Recap: Designing Downtown – Between Two Cities

Tonight Sharon and I attended a panel discussion at the Art Gallery of Alberta organized by M.A.D.E. in Edmonton called Designing Downtown: Between Two Cities. It was an interesting evening for the event to take place, because across the street at City Hall our City Council was discussing the proposed downtown arena project (they voted to move ahead with negotiations) and also because today was Vancouver’s 125th birthday. Ryan Jespersen was our host for the evening, and Todd Babiak was the moderator for the discussion. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time for that discussion to take place – the panelists used most of the time for their “introductions” (as is often the case).

Gene Dub, founder and principal at Dub Architects Ltd., kicked things off with a little show and tell. He talked about some of the projects he has worked on since establishing his firm in 1975, and highlighted four things that he has tried to focus on with his downtown development efforts: housing, heritage, infill, and commentary. Some of the interesting projects he showed pictures of included the City Market Affordable Housing, the Alberta Hotel, the McKay Avenue School Restoration, and City Hall.

Gene talked about the Seventh Street Lofts project as well, noting that it is a unique mix of a 1950s building, a 1929 brick building (the John Deere warehouse), and a new infill building in the middle. It turns out that when he purchased the northernmost building (1950s) he tried but failed to purchase the small parking lot right on 104 Avenue as well, which I have embedded above. Tonight he told the audience that he has since purchased that lot, and has plans to build an office tower there. He showed a rendering of a beautiful glass building!

107 Street Annex
107 Street Annex, courtesy of Dub Architects

Next up was Mathew Soules, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and the director of Matthew Soules Architecture in Vancouver. As much as I loved listening to Matthew’s very cerebral talk about Vancouver, it was his section of the evening that caused us to go completely off schedule. He had some really interesting things to say about Vancouverism, and I thought he did a great job of breaking it down and explaining it. The fact that the model can be broken down into building blocks is fascinating. One of the more interesting things he said about coming back to Edmonton was that it was refreshing compared to Vancouver. That is, the environment there is so “total” – completely planned, manicured, etc. – that it tends to lack the grittiness and messy vitality that Edmonton has.

Designing DowntownDesigning Downtown

Our third speaker was Shafraaz Kaba, an architect and planner at Manasc Issac Architects Ltd. right here in Edmonton. He spent some time talking about the firm’s interest in reskinning or “reimagining” existing buildings, a discussion which inevitably led to some more negativity directed toward the Associated Engineering building! He also talked about the Capital Modern Tour that Sharon and I went on back in 2008 (Shafraaz was our tour guide on that excursion) and made mention of the importance of preserving buildings such as the CN Tower. Shafraaz also had some of the most memorable statements of the evening, saying for example that “Edmonton has all kinds of plans, we’re good at making plans – what we’re not good at is implementation.” He also posed the very thought-provoking question, “why in the world do we have air conditioning in Edmonton?” Surely there must be a better way to heat and cool our buildings by making better use of our natural climate!

Our fourth and final speaker was Trevor Boddy, a graduate of the University of Alberta who is now a Vancouver-based architecture critic/curator urbanist. He has written books and articles, and is currently working on the TownShift: Suburb Into City ideas competition. He touched on Vancouverism as well, but showed it from a different perspective than Matthew. He also made some memorable statements, most notably: “Edmonton only gets one more chance to get downtown right.” I really liked some of the examples he showed (such as powering a water feature using the heat generated from a server farm located underneath) but I also thought he made some of the best points. He said you can’t fix downtown without also addressing some of the issues in the suburbs, that the arena project is a 1970s way of solving the problem, and that one of the most painful things Edmonton needs to overcome is the way our metropolitan governance model works (I really agree with the last point).

Designing DowntownDesigning Downtown

By the time we got through all of that, there wasn’t much time for questions, and to be honest my mind had started to drift toward the arena issue at City Council! One of the obvious questions that was asked was how the lack of an architecture school has harmed Edmonton, to which Trevor had a great response. He said that you get the school after you have the architecture, not the other way around, and pointed to organizations such as M.A.D.E. and Edmonton on the Edge as the foundation for what could eventually become an architecture school.

The key takeaway seemed to be that getting the discussion happening, with events such as tonight’s panel or the upcoming PKN X, is the key toward cracking the downtown nut. Thanks to all of the organizers for making the event happen! You can see a few more photos here.

UPDATE (4/18/2011): I added the 107 Street Annex rendering, courtesy of Dub Architects. It is labeled “Lot 162, Block 6, Plan B2”.

Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan passes second reading

City Council passed the Municipal Development Plan in second reading tonight. Titled “The Way We Grow,” the document is Edmonton’s strategic growth and development plan, meant to shape urban form and guide future land use. It must now be approved by the Capital Region Board, after which it’ll return to Council for third reading (expected in the May-June timeframe). Here are a few notes on the evening:

  • Councillors Henderson and Krushell pounced on the removal of the words “winter city” from the plan. Councillor Henderson’s proposed amendment was passed unanimously, changing the wording to something like the following: “That all urban design reflects that Edmonton is a winter city, allowing citizens to enjoy it in all seasons.”
  • Councillor Iveson pushed for stronger language around intensification targets, arguing that we need to move beyond simple aspiration to achieving meaningful outcomes. His amendment was passed unanimously.
  • Mayor Mandel said that Councillor Iveson’s amendment was a clear statement that Council wants more aggressive intensification, something the Mayor has supported. He again urged creative solutions to cost difficulties for infill development.
  • There was quite a bit of discussion on the topic of gravel mines in the river valley. I suspect we’ll hear more about that in the future.

The Greater Edmonton Alliance has played a key role in the evolution of the MDP, through it’s campaign to “create a vibrant and sustainable food economy.” Hundreds of Edmontonians once again filled City Hall this evening to show their support. Here are a few photos:

MDP Second Reading

MDP Second Reading

MDP Second ReadingMDP Second Reading

If you’d like to be notified about future GEA events and initiatives, consider joining their mailing list.

GEA has had great success with the campaign, perhaps most memorably with The Great Potato Giveaway. It’ll be interesting to see which issue GEA turns its attention to next.

You can see a few more photos from the evening here.

UPDATE: Don posted his thoughts here.

Jasper Avenue New Vision – November 2009 Update

Back in May I attended the first open house for the Jasper Avenue New Vision project, an initiative that seeks to re-establish Jasper Avenue as the main street of Edmonton. Tonight another open house was held at Enterprise Square downtown, to provide an update on the project and a lot more detail on the plans and designs. Like last time, there were large posters, a 3D foam model, and a presentation. This time however, the presentation was much more in-depth.

Jasper Avenue New VisionJasper Avenue New Vision

Mark Reid of Urban Strategies hosted once again, and began by stressing that the New Vision project is about more than just the streetscape. It takes into consideration the adjacent streets, and is really about targeting re-investment to strengthen downtown’s economic advantage. Much of the presentation focused on the six “big moves”:

  1. Re-vision Jasper Avenue: A catalyst for downtown investment
  2. Civic and Cultural Riverfront Centre
  3. Veterans Park Intensification Area
  4. Capitol District Intensification
  5. Warehouse Community
  6. Railtown Centre

The first big move is to make Jasper Avenue the signature street in Edmonton, reflecting the vibrancy and diversity of the city. Some of the key principles the team has used include: Place Making, The Streetscape, Prioritize Transit/Pedestrian Use, Built Form, Winter City, Activate Ground Floors, Residential Focus, Sustainability, Leadership & Commitment.

The key recommendation for Jasper Avenue is related to space. Currently the street is 30m wide, 21.8m of which is devoted to paved lanes, and 8.2m of which is devoted to sidewalks (4.1m on either side). Essentially 75% of Jasper Avenue is for cars and buses – 4 thru lanes, 2 parking/transit lanes, and 1 turn lane. The plan is to reduce that to 60% – 2 thru lanes, 2 thru/transit/parking lanes, and 1 turn lane, resulting in 17.6m for paved lanes and 6.2m of sidewalk on either side. There would be no parking during rush hour, and only two lay-bys would remain (the space for buses to park on the side). Additionally, the curb lane would be wider to help facilitate transit and cyclists. Traffic volume statistics show that the roadways that run parallel to Jasper Avenue are very underutilized, so there appears to be capacity for this reconfiguration to work.

Jasper Avenue New Vision
Jasper Avenue and 106th Street, facing northwest

Another set of recommendations are related to the streetscape. I noted a few main ideas:

  • Larger trees, by increasing the amount of soil available for each tree by 5 times. In addition to playing a visual role, the trees are an important part of storm water removal.
  • A “grander” looking sidewalk, with steel-faced curbs to reduce the damage caused by winter snow removal, among other things.
  • Heated sidewalks, powered by a glycol system that would pipe waste heat from buildings through the sidewalks. The idea is that Jasper Avenue sidewalks would never need to be shoveled, sanded, or salted ever again!
  • Four scramble intersections, tentatively located at 99th Street, 100th Street, 105th Street, and 108th Street.
  • Newspaper boxes, seating, and other “clutter” would largely move to side streets, keeping Jasper Avenue clean looking. With the removal of lay-bys, you would have a mostly clear, straight sight-line down the Avenue.

There are also recommendations for the appearance of buildings along Jasper Avenue. The team has identified four main categories:

  1. 13% of the facades are heritage buildings or contribute positively.
  2. 18% require some sort of major retrofit.
  3. 32% of the facades are candidates for redevelopment.
  4. 37% require some sort of minor retrofit.

These are all part of the Urban Design Framework, a document that itself will form part of the Capital City Downtown Plan.

Jasper Avenue New Vision
Jasper Avenue & 105th Street, facing northeast

Less time was spent on the other “big moves”, I think because the presenters were running out of time! In the study area today, there are just 2.6 hectares of municipally-owned park space, which is about 3% of the total space. A key target is to increase that to 8%, which is what the Veterans Park Intensification and the Civic and Cultural Riverfront Centre moves are aimed at. Some of the key ideas include:

  • The creation of “MacDonald Central Park” in front of Hotel MacDonald (Mark cited Bryant Park in New York as an example). The park would link up to the “Riverfront Heritage Trail” behind the hotel, which in turn would connect with Veterans Park.
  • The introduction of “mews” throughout downtown – pedestrian-only streets, essentially.
  • Expanding and improving Beaver Hills House Park, as part of the proposed Warehouse Community.

Overall the ideas presented are quite exciting, and when Mark asked for a show of hands indicating support, nearly everyone raised their arm.

In total, the plans call for an increase of:

  • 8,300,793 GSF of residential space
  • 1,173,454 GSF of office space
  • 656,487 GSF of retail space

Which if implemented today, would result in a $19 million increase in tax revenues.

The big question, of course, is how much this will cost and when it’ll happen. Mark said costing information will come in the next phase (winter 2010), which also includes preliminary streetscape and engineering designs, and a finalized urban design framework. Some of the work will happen anyway, though. The trolley wires are scheduled to be removed, and Central LRT station is in need of renovations due to water leaks, work that is tentatively scheduled for 2012. Beyond that, no details were provided.

A lot of information was presented this evening, and I’m not sure I’ve done it justice here. It’s one thing to read about the recommendations, and quite another to see the detailed diagrams and other artwork. I really wish they’d update the website with more information and visuals!

Peter Newman in Edmonton discussing Resilient Cities

Author Peter Newman, in town this week for ICLEI World Congress 2009, gave a free talk tonight at the Shaw Conference Centre on some of the central ideas of the book he recently co-authored, Resilient Cities: Responding to the Crash, Climate Change, and Peak Oil. Presented by Edmonton on the Edge, the talk was hopeful in tone – a nice way to end ICLEI.

Here’s the handbill description:

A new approach to urban development needs to be forged that can, at the same time, enable cities to respond to the deep challenge of decarbonising cities and can use the transition to accelerate the development of what the UN calls the Global Green New Deal. Some hopeful directions will be outlined based on cities from around the world, including cities from down under.

Peter Newman in Edmonton

Peter is from Perth, Australia and he started by saying that Perth and Edmonton are similar in a number of ways (population, land distribution, etc). He next touched on Peak Oil (which Peter says happened in 2008) and the global recession. Peter positioned the Crash as an opportunity (his approach reminded me a lot of Ray Kurzweil). Peter showed a slide with five major economic downturns from the last 300 years or so, and pointed out the technological advances that were made after each. The rate of advance became faster over time, so that today we have exponential progress (this is essentially Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns).

My favorite part of the talk took the bulk of the remaining time – examples, complete with pictures, of cities around the world that have become Smart and Sustainable (together, the two characteristics of cities of the future, according to Peter). A couple of examples:

  • Phoenix, one of the worst cities in the world in terms of transportation by transit, recently replaced two lanes of traffic running through the centre of the city with light rail transit. Peter said if Phoenix can do it, anyone can!
  • Perth has completed significant rail developments in the last 15 years, with some lines going as far as 80km away from the core. During that time, ridership increased from 7 million passengers/year to 90 million/year. Amazing.

Peter introduced a number of acronyms during his talk:

  • IT: Information Technology
  • ET: Environmental Technology
  • TOD: Transit Oriented Development
  • POD: Pedestrian Oriented Development
  • GOD: Green Oriented Development

Naturally, IT and ET go together and TOD, POD, and GOD go together. You can’t have one without the others!

Peter Newman in Edmonton

Peter made reference to the concept of “place based cities” a few times, but unfortunately didn’t elaborate. The general idea is that you can make the local economy more viable by creating a stronger sense of place. Something about it really resonates with me.

The talk was followed by a reception, featuring music by Melissa Majeau. A number of other organizations helped Edmonton on the Edge make tonight’s talk possible, including the City-Region Studies Centre, University of Alberta Faculty of Extension, Edmonton Design Committee, ISL Engineering and Land Services, The City of Edmonton, and M.A.D.E. in Edmonton. Great event!

Jasper Avenue New Visions

Tonight I stopped by the first of two open houses for the Jasper Avenue New Visions initiative. Part of the Capital City Downtown Plan, the project aims to develop a vision to re-establish Jasper Avenue as the main street of Edmonton. I have worked on Jasper Avenue for over five years now, and while there have been some changes in that time, they haven’t been significant (though lately this has been changing). I was curious to see what the future might hold.

The consultants on the project are Toronto-based Urban Strategies, led by former Edmontonian Mark Reid. Other firms involved include Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg of Vancouver, and Edmonton-based ISL Engineering & Land Services, Armin A. Preiksaitis & Associates and HIP Architects.

Jasper Avenue New VisionsJasper Avenue New Visions

The open house took place in the main floor atrium of Enterprise Square. Along one wall was satellite imagery of the areas being considered by the project, and next to that were a bunch of flip chart sheets with lists of challenges and aspirations created by the team throughout the day. There was a projector and a bunch of seats setup, and not far from that was the 3D styrofoam model of Edmonton’s downtown. The remaining walls and separators were plastered with drawings, maps, and other designs.

Mark gave a brief presentation to the dozen or so in attendance, and then led everyone around the room to talk about some of the posters and drawings, finishing with the 3D model. Here are some observations from the event (and about the plan):

  • The project focuses on Jasper Avenue from 97th street to 111th street.
  • The heart of the project is the Central LRT Station, which is being planned for rehabilitation in 2013.
  • There’s a combination of infill development, large development areas, and open spaces in the concepts.
  • Edmonton’s estimated population for 2041 is 1,158,872. The goal is to attract 6% of the growth or 24,000 people to downtown. That translates into roughly 75 twenty storey apartment buildings.
  • Jasper Avenue is wide enough to support seven lanes of traffic. In comparison to other downtowns, the amount of pedestrian space on Jasper Avenue is incredibly small.
  • In fact, almost every feature of Jasper Avenue is geared toward vehicle traffic. Any redevelopment needs to shift the focus to pedestrian traffic. Think back to the Stanley Cup run of 2006, and this becomes crystal clear. I took video of both Whyte Avenue and Jasper Avenue – Whyte was full of people, Jasper was full of vehicles.
  • Height restrictions due to the City Centre Airport are a challenge, but not as big as you might think. The strictest height limitations are west of 109th street. However, Mark did admit that the airport is one of the main reasons our skyline lacks a recognizable, tall structure.

The timeline for the project is as follows:

  • Phase 1: Concepts – November 2008 to May 2009
  • Phase 2: Finalizing the Urban Design Concept – May 2009 to June 2009
  • Phase 3: Preparing the Public Realm Concept – June 2009 to September 2009
  • Phase 4: Preparing the Preliminary Design Drawings – September 2009 to November 2009

One of the more interesting displays was a timeline describing Jasper Avenue from the early 1900s up to now. It started as the commercial district for the city, centered between 96th and 99th streets. By the 1930s, Jasper Avenue had become a prestigious business address. Through the 1960s, higher scale development started, a number of historic buildings were demolished, and vehicles were more prominent. Suburbanization through the 1980s led to the decline of Jasper Avenue, and the launch of initiatives to help revitalize the street. Today, we’re starting to see renewal though continued outward growth poses major competition.

What will it be like in 2020?

You can see the rest of my photos from tonight here. The second open house is tomorrow from 2pm to 4pm in the main floor atrium of Enterprise Square (10230 Jasper Avenue).

Edmonton's New Downtown Plan

edmonton's new downtown plan The City of Edmonton unveiled a draft of its New Downtown Plan this week, an overhaul of the Downtown Redevelopment Plan that was first created back in 1997. There were information displays setup in various places downtown, including at the City Centre Farmer’s Market today.

I quite like the marketing for the plan. Dark, bold colors, and a clear message: “My Downtown Is…Sustainable. Dynamic. Well-designed. Liveable. Accessible. Moving Forward.”

The plan outlines seven strategic priorities:

  1. Spaces for People. More open spaces, including parks and plazas.
  2. Expand the Knowledge Base. Support the continued expansion of education institutions.
  3. Increase Cultural and Entertainment Options. New facilities and expansion of existing opportunities.
  4. Enrich Jasper Avenue. Restore the prominence of this street as Edmonton’s main street.
  5. Connect to the River Valley and Adjacent Neighbourhoods. Build walkable links and improve access to the Legislature and North Saskatchewan River.
  6. Pedestrians First. Connect downtown with richly landscaped, sustainable streets.
  7. More Amenities. Build a downtown that is rich in things for people to do and places to go.

According to the Edmonton Journal, 600 people have participated in the creation of the plan by filling out surveys, questionnaires, and attending public meetings over the last few years.

“Edmontonians have told us they envision a dynamic neighbourhood, with more amenities and cultural activities to attract, residents, businesses and students,” said Shafee Mohamed, senior planner for the Downtown Plan.

“We have tried to capture that vision in this plan.”

I live fairly close to downtown, on 122nd street and 104th avenue. For many years I had an office right in the core at 101st street and Jasper Avenue, and I continue to spend a lot of time downtown. Even though I think it has come a long way since 1998 when I moved back to Edmonton, I’m happy to see renewed interest in improving the downtown area. We still have a long way to go before we’re on par with cities elsewhere in Canada.

The city is collecting feedback on the plan now, and will make revisions before presenting it to council in November. You can help by filling out the survey, or by calling 780.496.6064 to leave your comments.

If you’d like more information, check out the Downtown Plan website, call 780.496.6225, or write to You can also check out a public Open House on Tuesday, September 9th at the Winspear Centre. There will be brief presentations at 5, 6, and 7pm in addition to information displays.

I took a few photos of the information that was on display at the Farmer’s Market today, which you can see here.