“Now more than ever, our downtown needs an all-hands-on-deck approach to recover,” said Kevin McKee, CEO of Pangman Development Corporation.
Kevin served as the moderator of UDI – Edmonton Metro’s October luncheon, Delivering on Downtown, convening the perspectives of three downtown leaders, Alexandra Hryciw, Councillor Tim Cartmell, and Chief Dale McFee. He framed the conversation through four lenses, aligned with the City of Edmonton’s Downtown Vibrancy Strategy – downtown as a home, downtown as an economic hub, downtown as a destination, and downtown as a safe, welcoming place.
With nearly 200 attendees in the room, Kevin highlighted the tremendous growth and vibrancy downtown – from the development of the Ice District and other significant towers to the City of Edmonton’s investment in a new downtown park. He cautioned, however, that this momentum is precarious and requires continued prioritization and support from the public, private, and community sectors.
“In the past few years following the pandemic, we have seen a degradation of our downtown,” McKee noted. “Safety issues, both real and perceived, have resulted in investors looking elsewhere, and businesses flocking to other parts of the city – or worse, closing all together.”
Good, not great
Hryciw, when asked about how downtown is doing, said, “there has been great incremental progress.”
Hryciw is the Chair of the Downtown Recovery Coalition, an advocacy group consisting of community groups, non-profits, and business leaders – interested in addressing safety and security, cleanliness and infrastructure, and transformational projects.
Council Cartmell, who serves on the Province of Alberta’s Edmonton Public Safety and Community Response Task Force, agreed with Hryciw, adding that a more focused approach is needed to downtown revitalization.
“We’re doing better, but not great,” he said. “We need a holistic approach, rather than scattered, piecemeal responses.”
Safety requires immediate action
The conversation quickly shifted to the topic of safety and social disorder downtown.
Chief McFee said that while crime and safety statistics are trending in a positive direction, Edmonton recently took the top spot in Canada as the city with the highest traces of meth in its water system.
“We need to address open air drug use,” Chief McFee said. “At the same time, we need to determine the right services for the right time for the right problem.”
He said that municipalities in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region should work together to better understand the flow of houselessness and to address issues of social disorder.
“We need to coordinate with our counterparts.”
Hryciw noted that while long-term actions like housing and social support are important, that immediate actions will be fundamental as the temperature changes.
“As the weather gets colder, we will see even more disruption and disorder concentrated in our transit stations, our malls, our public spaces,” she said. “This will be even more pronounced this winter season as we know there is a significant shortage of spaces for shelter.
Growing the residential base
“We need to focus on increasing density and residents downtown,” said Councillor Cartmell. “More people living downtown will create more eyes and ears on the street and inevitably improve safety.
Chief McFee agreed, saying, “if we want downtown to be a home, we need livability, affordability, and safety – they are all connected.”
Promoting our downtown vision
As commonly reported, Edmonton’s downtown makes up one per cent of the city’s entire land supply but generates 10 per cent of its property taxes.
“If we don’t invest and support our downtown, this will drastically impact our fiscal position,” Councillor Cartmell said.
He said that while the City has a vision for the downtown – a vibrant, attractive, high-density, mixed-use, and walkable area – it will take collaboration with the community and private sector to realize these goals.
“We need to know when to use our inside and outside voice,” he explained. “Absolutely use your inside voice to hold City Council and administration accountable, but when you use your outside voice, it should be to promote and sell our downtown.”
McKee agreed, noting how investors often consider how the downtown is framed, and their experience within it.
“If they see our downtown as an unsafe, volatile place, why would they invest in it?” he asked.
Meet Me Downtown
While the downtown is often home to special festivals and celebrations and is the home of the Oilers, Hryciw challenged the audience to come downtown all the time.
“Our downtown is the golden goose of the city – it should matter to every Edmontonian,” she said. “So come downtown, not just on a game day, and support each and every business and community leader who has staked their time and livelihoods to its success.”
5 Key Takeaways
- Downtown as a home. We need to increase the supply of housing in the city’s core through creative solutions like office tower conversions. We need to attract people downtown by making it more livable, affordable, and safe.
- Downtown as an economic hub. We need to support and preserve the city’s tax base by investing in the city’s core. We need a strategy to support existing businesses and attract new ones through an intentional, coordinated approach.
- Downtown as a destination. We need to make downtown a 24/7 place. We need to continue to support opportunities for events, festivals, and gatherings through public, private, and community sector partnerships.
- Downtown as a safe, welcoming place. We need to address safety through short-term and long-term actions. While housing and social support are important, these will take focus and a commitment to stay the course over time. Immediate solutions include increasing temporary shelter over the winter months.
- Downtown as a shared responsibility. We need the downtown to matter to every Edmontonian. It is critical to the social and financial success of the entire city.