New developments bring life to warehouse district in downtown Edmonton

While 104th Street and the arena district have long thrived, new investment shows that downtown revitalization is finally expanding west.

'When a developer like Gather takes on another property, they are showing confidence in the area'

Devin Pope says The Gather Co. is transforming the Quest's commercial space so retailers can take advantage of the nearby Rogers Place crowds. (David Bajer/CBC)

While 104th Street and the arena district have long thrived in Edmonton, just one block west sits 105th Street, which for the longest time was largely lifeless, as businesses came and went.

Now, despite an economic downturn, new investment shows that revitalization is finally expanding west.

The Gather Co., a real estate development company with a track record for developing successful, progressive spaces such as the Mercer Warehouse on 104th Street, recently took over the commercial property in the Quest condominium building on the southwest corner of 105th Street and 104th Avenue. 

"When a developer like Gather takes on another property, they are showing confidence in the area and are going to do their part to shape it into something unique," said Ben Volorney, a retail leasing specialist with Avison Young who is responsible for leasing the space.

"They have a solid track record of being able to take on assets where they see upside, and are able to execute on a redevelopment or repositioning of a property." 

The Gather Co. is renovating recently purchased commercial space in the Quest. (David Bajer/CBC)

The Quest, a 22-storey residential tower, rose up a decade ago from the sea of parking lots in the emerging Warehouse District, between Grant MacEwan University and the future site of Roger's Place. Despite that, a number of street-level businesses have failed, including Starbucks and Subway. 

Current tenants include a pharmacy, a tattoo studio and a cigar shop, though storefront space regularly sits empty for months. But those unleased properties now echo with a new sound: construction.

"The building itself suffered from very dark glass and hidden exposure," said Devin Pope, a manager at Gather Co. "We felt we could bring more attention to the building and therefore successful retail businesses, by having see-through glass and lower greenery. Green LED lighting to draw attention to the building.

"The close proximity and walking distance to Rogers Place, and the high traffic counts on 104th Avenue and 105th Street, justify a retail presence for this location."

Ian O'Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, said it's a natural progression as the gap between developed pockets begins to fill in from 105th Street to 108th Street.

O'Donnell pointed to city plans to widen sidewalks, add more trees and improve furnishings, as well as future LRT stops. Other major infill projects in the works include two towers on 106th Street by Edgar Developments with roughly 700 units.

"It's really going to be transformational in terms of the foot traffic that it's going to generate, but also the new opportunities for a variety of housing types and demographics. That's going to help really drive some rationale for more retail in the area," O'Donnell said. 

"And that's really what makes a ... downtown, is having people walk the streets and really experience things that either they're going to as a destination, or those really great whimsical surprises."

Brett Ireland is the CEO of Bearhill Brewing Co., which opened Campio on 105th Street in October. (David Bajer/CBC)

One of those surprises cited by O'Donnell is the new Campio Brewing Company.

After looking at 25 locations, Campio decided on the former restaurant space on 105th Street just north of 102nd Avenue. 

"More than anything, we fell in love with the location," said Brett Ireland, CEO of Bearhill Brewing Co., which has locations in Jasper, Banff and Calgary. "Not just in relation to the arena. But you look at the area around here, there's a lot of residential, there's a lot of great coffee shops.

"Yeah, it just it felt right."

Located on the same block as the Yellowhead Brewery and Alex Decoteau Park, with a dog park and community garden, Bearhill wanted to invest in a location where they could become part of the community, said Ireland. He said the positive experience acquiring business permits and a licence now has Campio considering opening its first whisky distillery in Edmonton.

"That process can be really rigid and almost feel like you're fighting a battle, so to speak," Ireland said. "Or it can be constructive, where you're just both trying to get to the same place, get the place open. And that's what it felt like here. So we're honestly excited to go down that path again."

Wild Orchid owner Lana Tensen hopes to see more accessible downtown parking. (David Bajer/CBC)

Just north of Jasper Avenue, Wild Orchid Boutique Florist is one of the newest businesses to open on 105th Street. Owner Lana Tensen was drawn to the location because of the surrounding development and various retail opportunities but wishes there was more walk-in traffic and accessible parking.

"There is lots of parking, but it's all paid parking," said Tensen, who suggested reducing parking rates.

Tensen also urged city council to consider tax breaks or other ways to encourage downtown stores to improve accessibility for people with mobility challenges. To enter Wild Orchid, customers must first climb two steps.

"When you've got just one step it's an issue, it's a real issue for wheelchairs and even people who are older with canes and walkers," Tensen said.

Financing for major downtown projects such as Rogers Place, Alex Decoteau Park and the new Warehouse-area park comes from the Capital City Downtown Community Revitalization Levy, which invests public funds in catalyst projects to promote private development.

"The construction of these projects has catalyzed more than $4 billion in new downtown development that is already complete or currently under construction since 2012," city officials said in an email to CBC News.

Coun. Scott McKeen said malls and pedways have historically stolen life from downtown sidewalks. Projects such as the future 1.25 hectare park will help restore some of that.

"As soon as that thing was announced, that we were expropriating land for it, chunks of land were bought up right away — Edgar developments, Westbridge developments," McKeen said.

"They get it. They know that is a huge amenity for people that we really don't have downtown. We don't have a lot of green space."

McKeen is pushing for a shared-use street for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles on Capital Boulevard, which runs from the Legislature grounds to MacEwan University.

McKeen said the inspiration came to him two years ago as he stood with 30 people in the middle of 108th Street to unveil a sculpture by Leo Arcand. An approaching car slowed down and manoeuvred around the group. 

"There was probably 30 of us standing in the middle of the road and a car came down and slowed down and manoeuvred around us," McKeen said. "It was fine. And I thought, 'this street should do that.' "


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