Olympic Cities: Calgary vs Salt Lake City

As Winter Olympic host cities Calgary (1988) and Salt Lake City (2002) share much in common. Both cities are young (Calgary’s median age is 36 while Salt Lake City’s (SLC) is 30), both have a population base of just over one million people, both are gateways to mountain recreational playgrounds and both have signature international festivals (Stampede vs Sundance Film Festival). 

At the same time, the DNA of each city is very different. Calgary is defined by its corporate oil & gas headquarters culture, while SLC is defined by its Mormon culture.  For a long time I have been intrigued by the idea of how the two cities would fare in a competition of urban living amenities.  Who would win the gold medal for the best public space, shopping, attractions, urban villages, transit, public art etc.? This spring on our 8,907 km road trip stayed in SLC for six days to check it out.

Salt Lake City’s Gold Medals

Convention Centre

While SLC’s Salt Palace (convention centre) opened back in 1996, it still looks very contemporary with its extensive use of glass and steel. It features a dramatic entrance with 110-foot transparent beacon towers.  Inside, the uplifting drama continues with bright and airy public areas with a lofty ceiling that features specially designed trusses by renowned roller coaster designer Kent Seko.

Nobody would call Calgary’s Telus Convention Centre a palace. And with only a third of the exhibition and meeting space of SLC’s Salt Palace, and architecture that is less than inspiring, Calgary is the loser here.

Aerial view of SLC Convention Centre in the heart of their downtown.

Library

SLC’s Central Library, designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, opened in 2003 at a cost of $84 million ($127 million in 2014 dollars).  It is a five storey triangular building with a sweeping signature curved wall that shares much in common with Vancouver’s Centre Library, also designed by Safdie. Its rooftop garden offers great views of the city and the mountains. The Library, along with its neighbour the Leonardo Museum (the old library building has been converted into a fun and funky hands-on science discovery centre) has become a meeting place for people of all ages and backgrounds.

It will be interesting to see if Calgary’s new Central Library can be as successful in capturing both the public and the design community’s attention. With a budget of $245 million, I sure hope so. Who knows what will happen with our old library – maybe an Energy Museum?

SLC's dramatic downtown library and public plaza. 

Rendering for Calgary's new downtown library.

Art Gallery

A gold medal has to be awarded to SLC for its Utah Museum of Contemporary Art which is part of the 1979 Bicentennial Art Complex.  Admission is free with a suggested donation of $5, making it very accessible.  Though not a large gallery, the exhibitions we saw were imaginative and engaging.  It also doesn’t have a long history (established in 1931); it wasn’t until 1979 that it moved to its current downtown location from the Art Barn near the University of Utah.

Over the same period, Calgary has struggled to find a home for a contemporary art gallery. Let’s hope that Contemporary Calgary will be successful in its vision of converting the old Science Centre into a vibrant civic art gallery.

The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is part of a major arts complex. Calgary's EPCOR Centre would be on par with SLC complex except for the art gallery component. 

LDS Temple Square Campus

SLC also takes the gold medal for the Temple Square campus, headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.  The multi-block Campus is home to not only the Temple, but to the original church, an office headquarters, the Tabernacle (housing a 11,623 pipe organ) home of the Tabernacle Choir and the historic Lion and Beehive house. Just north of the Square is their library, the magnificent LDS Conference Centre with its 21,200 seats and the Family History Museum, the largest genealogical library in the world.  The campus is sea of peace, inspiration, beauty and tranquility in the middle of the city, a rarity in this day and age.

The closest thing Calgary has to match Temple Square is Stampede Park our city’s homage to our culture of ranching and agriculture. The BMO Roundup Centre, Saddledome (SLC has a downtown arena on par with Saddledome), Grandstand, Agrium Western Event Centre and Corral are no match for the architecture and atmosphere of Temple Square.  This might change however when the Stampede completes its expansion and enhancement plans.

The Temple is the centre piece of a multi-block campus of LDS buildings that is their corporate headquarters.  

LDS Conference Centre with its roof-top garden/plaza and 21,200  theatre seats is a hidden gem on the hill behind the main campus. 

Calgary’s Gold Medals

Public Spaces / Public Art

Calgary wins the gold for public spaces. SLC has nothing to match our amazing collection of parks, plazas and promenades – Olympic Plaza, Devonian Gardens, Stephen Avenue Walk, Prince’s Island, Riley Park, Fort Calgary Park, Central Memorial Park, East Village RiverWalk, Shaw Millennium Skate Park and Bow River pathway. 

A bocci ball match breaks out in the Hotchkiss Gardens as noon hour in downtown Calgary. (Photo credit: Jeff Trost).

  Downtown employees enjoy some sun and people watching along the Bow River Promenade and Prince's Island park.  

Downtown employees enjoy some sun and people watching along the Bow River Promenade and Prince's Island park. 

Other workers enjoy a run or walk at noon hour across the Peace Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava. 

Street Life

When it comes to urban villages, SLC has nothing to match the urban vitality of Calgary’s Beltline, Bridgeland, Kensington, Inglewood, Mission and 17th Avenue with their contiguous mix of shops, cafes, restaurants and music venues.

  Dairy Lane has anchored West Hillhurst's Main Street for over 50 years.

Dairy Lane has anchored West Hillhurst's Main Street for over 50 years.

  Calgary's 17th Avenue aka Red Mile is a vibrant street with its mix of shops, restaurants, patios, pubs and lounges.

Calgary's 17th Avenue aka Red Mile is a vibrant street with its mix of shops, restaurants, patios, pubs and lounges.

  We did find one street (Broadway) with some pedestrian oriented shops in SLC. Loved the mid-century modern shops, our favourite was The Green Ant.

We did find one street (Broadway) with some pedestrian oriented shops in SLC. Loved the mid-century modern shops, our favourite was The Green Ant.

Skycrapers 

Calgary also wins gold for its Central Business District that combines not only its 35 million square feet of office space (with another 5 million under construction), but also how its offices, hotel, retail, cultural and historic districts are linked both at street level and with the world’s most extensive elevated walkway - +15. 

Norman Foster's Bow office tower viewed from Olympic Plaza.

Calgary's skyline is dominated by highrise office and condo towers.

Condos/Infills  

Calgary also wins gold for its plethora of new condos and new infill single family and duplex homes near its downtown. While SLC has some new condo and infill housing development it is nowhere near the scale of what is happening in Calgary’s inner city communities. The more I visit cities like Portland, Denver and SLC, the better appreciation I have for the incredible inner city revitalization happening in Calgary.  

Alura a new apartment across from the new Barb Scott Park with its Chinook Arc artwork.

Four new high-rise condos line Macleod Trail next to Stampede Park. 

Waterfront project consists of five buildings with 1,000 condo units. 

Dead Heats

When it comes to indoor shopping centres, SLC City Creek (yes, it does have creek running through it, and even a retractable roof) and Calgary’s Core are on par with each other, with its massive three-block skylight and Devonian Gardens.

The same could be said for the LRT systems. Although Calgary’s system carries a lot more passengers, SLC has a bigger and better free fare zone (buses are also free in their downtown).  The two cities are also tied when it comes to their respective downtown arena, performing arts centres, ballet and theatre groups.

Like Calgary, SLC also has both a Zoo and a heritage park located just a few kilometers from the downtown.

Harmon's grocery store in downtown SLC.

SLC's City Creek shopping centre does indeed have a creek running through it that meanders back outside.

  The Core shopping Centre links  three city blocks with its massive skylight.

The Core shopping Centre links  three city blocks with its massive skylight.

SLC's transit corridor. 

  Calgary's transit corridor.

Calgary's transit corridor.

SLC's capitol building sits on a hill with a magnificent view of the Salt Lake valley and mountains. 

  Eight Avenue Place is just one of dozens of office towers that dominate Calgary's downtown sense of place as a major corporate headquarters centre.   

Eight Avenue Place is just one of dozens of office towers that dominate Calgary's downtown sense of place as a major corporate headquarters centre.  

Post Mortem

For those snowbirds who drive down to Phoenix and Palm Springs to escape our winter, it would be well worth your time to plan a few days to explore SLC.  We highly recommend the free personal tour of Temple Square campus conducted by young missionaries. We got a wonderful insight into the Latter-Day Saints culture with no pressure to discuss our religious beliefs.

The LDS Church earns more than $7 billion a year in tithing and other donations. In 1996, Time magazine estimated the church’s assets exceeded $70 billion (banks, radio stations, Utah’s largest newspaper, farmland, and Brigham Young University). In fact, the Church built and owns the $2 billion City Creek Center shopping mall in SLC along with many of the office towers across from Temple Square.  The LDS Church is a unique corporation that creates a unique sense of place in downtown SLC, as does the oil and gas towers in Calgary. It is interesting to note there are more suits and ties in SLC than in YYC. 

Where to eat?

We'd highly recommend checking out Em's (271 North Centre Street, near the Capitol Building). We liked it so much we went two nights in a row and almost went a third night.  I loved the marinated pork chop in a maple mustard and bacon barbeque sauce ($19) and the housemade ricotta gnocchi tossed in basil pesto($9) and Brenda loved Potato Lasagna ($17) one night and the dried fruit stuffed Pork Tenderloin with roasted potatoes in a bacon sherry vinaigrette ($26). Don't get me started on the desserts. 

Ems
  Bread pudding with homemade ice cream.

Bread pudding with homemade ice cream.

Where to stay?

Our choice was the downtown Red Lion Hotel and we weren't disappointed.  Just off the interstate so easy access and yet still short walking distance to all of the downtown attractions, even a indie cafe across the street. The hotel has been recently renovated so everything was nice and new. 

  Great view of the Wasatch Mountain out the window of our Red Lion Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Great view of the Wasatch Mountain out the window of our Red Lion Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. 

  Comfy bed with the best hotel reading light we have found.

Comfy bed with the best hotel reading light we have found.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Calgary vs Denver: A tale of two thriving downtowns!

Downtown Fun: Spokane vs Calgary 

Boise vs Calgary: David vs Goliath 

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on Saturday, September 27, with the title "Salk Lake City has Gold Medal amenities, but Calgary has Gold Medal public spaces and public art."