Featured Front

Whose space is it anyway?

// Curtis Hauser
// Curtis Hauser

Last weekend, across the street from the new arena site, a hotel that has stood through 100 years of Edmonton’s downtown history opened its doors to a new crowd, bringing home the reality that change in the neighbourhood is not two years away, but happening today.

Denizen Hall opened its doors briefly for the Up + Downtown Festival. Crowds packed in on Saturday night to witness the lead singer of Pup hanging from the rafters, and a dance-pit swirl of people for Naomi Punk on Sunday. It was a packed soft opening for one of downtown’s newest venues, which won’t be open again until later in the month. But just two weeks before, a different party had been underway in the space, formerly called the Richelieu Pub.

Jenni Roberts, drummer for the band Tee-Tahs—which played Up + Downtown’s final night in Denizen Hall—had been working on the renovations of the space just 10 days before. She ended up attending a small gathering at the pub that she realized was a farewell to the old bar that had been in the space.

“They had roses and were having a gathering for the last time here. Lots of people were in and outside all day and came in to say goodbye to the place,” she says. “It is a gathering place.”

The Grand Hotel, which came under new ownership last year, has witnessed more than a century of changes downtown since its original construction in 1904.

“It’s an important piece of our history,” says Ian O’Donnell, the development committee chair with the Downtown Edmonton Community League. “It’s evolved into something that has become a negative impact on the downtown.”

The area has seen its share of crime and challenges. Currently it houses about 70 residents, some of whom have lived there for years paying the monthly rent rate set at $575 for a shared bath, $55 for the night. Most are older working men, some work in and out of town. Now under new ownership the hotel will be witness to one of the largest projects in Edmonton’s history just across the street, and the fate of those residents will be up in the air.

“We’ve heard it’s going to be a boutique hotel,” says O’Donnell. “Displacement is always a challenge. We want to make sure that downtown is inclusive, it would be sad to not include people who want to experience downtown in their own way.”

For Roberts, as she realized the Richelieu Pub meant a lot to the people in the community already, and that the closure might affect regulars and the community, she felt the need to say something about her own band’s performance in the space. Not that her complaint was in any way with the festival itself.

“I didn’t want to protest the festival,” Roberts says. The Up + Downtown Festival being its own example of Edmonton’s growing artistic collaborations, it’s a dynamic draw to the downtown core, that showcases the true creative capacity of Edmonton’s music scene.

“We all organize shows, and we all know how difficult that is. So we wanted to make it more about awareness instead of a call out and an attack,” she says.

So Tee-Tahs put out a statement that circulated on Facebook throughout the weekend that they, along with another band, would be forwarding their pay from the show to folks affected by recent changes to the Grand.

Those changes are just one example of how quickly everything is evolving in the core, and with it, come questions of its emerging identity.

The announcements of firsts for the city and what will become the 25-acre arena entertainment district have been coming rapidly as the fall 2016 opening deadline grows closer. In August Stantec announced it will construct Edmonton’s tallest high rise at 224 metres. Last week Delta Hotels announced that it will build the first new four-star hotel in Edmonton’s downtown in 30 years.

“Our concrete memory of what Edmonton is now, we’re at the last vestiges of that,” says Todd Janes, executive director at the downtown artist-run centre Latitude 53. “In a year from now or even a couple years from now it’s going to be vastly different.”

In amidst the announcements about tall towers and corporate offices are emerging art spaces and local businesses.

This past summer saw the opening of a new grocery store with the 104th Street Earth’s General. The art and independent business space the OT Collective opened, and the hospitality industry continues to grow with new restaurants, adding over 800 seats to the dining scene, many of which are local and independent efforts. But that momentum may shift with over 215 000 square feet of retail space set to open up in two years.

“The arena district won’t have a lot of mom and pop shops,” says O’Donnell. “It will have a more corporate presence.” O’Donnell says there is a need for balance between corporate and local to draw those who want to go to a familiar chain-type of restaurant.

“It’s a bit of a catch-22. Often times when areas gentrify and become more successful there is a turnover in businesses,” he adds.

O’Donnell would like to see the two develop together, independent alongside the commercial. Although rents will be market driven, he believes the two can work together.

“There will be a group of developers going after brand names, and they’ll market to those,” he says. “And there will be developers that will renovate older spaces and may be more suitable for independent businesses.”

Chelsea Boos runs The Drawing Room, an artist space with a focus on the idea of a collective. Its success in the year it’s been open is evident in the renovations to expand their space on 97 Street. She’s optimistic about the progressive leadership in The Quarters development. One project the city has set aside in the area is the Artists Quarters, with 64 live/work spaces.

But Boos has begun thinking about what happens after the arena opens up.

“I guess I’m a bit worried about where we’re going to be in five years, when our lease comes up again,” she says.

It has Boos thinking about issues such as rent control.

“The role [rent control] has in cities like Montréal where you have a really strong community of creative people because it’s an affordable place to live and the only reason for that is because of rent control,” she says.

O’Donnell says the community league has worked hard with the city and the Katz Group to ensure not just street-level store fronts, but also a variety of spaces, with some smaller business units that a more local business could afford.

“It’s about ensuring diversity of size and space and location, to ensure we don’t develop areas where you just have brand names,” he says.

The places that make Edmonton cool, says Janes, like a Credo or Duchess, need to be considered. “If people want to live here because its desirable it’s important to think about how those businesses and artists will continue to make that area desirable.”

With all of the project announcements taking concrete form, Janes believes now is the time for the city to start getting to the business of asking for guarantees on ensuring a diversity of space is maintained.

“If a developer wants a condo there needs to be an art piece or subsidized leasing opportunities,” he says. “There could be square footage available to non profits.”

But for Boos, it’s more than a concern over maintaining arts space or places for independent businesses.

“I worry about the kind of displacement that we’ve seen already downtown and on 118 Avenue and any of these areas that are revitalized,” says Boos. “What happens to the people who were there before? Are the plans inclusive enough to give people space enough to grow along with the community or are they thinly veiled attempts at gentrifying the neighbourhood?”

The city holds regular public consultations on the multiple projects happening in the core. Even so: while spaces like the Grand—serving cheap draft in old mugs—might be a dying breed, Janes, and Boos, agree that the city council, and the urban design review board understand the ideas of sustaining the arts spaces, as well as maintaining a diversity of businesses. But Janes also notes that it can always use more work.

“Individuals and groups need to be vigilant about reminding people of these things,” says Janes.

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