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Edmonton's Chinatown is a mass of contradictions.

 
In many ways, it's the most vibrant part of the city centre, filled with thriving storefront shops and restaurants, the kind of pedestrian-friendly businesses that get the sidewalks bustling with life and energy. Walk up 97th Street on a warm sunny Sunday, past greengrocers who put their lychee and mangoes out on the sidewalk for display, past packed dim sum shops and pho noodle houses, past busy bakeries and bridal stores, and you see what a downtown can look like, when it's filled people enjoying their city.

 

Yet all that retail and restaurant energy shares a sometimes uneasy coexistence with the area's homeless shelters, social outreach agencies, and, of course, the Edmonton Remand Centre. Chinatown was once literally on the "wrong side of the tracks"; even though the trains no longer run, Chinatown is visually and physically cut off from the rest of the downtown proper by an old railway trestle.

 
That's what's so exciting, and intriguing, about a new proposal from Yorkton Development to build two elegant-looking highrise residential condominium towers in the heart of Chinatown.

The proposed towers would stand at 105th Avenue, just west of 97th Street, filling in what's now a large surface parking lot behind the Yorkton Pacific Mall.

This is no small project. According to the current proposal, the south tower would be 32 storeys, while the north tower would be a dramatic 42 stories high -for a total of about 425 condo units. The project also calls for a major renovation of the existing mall and the addition of more commercial and restaurant space in the tower pedestals. In the preliminary designs from architect Brad Kennedy, at least, the slim buildings look more like something you'd see in Vancouver, or Shanghai, than Edmonton.

 
"From a design perspective, we're taking into account that this is in Chinatown," says Yorkton's Terry Liu. "We're not going to build a pagoda, but the flavour will play well into the neighbourhood, in terms of its design."
 
Liu says the goal isn't to build highend condos, nor social housing, but mid-priced units to sell to young urban professionals, empty nesters and seniors. They'd be marketed locally first and foremost -but also offshore, say Liu, to Asian urbanites for whom high-density, highrise living is the norm.

Last fall, when the developers first started talking about the project with area residents, there was considerable enthusiasm, but a lot of skepticism, too. It was hard for people to imagine exactly how you could sell investors, and future condopurchasers, on such an ambitious project, in a part of the city that some people might consider seedy, even dangerous.

But the development started to look a whole lot more plausible last month, after Ed Stelmach announced a surprise plan to build a magnificent new $340-million Royal Alberta Museum -and a possible future high-speed railway station -on the site of the old downtown post office, just a block or so south of the Yorkton Pacific parcel.

If the RAM plan came to fruition, condo tenants would no longer have a view of the back end of a squat brown postal station garage -but rather of a splendid new museum, meant to be a signature work of downtown architecture.

 
On top of that, of course, the old Remand Centre, kittycorner to the southeast of the Yorkton Pacific Mall, is scheduled to close in 2012. Whether the existing building is rehabilitated in some way, or demolished to make way for something new, it will no longer be a focal point for a "bad element" in the area.
 
Liu says his company had no idea the plans for a museum, or a high-speed train station, were in the works. He says their project doesn't hinge on a new RAM or a new downtown arena. Still, he's not denying that they might make his location more attractive.

"It's great news, it's fantastic," he says. "When you take a look at all that's going on in the downtown, it's very positive for the community. All these various developments assist in making this a desirable place to live."

 

Still, there's a big difference between proposing a development and getting it built. Our Journal archives are filled with optimistic stories about grand condo schemes that never happened -or which seem to be on indefinite hold. Yorkton has held one consultation meeting with local residents and business owners. It has filed a formal rezoning application with the city. But it's still a long way from breaking ground.

"We want to see this built," says Liu. "However, the business economics have to come into play as well."

 
Liu says they're finding investor interest, both locally and in China and Hong Kong. Who knows?

Where conservative Edmontonians look at the property and see an ugly parking lot on the edge of a rough quarter, an investor with an outsider's perspective might see the potential for people to live in a pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood within easy walking distance of restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, not to mention the RAM, City Hall, the Law Courts Building and the Churchill Square arts precinct -even, perhaps one faroff day, a direct high-speed commuter link to Calgary, or Fort McMurray.

Whenever, if ever, the project goes ahead, it does at least give us something to dream on -a chance to see a new kind of urban development potential, in a place where there was none before.
 
 

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