Chris Buyze moved to downtown Edmonton in 1999 and he’s had a front-row seat for the improvements brought by countless projects in the 19 years since.

“On a Sunday in 1999, you could fire a cannonball down Jasper Avenue and not hit anybody,” he says. “It’s not like that anymore.”

Edmonton at a Glance
Population (2016): 932,546
Area: 685.25 sq. km
Incorporated as a City: October 8, 1904
Current Mayor: Don Iveson

Buyze has been involved with the Downtown Edmonton Community League for several years and currently serves as the organization’s president. He feels that all the development, from the new arena to the museum to the new office towers and condo buildings, has changed the zeitgeist around the neighbourhood. Before, simply convincing most people to come downtown was a challenge, he says. Now most Edmontonians he speaks with don’t need convincing.

The numbers back up Buyze’s perception.

Just under 6,000 people lived downtown in 1997, when revitalization efforts began. Today roughly 14,000 people live in the area.

After years of slow progress, kicked off by the first Capital City Downtown Plan in 1997, transformation entered a second phase in the mid-2000s, when residential projects and new amenities began attracting young professionals to live downtown.

Then, in 2014, construction begins on a downtown arena, partially funded by taxpayers. The project signals a new era in downtown Edmonton, with investment flooding in from private and public players.

Skyscrapers like Edmonton Tower, the Kelly Ramsey Building and Stantec Tower begin shooting out of the ground. The Royal Alberta Museum moves into a new $375-million building just north of City Hall.

Private residential projects bring attractive new housing to the market, tempting trend-setting young professionals to move downtown. Governments pour $665 million into a new light rail transit (LRT) line. Post-secondary education institutions in the area embark on ambitious campus expansion projects, like MacEwan University’s $180-million fine arts building.

The mix of private and public players, along with shifting project schedules and budgeting practices, makes it difficult to calculate a definitive price tag for Edmonton’s downtown makeover, but any accounting must traffic in heady figures. One estimate from the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation totals up every project at $5 billion, but if every proposed and planned project goes through, this figure may be low.

With an arena, casino, retail and commercial space, ICE District is set to become one of the largest mixed-use sports and entertainment districts in Canada. Photo: Darryl Propp

All these developments are playing an important role in Edmonton’s economy.

“The developments downtown were perfectly timed,” says John Rose, chief economist with the City of Edmonton, because they started just as global energy prices were beginning their 2014 collapse. “The projects acted as a real, very important buffer for the Edmonton economy in getting through the recent downturn.

“As an economist, I couldn’t have asked for better timing. Right up until the middle of 2016, we saw employment growth here. A big part of that was the construction side. We saw very, very solid numbers. That’s been a really important component in terms of Edmonton’s economic performance.”

Rogers Place, the new arena for the Edmonton Oilers, is already attracting millions of visitors each year. Kristopher Banner, project manager for ICE District — the area of downtown that includes the arena, a community rink, a casino, and three large new skyscrapers — says the district will host an event that will draw in visitors 290 days of the year.

In 2017, nine of those events were sold-out shows for the singer Garth Brooks. A City of Edmonton report concluded that those shows and their associated economic activity generated $42 million for the local economy. DIALOG, an architecture firm working on ICE District, projects that the combined attractions will bring over 3.7 million visits per year when construction finishes.

Photo: Daryl Propp

Nate Box owns several restaurants in and around Edmonton’s downtown. He opened District in March 2014, roughly 10 blocks away from the new arena just as construction was getting started. Box was attracted by what he calls a “totally underserviced market” and by the investment going into downtown. For instance, District sits a stone’s throw from the Edmonton Federal Building and Centennial Plaza, part of the provincial legislature grounds that finished a $403-million facelift in 2015.

“We have noticed a greater awareness of the downtown core,” Box says. “Whether they’re here for arena events or the 104 Street market or coming down to the newly renovated [legislature] grounds, there’s more people around.”

A good chunk of those new customers Box is noticing are likely downtown residents. Ian O’Donnell, executive director of Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association, hopes to see downtown’s resident population rise even higher to approximately 20,000 in the next few years. Residential projects like the Augustana and a proposed 80-storey condo tower east of the Shaw Conference Centre suggest that developers also see this potential in the downtown market.

“Any new residential development is important,” O’Donnell says. “They provide resiliency for restaurants and retail downtown throughout the day and the weekend, which is important. What we’ve seen in Vancouver and Toronto and even Calgary is something we’re headed towards too.

“There are a lot of benefits to having a significant population live downtown.”

Downtown Edmonton has come a long way and there is still more to come. The Stanley Milner Library is in the midst of a renovation that will cost upwards of $69 million and finish in 2020. The Valley Line LRT extension, which will create 27 kilometres of new rail track linking downtown with the city’s south, will cost $1.8 billion and open to the public in 2020.

Then there’s ICE District, where construction won’t finish until 2020. When it does, it will include the tallest building in Canada west of Toronto – Stantec Tower. Already, another tower under construction in the area has surpassed the Epcor Tower to win the title of tallest building in Edmonton.

“No matter which direction you look at the skyline of Edmonton,” says ICE District’s project manager Banner, “we’re changing it every day.”