I just hope they keep the corn dogs

If you haven’t made it down to Capital EX yet, you’d better hurry – Sunday is the final day for this year’s edition of the ex! Sharon and I made our annual visit last weekend, and ate way too much, enabled by a media package that gave us free food. It was fun, with some hits and some misses, but for the most part I found the experience similar to previous years.

Capital EX 2012

One of the new features this year was Ribfest. Its location was a little odd, but the ribs and pulled pork were both delicious. I’d like to see the competition aspect expanded in future years, especially as the vendors themselves seemed to enjoy showcasing their many trophies from around North America!

Capital EX 2012

Capital EX 2012

While walking the midway we happened upon the Canadian Beef Bacon wagon from Calgary. We decided to order the sliders, which gave us a nice sampler. To me it tasted a little like breakfast, with the beef bacon, an egg, and maple syrup-flavored bun. I really enjoyed it!

Capital EX 2012

Of course, no trip to Capital EX is complete without a corn dog and Those Little Donuts! Both were delicious.

Capital EX 2012
Forgive the picture, it’s all I’ve got!

Tomorrow is also the last day to Name Your Fair. Northlands is looking to rename the event next year, and after crowdsourcing suggestions from the public, narrowed the list of options down to six (with the help of partners Global Edmonton and the Edmonton Journal):

  • EdFest
  • The Edmonton Exhibition
  • Edmonton Summer Exhibition
  • K-Days
  • River City Festival
  • River City Summer Fair

Amazingly, that uninspired list is what they came up with after considering the following criteria:

  1. Relevance to the 21st century ahead.
  2. Consideration of the incredible historic growth and continued diversification of Edmonton’s multi-cultural fabric.
  3. Defining of the community spirit and outwardly fun characteristics that make Edmontonians who they are.
  4. Embracing of all demographics from new 21st century babies through to our shining senior citizens.
  5. Creative platforms enabling commercial partners to activate and deliver diverse and intriguing experiences.
  6. Agility that will allow a fresh and exciting new theme to be incorporated every year.

K-Days barely has any relevance to our past let alone our future. River City, while often used in Edmonton, could describe most cities in the world. And while the event is an exhibition, that’s not exactly the most exciting name.

Capital EX 2012

Why rename the event? Probably because attendance peaked in 2005, right before Klondike Days was renamed Capital EX. Maybe this is a case of garbage-in, garbage-out, but I find it hard to believe that those six names were the best suggestions the committee received. I don’t think crowdsourcing was the way to go this year. I think that no matter what the next name is, Edmontonians will like it better than Capital EX, simply because it will not have been the unlucky name to replace the beloved Klondike Days. For that reason, I think hiring an agency to do a complete rebrand would have been a better decision.

According to a news release sent out this morning, more than 40,000 votes have been cast in the Name Your Fair contest. It’ll be very interesting to see how many of them are for K-Days. You have until 6pm tomorrow evening to vote.

If those six names are the only options, I don’t really care which one wins. I just hope they still have corn dogs!

You can see more photos from our visit to Capital EX here.

Food, agriculture and the battle over Edmonton’s future growth

The City of Edmonton is currently developing a comprehensive City-Wide Food & Agriculture Strategy. On the surface this sounds like a great initiative. Many other cities have recognized the vital importance of food and have developed strategies and policies, and it’s about time that Edmonton follows suit. The project introduction makes a strong case for this work:

We live in a dynamic and rapidly growing metropolitan centre with a geographic location that demands a thorough consideration of what it means to be part of the food and agriculture system. We know that a resilient local food and agriculture system can contribute significantly to the local economy and to the overall cultural, financial, social and environmental sustainability of Edmonton and the Capital Region.

Developing the Food & Agriculture Strategy is an important endeavor for our city, and it deserves the time, care, and attention that any other serious policy might receive. So why are we rushing it?

Food in the City
Councillor Loken speaks at the Food in the City kickoff event in McIntyre Park in May 2011

The timeline is aggressive: the project officially started on May 28th, 2011 and is scheduled to go to public hearing in the fall of this year. Considering that public involvement activities did not get underway until this spring (and are already largely over), the reality is that the City is trying to develop this strategy in just a few short months with very limited input.

Other cities have certainly taken their time with similar projects. In Toronto, the Food Policy Council was created in 1991 but the Toronto Food Charter was not accepted until ten years later. The City is now in the process of developing the Toronto Food Strategy. In Vancouver, City Council got the ball rolling in 2003 by calling for the development of a “just and sustainable food system” for their city. Four years later the Vancouver Food Charter was adopted and in 2009, Council adopted urban agriculture design guidelines.

I know that whatever goes to Council in the fall isn’t the end of the road – the strategy will be further developed over time. But I don’t think that’s a reason to rush things now, especially given the apparent reason for the rush: this strategy is one of the final pieces standing in the way of land development on the edges of our city.

The Food & Agriculture Strategy is an opportunity for us to consider the importance of food in Edmonton. It’s an opportunity to increase access to local food, to reduce our ecological footprint, and to contribute significantly to the local economy. But it’s also an opportunity to consider what happens to the agricultural land surrounding Edmonton, and that is ultimately a question about the kind of city we want Edmonton to be.

The Way We Eat

During the development of our latest Municipal Development Plan (MDP), known as The Way We Grow, an organization called the Greater Edmonton Alliance caused quite a stir. On more than one occasion from 2008 to 2010, they filled City Hall with Edmontonians demanding a “vibrant and sustainable food economy.” They staged The Great Potato Giveaway, an impressive publicity stunt that brought food to the forefront of the discussion in Edmonton.

MDP Second Reading
Edmontonians filled City Hall for the Second Reading of the MDP

Their efforts resulted in a key victory: the inclusion of polices related to food and agricultural land in the MDP (3.2.1.6 through 3.2.1.11). In particular, policy 3.2.1.7 which states:

Preparation of Area Structure Plans is authorized for the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Urban Growth Areas, and shall only be approved following Council acceptance of, and adherence with the:

  • Growth Coordination Strategy;
  • Integrated Infrastructure Management Plan; and
  • City-Wide Food and Agriculture Strategy.

In other words, they convinced Council that a food and agriculture strategy had to be in place before any further development on the edges of the city could proceed. They convinced Council that high soil quality, particularly in Northeast Edmonton, is valuable and should be considered as part of any planning and development in the area.

For a document that many critics, myself included, said lacked any sort of bite with respect to curbing sprawl, this was a remarkable achievement.

The Future Growth of Edmonton

An Area Structure Plan (ASP) is at the core of creating and developing new communities. You can think of an ASP as the link between the Municipal Development Plan, which directs and shapes Edmonton’s urban form at a high level, and Neighbourhood Structure Plans (NSPs), which get into the details about what new neighbourhoods in the area might look like (then there’s NASPs which are ASPs for a single neighbourhood). Residential ASPs generally cover an area of between 200 hectares and 2000 hectares, and provide general guidelines as to how MDP policies are to be realized within that area.

There are currently 18 ASPs/NASPs approved in the City of Edmonton, and they contain a total of 86 NSPs (as of December 2011). Of these, 29 are considered completed in terms of land supply as at least 95% of planned low density lots have been registered. Of the 57 remaining, 13 are not yet approved and are at the planned stage, while 44 are under development. This data comes from the Developing and Planned Neighbourhoods Report for 2011, which states:

As of December 2011, the potential low density residential lot supply that is available in approved ASPs is slightly more than 65,000. Based on current absorption rates, Edmonton has an average of 18 years of remaining land supply.

Land supply remaining in the approved Area Structure Plans ranges from a high of 19 years in the Southwest sector to a low of 9 years in the Northeast sector.

The Capital Region Board estimates that by 2040, the population of Edmonton will grow from the current 812,000 to approximately 1.2 million. They project demand for 146,000 new dwelling units by 2039. To put that into perspective, Edmonton currently has a little over 338,000 dwelling units. It’s worth noting that these estimates are based on past trends of larger suburban rather than urban growth. Councillor Iveson wrote at length about this issue during the development of the MDP, which he flippantly called ‘The Way We Sprawl’:

In other words, for fiscal, social and environmental reasons, there is a strong case against conceding to so much peripheral development. Again, I’m not calling for a halt to it, since I don’t see how we could accomplish that under current legislation. I’m calling for greater urbanization within today’s footprint. We’re told that market demand’s not there, that demand is for the suburbs, and that we can’t fight that. But I think we have to work to make urban living more family-friendly – which we’re beginning to do – and we need to make it competitive in terms of affordability. This is work worth doing, even if it’s hard.

So, you can look at those numbers for remaining lot supply and determine than we’d have a shortfall of around 81,000 units but you have to keep in mind that the 65,000 refers only to low density units on the periphery. We also need to consider the medium to high density residential capacity in approved ASPs, which totals 65,100 units, as well as redevelopment projects in the mature and established suburban areas which total an estimated 44,600 units.

MDP Land Use

The alternative is to look at the three “Urban Growth Areas” defined in the MDP (the brown areas on the map above). Rural Southeast, Rural West, and Rural Northeast would together provide an additional 15 years of low density capacity (55,000) units plus additional medium to high density capacity of 24,500 units.

So let’s do the math:

Existing low density capacity in approved growth areas 65,000
Existing medium/high density capacity in approved growth areas 65,100
Mature & established suburban redevelopment capacity 44,600
TOTAL (excluding Urban Growth Areas) 174,700
New low density capacity in Urban Growth Areas 55,000
New medium/high density capacity in Urban Growth Areas 24,500
TOTAL 254,200

As you can see our total capacity is significantly more than anticipated demand of 146,000 units. Even excluding the Urban Growth Areas, we’d have a surplus of 28,700 units. Why would we bother developing the three Urban Growth Areas when we have more than enough capacity in existing, approved areas?

Northeast Edmonton

Of the three Urban Growth Areas, changes for the Northeast seem most imminent. As mentioned above, the Northeast sector of the city has the lowest amount of land supply at an estimated 9 years. It also has the highest forecasted job growth through 2024, with an estimated 12,000 jobs being created over that time. But even with that growth, the area will only represent 2-3% of the city’s total workforce. Wouldn’t extending the LRT further into that area to serve the economic need be a better investment than building new neighbourhoods?

The ASP that is being proposed for the eastern part of the Northeast sector is known as Horse Hill. The name was recently approved by the City’s Naming Committee.

The name Horse Hill comes from the area’s historical association with Fort Edmonton. It was previously used as the home of Fort Edmonton’s horse guard (Blue 1924). During this time, as many as 800 horses were kept here , playing an important role in the maintenance and protection of Fort Edmonton.

The area is approximately 3700 hectares and is bounded by Manning Drive on the west, the North Saskatchewan River on the east, and Anthony Henday Drive on the south (some of the neighbourhoods nearby include McConachie, Gorman, Brintnell, and Kirkness). Development of the ASP is being led by Stantec Consulting and the Stakeholder Advisory Group is made up of landowners, community leagues, residents, and the City. They have already circulated a draft to dozens of departments at the City, even though they know the Food & Agriculture Strategy needs to be in place first. The audacity to move ahead with a draft ASP underscores just how pervasive the business-as-usual mentality really is.

The most unique feature of the Northeast is of course the agricultural land. You’ve probably heard of some of the farms located there: Kuhlmann’s, Norbest Farms, Visser Farms, Horse Hill Berry Farm, and Riverbend Gardens to name just a few. I had the opportunity to tour Riverbend Gardens back in 2010 and found it breathtaking. Their 120 acres of land is pretty much as far as you can go northeast and still be within the boundaries of Edmonton.

Riverbend Gardens
Riverbend Gardens

Roughly 17% of land in Alberta is good for farming, and the majority of that is situated along the Edmonton-to-Calgary corridor. Edmonton is lucky to have Class 1, 2, and 3 agricultural soils within the city limits, but so far we have not done a very good job of preserving it. Since 1982, Edmonton has lost 74% of its Class 1 soils. Still, in 2009 the average net profit per acre in Edmonton was $79.68, more than double any other location in the Capital Region. And in the Northeast? The average net profit per acre was $270.72. The value of the land in the Northeast needs to be recognized.

Directly to the west of this area, across Manning Drive, is the Edmonton Energy and Technology Park. That ASP was approved by Council on June 9, 2010. The intent is to capitalize on the byproducts left over from oil sands production (the area is about 15 kilometers from existing and proposed upgrader sites).

The Edmonton Energy and technology Park provides a vision for a new eco-industrial area for the city of Edmonton. The opportunity for value-added industries and significant economic spin-off activity based on the development of Alberta’s oil sands was the catalyst for the development of this industrial plan. EETP is designed to take advantage of the primary petrochemicals and products from upgrading and refining in the region.

The 4857 hectare-sized area will be developed over the next 40 years with four primary land use precincts: petrochemical, manufacturing, logistics, and research & development. This is where a lot of that job growth is expected to come from.

crb transportation plan

Partially as a result of the expected increase in industrial activity on the west side of Manning Drive, plans currently exist to connect Highway 28A with Highway 21 via an expressway that would cut right through existing farmland and cross the North Saskatchewan River. The Capital Region Board (CRB) scored a victory in December 2011 when the Province agreed to shelve plans for the Regional Ring Road, but it seems that has done little to protect agricultural land in the Northeast. The CRB’s Integrated Regional Transportation Master Plan includes the expressway as a potential high load corridor (subject to further engineering and technical review). Who knows if the road will actually be built, but the draft Horse Hill ASP includes it.

horse hill asp

In anticipation of this development, an awful lot of land has changed hands. Some estimates suggest that just 15% of land in the area is still owned by original owners. Walton International, a land developer (some would say speculator) that has been active in the Edmonton region for many years, is now the largest landowner in the area. They purchase land at a small premium with the expectation that its value will be significantly increased as the opportunity to develop it draws near. There are a number of holdouts however, including Riverbend Gardens. Recently they and others formed the Northeast Edmonton Agricultural Producers association and launched Friends of Farmers to draw attention to the potential loss of agricultural land.

Business-as-Usual Growth

We cannot afford to grow in the future the way we have in the past. Councillor Iveson highlighted this section of the Growth Coordination Strategy after an initial read:

Although not included in the analysis at this time, operating and maintenance costs in suburban areas represents a significant operational expenditure to the City. Also a large component of capital spending, rehabilitation and replacement of infrastructure is not included in the analysis presented either. Administration is working towards the inclusion of these expenses into future versions of the Growth Coordination Strategy, but at this time the methodology for the gathering and synthesis of the data required for this is not developed sufficiently.

He then stated, “I’m concerned we may not have this full picture before the next Area Structure Plans (for the North East and South West green patches) come up for debate this fall.”

Some land developers will tell you that the City has an obligation to move forward on the three Urban Growth Area ASPs. To them, the City made a promise to develop the land when it annexed the three regions back in 1981. But can we really afford to hold the City of today to decisions that were made over thirty years ago?

I don’t know why the City pursued that annexation in 1981 – I wasn’t yet born – but the answer might be found in Doug Kelly’s book $100,000 An Acre. In Chapter 12 he writes about the development of Campbelltown (now known as Sherwood Park) in the 1950s and in Chapter 14 he elaborates on the City of Edmonton’s opposition to the development. “The city, even then, was concerned about fringe developments and its inability to tax or control development without annexation.” The McNally Report in 1956 and the Hanson Report in 1968 both recommended that Edmonton be allowed to annex St. Albert, Sherwood Park, and the industrial area of Strathcona County. “In all cases, the provincial government knuckled under to the small rural population and disallowed the annexation. It was an injustice to the citizens of Edmonton from which they have never fully recovered.”

SHERWOOD PARK, ALBERTA MAY 8th 1962 PIC 2
Sherwood Park in May of 1962

I wonder if that experience caused the City to become more aggressive about acquiring the surrounding land decades later. Perhaps they realized the situation for cities was not going to improve. When the province eliminated the Planning Act in 1995 and placed all legislation concerning land development into the Municipal Government Act (MGA), it didn’t come without a cost. “Now the rural municipalities can develop to the fringes of urban municipalities, greatly restricting the latter’s ability to expand for future growth,” Kelly wrote.

The relationship between urban municipalities and the province today seems poised for renewal. With the announcement last month that Calgary, Edmonton, and the province have committed to developing a big city charter, there’s hope that positive changes are on the way for Alberta’s big cities and the options they have for dealing with the unique challenges of growth.

Land developers have sunk money into the Urban Growth Areas and the only way they can get it back and make a profit is for the City to continue growing the way it has been. For sprawl to continue unabated. As a result, the City and Council are almost certainly feeling pressured to get these ASPs approved, but there is absolutely no requirement that they do so. All they must do is follow the process established under the MGA and its ASP Terms of Reference.

We must be willing to stand up and declare that the Edmonton of 2012 and beyond will be a more compact, sustainable city than the Edmonton of 1981. Change is hard, but if the will is there it can be done. We need to be willing to say that if you’ve based your business on decisions that were made over three decades ago, too bad; Edmontonians are no longer picking up the tab.

Food & Agriculture

In our haste to continue unnecessarily growing outward, I’m concerned that we’re going to end up with a Food & Agriculture Strategy that reflects the limited time and attention devoted to it. Determining the true value of the land in the Northeast is just one piece of the puzzle, there are so many other aspects to food and agriculture in the Edmonton region that should be considered.

The discussion primer for the project hits all the right notes, of course.

As part of the strategy, a comprehensive inventory of agricultural assets is being undertaken, as well as an assessment of local food business opportunities. The strategy will include a summary of this background information in order to provide a sense of the current state of food and agriculture in the city and what potential exists. Example practices from across North America are also being examined, as mentioned earlier, in order to gather ideas for what might work in Edmonton.

Assessing local food business opportunities, compiling a comprehensive inventory of agricultural assets – these are excellent ideas, but they are not things that can be completed overnight.

Consulting the right people takes time too. I had the opportunity to attend two consultation events, neither of which was very well attended. At the second such event, there was a lot of great discussion about farmers markets, food hubs, educating people about basic food skills, and much more. And yet, we barely scratched the surface.

Let’s use farmers markets as an example. Yes, everyone seems to agree that farmers markets are a great thing, but what good is a strategy if that’s all it says? Do we have the right number of farmers markets in the Edmonton region? What challenges do they face? What could the City do to help address those and other challenges? Do we have enough producers to support all the markets? These questions deserve to be explored in depth.

Highlands Market
Shoppers at one of Edmonton’s newest markets in Highlands

Given the limited time, I’m not confident that the final strategy will be anything more than a collection of high level goals. I’m sure it’ll be a great read, but I doubt it will be so bold as to make any strong recommendations to Council on how to actually achieve the vision of having a resilient food and agriculture system in Edmonton.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear the Food & Agriculture Strategy will be viewed as nothing more than another box checked on the road to additional sprawl.

Closing Thoughts

Both the Growth Coordination Strategy and the Food & Agriculture Strategy are slated to go to Council sometime this fall. The Horse Hill ASP is also slated to be reviewed toward the end of October. City Council will soon be on summer break until the end of August, and I’d love for them to return to a flood of messages from Edmontonians expressing their thoughts on this issue. They need to know that a significant number of people support their efforts to curb urban sprawl.

The bottom line is that the agricultural land on the edge of Edmonton is some of the best land in the province. With more than enough capacity to support anticipated population growth within existing areas, there’s no good reason to relinquish such a valuable asset, especially before a proper analysis of the land and how it fits into Edmonton’s future is completed and a strategy is approved.

This is not just a battle between land developers and farmers in the city’s Northeast. This is a battle over the kind of City we want Edmonton to be. I want Edmonton to be a economically and environmentally sustainable city that recognizes the importance of food security and the value of a more compact region. How about you?

Recap: DIYalogue Talks Food

Last night Sharon and I were really excited to be part of DIYalogue Talks Food, the latest event organized by Edmonton’s NextGen. A few dozen people gathered on the Wooftop Patio at The Black Dog on Whyte for a speed-dating style opportunity to learn about Edmonton’s growing local food scene.

Looking for a collaborative space to chew the fat with Edmonton’s local food luminaries? DIYalogue Talks Food connects Edmonton’s established culinary entrepreneurs with local foodies, aspiring chefs, and backyard gardeners in 15-minute small group mini-dates. DIYalogue convenes communities of interest and explores the potential for individual success in the creative industries through unique partnerships and community support.

The speed mentors included:

DIYalogue Talks Food

The mentors paired up, and for the first hour or so, attendees moved from group to group. Sharon and I mostly talked about What the Truck?! but she did field a bunch of questions about her blog as well. Some of our favorite questions of the evening:

  • Are the food trucks mostly run by existing restaurants? There’s a mix right now. Drift is a good example of a truck that started as a truck (though they wanted to start a restaurant originally) and The Act is a good example of a restaurant that now has a truck as well.
  • What does Edmonton’s food scene lack? I said a brunch culture with diners that people will line up at and Sharon agreed and added southern comfort food.
  • What can be done to make Edmonton a better place for food trucks? Read this post.
  • Aside from Tres Carnales and Corso 32, what’s hot? Three Boars!
  • When is the next What the Truck?! event? August, stay tuned!

No food-themed event is complete without something delicious to eat, so it was awesome to have Filistix on hand. They prepared a Moroccan vegetarian tagine – it was delicious! Everyone had the opportunity to sample OFER’s final jar of last year’s cider supply too.

DIYalogue Talks Food

I had a lot of fun with the event, and enjoyed catching up with Nate, Cynthia, and some of the other mentors too.

DIYalogue Talks Food was a great way to kickoff the NextGen blog theme for this month: food.

This month we will be bringing you tantalizing, and thought-provoking posts on and about the food scene in Edmonton. We’ll share what that means to a consumer, to a foodie, to a business owner, to an activist, and to someone who loves to cook, bake, and create.

Looking forward to it!

DIYalogue Talks Food

Thanks to Carol, John, and everyone else who made DIYalogue possible!

The Past, Present, and Future of Food Truck Bylaws & Guidelines in Edmonton

Well it was bound to happen sooner or later – Edmonton has joined the long list of cities that have had disputes between restaurants and food trucks. As you’ve probably heard, Grandma Lee’s in Petroleum Plaza has complained about Drift, one of our city’s most popular food trucks. It’s an attractive media story as we head into summer and that has contributed to the issue becoming a bigger deal than is necessary. On the plus side, the situation has highlighted the need for a review of the Street Vending Program.

Truck Stop in Old Strathcona

I have been learning about and researching the bylaws and guidelines and how everything works for quite a while now, and this seems like a good opportunity to share what I know!

Why are food trucks allowed in Edmonton?

The Traffic Safety Act (TSA) sets out the basic rules for streets in our province. Among other things, the act outlines how the Alberta Transportation Safety Board should work, the rules for operator’s licenses and vehicle registrations, speed limits and other rules of the road, and the powers of municipalities with respect to streets. Specifically, section 13(1) states that municipalities can pass bylaws that govern the use of highways under its direction, provided they are not inconsistent with the TSA. Here in Edmonton that is bylaw 5590 (Traffic Bylaw, PDF) and in Calgary, that is 26M96 (Traffic Bylaw) and 20M88 (Street Bylaw).

A useful way to think about it is this: All streets in Alberta are governed by the basic rules set forward by the province. In cities like Edmonton and Calgary, bylaws enable each municipality to manage its own streets, building on top of those basic province-wide rules.

In Calgary, the Street Bylaw states in section 5(a) that you cannot sell things on streets. Section 5(b) outlines some exceptions to this, including pushcarts and ice cream trucks, but does not specifically mention food trucks. In Edmonton, section 67 is far less specific, and simply states that you must have a permit in order to sell goods and services. It also grants authority to the City Manager to basically bring the bylaws to life through policies, procedures, guidelines, and enforcement.

That’s why Edmonton has been allowed to have food trucks – our Traffic Bylaw enables permits for selling goods and services on city streets, and it does not specify any restrictions as to what those goods and/or services might be. As long as you have a valid permit, you’re good to go. In Calgary, you’d need to get a letter from the Director of Roads unless you fall under one of the allowed exceptions. Obviously that’s not a very scalable solution, hence the pilot that is underway in Calgary.

How does the City of Edmonton manage food trucks?

Nearly thirty years ago the Street Vending Program was created. According to a City report from 2005, it “was initiated by City Council to aid in the revitalization and enrichment of the downtown core.” Parks & Recreation was originally responsible for the program, though it has also called Community Services home. Currently responsibility falls to Sustainable Development.

The program today consists of the coordinator, the application forms, and the guidelines. You can download the latest package here. If you look at the package, you’ll find that the Street Vending Program deals with all kinds of vendors, not just food trucks. Hotdog carts, ice cream trucks, and any other vendor wanting to sell things on city streets must have four things: a business license (specifically a Travelling or Temporary Food Sales license), a health permit, a minimum of $2 million general liability insurance, and a vending permit. In order to get a vending permit, you need to talk to the Street Vending Coordinator and you need to follow the guidelines. There are slightly different guidelines for sidewalk vendors as opposed to street vendors, and altogether different guidelines for ice cream trucks.

Until very recently, the coordinator was a seasonal position, which means that throughout most of the winter there was no staff person at the City working on street vending. That meant that there was limited time to make improvements to the guidelines or changes to the program, which is part of the reason why they have remained largely the same for years.

What are the guidelines for food trucks in Edmonton?

There are a number of guidelines that apply to all kinds of vendors. For example, vendors are only allowed to operate from 7am until 11pm. Permits apply to a single location only – if you want multiple locations, you need to have multiple permits. Vendors must adhere to a code of conduct and “conduct themselves in a professional manner”. Vending units must not be left unattended, vendors cannot sell illegal or counterfeit products, etc.

In addition to the general street vending guidelines, there are roughly fifteen bullet points under the section for street vendors. Most of these are fairly straightforward, including things like “all existing parking restrictions apply” and “overhead canopies or vertically operating doors must not obstruct or hinder safe pedestrian traffic”. I encourage you to read the document for yourself as it isn’t very long. I’ll highlight the two points that deal with disputes between existing businesses and vendors:

  • Permission will not be granted to Vendors where a conflict with an existing business is evident.
  • Where a conflict arises with an existing business, the Sustainable Development Department reserves the right to relocate the contentious Vendor.

Nowhere else in the guidelines does the topic of conflicts come up. There is no section on how such complaints are handled, nor is there any information on how to appeal a complaint. Under the current guidelines, if you’re a vendor that someone has complained about, you’re automatically labeled “contentious” and there’s not much you can do about it. There are no rules to fall back on, and there is no process to follow to try to resolve the issue.

When was the Street Vending Program last reviewed and updated?

While minor modifications have been made over the years, mostly with respect to title and department name changes but also fees, the current street vending guidelines are largely the same as they were in 2005 (the oldest copy I was able to find). And according to a report from that year, the “program has not had an Administrative or City Council initiated review”. In other words, they haven’t been formally reviewed since they were created!

That report came about because then-Councillor Michael Phair received a complaint about street vending and “especially concerning vendors that sell food” so he made an inquiry to Administration. They brought a report back to the Community Services Committee on September 1, which outlined how the program operates. The committee voted to have Administration bring back a second report comparing the program with “best practices in cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.” That report came back on November 4 and outlined some of the things other cities do with respect to street vending. Here are the two key points from that report:

“Community Services Department surveyed service providers directly and asked a series of questions via telephone with counterparts from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, New York, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle.”

“After looking at the street vending practices for ten municipalities, it is concluded that Edmonton’s program equals or exceeds that of the other municipalities.”

As a result no further action was taken, and the program has continued the same way ever since.

Why should the guidelines be reviewed and updated now?

Put simply, a lot has changed in the last thirty years since the Street Vending Program was created! Especially in the last five years, interest in food trucks has exploded across North America and expectations about how such businesses operate has changed very quickly. In 2005, the program had about 40 vendors in total. This year, there are 55 vendors (that number includes food trucks, ice cream trucks, carts, and all other sidewalk vendors). That’s not a large jump, but we are seeing new food trucks joining the fray and I expect that trend will continue.

More important than the quantity of vendors is the type of vendor. Back in 2005, we didn’t really have curbside food trucks like Drift. Now we do, and we should expect more! I think there are significant differences between a sidewalk vendor and a food truck, yet the guidelines for the most part don’t reflect that. Whereas it might make sense to restrict a sidewalk vendor’s permit to a single location, the whole point of a food truck is that it is mobile and can move around.

The food trucks of today are serving a completely different kind of product than mobile carts have in the past, and that has an impact on the program too. Sandwiches from Drift are certainly competition for brick-and-mortar restaurants, so it’s no surprise that some disputes will arise. The current street vending program does not outline any process for dealing with such disputes.

The opportunity to realize Council’s original vision for the Street Vending Program – “to aid in the revitalization and enrichment of the downtown core” – has never been stronger than it is today. If we want food trucks to be viable and sustainable into the future, we need to update the program.

What changes should be made?

This is a topic that will need further discussion, but we could do a lot worse than to look to Calgary for guidance. Because their pilot program is so new, they have been able to capture many of the key points that differentiate food trucks from other vendors and those are reflected in the program’s guidelines.

Note that we don’t need to change our bylaws, just the Street Vending Program. Changing the bylaws is a much more difficult process that would require approval by City Council. Changing the Street Vending Program can be much simpler. Remember it’s the bylaws that make food trucks possible but it’s the Street Vending Program that outlines how food trucks are managed and should operate.

Here are some ideas for positive changes to Edmonton’s Street Vending Program:

  • Grant food trucks a permit that applies to multiple locations or a large area, rather than requiring one permit per location. In Calgary they have the concept of “roll zones” and “no-roll zones” which outline where the trucks can and cannot go.
  • Bring the cost of the permit in line with other cities. In Calgary, food trucks pay a flat fee of $700 per year that is not dependent on actual street usage.
  • Make it easier for trucks to serve in the evening. This could be accomplished by establishing some sort of evening roaming rules, by extending the valid operating times past 11pm, or both. In Calgary, food trucks may operate until 3am.
  • Get rid of the restriction that only one truck may operate on a street at a time. We know that food trucks are often more successful when there are many together than when they are going solo, as long as they are complementary, and we know that food truck operators all talk and already team up from time to time!
  • Clearly outline where food trucks are allow to operate. Calgary’s guidelines clearly state that food trucks cannot operate within 25 metres of any restaurant during its operational hours. (Note: Drift is a lot further from Grandma Lee’s than 25 metres!)
  • Outline a process for dealing with complaints. Food trucks need to have some certainty about their business, and if the processes by which they may be asked to move is completely opaque, it’s hard to have that certainty.
  • Revamp the evaluation process for issuing permits. The current “process” is highly subjective and often relies upon the food truck’s relationship with the street vending coordinator. That leads to inconsistent treatment of food trucks, and in some cases, inconsistent fees.
  • Create a proper website. For the longest time, all the Street Vending page said was to call the coordinator and it gave a phone number. At least now it links to the application package, but we could obviously do so much more.

The good news is that discussions regarding these changes have already been taking place, and I anticipate we’ll make significant progress this year. I think if we can make some of these changes a reality, we’ll have a much stronger vending program into the future.

It’s also worth mentioning that perhaps Sustainable Development is not the right home for the Street Vending Program. Sustainable Development is responsible for business licenses, property management, and economic development strategies, among other things, but food trucks in particular need more than that. They also deal with Transportation, Transit, and other departments. I would recommend folding the Street Vending Program into the Civic Events Office, which already coordinates with the various City departments on a regular basis.

If we’re willing to put even more effort in, I think there are significant opportunities to once again have Edmonton’s street vending program be the standard by which other cities are measured. Here’s just one example. Food trucks are different lengths and so are parking stalls. Why not release a dataset of all the parking stalls in Edmonton, or at least those in food-truck-friendly neighbourhoods that includes the location, length, price and other information? It would then be relatively easy for a food truck to scan for potential locations at which to park. We’ve already got the open data catalogue and the parking meter data exists somewhere, so with a bit of effort we could make something like this a reality.

What’s next for Drift and Grandma Lee’s?

As you might have heard, Drift was granted an extension at their current 108 Street location until Friday. They are supposed to file an appeal by then, whatever that means. There is nothing in the guidelines that outlines how exactly Drift is supposed to respond to the situation. Furthermore, the advantage is clearly with Grandma Lee’s – the City can basically tell Drift that they have to move and there’s nothing they can do about it.

I would rather see businesses like Grandma Lee’s choose to compete rather than complain. With a brick-and-mortar location, a restaurant should be able to offer an experience that no food truck can match. Furthermore, we know from our experience with What the Truck?! that having food trucks in an area often draws more people to surrounding businesses, not less. Unfortunately, as Colby Cosh astutely identified last week, Grandma Lee’s has chosen rent-seeking over delivering a better experience, and that means everybody loses.

Drift Sandwich Mob

I hope Drift is not forced to move, but if they are, then I hope it ultimately results in improved guidelines that clearly stipulate how such disputes will be handled in the future. If we want to make it easier for new food trucks to open up in Edmonton – and I think we do – then we need to make the rules clear and consistent.

What’s next for food trucks in Edmonton?

I think Edmonton’s existing food trucks will become even more successful over time as they build up a larger and larger client base and as the food truck movement really takes hold here in Edmonton. We’ll also see new food trucks launch and enjoy success, such as The Act which entered service on Monday. More food trucks means more pedestrian activity and vibrancy on the streets and that ultimately will make Edmonton a better city in which to live. Unless we somehow take a massive step backward, I don’t see any other outcome for food trucks in Edmonton!

By reviewing and updating the Street Vending Program, we can create an environment for food trucks that better reflects the realities of today, and more importantly, better positions us for success in the future. It’ll take some work, but I think it’ll be worth it!

Edmonton’s City Market Downtown needs community representation

This is a long post, so here’s the summary: the City Market Downtown has called a Special Meeting to change the organization’s bylaws so that vendors have complete control over the affairs of the market, whereas previously a healthy mix of vendor and community representation has been required. I believe this is an unfortunate and reactive turn of events that will prevent the City Market from growing and achieving success in the future. The City Market is successful presently because of the partnership that exists between vendors, consumers, residents, businesses, and the City of Edmonton, and I would like to see that partnership remain and become even stronger. I’m sharing this in the hopes that more Edmontonians will look at the City Market not just as a great place to shop at on Saturday, but also as an integral part of our downtown and of the city we all want Edmonton to be.

In a little over a week the City Market Downtown will return to 104 Street for the summer season. Even though it has been nearby throughout the winter at City Hall, I’m positive that May 19 will feel more like a return than simply a shift in location. The outdoor market is an altogether different and special experience, one that thousands of Edmontonians enjoy every weekend from May through October!

For more than one hundred years, the City Market has played an important and unique role in our city. In the early days, the existence of the market reflected Edmonton’s aspirations to be a place of importance. In recent years, the market has helped to revitalize our downtown. It’s most important role however, has been as a mechanism for connecting urban Edmontonians with their rural neighbours. As Kathryn Chase Merret wrote in her book, A History of the Edmonton City Market, 1900-2000, “the years during which the Edmonton City Market flourished were years when it embodied a popularly held and powerful civic idea, the interdependence of country and city.”

City Market Downtown

When the City Market moved to 104 Street in 2004, the idea of connecting country and city became embedded in the bylaws of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers’ Market Association. Among other things, the bylaws outline the composition of the board: five to ten members, including at least two members representing vendors, one member representing residents, and one member representing the business community. That composition is significant because it puts vendors and the community on equal terms, fifty-fifty. For the organization to work with such a structure, there must be a partnership between both sides. I firmly believe that partnership is what has enabled the City Market to flourish over the last seven years. And that is why I was alarmed to receive a notice about an upcoming Special Meeting to amend the bylaws in such a way that vendors would have complete control over the market.

Over the last week I have spent a significant amount of time and energy trying to get a better understanding of the situation. I wanted to know more about the history and the people involved, and I wanted to figure out if my initial alarm regarding the changes was warranted. I have talked to both current and past board members, I have talked to residents and businesses on 104 Street, and I have talked to both current and past City Councillors. What follows simply cannot represent every viewpoint on the matter, but know that I have done my best to gather as many perspectives as possible. Unfortunately both Dieter Kuhlmann and Dan Young, the current and past chairs of the City Market board respectively, declined to comment.

Proposed Bylaw Changes

On April 27 a “Notice of Special Meeting” was mailed to all members of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers’ Market Association. The notice indicated that a Special Meeting would take place on Monday, May 14, 2012 starting at 7:30pm at the Sutton Place Hotel to vote on a Special Resolution to amend the current bylaws. A copy of the amended bylaws was included, but the current bylaws were not, making it difficult to compare. In addition to a number of smaller changes, there are three big and important changes proposed.

  1. The categories of membership under the current bylaws are: Regular Member, Associate Member, Honoured Life Member. Regular Members are further categorized as Vendor Members and Community Members, but both have full and equal voting rights. Under the proposed bylaws, the categories of membership are: Voting Member, Non-Voting Member, and Honoured Life Member. Importantly, only vendors would be allowed to be Voting Members.
  2. As mentioned above, the current bylaws state that the Board of Directors must comprise five to ten members, including at least two Regular Members representing vendors, one Regular Member representing residents of downtown Edmonton, and one Regular Member representing the business community of downtown Edmonton. Under the proposed bylaws, the Board of Directors would be comprised of five to nine individuals, including a minimum of five Voting Members (ie. vendors), and if additional board members are elected, one Non-Voting Member who would represent residents and one Non-Voting Member who would represent the business community. If a full slate were to be elected, the eighth and ninth members would also be Voting Members.
  3. Under the current bylaws, each Director serves a two year term and may serve no more than three consecutive terms. Under the proposed bylaws, there is no limit to the number of terms a Director may serve.

To summarize, the changes remove the requirement to have resident and business representatives on the board, they remove the right of non-vendors to vote, they require that vendors always have a majority on the board, and they remove the term limits for board members.

I think it is important to point out that inadequate notice has been given for this Special Meeting. According to Service Alberta:

The by-laws must say that in the future the by-laws can only be changed by a special resolution of the members. Special resolution is defined in Section 1(d) of the Societies Act. The definition cannot be changed.

If you look at that section of the Societies Act, you’ll find that for such a resolution to be valid, “not less than 21 days’ notice specifying the intention to propose the resolution has been duly given.” In this case, just 17 days notice has been given.

Why did this come forward?

Practically speaking, someone brought a petition forward signed by twenty-five members of the association, as required by section 9.03 of the bylaws. I have been told that the petition was not a board initiative, and although no one was willing to name names it has become clear to me that there is one individual in particular who has taken it upon himself to drive this forward.

For some time now, there have been complaints from the businesses on the street about the logistics of the market. The businesses feel that the configuration of the market on the south end of the street unnecessarily hides their storefronts, blocks the sidewalks, and makes it difficult for consumers to shop. The market has typically responded with concern about the impact any changes would have on the logistics of setting up and tearing down the market. In my opinion, both sides have handled the situation poorly. The market seems to have taken the perspective that it is the greatest thing to ever happen to the street, and the businesses don’t seem to realize that perhaps they could do more to attract some of the 15,000+ people who walk by on a Saturday. Discussions have been ongoing and with Councillor Batty acting as a mediator between the two sides in recent weeks, a small amount of progress was finally made a few days ago when both sides agreed to trial a reconfiguration of the south end of the market. I think this ongoing negative situation has contributed to the desire by some vendors to remove any business representation from the market.

Another contributing factor appears to be last year’s vote on whether or not to pursue the Mercer Warehouse as a year-round venue for the market. The motion was defeated overwhelmingly, 69-3. Sharon and I abstained from that vote because we felt it was inappropriate to vote on something that could have such a significant impact on a vendor’s financial situation (each would have had to contribute thousands of dollars). In hindsight, it seems that a number of community representatives pushed quite hard for the building and that may have contributed to some vendors feeling threatened and ultimately led to the decisive vote.

Most significantly, it seems that personality conflicts have played a major role in this turn of events. Arnold Renschler was recruited to the board as a community member and was elected in January this year, but stepped down just a couple of months later after attempting unsuccessfully to bring vendors and businesses on the street together to discuss their differences. He quickly found that others on the board were not supportive of his initiative. “We need people to volunteer and while I am willing to give my time, the organization has to be open, transparent, fair, and democratic,” he told me. Arnold felt that the organization was one he did not want to be associated with, a message I have heard from a number of other individuals as well.

Why does this matter?

In my conversations over the last week, people overwhelmingly feel that the proposed changes would take the market in a negative direction. “A healthy balance between vendors and non-vendors is what has made the market successful,” is what former board member Jennifer Fisk told me. That healthy balance is precisely why the original board members wrote the bylaws the way they did. They recognized that the City Market is unique specifically because of its location. Instead of occupying a building that it owns and operates, the City Market calls 104 Street home just on Saturdays and just during the summer months. You might say that they are a guest of the street for that time, and that being a guest comes with certain expectations. “Downtown has many stakeholders, all of which need to be willing to hold dialogue with each other and discuss the issues in a rational, open-minded manner,” Chris Buyze, President of the Downtown Edmonton Community League, told me. “It’s about maintaining balance and a willingness to work with others.”

Without question, many vendors have a much larger stake in the market than residents or local businesses do. For many vendors, the market is their livelihood, and they’ve almost certainly put more blood, sweat, and tears into participating in the market than someone who simply lives on the street. However, because of that greater investment vendors are more likely to act in their own self-interest than in the best interests of the market. Having outside representation can help to provide a broader perspective. “I believe it should be a vendor led board, but that doesn’t mean that you have to exclude the other parties,” Arnold told me. There are few organizations that are as political as farmers’ markets are, and often that’s because of turf wars and other petty differences.

From a logistical point-of-view, having a balance of vendors and non-vendors is vitally important. Vendors are busy and many live outside the city, so they cannot be expected to keep up-to-date with what is happening on the street. That’s one area in which residents and businesses can be extremely valuable contributors. For example, they can both provide input to the board about changes to the street and can attend meetings in the city such as the ones that Transportation is scheduling to discuss future LRT construction.

Most people I talked to also feel that it is difficult to compare the City Market to other markets. Each market is different and what might work for one won’t necessarily work for another. For example, the St. Albert Market is completely run by the Chamber of Commerce and it has grown to become possibly the most successful single-day market in the province. In contrast, the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market is vendor-run and yet it too is extremely successful. The context in which the City Market operates is completely different, and I think a strong case can be made for a healthy mix of vendor and community representation.

The City Market does not operate in a vacuum. It needs the support of the community it parachutes in and out of for twenty-two weeks over the summer. “I do think that this market in particular works best when the community and the market are integrated,” former City Councillor Michael Phair told me. “It would be very valuable to have voting representation on the board from someone that has a connection to those living or working on the street.”

Why does the City Market matter?

There are lots of farmers’ markets in the Edmonton area, and new ones seem to be popping up all the time. But there aren’t any other markets like the City Market. Being located in the heart of downtown is a huge advantage that no other market has. The City Market is the only farmers’ market accessible via LRT, for instance, and that draws thousands of people into the core every week. When the LRT was extended to Century Park, there was a noticeable jump in attendance at the City Market.

According to Alberta Agriculture, the average person spent $35 per visit to a farmers’ market in 2004. By 2008, that number had jumped to $45. “The average customer to the City Market spends $68 each week,” former board member and 104 Street resident Jon Hall explained to me. “The market supports millions of dollars of commerce each year.” And he pointed out that the weekly average spend does not include parking, coffee, or other things that people might buy while they are in the area.

We throw the R-word (revitalization) around a lot these days, but there’s no question that the City Market has played and continues to play an important role in the turnaround of downtown. That’s especially exciting because it was not very long ago that the market itself was in need of a turnaround! There seems to be a interesting mix of fortunes for downtown and the City Market. For example, one of the key reasons that Sharon and I moved downtown was because of the City Market.

Future of the City Market

While the City Market still has a number of years on its lease with the City for 104 Street, there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Starting next year, the market will likely face significant logistical challenges at its present location due to the construction of the proposed third and fourth Icon towers in the parking lot on the northwest corner of 102 Avenue and 104 Street, as well as the eventual construction of the Downtown LRT Connector (which runs down 102 Avenue). There are alternatives that don’t require the market to move off the street, however. Michael Phair suggested that both the alley behind Sobeys and 104 Street south across Jasper Avenue could be viable locations for the market to expand or move into. “As you go south, you have quite a bit of space,” he said. “I think it would be relatively easy to manage the crossing at Jasper Avenue.” He points out that thousands of people cross Gateway Boulevard every Saturday from the parking lot to the Old Strathcona market, so why can’t they cross Jasper Avenue, which has even less traffic?

If the City Market cannot remain on 104 Street because a new location is truly better for the market, then that’s a valid reason to move. But if the market decides to move because it cannot or will not get along with the 104 Street community, that’s a different situation altogether. And I fear that without representation from the downtown community that has been home to the market for over one hundred years, there’s a real chance that the market may consider moving outside the downtown core. That would be a significant blow to the momentum that downtown now has, and I think would ultimately have a negative impact on the market itself.

Conclusion

The City Market on 104 Street is successful today because of the partnership that exists between vendors, consumers, residents and businesses on the street, and the City of Edmonton. Without the significant investments made by the City over the last two decades, 104 Street simply would not have been able to develop into one of Edmonton’s premier streets. The residents, businesses, and City Market together all bring the foundation provided by the City to life and positively contribute to the vibrancy and attractiveness of the street.

I believe that partnership is worth fighting for, and as such I view the proposed bylaw changes with great concern. I do not believe that the changes have been suggested with the best interests of the City Market at heart, and I think it is clear that they have been brought forward without adequate notice in an effort to avoid healthy discussion of the matter. I feel that strong vendor and community representation is a necessity for the City Market to continue to thrive, and I think that any attempt to cut either side out of the equation is shortsighted and harmful.

The City Market is not simply a place to buy food and crafts on the weekend. Rather, it connects Edmonton’s urban and rural communities and contributes significantly to the ongoing revitalization of our downtown. The City Market is one of the few remaining connections we have to our city’s earliest days, and I hope it continues to successfully play a role in the lives of Edmontonians for years to come.

City Market Downtown

How You Can Help

Tell others that you care about the City Market and its role in the city. Contact the City Market and buy a $10 membership. Go to the meeting on Monday night and express your concerns. Write to your City Councillor. Tweet your thoughts. Whatever you do, please don’t take the City Market for granted!

UPDATE (May 12): As per the comment below from City Market board chair Dieter Kuhlmann, the meeting has been postponed until mid-June. Here’s the notice that was sent to members:

The Special Meeting that was called for May 14, 2012 has been cancelled. Notice of a Special Meeting for the week of June 11, 2012 will be issued and mailed out next week in order to provide members with the required 21 days notice of the Special Resolution that will be the topic of the Special Meeting.

While this is a welcome change that will allow for more discussion, it doesn’t mean the issue is done just yet.

A fundraiser for the next generation: hot chefs, cool bEATS

Sharon and I are really looking forward to hot chefs, cool bEATS on Saturday evening! A celebration of Edmonton’s most creative restaurants, chefs, and food trucks, the event is a fundraiser to support Culinary Team Canada in their quest for gold at the Culinary Olympics in Germany this October. But it’s not the kind of fundraiser you’re thinking of. The dress code at hot chefs, cool bEATS is “street chic” rather than black tie!

Filistix, Drift, Transcend, Wild Tangerine, Elm Café, Bistecca, and Duchess are among the food trucks and restaurants that will be serving up delicious food throughout the evening. For drinks you can look forward to Alley Kat, Granville Island, and a bunch of wine. Interestingly there’s only one sit-down part of the event – a plated dessert created by Culinary Team Canada’s pastry chef to finish things off. Check out Sharon’s post for more information on what to expect at the event.

It wasn’t until we sat down with event co-chair Gurvinder Bhatia that I really took note of the event. And it wasn’t until he explained the philosophy behind it that I was sold:

“Too many events in the city are still geared towards the 50+ crowd. There are many young professional in the 25-45 age group that make good money, love food and wine, but don’t want to attend the same events that their parents attended. It is not only important to create events for this demographic, but to facilitate, encourage and foster philanthropy and community involvement for members of this group.”

That speaks to me. My experience with fundraisers thus far has been pretty typical – black tie, ten-seat table, five-course meal, silent auction, etc. Why not do something different? Why not encourage some creativity? More importantly, we really do need to foster philanthropy and community involvement in my demographic. Ever since Marty Forbes shared his concern that our city’s future leaders are not stepping up, I have been thinking and talking about “succession” and about how we can get nextgeners involved in building a better Edmonton. The answer is not always to create something new, but there’s certainly got to be room for that approach as well. In this case, I think a fresh take on the fundraiser is long overdue!

Tickets are not cheap at $150, but it is a fundraiser after all (and that includes all food and drink). In addition to supporting Culinary Team Canada, proceeds will support the High School Culinary Challenge which helps students wishing to pursue careers in the culinary industry. The deadline for tickets is noon on Friday – there will not be any tickets available at the door! You can buy yours online here.

The hashtag for the event is #hotchefs12. Hope to see you there!

A new take on steak in Calgary

A little over a month ago, Sharon and I were invited to join a group of bloggers in Calgary for the YYC Steak Tour. Tourism Calgary wanted to showcase local restaurants that have “a new take on steak” – something more than traditional meat and potatoes! We ate at five restaurants: Ox & Angela, Anju, Raw Bar, CHARCUT, and Rouge. Sharon has already done a very thorough job of reviewing the meal at each, so be sure to check out her posts.

On the way into Calgary, we stopped off at CrossIron Mills to have lunch at South St. Burger Co. While I liked the burger assembly line (similar to Subway) the patty itself was underwhelming. The texture and taste reminded me too much of a frozen burger. Sharon did enjoy the onion rings, however.

South St. Burger

We usually stay at Hotel Le Germain when we visit Calgary, but as our accommodations this trip were being covered by Tourism Calgary, we were more than happy to stay at the Kensington Riverside Inn. It was very comfortable, and you really can’t beat the location! We took advantage of it, walking around Kensington and along the river.

Kensington Riverside Inn

We made sure to stop at Higher Ground, a popular coffee shop in Kensington. It turned out that Dan Clapson, the manager of Higher Ground and also a food blogger, was on our tour! It was great to chat with Dan about the popular meeting spot. He really knows his customer base, and doesn’t pretend to compete against Phil & Sebastian, instead recognizing that people visit Higher Ground for more than artisan coffee.

Higher Ground

We took advantage of the proximity of our hotel to the river, and walked along Memorial Drive. We spent some time checking out the Peace Bridge, the controversial new bridge that connects downtown and the community of Sunnyside. I think it’s very interesting to look at, but I can see how it wasn’t welcomed by all Calgarians. With a total cost of about $24 million, it wasn’t cheap either! The bridge officially opened on March 24.

Peace Bridge
Peace Bridge

Our first stop on the YYC Steak Tour was Ox & Angela. We had a tapas style meal, with many small plates which turned out to be a great way to meet all of the other folks on the tour. The Spring Creek Ranch flat iron steak was quite tasty, but the “fierce potatoes” definitely stole the show. They were delicious! I also ate more than my share of the churros for dessert.

Ox & Angela
Patatas bravas at Ox & Angela

Our next stop was Anju. We were quite excited to meet Chef Roy Oh, a former Edmontonian who moved to Calgary nearly a decade ago. To start, we got to try soju – the Korean equivalent of vodka, distilled from rice instead of wheat. Though there was Sprite on hand to mix it with, I actually preferred it straight. Very tasty. My favorite dish was the malpec oysters, served with kimchi for a bit of heat. Also memorable were the chicken wings, something the Calgarians were raving about. They were, in a word, hot. I swear I couldn’t feel my lips for hours after we ate them!

Anju
Malpec oysters with a kimchi mignonette at Anju

The last scheduled stop was Raw Bar, but as we had to leave Calgary early enough to get back to Edmonton on Sunday night, we visited the restaurant for lunch without the rest of the group. We sampled the cocktails and even though we were on the steak tour, I simply could not resist trying the mushroom and bacon poutine. It probably could have used a bit more gravy and cheese, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Raw Bar
Mushroom and bacon poutine at Raw Bar

Next up on the tour was CHARCUT, the only restaurant we had eaten at previously. We’re big Top Chef nerds, so Sharon and I couldn’t believe that we were actually with Connie DeSousa! We started by visiting the prep kitchen upstairs where Connie and John showed us how they make blood sausage (which they later cooked and served to us). It was pretty awesome to get a peek behind the curtain!

Charcut
The kitchen at CHARCUT

Of course, no trip to CHARCUT is complete without eating the signature poutine. Potatoes fried in duck fat, cheese curds, and chicken fat gravy. How can you go wrong? I could have eaten it all night long.

Charcut
Duck fat poutine at CHARCUT

Probably my least favorite stop on the tour was Rouge. Compared to the rest of the dishes we ate, Rouge definitely featured the most formal and refined menu. My favorite dish was the lab two ways – a cut of sirloin and braised lamb mixed with lentils. The bee pollen macaron with lemon cream to end was also pretty tasty!

Rouge
Lamb two ways at Rouge

It seems that whenever we visit Calgary we do so primarily to eat! It was great to have the opportunity to try something new at some of Calgary’s hottest restaurants. Thanks again to Tourism Calgary for hosting us – it was a great trip!

Again, be sure to check out Sharon’s much more thorough reviews of the restaurants we visited.

Recap: Blink Edmonton, Pedway Pop-up

A month ago we held Blink, a pop-up restaurant that Sharon and I organized. On February 26, sixty people filled the pedway that connects Commerce Place and Scotia Place across 101 Street for a six-course meal. We sold out just twelve hours after tickets went on sale, and had a number of people on the waiting list. There’s certainly a hunger for unique experiences in Edmonton!

Blink Edmonton: Pedway Pop-up

We had only minor glitches throughout the evening, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. The food that Chef Tony Le and his team created was delicious, and I love that they were able to do something different. As Century Hospitality’s VP Culinary Paul Shufelt wrote in the Edmonton Sun:

Yearning for any opportunity to express our creativity. #Blinkyeg was just the opportunity we needed, a chance to create with far less limited boundaries.

Because of the space constraints of the venue, we needed to limit the tickets to 60 people. This allowed us to play with ingredients and techniques that were a little more obscure, and seen far less often on the everyday menu.

So with that in mind, we set out to assemble a menu that would allow us to express a different side of our creativity.

Sharon did a great job capturing the dishes and other details about the restaurant, so check out her recap for more.

We really wanted to hold Blink in a pedway because it fulfilled our desire to utilize a forgotten or under-appreciated space. Usually I speak against pedways, because I’d rather see people on the street than indoors, but they’re an important part of the overall pedestrian system downtown. And even if we succeed at making the streets more attractive, welcoming, and filled with shops and other reasons for people to use the sidewalks, the pedways aren’t going anywhere. So we might as well make the most of them!

Blink Edmonton: Pedway Pop-up

As I mentioned in my post announcing Blink, the first hurdle was to figure out who owned the pedway and who we needed to get permission from. Fortunately the Downtown Business Association’s Jim Taylor was extremely helpful in that regard! He was able to track down the information and make the necessary introductions. As a member of the pedway committee, he was already working on gathering that information and they’ve made significant progress in the last year.

Last week, the Downtown Pedway Committee submitted its annual report to Executive Committee. Established in 2010, the pedway committee exists to examine and address the challenges & opportunities related to the downtown pedway network. While much of the committee’s initial work was focused simply on finding ownership, maintenance, history, and other information about the pedways (which culminated in the creation of a database), they are now starting to make some positive changes. By the end of Q2 this year, the committee hopes to have the existing maps updated throughout the system (with help from Edmonton Transit). And next on the list is an integrated way-finding signage system. The signs throughout the system are dated, some are incorrect, and they’re very inconsistent. Refreshing them also provides an opportunity to look ahead, by incorporating digital-friendly way-finding solutions (that was my initial feedback to the committee). All of those improvements will help make navigating downtown easier. And who knows, maybe we’ll see more exciting events take place in pedways!

Blink Edmonton: Pedway Pop-up

Thanks again to everyone who had a hand in making Blink happen, especially the Downtown Business Association, the Downtown Edmonton Community League, GWL Realty Advisors, Morguard, and of course, Century Hospitality and everyone at Lux.

And thank you to everyone who bought tickets to Blink – you made it a success! Check out Sharon’s recap here, and you can see my photos here. We are in the process of planning another Blink, so stay tuned for updates!

Blink: Pedway Pop-up in Downtown Edmonton

blink edmontonOn Sunday, February 26, 2012 we are transforming the pedway across 101 Street that connects Commerce Place and Scotia Place into a sixty seat pop-up restaurant called Blink. The single-night-only restaurant will feature a delicious six-course meal prepared by chefs Paul Shufelt and Tony Le of Century Hospitality/Lux. Sharon and I have been working on this for quite a while, so we’re very happy to announce that tickets are on sale now!

Pop-up restaurants are all the rage in major cities like New York and London and they’ve started to become popular elsewhere too. The term “pop-up restaurant” is used to mean various things, but I think about three main categories of pop-ups: kitchen takeovers (a chef takes over an existing restaurant’s kitchen and space to create something new), temporary dining spaces (there may not be a kitchen on-site, but some sort of space has been transformed into a dining room), and full-on temporary restaurants (empty spaces completely transformed into restaurants outfitted with kitchens for a short period of time). We’ve had some kitchen takeovers here in Edmonton, but Blink is the first temporary dining space (we’ll have to wait for our first full-on temporary restaurant, an undertaking which requires considerable expense).

When we started discussing the idea for Blink, Sharon was immediately drawn to a pedway. We both love the idea of utilizing forgotten or neglected spaces, so a pedway seemed perfect. When was the last time you stopped in a pedway to look out the window? We walked through the pedways downtown, looking for power outlets, measuring dimensions, etc. We had a few candidate bridges, but decided that we needed a chef on board with the idea first. Knowing that Lux was conveniently located in Commerce Place, we approached Tony and thankfully he agreed to take part in our project right away! That made narrowing the pedway choice down to the one connecting Commerce Place and Scotia Place much easier.

Pedway between Commerce Place & Scotia Place

Next we worked on getting the necessary approvals in place. Jim Taylor, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, was incredibly helpful in that regard. He introduced us to the building managers, and helped us track down the owner of the pedway (we discovered as part of this process that ownership is uncertain for many parts of the pedway system). Everyone really liked the idea, so we quickly started working out the logistics. Thank you to the DBA, GWL Reality Advisors (on behalf of Commerce Place), Morguard Investments (on behalf of Scotia Place), and DECL for helping us make this pop-up restaurant happen!

Pedway between Commerce Place & Scotia Place

We’ve got some work to do still, but our goal is for Blink to look and feel as much like a real restaurant as possible. We have decided to go with a communal table for seating, to enhance the experience of eating in a unique space with other Edmontonians. The menu makes my mouth water every time I read it, with dishes like confit rabbit pot pie and Alberta pickerel – where possible it features local ingredients. Tickets are $65, which I think is a great deal for six courses, and a cash bar will be available as well. The restaurant will open at 5pm for cocktails, with dinner service beginning at 6pm.

We hope to see you on February 26 at Blink in the pedway!

You can read Sharon’s post on Blink here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sobeys on 104 Street

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

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

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

Sobeys on 104 Street
Vinyl with the white gone

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

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

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

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

Sobeys on 104 Street

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

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