How changes on 104 Avenue are shaping the city's future
(Originally appeared in M Alumni News—Summer 2016)
Scott McKeen’s (Journalism ’83) connections to the city’s core—and MacEwan University—run deep. After graduating from MacEwan in 1983, he spent 24 years at the Edmonton Journal, including eight as City Hall columnist. Today, Scott is city councillor for Ward 6. The streets and avenues that make up the city’s centre are his backyard, and the people who live, work and visit downtown are his neighbours. We couldn’t think of a better person to tell the story of how much 104 Avenue has changed and what its 20-plus city blocks will have to offer in the years to come, so we invited him to talk about it on an early spring walk from City Hall to 110 Street.
After a trip to New York City back in 2000, the energy and buzz of the city’s sidewalks were still fresh in Scott McKeen’s mind as he finished a quick workout at a downtown Edmonton fitness club. But when he stepped out onto Jasper Avenue between 103 and 104 Streets, the concrete strips that lined the streets of his hometown bore little resemblance to the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.
“You could have shot a cannon and not hit a single person on that sidewalk,” recalls Scott. “Busy sidewalks can be a hassle, but they’re also dynamic, vibrant places with their own brand of energy. They’re the lifeblood of downtown and if they’re empty, it says a lot. I remember visitors at the time calling the city ‘Deadmonton.’ The hardest part was that it was kind of true.”
Fast-forward 16 years and things have definitely changed, and some of the most remarkable of those changes are happening along 104 Avenue—Ice District, the new Royal Alberta Museum, the Brewery District and MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture.
But Scott says things could have been a lot different if the university hadn’t moved into the old CN rail yards in the early 1990s.
“I have vague memories of people being able to catch a CN train here back in the 1960s when I was a kid,” says Scott, gesturing at the CN building. “The streets were busy back then, but then we started to build a downtown that wasn’t well planned and hid everything inside.”
Things continued that way into the 1980s, when the recession meant that suburban-style strip malls were the only development proposals for the empty lots along 104 Avenue that were once home to the CN rail yards.
“Thank god for MacEwan or 104 Avenue would have ended up a sea of chain stores and parking lots,” says Scott. “Building the City Centre Campus was a great decision for MacEwan, and for the entire city. To have that level of investment in a downtown that was moribund for 30 or 40 years was huge.”
Not everyone saw it that way. “I’ve heard that people had doubts about the institution taking on the reclaimed railway land on the north edge of the city,” says President David Atkinson. “But we couldn’t have asked for a better place to be. We’re an urban university at the epicentre of urban development, and our towers have become iconic.”
“ Building the City Centre Campus was a great decision for MacEwan, and for the entire city.” Scott McKeen
There’s no question that moving downtown was a pivotal point in the university’s history, but Simon O’Byrne, vice-president of Stantec’s Urban Planning and MacEwan’s 2015 Allard Chair in Business, thinks the university brought far more than just buildings to the city’s centre.
“Replacing blighted land with attractive buildings, landscaping and double rows of trees planted along the north side of 104 Avenue makes for a beautiful campus walk—and the beginning of a grand boulevard effect that could extend down 104 Avenue,” he says. “But downtown isn’t just about buildings—it’s about diversity in terms of who is spending time here. MacEwan brought thousands and thousands of students, faculty and staff downtown every day.”
Those people are an essential ingredient to a vibrant city centre.
“When a city’s streets are packed with life and interest and there are lots of delightful, fun, whimsical things happening, we think of that city as a more vibrant, rich and interesting place,” says Simon.
Edmonton is getting there, and Scott says that it can and will happen if the focus is on building a downtown that reflects what is unique about the community, its culture and its values— and offering enough to entice people from the city’s far-flung reaches to spend their downtime downtown.
“Downtown belongs to the whole city, so we need to have something here for everyone—and we’re pretty darn close. When you see the new Royal Alberta Museum under construction, along with Rogers Place and Ice District, as well as planned expansions or renovations at MacEwan, the Winspear Centre and the downtown Milner Library, the message we send to visitors and investors is: Edmontonians value art, culture, history, education and prosperity,” says Scott.
The handful of years it has taken for the city to adjust to the fact that MacEwan is a university is also testament to the fact that this city values post-secondary education, says David Atkinson.
“MacEwan has truly come of age in this city,” he says. “There’s always pressure to grow, but we need to be careful not to be too ambitious. The new Centre for Arts and Culture is a magnificent structure, but buildings do not a university make. And you can’t construct a building unless there is a future.”
The future—for MacEwan and the city’s core as a whole—is one Scott sees as having much promise.
“ Downtown is a place that belongs to the whole city, so we need to have something for everyone.” Scott McKeen
“It’s kind of hard to visualize right now,” he says, standing across the street from Ice District. “There will be thousands of people spilling into this area 100 or more days a year. I understand the controversy around the arena, but I think what’s happening on 104 Avenue is the best marketing program the downtown has ever had. It will bring people who haven’t come downtown in years.”
As those people make their way to and from the game and rediscover the downtown core via the arena, they will also be walking or driving drive by restaurants like Rostizado and Corso 32, and venues like the new Centre for Arts and Culture. All excellent reasons to return to 104 Avenue on non-game days.
And when they do, they’ll be helping build a community—perhaps not the kind you would find in a traditional neighbourhood, but one with its own unique flavour.“
Community in a downtown context is a little different, but I think you can still do it,” says Scott. “Perhaps most importantly, you need to have places where people can bump up against each other and find the things they share in common.”
MacEwan’s new Centre for Arts and Culture is one of those places. “It might be subtle at first, but over time I think this new building will have a real impact on downtown,” says Scott, gesturing across the street to the construction in progress. “The facility itself will be fabulous, but it’s the people and their vision for what downtown could look like that I find most exciting—the students and future entrepreneurs who will see new opportunities to express music, art and culture, and partner with the other flagship arts and cultural venues we have here. The people who might see the underutilized areas north of MacEwan as a great spot for a little jazz club, or an art gallery or little coffee shop. I think MacEwan will be a catalyst for all kinds of interesting growth in the coming years, and its students will change the culture here—they’ll be looking to build the kind of city they want and demanding things from their city council. And I love that.”
There are still a few years before the cranes all come down, the dust settles and 104 Avenue moves into its next incarnation. It’s a work in progress. One that won’t automatically result in packed sidewalks bustling with urban life, but one that easily could.
“Edmontonians who have travelled to cities with great downtowns will begin to see that here in their own city,” says Scott. “I think we’ve long had a collective humility in Edmonton—and that’s not a bad thing—we’re willing to work hard to create what we want. Our city has a lot to offer, but my favourite are those urban experiences—they’re the part of the city I’m most proud of. We still have work to do, but we’re getting there and I think we’re just beginning to see what the potential might be.”
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