Not long after moving to Edmonton from the west coast six years ago, Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson noticed something peculiar about city residents.
“Edmontonians have a really weird relationship with the river valley. There is something almost exclusive about its preservation, which has made it really hard for a lot of people to explore it and connect with it,” says the 38-year-old entrepreneur. “It’s not like what you see in other major cities with great urban-park scenarios. It’s bizarre.”
The impression is most pronounced for Hansen-Carlson in the barren expanse around the crumbling Rossdale power plant.
“It’s a total eyesore as the gateway to our community. It sits like that because for some reason, it’s more comforting for us to do nothing and just accept the status quo. That puzzles me. It’s not OK that West Rossdale sits as it does today,” he says.
Hansen-Carlson’s solution aims to kickstart development of the area with a gondola. As CEO of Prairie Sky and a director at EllisDon Capital, he proposes a $155-million privately funded gondola alignment, with 86 cabins that can move 10 passengers at a time between downtown and Whyte Avenue, across five stations. Council approved the agreement framework between the company and the city in an 8-5 vote in February.
The proposal has reignited the question of whether Edmonton truly wants to attract people to river valley, or keep it sacrosanct.
People engaged in development discussions are quick to make inspired comparisons to what other cities have done along the rivers running through them.
Winnipeg’s Forks at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, Calgary’s Prince’s Island and Eau Claire district on the Bow, the Minneapolis Mill District on the Mississippi, and San Antonio’s River Walk along the San Antonio River are all well-appointed destinations for locals and tourists.
Edmonton’s “Ribbon of Green,” in contrast, is a warren of paths, trails and footbridges through dense forests and thick brush along the dramatic banks of the North Saskatchewan River. Basic amenities are rare. Navigating the schmozzle of roads to find access points can be dizzying. More people have probably tried and failed to find the “accidental beach” than actually enjoyed it.
City Councillor Sarah Hamilton admits access and usability problems demand a solution, but she’s not convinced it’s a gondola. She voted against it.
“To say to people: if you’re coming down to the river valley, there’s not a lot of public transit, so you’re going to have to drive there or live close enough to walk, which is a bit of privilege and, once you get there, you’ll need to have packed snacks, food, water enough to stay down there for two or five or eight hours, and there may or may not be washrooms — for most people that’s not a tenable way to plan a day,” she says. Even a simple snack shack in the valley would give people more reason to visit.
“If we want to create a city of access and equitability, things like washrooms, access to food, handicap parking stalls and public transit are important.”
Mystique surrounding development along the North Saskatchewan River dates back more than a century. Edmontonians have paid steep prices in the past for getting too chummy with the beautiful but destructive waterway.
A 1915 flood wiped out 50 buildings and submerged 700 homes. In 1986, flooding damaged 300 homes in Rossdale, Riverdale and Cloverdale. In 1999, three homes atop the bank collapsed in a landslide. And then there’s Edmonton’s history of using the river valley for garbage dumps, brick factories and coal mining.
Over the years the city has become increasingly protective of the valley. It’s among the most extensive park systems of any major city in North America and since 1985 has been governed by the river valley Bylaw 7188, which emphasizes the valley as a place of recreation and parks and speaks of the need to protect most of it from urban development.
The Prairie Sky proposal isn’t the first development vision to come before city council, but planning has proven slow.
The River Crossing Business Plan is a complex and lofty dream of revitalizing the West Rossdale area into a mixed-use development, with a 15-year timeline. The Touch the Water Promenade idea for the same area has been around for the better part of a decade; it’s now in the planning and design stage.
Touch the Water envisions a four-kilometre promenade along the river between Rossdale and Government House Park. Its name, says Geoff Smith, general supervisor of open space planning and design for the city, is metaphorical as well as — possibly — literal.
“It’s very close to the water and in fact there might be opportunities to physically touch the water and connect with the water,” Smith says. But the project is not funded for construction. Meanwhile, the gondola could be open within three years.
River Valley Alliance Executive Director Kristine Archibald says development beyond trails and bridges could make sense in certain areas, but not others. The non-profit group, made up of six river valley municipalities including the City of Edmonton, has a mandate to connect 100 kilometres of trails from Fort Saskatchewan to Devon. Archibald believes the trail system alone could become a tourist attraction if it had a compelling name; think the Cabot, West Coast and other destination trails. The group is working on coming up with one.
“In naming it, it becomes marketable. There are whole groups of people out there all across the world that actually base their travel upon destinations and trails such as this,” Archibald says.
“The City of Edmonton and the surrounding municipalities and regions do a really good job of respecting which areas should remain natural and which areas maybe could be prone to a little more development. They don’t make decisions for development in the river valley lightly,” she adds. “People are going to access the river valley regardless. Let’s give them places to get in and get out so that they’re not going through areas that we would like to see kept pristine and natural.”
Mike Saunders, senior vice president of developer Qualico Properties, is resolute. He says the city has about 10 to 15 years of developable land left in its current corporate limits, and will need to densify to sustain and support growth to two million people. But he doesn’t see tremendous development opportunities in the river valley outside of the Rossdale area.
“It’s our greatest amenity, and it’s relatively untouchable,” he says. “There aren’t many areas of the river valley where development is even possible. There’s so much opportunity outside of the river valley for densification and responsible development within the confines of our city limits, that I don’t even think it should ever really be a discussion.”
But he distinguishes between traditional, large-scale mixed-use development and projects like the gondola — which he supports — to improve access to the valley. He uses the trails as a cyclist. “It would be great to go buy a water or a sandwich or something, so having little retail nodes within that would be responsible development,” he says.
Hansen-Carlson says Prairie Sky goes into the planning process “eyes wide open,” aware of the potential roadblocks that lie ahead, including respecting the sacred status of the Rossdale lands to Indigenous groups.
He casts that challenge as an opportunity.
“You go to any great city all around the world and regardless of their story, if there’s an honesty about telling that story, it really contributes to the culture and the fabric and the reason people go to places and do things,” he says.
“The heart and soul of Edmonton’s story, not just Edmonton, but the historic story — the Indigenous communities and the sacred land — those two stories collide, quite literally, in West Rossdale. And so we’ve made very light attempts at taking those two stories and creating something special with it.
“We all need to demonstrate a little bit of courage to crack this conversation open in a way where, if you’re not a runner, you’re not a rollerblader or a cyclist, you can go have a respectful commercial experience in the river valley — say, go have a glass of wine by the river — in a venue that tells a story.
“There’s a way to do it gracefully and respectfully.”
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This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Edify.