The Future of Whyte Avenue

Whyte Avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon. A 16 storey high rise is proposed for the site behind this building.

This week, Edmonton City Council is considering a proposal for a high-rise just off of Whyte Avenue. It will be the first of many brought forward, and at 16 storeys, a dramatic departure from the existing streetscape. Whyte Ave is the heart of Old Strathcona, long one of the most popular and vibrant areas of the city (it endured a decline in the middle part of the 20th century which, ironically, allowed it to rebound and enjoy its current popularity as heritage areas increased in popularity over the last 30 years). The area is a designated provincial historic district, and retains characteristics of its early days, such as brick facades and low to medium rise density.

In isolation, this project is fine and offers many positives. It would fit in quite well in the burgeoning Warehouse District of downtown. It is, however, not the right project for Old Strathcona.

In one sense, this should be an open and shut case based on procedural fairness. The project does not conform to the Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP), and is opposed by city administration because of that. Land owners (and prospective land owners) have had to follow these rules for years. If the ARP is outdated, then it should be reviewed, and the community at large can debate and have its will regarding the height of buildings expressed in an updated plan. Then projects like this (and other high rises coming forward) can be debated within the framework of a broader direction for the neighbourhood.

That’s the way forward, though if that moment does come, I hope Edmonton will still preserve Old Strathcona in its low rise, character form.

As gentrification has spread across Canadian and American cities, it has become common place to read about sweeping changes in neighbourhoods, places that in essence becomes victims of their own success. Artists, independent businesses, risk takers, and others looking for affordable places move in to take advantage of the existing building stock, density, and proximity to other places, services, and amenities. The neighbourhood develops an appealing character, popular places, and an increasingly more affluent clientele moves in, first as customers, then as residents. This pushes out not only residents, but shop owners, as rents and purchase prices rise. The building stock turnover increases, and soon — while much might look physically the same — the neighbourhood has changed. Long time residents and those who have been pushed out complain, and many (by force or choice) decamp for the next future trendy area. Change is not inherently good or bad, but in transition, these areas risk losing what made them popular in the first place.

Whyte Ave is three decades into a renaissance. I’ve seen it change, as a kid who visited frequently in the ’80s and ’90s, a resident and student in the adjacent Garneau neighbourhood in the ’00s, and a regular visitor since. It’s more commercial, more affluent, but it has done well to maintain many of the things that first made it desirable. While less predominant, many independent and local shops and pubs still thrive. It plays home to a diverse mix of people, both neighbourhood residents and visitors. Its popular festivals not only persist but continue to grow. It’s not perfect, but it’s doing pretty good.

As I noted at the start, it was able to thrive because it was overlooked. While redevelopment from the 1960s onward dramatically transformed areas north of the river, notably Downtown and Oliver, Old Strathcona was largely spared. It soon bore out the famous Jane Jacobs quote, that while “old ideas can sometimes use new buildings, new ideas must use old buildings.” It was no accident that defining initiatives like the Edmonton Fringe were formed in this area. While the areas north of the river lost stunning heritage buildings like the library and Tegler Building, the early 20th century built heritage south of the river largely endured. In fact, one of the characteristics that makes Old Strathcona a historic district, according to the Alberta Register of Historic Places, is the scale of the buildings, with the vast majority being three storeys in height or less”.

One of the arguments put forward for the Mezzo, and virtually every new development, is that density will somehow fix whatever perceived problems exist, and that that density must come in the form of a high rise. There are lots of ways to achieve vibrancy, and there is no evidence in Edmonton’s case that high rises and more population density automatically create a more vibrant neighbourhood at the street level. (A personal aside: I live in Oliver, and I like it, but I see more street activity on Whyte Ave no matter the day or time than I do on Jasper Ave, despite Oliver being significantly more populous and dense and home to many high rises, than Strathcona proper. Same for downtown once the office workers go home).

These comments also ignore the value of low to medium rise density, and how successful that can be. Here’s what the urbanist writer Roberta Brandes Gratz had to say, in her book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown:

High-rise or even low-rise density is not, by definition, bad and, in fact, it is the only thing that makes feasible a cost-effective and efficient urban infrastructure. Cities must have sufficient density to function well. In fact, downtowns are at their most productive when density is high. The form of the density can vary. The high density of low-rise neighbourhoods, former streetcar suburbs, contributes significantly to their appeal.

She adds that in populous (and now popular) Brooklyn, the majority of buildings are no more than four or five storeys tall.

Density is important, but it takes different shapes. There are places, like downtown, where high-rise density works. There are places, like a historic area noted for its low rise form, where high rises do not.

As a final point, it’s important to take a holistic look at growth in the city, and as I do, I’m increasingly left wondering who is going to live in all these condos and apartments that we expect to revitalize several mature neighbourhoods. As they get older, Millennials will increasingly looking to the family friendly housing, though they want ones that look more like the streetcar suburbs of previous generations (low-rise, family oriented, walkable) than the ones they grew up in. In-migration is unlikely to keep up its rapid rates of the past 15 years. New Canadians are increasingly settling in the suburbs. Seniors aren’t downsizing and moving to the urban core at the rate expected. As a whole, the population is aging, and the upcoming cohort of young people is smaller than previous ones. Even in Edmonton, a younger city than Canada as a whole, the proportion of the population under the age of 25 declined by 2% from the 2009 to 2014 municipal census. At some point, this becomes zero sum. As high rises go ahead in other parts of the city, particularly as we look to Transit Oriented Development around new light rail stations, we’ll wonder why Blatchford and the Quarters are stalling, without making the connection.

We should focus on what makes neighbourhoods special, and seek to preserve and enhance it. Change is not inherently good or bad. High rises are not inherently good or bad. There are many ways to achieve density and vibrancy. Preserving the historic character of Old Strathcona is the way forward. There are plenty of other great places for high rises.

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