The importance of entrepreneurship in city building!

By Richard White, May 12, 2014 (an edited version of the blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on May11, 2014, titled "Civic innovation a breath of fresh air)

Recently, a 6-week, 8,907 km road trip took me to many cities (big and small) including Salt Lake City, St. George, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Colorado Springs, Denver, Billings, Bozeman and Helena.  Most of the time was spent flaneuring downtown streets, plazas, parks and alleys looking for new ideas on urban living.  Three projects stand out for their entrepreneurship and relevance to Calgary’s contemporary urban culture.

Container Park, Las Vegas

What would you do if you had a spare $350 million? In 2008, after selling Zappos, an online shoe and clothing site, to Amazon for $1.2 billion, Tony Hsieh (Zappos’ CEO) decided to undertake his own urban renewal project. He bought up land in Las Vegas’ east end and created Container Park.

Container Park is perhaps the most exciting and unique urban development project I have ever seen.  Though currently it is one entire block (at the east end of Freemont Street), there is lots of room to expand.  Using 40+ old shipping containers, some stacked on top of one another, Hsieh effectively transformed the once - empty block into an attractive, animated urban village.

Half of the block is a vibrant entertainment center with boutiques, restaurants, lounges, a huge children playground with its three-story tree house (young adults also love the playground at night). There is also an outdoor concert venue for the likes of Sheryl Crow (who we missed by a few days) and indie bands. 

Container Park, in sharp contrast to the adjacent Old Vegas’ Freemont Experience and the Strip is focused on being an incubator for small-scale start-ups in the fashion, art, food and music industries rather than mega international players. To date, over 50 small businesses have joined the party so to speak.

The other half of the block is a quiet learning campus with several containers positioned to create a campus (kind of like the old portable classrooms of the ‘60s). Here, the Container Park community, as well as others meet and share ideas to help germinate new ideas or expand existing ones.

Hsieh’s vision is to “create the shipping container capital of the world, while at the same time becoming the most community-focused large city in the world.”  Judging by the number of people hanging out when we visited (both day and night), he is well on his way in turning his vision into reality.

It is amazing what Hsieh has been able to accomplish in a few years, given the decades it has taken Calgary to get the East Village revitalization off the ground. Container Park opened in the Fall 2013 and is currently the toast of the town. However, the real test of success is best determined in 5 or 10 years when the “lust of the new” has worn off.

Container Park by day is full of families and hipsters.  It is a happy place!

At night Container Park the children are gone, but the fun continues.

Adults using the children's playground. at night.

Ivywild School, Colorado Springs

Another example of good old American entrepreneurial spirit is evident at the Ivywild School in Colorado Springs (COS), Colorado. Two years after this 1916 yellow brick, elementary school closed in 2009, two neighbouring businessmen - Joe Coleman (Blue Star restaurant) and Mike Bristol (Bristol Brewing Co.) negotiated the purchase of the school and converted it into a mixed-use community hub.

In the spring of 2013, the “school” reopened as a bakery, cocktail lounge, coffee house, charcuterie, bike shop, art school and of course brew pub.  In addition, it hosts numerous events and a farmers’ market.  We visited twice and it is clear that it has definitely become a hub for hipsters.  I understand the funding for the renovations was totally the responsibility of the individual tenants.  The washrooms and hallways have been left untouched, so there is still an elementary school atmosphere about the space. We loved the children’s murals on the walls and the old water fountains.

Its positive impact on the inner city community of Ivywild is already being felt.  Millibo Art Theatre has bought and renovated an old church across the street, converting it into a performance space and theatre school. We attended their Six Women Play Festival, which proved to be both entertaining and thought provoking for the full house audience.

I couldn’t help but compare this renovation to Calgary’s King Edward School repurposing project, the latter which has taken many, many years and $31 million dollars of public funding to make happen.  Ah, the power of private funding! I also couldn’t help but think maybe a brew pub would make a great addition to the King Edward School.

Yet, perhaps a better comparison would be with the Simmons building in East Village with its similar indie foodie focus.  It will be interesting to see how it is received when it finally opens in the spring of 2015.

The Boys washroom still has all the charm of elementary school. 

It wouldn't be a hipster hang-out without a bike shop.

The thought behind the Iveywild School project.

 Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix

I had no idea that the world’s largest museum of musical instruments (15,000 instruments from over 200 countries) was located in Phoenix.  What is most impressive though is that Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation, was able to accomplish the feat of building this world-class museum in just five years from its inception. 

The story goes (according to one of the museum’s gallery educators) that Ulrich was in Europe looking to purchase some major artworks when he got the idea to create a major new museum focusing on musical instruments.  Using his Target store opening experience, he set a very ambitious goal of having the museum open in five years.  This is unheard of in museum circles where even planning and fundraising for a museum expansion or renovation can take decades, let alone one that had no land, no collection and no staff.

Ulrich immediately hired Rich Varda (who oversees Target’s team of store designers) as the main architect to create the building and exhibition displays.  He also hired Bille R. DeWalt, a cultural anthropologist (University of Pittsburgh) as the founding president and director to guide the development. 

True to his word, the museum did open five years later, in April 2010. The $250 million dollar museum has five huge galleries devoted to Africa and Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, and the United States and Canada. There are almost 300 vignettes, each with historical instruments from the country, related artifacts and a short video about the people and the instruments.

With the videos using the latest Wi-Fi technology, you don’t have to press any buttons. As soon as you get near the videos, the headphones you are provided with pick up the sound and all you need to do is listen. The museum also has a theatre for concerts, a conservation lab and an “experience gallery” where visitors can play the instruments.  You could easily spend all day there. They even have a two-day pass to allow you to come back if you haven’t given yourself enough time to digest everything in one day.

My only complaint is the museum is located at the edge of the city, making it accessible only by car. It’s unfortunate it wasn’t designed as an anchor for a new urban village.

The five gallery space are like five Target stores!

Some of the instruments are very simple like this Grater.

The conservation lab.

Last Word

While Calgary takes pride in its ambitious, entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit, I can’t help but wonder why the Glenbow struggles to survive, why the National Music Centre still isn’t fully funded and why are we still talking about a contemporary public art gallery 50 years after the idea was first debated. Why do things take so long in Calgary?

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