It’s not just the looming cranes or the towering skeletons of high-rises-to-be that make you feel like something big is happening on Jasper Avenue. And it’s not just the LRT expansion that makes you feel like Edmonton’s downtown is going places. There is something in the air. Perhaps it’s the buzz around the pending arena. Maybe it’s the promises of new condos and businesses on almost every block. Or maybe it’s the feeling that what was once a has-been neighbourhood is on the verge of greatness once again.
Downtown Edmonton hasn’t always had this much buzz. Well it did, but then it didn’t. Like any downtown core, it was the city’s commercial centre for a long time, home to department stores and small, niche businesses alike. But all of that began to change about 40 years ago, says Jim Taylor, executive director of the Downtown Business Association. “In the ’70s, the game in every city was to go to malls, and we built Westmount, then Southgate, Northgate, Kingsway, then of course we built West Edmonton Mall,” he says. “People said malls were the way to go in the ’70s. And it turned out that it hurt cities. It created dead downtowns because all of the retail moved to the malls from downtown.”
Over the next couple of decades, Edmonton’s mall scene continued to grow to the detriment of its downtown. “We reached a point in the mid-’90s where we bottomed out in downtown Edmonton,” says Taylor. “We lost all of the major department stores, and everybody talks about that, but what we also lost was all of our street retail.”
Many Edmontonians will tell you that the phenomenon of losing a neighbourhood was never limited to downtown or the ’90s. In fact, it’s still going on today. According to Avenue’s latest neighbourhoods survey, Whyte Avenue and Strathcona is still the best place in town in which to live. Still, you can’t walk more than a block down Whyte Avenue without hearing mutterings of “It’s just bars now.” A few years ago, people were blaming its decline on the abundance of donair shops. That’s because great neighbourhoods seem to only exist as memories. And it’s only a matter of time before Whyte Avenue regulars lament the loss of the abundant bars and donair joints.
It would be easy to chalk this one up to a general love of complaining, but the truth is that neighbourhoods do change as part of their natural cycles. What’s upsetting people now is that many of the businesses lost over the past decade have been cornerstone independent retailers – Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe in Strathcona, the Front Page on Jasper Avenue, the Ukrainian Bookstore in Chinatown. They’re being replaced with chain retailers, big-box stores and anything that can be appropriately suffixed “Super Centre.”
And though this trend certainly isn’t new – it’s been happening since Meg Ryan had enough star power to sell a movie about receiving email – the numbers are climbing. According to Industry Canada, independent retailers still have a slight edge of about four per cent over the chains when it comes to total revenue in Canada; however, that gap has been closing quickly over the past decade. Between 2001 and 2010, chain stores gained almost seven per cent of the market share. This is a trend that Taylor witnessed firsthand. “Street retail in Edmonton up to the late ’70s had been locally owned businesses,” he says. “They were all Edmontonians. They weren’t chain stores, but then there weren’t a lot of chain stores in those days. It’s a phenomenon that’s come later.”
With so many chain retailers swooping in and replacing local fare, it’s no wonder people are feeling a sense of loss over their neighbourhoods.
But, you should know that Taylor, for one, sees it as a cycle: he points out that the little guys pulled through the mall craze. Murray Davison, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association, agrees. He points out that people will always come back to independent stores because what they lack in size, marketing budgets and low price tags, they more than make up for in service. “What the independent stores have that a lot of those box stores don’t have,” he says, “is that chance that you could actually, nine times out of 10, any time on a given day, talk to the owner of the business. And that’s an experience that a lot of people are looking for. They want that personal touch, that personal feel. They’ll pay a little more for a good quality product [and] that extra level of service.”
Kris Burwash, owner of Listen Records on 124th Street, echoes that sentiment. His industry is one that has gone through many cycles of success and shortcomings, and was declared all but dead a few years ago thanks largely to online shopping and downloading. Despite that, he says the independent record store industry is on a bit of an upswing. “I think nowadays CDs have died,” he says, “iTunes was hot for a while and now vinyl is coming back so hard. People are just bored of hearing a thousand albums. They’re like: ‘I just want to hear a couple things really well’ and just enjoy them.”
Burwash also cautions that complaints of dying neighbourhoods often come from the worst offenders. “It’s funny because the people who are nostalgic [about neighbourhood businesses] , when you ask them where they buy things, they aren’t nearly as supportive of small businesses as they think they are, maybe,” he says with a resigned laugh. “But I guarantee even when you point it out, they’re still buying online. It never clicks with them. I have customers like that, where they’ll come in and tell me about stuff they buy at HMV because it’s cheaper. I mean, it’s bad enough you do that, but to come in and tell me that … It’s a disconnect and they don’t understand that. And that’s maybe society in general over the last 20 years where people really lost sight of that.”
Between the alternating desires for low prices and good service, businesses are constantly fighting to remain relevant to consumers, and that fight is never without casualties. Businesses are bound to close due to a lack of customers. Customers are bound to feel betrayed by the loss of old neighbourhood staples, and move on to other areas.
It is a little frustrating to think that we create these cycles of neighbourhood popularity only to become angry with them. Why do we stop going to independent retailers if we’re going to miss them? Why do we abandon our favourite neighbourhoods only to pine for their glory days?
It comes down to those downtown highrises nearing completion, and the promise of that new LRT line. Human beings are anticipation junkies. We get a thrill out of knowing good things are about to happen. We love the buildup to Christmas Day as much as the morning itself. As Taylor puts it, “For me, seeing the cranes in the morning is just as exciting as seeing the new buildings, because it’s anticipation. It’s like a Friday – you’re anticipating your weekend.” In the same way, we love neighbourhoods that are on the verge. We love saying we were there before anybody else was. We are addicted to the sense of possibility we experience when we stumble upon a sweet little coffee shop or bookstore that no one really knows about yet. And when those places finally arrive, the magic dies, we abandon them for new thrills, and the cycle begins again. “If you want to preserve it, then you have to change it,” says Taylor. “Something is either dying or growing. There’s no such thing as the status quo.”
It’s a crisp, clear Friday morning and as the sounds of construction are buzzing away outside of his office, Taylor confesses that the proposed downtown arena “will never be as beautiful as it is in my mind.” Fortunately for Taylor and other fans of downtown Edmonton, construction on the arena has yet to commence, the LRT is years away from completion, and there are still many highrises to be finished. The neighbourhood is safe in its state of “up-and-coming” for a few more years.
From our 2013 Best Neighbourhoods Survey:
How desirable is to live in a hip neighbourhood with lots of trendy cafes, shops, et cetera?