Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Urban Development in Edmonton: 104th Street and Whyte Avenue

I stayed in two different neighbourhoods when I visited Edmonton – downtown near 104th Street and on Whyte Avenue in south Edmonton. They provide an interesting contrast in urban development.

104th Street
When the Blue Plate Diner opened on 104th Street seven years ago, there was a roughneck saloon hotel on the corner, empty parking lots, drugs and prostitution. Rima says that she had to call the police on several occasions to escort her to her car at the end of the evening.

Nowadays, the situation is completely different. There’s a mix of businesses and restaurants; housing options have brought new life to the area. Trees line the street, and there is very little traffic, so it’s a comfortable place to stroll.

I talked to several local business owners, and they gave me some clues to the successful turnaround.

Political Will: City Council targeted this street as being something special and put a lot of effort into redeveloping it. I believe there were also local residents who lobbied hard for responsible development, but I can’t confirm it.

Grocery Store: The sleazy hotel at the corner of 104th and Jasper has been replaced by a Sobey’s Urban Fresh. And what a difference it has made. At 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, there were shoppers coming and going from the store, and the street felt safe.

“Sobey’s has been an anchor for developing this street,” says Geoff Linden, Credo Coffee. The store offers a range of grocery staples and fresh fruit and vegetables, but it also has an extensive deli and salad bar that see heavy traffic from the business crowd at lunchtime.

Dirk Chan of DeVine Wines & Spirits says that the grocery store has gone out of its way to support local products and community events.

High Density Housing: Increasing numbers of people want to live downtown, and there are lots of housing options on 104th. Some of the old warehouses have been converted into lofts. Condominium high-rises have been built, but care has been taken to ensure that they do not dominate the streetscape. The traditional street façade has been maintained, with the towers set back from the street so that they don’t overwhelm.

And the local residents play an important role in supporting the local businesses.

City Market: 104th Street comes alive every Saturday from May to October with 20,000 people visiting City Market each week. I heard nothing but excitement and praise for the Market and the role it plays in revitalizing this area as well as providing income for local farmers and producers.

Independent Businesses: 104th Street is home to a range of independently-owned businesses – Blue Plate Diner, Carbon, Credo Coffee, DeVine Wines & Spirits and many more.

And independent businesses seem to suit this neighbourhood. While the independents appear to be thriving, a branch of Taco del Mar had just shut its door because of lack of business.

“Edmonton was always chainland, and the downtown really suffered from developments on the outskirts, like West Edmonton Mall,” says Rima of Blue Plate Diner. “It’s only in the last five years that people have begun to support local food and go downtown.”

There is strong community spirit with the businesses supporting each other and working together. Go Local – Keep Edmonton Original provides pamphlets and window decals identifying local, independent businesses. Original Fare unites local restaurants, while eatlocalfirst lists local food suppliers, producers and retailers.

And the community spirit works both ways. Dirk Chan of DeVine Wines told me that the local businesses had recently held a block party and raised $40,000 for kids’ lunches.

Whyte Avenue
Perhaps the only similarities between 104th Street and Whyte Avenue are the fine heritage buildings and the markets.

Whyte Avenue stretches for miles with everything from secondhand bookstores and Chapters to car dealerships and bars. It’s located close to the University of Alberta, and it turns into party city in the evenings. Everyone I talked to told me to stay off Whyte Avenue at night, and I could see why as a school bus disgorged a large group of students on Friday evening ,and I was woken up by the noise when the bars closed at 2 am.

There are two attractive boutique hotels (I stayed at the Varscona), and there are some nice restaurants and stores, but the area is dominated by bars catering to the university crowd. A different group arrives on Saturday mornings to visit Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, but I certainly won’t bother to stay in this area again. Downtown Edmonton is far more attractive.

Further information:
Snapshots of Downtown Edmonton
Credo Coffee
Blue Plate Diner
ElDesigno and Carbon
Gail Hall: Culinary Entrepreneur
Gail Hall: Supporting the Local Food Culture
DeVine Wines & Spirits

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