Edmonton's new plan for Whyte Avenue aims to balance history with progress

A new land use plan for Strathcona, called planWhyte, aims to allow new developments while maintaining heritage of the area.

Plan reaffirms low heights in historic Strathcona area

Edmonton new land use plan aims to preserve the heritage of Whyte Avenue commercial area while encouraging new developments. (City of Edmonton)

Edmonton city council's new plan for the Whyte Avenue heritage area aims to promote new opportunities while respecting the historic character in the heart of Old Strathcona. 

Councillor Ben Henderson hopes planWhyte, as it is being called, will help council avoid the type of decisions made with Mezzo and SouthPark.

Council approved the 16-storey Mezzo off 81st Avenue and 105th Street in 2016, in defiance of the city's own heritage parameters that govern the Strathcona district.

Henderson voted against the project. 

Then council approved the 17-19 storey Southpark on Whyte Avenue at 106th Street.

"We were approving these kinds of one-offs — ad-hoc style," Henderson said Tuesday. "We were having so many of these one-offs come, maybe it's time to ask the whole big question."

City council's urban planning committee voted Tuesday to adopt the land-use strategy, which city staff worked on for two years. They plan to incorporate the planWhyte recommendations into the existing Strathcona area redevelopment plan. 

Dating back to the 1890s, the commercial area is characterized by a combination of wood and brick buildings up to three storeys in height, built to the front property line.

The Whyte Avenue-area draws tourists from all over the country, Henderson said. Several festivals, such as the recent Edmonton Fringe Festival, are held there every year.

"This is a major asset for the city and we cannot take it for granted," Henderson said. "People come from all over. It's a destination." 
Coun. Ben Henderson is keen to help protect Whyte Avenue, a major asset for the city. (CBC)

PlanWhyte sets a height restriction of four storeys or 15 metres for new buildings within the core heritage commercial area — on Whyte Avenue between 101st Street and 104th Street, and up 104th and Gateway Boulevard to 86th Avenue.

The four-storey maximum also applies to lots a block south of Whyte, between Gateway and 105th Street. 

We don't just want to have a little strip of history- Maureen Duguay, Strathcona community league

However, the plan allows for six-storey buildings, approximately 21 metres high, at the east and west ends of the avenue. A patch of property south of Whyte Avenue, where the Mezzo is expected to be built, allows 16-storey towers.

Maureen Duguay, president of the Strathcona community league, said she would like to see the lower height parameters apply to the entire neighbourhood.

"We don't just want to have a little strip of history," Duguay said Tuesday. "The whole area has a feel to it and we don't want a museum kind of scenario."

Michael Strong, a senior planner, said the higher height allowance creates more opportunity for businesses to redevelop that part of the strip.

"There's certain spots along Whyte Avenue that feel very Whyte Avenue," Strong said. "But it kind of dies at 106th because the uses change, the buildings change. They're not that traditional Whyte Avenue that people identify with, that image of Old Strathcona." 
PlanWhyte outlines height restrictions for different areas of Whyte Avenue commerical area, including 16-storey towers just south of 82nd Avenue. (City of Edmonton)

Duguay said she accepts planWhyte despite the height variations but hopes council will, this time, stick to the plan.

"There are trust issues in terms of 'is this really going to mean something'?" she said. "Because it hasn't in the past. Anytime a new development comes up, things change."

PlanWhyte also calls for improving crosswalks, sidewalks and alleys and lays out the potential for more green and public spaces.

The city will begin a special study on improving public spaces, including the city-owned farmers' market parking lot off Gateway Boulevard.

Strong expects the study will be finished by late summer 2019.

The planning branch will then request money from city coffers to move forward with some of the enhancements and projects.


About the Author

Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.


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