By Charles Hamiton, The StarPhoenix September 6, 2013 - It is dusk on Second Avenue, and the air smells of cigarettes. Groups of young people gather outside the pubs and restaurants that line the street, laughing and chatting. A woman in a dress sits on a nearby bench asking for change in a high-pitched voice. Cars circle the block looking for a parking space.
It’s a Friday night, and this street is alive and buzzing. The after-work drink crowd is slowly being replaced by nighttime revellers who have chosen this street — and more specifically this block — for a night out on the town.
“We live close by Broadway and we used to hang out at Broadway lots. Now we actually come here almost every Friday and Saturday night,” says Tyler Friesen as he and a friend lock up their bikes outside one of the pubs.
Not long ago, there was no after-work drink crowd downtown — or at least, not many places for them to go. While downtown has been home to a few pubs for decades, Second Avenue could never compete with the nightlife scene of Broadway or the clubs along Eighth Street.
But Second Avenue is changing, and the bar scene is just one sign of a once-desolate downtown street coming into its own.
At the south end of the avenue, River Landing is slowly rising from the ground. Farther north, family businesses are closing and new ones are cropping up almost on a monthly basis. High-priced condos offer views of the bus mall and the panhandlers on the street. Saskatoon’s most storied downtown thoroughfare is evolving block by block.
Not the suburbs
From the deck of the Second Avenue Lofts, Darrel Boldt looks out onto a street rapidly transforming. A real estate agent by trade, he was one of the first people to move into the downtown condo four years ago. Since then, he has wholeheartedly embraced downtown living.
“It’s not for everyone. Either you hate it or you love it. There is no in-between,” he says.
Although he owns a car, he doesn’t often drive to work. Most of the homes he shows and sells are near the core, within walking distance. He is part of a growing urban tribe that has chosen Second Avenue as its back yard.
“I love downtown. I just love the idea of it,” he says.
Right outside Boldt’s front door is one of the most infamous downtown corners in Saskatoon. The intersection of Second Avenue and 22nd Street came under the public spotlight this summer after city council considered removing the benches at the northeast corner to make the area less prone to unwanted activity.
City police say the area is the scene of drug deals, assaults and other kinds of criminal activity. Although requests to get rid of the benches were denied, the adjacent McDonald’s was abruptly closed and demolition began last week. The Olympia restaurant was also closed, then quickly transformed into an upscale Italian restaurant.
The corner is now a gaping hole, piled high with twisted metal and smashed concrete. It’s a palpable symbol of the gentrification of Second Avenue.
But not everyone thinks the downtown needs cleaning up.
“Downtown has a life and vibrancy and something different than living in the suburbs,” says DeeAnn Mercier, who works at the Lighthouse Assisted Living on Second Avenue. She spends most of her work week on the downtown streets.
“It has a variety of cultures and demographics. It’s actually brushing up against people in the community that you are living in, and that is part of the joy of living downtown,” she says.
Mercier doesn’t buy the argument that demolishing the McDonald’s or getting rid of the Olympia solves anything. While it might make people living in $500,000 condos feel safer when they walk down the street, it’s not really fixing the core of the problem, she says.
“There are people who live in poverty, who live downtown, who live in horrible conditions and are probably drug dealing or using (drugs) themselves. That happens downtown, and that’s a fact. But that happens in a lot of parts of the city. It’s maybe a little more open downtown because there are people. I think that’s an aspect of our city that we want to ignore,” Mercier says.
Beyond big box
Walk down the 100 block of Second Avenue South, and the for lease signs are ubiquitous. Despite the fact that downtown has one of the lowest retail vacancy rates in the city, the market is adjusting to rising property values and a booming population.
“A lot of change. I’ve seen lots over 20 years,” says Kar Ng, whose Jean Shop is one of the longest-standing independent businesses on Second Avenue.
Unlike others who have come and gone over the years — those who have retired and sold their properties for much more than they paid in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or moved out to the suburban malls — Ng has stayed. He remembers opening his store in the early ‘90s, when times were tough downtown.
“That time Saskatoon was really slow. There wasn’t much in Saskatoon. Now it’s booming. Downtown looks a lot better than it used to,” he says.
Terry Scaddan, former director of The Partnership, the downtown business improvement district (BID), is not dismayed by the number of for lease signs along Second Avenue. Like Ng, he remembers a time when Second Avenue was mostly vacant and in desperate need of investment. He knows the history of virtually every building on the street, and says downtown and Second Avenue are creating their own identity more than ever before.
“It’s more an urban business, with urban interest rather than suburban,” he says. “This is way more urbane than Broadway. Broadway is a niche arts and entertainment area. It’s always been that way. Downtown is maintaining and creating its urban feel,” he says.
But along with that urbanism comes a predominately urban problem: parking. Despite the vacant lots and surface parking lots that still dot the street, parking is a huge barrier for downtown customers.
“If there is no parking, people aren’t coming shopping and they are not wandering around, so everybody gets less walk-in traffic,” says Diane Ehrhardt, who moved her locally-owned clothing business, Serenity Apparel, off Second Avenue into the Centre Mall.
Ehrhardt says she liked being downtown, but the mall just seemed a better fit.
“Without enough people shopping down there, it can be hard to run a viable business,” she says.
One of the great ironies of Second Avenue parking is that while finding a spot may be an issue, developers want to see fewer vacant lots.
“Eventually you would like to think that all the vacant lots in downtown would get developed into higher and better use,” says Tom McClocklin, president of commercial realtor Colliers International. “But the best use for a long time was simply parking. You couldn’t support retail, you couldn’t support office space, because the economy just wasn’t there.”
These days, the 200 block of Second Avenue South is lined with sandwich boards advertising drink and appetizer specials. Three new bars — Congress Beer House, Bon Temps Cafe, and the Bell and Whistle — have opened on this block alone in the last six months. In the last year, three others — State & Main Kitchen Bar, The Woods Alehouse, and Woodfire Grill — have also opened.
“It’s ground zero for the bar scene right now,” says Daniel Beavis, who opened O’Shea’s Irish Pub more than a decade ago.
There was a time not too long ago when the block was virtually deserted after dark. While a seat on O’Shea’s rooftop patio was always one of the most coveted drinking spots in Saskatoon and the occasional live music show at the Odeon Events Centre drew a crowd, the downtown nightlife was not a cohesive scene.
“You look even five years ago, it wasn’t the place to be. After five, it was dead,” says Charmaine Isted, one of the owners of the recently opened Bon Temps Cafe.
Isted says she and her partner planned to open their Cajun restaurant on Eighth Street.
“We looked at that place (on Eighth Street) and I was like, ‘OK, we are going to do it.’ But then I was driving home and saw a for lease sign here and I called him,” she says. The rest is recent history: people flocking to this block for drinks, food and a good time.
Chris Beavis — Daniel’s cousin, who owns Winston’s Pub — is one of the longest-standing bar owners in the area. The bar in the Hotel Senator has been open since the 1970s. Beavis took over in the mid-1980s.
“I often think about when I first started out and we were alone in the downtown core,” he says. “The downtown has really came back, and a big part of that is the entertainment sector. We have a busy nightlife.”
The new popularity hasn’t been trouble-free. Last year, Macdonald George was gunned down a few metres from O’Shea’s front door, outside Scratch nightclub. Now that the night club is gone, replaced by a sit-down pub, bar owners say the block is safer than ever. The central location for food and drinks means more people out on the street and less drinking and driving.
“Saskatoon has always been so sprawling, and you couldn’t have this one-stop shop. You can now,” Daniel Beavis says.
“You can’t even get off this block without getting too drunk during a pub-crawl. You don’t need to go anywhere else.”
Waiting for change
At the south end of Second Avenue lies one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the city. River Landing is a mix of city-owned and privately developed properties that have been the talk of the city for decades.
Ironically, even now, as parts of the multi-million dollar development rise from the ground, the east side of the block of Second Avenue closest to River Landing is facing its largest uphill battle to attract business and people.
“It’s considered a no-go zone for pedestrians,” says Mark Bobyn, who owns the building that once housed the old Centennial Hotel. “Even though the south downtown is successfully coming along, my street and my side of the street right now is just a dead zone.”
Across the street from his building, which now sits derelict, blue construction fence is up and work on River Centre II is already beginning. A restaurant and VIP movie theatre are expected to rise right next to it. But Bobyn isn’t convinced that’s going to help him.
His building is flanked by a vacant gravel parking lot on one side and The Lighthouse on the other. While the stretch of Second Avenue north of him is dotted with small independent stores that benefit from walking traffic, he is stuck in limbo.
“Humans are animals, they are creatures of pattern and habit just like anyone else. They won’t go into places that they feel are sketchy or there is no visual interest. They will get in their car and they will drive two blocks if they have to, but they won’t walk there,” he says.
The city purchased and subsequently razed the west side of this block in the 1980s as it began preparations for the massive riverbank development. As plans were made and changed and different visions for River Landing came and went over the decades, this block was a vacant hole separating the downtown from the riverbank.
“Historically, this is a perfectly decent block. Was it perfect? No,” Terry Scaddan says.
Before the Galaxy Theatre came along, the whole block was desolate, he recalls. The theatre was only the first piece of an evolving puzzle.
But huge pieces of that South Downtown puzzle are still missing. On the corner of 20th Street and Second Avenue is another future office mega-project, known as 275 Second, which hasn’t begun construction. Work has also yet to begin on Parcel Y — the largest private development at River Landing.
If those pieces work out as planned, hundreds more people will live and work on the riverbank and contribute to the street life of Second Avenue.
“It just wasn’t there until two years ago,” Tom McClocklin says. “River Centre wasn’t there, and then before that, Persephone wasn’t there. There was nothing down here to really drive this. You didn’t think of River Landing five years ago.”
Now people are thinking, and plans are forging ahead. While the big mega-projects like Parcel Y are still in limbo, the public portion of River Landing is scheduled to be complete this fall.
For now, downtown and the rest of Second Avenue are still waiting.