An Inconvenience Truth

This November my mom, Dianne, visited from Ontario, and one day left my 124 St. condo on foot in search of a grocery store.

headshot 2At 72, she skipped the nearby organic premium store for something run of the mill, but from the Jasper Ave. sidewalk she couldn’t see the street’s lone supermarket, since it’s hidden behind an arena-sized parking lot. She did discover Foodland, though.

Back home, Foodland is a grocery chain, but on Jasper and 111 St., it’s a little mom-and-pop shop selling (amongst its countless snacks) milk, produce, pet food and other essentials at extended hours to mainly pedestrians. In other words, it’s a bodega.

And it occurred to me, in light of downtown’s disappearing and struggling grocers, that bodegas are rare around here. Most cities have nicknames for them: Edmontonians might call them “corner stores,” but that doesn’t do their inventories of semi-fresh food and pantry goods justice. In Toronto they’re called fruit markets; in Montreal, depanneurs (or “the dep” to Anglophones); and in New Y ork, bodegas (it means “grocery store” in Spanish). Regardless of its nickname, a bodega can help resolve a food desert while also build street vibrancy by catering to pedestrians.

It’s estimated there’s one for every 1,500 Montrealers and one for every 600 New Yorkers. Compared with many similarly sized cities, the convenience of buying essentials from an independent shop just down the street is rare in Edmonton. The exceptions are 107 Ave., where there isn’t a single grocery chain but a dozen bodegas selling to primarily ethnic patrons. But a walk down Jasper Ave. in Oliver, both the city’s most populated and densely populated neighbourhood, reveals just four bodegas. Within its residential streets, where many of its 19,000 residents live in walkups and lowrises, there are just a handful more.

In their place are dentists and hair salons — businesses that cater to motorists from across the city and, in turn, force residents to drive, rather than walk, to get groceries.

“There’s always people who will drive to those stores—it doesn’t matter if they’re one block away or five blocks away. We have to make sure they have places to park.” —Livia Balone, City of Edmonton

Given that the grocers remaining in Oliver have parking lots the size of a soccer pitch, I wondered, is one contributing factor Edmonton’s parking minimum bylaws? In the past, Oliver Community League was complicit in preventing businesses that cater to foot-based traffic.

Minutes from 2006 and 2009 meetings reveal it opposed new businesses seeking relaxations of parking minimums (it no longer does). The minimums are only relaxed through special request, regardless of whether a business targets pedestrian clientele. Why?

“There’s always people who will drive to those stores—it doesn’t matter if they’re one block away or five blocks away,” says Livia Balone, director of development and zoning services with the City of Edmonton. “We have to make sure they have places to park.”

So it’s no surprise that we turn to power centres like Oliver Square with our shopping lists, what with its vast parking lots. This isn’t unique to the core; neighbourhood retailers struggle across Edmonton, hence the City’s “Corner Store Pilot Program” to revitalize mature neighbourhood shopping sites.

But parking minimums aren’t why bodegas are rare in Oliver, according to former city councillor and Oliver historian Michael Phair. For one, he says, the majority of bodegas outside Alberta thrive because of their ability to sell liquor (however, this doesn’t explain their ubiquity in Toronto). More importantly, though, retail pads were included in the initial Oliver residential towers of the ’60s and ’70s, and envisioned to sell food, but they’re more likely to house offices than bodegas because business is lean. High rent and competing drug store chains and gas stations don’t help. “If you talk to [bodega owners] they’ll tell you it’s been a really tough go.”

Pratap Thapa owns Mini Mart Plus, north of Jasper and 112 St., which sells produce and clothing from his native Nepal. He agrees with Phair. Unlike him, the offices and salons filling the small bays envisioned for food retail have far less overhead. “Here it’s just a fight, a struggle,” he explains, a basket of fresh bananas beside him on the counter. “You have to bring everything into one room. You’re not making money.”

Thapa said his biggest sellers are cigarettes, junk food and produce. He plans to bring in more fruits and vegetables in the future to meet demands.

While it’s nice to know I can whiten my teeth within a short walk, given the shortage of affordable groceries I can only hope Thapa and others are more successful.

Look Both Ways

Ask the employees of Earls Tin Palace and they’ll tell you the crosswalk connecting Jasper Avenue and 119 Street is dangerous.

Though it bridges the restaurant, a Starbucks and other amenities in the city’s two densest communities, Jasper, the city’s signature avenue, is also a main transportation corridor. About 1,200 cars, busses and motorcycles tear through it each hour—about 30,000 vehicles per day. Despite that, the crosswalk is poorly lit and uncontrolled.

headshot 2For more than five years, Oliver Community League representatives and former Ward 6 councillor, Jane Batty, voiced concerns about the crosswalk with the City of Edmonton. Then, in 2012, crosswalk safety guidelines, defined not by the City but by the Transportation Association of Canada, were updated for the first time since 1998.

As a result, City engineers re-examined all crosswalks for compliance, including the one at 119 St. Based on its proximity to light-controlled intersections, the number of vehicles and pedestrians and the larger-than-standard signage, Edmonton’s director of transportation engineering Craig Walbaum concluded that it was safe.

Yet last July, just before 9 p.m., a 19-year-old Earls employee stepped into the crosswalk and was struck by a black Nissan Altima. She was critically injured, later slipping into a coma, but survived.

A report to council on crosswalk safety from the City’s Transportation Department was already in the works, but the public response prompted Mayor Don Iveson to push for more. “Any time someone is seriously injured and there’s repeated incidents, repeated calls from the community league, from the public, then I think it merits a second look,” Iveson told the Edmonton Journal.

When CBC later polled people about the most dangerous intersections in the city, five of the 22 intersections highlighted were along an 11-block stretch of west Jasper Ave., including, of course, the 119 St. intersection.

All the crosswalks along the Jasper Ave. corridor are now under review, Walbaum told me last August. His department is also trying to pinpoint where the highest use of pedestrian traffic is today, with an eye on future residential hubs like the Pearl. There might be upgrades of existing crosswalks, he said, or even relocated or combined crosswalks.

I walk along Jasper Ave. daily and have nearly been hit while crossing it at the 110 St. intersection, which is controlled with a dedicated stoplight. Moving at the 50-kilometre speed limit, I’d have 45 per-cent chance at survival had the minivan hit me, according to the City’s statistics.

At the moment, the City’s main source of feedback on crosswalks is complaints. But, Walbaum told me, the city already struggles to manage the volume of crosswalk safety complaints that it receives. “We’re on track to have about 1,000 inquiries [this year],” he said. The majority are pedestrian concerns, requesting for more reviews and even more crosswalks.

Despite the clear public demand for improved safety, there are no public meetings about Jasper’s crosswalks planned. That’s the issue.

During our conversation, Walbaum and I mostly disagreed on our views of street design. To Walbaum, the crosswalk where I had my close call is a gem. After all, it has the highest level of control possible: a red light.

But to a driver, that red light still exists along Jasper, a road with six lanes, whose very design suggests it is a space exclusively for speed. To a walker, crossing a thoroughfare of that size, where vehicles regularly exceed the 50-km-per-hour limit, can be a nerve-racking experience, light or no light.

We’ve seen the differences road design makes nearby on Capital Boulevard, thanks to sloped sidewalk curbs and other speed-calming features. Moving a crosswalk here, adding a light there isn’t enough. We should place pedestrians on equal terms with cars—by rethinking the design of Jasper Ave. itself.