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Edmonton’s downtown growth stalls

City trails both Calgary and Lethbridge
according to the 2021 Canadian census

Jasper Avenue streets were nearly bare during a recent evening rush hour.  (Brett Holden)

By Brett Holden

THE 2021 Canadian census has put the Edmonton’s downtown as the fourth slowest growing core in Canada. Only Saguenay, Que., Regina, and Red Deer are growing more slowly than Edmonton. And with the housing market staying hot in the city, this may be a trend that’s here to stay.

The Realtors Association of Edmonton announced it sold more than 25,000 properties in the past year and, compared to other markets across the nation, Edmonton remains one of the most affordable.

“I’ve often said to people that Edmonton has been the least exciting real estate market in Canada for the last five years,” says Royal LePage Noralta Real Estate owner Tom Shearer.

“We haven’t seen extreme drops in our market, and we haven’t seen extreme hikes in our market compared to a lot of other regions.”

However, it isn’t only the core that is affected. The “urban fringe,” less than 10 minutes from downtown, is also suffering. Among the country’s largest cities – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Edmonton – this city has the smallest number of people living in this area.

“We realize growth is a process,” says City of Edmonton city planner David Holdsworth. “There is a ton of land downtown, and it takes time.” 

Holdsworth says he and his colleagues at City Hall believe getting post-secondary students back in class will help bring development and energy downtown.

“The students are what creates the vibrance downtown.”

Shearer shares this sentiment.

“You think about students coming back to school” in addition to “all the places you can go out to eat again, people are going to be working downtown.”

‘People weren’t ready to buy
luxury condos in the Ice District’

Shearer says post-secondary-age people “are first and foremost the most active group targeting” downtown.

The census also reported that Edmonton has the fastest-growing suburban population in the country. Growth in the suburbs rose 23.4 per cent in 2021, higher than Calgary’s 23.3 per cent, Ottawa’s 21.4 per cent, Vancouver’s 4.8 per cent, Montreal’s 4 per cent, and Toronto’s .4 per cent.

“In a lot of cities, you see the work specifically focused in the downtown region,” Shearer says. “We don’t have a really strong downtown worker mentality here. We are way more spread out all over the city.”

The Ice District has its problems, too, he says.

“The developments around the Ice District was designed and built as more a luxury real estate, versus starter or entry-level real estate.

“I think people weren’t ready to buy luxury condos in the Ice District.”

For several years, the city has put an emphasis on making downtown more walkable. City council recently announced a plan for 678 kilometres of improved multi-use trails over the next 10 years.

Bike-lane expansion and the introduction of electric scooters have been a welcome addition, Holdsworth says.

“Those are the ways people see the city. Cities like Toronto and Chicago have the electric bikes, and it makes it easier for visitors to see the city.”

Feb. 24, the Alberta government released the 2022-23 provincial budget, much to the dismay of Mayor Amarjeet Sohi. In a blog post, he called the budget “so disheartening.”

With the City in the midst of completing numerous major projects and bids that would likely see more people flocking downtown, the city reduced its list of needs to the province from 12 to four:

¤ Support for housing for Edmonton’s houseless population

¤ $41 million to support the transit system

¤ Support for the 2026 FIFA World Cup bid

¤ $49.7 million for capital spending

If Edmonton were to host the World Cup, Sohi said in the same blog post, the event could produce “more than $700-million in economic return for Alberta.”

Pointing to the traffic that events at Rogers Place generate in the area, along with the Canadian Men’s Soccer games in November, Holdsworth says he and his colleagues have a positive outlook for what the World Cup could do for Edmonton.

However, Holdsworth adds, the budget will not affect getting people downtown. Projects like The Parks apartment building, and Green and Walkable Edmonton will help generate foot traffic to the downtown core.

“Edmonton can become a walkable city,” he says. “We realize that there are some niche areas that we need to work on.”

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