Edmonton's empty storefronts could be filled if city changes rules, planner argues

·3 min read
An apartment complex at 100th Avenue and 108th Street has empty retail space on first floor.  (Adam Shamchuck - image credit)
An apartment complex at 100th Avenue and 108th Street has empty retail space on first floor. (Adam Shamchuck - image credit)

Empty storefronts and vacant first floors in core Edmonton neighbourhoods could be filled if the city relaxes its rules requiring minimum retail space, one planner told councillors Wednesday.

Adam Shamchuk, a registered planner and consultant, presented ideas to city council's executive committee Wednesday at city hall.

"If Edmonton continues to require ground-floor commercial in the core, there's going to be resulting impacts of vibrancy," he said.

Shamchuk showed three examples of towers built in recent years under a requirement to have commercial space, with empty first floors: Fox Tower at 102nd Avenue and 104th Street; the Hat in the Quarters at 102nd Avenue and 95th Street; Capital apartments at 108th Street and 100th Avenue.

"When you have a high degree of vacancy, it's hard to activate those streets to become dynamic and interesting places," Shamchuk told the committee.

Anne Stevenson, city councillor for Ward O-day'min, said there is variety within the downtown boundaries.

"It's not, 'every street has to have all commercial, all the time,'" she said.

Stevenson said she's open to making changes to zoning bylaws but doesn't think it would be a quick fix.

"I would not be comfortable if we just went and made an amendment to say, 'instead of only commercial you can have some residential too,'" Stevenson said.

"I think we'd end up with you know some curtains across storefronts and potentially not great living conditions or not a great interface with the city."

Variety of zoning

Zoning requirements downtown depend on the planning policy and nature of the area, the city said.

"If a street is primarily commercial, zoning regulations will require that any new development on that street also be commercial in nature," Claire St. Aubin, senior planner in development and zoning services, said in an email Wednesday.

"In some areas, such as The Quarters, commercial is required at ground level only on specific streets with the intention of maintaining continuity of a main street."

Natasha Riebe/CBC
Natasha Riebe/CBC

Examples include the Core Commercial Arts Zone, providing "a variety of high density and quality development that accommodates office, retail, service, institutional, residential, arts and entertainment uses," the bylaw reads.

The Jasper Avenue Main Street Commercial Zone "accommodates at ground level, predominantly retail commercial, office and service Uses suitable for the Downtown's Main Street."

Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, said successful downtown areas like Manhattan or Vancouver don't have retail bays on the ground floor of every residential building.

"We definitely don't need any additional retail space in our downtown core for the next 5-10 years, and vacant ground floor retail bays are a significant detractor from downtown vibrancy."

Some buildings have townhouse-style units or lobbies with tenant amenities, she noted.

Push for mixed-market residential

City councillors were reviewing progress on the city's three Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) areas: downtown, the Quarters and Belvedere.

The CRLs, under provincial legislation, are a pre-investment in an area aimed at encouraging development and catalyst projects.

The committee directed administration to come up with financial incentive options using funding from the downtown CRL to encourage more mixed-market residential developments downtown.

McBryan said the DBA supports a new financial incentives program for residential development downtown, which they've been advocating to council and Admin for some time.

"Increasing our residential population downtown is one of the most important goals to work towards for Edmonton to have a viable and successful downtown,"  McBryan said.