Recap: Retrofutures – Edmonton’s Omniplex Debate

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

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

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

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

Retrofutures: Omniplex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrofutures: Omniplex

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

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

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!

Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: A Heritage of Local Food

The final session at the Edmonton Heritage Council’s symposium was on the heritage of local food. I thought it was a great idea to include a topic like food, something we don’t always associate with heritage, though obviously it makes sense to do so. The session was moderated by Liane Faulder, and panelists included Kathryn Chase Merrett, Jessie Radies, and Patricia Myers.

How might the history of local food production and marketing in Edmonton relate to people’s contemporary interest in local food? This session will discuss how this history connects to current concerns and developments on sustainable food systems.

Here are my notes:

  • In addition to moderating, Liane was also a panelist. She started by sharing some recent local food stories. She talked about three local producers: Donna & Bohdan Borody (The Jam Lady), May Ellen & Andreas Grueneberg (Greens, Eggs & Ham), and Gordon Visser (Norbest Farms). She also mentioned the Culina family of restaurants.
  • Liane noted the recent desire that many people have to reconnect with their food producers. She also talked about the importance and popularity of farmers’ markets, saying “the farmers market is the new church”.
  • Kathryn, who has literally written the book on the history of the Edmonton City Market, talked a lot about her view that food is a big part of what makes a city livable.
  • It might be hard to visualize but from 1900 until 1965, market square was where the current Stanley Milner library sits.
  • She said the market has not always been seen as a positive thing in Edmonton, at least not by those in power. Old city councils viewed it negatively, and tried a number of times to displace it. Nothing has ever really worked though, because citizens and food producers have always loved the market.
  • Kathryn also touched on foods which used to be plentiful in Edmonton, such as strawberries. She read a passage from an 1894 Edmonton Bulletin article that described the “crimson trail” left behind as you walked, because there were so many strawberries.
  • To Kathryn, a livable city is one that can feed all of its people, but which also takes the time to enjoy and to share.
  • Jessie recounted her experiences of growing up on the farm, describing the various skills she learned, such as canning. It was a great story.
  • She also talked about her recent work with Original Fare and Live Local. She said that both the local and global food systems are necessary, and must be strong.
  • Patricia collects antique cookbooks and shared some of the reasons behind her hobby.
  • She said she doesn’t care so much about having particular editions, but she loves acquiring different books to see what she can learn from them.
  • Patricia said she views the cookbook as a repository of women’s history. Typically cookbooks are dismissed as historical works, and Patricia is trying to change that.
  • She said you can learn about the technology and cultural norms through the cookbooks. For example, she said books that contain lots of sandwich filling recipes were likely from a time when picnics, fundraisers, and other activities were quite common.

I was really intrigued by Patricia’s idea that you can trace technology through the cookbooks. It made me wonder what else is out there that we don’t typically think of as being important heritage pieces.

Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: Edmonton’s (Lost) Spaces, Places, & Neighbourhoods

This session sounded interesting and I was hoping it would provide me a neat list of places to check out. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, but I still learned quite a few things. The panelists included: Tyler Dixon, intern architect with ziola newstudio architects; David Holdsworth, one of the two heritage planners at the City of Edmonton; and Ken Tingley, Edmonton’s first historian laureate.

Edmonton could be described as a city in the habit of remaking itself. As a result, historic spaces, places and events are obscured, lost or ignored. Panelists will discuss this heritage of “remaking” and what has been ignored, overlooked or misunderstood and how it might be reclaimed.

Here are my notes:

  • Ken started by showing pictures of early Edmonton and describing the disappearance of First Nations people from the urban setting.
  • He described an effort in 1911 to eliminate First Nations as an attraction from western exhibitions, something Edmonton complied with the following year.
  • Ken also talked about some of racial incidents from our past, such as when local hotel and restaurants banded together to get rid of non-white labour.
  • David spent most of his time talking about heritage areas. The City of Edmonton has just three official heritage areas: Westmount, 104 Street, and Whyte Avenue.
  • Heritage areas must have regulations and guidelines for development, must allow new or alternative uses, and must have community support.
  • David described the Edmonton trend of breaking from the past – tearing down the old to make way for the new.
  • He showed one slide with photos of what looked like the same house, except that each photo was from a different city, all around the world. David say that both now and 100 years ago, there’s not much architecture unique to Edmonton.
  • Much of his discussion centered around “theming” and whether that is a good thing or not. Think of the warehouse buildings on 104 Street for instance, and how the new Icon towers were built to mimic that design.
  • David said he never asks for duplication, but wants to prevent building another “anywhere place”.
  • The Edmonton Design Committee will be considering the 81 Avenue area as another potential heritage area (most of the buildings there have false facades).
  • Tyler talked about aging and the stories that aging buildings can tell.
  • He also touched on urban sprawl, saying Edmonton is filled with holes (parking lots), and that the boom-bust cycle has nudged us toward certain building materials and styles.
  • Tyler was much less enthusiastic about the theming David talked about, saying he fears it leads to “just-add-water” instant heritage.
  • Ken had said during his talk that Edmonton is caught between progress and nostalgia. Tyler picked up on that, and said that both can be beautiful.

I thought David’s introduction to heritage areas was really good, and that’s a topic I’ll likely try to follow-up on. Another thing that was discussed that I didn’t mention in my notes was the importance of intangible heritage. After all, out of sight, out of mind.

Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: A Northern City

There were three concurrent panel sessions this morning, which means we had to choose. I ended up going to the one called A Northern City. The panelists included: Rod Macleod, retired professor of History & Classics at the University of Alberta; Mark Nuttall, professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta; and Heather Zwicker, associate professor of English at the University of Alberta.

Tagged as the “Gateway to the North”, Edmonton has also been described as “a northern city of art and ideas”. Yet its northernness is often overlooked in understanding the city and region, as well as its connection to the “south” and other northern places.

As someone who grew up primarily in Inuvik, NT, this panel caught my eye. I was quite familiar with the idea of Edmonton as “a northern gateway to the south” – something the panelists talked about. Here are my notes:

  • Rod started by highlighting the two things that we think about as a northern city. The first, climate, gets a lot of attention. The second, isolation, is something we think about far less. Rod says to draw a 500km circle around northern cities. With the exception of Edmonton and Moscow, you’ll find lots of other places in those circles.
  • Despite the creation of the rival city of Strathcona, the construction of the railroad from Calgary had surprisingly little effect on our northern orientation, according to Rod.
  • He talked at length about our history as a transportation hub more than a trading post, noting that the air freight industry was practically invented here. He talked about the arrival of the airplane, and how it replicated the region’s previous economy: bringing furs south, taking supplies north.
  • Something to look up: the Aerosmith map of 1832, which has great detail north of Edmonton but not much south.
  • Rod suggested that while “facing north” has made us culturally self-sufficient, being a part of the northern frontier has ingrained in Edmonton a reluctance to plan and build for the long-term.
  • Mark picked up here, nothing that although there are lots of places further north than us on the globe, northernness actually has very little to do with latitude.
  • He noted that in Canada, the term “north” has often been synonymous with “marginalized”. That’s not the case in other places. He also observed that as places develop, “north” seems to move further north. When a Walmart arrives in Whitehorse, is still the north?
  • Mark finished by discussing the Arctic Council and how the north is becoming centre stage, thanks to climate change and other global issues. Canada assumes the chair of the council in three years, which provides an opportunity for Edmonton.
  • Heather discussed the literature surrounding Edmonton as a northern city, starting with Alice Major’s Contemplating the City, and Erin Knight’s Bribing the Boundary God.
  • She said the river plays a key role in most of the literature, either positively or negatively – is the river an obstacle, or a way in and out of the city?
  • I thought the notion of Edmonton as “the cosmopolitan north” was quite interesting. Heather said the notion of “cosmopolitan” is up for grabs, saying that “Brooklyn is the new Manhattan”.

Another interesting concept came up in the questions. Mark had said that before moving to Edmonton, he had never lived away from the sea. And while Edmonton doesn’t have a traditional port, we are something of a “port city” thanks to Fort McMurray and other northern communities. I immediately thought of the Port Alberta initiative as well.

What I took away from the session is that being a northern city is much more a mindset than anything else. There are physical elements of course, but it’s the intangible part of being in “the north” that has probably had the biggest impact on Edmonton’s development.

Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: The Future of History in Edmonton

The keynote address this morning at the Edmonton Heritage Council’s first symposium was delivered, fittingly, by Edmonton’s first Historian Laureate, Ken Tingley. Titled The Future of History in Edmonton, Ken’s talk introduced a number of the topics that would be discussed throughout the symposium. It was immediately followed by “20 questions” from Linda Goyette, a sort of response that really got people thinking!

Ken talked quite a bit about the “old timer’s” and the impact they have had on the preservation of Edmonton’s history. He pointed out that although their early efforts to preserve our local history were valuable, they were often done for self-congratulatory or other selfish reasons. Linda picked up on this, asking: “Who gets to tell Edmonton’s stories? Which are excluded and which are preserved?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Ken pointed out that history in Edmonton has always been linked to the idea of progress and to the march of civilization onward. This has had a number of impacts, not all of them positive, and Ken mentioned the way people native to the area were treated when settlers arrived as one specific example. Linda touched on this as well, and said the Rossdale lands should be the site of the proposed civic museum, an idea that garnered lots of applause.

At one point, Ken mentioned the idea that instead of “gateway to the north” we should be known as “Gibraltar of the north”. A quick search reveals that Luxembourg has already claimed that title! Linda had a quite a number of memorable comments herself, such as the idea that we should start protecting modern buildings for the future now, just as we sometimes defend our built heritage (she made it clear that we often don’t do enough).

Technology wasn’t really mentioned in the opening sessions, except for Linda asking why the complete Fort Edmonton history still hasn’t been digitized. If we’re going to be more innovative about how we preserve and share our history, I think technology is going to be key.

Ken closed his remarks with a bit of a challenge, stating that the presentation of our local history is getting more sophisticated, and could be just as innovative as other parts of urban culture. Linda’s final question complemented that idea quite nicely: “How can we work together?” Though she was referring mainly to the heritage workers in the room, I think that question applies to Edmontonians more broadly as well.

Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City: Spying on E-Town

Tonight was the kickoff of the Edmonton Heritage Council’s first ever community symposium, called Heritage, Innovation & the Livable City (on ShareEdmonton). I came across the event online a few weeks ago, and thought it would be really interesting and likely very educational. Here is the EHC’s introduction to the symposium:

“Heritage”, “innovation” and “livability” are terms not often used in relation to each other. To many people, interest in heritage seems contrary to the spirit of innovation and has little currency in the pace of urban life.

This inaugural symposium brings together community members, heritage organizations and engaging speakers to explore how Edmonton’s unique heritage has shaped—and is shaping— the city and region.

Linda Goyette was our keynote speaker this evening. She delivered a very spirited talk entitled Spying on E-Town. Linda took us on a journey across Edmonton, pointing out well-known features like the High Level Bridge as well as lesser known ones, such as the many statues around the city that help to tell the story of Edmonton. Along the way she highlighted and paid tribute to the many archivists, historians, and other heritage workers, some of whom were in the room, that ensure Edmonton’s history is not forgotten.

I wrote down a few notes from Linda’s talk to follow up on:

  • There are 23 distinct museums in Edmonton, but no civic museum.
  • A book that caught my eye, because of the subtitle as well as the publication date (2009) – Aboriginal Edmonton: A Statistics Story.
  • Ian Mulder, an artist responsible for many murals throughout the city. He has apparently just relocated to Toronto, unfortunately.
  • The City of Edmonton Archives recently hired someone dedicated to the digital side of things. Anyone have any further details?
  • Christian Nelson’s 3D models of Edmonton buildings are really neat and take advantage of modern technology, but they too are a form of digital preservation.

Tomorrow starts with a keynote address from Ken Tingley, Edmonton’s first historian laureate. I’m looking forward to it!