Construction hoarding in Edmonton’s downtown is a disaster

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

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

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

Kelly Ramsey Construction

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

Kelly Ramsey Construction

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

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

Fox Tower Construction

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

Fox Tower Construction

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

Ultima Tower Construction

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

Ultima Tower Construction

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

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

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

Aren’t there rules?

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

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

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

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

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

What happens elsewhere?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s be good neighbours

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