Eau Claire Market Mega-Makeover Revisited

By Richard White, November 20, 2013

Eau Claire Market is quickly becoming the new East Village i.e. there seems to be a new redevelopment plan announced every 5 years, but nothing happens.  I am hopeful that Calgary’s economy will stay strong for the next five to ten years so the latest plan can come to fruition.

When Eau Claire Market was opened in the early ‘90s it was one of the first “entertainment retail” centers  (ERCs) in North America.  ERCs with their multi-screen cinema complexes, IMAX theatres, themed restaurants, pubs, bars and boutiques became all the rage across North America.  

Eau Claire Market was popular at first (the lust of the new), but it quickly began to struggle.  I have been told that a destination retail center needs a minimum of 500,000 square feet and Eau Claire has only about 200,000.  There were also issues of the lease with the city and restrictions on types on tenants mix - mandating tenant mix almost never works. 

It didn’t help that Chinook Centre also underwent a mega makeover and became one of the premier ERCs in North America.  In the early ‘90s, when Eau Claire Market opened Chinook Centre was an old tired mall.

Similarly, Stephen Avenue Walk experienced a transformation in the late ‘90s into an upscale restaurant row.  Over the same period, cinema complexes became bigger with 20+ theatres opening in Chinook and in the suburbs.  Eau Claire’s cinemas quickly became dated. 

These computer generated images illustrate the gem-like or crystal-like shapes of the proposed new Eau Claire Market towers.  It will be interesting to see if these shapes can be built in a cost effective manner.  Note the balconies carved out in the sloped roof-top. 

A view of the proposed redeveloped Eau Claire Plaza has lots of people, tents and a strange looking meandering canopy.  It is easy to create these visionary images, but much more difficult to achieve this vitality in reality - especially in the winter.   

Back to the drawing board!

The current owners Regina-based Harvard Developments had a plan to redevelop the Market back in the 2006, but missed the window of opportunity when the economy crashed in 2007.  Now it is late 2013 the economy is looking stronger with numerous major projects either under construction or in the works and the idea of creating mixed-use urban villages has evolved significantly.

Working with Perkins + Will, one of Canada’s top urban design firms, Harvard has come up with new plan that is both ambitious and attractive.  At the open house on November 15, 2013, 100+ people who turned out seemed very impressed. Yes some of the local residents didn’t like the idea of adding an office tower to the project, but I think it is a good thing.  I understand their logic that there already are lots of office buildings Eau Claire and what it needs is more residential.  However, office workers don’t travel too far during the day so to make this project viable I believe there needs to be a significant office development on site.  If I had my way each block in downtown would have one office and one non-office tower!   

Work Play Numbers

The new vision has approximately 800,000 sf office, 800,000 sf of residential (in four towers), 600,000 sf of retail and 200,000 sf hotel.  For me this translates into 1/3 live, 1/3 work and 1/3 play (retail and hotel). This is truly a mixed-use development of the 7-acre site and definitely has the potential to be vibrant urban village. I wish more blocks in the downtown had this mix of uses.

To me the office component is critical to the mix, as it will provide customers for the restaurants and retail weekdays and the residents during the evening and weekend.

A vibrant urban village needs people out and about 18/7 (18 hours a day, seven days a week); currently our downtown is more like 12/5 (7 am to 7 pm, Monday to Friday – office hours).     

Plans call for Riverfront Avenue to become a pedestrian street with shops facing onto the street for a more traditional urban "high street" experience. 

This view shows how the massing and placement of the towers has been carefully done to maximize sun on the plaza and pathway in spring, summer and fall.  Not sure why they included all the ghost buildings as they don't help sell the vision. 

Devil is in the details!

Creating the vision is the easy part - the difficult part is linking vision with reality.  Will the design work financially? Will it appeal to the market segments?  Is there a market for a new 250-room hotel?  Is there a major tenant for an 800,000 sf of office? 

The new plan calls for reworking of the roads to create more grid-like blocks.  Can the two hotels work across the street from each other - already the area in front of the Sheraton Hotel is very congested.

Does the new plan work to connect the Eau Claire Plaza with Barclay Mall? Does it enhance the Bow River Pathway and Prince’s Island experience i.e. maximizing the sun in the winter and minimizing the wind.  

Does the city have the money to redevelop Eau Claire Plaza as per the approved design by Calgary’s Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative (same guys who did Peace Plaza). 

Regina inspired design?

The 3D images of the glass towers were very impressive, looking like “gem stones.” The towers were definitely not “big boxes,” with their multiple planes they looked like something Picasso and his cubist colleagues would create. 

It is also interesting to note the proposed Eau Claire towers all have a dramatic sloping façade that closely resembles Regina’s Hill Towers, which are that city's postcard office towers.  I expect this is not a  coincidence as Harvard Developments Inc. is Regina-based.  Is Calgary ready for Regina inspired architecture and urban design? 

Regina's twin iconic office towers look very similar to those being proposed for Calgary's Eau Claire Market. 

Last Word

Harvard and Perkins + Will have created a vision for an urban village in our downtown that theoretically checks off most of the good urban design benchmark boxes.  Hopefully as the design evolves it will get even better and the economy will hold for the next 10 years as the project gets built in three phases.  It has the potential to be BIG, BOLD and BEAUTIFUL. 

RH writes: 

Richard. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this proposed development.

Eau Claire market does indeed have an interesting history. As I recall the original intent was similar to Granville Island - an urban market surrounded by other uses making for an interesting urban destination and experience. Problem was that Calgary and Alberta’s growing season are not like the lower mainland - another example of the risk and inappropriateness of “importing” planning ideas from other cities. (Have you written something about this? If not, you should).

The original restrictions on land use were imposed by the city in response to pressure from other downtown developments to ensure that something was developed that was different and did not compete with downtown retail. The City could do this in the lease since it owned the land, as well as in the development approval. As you have pointed out these restrictions were one of the reasons why Eau Claire market did not succeed. Another was lack of density and mixed use. The bottom line, I think, is that the original development was before its time. Same story for East Village.

It takes more than by laws and regulations to implement planning ideas, it takes a strong economy and market demand which then attracts investment.

As I see it, one of the challenges of the current proposal, in addition to the usual risk factors, is how best to make the development “fit” into downtown Calgary. The current plan, which I have not seen except for what’s been in the media, looks like it could be in any downtown, in any city. “What city are we in?”

It’s not the design of the towers, but the relationship of the lower floors with the plaza in front of the Eau Claire “Y”, Chinatown, adjacent residential developments, and the river pathway that are particularly important.

Blaise McNeil is asking about the 1886 café’s future. The land use mix may seem well balanced ,but the development still needs to connect well with the larger surrounding context, which is also the larger catchment area for restaurants, retail and entertainment. 

GG writes:

A billion dollar investment next to the river have we forgotten the flood already? 

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