The thing about vision in a utilitarian city like Edmonton is you have to adapt in striking ways if you want to succeed.
Envision, if you will, Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson one night in 2017. He’s at the Edmonton Project — where one winning idea would be taken on by the private sector. The concept he’s presented with throws him into the fire. The crowd-voted winner? An urban gondola. His promise? Make it happen.
“I remember when the gondola won,” Hansen-Carlson says, sipping an iced coffee in the basement of the Telus tower downtown, a site he’s asked me to in order to show me what’s next on the gondola idea. “I was nervous. I was like, ‘That is the stupidest idea — how is it ever going to work?’ I was worried about my reputation and putting my name behind it.”
Hansen-Carlson, who by day works as a director of business development with EllisDon (and is a Top 40 Under 40 alumnus, class of 2018) has turned the gondola into an up-to-$600-million idea, with $100 million of it for a 44-car, 3.1-kilometre, multiple-station line proposed to connect downtown with West Rossdale and Whyte Avenue via a seven-minute trip in the sky above the North Saskatchewan River. It’s a fast connection that, even in utilitarian form, our transit planners have managed to ignore since we closed regular streetcar service over the High Level Bridge in 1951.
To make it happen, though, Hansen-Carlson isn’t asking for public money or the city to do anything but partner the project. Instead, he’s assembled a group that calls itself Prairie Sky, with 28 investors and a board of Edmonton heavyweights — Naseem Bashir, President and CEO of Williams Engineering, and Andrea Wheaton of the local car dynasty, among others. Soon on it was clear to this group that the biggest risk it faced was not the quirky gondola itself but where, specifically, it would go. Stop number two: West Rossdale.
The city has planned an “urban village” (think: A regular, transit-connected city neighbourhood) in Rossdale since the early aughts. But the West Rossdale infill plan has moved slower than should be legal. The reason, Hansen-Carlson says, is a lack of courage to allow change. His group even once tried to buy the power plant from EPCOR, he says, and the answer was no, because an old property line runs directly through this land. Really. Currently, EPCOR and the City of Edmonton are trying to change that.
Fast forward to today. The land questions are now mostly sorted and Prairie Sky is proposing to buy it all up and develop it into a neighbourhood. But it wants the gondola as an amenity, too — to attract people to animate the area and offer residents a perk. Indeed, for Prairie Sky, the two have to go together. The group even wants Edmonton to give it “exclusivity” for the gondola rights, a request that saw representatives at a city council committee trying to explain the gondola and reassure council that it isn’t asking for corporate welfare (a point Hansen-Carlson makes often).
Why the combination of new amenity and residential development? “If the gondola happens and we invest $100 million of other people’s money — and West Rossdale never happens — this will be the stupidest thing anybody’s ever done,” he says.
But perhaps the big question is why. Why has he stuck to his promise to take a quirky but half-baked pitch and transform it into a way to redevelop a critical part of Edmonton? “I am so sick and tired of hearing really smart and capable people say they have an idea,” Hansen-Carlson says. “The average person has 100 ideas a day, but how many have they done? I would rather hear people say ‘I did an idea.’ If Prairie Sky comes to symbolize anything to Edmontonians, I hope it’s that. Find reasons to do things.”
This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton.