Will grounding airport help arts districts take off?

Pilots have a saying: Avoid clouds. Mountains have been known to hide out in them.

But members of Edmonton’s burgeoning north-side arts communities don’t believe there are any metaphorical mountains looming in the cloud of uncertainty over the closure of the City Centre Airport. At best, the approximately 25,000 people who are expected to live on the redeveloped 217 hectares could end up being customers in galleries, theatres and cafes that lie just a short distance south at 124 St., or east on 118 Ave.

At worst, most believe, the development will have no affect at all and will end up being just another harmless cloud.

“I don’t think it will hurt,” says a cautious Matthew Hudon, general manager of the West End Gallery at Jasper Ave. and 123 St. Hudon explains that his gallery already attracts customers from all over the city, and notes that the airport lands are beyond typical walking distance. That makes the guarantee of a business boom from the redevelopment somewhat tenuous.

Still, he anticipates a potential increase of participants for the Gallery Art Walk tours, which takes organized groups on walking tours that stop at the galleries in the 124 St. area.

“They’re putting up a highrise nearly three blocks away. That will probably affect us more (than the airport.)” Hudon says, although he’s open to the possibility some airport lands residents will journey south. “If there are more people in the area, then there will likely be more people on the walks.”

Not everyone is as cautious with their optimism. Bradley Moss, artistic director of Theatre Network on 124 St., is certain that the airport development will boost the area faster than the jetstream and will put customers in seats at the Roxy.

Moss says Theatre Network has been keeping tabs on who comes to shows over the past decade, and by far the biggest increase has been from the growing numbers of downtown dwellers. They’re young, hip, single people, he points out, or retired people with time on their hands and disposable income.

He says the airport is about the same distance away as downtown.

“The type of person who wants to live in that kind of area is our target market,” Moss says. “I can go on record that it will increase traffic.”

Beyond the hope of new residents and new dollars, the airport lands present something even more appealing to artists: a blank canvas.

Morin says there’s talk the new development might include co-operative, loft-style housing units where artists would be permitted to finish the interiors to suit their own needs.

Moss says there’s even talk of a theatre.

“It’s exciting,” says Moss. “Who gets a chance to start from scratch?”

Over on the east side of the airport lands on 118 Ave., Christine Morin of Arts on the Avenue echoes Hudon’s caution. Morin says, even though the development isn’t slated to begin for several years and could take, according to the city, over two decades to complete, business owners and artists have already discussed the possibilities that the airport lands development might bring.

A NAIT expansion will see three new residences, two of which will be built on the airport site and the third of which will east of 103 St. and south of 118 Ave. And even though the airport property is a bit of a hike from the 118 Ave. scene, the city’s stated vision for the land promises transit and bicycle links with adjacent neighbourhoods, Morin says.

The city also expects more people will be living in redevelopments that will take place around the airport as a direct result of its closure. According to an economic impact analysis that was prepared for the city in 2009, an additional 9,000 people are expected to move into areas adjacent to the airport lands thanks to the removal of height restrictions that were part of the airport overlay. Some people will also be lured by the proximity of the airport redevelopment, the report says.

At any rate, Morin says, the development will be better for the arts than the airport.

“At this point, there’s no one with private jets living in this area,” she says. “I’m hopeful.”