How 104th Street became the heart of downtown Edmonton

It's now considered the jewel of downtown Edmonton, but 104th Street was a desolate strip of underused buildings and parking lots just 15 years ago
Tricia Bell opened Cavern, a restaurant, wine bar and cheese shop in April. (CBC)

Tricia Bell opens a bottle of rosé behind the counter of her new wine bar, the aptly-named Cavern on 104th Street in downtown Edmonton.

As she uncorks the bottle, Bell explains the reasoning behind the high-tech system that preserves the wine she serves by the glass.

"Oxygen is the friend of wine for about 45 minutes and then the enemy after that," she says.

Cavern marries Bell’s passions for cheese, espresso and fine wine in a basement space where glossy white counters and floors play off the brick walls of the century-old Phillips Lofts.

"The concept came to me when the space opened up," Bell said of the former location of a windsurfing shop.

"I tore down and made it a shell but I wanted to maintain the historic nature of this building because it’s gorgeous."

Bell’s business is the latest to open along what many consider the most vibrant and eclectic block in downtown Edmonton —104th Street between Jasper and 102 Avenues.

The street’s metamorphosis from a desolate strip of empty parking lots and underused warehouses to the jewel of downtown Edmonton is a remarkable story of urban transformation,

Loft-dwellers unite

The street has many things going for it — wide sidewalks, a central location and a stock of century-old buildings, like the Phillips Lofts, that survived the purge of historic buildings in 70s and 80s.

In the late 1990s, all these attributes were cancelled out by one big negative — the Cecil Hotel, which sat on the northwest corner of 104th Street and Jasper Avenue.

Former city councillor Michael Phair remembers the Cecil as a magnet for transients and pickpockets who would drink and fight on the street.

Former city councillor Michael Phair said city staff saw the potential in 104th Street. (CBC)

"It was not a very welcoming area," Phair said while sipping an iced coffee on a patio just metres from the old hotel site. "This end going towards Jasper was pretty desolate."

Phair, who was on council from 1992 to 2007, remembers being approached in the late 90s by staff from the planning department about a project that would add wider sidewalks, benches, lamp posts and trees to the street.

Staff saw potential in the old, historic buildings but Phair admits he had to be convinced to put money into an area where nothing was going on.

"They talked to me and showed me some stuff from other places and basically said when the city takes the initiative and puts some money in, other money will follow," he recalled.

The $3.1 million project was completed in 1999 and set the stage for the decade to come.

‘Save our Street’

However, streetscaping can only take you so far. A so-called critical mass of inhabitants was needed to attract the services, businesses and restaurants required to liven up the downtown core, particularly on evenings and weekends.

As part of the 1997 downtown plan, the city offered developers an incentive of $4,500 for each of the first thousand residential units created in the area.

Soon, a number of historic warehouses along the street were converted to trendy loft-style condominiums such as the Cobogo, Excelsior and Phillips Lofts.

Barry Kaiser bought a condo in the Phillips Lofts upon returning to his native Edmonton in 2002, after 18 years of living in Bermuda, Guatemala and Boston.

Kaiser, who once lived in a renovated piano factory, was attracted to the historical aesthetic of the building, which once was earmarked for the wrecking ball.

But still, the Cecil Hotel cast an unsavoury shadow over the street.

"From about 11 o’clock at night to about six in the morning, it was a different street," he recalled.

The closure of the Cecil Hotel in January 2003 is seen by many as the single most important moment in the street’s modern history.

Years of neglect finally prompted city inspectors to cite the property for health violations.

When the doors closed, the patrons who caused so much trouble moved on, and a real estate lawyer turned developer stepped in to buy the property.

The tipping point

Shortly after Cecil’s demise, however, residents in the area had a new fight to wage.

Plans for the new Century Condominium and a proposal to move the Baccarat Casino to 104th Street and 104 Avenue convinced residents that if they didn’t take action, the flavour of the street would be lost forever.

"Here, you’ve got probably the most beautiful street in downtown Edmonton and you’re going to put a casino at the end of it," Kaiser remembered thinking.

Kaiser banded together with other residents to fight the proposals. The group created a website, attended city council meetings and hung banners outside the lofts which read "Save our Street."

The efforts paid off. In early 2004, council defeated the Baccarat Casino development by a 7-6 margin.

Shortly afterwards, with the help of Kaiser and others on the street,  the city enacted new design guidelines that would compel new developments to reflect the historical elements of the warehouse district.

"There was a realization that we had a community downtown," said Kaiser.

"It was a crystallization moment and really that casino win, everything since has been going in the right direction."

Enter John Day

Whenever people in Edmonton talk about successful urban developments, John Day’s name inevitably comes up.

Day is well known in the city as one of the developers behind the construction of a new building on the northeast corner of Whyte Avenue and Calgary trail, the renovation of the Garneau Theatre and the upcoming remake of the Kelly-Ramsay building on Rice Howard Way.

Developer John Day bought the Cecil Hotel in 2003, eventually replacing it with a building that complements the historical elements of 104th Street. (CBC)

Five months after the Cecil closed its doors, Day and a partner purchased the property and demolished the hotel, destroying the street’s final link to its seedy past.

"When people saw the Cecil Place hotel come down, they thought, gee, maybe this isn’t going to be such a dangerous, scary place around here anymore," Day said.

"I think people started to feel more positive about it."

Thinking the street could benefit from the addition of a grocery store, Day convinced Sobey’s to sign on with one of their new urban concept stores, which opened in May 2008.

The building is now fully leased but Day says starting construction with only one tenant was risky.

"It was two-thirds built on spec. I’m not sure I want to do that again," he said.

"As I drive by other people’s buildings that were vacant, I’m thinking, boy, what were you thinking in doing this? But it ultimately worked out."

Critical mass

Around the same time Day’s architects were pouring over blueprints, Reza Mostashari was looking to acquire the parking lot on the west side of 104th Street, between the Cecil and the Century condominium.

The young president of Langham Developments had just finished his Omega Condominium on 99th Avenue and 105th Street and was looking for a new project.

Sitting in the 30th floor show suite of Icon II earlier this month, Mostashari said he was drawn to the historical feel of the street.

 "I knew the city was really pushing to urge development in downtown, bring people in downtown," he said.

"And I like sites like this because you have a lot of latitude to design something that’s interesting, unique, with some good looks, architectural merit."

Reza Mostashari, the president of Langham Developments, stands on the balcony of a penthouse on the 35th floor of the Icon II Tower. (CBC)

Mostashari bought the land in mid-2005 and decided to go with a two-tower concept to maximize the density of the site.

The 30-storey Icon I was completed in 2009, the second tower, five stories higher, was finished in 2010.

Today, the two towers rise from a base of street-fronting stores, built to reflect the architecture of the older surrounding buildings.

While it was initially difficult to meet rigorous design standards in the historic area, Mostashari says the task was soon manageable.

"Once we looked at it, it actually made sense," he said. "To be honest with you, I think it was a good thing for us."

More changes in store

The 104th Street development has taken on new momentum in the past few years.

After moving to the street in May 2004, the now-popular downtown farmers market has expanded to cover two blocks.

The Blue Plate Diner and Devine Wines -- two of the earliest businesses  to take a chance on the street -- have now been joined by a bubble tea shop, an Irish pub, a high-end menswear store, several wine bars and a retailer specializing in gourmet olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Almost all are independent and local.

And more changes are in store for downtown.

The old post office on 104th Avenue west of 97th Street will be soon be torn down to make way for the new Royal Alberta Museum.

John Day’s Kelly-Ramsey project is raising hopes that Rice Howard Way can reach its potential as a pedestrian-centred magnet in the centre of downtown.

And of course, the new arena has sparked hopes for a new entertainment district.

Also on the radar are projects covered by the Community Revitalization Levy (CRL), which could have a profound impact on downtown.

Developer incentives were successful in bringing residents to the 104th Street lofts and similar measure is proposed under the arena CRL.

The arena CRL proposes a $12 million incentive program that would give developers $12,000 grants for the first 1,000 housing units in the area, with 10 per cent built to accommodate families.

However, the incentive is not recommended in the initial phases of funding, and Coun. Ben Henderson  believes downtown development may have reached a point where that kind of measure may no longer be needed.

Instead, Henderson suggests improved sewer and water lines may have a greater impact.

Henderson also thinks a proposed park at 105th Street and 102nd Avenue could serve as an important hub for family-friendly developments and prevent people from leaving downtown once they have kids.

"We’ve known from other cities there’s ways to create really kind of exciting opportunities as well that are not suburban for those people when they do have families," he said.

"I think that’s going to be the next big trick that we have to pull off."