Growing pains of a changing city: End looms for businesses uprooted by redevelopment

·4 min read
Walid Saleh preps the fried chicken at Ralph’s Handi Mart in Strathearn. The strip mall is set to close within the next six months to make way for a high-density redevelopment project. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC - image credit)
Walid Saleh preps the fried chicken at Ralph’s Handi Mart in Strathearn. The strip mall is set to close within the next six months to make way for a high-density redevelopment project. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC - image credit)

From its laundromat and corner store to its pizza place, the Strathearn Centre has been a bustling hub of the south Edmonton community for more than three decades.

"I have kids that come in here that aren't even kids anymore," said Walid Saleh of Ralph's Handi Mart, a convenience store in the strip mall north of 95th Avenue near 87th Street

"They buy lottery [tickets] and cigarettes, when they used to buy five-cent and 10-cent candies."

Those kids, as he calls them, will soon have to find somewhere else.

The strip mall's tenants — more than a dozen small businesses — have received notice to be out by Oct. 31 to make way for the Strathearn Heights redevelopment project, which will increase residential density just north of the new LRT stop close by.

Listen here | Edmonton community says goodbye to a landmark as it faces development

Saleh has been working at Ralph's for 15 years, but the store has been a staple in the neighbourhood for 35.

"People know that they can depend on us," he said.

Clare Bonnyman/CBC
Clare Bonnyman/CBC

Fourteen years in the making

Plans for the 24-acre urban village, first approved in 2008, include 2,000 residential units and 100,000-square-feet of retail space where the Strathearn Centre now sits.

The project's next phases go further north, including the Strathearn Heights apartments that extend up to 97th Avenue.

"We chose this location because it was in the heart of a community." - Enid Dufresne-Dario, co-owner of Juniper Cafe & Bistro

Its developers, Nearctic and Rockwell Investments, have been through multiple iterations of the project plan since it was first approved.

Jim Stein is a principal at Strathearn Heights Limited, and is also with Rockwell Investments. His family has been involved in the area for decades.

"The Strathearn Heights [Apartments] was built by my grandfather 70 years ago," he said.

Clare Bonnyman/CBC
Clare Bonnyman/CBC

Redeveloping the Strathearn Centre and creating new commercial and residential space just north of the Strathearn LRT stop is phase one.

"There's a vision there, and it's a vision that we didn't want to just impose. We worked and it has taken us years and years and iterations and listening to the community," he said.

Shocked but not surprised

Tenants have been on short-term leases for years. On April 29, they received a six-month notice that their agreements would end.

Clare Bonnyman/CBC
Clare Bonnyman/CBC

"We knew eventually that this was coming, but after the last few years of LRT construction, and of course the pandemic, we were anticipating having some more time," said Enid Dufresne-Dario, co-owner of Juniper Cafe.

Dufresne-Dario and her husband Kenny Dario opened the cafe and restaurant in 2016.

Listen here | Strathearn Centre says goodbye

"To do it at this time is just a tough go," said Dario. "We've incurred a lot of debt through these last two years, and we only stayed open for the people."

The businesses in the strip mall faced challenges during LRT construction and again during the pandemic. But the business owners hustled hard to keep their customers.

Al Manara, a seafood shop and market at the strip's north end, reopened in March after owner Anis Gharsallah did extensive — and expensive — renovations that doubled his space.

Clare Bonnyman/CBC
Clare Bonnyman/CBC

"We spent like 100 grand just to renovate the place," he said.

Gharsallah took over two neighbouring shops, with plans to turn the third into a dining space. He operates a food truck as well.

"Now we are confused on what to do," he said. "First thing I was thinking about is to go for liquidation, sell all my stuff and close [the] door. The timing is very tough."

More than customers

For many, residents of the Strathearn community have been a core part of their business.

"They're friends and family for sure, " said Dufresne-Dario. "We chose this location because it was in the heart of a community."

Posts on social media are already lamenting the end of an era for these businesses. It's something the developers were expecting.

"It's difficult at this junction," Stein said. "As [it] is whenever change comes."

The development plan includes space for a small grocery store, which is something the neighbourhood lacks. Saleh said the next few years, before it is constructed, will be a challenge.

"It's gonna be hard, for not only us but for everybody," he said.

"I could name you a dozen people right now that don't drive, can barely walk, don't have a lot of money coming in every month, but know that when they come here, I'll take care of them," he said.

"I know they're going to need help, and that's what sucks," he added, "because I won't be here to help them."

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