Nestled east of downtown, from 97 Street to 92 Street and from 103A Avenue to the top of the North Saskatchewan River Valley, is a neighbourhood known as The Quarters Downtown. The area has always played a vital role in the city as a cultural hub, and it has seen its fair share of hardships. Today, it has become an important site of renewal and revitalization for the city, and one that aims for a balance of the influx of new buildings and people with a commitment to those who already call it home.
The Quarters was an important first for Edmonton as a city in the form of the first commercial district. Back when horse-drawn carriages were still the primary traffic, the area was a hub for businesses. “The Quarters was where the first commercial district started in Edmonton,” says Mary Anne Debrinski, City of Edmonton’s director of Urban Renewal. “As the city started to grow, the businesses moved westward. The Quarters became a place where immigrants first moved and then left as they prospered, making it a great place to start in the country.”
Kenneth Cantor, president of the PRIMAVERA Development Group, who is currently overseeing the Brighton Block development in The Quarters, says geography has been a major part of the area’s story since its beginnings. “The Quarters has had many unique challenges,” he says. “Although it was a vibrant community at the beginning of the 20th century and home to many active commercial and residential users, as well as a vibrant Chinese community, many of the things that contributed to Edmonton’s success over the next 100 years didn’t treat Jasper East Village/Chinatown as kindly.”
Now, that same geography has made it a prime location for a major revitalization effort that has been underway in its current inception since 2005. Back then, the provincial government amended the Municipal Government Act to include access to a Community Revitalization Levy that funds specific revitalization efforts. The first grant was for Calgary’s East Village, but money was soon set aside for The Quarters as well. In the years since the levy was acquired, the area has slowly been improving.
The Quarters currently houses an estimated 2,400 people, but Debrinski hopes that number will increase tenfold over the next 20 years. To accommodate such a change, the City has two strategies: investing in infrastructure and buying and rezoning land parcels for developers and public projects. For the former, Edmontonians can already see the improvements to 96th Street and, below that same street, new drainage infrastructure is in place to help woo developers. As for property, the City has been buying individual plots over the course of years and turning them into larger plots for private and public use.
“One of the obstacles to redevelopment in the area is fractionalized property ownership,” says Debrinski. “The city bought around 10 lots from five property owners over seven years that we could then consolidate into one large lot that could be redeveloped. For a developer, that’s a long time for them to invest in acquisition of one site. One of the ways we found that we can help speed things along is to slowly acquire the lands and consolidate them.”
Parceling land and investing in infrastructure has attracted developers and public projects, many of which are still in the planning stage. However, the influx of activity has brought people like Cantor to the area, who says the closing of the municipal airport was a significant moment for the area. “There has been a steady stream of other things since [the airport closed] that are starting to create critical mass – Boyle Renaissance, Louise McKinney Park, the Quarters’ street and servicing upgrades, the Hyatt Place, the Five Corners tower, National Cappuccino’s restoration, the Law Offices building, and the resurgence of Chinatown.”
The Brighton Block is poised to join these other projects as a watershed moment for the neighbourhood. The iconic heritage building, constructed in 1912, must be completely renovated inside, but Cantor hopes it will be a central aspect of the revitalized area. “The Brighton Block was always a prominent building in that stretch of Jasper Avenue,” he says. “It’s our intention to restore it to its previous heralded status. One of the things that will contribute to that is it being in its own way ‘centre ice’ even if it’s not in ICE District.”
Cantor says the Brighton Block, while smaller than previous projects like the EPCOR Tower, is a unique opportunity, especially as ICE District continues to dominate headlines around urban renewal in downtown Edmonton. The Quarters offers something different compared to the skyscrapers down the road. “There are large segments of our market who aren’t well served in buildings that large,” says Cantor of ICE District’s massive towers. “Brighton Block’s spaces will speak to those tenants who are looking for something different, something a little bit out of the ordinary. As much as ICE District is corporate personified, the Brighton Block is bespoke.”
As with all revitalization projects, local residents and community groups are concerned with gentrification. In an area like The Quarters, which is historically important for newcomers and artists alike, the fear of getting pushed out comes with real precedent. Debrinski is concerned about the process as well, and points to numerous projects, both complete and underway, that will provide affordable housing in the area.
“The one thing we learned when we did our public engagement is that [residents] didn’t want the area to become gentrified,” Debrinski states. “They definitely want to have 20,000 people living there, but they want a diverse mix of people in incomes and backgrounds. They want it to be an area that will still welcome vulnerable people.”
To that end, the City has worked with numerous local groups and agencies, building and planning projects like the Boyle Street Community Centre and affordable housing in and around the area. These buildings, developed under the City’s Cornerstone affordable housing program, ensure affordable housing will remain in the area for everyone from young families to senior citizens.
One of the most exciting affordable housing projects planned for the area is Artists Quarters, a proposed building that will provide sustainable housing, studios and work spaces for the city’s artists. Rapid Fire Theatre, Alberta Craft Council, and Arts Habitat will all work out of the space, and it will be part of the revitalization cycle that’s been seen in the city before. “The arts are a catalyst for development. We’ve seen this in lots of cities and specifically in Edmonton,” says Julian Mayne, executive director for the Art Quarters. “We can see the Edmonton International Fringe Festival and events that happen in the Whyte Avenue area and how that revitalized that area years ago. When you bring people in, businesses come in and the whole circle thrives.
“The overarching idea with the Arts Quarters is to literally embed artists in The Quarters to ensure that their presence not only initiates the catalyst but stays and becomes part of the revitalization of the area on a long-term, sustainable basis.”
The Quarters revitalization represents an important moment in Edmonton. An area that has long served an important purpose is perfectly situated to become part of the city’s rise. It also has a deep commitment to its history and its people. As new business comes in, projects like Brighton Block and Artists Quarters will not only define its skyline, but the lives of the people living in the area.