A $43-million mixed-use complex could finally renew Alberta Avenue entirely
When Christy Morin and her husband moved into the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood in 1994, she soon thought she had bitten off more than she could chew.
Drug dealers moved in next door and the years that followed were terrifying for her family.
“There would be fights, stabbings, people jumping off roofs, stealing our vehicles,” Morin says. While most people would have packed up and moved, the Morins stood their ground and started taking back their neighbourhood.
Nearly 25 years later, there has been drastic change in this heritage district that surrounds 118th Avenue, north of the city core. Artists and musicians have settled there by the score. New cafes and small businesses, such as Edmonton’s legendary Green Onion Cake Man, are active. And in August, Morin joined her partners at the Edmonton Community Development Company to welcome hundreds of fellow residents to a lively public information session.
The focus was ArtsCommon 118, an ambitious mixed-use development that, if it moves from strongly supported proposal to final phase, could complete this community’s revival.
ArtsCommon 118 is envisioned as two four-storey buildings built on land parcels facing each other on 92nd Street, just south of 118th Avenue.
As currently proposed, the $43-million project is a multifaceted gem. Currently in its design-concept phase, it will include 78 affordable live-work studios for artists; a 200-seat black box theatre; gallery and exhibition spaces; a rooftop urban farm on one building and a community garden on the other; a 2,000-square-foot industrial kitchen; a school of music and office space for non-profits. Flowing between the two buildings across 92nd Street, a plaza will host farmers markets and night markets. The buildings will be topped with solar panels to help create a net-zero operation.
ArtsCommon 118 is the flagship project of the Edmonton Community Development Company. Edmonton CDC was established in 2017 by
Edmonton Community Foundation and the City of Edmonton in response to the Mayor’s Task Force to End Poverty.
At its core, it is a neighbourhood economic development agency. Its mandate is to help low-income areas across the city transition into stable, prosperous communities.
This can take myriad forms. For Alberta Avenue, it means shepherding ArtsCommon 118.
“This is a game-changer development for the Alberta Avenue district,” says Mark Holmgren, executive director of Edmonton CDC. “It will provide affordable rents, create jobs, bring needed programming to the area, bring people together at events and markets, and ultimately be a catalyst for other development.” To pull off the project, he partnered with Arts on the Ave.
Arts on the Ave started in 2005, as a small coalition of artists with Morin at the helm. Today, it is a community convener that works with more than 200 multidisciplinary artists, businesses and local residents. Twice a year they turn 118th Avenue into a visitor attraction, with the Kaleido Festival in September and the Deep Freeze Festival
Morin sees ArtsCommon 118 as a renewal project that fits Arts on the Ave’s mandate to create change through the arts. It is also the latest chapter in the community’s 10-year struggle to develop the proposed sites.
In 2007, the city purchased the old Alberta Cycle building, which sat on one of the 92nd Street lots. Then-Mayor Stephen Mandel approached arts organizations about moving into the space. Many declined, citing the area as “unsafe,” Morin says. But Arts on the Ave jumped at it.
“We said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, we would love to take this building on and recreate it as artist galleries and performance spaces.’”
Unfortunately, the building was structurally unsound. It was demolished in 2012 and the site sat empty until Edmonton Community Foundation and Edmonton CDC stepped in.
Now, planning is well underway and unlike previous attempts to develop the site this one has traction.
The city has donated six lots of land. Edmonton CDC has purchased five additional lots to complete the site. Manasc Isaac Architects has drafted initial design concepts. Northlands has expressed an interest in collaborating on the rooftop farm. Vancouver’s Sarah McLachlan School of Music has inquired about locating its Edmonton School at ArtsCommon 118.
Funding is the project’s biggest hurdle.
Edmonton CDC has secured $4 million from the city and is filing funding requests to the federal, provincial and municipal governments to help with the rest. Holmgren expects to know by March 2019 whether funding is in place. After the fundraising phase, he will apply for development permits. Securing those can take up to six months. After they’re in hand, Edmonton CDC will have two years to complete construction, as per city requirements.
For now, Holmgren and Morin are focusing on gathering plenty of community input on the project.
“I’d love folks to know that we would love to hear their voice,” Morin says. “Take advantage of this, and reach out to us because we’d love to hear how you want to make things grow in Edmonton.”
Listen to an interview with Mark Holmgren and Christy Morin about ArtsCommon 118 on The Well Endowed Podcast.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ALBERTA AVENUE
WHERE IS IT?
The Alberta Avenue Revitalization district spans 27 blocks, from 97th Street to Wayne Gretzky Drive, along 118th Avenue.
1910-1970s: The Avenue was the city’s main east-west corridor and a shopping district with deep ties to working-class and immigrant communities.
1973: A major oil-sector bust occurs. Homeowners begin leaving the neighbourhood. The trend continues into the 1980s.
1984: The Yellowhead Trail is finished. It diverts traffic from 118th Avenue. Local businesses begin closing.
1990s: Real estate prices in Alberta Avenue plummet. Opportunistic landlords and gangs buy houses for as low as $30,000. Gang culture arrives. But low house prices draw an influx of artists.
1992: Alberta cuts social services including addictions and mental health supports. Local residents and business owners form the Avenue Revitalization Project to begin tackling disrepair and crime.
2005: City appoints a full-time staff member to help co-ordinate volunteer community initiatives. Arts on the Ave is formed.
2007: City purchases the old Alberta Cycle building and asks the arts community to make it a community hub.
2008: Old Alberta Cycle building is demolished. The area receives funding from the city’s Streetscape Project.
2017: Edmonton Community Foundation and City of Edmonton establish the Edmonton Community Development Company. Planning begins for ArtsCommon 118.
June 2018: City administration recommends city council end annual revitalization funding for Alberta Avenue. Christy Morin mobilizes community and saves the funding.
August 29, 2018: Initial design concepts for ArtsCommon 118 unveiled.