How downtown Edmonton retail is getting its groove back

Hockey fans watch on a big screen as the Edmonton Oilers take on the Florida Panthers. Tens of thousands came downtown during the series, invigorating hopes for a more vibrant downtown culture. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Hockey fans watch on a big screen as the Edmonton Oilers take on the Florida Panthers. Tens of thousands came downtown during the series, invigorating hopes for a more vibrant downtown culture. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Downtown Edmonton is undergoing its own version of retail therapy as it builds back better after the pandemic.

New storefronts are offering more places to shop, dine, and connect while tens of thousands flocking to Ice District during the NHL playoffs demonstrated what the future could look like.

''We got to see how downtowns are supposed to feel from a place of vibrancy, and when things feel vibrant, they feel safe," said Heather Thomson, vice-president of research, strategy and engagement at the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

The pandemic drained downtown Edmonton of people forcing many retail closures. But now, say business leaders, initiatives are paying off from bold beautification to more flexible bylaws and pedestrian-friendly corridors.

The next step, says Thomson, is to populate the downtown full time, making it an around-the-clock destination.

"We need more humans, we need more people living downtown," Thomson said.

Heather Thomson says increasing Edmonton's downtown foot traffic is the key to retail success.
Heather Thomson says increasing Edmonton's downtown foot traffic is the key to retail success.

Heather Thomson says increasing Edmonton's downtown foot traffic is the key to retail success. (Dallas Curow)

Consider the impact of the pandemic when the downtown workforce shrunk from 60,000 pre-COVID to 9,000 in 2021, according to Chamber figures.

Empty storefront windows peered onto desolate streets as police and security guards patrolled by. The City Centre mall became a ghost of itself where police, security and people seeking shelter often outnumbered shoppers and "For Lease" signs multiplied.

Among the casualties were Holt Renfrew and, along the same block, Hudson's Bay inside Edmonton City Centre mall.

Convenience stores closed following years of clerks dealing with customers who were high, mentally unwell, unemployed and unhoused.

"The only thing we're really missing in our downtown is the people," said Puneeta McBryan, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association (EDBA).

"People and foot traffic, i.e. customers is what drives retail demand and everything else economically. So to have had what we've had for the past two months, all of a sudden you see exactly what we've been saying."

We need more humans, we need more people living downtown- Heather Thomson, Edmonton Chamber of Commerce

Efforts to capitalize on the momentum are well underway.

Patio and bylaw zoning rules have loosened, bike lanes have expanded and building facades have increasingly become canvasses for both local and international artists.

As more gravel parking lots transform into parks, newer modes of transport like e-scooters and car shares have made downtown living more convenient and enjoyable.

The Retail Attraction Project, funded by the EDBA, the province and the city, awarded grant money and reduced start-up costs for three retailers including the Good Goods Company which promotes smaller brands focusing on social good.

Three more recipients will soon be announced.

'Hitting our stride'

By October 2023, the Downtown Edmonton Streetfront Retail Report 2023 gave reason for optimism as it laid out the economic and social benefits of pedestrian-oriented storefront retail.

Co-written by Thomson, researchers found that the occupancy rate of downtown street-front retail was at 66 per cent, although it had no data for previous years to compare.

Noted success stories included The Helm Clothing, which moved from 104th to 103rd Street, where customers can now shop for upscale menswear on three floors.

Just up the street, the Ice District snagged anchor tenants Henry Singer and Loblaws.

More recently, Edmontonians welcomed the downtown farmers back to 104th Street while block parties on Rice Howard Way launched the entertainment district, where people can rove drinks-in-hand every Saturday this summer.

"This is us hitting our stride, this is the perfect storm of all the things we've been trying to create in our downtown for years," McBryan said.

"This is an opportunity to keep building on that."

Rice Howard Way is a vehicle-free zone every Saturday this summer where people can rove drinks-in-hand.
Rice Howard Way is a vehicle-free zone every Saturday this summer where people can rove drinks-in-hand.

Rice Howard Way is a vehicle-free zone every Saturday this summer where people can rove drinks-in-hand. (Understudy Studio)

Anand Pye, executive director of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association's local chapter, said it is exciting to see the conversion of several empty office towers to partial residences, as in the case of the Phipps-McKinnon building.

But pockets in between the vibrancy — whether it's parkades or building facades with no street presence — can still be a tough sell for prospective businesses touring the core.

"We hear from brokers all the time that they're losing deals between the buildings," Pye said.

One of those dead zones is the stretch between the Edmonton Tower and Enterprise Square along the western facade of City Centre mall, where lighting has been improved and the bus stop was recently relocated.

While Pye said he is pleased with the incremental improvements, he worries "you're just chipping away at it and it never feels like it's resolved."

Apart from the drugstore and security entrance on the north side, Edmonton City Centre has no street interaction.
Apart from the drugstore and security entrance on the north side, Edmonton City Centre has no street interaction.

Apart from the drugstore and security entrance, Edmonton City Centre's north side has no street presence. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

In 2021, renderings showing a potential overhaul of the mall with glass facades and sidewalk restaurants surfaced online to the public fanfare of councillors and organizations.

"Traditionally, downtown is very inward facing and that takes away from the street vibrancy," Coun. Anne Stevenson said in a recent interview.

"I think it is a really exciting idea to sort of be more outward facing."

Three years later, the mall — which extends for two city blocks in the heart of the downtown — has maintained its fortress-like feel with minimal street animation.

Thomson says that won't change until the population base grows and an investment in retail makes sense.

City Centre declined to comment.

Sage Stone opens two stores in City Centre

Meanwhile inside the mall, a few new gems have popped up.

In May, Sage Stone opened its second mall location selling jewelry, crystals and spiritual tools from a collective of 50 local artisans.

Kyla Videsjorden is the owner of Sage Stone which recently opened two locations in City Centre mall.
Kyla Videsjorden is the owner of Sage Stone which recently opened two locations in City Centre mall.

Kyla Videsjorden is the owner of Sage Stone which recently opened two locations in City Centre mall. (Sage Stone)

The store has also become a safe space for some marginalized Edmontonians who can regularly be seen chatting with owner Kyla Videsjorden and her staff.

"There's a lot of love needed down here," Videsjorden said.