“Downtown by design is within reach” – finally some good news for Edmonton’s core?

EDMONTON – For years, we’ve complained about the overall dumpiness of Edmonton. Our downtown is a garden of parking lots and pre-clad concrete, neither lively nor lovely. Old Strathcona is being overrun by thugs and graffiti. The suburbs, the shopping malls and power centres, the dominion of the fast-food restaurant, the esthetically punishing drive into town from the airport.

Complaining has become an art form in itself. We travel. We see what Edmonton could be if only … if only what?

It has to stop. The moment we decide, as a community, that it’s over -it’s over. Now, doesn’t that feel glorious? And daunting?

On April 6, more than 50 people were turned away from a sold-out panel discussion about architecture and urban design at the Art Gallery of Alberta. On stage, two architects from Edmonton and two architects from Vancouver talked about designing a downtown.

Shafraaz Kaba and Gene Dub, from Edmonton, outlined some suc-cesses, some failures, and spoke of the complex relationship between authenticity and renewal. Matthew Soules and Trevor Boddy described the magnificent, even shocking, transformation of Vancouver since the 1950s, with Soules hinting that the hyper-planned, glass-and-cherrytree downtown lacks a kind of grittiness.

Boddy talked about the hybrid nature of downtown Vancouver, a meeting place of podiums and towers, Brooklyn and Hong Kong.

Boddy, a former Edmontonian who mourned planning and development failures in the city’s past, said, “This is your last chance to get it right.”

During the brief question-andanswer session, an audience member asked if Edmonton has suffered by not having an architecture school. Boddy pointed to the screen behind him, where organizers MADE in Edmonton, NextGen and several other logos of arts, architecture and development partners were posted.

“That’s your architecture school,” he said, and gestured toward the audience: “This is your architecture school.”

As we met in the art gallery, city councillors across the street debated and voted on municipal support for a downtown arena. Two days later, the Alberta government would announce an international architectural competition to design a new Royal Alberta Museum. The transformation of the legislature precinct is underway. We’re reimagining the City Centre Airport lands as a village.

There were architects, developers, professional designers and urban planners in the audience, some of them involved in these grand projects. But most of us were dilettantes, amateur urbanists with an affection for the city who would love to see, and feel, something different when we walk its streets.

A city is an idea as much as it’s a meeting of natural and built environments. It was an inspiring night of imagining Edmonton in 2020, 2030.

And then, by the following week, the spell had broken -like it always does. Ninety-five per cent of us are powerless to transform parking lots into lovable urban spaces, to beautify if not remediate a contaminated gas-station site, to re-skin a concrete tower or even decorate a bare wall. Or are we?

I have worked at The Journal for years. Every day I look out at a grey brick wall, the side of a raised parking lot. I’ve complained about it but I’ve never tried to discover its owner. Then, last week, I did.

Melcor, a company with 80 years of history in Edmonton, owns the wall. I phoned Ralph Young, the president and CEO, who responded enthusiastically. He said no one had brought it up before. “We want to do our part downtown,” he said.

Young put me in touch with Darin Rayburn, vice-president of Melcor’s investment property division.

“You know, I go by that wall all the time, but you stop seeing it, noticing it,” he said. “From a personal point of view, anything we can do to enhance the way people experience our properties adds value to them. I love the idea of our assets being platforms for creativity. It’s a good economic argument. And as developers we have a social responsibility to our community, to help beautify the city.”

His own ideas, for the wall, involve changing the texture – attacking the flatness. But he will defer to the artists. We’re setting up a meeting with Kristy Trinier, public art director at the Edmonton Arts Council. Now that he’s thinking about it, Rayburn would like to involve artists in other Melcor properties, such as the 100th Street Plaza. From the Melcor annual general meeting, late Tuesday morning, he phoned with yet another idea: broadcasting video images on the windowless western face of the Melcor building using a projector set on top of the Birks Building.

“It’s the little things,” said Rayburn. “People have grandiose ideas for development, but it’s often the little things, the little ideas, that start a movement. Maybe other developers will say, ‘Hey, look, Melcor’s doing that. Maybe we should too.’ “

Today, we’re launching a series called Interventions. We’re going to seek the wisdom of Edmonton architects, planners, designers, troublemakers and artists. But more importantly, we’re seeking the wisdom of amateur urbanists like you. I’ll take your ideas for “interventions” and publish them, broadcast them, spread them about -help make them happen.

We all have versions of the wall. We see them every day, internalize their messages, avert our eyes and complain. Complaining is easy. What I learned last week is that not-complaining isn’t as difficult as it had always seemed.


© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

“Downtown by design is within reach” – finally some good news for Edmonton’s core?

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