During the day, the south-side Edmonton neighbourhood of Whyte Avenue’s knick-knack stores, cafes and upscale restaurants are populated with young families, students, seniors and other shoppers. When festivals come to town, the artsy Whyte is often a locus of activity; pot-smoking protesters and pro-gay marchers favour it. But at night, the street’s many bars turn loose a flood of drunken ravers, frat boys and bikers. That is why the Whyte Avenue Land Use Planning Study, to be presented to city council December 15, will inject a larger state presence into the street’s class-transcending social mix.
The two-year study is the product of consultations among the merchants and residents who belong to the Old Strathcona Area Community Council. OSACC’s recommendations include increasing the number of police officers on the beat from four to eight, establishing a clean-up program to remove litter and graffiti, hiring a social worker to monitor area youth, and installing closed-circuit television cameras to watch over it all. The plan was inspired by fears that the area would deteriorate because of its popularity. “There were several concerns that this active, very successful area seemed to be losing its historical character,” comments Cathy Raftis, community planner with the City of Edmonton and coordinator of the project. Adding that the OSACC committee also tackled petty crime and traffic problems, Mrs. Raftis says that “This is a nice commercial area, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
So would Terry Balkan, general manager of the Southpark GMC auto dealership on Whyte Avenue. “Vandalism is a huge problem,” says Mr. Balkan. “I had one security guard, and he couldn’t keep up” with patrolling the lot after-hours. “Vandalism costs us more than you’d believe–$5,000 per month.” Mr. Balkan believes that the main problem is intoxicated bar patrons who spill onto the avenue en masse after last call. He is particularly concerned that neighbouring bars do not maintain a security presence outside their establishment at closing time. “Four beat cops can’t handle everything.”
Gabriel, the manager of a Whyte Avenue Subway outlet, believes that the popularity of Old Strathcona has led to an increase in crime. “There is vandalism, and robberies… and a lot of panhandlers,” he says, adding that he is sometimes approached for handouts seven or eight times a day. Gabriel definitely believes that Whyte Avenue “needs more cops at night.” Amanda Stewart, manager of the True North Hemp Company, concurs. “Every morning we’re glad that our window is still there. Most of the problems happen at night, not during the day.” But others worry less about vandals than the beggars: “The panhandling is becoming excessive,” says Yiannis Taverna owner Jim Anast. “We’ve had a lot of complaints from customers.”
The police from the Old Strathcona station say that Whyte Avenue’s funky nightlife is attracting increasing numbers of people. “We’ve always been very busy,” says Constable Sean Armstrong, one of the four current beat officers who patrol the area on foot. “Whyte Avenue attracts the whole spectrum.” Const. Armstrong is not overly concerned about the deterioration of Whyte Avenue, however. “What we call `shift-changes’ occur throughout the day; shoppers during the day, couples arrive for dinnertime, followed by the bar crowd.” Consequently, explains Const. Armstrong, there are fewer conflicts between the different users. Explaining that the beat officers are reinforced by patrolling squad cars, Const. Armstrong adds that officers on foot “don’t leave the avenue until the area is quiet, usually around 4 a.m.”
Coordinator Raftis points out that the problem is not necessarily with the number of bars in the area, but with their size. Of the 475 businesses in the area, 97 are bars and restaurants with total occupancy permits for 9,700 patrons. One of the proposed solutions is to limit further development by restricting the maximum size of any new bar to 200 occupants. Existing establishments would be exempted from the new regulations by a grandfather clause. “Our intent is not to sterilize the area,” says Ms. Raftis. “Rather, we want to keep it vital and diverse to promote the good that is there.”
James Lightbody, professor of political science at the University of Alberta, has high hopes for the plan’s success, noting that the study recommendations come from the community: city council, he says, only messes things up when it imposes order from on high. “I am struck by how successful the city has been in revitalizing the downtown, which has been victimized by successive studies by city hall,” he says. Describing the Old Strathcona area as “alive, thriving, with a good mix of people,” Professor Lightbody is hopeful that it will retain its character. “The municipal government is gearing up for the election cycle and councillors must be seen to be doing something.”