Refueling the Quarters Plan

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The digital world has created avenues like these for people to yell into the wind about things that frustrate them. This is one of those times. If you’ve already heard me rant on this topic, my apologies. This is for your suffering.

Before I begin – I understand plenty of money, time, risk, blood, sweat, tears and mental sanity has gone into the Quarters plan from residents, business owners, real estate owners, developers and the City of Edmonton alike. I’m one of them. No one is blameless. The Quarters has not gone to plan for a variety of reasons, but there has to be a solution.

That’s the point of this.

I love architectural history. Much of Edmonton’s remaining historical sites are concentrated in historic centre of town, in and around Namayo and Jasper Avenues – the Quarters and surroundings. We are invested in the area and I am extremely, extremely passionate about its success. We can’t seem to get past the current disconnect of thought, though.

First, history. As early as 1967 [<- great backgrounder by Elise Stolte of the Edmonton Journal – she expertly commentates on local news and has written extensively on the Quarters over the years], the City of Edmonton has prioritized revitalizing the 1920s heart of the City. With no real investment, however, we’ve only cultivating well-worn complaints about the area. “No one walks there, everything is abandoned”, “It’s all parking lots and homeless people”, and so on.

The 2006 Vision and following Quarters Area Revitalization Plan created so much hope. An actionable plan! Millions of dollars invested in neighborhood revitalization! It was my first experience of our failed attempts at a rebuild (as Edmontonians we should be used to this) for the Downtown East problem and, without the bias of numerous historical failures to cloud my excitement, expectation levels were high.

Time passed. 2008 happened and slowed things down. The Ice District was announced and happened – priorities shifted. We built a new sometimes working LRT line, that took money. Two bridges were started, encountered structural failure, were repaired and opened. Still, precious little happened in the area. 96 Street’s ‘revitalization’ – creating a single lane ‘dead area’ for foot or vehicle traffic – was the single accomplishment the City had.

So, with no projects in sight, we got the ‘anything is better than nothing’ approach. And, honestly, I get it. I don’t blame the City for doing it. Large projects sometimes need a kick in the pants to move forward and I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of. It is what it is.

There is, however, responsibility to ensure that the ‘anything is better than nothing’ proposal is representative, or at least iterative in some way, of the overall vision. That’s not really what we got, and the City and stakeholders knew it.

Speaking to the Quarters/Hyatt Place/Unknown branded hotel on 96 Street:

The hotel blocks more sunlight and won’t have residents to support local cafés and businesses the way, say, a condominium tower would. But city hall needed something to go ahead, and that’s the real key, says Young.”

With the Aldritt Tower:

For many, the vote came down to whether they believed the tower will help or hinder redevelopment in the rest of the east downtown area, and whether enough public consultation occurred before the underlying redevelopment plan saw substantial change.” [much thanks to Elise Stolte again]. “This viewpoint was critical to The Quarters redevelopment plan, which envisioned a public park acting as a catalyst. That could still happen, but in a different way.”

Progress for progress’ sake. The City spent fortunes on developing a vision of what the Quarters could be, promised it to stakeholders, and then sacrificed its core ideals to see new development.

I don’t blame either builder/developer. They’re in the business to make money. You get the best deal you can; If the City offers financial or administrative support to get something done then you take it. Investments don’t make money because they’re the right things to do (even if they should be); they make money because they’re profitable things that (hopefully) are right. People don’t turn down free things. Just because you, me, and most of the City wouldn’t have done it doesn’t mean that others will act the same.

And we shouldn’t have expected any different, in truth.

The stakeholders in the area acted predictably – the City desperate to see any construction to justify their investment, developers taking advantage of a that desperation, a bunch of landowners gouging the City and prospective purchasers for property, the existing community feeling ignored and forgotten, and community-focused business owners – with limited capital to begin with – are extremely hesitant to open businesses without some possibility of success. 

Honestly, we didn’t do much different either. We started investing and re-envisioning our area properties recently, well after the hotel was built. We’re also to blame.

In summary, it’s a ‘hurry up and wait’ problem. We have to ‘hurry up’ – entice people to interact with the area by highlighting history and encouraging (financially and otherwise) businesses to set up there; and ‘wait’ – allow successful activity to further entice larger projects and businesses to add amenities to the area.

This is how I’d proceed:

1)

Gravel parking lots suck. We all know this. Every Quarters discussion ends with ‘the parking lots all need to go’. Affordable parking is impossible to find in ‘downtown proper’, though, as the City has successfully pushed lot owners to sell. I see this as an opportunity.

I argue that (most) people will do what they’re economically motivated to do. So rather than trying to find someone to redevelop all these lots at once (impossible), I would suggest a compromise:

Issue a temporary use permit for a set duration of time – requiring landowners with these lots to utilize a minimum of 10% of their lands for retail, commercial or community use and provide free power and water to those businesses that use it. Food trucks, hot dog carts, landscaped park areas, whatever. Land owner gets a building or use permit approved and they keep their gravel lot (and its income) as long as it’s open. If the lot owner refuses, the City denies the business license of that parking lot and the lot gets closed as they hope. I’ve been told by another frustrated Quartersian this is the Portland model of revitalization – they did mostly OK, didn’t they?.

This would, theoretically, create affordable (and habitable) commercial space for people to create community in – a food truck looking to transition into a full-time restaurant, a ‘maker’ looking to transition from the City Market and open their first storefront, an affordable workspace, first art gallery or commercial catering kitchen. Similar neighborhoods – Inglewood in Calgary, Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, Gastown/East Hastings in Vancouver – were driven by the availability of affordable space. Let’s create it.

And, where Portland failed, we’d have a chance to succeed. Existing residents – from the homeless to the working poor to the lower-middle class – could have the convenience stores and affordable food options that the neighborhood desperately lacks. Less Joey Bell Tower and more Nook Cafe on 97 Street and 101A Avenue.

2)

Supporting businesses in the neighborhood is a given, especially with the amount of money the City has invested in the vision there. With Churchill Square out of commission we have a golden opportunity to create activity on the 96 Street corridor and get people excited about the prospect of having a business there.

We are the Festival City. Let’s activate that space. We have a golden opportunity to reintroduce the neighborhood the way the City wants it seen, and we can’t afford to miss it. [Since I wrote this, the Grey Cup festival/street party has been announced and is utilizing some Quarters and almost-Quarters areas in their celebrations. More of the same, please!]

3)

The City has used the Development Incentive and Façade Improvement Programs to try and get existing owners to do something. I applaud that wholeheartedly. It hasn’t really worked in the Quarters, though. Some buildings have been left too long, some owners don’t need the money or care for the headache. Those spaces and the streets around them need to be activated to get people used to visiting the area to eat, drink and shop at their favorite places.

Pop-up shops, restaurants and food trucks can all build retail traffic but will still need encouragement to test the area out – discounts on business and vending permits in exchange for a certain number of weeks in the area, reimbursement for AGLC Special Event licenses in the area, free parking spaces for food truck or temporary retail parking, streamlined approvals for OSCAM permits and City ‘donations-in-kind’ for securing or policing smaller events in the area.

Smaller incentives for smaller businesses to take smaller risks in a new area for smaller amounts of money from the City (relative to the Development Incentive and Façade Improvement grants). If temporary retail can take off it will entice others to activate their retail space and make that additional money.

All told, despite all the issues we are slowly seeing new, appropriate development. I’m trying to stay positive.  The Hat at Five Corners will show up at the intersection of 95 Street, 102 Avenue and Jasper Avenue in the next year and a half, with plenty of retail space and new residents filling in the community. Hopefully Edmontonians can be convinced to give it a shot.

As the Quarters ARP document stated – “The Quarters is a place where community is important and pride and investment in the neighbourhood is evident.” Hopefully it works.

Sincerely,
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1 Comment
  • Marty
    November 5, 2018

    Alim, thank you for this article. I think it’s about maintaining momentum, how many and what types of developments are going to finally ignite the flame of The Quarters. You and your group is helping get Edmonton closer to that goal, and reducing red tape to get some retail/restaurant in the area is another great idea.

    If you remember at Alldritt’s city council hearing, some in the community said there is no problem, there is lots of development why should we make changes in FAR or zoning to allow more. I’m not sure the community desire for development is aligned with the City as a whole or administration for that matter.

    I think we need to reduce the red tape for small business and development for the Quarters until there is sufficient momentum. I think stakeholders shouldn’t be constrained by plans that are decades out of date, for needs of a population 50 years from now. I think the ARP is great in principle but is it working?

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