A River Valley Gondola - Tourist Attraction or Blight on the Landscape?

You have seen gondolas on your trips to the mountains, maybe while skiing at Sunshine or hiking at Lake Louise. Small cabs with room for eight adults, attached to a cable running up the side of a mountain.  Some cities use them to move people around.

Cities in Columbia use them to move people up to their homes on steep mountainsides.  New York City uses a gondola to serve Roosevelt Island.  Disney World has three gondolas that connect their parks to their hotels.  The new Miami Dolphins football stadium has one to serve their parking lot.

They get you to the top fast - faster than a car or bus could take you. And they can offer new ways of connecting for pedestrians and cyclists. The views are amazing.  Things look so much different from even 50 feet off the ground.

Now there is an opportunity to bring a gondola to our city. Prairie Sky Gondola, a private company, proposes to build a gondola in Edmonton, from Whyte Avenue and 103 street, across the river to the old Epcor Power Plant, and up to the Telus Building downtown.  All design and construction costs would be paid by Prairie Sky.  They will even put money aside to remove the gondola, should their business fail.  No City money required.

There are many people that I respect - business leaders, members of the Chamber of Commerce, investors, sustainable development proponents - that tell me this is a great project.  That it will attract visitors to Edmonton and allow them to easily explore more of Edmonton’s unique features.  That it will be an example of innovative private-sector partnerships that the City can enter into.  That this project will help attract and retain young talent to Edmonton at a time when we are seeing young people leave our city and province.

Proponents tell us that this project will initiate development in Rossdale.  That we will see activation of the old Power Plant into a new urban amenity, like the Brewery district in Toronto or the Forks in Winnipeg.  That we will see a “rivers edge” developed from Victoria Park to Louise McKinney Park, with an opportunity to gather with friends, grab a coffee or enjoy our ever-growing food scene.  

Yet there are others that I also respect whose view differ from the proponents.  These people say a gondola is not what we need in the river valley.  That the river valley is a key wildlife corridor that must remain in a pristine, natural state. And there are concerns that the structure will disrupt historical and sacred lands.  

There are strong arguments on both sides. Some say that the gondola provides a commuting link between two popular nodes, sometimes called our ‘two downtowns’, Whyte Avenue and downtown.  Others say these two places are already connected by many bridges, bus routes and LRT lines, and that the number of people that will regularly move between these two areas on a gondola is small.

Some of these arguments are not compelling to me.  I am not sure this is the tourist attraction or youth retention project that some say it is.  Like many of you, my experience of gondolas is a ride to get to the top of the mountain, where no other options exist. Not to simply get to the other side of the river.

Nor do I think this gondola will destroy the river valley.  I have seen my share of wildlife from gondolas.  I think that LRT and vehicle bridges are much more intrusive than a cab on a wire.

I am attracted to the idea of making the river valley - in the core of the City - a more people-oriented place.  If all the pieces fell into place, and we did see that river’s edge, activated power plant and enlivened baseball stadium, all connected to the river banks by the gondola - that would be a pretty cool place to spend time or live.

Even though Prairie Sky Gondola will pay for the design and construction, all of the surrounding development costs money.  It will cost $80-100M just to bring the old power plant up to code and make it usable.  The City already has obligations that it might not be able to keep - right now we can’t open the recreation centres or cut the grass.  The province is about to hand us another set of financial challenges with their budget at the end of the month. Do these river valley developments trump our existing obligations?  Does the gondola company come back to the City for financial support if it doesn’t make these investments soon enough? Or is now the time to invest in development that will leverage our most identifiable feature—our river valley.

I understand the tension here.  Some say “Take a risk to do something transformational.” Others say “Don’t spend a lot of money on a novelty item that has little long-term value.”  

What do you think?  Cool idea from a private company that we should support through collaboration and cooperation that with limited capital expenditure on our part?  A novelty item that we will regret?  Tourist idea that brings people to Edmonton?  A project that will ultimately cost us, when we are forced to make those river valley investments before we can afford them? Something we should consider later - but not right now?

Please share your thoughts before the February 22 Council Meeting.  I encourage you to comment on this post, send your thoughts to [email protected] or call 780-496-8130.

Tim