New businesses, revitalization could change industrial feel of 105th Avenue

The space north of 104th Avenue is dedicated mostly to warehouses and automotive shops. But over the past few years, trendy businesses have started to set up shop in the otherwise industrial area.

Business owners say there's room for improvement on edge of downtown

A few trendy businesses have set up shop along 105th Avenue in Edmonton, despite its industrial feel. The road could be revitalized if plans are approved during city council's upcoming budget talks. (CBC)

The space immediately north of 104th Avenue is dedicated mostly to warehouses and automotive shops. But over the past few years, trendy businesses have started to set up shop in the otherwise industrial area.

Columbia Avenue, or 105th Avenue, is unlike the rest of downtown Edmonton, as it lacks substantial foot traffic and the energy that comes with it. It's not exactly the prettiest part of the city, either.

Recently renewed revitalization plans for the area could help change that. The city has dusted off plans from 2006 to turn Columbia Avenue — the original name for 105th Avenue — into a more pedestrian and bike friendly stretch between 97th Street and 116th Street.

Revamping the road is among hundreds of projects up for debate during council's upcoming budget talks. If approved, the revitalization could serve new businesses along 105th Avenue, slowly changing the feel of the area.

SmartyPantz Escape Rooms on 105th Avenue and 110th Street, which opened three years ago, is one of the newer businesses in the area.

It sits across from a vacant lot and a bottle depot.

The owner of SmartyPantz Escape Rooms says renting on 105th Avenue is cheaper than it would be a couple blocks south. (Google Maps)

Owner and manager Adrian Butler said he's a fan of the proposed plan, as the avenue is in need of a makeover.

"As ... the edge of downtown expands, things need to change and get kind of cleaned up and improved so that it can become presentable," he said.

Columbia Avenue doesn't cater to foot traffic and public businesses, Butler said, but the plans to fix the pavement, install shared-use paths, restrict parking and provide more plaza space could help change that.

"We are slowly starting to see foot traffic increase, but … until some more businesses open up, we're probably not going to see that," he said. "Right now we're kind of an outlier, at least on our block, in terms of public, pedestrian-friendly business."

Despite the area's shortcomings, Butler said SmartyPantz set up there because rent is cheaper than it is a couple of blocks to the south.

Business owners on Columbia Avenue describe the area as industrial. (CBC)

Dirtbag Cafe is at 105th Avenue and 107th Street, and located in the area for the same reason. The café and attached rock climbing gym opened for business in 2016, said manager Scott Pedrick.

"If you're willing to put up with the growing pains and the … less safe or less polished nature, you know, you basically get a discount for doing that," Pedrick said.

Revitalization plans should prioritize transportation over beautification, he said, as a new bike lane opened along Columbia Avenue this summer, and the MacEwan LRT station is on the same road.

"Make it a transit-focused road where the train, the bus and the bikes can all get off in the same spot," he said, noting several bus routes currently run along 104th Avenue.

The beautification aspect can come with time, Pedrick said.

"At the end of the day, if you can't build the bike lanes and you can't finish your train track and you can't get your buses to stop on time, it's really not that impressive," he said.

Part of the bike lane on Columbia Avenue is a shared-use path for pedestrians and cyclists. (Nola Keeler/CBC)

Pedrick said revitalization would involve more construction in an area he said has seen near-constant roadwork for the past two years.

"Before they go ahead and start this ... big revitalization project, I would say maybe spend like one full calendar year not tearing up any portion of the road anywhere, and see how those businesses that are currently there do," Pedrick said. "Because it would be really nice if it was just accessible for one consistent year."

Two blocks east, Wendy Foxcroft manages operations and design at Chintz & Company, which has been there since 1996. She shares Pedrick's frustration.

"We've been looking at a lot of construction and that certainly has affected our business a great deal," Foxcroft said, noting it's hard for people to get to the furnishings store.

In addition to the conclusion of construction, Foxcroft said she'd like safety improved.

The manager of operations and design at Chintz & Company on Columbia Avenue says the area has seen a significant amount of construction. (Google Maps)

The area around Columbia Avenue is frequented by many people experiencing poverty or homelessness.

Boyle Street Community Services, on 105th Avenue just west of 101st Street, provides services to people living in poverty.

It's important that new and older businesses in the area are conscientious of the marginalized people who spend time there, spokesperson Elliott Tanti said. 
Boyle Street Community Services helps people living in poverty, many of whom spend a lot of time on Columbia Avenue. (CBC)

"We support and look for businesses that are engaging in our community as a community partner and recognize that they're the new face, that the poverty and homelessness and everything in the downtown core has been there a lot longer than them," he said.

Revitalizing the downtown core hasn't always been met with approval, due to concerns about gentrification.

But Tanti said the Boyle Street Community Services team is happy with the revitalization plans for Columbia Avenue, as the design team has been responsive to their feedback.

The city moved the location of a proposed bike lane to better serve Boyle Street and is considering adding trees to the area, which will provide shade to the organization's clients in the summer, he said.


Anna McMillan


Anna McMillan is a reporter at CBC Edmonton. You can reach her at anna.mcmillan@cbc.ca