green light given for Rogers Place, Edmonton’s new downtown arena

Construction on Rogers Place, the future home of the Edmonton Oilers, will begin in March now that the $480 million guaranteed maximum price has been met. The announcement was made at a press conference today at City Hall that featured a rare public appearance by Daryl Katz.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

The new downtown arena will seat 18,641 for hockey games, and is being described as “the most technologically enabled sport facility in all of North America” (details on what that means are still to come, I presume). The arena is part of a $606.5 million package that includes a community rink, LRT connection, pedway, and the Winter Garden.

The stage today was backed with hockey boards while a face-off circle emblazoned with the Oilers logo sat in front. Giant renderings of the new building flanked each side. Mayor Don Iveson, City Manager Simon Farbrother, Daryl Katz, and Ian O’Donnell from the Downtown Community League (DECL) were the speakers.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

I have to say the press conference seemed a bit over the top for what was announced. It was very unlikely that the guaranteed maximum price wouldn’t be met, and even if it hadn’t been met, that would have been little more than a speed bump. Council would have voted, and construction would have gone ahead one way or another.

Very little that was announced today was new (would it have killed them to talk about the building, even just a little?). Most of the speeches consisted of the various parties involved thanking one another, and extolling how great the new arena will be for Edmonton. And we heard the same old arguments once again. City Manager Simon Farbrother said:

“With this announcement, we are able to announce two very significant goals for this city. The first one this does is helps us on that continued journey of building a great downtown. The second one it does is it supports NHL hockey in Edmonton for the very foreseeable future.”

Nevermind that downtown has been on the upswing for years and that the threat of losing the Oilers was misleading at best.

But those arguments are over and done with – today was about the future, as Daryl Katz said. I suppose his attendance was meant to suggest a sense of finality, but I’m not sure that came across. He certainly didn’t look like he wanted to be there. Sure, he expressed his relief at getting to this point and his thanks to all involved, but he looked and sounded to be going through the motions more than anything else.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

Why was DECL invited to participate? Maybe it was just to play the role of “downtown supporter” in the story. I hope it wasn’t to represent the members of the public that were apparently involved in the decision, because just two or three people on the board were involved. As someone who both lives and works downtown, I don’t feel that DECL represented me in the process (this is a great example of how community leagues are setup to promote “tick the box” public engagement).

But I guess that was the point of today’s event – the process is done, the arena will be built. I’m happy that we’ve reached this point and I do think the arena will have a positive impact on downtown. I have great respect for everyone who has gotten involved, whether it was to support to the project or whether it was to ask hard questions. There are still questions remaining too. Will the remaining government funding be confirmed? What will happen to Rexall Place?

One thing that’s clear is that the arena won’t succeed on its own. It needs a district surrounding it. In his remarks today, Daryl Katz made mention of that development, saying that we can expect to learn more this spring. I have heard the project described as a series of dominoes, with the new City tower following the arena, and more still to fall. I sure hope that’s the case.

Downtown Arena Press Conference

There were a couple of other interesting tidbits of news shared today:

  • Katz Group Executive VP John Karvellas confirmed that the Oilers have an agreement in place to continue playing at Rexall Place until the new facility opens in time for the 2016 season.
  • MacEwan University has come to the table and will be contributing $2 million to the community rink to “increase capacity and improve functionality”.

You can see more photos of the press conference here. The Oilers have audio and video of the press conference available here. The City has made renderings of Rogers Place available here.

Edmonton Vaporware: The Arena District

Though the video game industry probably comes to mind first when you hear the term vaporware, it is increasingly being used to describe announcements and predictions that never come to pass in other industries too. Like construction. The construction of, for instance, big “transformative” projects that will unfold over a number of years. Sound familiar?

arena district

As you know, Edmonton’s shiny new downtown arena is being funded in part through a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL). The idea is that “projects funded by the CRL spark new developments, and property values rise on existing developments.” From the beginning, the arena was sold to Edmontonians as a catalyst for additional downtown development. It was clear that additional development would be part of the success of any deal. Here’s what the Katz Group’s Bob Black told the Journal in February 2010:

“In order for citizens of the city to have a reasonable assurance that the community revitalization levy debt will be retired by the city, then you have to have that collateral development.”

Even earlier than that, in September 2009, the Downtown Business Association’s Jim Taylor was arguing for ensuring that surrounding development took place:

“Somebody has to say that they’re building a casino or a hotel there, and you don’t get any money from the CRL unless those projects are part of it. So that funding is only available if those projects are there. It’s not, ‘We’ll do a CRL and hope that those projects are there. It’s: ‘The CRL is not available, the money is not borrowed, unless those specific developments are there too.'”

Of course, he and many other business leaders softened their stance over the years and no such requirement was ever put in place. In fact, I’d say the volume about what would be built was turned up, though details and commitments were always lacking.

In January 2011, U of A provost Carl Amrhein talked about the creation of “a university village” for student housing as part of the district. Also that month, local realtor Terry Paranych said if the arena goes ahead, he’d “build two condo towers, one 40 storeys, one 50 storeys.”

In December 2012, the Katz Group and its partner WAM Development Group stopped talking about individual projects and promised something much grander:

“If a new arena is approved, the Katz Group and partner WAM Development Group hope to push ahead this spring with $2-billion worth of nearby development, including 28 and 32-storey office towers. Plans also include two 35-storey or taller condominium highrises, a 10-storey condo building, a 26-storey luxury hotel and other commercial space along with a proposed open-air Oilers Plaza.”

Another article discussed potential tenants:

“Main anchor tenants are expected to include a VIP theatre complex, a grocery store and the headquarters of a major telecommunications company, according to a 60-page overview of the district by the Katz Group and partner WAM Development Group.”

Yet despite all the hype, there have been no commitments. It’s all just talk. Just vaporware.

In March 2011, the Journal’s Gary Lamphier made this clear:

“Not a single other developer has been willing to publicly commit hard cash toward the project. Despite recent talk from the city’s chief financial officer about proposed hotels, a casino and other projects, she hasn’t identified a single one by name. I’ve talked to roughly a dozen developers, consultants and commercial real estate brokers over the past 15 months in an attempt to flush out anyone who is willing to stand up and be counted as a participant in the arena redevelopment. I haven’t found one.”

The arena deal was finally approved, but still there have been zero commitments. And so we find ourselves in January 2014, clinging to the hope that a new tower for City of Edmonton employees will finally kickstart the development:

“Jim Taylor, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, said putting up an office tower a block from the arena would likely stimulate other development.”

Avison Young’s Cory Wosnack is even more optimistic:

“If WAM and Katz Group are successful (with the office tower proposal) — and I believe there will be an announcement within days — then the hotel deal can be announced, the retail can be announced and the domino effects begin.”

Is anyone still buying this nonsense?

Rogers Place

Perhaps the worst part about the proposed tower is that municipally-owned or leased properties do not pay property tax. Which means that all or most of the tower would not contribute to a lift in taxes within the CRL boundary. That land could have been used for a revenue-generating property instead, one that would actually help to pay down the CRL debt.

What about the Ultima Tower, you say? It was going to go ahead with or without the arena. What about the proposed, 71-story Edmontonian tower? Like the Aurora project before it, The Edmontonian has been vaporware since at least 2007, so there’s no reason to expect anything different now.

We’re being played, and the sad thing is, we’ve seen this story before.

In the world of video games, some have managed to shed their vaporware status and go on to be quite successful. Maybe that should give us hope that the arena district in Edmonton can do the same. Maybe there really is a master plan and an order in which these projects will unfold. But I’m not holding my breath.

UPDATE 2: There was some confusion about the paragraph above on taxation, as you’ll see in the comments below. I received clarification from the City. If the City of Edmonton leases space inside a building owned by a private entity, the space leased by the City is exempt from taxation. The remainder would be assessed and taxed as any other property would be.

Roundup: Edmonton’s downtown arena will be called Rogers Place

This afternoon at Startup Edmonton, Rexall Sports (or should that be the Edmonton Arena Corporation) announced that it has reached a deal with Rogers Communications on the naming rights for Edmonton’s new downtown arena. When it opens in 2016, it’ll be known as Rogers Place.

Rogers Place

Here’s what the folks involved had to say. First, Daryl Katz:

“Today’s announcement helps make the new arena a reality and underscores its potential to make downtown Edmonton a magnet for our community and for new investment by world-class companies like Rogers.”

Here’s what Rogers Communications Executive Vice-President and Chief Marketing Officer John Boynton said:

“Today’s announcement builds on our long-term commitment to the Edmonton Oilers, its hockey fans and our investment in Alberta. Rogers Place will be one of the most technologically enabled stadiums in North America; we look forward to bringing passionate fans a connected game experience powered by the country’s fastest LTE network.”

And here’s what Mayor Don Iveson said:

“This is a great day for Edmonton’s downtown and our city. Rogers Place will become a beacon in our downtown, one that will foster a new sense of energy that will further attract development and investment in the heart of our city.”

Here’s a look at how the arena is envisioned to fit into the new downtown:

The name certainly didn’t inspire everyone, but some were more annoyed by the revenue than the name. Under the terms of the agreement between City Council and Daryl Katz, his Edmonton Arena Corporation (EAC) would receive revenue from the naming rights:

EAC will operate the new arena and pay all operating and maintenance expenses, and will receive all operating revenues, including naming rights and parking revenue.

Of course, no financial terms were disclosed as part of today’s announcement. Rogers said the deal is part of its previously announced investment into Alberta:

Rogers announced on October 1st a $700M commitment over the next four years to further enhance and expand Rogers LTE – Canada’s fastest LTE network, open additional retail locations, fuel business growth and continue to build its presence in sports in Edmonton and across Alberta.

In addition to network enhancements, new retail locations, and new business services, Rogers acquired the official sponsorship and marketing rights for the Edmonton Oilers, Edmonton Oil Kings, and Rexall Place.

Rogers Place

I’m happy that the arena has a name and has moved another step toward becoming a reality, but I do think this is a missed opportunity for Edmonton. Rogers benefits from this deal obviously, but Edmonton doesn’t because “Rogers Place” could be anywhere. This is something we get wrong so often, partly because of our “capital city curse” as I like to call it, but partly because we don’t have a strong brand to hang these sorts of things on. Sure, most arenas and sporting complexes carry a sponsored name, but isn’t that a great opportunity to be different? Instead, it’s all about the money.

David Staples seems to agree with me on this point:

“The first naming of the arena, back in 1974 when it was called the Edmonton Coliseum was the best. That was the right name for our building. It still is.”

Yup. Too bad.

Here’s some other reaction from around the web:

https://twitter.com/OilersNation/status/407971780406435840

https://twitter.com/EricWarnke/status/408089659978571776

https://twitter.com/uncleheth/status/408084022309289985

In a vote on the Cult of Hockey blog, “Rogers Coliseum” seemed to be the favorite choice, ahead of “Some other name entirely” and “Rogers Place” in last. In a poll on Global’s website, more than 60% said they didn’t like the name “Rogers Place”. You can watch an overview of the announcement at CTV Edmonton. Also check out the Huffington Post’s coverage here.

You can learn more about Rogers Place on its new website. You can also follow it on Twitter.

Recap: Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up

The Downtown Business Association’s annual Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up took place tonight in Churchill Square. Hundreds of Edmontonians braved the minus 12 degree weather to get out and see Santa and the lighting up of the 65-foot Christmas tree!

Holiday Light Up on the Square

The event got underway at 4pm, and featured food vendors, roving choirs, stilt-walkers, and more. The City Market also stayed open longer today, welcoming patrons inside City Hall until 6pm. In addition to warming up, kids could find face painters and balloon artists indoors!

Holiday Light Up on the Square

Out on the square, entertainment included singer Sean Sonego, the Kings University Choir College, violinist John Calverley with singer Elizabeth MacInnis, and Booming Tree Taiko. Global Edmonton’s Shane Jones and Kevin O’Connell hosted the event.

Here’s a quick video of some of the highlights:

Just after 6pm, Mayor Iveson was joined by his wife Sarah Chan and Councillor Ben Henderson on stage to welcome Santa and help countdown the light up. It seemed to take forever for Santa and his helpers to get on the stage! Eventually he did, and he asked the mayor if he had been a good boy this year. “Well 62% of voting Edmontonians think I was,” Mayor Iveson quipped. Then Santa asked what he’d like for Christmas. “An LRT line to the Southeast,” was the response. The crowd loved it!

Holiday Light Up on the Square

Everyone on stage led the countdown to the light up. Finally, the 14,000 LED lights on the tree came to life and the crowd cheered. A few seconds later, fireworks in the opposite direction! Timed to the music, the brief fireworks show capped off a fun afternoon.

Holiday Light Up on the Square

The tree was donated by Millar Western Forest Products, and was installed and decorated by EPCOR. If you couldn’t make it down tonight don’t worry – the tree will be there all season long! You can see more photos here.

Edmonton’s Pedway: Wayfinding

This is the third part in a series of posts looking at the past, present, and future of Edmonton’s pedway network.

Have you ever gotten lost in the pedway? You wouldn’t be the first to do so.

In the late 1970s, the City began to think about how to make the pedway more usable, and navigational information (known today as wayfinding) was to play a big part of that. The Pedway Concept Plan of 1976 called for “a standardized information guide applied throughout the system, including directional signs, maps, route directories, and general information signs” and “identification for individual commercial frontages.”

In March 1989, the City published the Downtown Pedway Network Review which highlighted the need for improved signage. “There is a need to develop and implement a directional and information signage program for the pedway network,” it said. “The 1987 pedway user survey revealed that users generally were unaware of the extent of the pedway network beyond a few specific areas.” As is often the case with the City, there was already a project underway to improve the signage when the report came out.

Pedway Documents

In 1987 the City of Edmonton entered into an agreement with Lance Wyman Ltd. for “consulting services in the area of the design of public signage and information systems.” Wyman has had extensive experience in designing branding and wayfinding systems, having worked on the Washington D.C. Metro maps, the Mexico City Metro icons and wayfinding, wayfinding for Midtown Detroit, and branding & wayfinding for Pennsylvania Station in New York City, among many other projects.

Edmonton’s pedway wasn’t the only project Wyman undertook in Alberta. He also designed the branding and wayfinding for Calgary’s +15 network. Here’s what he wrote about it in 2004:

“Symbols can participate with the environment in many ways and can enhance and make a wayfinding system work better. A symbol can be a reminder of history and a functional directional guide at the same time. The Calgary +15 Pedestrian skywalk symbol (bridges and walkways are 15 feet above grade) combines references to the city history and culture (local native Blackfoot star constellation circles, traditional white rodeo hat symbol) to establish a symbol that participates in all aspects of the wayfinding system. Circle patterns are also used to indicate the walking path on +15 maps, and are inlaid into the floors in contrasting materials to indicate the actual walkways. The consistent use of the circle patterns become familiar +15 wayfinding information and is a reference to Calgary history.”

In Edmonton, Wyman’s work was to proceed in three phases. The first would be Preliminary Design, during which data would be collected and Wyman would become familiar with the system. A concept for the pedway system logo, typography, and symbols would also be produced in the first phase. The second phase would be focused on detailed design, resulting in a manual and cost estimates for each element. The third phase would be a demonstration project. The total value of the contract, signed in December 1987, was $117,950.00. Only the first phase at $27,725.00 was funded at first; the other two phases were to proceed subject to funding approval from City Council. The work was to be completed by the fall of 1988.

Wyman eventually produced the City of Edmonton Pedway Signing & Graphics Manual (pictured above), which outlined the pedway network logo, iconography, and other design details. “The Helvetica system of typography was chosen for the Pedway to be compatible with the LRT signing system, which also uses the Helvetica system,” it reads.

pedway levels

Something that may not be immediately apparent is that the pedway logo itself comes in three versions, one for each level of the system. As Wyman puts it, “pedway logos inform pedestrians which of three walkway levels they are on; Subway, Street, or Skywalk.”

Another unique aspect of the design are the directional elements. “The signs give orientation using compass directions that incorporate familiar city landmarks; the North Star to the North, the refineries to the East, the river to the South, the view of the Rockies to the West.”

pedway directions

The manual includes design details on a wide array of different signs, including:

  • Flag Sign (sticks out from building)
  • Wall Sign (flat on building)
  • Elevator Button Sign
  • Pedestal Map
  • Wall Map
  • Waymarker Sign (mounted at baseboard level)
  • Stencil Sign (for paint applications)
  • Overhead Sign
  • Street Name Sign
  • LRT Sign (on the illuminated signs)
  • Entrance Decal (interestingly has different times for entrance hours)

The project was a relative success, and today the signage that Wyman designed can be seen throughout the network. In 1989, the Downtown Pedway Network Review recommended that the designs and signs “be incorporated into the existing portions of the Pedway Network and used in all future pedways.” Furthermore, it recommended that all development agreements should “require installation of this standardized signage system within the pedway link and throughout adjacent developments to ensure ease of access by pedway users.”

Edmonton Pedway Signs

Over the years the signage rolled out, but it very quickly became out-of-date. As new buildings and connections appeared, they did not always follow the same format and some lacked signs altogether. There were long stretches of time during which the pedway map was not updated. Even today, the link to the Downtown Pedway Map on the City of Edmonton’s website takes you nowhere. Today’s system reflects a lack of ownership over the wayfinding aspects of the pedway, resulting in a mess of different signs and maps.

Twenty years after they first tackled the problem, Council decided to do something about wayfinding in the pedway. On November 18, 2009, Executive Committee directed Administration to work with the Downtown Business Association on addressing issues with the pedway, including “signage, way-finding, and new directions, including connections to outside streets.” An ad hoc pedway committee was formed shortly thereafter, and they identified “a system of standardized signage” as a key opportunity. The committee felt that a database should be created containing all of the relevant details about the pedway, so that it could serve as the basis for a web-based map to help people navigate the system.

Edmonton Pedway Signs

The Downtown Pedway Committee was officially established in September 2010 with a mandate to “examine and address the challenges and opportunities” related to the pedway. The committee met six times throughout 2011 and focused their efforts on updating the existing pedway maps, a task they finally completed in March 2012 (you can download it in PDF here). Next they turned their attention to wayfinding.

“The major focus of the Committee has been the creation of an integrated way-finding signage system for the pedway network. A way-finding system performs the essential function of directing, informing and supporting movements that allow public spaces and buildings to function. Such a system is key to ensuring that people can access and use pedways and the transit system efficiently, conveniently and safely. A comprehensive way-finding system involves not only clear directional signage to smooth pedestrian flows, but also includes open spaces beyond the pedway network which extend throughout the downtown, resulting in a more open, uncluttered environment. A comprehensive way-finding system also includes connecting street level activity with the existing multi-level pedway system.”

The Pedway Committee made it clear that they felt improvements to the wayfinding system were necessary, especially given all of the other projects taking place in the downtown area:

“The Pedway Committee feels the time is right to start planning for an integrated way finding signage system for the pedway and throughout the downtown. The downtown is well-positioned to take advantage of this initiative.”

In November 2012 the Pedway Committee made a presentation about the business case for a wayfinding system. They identified “at least 78 different signage types” throughout the pedway network, including 13 in the library parkade alone!

Edmonton Pedway Signs

They proposed a project with three phases to remedy the situaton. The first would be to do initial scoping and conceptual and detailed design. The second phase would focus on a pilot project, with the final phase including final design and rollout of the system beyond the pilot project area. Executive Committee was generally unimpressed with the presentation, and seemed shocked at the cost. The report estimated the cost of implementing such a project at $2 million, a figure based on similar projects that were recently implemented in Calgary and Toronto.

The source of that funding? The report recommended that the project be aligned with the “Green and Walkable Streets” project proposed as part of the downtown CRL. Unfortunately, when Council approved the list of catalyst projects that would be funded under the CRL on May 8, 2013, they broke Green and Walkable Streets into two. The first part, around the arena, was in the “recommended for initial funding” category. The second and much larger part, which includes any potential wayfinding project, was placed in the “to proceed on revenues actually realized” category. In other words, any improvements to the wayfinding system used throughout the pedway are for now dependent on the arena going ahead and the CRL being successful. Improvements may never happen.

So we’re stuck with the same old pedway signage and out-of-date information that has plagued downtown for the past twenty years. We’re stuck with PDF maps instead of mobile apps and other technological advances. And the situation could get even worse with the new arena, Royal Alberta Museum, and numerous other projects being constructed downtown with pedway connections.

It’s important to remember that wayfinding is about more than just signs. “An effective wayfinding system can be a visual ambassador, a means of saying ‘Welcome, let me help you find your way around and enjoy yourself’,” Lance Wyman wrote in 2004. “Wayfinding offers the designer an opportunity to reference the history, culture, and essence of place in an immediate way that will be seen and used on a daily basis.”

Edmonton’s Pedway: The Growth Years

This is the second part in a series of posts looking at the past, present, and future of Edmonton’s pedway network.

The pedway system we know today was largely built in the 1980s. According to the Edmonton Journal in 1990, projects with an estimated value of $679 million were completed between 1983 and 1989 downtown, including $20 million on Jasper Avenue, Rice Howard Way, and the pedway system.

One of the biggest projects was the extension of the LRT line, with construction on Bay and Corona stations beginning in 1980. Subterranean downtown Edmonton must have seemed like paradise in those days, because the LRT construction had an extremely large impact on downtown. Jasper Avenue was under construction for years, and that harmed businesses as much if not more than West Edmonton Mall (which first opened in 1981).

LRT Construction 1980s
Downtown construction, photo by ETS

It wasn’t just the LRT being built though. Of the roughly 40 buildings downtown connected to the pedway, half were built between 1974 and 1984. More buildings were constructed in Edmonton during the 70s than any other decade. It’s no surprise then that the pedway grew significantly during the latter part of this period and in the years immediately following it (as pedway construction tended to lag building construction).

Following the completion of Edmonton Centre in 1974, a series of office towers followed. TD Tower opened in 1976, with the Sutton Place Hotel (Four Seasons Hotel) and 101 Street Tower (Oxford Tower) following in 1978. All three had connections to the pedway built. The Citadel Theatre and Sun Life Place also opened in 1978, and the Stanley Milner Library, constructed in 1967, was first added to the pedway network that year. Canadian Western Bank Place, HSBC Place, and the Standard Life Building all opened in 1980. ATCO Centre and Enbridge Place opened in 1981, followed by Bell Tower and Scotia Place in 1982. Manulife Place and the Shaw Conference Centre opened in 1983. Canada Place capped off a busy period of construction in 1986.

Pedway connections were often added years after a building was first completed. Scotia Place was connected via an above-ground bridge in 1990 when Commerce Place (Olympia & York) opened (though it already had an below-ground connection). The Royal Bank Building, built in 1965, didn’t get a pedway connection until April 1993, one month after an above-ground pedway was built connecting Manulife Place and Edmonton City Centre (Eaton’s Centre). Construction of these connections did not always go smoothly. The bridge connecting City Centre and Manulife was delayed for a variety of reasons, but one was that the hallway from City Centre did not line up with existing “knock-out” panels that Manulife Place had for future pedway construction. That meant blasting through a wall that was not designed to be opened. Still, the bridge came in at a relatively inexpensive $200,000 (the typical above-ground bridge could cost up to $500,000 at the time).

Downtown Pedway c. 1980
Existing & Approved pedway connections, ~1980

Downtown wasn’t the only place pedway-like connections were being built. A $64 million renovation of the Alberta Legislature grounds took place from 1978 to 1982, and one of the key features was an extensive underground pedway system. In the spring of 1985, the Business Building opened on the University of Alberta campus with an above-ground connection to Tory and HUB Mall. It would eventually be connected to the larger system in August 1992 when the University LRT Station opened featuring a below-ground connection to the Dental-Pharmacy Centre and above-ground bridge to HUB Mall.

Though connections continue to be added today, many Edmontonians considered the pedway “complete” in 1990 after two key projects. The first was the extension of the LRT to Grandin Station in 1989, finally linking the downtown pedway network with the Legislature pedway network. The second was much more controversial.

The pedway linking Edmonton Centre and Churchill LRT Station was often called “the final link” in the pedway network. When the City first put the project out for tender, no bid came in at the budgeted amount of $4.9 million. The lowest bid was 14% higher, bringing the cost to $6.2 million. The original design called for a glass wall and an amphitheatre under Churchill Square, in addition to the removal of 16 elm trees. Council requested that the design be tweaked and re-tendered. That delayed the project, but the plan worked. The pedway we know today was designed by MB Engineering Ltd. and constructed by Chandros Construction Ltd., right on the original $4.9 million budget.

Edmonton Centre contributed $600,000 of the budget, and insisted on the skylights and planter boxes. Jim Charuk, Edmonton VP of Oxford Development Group, said at the time that anything less would have become a “people sewer.” The pedway connection first opened for Christmas shoppers on December 14, 1990. It closed during January 1991 so that finishing touches could be put on the project. The pedway officially opened to the public on February 18, 1991.

With the addition of City Hall in 1992, the Winspear Centre in 1997, and the Art Gallery of Alberta in 2010, the downtown pedway network has continued to grow. But today’s network was largely built in the 80s, and it shows.

Edmonton’s Pedway: The Beginning

This is the first part in a series of posts looking at the past, present, and future of Edmonton’s pedway network.

For nearly 40 years Edmonton’s pedway system has been a fixture downtown. The maze of pedestrian walkways built above streets, through parkades, and under buildings has hosted parades, buskers, and even a pop-up restaurant over the years. It has kept office workers from having to step into the rain or snow, and it has served as an emergency shelter for our city’s most vulnerable during cold spells. Thousands of Edmontonians use the system each and every day, and while not universally loved, most Edmontonians can’t imagine our downtown without it.

Elevated walkways and other pedestrian-oriented urban planning concepts were becoming increasingly common in the 1960s in North America. Cities such as Chicago had started a pedway network as early as 1951. In Canada, Toronto led the way with PATH in 1959, followed just three years later by Underground City in Montreal. Eventually the idea moved west, and both Edmonton and Calgary started exploring the concept of a pedestrian circulation network in the late 1960s.

City Council paved the way for the pedway in Edmonton by approving the following recommendation on April 8, 1968:

“Council accepts the principle of a Downtown Pedestrian Circulation System as a guide to the future planning of pedestrian circulation in this area.”

Increasing concern about pedestrian safety played a key role in the recommendation, though it would be six years before the plan to separate pedestrians from vehicles became real. A working paper on the Downtown Pedestrian Circulation System published in 1980 offered this explanation: “Unlike streets, pedways cannot be laid out, constructed, and await development to occur around them.” The pedway has never had a master plan because no one owns it. Passages cannot be built until there are developments to connect, which makes the pedway a cooperative effort between a variety of developers, including the City.

Edmonton Centre opened in early 1974, and with it came Edmonton’s first pedway connections. It was the city’s first full-block development, and it featured both above-grade and below-grade pedways. The first above-grade pedway connected Edmonton Centre with the 14-level parkade across 102A Avenue. Connections were later added to Eaton’s (now City Centre West) and the Four Seasons Hotel (now Sutton Place).

Brand new Edmonton Centre 1974
Pictured top-left is Edmonton’s first above-ground pedway, photo of microfilm by Darrell

Over the summer of 1974, Council approved the City of Edmonton Transportation Plan Part 1. The document proposed “an enclosed walkway system” for the downtown and was an important step in the development of the pedway network.

That same year construction began on the LRT. Council had first endorsed the concept of a rapid rail transit system in 1968, and through a series of reports and debates the decision to go underground was made. That presented the challenge of ensuring smooth access from the street to the trains. To tackle it, the City approved a series of development agreements with nearby properties, and started building “climate-controlled linkages” which quickly became known as pedways.

In July of 1977, Council adopted the Pedway Concept Plan with the following motion:

“That the policy guidelines contained in the Pedway Concept Plan be adopted for future planning, design, security, maintenance, financing, operation, and implementation of a pedway network for Downtown Edmonton.”

According to the plan, the City had made “substantial investments to encourage construction of the pedway system” throughout the 1970s. However it also signaled that as acceptance of pedways increased and the network was built out, the City would no longer contribute financially. The pedway would have to evolve without the direct backing of the City.

The LRT began regular service on April 22, 1978, with Central and Churchill Stations all but guaranteeing the pedway would play a key role in moving people throughout Edmonton’s downtown for years to come.

Construction hoarding in Edmonton’s downtown is a disaster

There’s a lot of construction taking place downtown, and that can mean closures, detours, and delays. For the most part, I’m willing to live with some short-term pain because I know it’ll bring long-term gain. But if you think construction downtown is bad now, brace yourself. It’s going to get much worse with the Valley LRT line, the arena, the new RAM, new condo and office towers, and much more. The City needs to do more to ensure it all goes as smoothly as possible.

One big issue that we should be able to do something about is hoarding (the temporary fencing you see around construction sites). At the moment, construction hoarding downtown is a disaster.

Here’s what 101 Street looks like thanks to the demolition of the Kelly Ramsey building:

Kelly Ramsey Construction

Here’s what it looks like on Rice Howard Way:

Kelly Ramsey Construction

They’ve taken the sidewalk and one lane on either side. It has been like this for weeks now.

Over on 104 Street, here’s what the Fox Tower construction looks like:

Fox Tower Construction

As you can see they’ve taken not only the sidewalk but one lane of traffic too. Yet on the alley side, they don’t appear to have needed any extra space:

Fox Tower Construction

I would have praised the Ultima Tower construction, as they have kept the sidewalk open complete with a bus stop, but their temporary closure (from May 24 to June 29) is just as bad as the others:

Ultima Tower Construction

You can’t actually see that the sidewalk is closed until you get near the site, so you know what happens right? People walk on the street, right in traffic:

Ultima Tower Construction

Hardly safe! Hopefully they’ll be back to normal next week, with the sidewalk and bus stop open.

All of these examples share some common problems. First and foremost, pedestrian access has been disrupted, and in some cases, vehicular access too. Secondly, signage is either non-existent or very poor. All have been in place for weeks or even months, with no indication about whether or not they are temporary or permanent until the projects are done. And of course, all are quite unattractive.

The Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL) has already raised concerns with the City regarding the Fox Tower construction. They were initially concerned about the loss of trees, but when it became clear that the sidewalk would be closed with no clear timetable for it to reopen, they brought those concerns to the table as well. Thus far the response has been lukewarm at best. I understand that Graham Construction has not indicated a willingness to change anything. Worse, the City’s response was that the development would bring hundreds of new residents to the street, as if that made up for the impact on the hundreds of residents who already live here. We must do better!

Aren’t there rules?

As great as the Capital City Downtown Plan is, it lacks any real guidelines for construction hoarding. Here’s what it says:

Ensure that construction hoarding in the Downtown features a minimum functional clearance of 2.15 metres continuous linear electrical illumination and public art if in place for over 1 year, to provide a safe, clean and professional appearance.

We missed an opportunity to really strengthen the requirements through that document. There’s also the Procedures for On-Street Construction Safety document, but it mentions hoarding just once, and only as a way to “ensure that there is no danger to pedestrians from above.” Finally, there’s a section of the City’s website devoted to Design & Construction Standards, but those documents do not mention hoarding either.

If you search long enough, you’ll eventually come across Bylaw 15894, the Safety Codes Permit Bylaw. Part 1, Section 13 requires that any hoarding placed on a highway (street, lane, road, alley, etc., including sidewalks and any other land between the property lines adjacent) requires a permit. Section 14 outlines the hoarding regulations. Section 15 basically states that there must be a walkway for pedestrians approved by the City Manager. Part 7 outlines hoarding permit fees.

So in theory, the construction projects mentioned above needed to obtain a hoarding permit from the City, and must pay ongoing fees for as long as the hoarding is in place. I say in theory because, if you read the regulations, it’s clear they are not being met. So who knows if the City actually polices this kind of thing. Maybe they just approve each application without too much consideration. And though the Alberta Building Code isn’t mentioned, presumably the construction site hoarding requirements from subsection 8.2.1 also apply. But the bottom line is the City can approve whatever they like.

What happens elsewhere?

Compare all of that to Calgary, which has produced the Practical Guide for Construction Sites. It has an entire section on construction hoarding, which includes this passage:

As pedestrian flow is vital to downtown and neighbourhood vibrancy and operations, The City of Calgary Roads hoarding policies, fees and fines are intended to improve pedestrian mobility, provide effective hoarding solutions and visually enhance construction sites in Calgary. Where required, hoarding provisions must be maintained at all times for the safe passage of pedestrians in and around construction sites. In an effort to add to Calgary’s visual appeal, The City is encouraging an Enhanced Screening Initiative for hoarding applications and offers incentives for this option.

The document goes on to outline requirements for fencing and sidewalk maintenance, citing appropriate sections of the Alberta Building Code. It very clearly states that developers must “keep sidewalks adjacent to construction sites clear of obstructions” and also that they must “maintain publicly accessible and safe sidewalks.” Straightforward and to the point. On top of that, they’re offering a discount on the fees! If developers take part in the Community Boardworx Project, intended to add visual interest and public art to construction sites, they’ll receive a 25% reduction in hoarding fees!

My experience in places like Toronto and Vancouver has always been pretty positive. Oh there’s lots of scaffolding, but at least pedestrian access was maintained. It’s not all rosy though. Here’s an article from January talking about construction site nightmares in Toronto:

The current building boom has created a checkerboard of downtown curb lane and sidewalk closures. Some three dozen construction sites, mostly condo towers, are ringed with hoarding that extends over the sidewalk and curb lane, many on major streets including Yonge and Adelaide.

Politicians there have made some great suggestions as a result. Requiring developers to file construction staging plans upfront, charging higher fees the longer the closure goes on, and putting construction trailers on top of hoarding (as they do in New York) are all possibilities. There’s a lot we could learn from other cities.

Let’s be good neighbours

Downtown, like every other neighbourhood, is shared. By residents, employees, students, and yes, construction sites. When construction sites pop up in the neighbourhood, I’d like to see greater thought given to how that site will be a “good neighbour”. We’ve all got to get along. Construction hoarding, as the interface and barrier between the site and users of the sidewalk and street, is very important. At the moment, most downtown construction sites are not being very neighbourly. I’d like to see that change, and I think it must change if we’re going to make it through the next few years of construction mayhem.