There’s a Tale of Two Cities in the New Downtown

Julian Daly’s Boyle Street Community Services office overlooks a 105 Ave. bench that’s usually occupied by one of Edmonton’s 2,307 homeless residents. On this particular sunny afternoon, a middle-aged woman and an older man who look to be homeless sat together, not far from a throng of others laughing and conversing.

They’re surrounded by the rapidly maturing body of Rogers Place, the Epcor Tower and the hammering and rumbling that’s has come to symbolize revitalization. The forest of cranes capture our imagination: we want to know what treasures they’ll reveal in our unending quest for more, for better. Within a few years downtown will house the Royal Alberta Museum, the tallest Canadian skyscraper outside of Toronto, Edmonton’s next four-star hotel, and manicured pedestrian-friendly streets.

But the people working and living in the shadows of revitalization know what’s masked by our desire for improvement. As Edmonton grows, we’ll need to reconcile our idealized vision of a progressive modern city with the realities of the poverty concentrated in the downtown core. Newly arriving businesses and residents will need it to feel safe and welcoming—for everybody, including the two people on that bench.

Moments later, they’re joined by another man from their community who brings the woman a plate of lunch. “They comfort and look out for each other,” says Daly, looking outside. The question is, how will the broader community  do the same?

Here To Stay
Most Edmontonians won’t miss the profusion of black asphalt, gravel lots and rundown buildings that stood where many of downtown’s most anticipated developments are taking shape. When City Council approved the comprehensive and ambitious Capital City Downtown Plan (CCDP) in 2010, it was heralded as a blueprint for a lively downtown core. But while it’s grand scheme for cultural and economic vibrancy was clear, it left many unanswered questions about how social services like Boyle Street and the people who use them fit into the big picture—or whether they fit in at all.

When downtown revitalization began, says Daly, nobody reached out to Boyle Street. “There were no social impact studies on the development plans and what they would mean for the downtown population.”

Edmonton may outperform the rest of Canada in many economic indicators, but the percentage of our population that is homeless is equal to Vancouver’s and higher than Toronto’s, reports a 2013 Wellesley Institute and Canadian Homelessness Research Fund study. Each long-term homeless person costs taxpayers approximately $100,000 every year in policing, ambulance services and psychiatric hospital beds, according to the Edmonton Homeless Commission. The report says housing and support services could cost as little as $35,000 per year annually (but up to $180,000).

Housing is critical to Edmonton’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, but it’s not a singular solution. Boyle Street and Bissell Centre’s clients require support after they’re housed. Outreach workers teach clients how to shop, find medical services, get a job, budget, lock doors—skills most others take for granted. Those without homes are supported with training in jobs, First Aid and CPR, plus victim and mental health services and hot meals. “There is the idea in Edmonton that Boyle Street brings nothing good to the city, that it only attracts bad,” says Daly. “But think about where these people would go without the centre.” He means that they’re not just in the core because of its services, but because it’s one of the few safe spaces they can spend the day. “This is a home where people feel safe and are not judged.”

But at what point is the average citizen’s right to enjoy their city center outweighed by a homeless citizen’s access to services? Looking out from the Boyle Street window has heartening moments. But it can also be an uncomfortable sight: people openly drink, sniff or shoot up, some scrabble in the dirt for needles. In their struggle to survive, they’re understandably not concerned about the average passerby.

“There is the idea in Edmonton that Boyle Street brings nothing good to the city, that it only attracts bad. But think about where these people would go without the centre.” —Julian Daly, Boyle Street Community Services

“Boyle Street should make us uneasy because it’s a disgrace on us all,” says Daly. “What sort of society allows people to suffer without housing, health benefits, and mental health benefits?” Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen is even blunter in his assessment: “It is a pox on our house that we have allowed ill people to live in such conditions.” But he’s adamant about one thing—the City will not force services out of the downtown core. But he may find that revitalization itself pushes homeless people into other parts of the city.

The Capital Region Housing Corporation hasn’t noticed a hike in rent that’s attributable to the arena, but lower-income people tend to move when they no longer feel comfortable in the space they use, says Daly. Boyle Street has called its current location home for 23 years, but when plans to develop the Ice District began, “clients wanted to know if they would lose their home,” says Daly. To that end, Bissell Centre, which has operated downtown for over 100 years, and Boyle Street bought their buildings and land. They have no intention of leaving their neighbourhoods.

Understanding by Collaborating
Boyle Street doesn’t shrug off safety concerns. It has installed bright lights and security cameras, while working with police to guard its clients and others from drug dealers. Similarly, Bissell Centre, five blocks east, is building relationships with Edmonton Police Services to find positive solutions to panhandlers, garbage and other manifestations of social strife. “People often want to respond [to such problems] with a security response,” says chief programs officer Gary St. Amand. “That’s not a bad thing, but we can collaborate to ensure good for everyone.”

Bissell staff do security and cleanup sweeps of the area several times daily. The organization also reaches out to stakeholders, staff, neighbours and the McCauley Community League.

Recognizing the need to be part of downtown development, Boyle Street formed a community outreach program in the spring of 2015 to help local businesses work with vulnerable people. The program has helped staff at the Baccarat Casino, City Centre Mall and Epcor.

Epcor approached community agencies in the area after the completion of its 28-storey tower in 2011. “We want to be a good neighbour and thought our staff should have a better understanding about these groups, what they do and who they serve,” says Tim le Riche, Epcor’s external communications specialist. Jordan Reiniger, Boyle Street’s programs and development coordinator, says the most important wisdom for surrounding businesses is to dignify homeless neighbours. “If homeless citizens become aggressive we need to recognize that most have dealt with trauma that has led to mental health and addictions problems,” he says. “When businesses treat the homeless like humans, they usually don’t have problems.”

While there have been minor incidents, Epcor has not had “any significant trouble,” emphasizes Le Riche. “Overall, the situation seems to be well understood, and our relationship with agencies such as Boyle Street has been positive. We know of a number of Epcor staff who have volunteered in the community.”

PCL Construction took advantage of the Boyle Street’s job placement program by holding a job fair for more Rogers Place workers. The service agencies hope the business community will offer other novel ways to welcome their clients.

Learning from the Past

Collaborative approaches to homelessness don’t guarantee smooth sailing. Dwayne’s Home is a 140-bed transitional housing building that provides services for people in need. A former hostel was converted by Dave Martyshuk, a businessman wanting to help Edmonton achieve its homelessness plan. While Dwayne’s Home demonstrates the positive impact private-public partnerships can have in city-building, it has also created conflict in the Downtown Edmonton neighbourhood. “There have been issues with loitering, aggressive panhandling, and people being threatening,” says DECL president Chris Buyze. However, now that Dwayne’s home clients have access to residential social services, Buyze is hopeful that conditions will improve.

“There have been issues with loitering, aggressive panhandling, and people being threatening.” —Chris Buyze, DECL president

The community league supports the development of social housing. “Just because people live in social housing doesn’t mean they can’t be responsible neighbours,” says Buyze. He says DECL wants to meet and understand the needs of all downtown residents, regardless of socioeconomics. OCL president Lisa Brown echoes this. She says the league’s Civics Committee wants the City to mandate a minimum number of below-market units for every newly rezoned project in Oliver.

This type of co-operation gives Coun. McKeen hope that Edmonton can address homelessness. However, he says, “we have to spread social housing around the city on major transit routes and allow other communities to volunteer to help. It’s up to all of us to make sure that this city is a just, welcoming and compassionate community for everyone.”

Providing safe housing is not simple. Some neighbourhoods actively block social housing; others are forced to take more than their share. This happened in five downtown neighbourhoods, including McCauley and Central McDougall. In 2012, 61 percent of McCauley housing was “non-market” (ie: social housing) units. Some argued that concentrating social housing creates ghettos and potentially houses those who are vulnerable to addiction and exploitation in triggering areas. The City put a moratorium on new non-market housing in those five neighbourhoods and is encouraging families and seniors to move into the area.

Housing isn’t just about giving people living in difficult circumstances a safe place to suffer, McKeen says. It’s a chance to reach their highest potential. “[Most homeless citizens] are gentle people with the potential to be happy, creative, and good volunteers and neighbours.” Without making room for them, via social housing or accessible services, the housed citizens won’t see beyond the stereotypes of our vulnerable populations.

We’ll always need the Boyle Streets and Bissells of Edmonton. But if we can lessen their loads by providing good housing and stability for the people they serve, Edmonton can become an even better city than the one envisioned in the CCDP . And the bench outside of Daly’s office could come to symbolize something more than the obvious. It could be a place where any of Edmonton’s citizens could sit together and, in doing so, show their highest potential.

Grey Area

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Source: Wikipedia Commons

(Editor’s Note: In March 2016, Greyhound officially announced that it would move alongside Via Rail’s northwest station.)

After two failed attempts at securing a new home, Greyhound is attempting to lease space from Via Rail’s northwest location, an area without transit service. As the city has increased its focus on accessible transit, the relocation of central Edmonton’s intercity transport hub has some thinking that it’s a move in the opposite direction.

“I’m worried about people who would be stranded,” says Coun. Bev Esslinger. Greyhound customer surveys show that 40 per cent of riders have daily access to cars, and the same percentage of riders are from households with an income under $25,000. The Via Rail site would leave passengers with cabs or Uber as their only options.

“When you move it away from major bus routes, of course you make it a lot more difficult for people to catch the bus,” says Boyle Street Community Services outreach worker, Colin Inglis, who has worked in the core for five years. He says the lack of intercity transit affects people’s ability to access treatment centres outside the city and for low-income people in rural areas to access services such as health specialists, or to simply visit family.

Downtown Business Association executive director Jim Taylor agrees that the biggest hit to moving the station is to riders in need of service, but not surrounding businesses, who could take advantage of transportation or courier services. “It’s going to be a difficult thing for Greyhound riders to facilitate the kind of connection they need once they get in the city,” says Taylor, who says most business people travel on Red Arrow.

The move is in line with an overall redesign of the neighbourhood’s demographics, says Taylor. “Even if the Greyhound station were going to stay there, the stuff that’s being built—the residential and commercial—would change the nature of the street anyway.”

“It’s going to be a difficult thing for Greyhound riders to facilitate the kind of connection they need once they get in the city.” —Downtown Business Association executive director Jim Taylor

Greyhound itself would prefer to stay downtown. But increasing rent and the required footprint makes it impossible, says Peter Hamel, Greyhound regional vice president.

The company sees its Winnipeg location as a model in creating a “downtown touch point.” It maintained a satellite passenger drop-off point downtown since moving the station to the inter-national airport, seven kilometers away.

Esslinger says any new location should have a downtown shuttle service. But right now there’s no consideration for public transit. Esslinger says the city can’t prioritize it over other projects. “We have a whole long list of people in new neighbourhoods waiting for transit sites,” she says.

Inglis hopes the city plays a role in improving intercity transport access. “As a society, we have to think about how we cover those bases for folks when it’s no longer commercially viable for Greyhound to run them.”

Greyhound is currently dedicated to partnering with Via Rail on location, says Hamel, as well as with the City on downtown kiosks or drop-off locations.

(Editor’s Note: In March 2016, Greyhound officially announced that it would move alongside Via Rail’s northwest station.)

New Year’s Wishes

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Owner of Ikki Izakaya

“I want the city to encourage development that makes streets more walkable and pedestrian-friendly. Tokyo, where I’m from, is very walkable. I’d love to see more pedestrian-only spaces, like what they are doing in the summer for the 104 St. market. But I’d like to see more downtown streets closed to traffic, maybe once a week in the evening, or Sunday mornings. It encourages people to walk out and discover their community.”

 

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Carmen Chalut
13-Year-Old Born and Raised in Oliver

“It’s pretty cool living downtown but there aren’t a lot of other teenagers around, so it’s tough to meet people my age. I usually have to leave downtown. I’d like to see more places where teenagers can hang out and meet one another. More recreational or organized programs for teens at the library or even at a cafe—teen nights, every Friday.”

x8YBFc5CtDEeQA0m55yz3edkqreZCTvVDYdO3DpKhCEDarryl Mork
Dog Owner and Oliver Resident

“I’d like one or two dog parks that are fenced off. They are everywhere in Los Angeles. There, dog-owners sit on benches and chat with one another while their dogs play. We know that owning a pet can improve a person’s health, but I’m certain that there are other benefits of meeting dog-owners in your neighbourhood. If you know your neighbours, then you’re more likely to look out for each other, look out for each other’s safety. Plus, it feels good knowing the people who live around you.”

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Kelly Dyers
Manager of Audrey’s Books

“We’re seeing more people downtown and that’s something we’re very excited about as we move into the new year. It used to be unheard of to see so many people walking downtown after 6pm and on weekends. We hope that the ‘shop local’ philosophy that’s been growing is not just a passing trend, and that people see the importance and value in building and supporting their community.”

 

Stalling Business

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Courtesy: Mack Male/Flickr

When Tina Wang set out to open a coffeeshop along Jasper Ave., she didn’t expect to have to provide 30 parking spaces. “It’s a small area,” says the owner of Bru Coffee + Beerhouse, with almost as many seats as the city required car stalls. “Most of my staff come to work by biking. My target client is the neighbours, not the south and west-end drivers.”

The prior business zoning was for a convenience store, but when Wang changed it, and thus the business license, to a restaurant, a city bylaw required an unrealistic amount of parking for a main-street eatery. She applied for a variance—a leniency on the required minimum car stalls. Lawyer fees and maintenance costs compounded while Bru’s opening was delayed for two months, she says. Her variance was finally approved and Bru opened in September with nine spaces.

Currently businesses must provide one parking space for every 3.6 square meters of public restaurant space—one of the highest rates of any major Canadian city. Bru is just one example of Oliver and 124 St. businesses tangled in strict parking standards, but a City pilot project drafted to lower requirements for restaurants in the areas, as well as in Old Strathcona, could change that.

The goal is to find an acceptable balance between parking supply and business needs, says Colton Kirsop, a senior planner with the City. His department, Sustainable Development, is forming the pilot along with Transportation, which began assessing current parking  patterns in Oliver last year.

“The existing parking requirements are a huge hindrance to businesses setting up.” —Lisa Brown, OCL president

The pilot is the first update to the 1953 bylaw in 14 years. In 2001, the bylaw was amended to reduce parking requirements in Chinatown, Whyte Ave. and Little Italy by 25 per cent. Kirsop points to the downtown’s wall-to-wall retail and repurposing of warehouses on 104 St. as successfully reduced parking requirements. “Without variances,” he says, “it’s hard to build a sense of community and a vibrant commercial scene.”

The high cost of excessive parking requirements doesn’t just discourage new neighbourhood businesses; the bylaws discourage walkability, density and transit use, and are antithetical to the City’s own attempts to promote these principles. The OCL would like to see its business areas earn similarly reduced requirements.

“The existing parking requirements are a huge hindrance to businesses setting up,” says president Lisa Brown, who filed a letter of support on behalf of Bru last February.

Jeff McLaren, executive director with the 124 Street Business Association, says the businesses he represents have thrived due to parking variances like Bru’s, because they’ve allowed restaurants and bars to set up. McLaren commends the pilot project, adding that the data on parking would be welcome as a lot of feedback is anecdotal right now. “Something needs to change,” says McLaren of the City. “It’s just figuring out the exact details now.”

Those who support minimum parking requirements worry that without them visiting customers will park on residential streets. “You can’t ban parking without a major backlash,” says Coun. Scott McKeen, who finds the current rules restrictive.

The councillor urges investments in public transportation, cycling infrastructure and late-night transit, which could help ease this car-dependency. A report is expected back to city council’s executive committee with recommended changes as early as February 2016.

Smiling Faces at What the Truck?!, CornFest and more

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Thousands packed Churchill Square for the last What the Truck?! fest of the year, cosponsored by DECL, to feast from 35 food trucks. (Sept. 11) Courtesy – Mack Male/Flickr

 

 

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What the Truck?! co-organizer Melina Kawecki shows off two of over 250 menu items from the festival. (Sept. 11) Courtesy – Mack Male/Flickr

 


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From left: Eugenia Meza Delgado, Matt Beaubien, Ethel Tungohan, Jackie Lee, Keith Andony, Garth Brunt at CornFest. (Sept. 19)

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Franka Mckague Larson and the corn husk doll she made at CornFest. (Sept. 19)

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MLA David Shepherd and Make Something Oliver director Luwam Kiflemariam at EFCL Day. (Sept. 19) Courtesy – Edmonton Shutterbugs

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All Saints Anglican Cathedral outreach coordinator Chris Pilon and OCL’s Curtis Boehm at EFCL Day. (Sept.19) Courtesy – Edmonton Shutterbugs

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Edmonton-Centre MP Randy Boissonnault and his mother Shirley Boissonnault at The Yards Federal Debate Forum. (Sept. 24)

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Louis Martyres and Tyson Mastel at The Yards Federal Election Debate Forum (Sept. 24)

 

Urban Eden Garden Future Facelift

urban eden garden

Renovations are coming to Downtown’s Urban Eden Garden, located at 99 Ave. and Bellamy Hill, thanks a $10,000 award from Toyota’s “Tundra Tough” competition for revitalizing green-spaces.

Garden coordinator Tyler Dickerson says the winnings will help replace the 28 rotted beds and rebuild the feature flower plot into a multi-tiered perennial garden, thereby sweetening the ways in which Urban Eden brings people together who would otherwise remain strangers.

Dickerson hopes to begin renovations in the spring.

Korean Delights

Photo 2015-10-05, 9 33 00 AM

53.54° N, 113.49° W | 10625 99 Ave.

The smell of steaming Korean cuisine wafting outside K&M Grocery & Deli is irresistible—you just have to find the place first.

Located in a pocket of 106 St. and 99 Ave., the family business has been hiding in plain sight for almost 30 years. But locals who work nearby know it well for its delicious and freshly prepped bulgogi to-go, featuring beef, chicken or pork options for under seven dollars a box.

Just steps from the Matrix Hotel and across from Edmonton’s newly renovated Public Federal Building, owners Jin Jeoung and Sonia Yu see all kinds of people. And they’re constantly surprised how many of them still crave a sweet ice-cream Screamer in the middle of winter. Says Jin, “It’s the most popular item all year.”

3 DECL Events to Meet New and Familiar People

DECLlogoHoliday Mixer
DEC 10: Don’t miss DECL’s annual Holiday Mixer, a merry time for downtown residents and community league members to come together, meet their neighbours and celebrate their neighbourhood. Light refreshments and seasonal beverages are provided but if you’d like to bring some holiday baking, please feel free to share. Cash bar also available. (7–10pm, Community Space, 10042 103 St.)

Regular General Meeting
FEB 18: Learn more about DECL and downtown at this general meeting for DECL members. We’ll discuss the on-going business of the league and downtown issues at large. It’s your chance to find out what’s going on in your community, share your thoughts, questions and ideas, and meet other Downtowners. (6:30pm registration/7pm start, Community Space, 10042 103 St.)

Urban Kids Board Game Nights
JAN 22, FEB 19: Our monthly children’s play group is where kids can play, explore and make friends in their neighbourhood. (6–9pm, Community Space, 10042 103 St.)

Defrosting Design

Source: edmonton.ca

Source: edmonton.ca

“For the Love of Winter” sounds like something you’d get in your Christmas stocking, but it probably wouldn’t fit. At 152 letter-sized pages, the City of Edmonton’s draft of winter design guidelines is, by some experts’ estimates, the most comprehensive in the world. When council inevitably approves a version of it in 2016, it could help shape our architecture and public spaces for decades to come.

For many, “winter design” means good insulation and a decent furnace — not colour, lighting, entryways, setbacks, heated patios or street furnishings. But the principal planner, Nola Kilmartin, who’s since left the city for private architectural firm Kennedy, can sum it up in a few words: “Good winter design is good year-round design.”

She means designing buildings to block winds, maximize sunshine through orientation and add some zest to winter-scapes through colour and light. Yet much of our design choices — particularly downtown — seem imported from southern climates or engineered for our discomfort: drab colours; sharp-cornered buildings that accelerate windspeed; Melrose-style open walkways that absorb snowmelt into the concrete and create condo nightmares.

There are full blocks absent of a single operable door, thus leaving sidewalks with little to no activity, a state which Kilmartin says is psychologically straining. “If you’re going to be outside walking around you don’t want to feel like you’re in a desolate wasteland, where you’re being windswept by northwesterly chills causing you to freeze off your face.”

However, there are signs of change, even without the encouragement of 2011’s Winter City Strategy (the impetus for the design guidelines). The Cactus Club’s fire-lit patio comes to mind, as do the colourful lights that’ve made the High Level bridge most noticeable during the season’s long nights. “It’s now an icon all year round,” notes Ian O’Donnell, chair of DECL’s development committee.

He would like to see the guidelines strengthened. Even with council’s approval they’ll be little more than suggestions; the policy equivalent of a best-before date. He thinks they should be a requirement, like land-use zoning, which determines what types of development can exist in certain areas. “We can’t just put them out to market and let them be.”

To that point, the City is preparing pamphlets for business-owners, builders and other private interests to help educate them on the big and small ways they can make Edmonton a great winter city. Don’t worry — it’ll only be a few pages long.

Small Ways to Make Your Business More Winter-Friendly
• Maintain your front landscaping year-round
• Enter through your front door to animate the streets
• Put chairs outside — and wipe them

• Add small-scale street furniture like sandwich boards
• String lights in your windows to help illuminate streets

Found in Translation

Photo 2015-09-30, 11 48 41 AM

Emilienne Ngo Batoum’s new life in Canada got off to a rough a start. The Cameroonian translator hoped to continue her career in Montreal last year, where her husband had lived since 2010. She arrived bright-eyed but quickly found prospective employers thought Batoum was unqualified, despite having a master’s in translation and 10 years experience. Faced with the possibility of two additional years of schooling and thousands more in academic debt, the couple set their sights West. “Many people told me good things about Alberta,” she says. “So I said, why not?”

Batoum arrived in Edmonton on March 10. By April, she was already translating. Starting small with a hotel’s restaurant menu, she now has corporate contracts stretching to Toronto, and helps other newcomers communicate in court or at settlement agencies. It wasn’t just the “Alberta advantage” that gave her a boost. “Living downtown was really helpful for me because I have all these organizations around me.”

Her journey serves as an essential list for downtown newcomers looking to find solid ground, and it began the day she met Grazyna Pkaos, at Edmonton Immigration Services Association’s outpost in the Stanley Milner Library. The settlement officer got her started as a volunteer translator for EISA, which helped bolster her resume. Pkaos also directed Batoum to Alberta Works Centre a few blocks east, where she was provided with a career counsellor and additional training, and then to Catholic Social Services on 107 Ave., where Batoum had an official English language skills assessment.

None of her career milestones would have happened as quickly without local charities ensuring the couple met their basic needs upon arrival. Luckily, their 95 St. apartment is just steps from the Salvation Army,where they can get fresh bread and other foods whenever necessary. “They don’t look at you like a beggar,” she says. “They look at you as one of themselves.”

What isn’t within walking distance is easily accessible by LRT. The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers by Stadium Station helped her with job searching, food banks, housing and free professional womenswear from nearby charity Suit Yourself. The organization has a long history of settling new Canadians and taught Batoum about the International Qualifications Assessment Service course that she passed in just three months to become an associate translator. “It’s almost everything you need to know when you move here. Believe me, it was amazing.”

Batoum’s new life has turned a quick corner but she’s not planning to leave the core anytime soon. “I’m somebody who likes downtown because everything is closer. You have the library, city hall. During the summertime there were a lot of events here and I attended almost all of them!”

But one thing would make it better: a white Christmas—absent from Montreal’s mild 2014 winter. “That’s my dream. I’ve only seen it in movies.”