Six projects that are reshaping downtown Edmonton
Several major renovations and brand-new buildings are set for completion in the coming years, each promising to bring life back to the Alberta capital's core
For a couple of decades leading up to the mid-1990s, Edmonton seemed to be a living laboratory for everything you could do to kill downtown. Poor zoning decisions, protracted chaos during light-rail construction and the rise of the West Edmonton Mall sucked the life out of the area around the Jasper Avenue core.
Signs of a new orientation were visible by 2008, when a city-commissioned cultural plan pushed a vision of social renewal through building for the arts. That was knit two years later into a broader civic blueprint intended to repopulate the core and enforce design standards famously summarized by then-mayor Stephen Mandel: "Our tolerance for crap is now zero."
A decade later, several new cultural facilities are under construction, in late planning stages or about to open. Some will add to the cultural district around Sir Winston Churchill Square (already home to the Citadel Theatre, Art Gallery of Alberta and Francis Winspear Centre for Music), while others promise to bring new life to formerly depressed neighbourhoods.
Most were funded and approved before oil prices went soft, and before a previous provincial government's long-established position on cultural building was upended by the NDP victory three years ago. The Globe and Mail recently took the measure of six projects in the city's cultural building boom, and the effects they're having on the town.
Royal Alberta Museum
Executive director Chris Robinson says his main concerns for the newly finished limestone and glass structure near Churchill Square were that it should be better able to display and maintain objects that couldn't be housed in the old museum and that it should entice people to come in and look at them.
"It never made sense for us to expand at Glenora," he said, referring to the museum's former site, "and we all agreed that being downtown conveyed definite advantages."
The main entrance of the sleek, $375.5-million building is within sight of the Alberta Art Gallery, and will have direct underground access to the LRT. The museum's opposite end, two blocks away, looks out over the pawn shops of the Boyle Street neighbourhood, which is itself the focus of an ambitious renewal plan called The Quarters.
Much of the street-level exterior is glass, intended to make interior activity visible in lantern-like spaces. Sculptural sheets of anodized aluminum near the front door and inside the expansive lobby are perforated with imagery specific to Edmonton and its natural environment.
The total exhibition area is 9,000 square metres, more than double that of the old building, with another 4,300 square metres for research, collections and curatorial work. There are two small theatres and a light-filled gallery for kids, which includes an interactive digital sandbox.
The museum may need another year or more to finish transferring its treasures to the new facility, which will have room for more than 90 per cent of its collection. Robinson said the move coincides with a thorough revamping of the museum's way of telling some stories, especially those to do with Indigenous peoples.
"You won't find a master narrative in the museum voice," he said of the Indigenous portions of the six linked areas of the new Hall of Human History. All will be revealed when the museum, designed by DIALOG and built by Ledcor, opens to the public later this year.
Stanley A. Milner Library
The Centennial Library built on Churchill Square in the golden year of 1967 had not aged well by the time thoughts turned to creating a central library more in tune with the 21st century. A modest plan to update and replace the façade of the renamed Milner Library quickly grew into a more ambitious renovation that will add space and give the formerly boxy exterior a dramatic new look.
"The bones of the old building are fine," Edmonton Public Library chief executive Pilar Martinez says. "The renovated spaces will be substantially larger and much better configured."
Steel girders jutting out at angles from the building's skeleton show Toronto architect Stephen Teeple's determination to make an impact equivalent to that of the neighbouring Alberta Art Gallery's curvy metallic exterior and City Hall's glowing glass pyramid.
Inside the glass and metal shell, the interior levels will open to one another visually in an atrium-like design, Martinez says, with up-to-date digital systems and a culinary centre to promote nutritional literacy. A video "simulation wall" inside the foyer will display creative visual content from around the city.
All the central library's books have been temporarily crammed into EPL branches, and at a pop-up branch in a former Hudson's Bay Co. building on Jasper Avenue. Martinez expects that the turnout after the renewed facility opens in early 2020 will at least meet the 1.2-million visits recorded annually before work began.
Allard Hall, MacEwan University
Allard Hall, which opened to arts students in September, is the last stage of the provincial university's decade-long move from its campus in the city's west end to the former CN rail lands downtown. Allan Gilliland, dean of fine arts and communications, says the $180-million building, designed by the late Bing Thom, was planned for the institution's future.
"We built it for the curriculum we want to do," Gilliland said. MacEwan is gradually adding undergraduate-degree programs, he says, in its continuing transformation from the community college it once was.
Two theatres and an art gallery, all on the first floor of the five-level structure, are available for work by 1,200 enrolled students, but also open to performers and artists from outside. Gilliland is already using the spaces to leverage in-kind transactions with professionals who may get access to the rooms – and a pair of basement recording studios – in exchange for leading workshops or mentoring students.
Upper levels are filled with classrooms, studios and offices, as well as display spaces for art and terraced hang-out areas overlooking the large rentable atrium in the centre.
Gilliland expects Allard will have a positive impact on enrolment, and also on the integration of students into the creative life of the city. There's room for expansion, he said, in the top floor that has been built but won't be opened for use until needed.
The old arts building in the west end was purchased by the city last summer and is being retooled as an arts hub that will make use of spaces already designed for performing and visual arts.
Arts Habitat Edmonton: ArtsCommon and Artists Quarters
Julian Mayne has a simple way of explaining what role his small, city-funded office plays in downtown regeneration: "We want to get artists in there, and we want them to stay." Too often, he says, artists occupy and enliven rundown areas that consequently become too expensive for them to remain.
In 2011, Arts Habitat, a not-for-profit organization, opened 16 affordable co-op apartments for artists in the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood in north Edmonton, which has become a lively hub of cultural and storefront activity. Mayne is in advanced planning mode for a live-work artists' development nearby, called ArtsCommon, with a $4-million capital commitment from the city government.
The city has also put up $6-million and land for Artists Quarters, a live-work facility that will be part of a larger renewal plan for The Quarters, a 40-hectare area adjacent to the new Royal Alberta Museum. The city expects that within 20 years, the area's population will rise from 2,400 to at least 18,000.
"Artists Quarters would be the catalyst to get things moving," Mayne says. "I've spoken to developers who are just waiting for this to happen."
Edmonton Opera Centre
Edmonton Opera's recently completed production and office complex won't win any architectural awards: It's a no-frills industrial building in the city's northwest. But the smartly configured interior spaces, all designed in-house, make the company more integrated and self-reliant, production and technical director Clayton Rodney says. The building includes set-construction and painting facilities that other arts groups are lining up to rent.
The Opera's scenic shop relocated to the leased space near the Yellowhead Highway in 2012, from five separate locations, followed by administrative offices in 2014. Last summer, the company finished a sky-lit rehearsal hall big enough to accommodate a full opera set – something not found at the Jubilee Auditorium, where the company performs.
The centre is having an impact far beyond Edmonton. One of its current projects is construction of a set for a new five-company production of La Traviata that will premiere in performances by Manitoba Opera in April.
Winspear Centre for Music
The Winspear, home of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, is inching toward a long-planned, $53-million expansion that would replace an adjacent parking lot with a building that would include a 600-seat theatre. There would also be a community-oriented centre for creativity to be named after Tommy Banks, the Edmonton musician and former Liberal senator who died on Jan. 25. The Winspear would like to put shovels in the ground later this year, but is still waiting for provincial and federal governments to match a $13-million commitment by the city.