Edmontonians weigh in on Old Strathcona's future as city explores changes to Whyte Avenue

The city is looking at making changes at Whyte Avenue like wider sidewalks, bus lanes and turning parking lots into parks. (Brendan Coulter/CBC - image credit)
The city is looking at making changes at Whyte Avenue like wider sidewalks, bus lanes and turning parking lots into parks. (Brendan Coulter/CBC - image credit)

Barista Sare Eastly wants to see a Whyte Avenue that puts people first.

"I care a lot about its development, because right now it's kind of sad, very few businesses [open]," the area resident said Sunday.

Eastly may get her wish as the City of Edmonton is looking at possible changes along the avenue including wider sidewalks, dedicated bus lanes and turning parking lots into parks. It's asking residents to share their vision for how to revitalize Old Strathcona.

"I love the idea of a walkable Whyte ... because it's a people-centric layout, it's not car-based," Eastly said.

The proposed designs would involve work being done between 99th and 109th Street.

Gateway Boulevard and  adjacent streets in the area is another section where the city is looking at making changes through more plazas and shared-use streets.

City of Edmonton
City of Edmonton

The two areas are part of the city's Old Strathcona public realm strategy, which launched in August 2022. It's already gone through one round of public engagement, during which close to 900 residents offered their input.

Participants expressed broad support to prioritize mass transit vehicles over cars at intersections. Support was also shown in possibly reducing on-street parking to add transit lanes.

"When we were asking people in the summer about what they'd like to see for public realm, we were hearing lots about improving connectivity, adding to or improving the existing parks, creating more spaces for festivals or places to hang out," Marco Melfi, a city project manager, said in an interview with CBC News.

"Council has given us some direction with the city plan, and some of their priorities that we want to encourage [is] other modes of travel," he said about offering more options for Edmontonians beyond using a car to travel across the city.

"It's not necessary to say 'stop using one mode' but to encourage other modes ... we're looking at how do we support people that like to walk or people that like to cycle or choose transit."

City of Edmonton
City of Edmonton

This shift would also be in line with the city's goals climate change targets and addressing concerns surrounding noise pollution and public safety, Melfi said.

Based on input from residents last summer, the city has put together designs for another round of public engagement. The three designs for Whyte Avenue include dedicated two-way transit lanes, an expanded walkway, a "flex space" that could have patios, and a left-turning lane.

David Cooper, founder of transportation planning firm Leading Mobility, has worked on street designs for cities across Canada and says the City of Edmonton will need to have a good understanding of potential trade-offs in going with some designs.

"We do have a lot of road space for one avenue. There is an opportunity to enhance space for other uses, particularly for local businesses, particularly for transit service."

Design skepticism

Lincoln Ho, an Edmonton blogger with an interest in urban planning, questions to what extent the proposed designs actually achieve what is being promoted by the city.

"They have bus lanes right in the middle of the road and it gives a question on how you're supposed to board the buses," he said.

"I don't think it's a good design — especially for pedestrian traffic, which they want to increase here — because that actually encourages jaywalking."

Scott Neufled/CBC
Scott Neufled/CBC

But he thinks the Whyte Avenue re-design could be a good opportunity to look at the benefits of something like a streetcar system.

"Definitely when the rail is hidden ... it doesn't do much for the streetscape and it doesn't do much to add to the vibrancy," he said.

Ho is critical of the consultation process as he believes city-presented options are limiting.

The project is currently in phase two. The city will showcase its design ideas at a public drop-in session at the Strathcona community league on March 2.