Commercial: Heart of the city

The First and Jasper project

For years, the intersection of 101 Street and Jasper Avenue has been a perfect symbol of the problems afflicting Edmonton's downtown core: plenty of prime real estate, little imagination, no fun. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in summer, you might find a few people out there waiting for a bus to take them to West Edmonton Mall.

Expect big changes, and soon. In May, the City of Edmonton began its two-year plan to renovate Jasper Avenue between 100 Street and 102 Street, widening sidewalks and ripping out the obtrusive, unpopular medians that run down the street. A new pedestrian-friendly space is envisioned, filled with shops and restaurants intended to jolt awake the city's sleepy centre.

GE Capital Real Estate's First and Jasper project will offer a preview of the new downtown to come. Designed by DIALOG and constructed by Ledcor Group of Companies, this massive renovation of the old Epcor Tower kicked off in January. If this corner is the heart of the city, expect it to beat a little quicker come March 2013, when the building is finished.

Originally built in the mid-1970s, the building has best been known as the home of Epcor Utilities Inc. since 1990, back when the company was still called Edmonton Power. Indeed, that's likely all that anyone knows about the building, unless they happen to be Epcor employees. The place represented an older vision of downtown-sealed off, isolated and unvisited. It was a place you went to work, and then left at five o'clock without looking back.

The new vision for the site represents a radical break from that past, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the first two floors. Last year, the neighbouring Bank of Montreal building and Odeon Theatre were demolished to make way for a two-storey podium section connected to the main tower. Surrounded by glass and joined to the main building by a skylight, the new section will be a bright, open retail space. The old building, by comparison, contained only a meagre coffee shop and convenience store.

"Bringing the energy from the new retail and introducing it to the pedestrian traffic is going to be great for that location," says Cory Wosnack, principal at Avison Young, the project's leasing agent. "First and Jasper has been an underutilized opportunity for retail for a very long time."

"It's going bring a little more life to this corner of Jasper that hasn't been here in the last 10 or 15 years," agrees Scott Kapty, project manager with Ledcor.

Communicating with the city, the project tweaked its design to ensure it would fit into the new Jasper Avenue and take full advantage of the city's vision for the street. "We'll be the first building on Jasper…to be renovated and have [the avenue's new look] incorporated off the bat," Kapty says. "We were the guinea pigs."

In a sense, First and Jasper will also be an environmental guinea pig, representing a rare example of a LEED-EB (existing building) gold project in the city. Details on the final certification are still not quite known-the building can't be certified until it's up and running-but there's a lengthy checklist of qualifications to be met. These include minimum standards for water fixture and energy efficiency, as well as indoor air quality benchmarks. Every five years, the building must reapply for certification.

At the same time, Ledcor will be greening its own building practices as it works on the project. "We're looking at cutting down dust, cutting down VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and contaminants in the air by using something as simple as a low-VOC spray balm for an electrician laying out stuff," Kapty says. "Even if it isn't a LEED job, we found they're easy practices to adopt."

Tenant interest has been strong so far, with three major clients already lined up. Williams Engineering Canada Inc. has taken the entire 33,000-square-foot second floor-"boutique office space," as Wosnack describes it-with high ceilings, huge windows and an open-concept layout. The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta has staked out three floors in the tower, while the federal government has four floors to itself.

Close to half of the 220,000-square-foot project has already been leased out, and Wosnack expects interest to remain high, even with projects like the new Epcor Tower adding more premium office space downtown. Consider it a welcome side effect of Alberta's growing economy.

"Vacancy has been declining and rent rates have been climbing upwards of 20 per cent," he says, suggesting companies will scoop up properties now rather than let prices climb higher.

"Real estate deals that will be done six months from now are going to look quite a bit different from the real estate deals that are available today," Wosnack says.

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