Media Monday Edmonton: Meet The Yards

There’s a new, hyperlocal magazine now available in Edmonton focused on our city’s central neighbourhoods. The Yards launched last week at an event downtown, and soon it’ll find its way into more than 24,000 mailboxes in the Oliver and Downtown neighbourhoods. A collaboration between the Oliver and Downtown community leagues, The Yards will attempt to document and impact the major changes taking place in central neighbourhoods by redefining what it means to be a community publication.

The Yards Cover

I attended the launch event last Thursday and have since had the opportunity to speak with Jarrett Campbell, President of the Oliver Community League, and Omar Mouallem, editor of The Yards, about the project.

The Idea

The core idea behind The Yards is that central Edmonton is special. Downtown has been called “Edmonton’s living room” by more than a few community leaders, and together, Downtown and Oliver are home to many more people than the thousands who live there; thousands more work, eat, shop, and seek entertainment in the two neighbourhoods. Additionally, both neighbourhoods are undergoing significant changes. Multiple new investments, both private and public, are having a major impact and will continue to do so for years to come.

The Yards is a way for the community to chronicle those changes, and to shape the conversation around them. “A newsmagazine gives us the opportunity to showcase why living centrally is not only possible but favourable,” is what DECL President Chris Buyze wrote in his first message in the magazine. “We’re excited about telling our neighbourhood’s stories and discussing it with the broader community,” added Jarrett in his.

The idea initially wasn’t quite as grand, however. When Jarrett became president of the community league in 2012, he had a long list of things he wanted to get done, and while improving and modernizing the community newspaper was on the list, it wasn’t near the top. It wasn’t until about November 2013 that discussions began about what could be.

Jarrett simultaneously led his community league’s effort to handover the production of its newsletter to a third party and led the creation of The Yards, a balancing act which was definitely tricky at times. In the end the community league had to choose between two proposals, one of which was The Yards. “We [at The Yards] operated under the assumption this was going to happen,” said Jarrett, who recused himself from the community league’s decision on the matter. He was confident the idea and team would win the board over. The board’s final decision to move ahead came in July, and The Yards was born.

The Model

The Yards is published by the Central Edmonton News Society (CENS) in partnership with the Oliver Community League (OCL) and the Downtown Edmonton Community League (DECL). As a non-profit organization, CENS is made up of volunteers, but The Yards does have paid staff, and they do pay their writers. Omar is the magazine’s editor, while Vikki Wiercinski is the artistic director. No one is involved to get rich. “Everyone is doing this out of passion,” Omar said. “It isn’t lucrative!”

Jarrett serves as the primary link between the community leagues and CENS. He is President of the OCL Board of Directors and is Chair of the CENS Editorial Committee (DECL President Chris Buyze is Vice Chair of the Editorial Committee). Jarrett is listed as the publisher of The Yards, but hopes to see someone else move into that position in the future.

The Yards Launch
Omar, Jarrett, Vikki, and Chris

The masthead says “the Editorial Committee consults on story ideas and offers strategic support, leaving the decision-making and final content to The Yards staff.” Members include Alex Abboud, Justin Archer, Lisa Baroldi, David Cournoyer, Emerson Csorba, Cory Haller, Myrna Kostash, Milap Petigara, and Anne Stevenson.

In addition to advertising revenue, The Yards is funded by the two community leagues. OCL contributes $15,000 per year, which is what it was already paying for the community newspaper. DECL contributes another $5,000, and this is the first printed communication it has ever had. It’s the community leagues that make advertising appealing too. Their involvement means the publication can be sent to 24,300 mailboxes, which is far more than other organizations are able to achieve with Canada Post. Combined with high quality content, that distribution is appealing. “The value proposition is there,” Jarrett said.

When I asked why it was important for CENS to be a non-profit, Omar and Jarrett both seemed surprised at the question, as if they couldn’t see it working any other way. “Having a non-profit mandate allows us to support issues in a different manner,” Omar told me. “As a non-profit, we can be advocates.”

The Name

As Omar wrote in his first editor’s note, the name “harkens back to the old Canadian National rail yards along 104 Avenue” and serves as a way to look ahead without ignoring the past. On the website, the name is described as “a loving tribute” both to the rail yards and to “the role downtown has always played, as a gathering place for the whole city.” Fitting as it may sound, naming the magazine was no easy process.

“The Yards wasn’t even an option at first,” Jarrett admitted. Names like “53”, “Magpie”, “Centric”, and “The Crux” were considered and voted upon. After one round of voting, no clear winner emerged. That’s when Chris suggested “The Yards”. It wasn’t an immediate hit either. “I really didn’t like it at first,” admitted Jarrett. “But it is growing on me.” Omar loves that the name prompts a conversation with people about the history of the area, but agreed that “it needed to percolate a bit more” before the team felt confident it was the right name for the project.

The Content

Each edition of The Yards will contain messages from OCL and DECL, but the focus is on high quality, professionally written content. And while that content will certainly reflect the issues that are important to residents, it’ll go beyond what might have appeared in the old community newspaper. “The reality is many people come to Oliver and Downtown to work, to eat, for entertainment,” Omar said. He wants the magazine to reflect that, and to reach a broader audience.

Whereas the old community newspaper was often made up of submissions from non-profits, the new magazine is “run like a magazine”, to use Omar’s phrase. Instead of accepting submissions (and basically printing all of them), the magazine may choose to interview people to present more context around issues that are deemed worthy of coverage. If there’s an issue the community would like to see covered, they need to let the editorial staff know.

The goal is to have something that is relevant for much longer than the old community newspaper. “You could pick this up in six months and it’ll still be relevant,” says Jarrett. The first issue includes an article on empty nesters considering a move to downtown, a list of restaurant deals that can be found in central Edmonton, an events calendar, “a biography of downtown”, and opinion pieces on a “wet shelter” and designing safer crosswalks.

Omar also sees education as part of the magazine’s mandate. “I want readers to walk away from The Yards feeling like they have increased literacy on municipal issues,” Omar told me.

The Approach

While you can read The Yards online, it’s currently available only through Issuu, rather than via a developed website with permalinks for each article. But an improved website is in the works, and the team definitely want to have linkable articles. “I’d rather put money into content,” Omar told me. Right now, the focus is on growing the magazine.

“The Yards is modern and very visual,” Omar said. Vikki is largely responsible for that, drawing on her expertise as a graphic designer (she also organizes the popular Royal Bison craft fairs). For the first issue, they worked with local firm Studio Tipi on the illustrations. They’ve worked with Monocle, Alberta Oil Magazine, and many other publications in the past. Their flat, 2D-style illustration on the cover uses a limited color palette and feels both modern and timeless.

Another area of focus for The Yards has been social media. The magazine currently has about 450 likes on Facebook and more than 1000 followers on Twitter. “I think we’re already developing a credible voice on the area for those online communities,” he said. It’s through social media that many people find out about news and events, Omar pointed out, so it’s important for The Yards to have a presence there.

The Yards Launch

The launch event last week wasn’t just a way to build awareness about the new magazine, but is indeed a sign of things to come. “We’re applying some knowledge from modern magazines,” says Omar, pointing out that they have come to view events as a critical part of a successful magazine. “There’s a lot of value in events, because they bring the community together.” The plan is to host an event with a guest speaker in conjunction with the launch of each new issue.

The interview with Mayor Iveson at the launch event was recorded for The Yards podcast, another component that Jarrett and Omar hope to explore. They’re aiming to do one podcast per month for now, but again, the priority is the magazine and ensuring that grows successfully.

In addition to showing up in the mailboxes of residents in the two neighbourhoods, The Yards will also be available at restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses in the area.

The Community

Throughout our conversation, Jarrett and Omar reiterated that The Yards is a work in progress and they’re still figuring out how things are going to work. That applies especially to the relationship between The Yards and the community leagues. Right now the relationship is great, with lots of alignment between the community leagues and the editorial team. But a new community league board could change that dynamic, Jarrett admitted.

There’s also the matter of ensuring that the magazine reflects the entire community and not just the community league boards. “The community league doesn’t always reflect the makeup of the community,” Omar pointed out, noting the editorial committee is made up primarily of community representatives.

Though Oliver and Downtown are the communities behind The Yards, the stated aim is to serve central Edmonton, which includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Queen Mary Park and McCauley. “Downtown is all of the intrinsically connected central neighbourhoods,” Omar wrote in his editor’s note. “We believe it does us good to consider the sum of the parts and not get hung up on invisible lines.” It’ll be interesting to see how effectively the magazine reflects those varied communities.

Despite the risks, those involved see The Yards as a better model that will ultimately benefit the community. “For neighbourhoods that are changing so rapidly, the [old community] newspaper is not the best way to engage citizens on the issues,” Omar said.

The Yards

The primary goal is to produce quality content, which Omar and Jarrett hope will allow the magazine to grow. Having more advertisers will allow the magazine to include more pages, and Jarrett is confident that will happen. “Once people see the product,” he said, “they’ll get it.”

The Yards Launch

Omar feels the passion of those involved will shine through and will ultimately allow the publication to fulfill its mandate. “We’re civic-minded, engaged, and proud of our community, and we want to share that,” he said. “The magazine is a great way for us to shape the conversation.”

You can read the first issue of The Yards online now. Follow them on Twitter and on Facebook for updates.

Go underground for Edmonton’s newest coffee shops

It was a little disappointing to miss the opening of three new coffee shops last month, but on the other hand, it was nice to have new places to explore after we got back! In October, Transcend returned to downtown with a new location in the Mercer Warehouse, Credo added a second location on 124 Street, and after years in the making, Burrow opened in the Central LRT Station. I checked out all three locations last week.

Transcend Mercer

Transcend Mercer

Let’s start with Transcend Mercer. After the location on Jasper Avenue closed, I wasn’t sure if or when Transcend would be back downtown. It was pretty clear that if they did return, it would be at a smaller, more manageable location. While the new cafe in the basement of the building is smaller, it’s bigger than I was expecting! I’m not sure why but I envisioned something with either limited or no seating, but there’s actually lots of room to hang out at Transcend Mercer.

Transcend Mercer

I went for my usual – a vanilla latte – and looked around the cafe. There’s only one window, but the space is surprisingly bright, and I love the wood beams and ceiling. I understand they will be adding artwork around the room, so that’ll add even more color and visual interest. Speaking of color, the green counter, black wall, and brown accents definitely give you a “coffee” feeling!

I’m sure the new cafe will be frequented by everyone in the building, and it’s great to have another coffee shop on 104 Street. I’m also happy to once again be able to buy Transcend beans throughout the week! For more on Transcend Mercer, check out Cindy’s review here!

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

As you may know, Credo Coffee on 104 Street is my usual spot. It’s extremely close to home, has great coffee, and has wonderful service. The only downside is that because Credo is so popular, it can sometimes be difficult to find a seat. The new location on 124 Street is quite a bit bigger though, so hopefully that won’t be such an issue there!

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

The new cafe is located at 10350 124 Street in the new Limelight building (which is just down the block from Remedy Cafe). It can be a little difficult to see, given that there are no signs on the building except for a vinyl banner where Credo is located. They are the first tenant in the building, so I hope better signage is coming.

Credo Coffee on 124 Street

Inside is open and roomy, with lots of seating and also lots of bar space. Though Credo’s space is mostly below street level, there are lots of windows which means lots of natural light. Oddly there are a lot of power outlets up high (I guess for Christmas lights?) so you might need a long cord if you’re going to plug in a laptop (maybe they can add some outlets lower to the floor).

My favorite vanilla latte was as delicious as ever, and it didn’t take long to feel right at home. I know I won’t make it to this location as often as 104 Street, but it’s great to see another fantastic addition to 124 Street.

Burrow Central Station

Burrow Central Station

A coffee shop in an LRT station? Finally Edmonton’s cafe scene has gone underground! Burrow Central Station (part of the growing Elm Cafe family) is the perfect addition to our growing and increasingly popular transit system, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come. Again my expectations were exceeded – I anticipated finding Burrow tucked away behind one of the walls, but instead found it centrally located in the concourse. You can’t miss it, and now that it is there, I simply can’t remember what it looked like before. Burrow looks like it belongs, like it should have always been there.

Burrow Central Station

Burrow uses Four Barrel Coffee from San Francisco, which I had not tried before. I decided to stick with the usual on my first visit (ok, ok, and also my second and third visits) and ordered a vanilla latte. I was pleasantly surprised to see they make it with real vanilla bean instead of syrup! I will have to go try a simple brewed coffee one of these days. They have a rotating lunch menu with a grilled cheese sandwich too, also on my list to try.

There is no seating in the LRT concourse, but for grab and go it’s hard to beat Burrow. My office is right above in the Empire Building, so I foresee many, many visits in my future! Again, check out Cindy’s review here.

Have you been to these three new cafes? What did you think? If not, raise a paper cup as Omar says, and go check them out!

Recap: OCL/DECL Ward 6 Candidate Forum

Tonight the Oliver Community League and Downtown Edmonton Community League co-hosted a candidate forum for Ward 6. Held at Oliver School, the forum was moderated by Beth Sanders. Along with a couple of other volunteers, she did a good job of keeping the eleven candidates in attendance on track (there are 13 on Dave’s list, but Bryan Kapitza and Javed Sommers did not take part). The turnout was pretty good for a Tuesday evening in mid-September, with approximately 125 people in attendance.

OCL/DECL Ward 6 Forum

From left to right, here are the candidates who participated tonight: Taz Bouchier, Kyle Brown, Candas Jane Dorsey, Derrick Forsythe, Melinda Hollis, Heather MacKenzie, Scott McKeen, Erin Northey, Adil Pirbhai, Alfie White, and Dexx Williams.

After opening statements in that order, Beth asked five questions from the organizers of the forum, then opened the floor to questions from those in attendance. There was time for five of those before candidates gave their closing remarks (in reverse order).

Here are the five questions asked by the organizers:

  1. If elected to Council, how would you continue the momentum of building Downtown as a centre of commerce and culture and a destination for all citizens of the city?
  2. Do you feel that the decision on the redevelopment of the Molson Crosstown site was the correct one? What would you do as Councillor to improve the City’s engagement process?
  3. As Councillor, how would you work to address the spike in violent crimes in recent months in the Oliver/Downtown neighbourhoods?
  4. Is there an adequate balance of housing options in the Oliver/Downtown core? If not, what deficiencies do you see and how would you work to address them as Councillor?
  5. If elected to Council, what important issue facing Oliver/Downtown would you give the most attention to and what would you do to ensure that it’s adequately addressed?

Each candidate had one minute to answer the question. The order was random – names were drawn from a hat. For the most part, the candidates kept to the time allotted and stayed on track with their answers. The five questions asked by citizens in attendance included one about the need for public washrooms in the core, one about supporting the arts, one about P3s, and one about regional cooperation. The only question that every candidate had the opportunity to answer was the one that received applause from the crowd: How will you make yourself more accessible?

On the question of improving the City’s engagement process, there were far too many non-answers along the lines of “I believe citizens need to have their voices heard.” This is an important issue that I’m confident will be repeatedly asked throughout the election, so I hope all of the candidates give it due consideration. Adil’s answer was that he’d hold numerous Town Halls, which isn’t a bad idea if you went about it the right way (hello technology!).

I was a little surprised at how many candidates were happy with the Molson Crosstown decision. More than a couple mentioned that they were happy to see the development going forward so that something could be done with the parking lots. Scott probably gave the answer the Oliver Community League members were looking for, saying  that “developers too often plan for Edmonton’s past.”

Far too many candidates completely bombed on the housing options question. Some, like Taz, took it to be a question about homelessness. Others offered nothing beyond saying diversity is good. Drawing on her own experience, Heather made a strong case for more diverse housing options in the core.

It was really interesting to hear what candidates felt the most important issue was. Dexx mentioned the issue of parking being unavailable for residents because non-residents use it all. Melinda claimed that the Municipal Development Plan isn’t actually a plan, and said she’d want to do something about that. Candas talked about the need for consultation. Scott mentioned the arena. Some mentioned housing, others mentioned tackling crime.

The vast majority of the answers tonight were “I believe” or “I think” answers, lacking substance or concrete ideas for action. I suppose it’s difficult to go much beyond that with just a minute to answer, but it still would have been nice to hear some specifics. I did not feel a great deal of confidence that the candidates up at the front of the room tonight have a solid understanding of what being a Councillor would entail.

OCL/DECL Ward 6 Forum

Here are my notes on the closing remarks:

  • Dexx highlighted his passion for the ward and reiterated that he’d work hard to ensure residents’ concerns were addressed.
  • Alfie admitted that this was all a new experience for him, but that he hoped to be able to represent the ward.
  • Adil expressed his distaste for projects like the arena, Indy, and EXPO 2017, and then went on to suggest that Council hadn’t said anything about the post secondary cuts. I guess he missed the State of the City Address.
  • Erin also admitted that this was a new experience and suggested that she’d be happy to just learn and make connections.
  • Scott praised the strong field of candidates, and said that Ward 6 could become the ward that slows urban sprawl.
  • Heather said responsiveness to the community and attracting more people to the core are both priorities.
  • Melinda said she’s passionate about the ward, and that city must grow responsibly, taking care to maintain the uniqueness of each neighbourhood.
  • Derrick focused his closing remarks on improving public consultation, and said a commitment to work with communities is needed.
  • Candas said that cities need to have big dreams, but also need to know how to pay for them.
  • Kyle said the ward needs someone who can represent the diversity you’ll find within it.
  • Taz highlighted her experience in community development, and said she’s familiar with legislation, bylaws, and the orders of government.

There were an awful lot of repetitive answers tonight, which is no surprise given the large number of candidates running (already there are five more declared than officially ran in the last election). I have no doubt the field will narrow in the weeks ahead (or at the very least some clear frontrunners will emerge).

Instead of picking “a winner” for tonight, let me simply mention the candidates that I thought did well. The two names most often mentioned as frontrunners are Scott and Heather, and I thought both did well. Scott only mentioned his journalism background a couple times, and had strong answers for all the questions. Heather cited her experience as a school board trustee a few times, and though she generally read from her notes, gave strong answers as well. Candas did well and had some of the more thoughtful answers of the evening. I think Dexx impressed me most tonight – he delivered a good amount of passion and was articulate in his answers.

Monday is nomination day, after which we’ll know exactly who’s running. The official Ward 6 forum will take place on October 9, so mark your calendars.

Thanks to the organizers of tonight’s event and to all the candidates who participated!

Central State of Mind: Judd & Linda

This is the second entry in the Central State of Mind series. To read the first entry, click here. Sharon and I visited Judd and Linda in early October to learn about why they chose to live centrally.

Judd and Linda live in Oliver, though like most people who call the eastern part of the neighbourhood home, they would say they live in Grandin. A short walk from the Grandin LRT station, their 1000 square foot condo is certainly cozy but its location more than makes up for its relative lack of space. The couple moved to the neighbourhood four years ago because they were ready to start a family and their previous home downtown was adult-only. Their daughter Zoe was born two years ago.

Linda, Zoe, Judd

Avoiding or at least reducing their commute played a big role in Judd and Linda’s decision to move to Grandin. Judd works downtown as a mechanical engineer, while Linda works part time in social services in Central McDougall. They’re a one-car household, and they use their vehicle as infrequently as possible. Judd usually walks to work, though he has experimented with a variety of transportation options. Biking to work consistently takes about ten minutes, while taking the train can be quicker or slower depending on whether he misses the train or not. Judd has even ridden his longboard to work, though he says “it’s a lot more work because I have to dodge people on the sidewalks, and I usually end up walking anyway.” Linda used to walk to work, a trip that would take about 30 minutes. “We have friends that get up at 5 in the morning just to get ready for their commutes,” Linda said, as she reiterated the importance they place on living close to work.

Grandin

Location is about more than just commute times, however. “I love being able to just go out for a walk,” Linda said. Judd agreed, adding that proximity to amenities is another reason why they liked the area. “Everything is within walking distance,” he said. Ezio Faraone Park is a short walk away, as are the Legislature grounds, both among the best urban green space that Edmonton has to offer. Grandin is also perfectly situated between Downtown and Garneau, which means favorites like Blue Plate Diner and Transcend Coffee are just a short walk or train ride away. “I love going to the City Market on Saturdays too,” Linda told us. “I try to go a little earlier, it’s a nice walk to get there.” Location wasn’t the only thing that attracted them to the Grandin area, of course. “It’s quiet, tree-lined, and pub free!” Judd quipped when I asked him for additional reasons.

Their current living situation does have its challenges, however. “It would be nice to have a little bit more space,” Judd admitted. Entertaining is difficult with Zoe’s play area concentrated in the living room (she had a very cool toy kitchen that made Sharon jealous). The family is casually looking for something central with a bit more space, but it has to be the right fit. “To get something bigger, it has to meet all the requirements that are met now,” Judd said. “If something bugged us so much, we’d have a realtor!” One of the biggest issues with the smaller space is the layout. Sound seems to travel right to Zoe’s room, often waking her up. She is getting better at sleeping through it, however. Communities they are looking at include Westmount, McKernan, and Bonnie Doon. They’re intrigued by the City Centre Redevelopment, but that’s a bit too far into the future.

Grandin

Another challenge is the lack of shops and restaurants in the area that cater to families with young children. Linda wishes there were more kid-friendly cafes, and mentioned Café O’Play in Riverbend as an example. “In the summer it doesn’t matter so much, but when it gets cold, there aren’t as many places to take Zoe.” Similarly, many of the new restaurants that have opened nearby are focused on attracting adults, not families. Interestingly, grocery shopping has also been a challenge. “Downtown shopping is not baby-friendly,” Judd declared. Grocery stores in the area either don’t carry the items they need, or when they do, often charge far more than at other locations. On one trip to Sobeys for instance, Judd found just one brand of diapers and one brand of baby wipes. “When she grows out of diapers, it won’t be such a big deal,” he said. They usually shop at Save-On-Foods for smaller items, and now are able to make the short trip to Superstore on Kingsway Avenue for baby stuff. They also walk to Planet Organic occasionally.

Much of our conversation revolved around the challenges of having a young child in the core. “We kind of got into a pocket of timing with Zoe,” Judd said, realizing that the things they need and want now will change. “The less she is an infant, the easier everything gets.” Something that is very top-of-mind for Judd and Linda at the moment is wheelchair access. “Having a kid downtown has given me an appreciation for people who are in wheelchairs,” Judd said, noting that strollers and wheelchairs have similar needs and challenges. “If one elevator breaks down, then you’re often having to go quite far to detour,” Linda explained. “That’s why malls are so friendly to parents,” Judd concluded, because they offer multiple seating areas, big washrooms with change-tables, and excellent access.

Grandin

Judd and Linda often compare their situation with friends who live in the suburbs. “It’s the commute, that’s the difference,” Judd said. “We don’t have the 20 minutes stuck in traffic, but we have a smaller space.” He does recognize there’s a tradeoff, in that having a car means you don’t have to think as much about where you’re going. “A car gives you options.” Less stress is just one the benefits of avoiding the commute, however. “Living centrally gives you more time to do other things,” Linda said.

The couple would like to see more families living centrally. “It should be more affordable for younger families,” Linda said. She likes Oliver, but says there needs to be more options for family-friendly housing in central neighbourhoods. That means three bedroom condos, as an example. “Having two kids tips the balance,” Judd said. They are confident they have made the right choice, though even they question the centrally-located/smaller-space tradeoff from time to time. “We are in the minority here. Everyone else in the world does it,” Judd said. “Why does it feel so hard sometimes?”

About Oliver

One of Edmonton’s oldest neighbourhoods, Oliver is also the city’s most populated. According to the 2009 municipal census, more than 18,000 people live in Oliver. Roughly 27% of the population is under the age of 20 and nearly 65% of the population is under the age of 40. There are more than twice as many renters in the neighbourhoods as owners. Accordingly, there are significantly more apartments than single-detached homes. Development began in the 1880s, according to the City of Edmonton, though it wasn’t named Oliver until the 1950s.

Oliver scores an impressive 83 on Walk Score, which is “very walkable.” It also gets a Transit Score of 63 thanks to the Grandin LRT station and 45 nearby bus routes. You can learn more about Oliver at Wikipedia and at the Oliver Community League website. The community league is one of the city’s most active on Facebook and Twitter.

Central State of Mind

Would you like to be featured in the series, or do you know someone else who might like to be? If so, please get in touch!