Edmontonians can scarcely be blamed for suffering from a modicum of development fatigue. Over the past decade, Edmonton residents have seen their city embark on its biggest urban makeover in recent history, and with the city’s biggest architectural pièce de résistance—Rogers Arena—now complete, excitement has now truly given way to frustration over downtown Edmonton’s ubiquitous construction-related road closures. Coupled with lingering economic anxieties and one of the coldest winters to hit the city in recent years, Edmonton’s fall 2016 excitement surrounding the arena’s opening has given way to concerns over sidewalk hoarding and other consequences of continued development.
It is, indeed, business as usual for Edmonton’s developers as the city continues on its fast-forward trajectory. While 2017 will not be as momentous a year as 2016, several new downtown edifices are set to open their doors this year, most notably the new Royal Alberta Museum, NorQuest College’s new Singhmar Centre for Learning, and MacEwan University’s Centre for Arts and Culture. South of the city, one of the region’s most hotly anticipated new retail developments, the Premium Outlet Collection mall at Edmonton International Airport, is also set to open in the fall of 2017—and in doing so provide the region with 100 new stores (many new to Alberta) and creating around 1,000 new jobs.
Meanwhile, development continues at the site of one of Edmonton’s headline-grabbing 2016 openings. Operational since the summer of 2016, the Brewery District continues to open new structures and welcome new tenants. The spring of 2017 will see owners First Capital Realty open a new 3,500-square-metre, two-floor complex on the site for one of its most high-profile tenants to date, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), and begin restoration work on the historic 1913 Molson Brewery building on the north side of the development. A yet unnamed microbrewery and restaurant are expected to move into basement and first floor of the building, with company offices set to occupy the upper levels once restoration is complete in 2019.
The Brewery District has been a challenging development from the outset, both from a design standpoint and from a public relations point of view. As a combined restoration-construction undertaking, the district represented uncharted waters for developers First Capital Realty and Sun Life Investment and their design partner DIALOG, with the necessity of accommodating the future westbound spur of the Valley LRT Line making it all the more challenging. Moreover, the location of the development on the western periphery of Edmonton’s downtown core, linking the Oliver neighbourhood with heavily residential Westmount and Queen Mary Park, has necessitated the inclusion of a wide swath of urban stakeholders with competing desires and expectations.
Given the challenges and the initial skepticism the development provoked among many Edmontonians, public response to the Brewery District has been remarkably positive. Many have found the development’s design to be a refreshing change from Edmonton’s traditional indifference to historical architecture a refreshing change.
“I like it,” says Grant Schneider, a transplanted Vancounverite and co-owner of Aligra Wine and Spirits in West Edmonton Mall.
“It’s not that strip-mall effect. I find a lot of the buildings here in Edmonton are built on the cheap, so it’s nice to see this.”
Even journalist Omar Mouallem, initially one of the Brewery District’s fiercest critics, appears to have warmed to the development. While he asserts that the jury is still out on the District, he concedes that he is now a regular visitor to its shops and that he is a fan of its wide sidewalks and the open patios, as well as its overall vibe.
“When I went in to Loblaws on opening weekend, I don’t think I ever saw more smiles in a grocery store in my life,” he says.
Meanwhile, the business owners now decamped in the Brewery District could scarcely be happier with their new home.
“We’re delighted to be a part of the Brewery District development,” says Ariane McFayden, senior divisional manager of GoodLife Fitness, whose employers opened shop in the district in the fall of 2016.
“This area gives us an opportunity to provide a very unique location and experience for Edmonton residents to work out in. Based on the great member turnout we’ve had to date, I think it’s safe to say people are really enjoying this new location.”
McFayden asserts that the fitness club’s patrons are drawn, among other things, to the unique architectural and design feel that pervades the district.
“I just love the décor of these buildings, and we’ve had great feedback on the beautiful lobby, with its large staircase and the interesting tiling on the walls. The Brewery District has a fantastic history, and it’s wonderful to see elements of that history preserved and showcased all through the development.”
She also commends the developers for the district’s user-friendly parking design, two thirds of which is underground.
“I know our members love the free underground parking, which we offer. We know from our 38 years in business that anytime you can remove a barrier, like parking logistics, it helps play a role in the success of people’s long-term health and fitness goals.”
While the district’s logistically challenging location has led to some PR headaches, for McFayden this has meant an unusually eclectic client base drawn to the new GoodLife location.
“We’ve found that because this location is close to downtown, MacEwan University, NAIT, and nearby residential areas, we’ve been able to draw a very diverse client base, including students, business professionals, and older adults. It is great to see different segments of the population having a shared purpose of wanting to live active and healthy lives.”
In addition to further retail outlets and showcase brewpub, the District is also expected to build two bicycle paths through the lot and add more bike racks, which it hopes will assuage critics who assert that the Brewery District is overly car-oriented. By the time the district is completed, it will also feature green space in the form of two landscaped pocket parks. As for the oft-levied criticism stemming from the development’s setback from 104 Avenue, the eventual westerly reach of the Valley LRT line will not only occupy this gap but also place the Brewery District within easy car-free reach of the downtown core and much of the rest of the city.
“We’re still not open all the way,” says First Capital Realty’s Ralph Huizinga. “Give us some time.”