My first big bike ride of the season offered an excuse to check out a few new landmarks in Edmonton’s river valley and experiencing them made me feel like a tourist in my own town but little did I know that was exactly the intent from the outset of one of the architects involved in the project a decade in the making.

The 100th Street Funicular – formally known as the Mechanized River Valley Access Project –  is a $24-million dollar project designed to increase access to the river valley and one of its architects, Michael Zabinski, in this interview says the goal was to give Edmontonians like myself a way to see their city almost as if they’re tourists in their own backyard.

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The funicular – essential an inclined elevator – opened to much fanfare 9th December, 2017 but suffered more downs than ups as it was out-of-service for periods during the winter as it doesn’t operate below minus 25 degrees Celsius. That poor service record was noted in the local media who dubbed it a “fair-weather funicular” but city officials pointed to a cold winter and “teething problems” with a new technology as reasons for its being offline.

Now that the warmer weather has arrived however staring up the stairs that run beside the funicular the concrete seats do seem a great place to perch and soak in the scenery although whether it will quite become Edmonton’s equivalent of Rome’s famed Spanish Steps as Zabinski envisions remains to be seen.

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The designers did get one thing right for cyclists which is the bike rail that runs on the sides of the staircase allowing riders to push their bikes up the hill instead of carrying them or riding the black box funicular.

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At its base the funicular exits to a ledge adorned with wavy blue public art benches entitled Turbulent by Jill Anholt that is meant to reflect the water movement in the river .

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Whether anyone knew you could sit on the public art is unknown but there are a number of other concrete & wood benches nearby.

After riding the funicular up the hill it’s worth ambling down the stairs to take in the river valley view which includes the other new city landmark that delivers pedestrians to the valley floor, the Frederick G. Todd Lookout, named after the 20th Century landscape architect who envisioned Edmonton’s River Valley parks system.

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I was interested to learn that Todd, an American, apprenticed at the pioneering landscape architecture firm of Olmstead, Olmstead & Eliot which was founded by the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park and considered by many to be the father of modern landscape architecture. After moving to Montreal, Todd was commissioned by the city of Edmonton in 1907 to prepare a report on how to provide green space for a growing city and he recommended parks, playgrounds and public spaces as well as preserving the natural space to protect it from both industry and residential use.  Devastating floods in 1915 wiped away river valley businesses and it proved the opportunity to set aside the valley for park land with the Government of Alberta adopting Todd’s report in principle. There’s much more on the City of Edmonton’s naming committee selection of Frederick G. Todd here.

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The lookout has an elevator that transports riders to the valley floor and the Louise McKinney Riverfront Park that leads either west under the Low Level Bridge or east below the Shaw Conference Centre.

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The lookout and the pedestrian bridge over Grierson Hill are clad in wood helping it blend in with the surrounding valley greenery.

Lead architect of the project, Donna Clare’s, architectural fingerprints are all over Edmonton as beyond the 100th Street Funicular and the Frederick G. Todd Lookout she’s also been behind the new Walterdale Bridge with it’s soaring white arches and the new downtown home of the Royal Alberta Museum.

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I’ll confess to being a long-time skeptic of the funicular and lookout for both their costs as well as the three-year building program that saw some river valley trails closed and that skepticism seemed borne out by the early operational issues but while I’m still not convinced a winter city such as Edmonton really needs a fancy funicular that isn’t fully functional for extended periods each year I’ve softened my opposition seeing how well the two work together to allow everyone to enjoy Edmonton’s greatest asset beyond its citizens, the 18,000 acres that forms the largest urban park in Canada and third largest in the world.

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