Diversified housing a key to unlocking Downtown Edmonton's inertia, experts say

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Edmonton’s Downtown needs some outside-the-box thinking if the city hopes to attract more residents to the core, according to a panelists at a recent housing summit.

“Edmonton has the second highest office vacancy rate in the country,” Cory Wosnack, principal and managing director of Avison Young, told the Housing For All symposium Thursday at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

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He said current numbers are mirroring those of 1997, when a Downtown office report highlighted an 18 per cent office vacancy rate.

Wosnack said city council back then provided contractors incentives for each new residence, and 16 office buildings were converted to residential occupancy. By 2007, the Downtown population had burgeoned by almost 10,000 residents and the office vacancy rate dropped to five per cent.

Then, in a 14-year lull, the population rate slowed, adding a net of just 2,000 more residents.

Wosnack suggested the growth momentum came to a halt when the city’s focus changed from scaling up centrally to scaling out.

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The value of Downtown real estate has dropped, meaning that neighbourhoods outside the core have to pick up the tax revenue shortfall, he said.

It all points to the need for an accelerated affordable housing strategy and incentives for converting more office buildings to residential units, he said.

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“This is a diversified housing strategy, an adaptive reuse strategy. It makes our streets feel safer.”

The strategy would add low- to mid-market housing faster than new construction, with the built-in safety of no government incentives paid until the conversions are completed and occupied, Wosnack said. He added that while he doesn’t agree with incentives to demolish older buildings, there is wisdom in incentives for post-secondary development Downtown.

Complex social challenges wear on Downtowners

In addition to office vacancy, Edmonton is experiencing an unprecedented time of complex social challenges, said Susan McGee, a panelist at the housing summit hosted by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board.

We think about homelessness being brief, rare and not recurring — but it’s abhorrent and uncomfortable, and not to be normalized, McGee said.

“More people are experiencing homelessness for the first time,” she said, citing aggravating factors of poverty, sustained mental health challenges and addiction issues, particularly the drug poisoning crisis.

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McGee is CEO of Homeward Trust, the organization leading Edmonton’s efforts to prevent and end homelessness in Edmonton. It has helped more than 16,000 previously homeless individuals find a home through its Housing First program since 2009.

Edmonton’s homeless count peaked back in 2008 and 2099 at more than 3,000 individuals. By 2016, the numbers dipped to just under 1,200.

The city was recognized internationally for solutions that brought about those reduced numbers, McGee said.

Then the numbers slowly started to climb again, a major shelter closed its doors and the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Homeless figures rose precipitously from 1,826 in 2021 to a new peak of 3,206 in 2023, a graph on the Homeward Trust website notes. Some 56 per cent of homeless Edmontonians identify as Indigenous.

Surrounding circumstances are daunting, McGee said.

“We have trauma that is centuries of colonization and the impact of that,” she said. “We have a housing crisis because we haven’t been investing in housing for 50-plus years.”

It’s time to be innovative, and to invest in better governance, longer term strategies, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable in a time of needed change, she said.

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Post-secondary boom an opportunity

A post-secondary boom in Downtown Edmonton is expected to bring an additional 15,000 students to the area in the near future.

“Because our economy’s growing, we need talent,” said Annette Trimbee, president of MacEwan University.

Speaking at a breakout panel on downtown liveability, Trimbee said schools in the area — including MacEwan, NorQuest, NAIT and the University of Alberta — are increasing their capacity, and so foresee big growth in the coming year. That calls for more housing.

Looking ahead to 2030, Trimbee said she would prefer to see more dwellings for students in the community — and they seem to prefer it as well.

“I don’t want to build more purpose-built residences on campus,” she said.

“There are questions being raised, ‘What if we build it and they don’t come?’ I can tell you they’re here already and they’re coming,” Trimbee said.

As it is, students make up 10 per cent of the Downtown population, bringing energy, vibrancy, ideas and workers who are likely to stay in Edmonton, she said.

“Edmonton has an incredibly strong post-secondary presence right Downtown,” Trimbee said, citing the city’s UNESCO designation as a learning city.

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With a corresponding need for diverse, affordable housing in the community, Trimbee suggested Edmonton could take a page from Winnipeg’s playbook by twinning private and government money for development with social impact. In Winnipeg’s case, that resulted in mixed-use towers.

Panelist and landscape architect Jill Robertson, a partner at Dialog’s Edmonton studio, said both housing and business need to be targeted for growth. That requires focus on economic development, housing diversity and community engagement, she said.

She stressed the importance of equity in placemaking, which considers how designs help create communities, well-being, connections and socializing.

Beautiful public spaces that are walkable and safe are inviting to residents and visitors, she said, adding that starting public discourse can create excitement, interest and commitment to advancing plans.

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