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Downtown Edmonton recovers 80% of foot traffic from pre-pandemic

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Edmonton's core is getting back on track.

It's been four years since the pandemic shutdown Edmonton's downtown and kickstarted a mass exodus of business, retailers and residents.

As restrictions eased, the city kicked into recovery mode and has spent years working to revitalize the affected communities.

According to a survey conducted by the University of Toronto, Edmonton's downtown has recovered 80 per cent of its foot traffic compared to the final quarter of 2019.

That number places the capital city ahead of some major U.S. centres including Kansas City, Dallas and Boston.

"We’re sort of looking for all the flaws in our downtown and all the things that still need to be done, but really, we’ve actually come a long way," said Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Downtown Business Association.

With recovery well underway, McBryan said she'd like to see the conversation shift toward something new.

"The downtown recovery conversation was all about getting people back in the office, getting back what we had. I think we've successfully and rightfully shifted that," McBryan said. "It's less about the recovery and more about building a downtown that we want to see now."

On Wednesday morning, Edmonton's Commercial Real Estate Development Association met to discuss strategies to continue attracting developers and retailers back downtown.

That includes filling front retail spaces and making better use of empty parking lots.

"I think one of the things that we should do as a city is take a look at what is the opportunity right now for downtown – how can we reimagine our downtown to make it even better than it was pre-pandemic?" said Anand Pye of the Edmonton Real Estate Development Association.

McBryan said downtown is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic office occupancy levels, so it's key to find new ways to use those spaces.

"We're not going to have tens of thousands of office workers every single day," said McBryan. "But we're getting much closer to replacing all that foot traffic with new residents, post-secondary students, visitors, tourists, business conference attendees and all the other people who are in our downtown day to day."

Earlier this week, Edmonton city council amended a zoning bylaw to reduce barriers for developers looking to transform office towers into residential buildings.

“We know that time is money," said Coun. Anne Stevenson. "The smoother that permitting process can be, the faster we're hoping to see some of these projects come to fruition.”

Wednesday's talk was one of two scheduled so far this year. 

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