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.

We need to hold downtown parking lots to a higher standard

I’m no fan of surface parking lots downtown, but even if we succeed at getting rid of some of them many will remain. We’ll always have a need for parking downtown, and it won’t always be in a closed structure like a parkade. If you believe the mantra that “as goes your downtown, so goes your city” then you should care about these parking lots. Parking lots take up lots of space and directly impact how clean, safe, and vibrant downtown is or is perceived to be. We need to start holding our parking lots downtown to a higher standard.

Example of a bad parking lot

The parking lot on the west side of 103 Street just south of 103 Avenue is one of the worst parking lots downtown. You can see it on maps.edmonton.ca here. Here it is on Google Street View – it has not changed since the imagery was recorded.

There’s a lot to dislike about this parking lot. It is not paved, resulting in a huge mess whenever there’s rain or snow.

Parking Lot

There is no landscaping around the lot. It looks ugly from every angle. The empty wooden box along the sidewalk has potential but instead is an eyesore. There isn’t a clear separation between the parking lot and the sidewalk.

Parking Lot

Parking Lot

There are no cameras in sight, no theft prevention signs anywhere. You don’t get the sense that someone is looking after this parking lot.

Parking Lot

At night, the lot feels incredibly unsafe. It has very poor lighting – the bulk of the light that does exist is actually from the Pattison advertisement.

Parking Lot

Parking Lot

Example of a good parking lot

The parking lot at Jasper Avenue and 99 Street, beside the World Trade Centre building, is one of the best parking lots downtown (except for the fact that it is located on Jasper Avenue, which I really don’t like). You can see it on maps.edmonton.ca here (plus adjacent plots of land). Here it is on Google Street View, and you can see that it has actually been improved since the imagery was recorded. That itself is a positive thing about this parking lot – someone is looking after it!

There are a bunch of things I like about this parking lot. I like that it is paved and that the parking lines are clearly marked.

Parking Lot

I like that there is some landscaping around the parking lot. It makes it look much more attractive, and the transparent fencing results in a nice blend of vehicles and pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Parking Lot

You’ll note on the far wall, the side of the World Trade Centre building, that there are cameras. Activity in this parking lot is being recorded. There are also signs about preventing theft throughout the lot.

Parking Lot

At night, the parking lot is very well lit. There are no dark corners. You feel safe walking in this parking lot at night.

Parking Lot

Parking Lot

Most of downtown Edmonton’s parking lots are bad

The list of positives might actually be longer than the things I have pointed out above, but I think there are a few things that all good parking lots must have:

  • Paved aisles and entryways (at least)
  • Bright, evenly distributed lighting
  • Landscaping and trash receptacles
  • Some separation between cars and pedestrians (a non-opaque fence, for example)
  • Monitoring, by security camera or guard or both

If you walk around downtown, you’ll quickly realize that there are very few parking lots that meet this criteria. Most are gravel lots, with no landscaping, limited lighting, no fencing, and no sense that anyone is looking after them. They are eyesores, and they contribute to the feeling that downtown is dirty and unsafe.

What can we do about it?

I think we need to start holding land owners accountable. If you want to have a surface parking lot on your land, fine, but you have to look after it! Especially if you’re producing revenue from that parking lot. Obviously we as drivers can choose to avoid parking in lots that are not compliant, but I question how effective that would actually be. I think we need the City to start enforcing these things, to make a statement that we care about downtown and that these ugly and unsafe parking lots are not helping. Give land owners 180 days to get compliant, and put up jersey barriers if they don’t.

You can see more photos of these two parking lots here.

What do you think?

How much do traffic signs cost?

I read with great interest this week about the City of Edmonton’s new residential speed reduction pilot. Speed limits have been on my radar since late last year when Patricia Grell of the Woodcroft community started her Safe Speed Limits blog. She and many others have been pushing for a reduction to 30km/h on residential streets. The pilot goes half way, to 40km/h, and will take place in six Edmonton neighbourhoods: Woodcroft, Beverley Heights, Ottewell, King Edward Park, Westridge/Wolf Willow and Twin Brooks.

Those communities were selected based on “the extent of the speeding problem” as well as traffic volume, the number of playgrounds and schools, etc. The City consulted with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues to identify community leagues that would be willing to participate. EFCL Executive Director Allan Bolstad told me that community leagues will act as the “window into the neighbourhoods”, both to help inform and educate, as well as gather feedback on how well the program is working. He said the community leagues will meet mid-March to start implementation, and will continue to meet regularly to evaluate.

The City of Edmonton already has traffic safety programs of course, and they will be integrated into the pilot. Specifically, Speed Watch (which shows drivers their speed), Neighbourhood Pace Cars (vehicles that act as mobile speed bumps), and Safe Speed Community Vans will all be used. Dan Jones from the City’s Office of Traffic Safety said there will also be digital readout speed trailers (like the ones you see at construction sites) and of course, new traffic signs.

He also confirmed that the projected cost for the pilot is $100,000 per neighbourhood. I’m in favor of reducing speed limits, if only so that police officers can ticket people at 50km/h instead of the current 60km/h, but when I heard that figure I thought it sounded rather expensive. Allan Bolstad said he too was “puzzled” by the amount. If I understand things correctly, only the signs are new – the other programs already exist and presumably already have the appropriate funding. Which begs the question – how much do traffic signs cost?

To find out, I talked to Rick MacAdams from Edmonton-based hi signs. They manufacture a wide range of signs, including the speed limit signs you’d see around town. Their speed limit sign, the RB-1, comes in two versions: one with a high intensity reflective film and one with a “diamond grade” reflective film (both films are 3M products). The first costs $76.70 per sign while the diamond grade one costs $109.38. That’s if you’re buying one or two signs; there are discounts for large volume orders, of course.

Next question – how many signs are required in each neighbourhood? I decided to go to Google Maps, to count the number of straight street segments in a couple of the neighbourhoods. I took that number, and multiplied it by two (so we have signs for each direction). The range I came up with was between 60 and 120 signs per neighbourhood. You can probably do the math, but at 120 signs per neighbourhood, using the highest price per sign, the total comes to $13,125.60 per neighbourhood. So a grand total for the pilot of $78,753.60. Nowhere close to the $100,000 per neighbourhood that has been projected!

Now this back-of-the-napkin analysis leaves a number of things out. For one, the time and cost required to have crews post the signs in each neighbourhood. For another, the cost of the digital speed readout trailers. There will also likely be marketing costs. But it also leaves out the fact that the City of Edmonton has its own sign creation department, so the cost per sign is probably far less than what hi signs would charge. And my analysis probably significantly overestimates the number of signs required for each neighbourhood.

So I’m left happy but confused and maybe even a little alarmed. Happy that the City has heard residents and is testing residential speed limit reductions to see if it improves community safety. Confused because I can’t imagine why this pilot will cost $600,000.