– Todd Babiak, The Edmonton Journal
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
On a warm, late-summer afternoon, this quarter of the Quarters is serene. Only the ambient hum of cars, birdsong and the slightly out-of-tune bells of City Hall interrupt the quiet. On one side of 103rd Avenue east of 95th Street is a newish collection of modest bungalows, fronted by artful landscaping, that seems transported from an affluent suburb. On the other side is Liberty Quarters, a handsome condo redevelopment with themed suites called, however unimaginatively, The Greenwich, The Central Park, The Broadway and The Soho. They feature jetted tubs, quartz countertops, hardwood and porcelain tile flooring.
Liberty Quarters is walking distance to a redesigned Louise McKinney Riverfront Park, to the river, to Chinatown and Little Italy, to the most elegant restaurants downtown and to the cultural institutions of Winston Churchill Square.
It sounds perfect. Yet half a block away, on 95th Street, old groceries like the Wonderland and This Planet Natural Foods are boarded up. A gaggle of men and women sit in the shade of a dilapidated halfway house, drinking and roaring and stumbling about. Between here and 97th Street, a pioneer downtown east-sider must pass the Mount Royal Hotel, one of the least desirable addresses in the city, and enough greyness and gravel to shoot a movie about the end of the world.
An aerial view of The Quarters, with its parking lot estuaries, couldn’t be more depressing. But Duncan Fraser, a senior planner with the City of Edmonton, is delighted. Last Monday night, after years of planning and meetings, Fraser and his team held the 10th and final public consultation. They go to city council with the rezoning applications in November. Shortly thereafter, they move into implementation.
From their inviting storefront on Jasper Avenue and 93rd Street, Fraser and his private-sector partners will “re-scale the grid,” to break up the parking lots and build something functional yet magnificent in 18 blocks of Edmonton’s downtown east side.
“We have three rules for developers,” says Fraser, a soft-spoken man who nevertheless radiates passion and excitement about his project. “We want great-looking architecture. We want something green and sustainable. And we want a contribution to Edmonton’s affordable housing policy.”
Partnerships between the city and developers operate on a points system. The more the developers give, the more they get in incentives. The vision for The Quarters has been a collaboration between the community, the municipal government, experts in architecture and design, city planning and social policy from here and from model cities such as Portland.
City-building of this sort has never really happened in Alberta. We’re so much younger than European capitals, which benefited from kings, queens and tyrants who wanted their greatness reflected on the streets.
We missed the ambitions in Montreal and New York to be grander than their European models. More recently, the boom-and-bust cycle, a “get in and get out” strategy and philosophies of extreme laissez-faire economics have allowed cheapness and profitability to trump beauty — hence the wooden boxes plastered with vinyl siding, the windowless concrete bunkers, the parking lots.
No matter what your philosophy happens to be, it’s impossible to come up with an argument against The Quarters, an evolution in careful, inspired city-building. Developers receive a lot for their willingness to gamble on this bold initiative. Usually, they must spend plenty of time and plenty of money on rezoning. They must meet with and satisfy the Edmonton Design Committee. For developers that sign on to The Quarters, Fraser and his team take care of the zoning.
They have already met with the Edmonton Design Committee five times, leaving developers with a quick turn-around time and a formula that allows for plenty of creativity — and profitability.
In April, a 16-storey condo tower called the ValleyView was announced. It will face the gorgeous Gibson Block on Jasper Avenue and 96th Street. This is the base of The Armature, a park-like “beachfront” with brownstone-type homes opening on a pedestrian walkway — replacing 96th Street. The city is talking to the federal government about moving operations from the historic, riverfront Grierson Complex, which could be transformed into retail space, condominiums, even a city museum.
We tend to be a cynical people in Edmonton. Efforts at downtown revitalization have broken our hearts so many times before. Strolling or cycling through The Quarters, though, past the boarded-up groceries and over the glass-strewn “$2, all day” parking lots, it doesn’t take a surplus of imagination to see and feel the future of the city.
© The Edmonton Journal 2008