Boosting Edmonton’s business districts

Empty lots are a common sight in Edmonton these days. This is on Whyte Ave. Photos by Myron Belej

By Myron Belej
YegNews.com 

We typically drive to malls because there isn’t usually much to see beyond them. They tend to be surrounded by seas of parking. So our plan is to get in, shop, and then get out. We walk around malls as long as there are additional stores to see, or until our money runs out.

The same is true with Edmonton’s short commercial strips.

A walk down Whyte Avenue can be completed within just 20-30 minutes. The same goes for 124 Street and 97 Street.

Whyte Avenue has three to four lanes of car traffic for every “lane” (the sidewalk) for people, and the main stretch from 109 Street to 99 Street is anchored on both ends by gas stations. Signage is installed for drivers, not pedestrians, and there are parking lots, car washes, and car dealerships all along the strip.

For lease signs can be seen circled in green on this "power corner" at Whyte Ave. and 104 Street .

Of greater concern, three of the four corners at the heart of Whyte Avenue have come up for lease in recent months. Why can’t they stay open? People drive there, grab a coffee and socialize, and then drive home, just like the mall.

But imagine if, like Yonge Street in Toronto, or like Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal, commercial business activity continued fluidly, without gaps, for a much longer stretch, even into an entire network.

Whyte Avenue’s businesses could continue westward beyond 109 Street. And eastward past 99 Street, across Mill Creek Bridge, to the businesses at 93 Street. New business activity could help pay for the cost of maintaining that bridge.

Likewise, an exciting and extensive commercial loop could be developed on the north side of the river, starting with Jasper Avenue westward to 124 Street, up to 107 Avenue, eastward to 97 Street, and back south to Jasper Avenue.

In a connected system like this, the whole would be much greater than the sum of the parts. The overall attraction of wanting to walk and see more would create a disincentive and a disadvantage for people to drive there. Sustainability goals would be promoted, and the business climate would flourish, especially for entrepreneurs.

What you can see at the moment on the east side of 97 Street in Chinatown.

In the present disconnected system, small business owners don’t have it easy. High rents can keep them away, giving chain stores the advantage. Both Starbucks and Subway each have about 10 locations in downtown Edmonton, according to their corporate websites.

This image has been modified to fill in the empty space and show what this block on the east side of 97 Street in Chinatown could look like. Much more interesting.

What if either one of them decide to pull the pin? The effect would be one of a vacuum sucking the life out of the already sparse downtown. It’s happened before. Just three years ago, Starbucks made the decision to close 600 stores in the United States, putting an estimated 12,000 people out of work.  The Second Cup at 118 Street and Jasper Avenue recently closed. Another large corporation, Blockbuster, recently announced that it would close nearly 150 stores in Canadian cities, including six in Edmonton.

By contrast, local business owners tend to have a greater stake in their city, neighbourhood, and local community.

Look at the popularity of local farmers’ markets. We could host more of them on vacant sites in our commercial districts. Vacant strips along sidewalks could host more kiosks for artists and small business owners, like the vendor that set up recently by the bus stop at Whyte Avenue and 105 Street. Imagine that whole area of empty grass enlivened with entrepreneurial spirit, and others like it.

What’s interesting about this strategy is anyone can drive it. Commercial developers and real estate firms can buy up and build on vacant properties one at a time. Community leagues and business revitalization zone groups can make lists of desired businesses and seek them out.

After all, commercial streets, much like smiles, look and work better when they’re all filled in.

Myron Belej is a creative urban planner with a passion for fixing cities and improving communities. His work has been published and featured nationally and internationally. An active mentor and coach, Myron has also been recognized for his thought-provoking presentations at several conferences and Pecha Kucha Nights. Read more by Myron at www.cityplanner.ca.

3 Responses to Boosting Edmonton’s business districts

  1. The problem with Whyte ave is that it’s a major East-West route for vehicular traffic on the southside and eventually becomes the Sherwood Park fwy too. The next busy route is 63rd ave (becoming Argyll Road). So, I don’t see much choice for Whyte ave to not have traffic. I live close to Whyte Ave and I so wished that this was not the case. The railway tracks cause all this problem. However, removing the railway tracks and putting stop signs on every intersection of Whyte (for instance) would lead to semi-residential streets like 76th ave becoming high traffic streets. Perhaps it’s a good thing in the long run, I’m certainly not the expert.

  2. Um…you have produced a fluff piece. I am hoping that you actually follow up with this and talk about how to accomplish a commercial loop. Also, some info on exactly why there is so much turnover on Whyte and the loss of local businesses as opposed to chains.

  3. @Addie:
    Whyte Avenue is a major East-West travel route, with more road space for cars than walking space for people. It would be nice to see that space balance shift more toward people.

    During the Whyte Ave Street Fair, two full blocks are closed to traffic, and cars are rerouted. This could be done at other times as well.

    When 104 Street is closed downtown during the Saturday Farmers’ Market, the public use and enjoyment of that space is tremendous.

    @Stuart:
    The first step in accomplishing a commercial loop is to fill in the gaps between existing businesses (i.e., by constructing more buildings). In an existing commercial area, your chances are pretty good that the zoning will fit some form of commercial use.

    As the vacant spaces are leased/sold, community groups and developers can shift their focus to expanding toward the other business streets/areas, to fill in the loop I’ve proposed. This would take time and energy on the part of existing businesses, community members, and government, but it would be worth it.

    With respect to turnover in commercial areas by entrepreneurs vs. chain stores, chain stores generally benefit from national marketing strategies and tend to be able to afford higher rents than “the little guys”. These companies are often well-established, with good name/brand recognition.

    Many entrepreneurs face an initial uphill battle to “break into the market”, but they can succeed too, especially if they can access support with business planning, start-up financing, marketing/communications, and ongoing coaching/improvement.

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