Calgary's Audacious New Library

By Richard White, September 5, 2014 (An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald).

The idea of a new iconic central library has been around for decades (Vancouver got its iconic library in 1995, as did Denver and Seattle in 2004.  In fact, it was acknowledged at the Calgary Public Library Foundation’s preview that one of the reasons Councilor Druh Farrell originally decided to run for council in 2001 was to foster the development of a new central library.

She and others have been championing the idea tireless and today she is Council’s representative on the Calgary Public Library Board. Nobody can say the Library Board or Council has rushed into this project, it has been a slow painful process for some and for others a strategic struggle.

Finally the wait is over. 

  Vancouver's iconic Central Library has been the envy of many Calgarians since it was built in 1995.

Vancouver's iconic Central Library has been the envy of many Calgarians since it was built in 1995.

Think Global Act Local

The new library's design team of Snohetta and DIALOG was announced in November 2013 and since then has been working hard to develop a design that will capture the attention of both Calgarians and the world.  It was a good choice as Calgary’s DIALOG team is headed up by Rob Adamson, who was born in Calgary, got his architectural degree from the University of Calgary and has spent his entire career in Calgary – he can obviously speak to Calgary’s sense of place.  His projects include the impressive TELUS Spark and the new international wing of the Calgary Airport. 

In addition, Fred Valentine one of Calgary’s most respected architects (architect for the NEXEN building) has also been advising the Library’s steering committee and Board with respect to design issues and opportunities. 

Craig Dykers heads up the Snohetta team in New York City who bring to the table a wealth of international library experience including the award winning Bibliotheca Alexandria.

The Design

The design team for Calgary’s new central library make no bones about it they have an audacious (their words not mine) vision: to create the best library in the world.  They were quick to that creating the best library is more than just about design, it is about being “right for this place and time.”  Craig Dykers of Snohetta argued, “Libraries are not about the building, the books or the information but about the people.”  He also noted that the best libraries must evolve with time and Calgary's new library must be able to do just that.

The inspiration and rationale for the design of the new library as unveiled at the Calgary Library Foundations’ Preview September 3rd and again at a sold out presentation (1,200 attendees) at the TELUS Convention Centre on September 4th is very complex.  Everything from the curve of the underground LRT tunnel to the Chinook arch were mentioned as factors influencing the building’s conceptual design.  

  Rendering of the shape and massing of the proposed new downtown Library.

Rendering of the shape and massing of the proposed new downtown Library.

  Diagram illustrating the shape of a drift boat. 

Diagram illustrating the shape of a drift boat. 

  Shape of a drift boat from all sides

Shape of a drift boat from all sides

Drift Boat?

What struck me most when looking at the rendering is that it looks like a boat.  At first I thought of a canoe but then it hit me – it looks like the drift boats that are used by fly fishermen on the Bow River. These boats have a flat bottoms with flared sides, a flat bow and pointed stern. They are designed to handle rough water and to allow fishermen to stand up in the boat, even in flowing water. Whether intentional or unintentional there are some interesting links to Calgary's sense of place (rivers) and culture (recreation).

Rendering of the new library's 3rd Street SE facade.

  Rendering of the 3rd Street SE facade in the summer with the Municipal Building on the left. 

Rendering of the 3rd Street SE facade in the summer with the Municipal Building on the left. 

Yin Yang on 3rd Street SE

I was also struck by how similar the massing is to the Municipal Building that will run parallel to the new library on the west side of 3rd Street SE. Both are block-long horizontal mid-rise buildings in a downtown that is dominated by its verticalness.  Inside both buildings will have a floor to ceiling atriums as their dominant design feature.

The Municipal Building’s design is unique with a stepped façade on the west side, an obvious reference to the foothills and the mountains and a flat east façade, a design metaphor for the prairies. Dykers indicated he thought what defined our city’s unique sense of place is its position between the mountains and the prairies.

While nobody said it, I think there could be a nice “yin and yang” design materializing between the angular Municipal Building and the curved new library. I think there are also links with the design and massing of the new National Music Centre. The synergies between the three buildings could create something special from an urban placemaking perspective.

The façade of the proposed new library has a repeated geometric pattern that is in the shape of a house or shed. It creates an obvious scientific, mathematical or engineering visual impression.

This too might be appropriate as Paul McIntyre Royston, President & CEO of the Calgary Library Foundation announced the new library will have a Research Chair - a first for a public library in Canada.  He spoke of the new library as being an “incubator for research and ideas.” He also went on to say “all great cities have great libraries” and it was the team’s goal to create a great library for Calgarians and he wasn’t afraid to reiterate that vision is to “create the best library in the world”

 

The Municipal Building is a massive blue glass triangle sitting on top of a concrete rectangle. The historic sandstone city hall in the bottom right corner is still used as offices for Mayor, Council and meeting rooms. The building makes obvious references to the foothills, the big blue prairie sky and the powerful forces of faults, folds and shifting tectonic plates that formed the Canadian Rockies. 

The west facade of the Municipal Building alludes to Calgary's sense of place i.e. where the prairies meet the mountains; the triangular shape and stepped facade creates a unique shape. The glass facade creates wonderful reflections of the historic sandstone city hall building to the north east. 

  From the northeast the Municipal Building has an intriguing profile as a result of its triangular shape that will contrast nicely with the propose new library's curved shape at the same corner.

From the northeast the Municipal Building has an intriguing profile as a result of its triangular shape that will contrast nicely with the propose new library's curved shape at the same corner.

  This view of the Municipal Building from the east will disappear when the new library is built. 

This view of the Municipal Building from the east will disappear when the new library is built. 

Last Page

I like the fact the design is not something twisted, cantilevered or cubist, which seems to be all the rage these days. The shape and skin are intriguing with a sense of playfulness without being too silly.  I expect only time will tell if this is the right building for Calgary - today and in the future. 

The design of the Calgary’s new Central Library is off to a good start. I am glad it isn't imitative of other architecture as is so often the case in Calgary.

I hope that as the design evolves it will just keep getting better. Kudos to the design team, the Library and CMLC staff! 

Denver's Central Library designed by Michael Graves, in 1995. 

  Seattle's Central Library designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, in 2004. 

Seattle's Central Library designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, in 2004. 

Nordstrom Last Chance: A feeding frenzy.

By Richard White, April 2, 2014

I love to use Google maps to check out what is close by to wherever we are staying.  A few nights ago when searching, I am sure I saw a Nordstrom Rack near Fashion Square in Scottsdale.  So when we found ourselves near the Square, we thought we'd check it out. 

We found the Nordstrom department store first, so went in to ask if there was a Nordstrom Rack nearby.  You'd think we had slapped them in the face based on the dirty look we got. In a huff, the staff person dialed a number, asked someone to give us directions and abruptly and curtly handed the phone to Brenda.  We found we were way off base and that it was 50 blocks to the east. Given it was 7 pm, we decided that destination would have to wait for another day.

Once home, I Googled Nordstrom Rack and up came Nordstrom's Last Chance page.  Though we had never heard of this concept, the same address as we had been told earlier so we thought this must be it.  The Last Chance concept is contrary to Nordstrom high-end full-service image in that all sales are final and "as is."  The product is out-of-season or returns that they would not resell in Nordstrom Rack or their department stores.  The concept intrigued us. 

After a hearty Red Lion (Tempe) breakfast, we decided to check out Nordstrom Last Chance and see what we could find along the way i.e. car flaneuring.  As we drove along Camelback Road, we continued to be amazed at the endless small office buildings that seem to populate all of the major roads in metro Phoenix.  

As we got close to where we thought Last Chance would be, we spotted a Nordstrom Rack so quickly parked and headed in.  As the store different look any different than other Nordstrom Racks and there were big signs telling you that you can return any purchases we knew we didn't have the right place.  Turns out the Nordstrom Last Chance was on the next block in another mall. We quickly hightailed over there.   

Feeding Frenzy

We quickly found the Last Chance and what could only be described as a shopping feeding frenzy.  In a space about the size of the Women's and Men's clothing and shoe sections of a TJ Maxx or a Winners, bargain hunters were grabbing at everything in sight. There were line ups at the fitting rooms and the cash registers. It was chaos, diametrically opposed to the Nordstrom department store the night before where you could hear a pin drop. 

There were no neat and tidy displays; shoes and clothing were toss all over the place like a sterotypical teenager's bedroom. People were trying clothes on in the aisle and sitting on the floor to try on shoes.  

As all sales are final, check carefully as there are stains and/or rips are common. Some items have evidence of wear thanks to Nordstrom's liberal return policy. However, for the savvy, shopper good deals are to be had.  I came away with a pair of ECCO golf shoes, slightly worn, for $20 that retail for $200.  Brenda snagged a pair of  Paul Green (German luxury footwear brand) leather shoes for $20, well below their $300 retail price.  She also got a BP(Nordstrom Store Brand) navy blue cardigan for $10.

Chatting with another shopper, Brenda learned she regularly travel all the way from New York as this is Nordstrom's ONLY Last Chance store (which I confirmed via twitter).  

When was the last time you were in a store and they closed an area for restocking in the middle of the day?  We were in the store for about an hour and during that time they closed the women's shoe area and later the men's clothing area. At first confused and frustrated, we soon realize that if you wait around for a bit you have first dibs on the new product; that's how Brenda got her shoes. 

The entrance to Last Chance seems innocent enough.  Note: there is no reference to being affiliated with Nordstrom.

However, once inside you are immediately confronted with a frenzy of shoppers like those sifting through a huge bin of colourful women's underwear.

It is gridlock in the store as everyone has a cart and the aisles are narrow. 

In another corner, the yoga women can't wait for the dressing room so they are trying on clothes over their own clothes.  

Red trash barrels are strategically placed in the shoe department so staff can just throw in shoes for sorting and restocking later. 

What did we find along the way?

Given the Marshall's department store was next to Nordstrom Clearance we stopped in. And not only was it calm and quiet, but it had much better product and prices than we expected.  I was tempted to buy a pair of Merrell shoes for $30.

Then we checked out "My Sister's Closet" behind the Nordstrom Rack store and the Well Suited Men's Resale store where I found a pair of Puma golf shoes for $25. 

Across Camelback Road, there is a Half Price Books, Records and Magazine store that is worth a visit. 

Needing to be energized we stopped at Snooze, next to Nordstrom Rack. A very pleasant surprise - food, decor and ambience.  The 3-egg omelette with goat cheese, wild mushrooms and bacon was very tasty as was the apricot jelly-topped toast.  We also loved the mid-century, atomic-inspired design.   

Snooze restaurant offer funky booths, outdoor patio and bar seating. 

Last Word

If looking for a unique shopping adventure when in the Phoenix, we'd recommend forgetting the major malls and head to Camelback Road and 20th Avenue east.  There is almost something primordial in the the "thrill of the hunt" at Nordstrom Last Chance store. 

Though the Nordstrom Rack window promotes treasure hunting the real treasures lie a block away. 

Here are our treasures from Nordstrom Last Chance and Well Suited. Leo from Red Lion Hotel was impressed.

YYC Needs vs Wants: Arena, Convention Centre, Stadium

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, in two parts, March 1, 2014 "The high cost of keeping up" and March 8th, 2014 "City can't be banker for lengthy wish list"

By Richard White, March 8, 2014

I think many of us are guilty from time to time of trying to “keep up with the Jones.”  It seems to be an innate human trait.   This attitude is even more pronounced when it comes to the “group think” of city building.  For centuries, politicians, religious figures and business leaders have been building bigger more elaborate churches, palaces, office towers, libraries, city halls and museums than their predecessors and their neighbouring cities, states, provinces or countries.  

The thinking goes like this - if Winnipeg builds a new museum (Canadian Human Rights Museum), we need one also (National Music Centre).  If Hamilton, Regina and Winnipeg can build new football stadiums, why can’t we?  Vancouver and Seattle have great central libraries so we should have one also. 

Edmonton has a new, uber-chic public art gallery, Vancouver is planning one and Winnipeg has had one for decades so what’s wrong with Calgary? We don’t even have a civic art gallery.

When it comes to convention centres, Calgary’s Convention Centre is one of the smallest and oldest in the country - we must need a bigger one. Cities around the world are building iconic pedestrian bridges so we better build two (Peace Bridge and St. Patrick’s Island Bridge).  The same logic is used for investing more in public art, downtown libraries and arenas - everyone else is doing it so should we!

National Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg, Manitoba (cost: $351 million) 

  Rendering of new Royal Alberta Museum (old Provincial Museum) under construction in downtown Edmonton. (Cost: $340 million).

Rendering of new Royal Alberta Museum (old Provincial Museum) under construction in downtown Edmonton. (Cost: $340 million).

National Music Centre, Calgary, Alberta (Cost: $150 million) 

Esplanade Riel, Winnipeg, Manitoba (note the restaurant in the middle of the bridge). (Cost: $8 million)

Peace Bridge, Calgary, Alberta (Cost: $25 million)

Needs vs. Wants

Cities are more than just the sum of its roads, transit and sewers.  Imagine Paris, New York or London without their museums, galleries, concert halls, libraries and theatres, as well as their grand public places.

But can Calgary - or any city for that matter - really afford to “keep up with the Jones” when it comes to major facilities like arenas, stadiums, museums, galleries, public art and convention centres? Maybe pick one or two, but not everything!

How do we prioritize our needs vs. wants? Deerfoot and Crowchild Trails both need billion dollar makeovers, the northwest’s sewer system can’t handle one more toilet and we need billions of dollars to build a North and Southeast LRT.  

How can we balance our wants with our needs? Can we identify synergies between existing urban development and future mega projects? Who will champion these big projects?  Are we willing to take some risks? Can we learn to say “No” sometimes?

Do we need a new stadium?

Let’s strike this one off the list quickly.  How can we justify spending $200+ million to build a new stadium, which will host eight home games (attended by 20,000 season ticket holders and another 10,000 to 15,000 people/game who attend depending on the team playing and the weather)? The stadium can’t be used for much else other than the odd concert or two and maybe a major event like the Olympics every 25 years or so.  Yes it is used by university teams and amateur teams from across the city, but these games attract at best a few thousand spectators; this could easily be served by stadiums like Hellard Field at Shouldice Park. Let’s renovate what we have and live with it.

Winnipeg's new Investors Group Field cost $204 million to build. It will only be used to its maximum for 8 or 9 games a year. 

Do we need a new arena?

It is amazing how quickly arenas become out-of-date these days.  I recall someone telling me a few years ago all arenas are out of date in 15 years.  The good thing about an arena is that it is a mixed-use facility used for both junior and professional hockey, lacrosse, ice shows, concerts and other events.  If built in the right location and right design, it can be a catalyst for other development around it.  Many cities have created vibrant sports and entertainment districts in their City Centre.

That being said, it is hard to accept we really need to spend $400+ million to build a new arena that will seat about the same number of people and probably be within a few blocks of the existing Saddledome (which would probably be torn down if a new one is built)– that just seems wrong.   I am also told the post-flood Saddledome is like a new arena with much of the building’s infrastructure having been totally upgraded.

  Rendering of Edmonton's ultra contemporary new arena currently under construction. (Cost: $480 million) 

Rendering of Edmonton's ultra contemporary new arena currently under construction. (Cost: $480 million) 

This is the old Memphis arena on the edge of downtown operated from 1991 to 2004, when it was replaced by a new downtown arena a few blocks away. It is currently being renovated to become a mega Bass Pro Shop with the city taking on $30 million of the cost of renovations. It opened in 1991 at a cost of $65 million.

Do we need a new/larger Convention Centre? Civic Art Gallery?

Hmmmm….this could be a tricky one.  The current facility is significantly smaller than facilities in other cities our size and stature. Studies have shown there is support for a larger facility in Calgary given its strong corporate headquarters culture and regional and international hub airport.

However, one has to wonder in this age of social media and virtual reality, would a large convention center soon a become white elephant.  Convention Centres are also hard to integrate into a vibrant urban streetscape, because they are large horizontal boxes with large entrances for the huge number of people who enter and exit at the same time (not great for street restaurants, café and retailers) and they require huge loading docks and emergency exits are at street level; this means most of the street frontage is doors and docks. 

However, there are examples of downtown convention centres that are not just big boxes, but are part of a mixed-use complex adding vitality to several urban blocks – think Seattle and Cleveland.  Could a large new convention centre be a catalyst for creating something special in Calgary’s city centre?

Maybe we could kill two birds with one stone! The Glenbow is also in need (want) of a mega-makeover.  Could we create a modern convention centre using the existing Glenbow space and the existing convention spaces allowing the Glenbow to move to a new site and new building, becoming both a museum and civic art gallery in the process (something many Calgarians want and some even say we need)?

Conversely, could we expanded the Glenbow and create a Civic Art Gallery using the existing Convention Center spaces and moving the convention centre to another location?  This options lead to the question - Is there a logical site for a new convention centre?  Should it be on Stampede Park?  Are there synergies with the BMO Centre (trade show special event facility), the new Agrium Western Event Centre and the existing Saddledome?  We could create the first downtown S&M District (sports and meeting).

Another idea floating around is perhaps a good use of the huge surface parking lots along 9th and 10th Ave would be a create mixed-use complex over the railway tracks to connect the Beltline with Downtown. Could a new convention centre span the tracks in combination with a new hotel, office, condo buildings and maybe public space development?  Perhaps a private-public partnership would be a win-win for both sides. 

One of the sites being looked at for a new convention centre in Calgary is the 9th and 10th Avenue corridor. It could be combined with an office tower, hotel and condos to create a diversity of uses that would bring 18/7 vitality to the site. 

  The Seattle Convention Centre is built over top of a major highway, linking two sides of the downtown. The site has some similarities to CPR rail tracks that divide Calgary's downtown and the Beltline. (Cost: $425 million)

The Seattle Convention Centre is built over top of a major highway, linking two sides of the downtown. The site has some similarities to CPR rail tracks that divide Calgary's downtown and the Beltline. (Cost: $425 million)

Ottawa's new Convention Centre. (Cost $170 million)

Edmonton's new Art Gallery of Alberta is part of the growing trend to weird, wild and wacky architecture, especially for cultural buildings. (Cost: $88 million).

This is Calgary's old Science Centre, it could become the city's first civic art gallery. 

Last Word

Calgary seems to be at a “tipping point” in its evolution.  And let’s face it, with over five billion dollars of debt, the City can’t afford to be best at everything – transit, roads, arena, stadium, convention centre, library, museum, art gallery, public art, recreation centres, parks, pathways, bike paths. What to do? We are already committed to the National Music Centre, $150M, an new central library $245M and looks like plans are proceeding to retrofit the old Science Centre into a public art gallery.  While the project is still the very early conceptual phase the budge could very well be on par with the Alberta Art Gallery i.e. $80 million. 

Can the city really afford to champion any more mega projects? The city already faces a long list of capital projects that clearly are the sole responsibility of the city. We already have a history of significant cost overruns and delays on projects e.g. the Pine Creek Water Treatment Plant, as well as projects that seem to cost an excessive amount for what is achieved – the airport tunnel and the Travelling Light sculpture.

The architecture of the San Antonio Public Library has fun playfulness about it.  It opened in mid '90s at a cost of $38 million.

Salt Lake City central library designed by Canadian Moshe Safdie, is monumental in scale and design. It opened in 2003 at a cost of $84 million. 

Calgary's downtown library, which is one of the busiest in Canada will be replace by a new building just a few blocks away. The budget for the new library is a whopping $245 million. 

  The James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University, was designed by the international design firm Snohetta who have been engaged to design the new Calgary Public Library. (Cost $94 million)

The James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University, was designed by the international design firm Snohetta who have been engaged to design the new Calgary Public Library. (Cost $94 million)

Perhaps now is the time to get back to basics of municipal governance and focus on the little things that will enhance the quality of life for all Calgarians.  I recall a senior urbanist once saying at an International Downtown Conference that great cities, “do the little things right, as well as the big things.”  Have we been too focused on the big things?

It should be the role of individuals, groups, or the corporate sector to champion the projects that they want? And by championing the project, that means finding the necessary funding to build them. It is always easy to develop grandiose plans when using someone else’s money. 

Q: What should the City’s role be in these projects?

A: It should be the facilitator, not the banker.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Does Calgary have an urban design inferiority complex?

Calgary: North America's Newest Design City

Ideas for adding fun to Downtown Calgary

 

Calgary vs Winnipeg as Urban Hot Spots (Part 2)

By Richard White, February, 8 2014 (this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on February 8, 3014 titled "Exchange District is tough to beat.") 

Last week compared downtown Winnipeg vs Calgary from the perspective of museums, galleries, attractions, sports and river developments (East Village/Stampede Park vs The Forks)Overall it was a tie.  Let the play continue…

 Placemaking Fun

Winnipeg’s Exchange District is one of the best collection of late 19th and early 20th century buildings in North America.  It is a walk back in time as you flaneur the area with its old bank and warehouse buildings.  It is fun place to shop for vintage clothing, furniture, home accessories and art.  Together, Stephen Avenue and Inglewood just can’t compete with the Exchange District’s architecture and streetscapes.

Winnipeg's Exchange District has some of the best late 19th and early 20th century buildings in North America. 

Calgary's Stephen Avenue is a National Historic District and one of North America's best restaurant rows. 

Osborne Village is Winnipeg’s equivalent to Calgary’s Kensington Village. Both are separated from the downtown core by the river, have a major Safeway store a key anchor and a “main street” of shops and restaurants. Kensington wins here given its greater diversity and depth of boutiques and restaurants, its vintage Plaza Theatre and funky new condos. 

Winnipeg has two grand classic urban boulevard streets – Portage Avenue and Main Street; Calgary has none.  While Portage and Main is one of the most famous intersections in Canada, it generally isn’t for good reason. It has a reputation as being the coldest and windiest urban corner in Canada. 

Calgary’s downtown lacks a grand, ceremonial street that is so often associated with great cities.  Though charming, Stephen Avenue simply lacks grandeur.

Over the past 10 years, the University of Winnipeg Campus on the western edge of the city’s downtown has blossomed into a major urban campus with some wonderful contemporary buildings, much like Calgary’s SAIT campus - unfortunately it’s not downtown.  Red River College also has a campus in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, similar to our Bow Valley College.

The Buhler Centre is just one of many new University of Winnipeg campus buildings that is changing the face of downtown Winnipeg.  This building is an office building, art gallery and home to Stella Cafe. 

Bow Valley College has just completed a major expansion in downtown Calgary.  The College is  home to an amazing collection of contemporary art. 

Similarities also exist between Calgary’s Bridgeland (once called “Little Italy”) and Winnipeg’s St. Boniface (the largest French-speaking community west of the Great Lakes).  Not only are both communities across the river from their respective downtowns, but both were home to a major hospital. In Calgary’s case, the hospital has been replaced by condos, while the St. Boniface Hospital is still very much a part of its health care facilities.

Advantage:  Winnipeg

Architecture / Urban Design

Winnipeg boasts better historic architecture with its large buildings like the Beaux Arts-style Manitoba Legislative Building (1920), considered by many as one of the finest public buildings in North America. Other large historic buildings include Union Station (1911) that still serves as a passenger train station, the Vaughan Street Jail (1881), Law Courts (1916), St. Mary’s Cathedral (1881), St Boniface City Hall (1906) and the iconic Bank of Montreal (1913) at the corner of Portage and Main.

Winnipeg is home to a number of major historic buildings including the beaux arts architecture of the Manitoba Legislative Building.  In addition to being big, bold and beautiful, there is a mystery around some of the architectural elements like the sphinxes that has lead to a Hermetic Code theory. 

Courthouse Building 

Most of Calgary’s historic buildings on the other hand are smaller structures, with the only large-scale historic building being Mewata Armoury.

Calgary’s architectural forte is its modern office architecture, which makes sense given most of Calgary’s growth as been in the last 50 years, while Winnipeg’s was pre-1960s.  It might interest Calgarians to know that there is a proposal floating around Winnipeg to build a mixed-use, 55-story building that will build on the strength of the recently completed Manitoba Hydro building, a 22-story building that received LEED Platinum certification and deemed as the most energy efficient building in North America in 2012.

Manitoba Hydro building was one of the first LEED Platinum office building in North America. 

The twin towers of Eight Avenue Place are one of several mega office towers recently completed or under construction. Downtown Calgary is home to one of the largest concentration of corporate headquarters in North America.

Yes, Winnipeg even has a bridge to match Calgary’s Calatrava Peace Bridge.  Its locally designed Esplanade Riel (2003) pedestrian bridge connects downtown to St. Boniface in unique ways.  It is attached to the Provencher Bridge for vehicles with an upscale restaurant in the middle that offers outstanding views. The bridge with its 57-meters high spire (20-story high pole) has cables that stretch out in teepee- like fashion. It is bold, beautiful and elegant night and day.

Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge over the Red River in Winnipeg with restaurant in the middle. 

Calgary's Peace Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava. 

Rather than building a new central library, Winnipeg opted for a mega-makeover of its existing Centennial Library as a millennium project.  Rebranded as the Millennium Library, it is a wonderful contemporary glass building with commanding views of the Millennium Library Park completed in 2012. 

The Library Park has an artificial wetland, wooden walkway, a stand of birch trees and two significant pieces of public art, that combine to make it a wonderful urban space.  The Park’s centerpiece is Bill Pechet’s “Emptyful,” a playful Erlenmeyer flask-shaped fountain illuminated by four bands of LED lighting, that in the summer, illuminate the water and fog from the flask in blue, green and purple hues.  In the winter, when the water elements are not operational, the artwork is lit up in reds, organs and yellows.

Winnipeg's Millennium Library and Park. 

Bill Pechet artist and Chris Pekas of Lightworks 35 ft high and 31 ft wide sculpture "Emptyful." 

Jaume Plensa's sculpture "Wonderland" on the plaza in front of The Bow office tower designed by Norman Foster. 

Calgary’s closest equivalent is the “Wonderland” artwork by Jaume Plensa on the plaza of the Bow office tower. Though attractive, it lacks the same fun factor that “Emptyful” has and there are no benches or other elements to invite you to sit and linger.

Advantage: Tied

Condo Living

Winnipeg simply can’t compete with the diversity and density of condo development that Calgary offers. While there is some condo development along the Red River near the Exchange District, it is nothing like Calgary’s Bridgeland, West End, Eau Claire, Mission, Beltline or Erlton developments.

New condos along the Red River in Downtown Winnipeg. 

New condos on First Street SW one of seven districts with new high-rise condo development in the city centre.

What Winnipeg does offer is some amazing loft living in the old buildings in its Exchange District warehouses. There are also many attractive condos and apartments along the Assiniboine River in the Osborne Village area right along the river.  I used to think they would be great places to live when I lived in downtown Winnipeg in the mid ‘70s while attending the University of Manitoba. And I still do.

Advantage: Calgary

Last Word

If you look at the three big variables for downtown vitality – live, work and play Calgary would seem the clear winner.  It has more contemporary condos, and more jobs for the professional GABEsters (Geologists, Accountants, Bankers, Brokers and Engineers). But if you were a young hipster (creative type), Winnipeg offers more appeal with its affordable and attractive studio loft living.

Winnipeg’s downtown is also much more attractive to small businesses as real estate prices and rents are significantly lower.  REITs and Pension Fund landowners, who are not interested in the “mom and pop” start-ups, dominate Calgary’s downtown. 

Looking a little further afield, Calgary is just one hour away from its mountain playgrounds and Winnipeg is just one hour to cottage country. Take away Calgary’s downtown office towers and there is not much difference between Calgary and Winnipeg (as evidence by the tied score when comparing seven elements of urban vitality).   

It seems to me almost everyone I know in Calgary has some connection to Winnipeg…perhaps we should be sister cities.  Next time you are in Winnipeg visiting family or friends or on business, I recommend heading downtown to flaneur the Exchange District and The Forks, maybe take in a baseball game, an exhibition at the WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery) or tour the Legislature building. There is more to Winnipeg than first meets the eye.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary vs Winnipeg as Urban Hot Spots (Part 1)

Embracing Winter 

Las Vega Neon Boneyard 

Downtowns need to more fun

 

 

Winnipeg vs Calgary Urban Hot Spots (Part 1)

EDT Note:

Comparing Calgary to other cities is very popular with the readers of my Calgary Herald column. An edited version of this blog was in the Calgary Herald as a two piece column so I have kept the same format.  It should be noted that Brenda grew up in Winnipeg and I lived there for 14 months while I did a MSC in Agriculture at the University of Manitoba.  We hope enjoy our look at Winnipeg vs Calgary (where we have lived the past 30+ years).

Urban Hot Spots

Winnipeg wouldn’t be on too many people’s radar as one of North America’s urban hot spots. In fact, for many years, it has been brunt of cruel jokes like the “We’re going to Winnipeg” punch line from the 2005 Fountain Tire commercial that suggested Winnipeg was the Canadian equivalent of Siberia.  However, that wasn’t always the case. Early in the 20th century it was a boomtown, rivaling Chicago as the major mid-west city in North America and beating out Vancouver as Western Canada’s largest city (it had three times the population of Calgary).

Every city has its heyday.  Calgary shouldn’t get too smug about its current “flavour of the month” city status.  Cities can also rise up from the decay and baggage of their past and I believe Winnipeg is ripe for such a renaissance.  I thought it would be fun to compare Calgary and Winnipeg’s downtowns. The results might surprise you!

The Rivers

Both downtowns are blessed - and cursed - with being situated at the junction of two rivers that provide wonderful recreational opportunities but also are subject to mega flooding.  For both cities, their two rivers have become a focal point of their sense of place and play with major museums, parks, pathways, riverwalks, promenades, plazas and bridges located on or near the rivers. 

While Calgary’s Bow River is considered one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the world and a great place to float, Winnipeg’s Red River is a major catfish river and allows for major motor boating activities.

Winnipeg boast the longest skating rink in the world along their rivers. The colourful "pom poms" called "Nuzzels" are actually warming huts on the Assiniboine River - they add fun, colour, charm and functionality. (Photo credit: Raw Design).

Calgarians love their river also be it floating, paddling, fishing or swimming. 

Advantage: Tied

The Forks vs East Village/Stampede Park

While Calgarians are gaga about the potential of East Village’s mega makeover and Vancouverites’ Granville Island is the envy of the world, Winnipeg has quietly surpassed both of them with the development of The Forks on old railway land on the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers). 

The Forks boasts an upscale boutique hotel, a market, Johnson Terminal (boutiques, café, offices), Children’s Museum, Children’s Theatre, Explore Manitoba Centre, one of North America’s best small baseball parks and the soon-to-be-completed Canadian Museum for Human Rights (arguably Canada’s most iconic new building of the 21st century). Not bad, eh!

Winnipeg's Human Rights Museum will add another dimension to The Forks, one of North America's best urban people places.  

 

An artists rendering of the The National Music Centre at night. The museum is currently under construction. 

The baseball park at The Forks is a very popular place in the summer. 

It also has perhaps the best winter city programming with the world’s longest skating rink (yes, longer than Ottawa’s) in addition to the plaza skating rink, Olympic-size skating rink, 1.2 km of skating trails, snowboard fun park, toboggan run and warming huts designed by the likes of world renowned architect Frank Gehry.  They even have Raw: Almond the world’s first pop-up restaurant on a frozen river featuring the hottest chefs including Calgary’s Teatro.  Take that, Calgary!

Calgary’s East Village, after numerous false starts, is trying very hard to match Winnipeg’s eastside redevelopment with its National Music Centre, new Central Library, Bow Valley College, St. Patrick’s Island Park and bridge as well as Fort Calgary improvements. Stampede Park also has notable attractions with the BMO Centre, Saddledome, new Agrium Western Event Centre and plans for Stampede Trail shopping street, as well as the best festival in Canada i.e. Calgary Stampede.

Advantage: Winnipeg

GMAT Fun (Galleries, Museums, Attractions, Theatres)

Winnipeg’s Manitoba Museum is a large history museum on par with Calgary’s Glenbow from a visitor’s perspective with major permanent and temporary exhibitions.  The Glenbow also functions as our major public art gallery, while Winnipeg boasts one of Canada’s oldest public art galleries, which is located in an iconic contemporary building.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery was one of the first architecture as public art buildings. It The city has a wonderful diversity of old and new architecture. 

Both cities have major new museums with contemporary “weird & wacky” architecture slated to open in the next few years - Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights ($300+ million) and Calgary’s National Music Centre ($130+ million).

Calgary’s major downtown attraction would be the mid-century modern Calgary Tower, while Winnipeg’s would have to be historic Provincial Building with its intriguing Masonic Temple design.

In Winnipeg, the MTS Centre (arena) is a major attraction. While many cities (Edmonton) are building new downtown arenas, Winnipeg has a “Main Street” arena, literally right on Portage Avenue; this would be like the Saddledome being where the Glenbow is on Stephen Avenue. The MTS Centre has placed in the” top 10 busiest arenas in North America” list in the past, regularly selling more tickets to more events than Saddledome. 

The MTS Centre is located right on Portage Avenue aka Main Street Winnipeg.  It is one of the busiest arenas in North America. 

From a performing arts perspective, Winnipeg has its Centennial Concert Hall (home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), the historic 1914 Pantages Playhouse Theatre, Burton Cummings Theatre, Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Rachel Bowne Theatre and Prairie Theatre Exchange.  As well, their Royal Winnipeg Ballet complex is not only located right downtown, but also performs downtown, unlike the Alberta Ballet, which is off-the-beaten track and performs outside the downtown.

Winnipeg is home to three iconic Canadian rock and rollers - Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman and Neil Young. 

Winnipeg though has nothing match our three festival spaces - Prince’s Island Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Olympic Plaza.  And, while Winnipeg has a well-renowned folk festival, it doesn’t happen downtown. Winnipeg’s major festival Folkarama attracts over 400,000 people each year to over 40 ethnic pavilions that are located around the city.  The ‘Peg also boasts the second largest fringe theatre festival in North America (Calgary’s fringe struggle to survive) and their Royal Manitoba Theatre is Canada’s flagship English-language regional theatre company (you can’t just call yourself  “Royal”).

Calgary probably has the more impressive line up of theatres - EPCOR Centre with its five spaces, as well as the Grand, Pumphouse and the two theatres at the Calgary Tower (but rumour has it that the latter spaces will be closed, to accommodate a new office tower).

Calgary boasts the High Performance Rodeo as its only major theatre festival now that playRites is history.  However, downtown Calgary is also home to numerous live music venues including several weekend afternoon jam (WAMJAM) sessions at places like Blues Can, Ironwood, Mikey’s and Ship & Anchor that Winnipeg can’t match. In addition, YYC’s downtown is home Fort Calgary, which is has ambitious plans to become a major attraction.    

  Calgary boasts a very active music scene with numerous venues like Mikey's offering live music seven days a week.  

Calgary boasts a very active music scene with numerous venues like Mikey's offering live music seven days a week. 

Advantage: Tied

SDC Fun (Shopping, Dining, Café)

Winnipeg’s Portage Place doesn’t hold a candle to Calgary’s The Core with its shiny new $200+ million renovation and mega glass roof.  Nor does Winnipeg have the wealth of restaurants that populate Stephen Avenue, 4th Street and 17th Avenue or the mega pubs – CRAFT, National or WEST.

Summer "power hour" (lunch hour) on Stephen Avenue Walk aka Calgary's Main Street. 

Winnipeg's Osborne Village is their bohemian quarters. 

Calgary's Design District offers great restaurants, galleries and design shops. 

Calgary’s downtown restaurants regularly make the in Top 10 List of new Canadian Restaurants by EnRoute Magazine, while Winnipeg’s restaurants have not. A quick check of Vcay’s Top 50 Restaurants in Canada lists eight downtown Calgary restaurants including Charcut Roast House #5 and Model Milk #7 in the top 10.  Winnipeg has only one on the list Deseo Bistro at #36.  This might be due to fact downtown Calgary is home to over 100 corporate headquarters with their healthy “expense account” dining. 

Winnipeg's Exchange District is full of fun, funky and quirky shops. 

Winnipeg boasts one of the most ethnically diverse cultures in North America. 

Both Calgary’s and Winnipeg’s historic Hudson Bay stores are in need of major exterior washing and interior renovations.  Calgary’s Holt Renfrew is definitely in a class of its own when it comes to upscale shopping.

The Hudson Bay Company is the oldest retailer in the world est. 1670, while Winnipeg's store is not that old, it is in need of a major makeover. 

Winnipeg's Portage Place is the hub for downtown shopping as is The Core for downtown Calgary

Calgary's signature Hudson Bay store on Stephen Avenue Walk, a pedestrian mall in the centre of the downtown linking the Financial District with the Cultural District. 

Winnipeg boasts the Stella Café (named after one of the owner’s cat) with its signature Morning Glory muffins in the uber chic Buhler Centre, as well as the unique News Café (owned by the Winnipeg Free Press, it hosts live interviews with Canada’s top newsmakers).   However, Calgary’s café culture has more depth with dozens of local independent cafes with multiple locations throughout the downtown.

The Winnipeg Free Press Cafe is a unique concept that allows for reporters to interview newsmakers and  file stories from their corner offices in the cafe. 

Advantage: Calgary

Intermission:

So far the score is tied. Next week: a look at Winnipeg’s and Calgary’s successes and failures in placemaking, architecture, urban design and downtown living. Also a look at how Calgary's GABEsters differ from Winnipeg's hipsters in what they are looking for with respect to urban living.

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