What is urban living and who really cares?

By Richard White, November 27, 2014 

80% of Canadians live in cities, but only a small part live urban,” reads one of the tweets in a recent tweeter debate by a few of us urban nerds.

This got me asking myself “what really is urban living anyway?”  Can you live in a city and not live “urban?”

I tweeted the author asking what his definition of urban living was, but got no answer.  Indeed, too often people – including urban designers planners, architects, engineers, politicians, developers and yes, even myself use terms that even we don’t really have a shared meaning of and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense to others.

I have often thought the term “urban sprawl” should more aptly be called “suburban sprawl” as what is being referred to is the sprawl of low-density predominantly residential development at the edge of a city, areas commonly thought of as suburbs. But, I digress; perhaps a topic for another time.

  Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

  Is this urban living?

Is this urban living?

What is urban living?

I admit – not only did I not have a handy definition, I could not recall ever seeing one.  It begs a number of questions, including:

  •  Do you have to live in or near downtown to “live urban?”
  • Do you have to live in a community with a certain density to be considered urban living? 
  • Is urban living measured by the percent of time you walk vs. take transit vs. drive?
  •  Does urban living mean not having a car? Or, is it driving less than the Canadian average of 18,000 km/year?
  • Is urban living about the size of your house, condo and/or vehicle?
  • Is urban living about residing in communities with a diversity of commercial and residential buildings?  

I thought a Google search might help, but I struck out. Unable to find a nice clear and concise, definition I went “old school” and checked some dictionaries. They all just said something about “living in a city,” much too ambiguous to satisfy me.

  Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

  Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

 

Statistics Canada says…

 Not one to give up quickly, I turned to our government, specifically (and logically) Statistics Canada.  I found out that, in 2011, Statistics Canada redesignated urban areas with the new term "population centre" a new term was chosen in order to “better reflect the fact that urban vs. rural is not a strict division, but rather a continuum within which several distinct settlement patterns may exist (their words not mine).”

Stats Canada went further, identifying three distinct types of population centres: small (population 1,000 to 29,999), medium (population 30,000 to 99,999) and large (population 100,000 or greater).

They go on to say, “It also recognizes that a community may fit a strictly statistical definition of an urban area but may not be commonly thought of as "urban" because it has a smaller population. Or, functions socially and economically as a suburb of another urban area rather than as a self-contained urban entity. Or, is geographically remote from other urban communities.”  Have I lost you yet - it is getting very muddy for me!

For example, Airdrie, with its population of 42,564, is a medium size population centre, but it is socially and economically a suburb of Calgary.  On the other hand, Medicine Hat, with its population of 61,180 is also a medium size population centre, but because it is the largest population centre for a large geographical region, it could be thought of as “urban.” 

Despite its change in terminology, Statistics Canada’s current demographic definition of an urban area is “a population of at least 1,000 people where the density is no fewer than 400 persons per square km” (which would include all of Calgary’s 200+ communities).

Dig a little deeper and Statistics Canada defines low-density neighbourhoods as those where 67% or more of the housing stock is composed of single-family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings and/or mobile homes.  A medium-density neighbourhood is deemed one where the percentage of single-family, detached or mobile homes is between 33 and 67%, while high density is where these types of dwellings comprise less than 33% of the housing stock.

By this, Stats Canada identifies six high-density neighbourhoods in Calgary (they didn’t name them), by far the least of any of Canada’s major cities.  Perhaps the author of the tweet meant only those Calgarians living in Calgary’s six, high-density neighbourhoods are living urban?

  Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

YYC Municipal Development Plan

Still not satisfied, I moved on. I wondered if the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has a definition of “urban living” or a related term in its glossary of terms. The best I could find were the following:

Intensity: A measure of the concentration of people and jobs within a given area calculated by totaling the number of people either living or working in a given area. 

Complete Community: A community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play. 

So, where does that leave me and others who are interested in a meaningful debate about how we work together to build a better city. What would be a useful definition of “urban living” that professionals and the public to agree upon as the on debate how best to “urbanize” Calgary continues?

  Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

  Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Possible working definitions

One potential definition of “urban living” might be, “living in a place where you can comfortably walk, cycle or take public transit to 80% of your regular weekly activities (i.e. work, school, shop, medical entertainment and recreation).

As for The definition of “comfortable,” I leave up to the individual. For some, a comfortable walking distance might be 15 minutes; for others it might be 30 minutes. I know Calgarians who take the bus or even drive the two kilometers from Mission to work downtown, while others cycle 15+ km to work (and back). I myself used to walk 50 minutes to and from work downtown for 10+ years.  

A second possible “urban living” definition might be, “when you regularly use at least three of the four modes of transportation (walk, cycle, take transit and drive) to engage in your regular weekly activities.”

  High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

  Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

  Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Last Word

But really, does the average Calgarian even care if they a live urban or suburban? Thanks for indulging me.  I hazard a guess to say most don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly suspect they just want to be able to get to their activities in a timely, affordable manner.

Yet for us urban nerds, we are always thinking about how can we build a better city for everybody, one that is more cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, affordable, integrated and inclusive. It’s what turns our cranks!

By Richard White, December 4, 2014

Reader Comments:

GG writes: "Initially the definition was applied to the rural/city divide, and has since become a true city ‘divide’. It doesn’t seem to matter than many of these ‘urban inner-city communities’ were the suburbs of a few decades back, and the reasons that people built there and moved there are no different than those today.  By virtue of Calgary’s rapid growth, they are now close to the city center and have developed a ‘cachet’. This was not a result of great urban planning, foresight, or any attempt at smart growth. The densities in many of these communities are less than they are in the ‘reviled’ suburbs that are being built today. They were the product of development methods of the day, and schools and community centers were part of the package.  Families were one car or even no car, and transit was a common denominator. And today, it is all too common to see perfectly liveable houses bulldozed so that the affluent can enjoy a big house but be environmentally and developmentally superior by being an urban dweller, an inhabitant of the inner city."

CW writes: "A most excellent column. Certainly people do care very much about their urban living, yet our language completely fails to capture how we choose to situate ourselves in life. Why would that be? Everybody knows it's not good manners to talk openly about class, but a definition of urban living should take into the account the ability to insulate oneself from undesirable situations of class. Most people love the city they choose to live in, but they also wouldn't be caught dead in some parts of it."

If you like this blog, you might like:

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary 

Don't be too quick to just the new suburbs?

Importance of comfort, convenience and privacy in urban living 

Urban cottages & Gentrification 

 

 

West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

By Richard White, November 29, 2014

West District is a proposed new MAC (Major Activity Center) community on a 96-acre site that straddles the southwest communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge by Truman Developments. The boundaries are north of 9th Ave., west of 77th Street, east of 85th Street and south of Old Coach Banff Road in the southwest.

 A MAC is a term from the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan to describe an “urban centre for a sub-region of the city, which provides opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.”

West District is a unique infill MAC community, as the land surrounding it has already been developed for several years. Most new MACs are at the edge of the city with no surrounding communities.  As a result, Truman Development’s team of planners and urban designers have been able to respond to what currently exists, as well as what is missing for the West Springs and Cougar Ridge to become a vibrant live work play community.

They were also able to respond to the City’s guidelines for creating successful MACs, which were not in place or not possible given most of the previous developments in West Springs and Cougar Ridge were on small parcels of land with fragmented ownership making master-planning impossible.

Over the past year, Truman Development has embraced the City’s vision of creating a vibrant new mixed-use, mixed-density communities in consultation with the community.

  This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

Community Engagement

One of the first things Truman did right was to engage the existing community from the start, not after they had developed a comprehensive plan.  Rather than the old open house format where developers would present their vision after it was completed and then defend it when the individuals in the community raised questions and concerns.

They decided to open what they called the EngageHub in the spring of 2014, a purpose built 2,000 square foot building where people could visit, learn more and weigh in on some of the ideas being considered for West District. Since opening, the EngageHub has been open to the community 130+ hours  (weekdays, weekends and evenings) for people to drop-in to see how the West District plans were evolving based on community input.  

  The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

  The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

Density Dilemma

As with almost every new development in Calgary the biggest issue is always density. Too often the developer is put in an awkward situation as the City is demanding more density, but the existing community doesn’t want it.

For example, West District’s density is envisioned to be 36 units/acre, which is 10 times the current density of the surrounding developments.  However, when you average the density of the existing communities with the addition of West District the overall MAC density would be 5.3 units/acre, which is less than the City’s current goal of 8 units/acre for new communities and not that different from the 3.1 units/acre that currently exists. 

Too often the public hears the term density and immediately thinks 20 storey highrise condos, but in fact the density for West District and other proposed MACs will be achieved with a mix of single-family, town/row housing and some low and mid-rise condo bulidings.  This allows for a diversity of housing options that will be attractive and affordable for first homebuyers, families, empty nesters and seniors housing.

Indeed, vibrant communities include people of all ages and backgrounds. Truman Developments is Attainable Homes Calgary’s biggest multi-family partner and they are keen to see a healthy mix of market housing with some more affordable units in West District.

  This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

Central Park

Over the past seven months of community engagement one of the things Truman heard loud and clear was the need for a park to serve both existing and new residents. One of the community’s desires was to retain many of the existing and beloved Aspen Tree groves. As a result, the design team has developed large central park that balances passive natural areas with programmable activity areas, which will allow for year-round use.

West District Central Park

Traffic / Transit

Another key issue for existing residents when new developments are planned is the ability of roads and transit to handle the increased traffic.  While the West Leg of the LRT does provide improved transit service to the Calgary’s west-side communities, it is unfortunate that is it is surrounded by low-density communities rather than something like a West District. 

To capitalize on the City’s 1.4B investment in the West LRT, Truman Development is proposing a developer-funded express bus between West District and the 69th Street LRT Station, about four kilometers away. Kudos to Truman Development for taking this innovative initiative.

West District shuttle.jpg

Cost Effective Development

West District is an infill development and as such the area has already been serviced to urban standards for water and sewer, which means no addition costs for new infrastructure.   There is also a good network of existing major and arterial roads that will be further upgraded with the completion of the west leg of Stoney Trail.

In addition, West District will add an estimated $550M in new residential and business taxes over the next 50 years, which is significantly more than the $130M that would be generated by a typical low density suburban development. The additional half billions dollars can be used for new or enhanced parks, recreation centres, as wells as new buses or roads across the city – everyone benefits from mega infill developments like West District.

  One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited.  

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

  West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

NUVO Kensington

In many ways, West District is like building a new Kensington community on the west side of the city.  In fact, the new condos in Kensington - Pixel, St. John’s, Lido and VEN – are very similar to what is being proposed for West District. There are also similarities between West District’s Central Park and Riley Park and West District’s main street and the mix of shops along Kensington Road and 10th Street.

  While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

Last Word

One of the criticisms I often hear from new comers to Calgary, especially those from major urban centres is we don’t have enough walkable urban communities like Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood.

No plan is perfect, however, I am thinking the City should be fast tracking the approval of West District if we are serious about providing attractive, affordable and accessible housing for both existing and new Calgarians.

By Richard White, October 27, 2014

West District At A Glance

  • 7,000              residents
  • 3,500              dwelling units
  • 20%                detached/attached homes
  • 80%                4 to 8 floor condos
  • 10                    acres of park space
  • 500,000         sq. ft. or retail (small scale with urban grocery as anchor)
  • 1.2                   million sq. ft. of (office, medical, satellite education)
  • 5,200              workers 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield Residential: Working together to make Calgary better!

Calgary's MAC attack!

Integration critical to new community vitality

 

 

Calgary's MAC attack

Over the next few months, Calgary’s planners and politicians are going to experience a “MAC attack” as developers present plans for new Major Activity Centers (MAC) on the west and north edges of the city. 

What is a MAC you ask?  The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan defines it as an urban center for a sub-region of the city providing opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.  

MAC is not a new idea

In the early ‘90s, the City’s Go Plan called for “mini-downtowns” at the edge of the city and in many ways a MAC is like a small city downtown with a main street and offices surrounded by low rise residential development.  Then in the early 21st century, planners started using terms like “urban villages” and “transit-oriented development (TOD)” for mixed-use (residential, commercial) developments that incorporated live, work, play elements.

The problem with TOD was that in many cases Calgary’s new communities were getting developed years before the transit infrastructure was actually in place. For example, Quarry Park and SETON in the southeast are both being developed today along the future SE LRT route, but the trains won’t arrive for probably another 15+ years away.

TOD also had other limitations, as MACs are not always right next to major transit routes, but more oriented toward major roadways in the city. For example, the Currie Barracks has all of the attributes of MAC but no major transit connections. Its focus is more on Crowchild Trail and Glenmore Trail, with Mount Royal University and the Westmont Business Park and ATCO site redevelopment as its employment centre.   

  Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

  An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

  MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets .  Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

  This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

MAC 101

The City’s Municipal Development Plan has some very specific guidelines when it comes to what is a MAC, these include:

  1.  200 jobs per gross developable hectare (a hectare is approximately the size of two CFL football fields including the end zones).
  2.  Provide a business centre/employment center; this could be an independent office buildings or office/medical space above retail.
  3.  Range of housing types – single-family, town and row housing, medium-density condos (under 6 floors), rental and affordable housing
  4.  Large format retail (big box) should be at the edge of the MAC to allow access from other communities
  5. Pedestrian/transit-friendly design i.e. pedestrians and transit have priority over cars. For example, vehicle parking should design to minimize impact on transit and pedestrian activities, ideally underground.
  6.  Diversity of public spaces i.e. plazas, playgrounds, pocket parks and pathways.  Sports fields should be located at the edge of the MAC as they take up large tracts of land and are only used seasonally.  Planners want to keep as many higher uses clustered together near the LRT or Main Street.

While these are useful guidelines, they should not be prescriptive, as each site must be allowed to develop based on its unique site opportunities and limitations - no two MACs are the same.

 

  This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

  Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street.  

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

  Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

  SETON at might with street patios. 

SETON at might with street patios. 

Coming Soon

Earlier this year the City approved land-use plans for the University of Calgary’s West Campus an inner city MAC that was developed after extensive community engagement. 

Up next for Council’s approval will be West District that links the west side communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge and Brookfield Residential’s Livingston at the northern edge of the city, both of which will be topics for future blogs.  

  This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

  West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

Last Word

As Calgary evolves as a city, so does the glossary of terms used by planners and developers to describe their utopian vision of what Calgary could and should be in the future.

Calgary’s development community has enthusiastically taken up the concept and challenge of creating MACs; this is a good thing for two reasons.  One Calgary needs to speed up its residential development approval process if we want to create affordable and adequate housing for the next generation of Calgarians. Second, more and more new Calgarians are looking for walkable urban communities.

While in the past developers and planners didn’t always see “eye-to-eye” on how new communities should be planned, more and more there is a shared vision of how to create pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use and mixed-density communities.  

Calgary’s planning department use to have the motto “working together to make a great city better.”  I am thinking this would be a good motto for all of the city’s departments, as well as the development community and the citizens of Calgary. 

By Richard White, November 22, 2014

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Big hopes for mini-downtowns" on Saturday, November 22nd in the New Condos section. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to make Calgary better!

District: Community Engagement Gone Wild 

West Campus: Calgary's first 24/7 community?

3Rs of walkable communities?

 

Safety + Segregation + Space = Sterility

I have a theory. In fact, I’ve had it for some time. Simply stated, it is Safety + Segregation + Space = Sterility. I’m inspired to publicly share it after my recent conversation with Mel Foht, President and COO of Royop Development Corporation. Having just returned from his trip to Europe, we began talking about safety, segregation and public spaces as well as how Calgary differs from European cities in its approach to urban design. 

Street Safety

“Are Calgarians obsessed with safety? Are we making our urban spaces and places too safe?” These are questions I’ve often wondered. Though many readers may well disagree, I’d hazard a guess to say Mel and I aren’t the only ones who think we are correct.

If we want our streets to be safer, the first step might be to get all walkers, joggers, cyclists and drivers to unplug from their headphones.  We need to take a page from the peewee hockey players’ manual – “keep your head up if you don’t want to get hit.”  Whether on the sidewalk or street, we all need to look ahead and around to be aware of our environment.

Street safety is a shared responsibility.

  In Salt Lake City, many of the cross walks have a reminder to look both ways. 

In Salt Lake City, many of the cross walks have a reminder to look both ways. 

Salt Lake City takes cross walk safety as step further by providing bright orange flags for pedestrians to use as they cross the street. Is this going too far?

Four-way stops are easier for pedestrians, cyclist and drivers to share the space and are a lot cheaper than round-abouts and speed bumps.  

Calgary roads for the most part have lots of room for pedestrians, cyclist and drivers if we respect each other and share the road. Share The Road signs are a good reminder that EVERYONE is responsible for sharing the road. 

Food Safety

And then there is food safety. Foht gives kudos to Mayor Nenshi and Council for fast tracking the licensing of food trucks a few years back. Calgary has about 45 food trucks (Portland, a city renowned for its street food culture, in comparison has over 500). It should be noted that Portland’s food carts are permanent street vendors (not trucks) and are often clustered on under-utilized parking lots. In fact, their downtown even has a block-long, surface parking lot ringed with food carts which creates a festival-like, outdoor food court. But as Portland, unlike Calgary, doesn’t have dozens of major office buildings each with their own food court, it is hard if not impossible to make any apple-to-apple comparison.

I am told Calgary once had the reputation for having some of the toughest food safety laws in North America. While on one hand that’s important and good, it basically restricted the food options by street food vendors to mostly hotdogs. If other cities can have rules that ensure food safety yet enable a wider variety of foods to be cooked and served on the street, we surely can too.

Portland has become a mecca for foodies partly as a result of the numerous food carts that transform surface parking and vacant lots into outdoor food courts - not just in the downtown but around the city.

Public Transit Safety

Safety also plays a key role when it come to the dominance of the car as the preferred form of transportation, not only in Calgary but I suspect in most North American cities. 

We experienced this firsthand in Memphis one morning this past winter when my wife Brenda planned to take a 20-minute bus ride from downtown to a shopping area. When ATM issues forced her to go into the nearby bank to talk to a teller, conversation ensued (which included an informal poll of all four tellers as to if she should take the bus or a cab) and a decision was made (solely by them) to call a cab - without Brenda’s permission and at her cost of 25 dollars! (Note: she took the bus back with no concern whatsoever re: her personal safety and at a cost of $3.)  This was not an isolated case – another day she was warned by locals (including a female tram driver nonetheless) to not take public transit alone. Clearly to us, whites in Memphis feel safer in their car than walking the streets or taking public transit. We also now better understand the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri. 

And safety is even shaping Calgary’s suburbs. The popularity of drive-thru coffee shops, ATMs and fast food stores is not only about convenience but also perceived safety.

Segregation

In many ways, by segregating the modes of traffic in Calgary’s downtown core - for example, 9th Avenue for cars, 8th Avenue for pedestrians and 7th Avenue for transit - we have virtually eliminated the urban vitality that comes from diversity and critical mass.  It is interesting to note that while in the early 20th Century, 8th Avenue accommodated street cars, vehicles and pedestrians, a century later we are arguing whether even pedestrians and cyclists can share the space.

 We have also segregated our activities in a way that chokes off vitality. Think about it. Most of Calgary’s cultural activities are clustered in the east end of downtown, creating a cultural ghetto away from the banks, offices, shops and restaurants. With most plays, concerts, shows, gallery events, festivals, etc happening on weekday evenings and weekends, there’s little need for most to go there during weekday days – other than to simply use it as a pass-through block to get to and from City Hall.

As well, most shops have been segregated to the +15 and +30 levels between the Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew. Few small shops dot Stephen Avenue Walk itself. This stretch of 8th Avenue has become a restaurant ghetto, with vitality basically just around weekday noon hours. Recently, when touring a visiting architect from Holland and his family in the area, they couldn’t believe how the Walk changes at noon hour on weekdays. It is a phenomenon – not necessarily a great one though.

  Early 20th century postcard of Stephen Avenue with street cars, vehicle and pedestrians sharing the space. 

Early 20th century postcard of Stephen Avenue with street cars, vehicle and pedestrians sharing the space. 

  Salt Lake City allows cars, LRT and cyclist to share the road.

Salt Lake City allows cars, LRT and cyclist to share the road.

  In Dublin, as in most European cities, the streets and sidewalks are shared by everyone. The sidewalks are narrow and the roads are crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and cars all interacting at close quarters. 

In Dublin, as in most European cities, the streets and sidewalks are shared by everyone. The sidewalks are narrow and the roads are crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and cars all interacting at close quarters. 

Space

Foht speaks of how Europe’s sidewalks and streets are animated with people doing lots of different things, going in lots of different directions and using lots of different modes of transportation.  It is not unusual, he says, “to see pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, trams, buses, cars and trucks all mixing and mingling on the same street at the same time.” Urban guru Jane Jacobs referred to this as “sidewalk ballet;” others call it “messy urbanism,” while yet others call it “critical mass.” Regardless of what you coin it, great urban spaces are crowded with people who access the space by a variety of transportation modes.

He also noticed that in Europe people were able to share the smallest space that allow “a zillion scooters and bikes to co-exist.” In Calgary, we can’t even seem to get the fact that the sidewalks on in the Peace Bridge are for pedestrians while the middle roadway is for cyclists.  And while European streets may look like a free-for-all to us, they in fact are very safe.

Does this mean they have more or better signage? Not necessarily. In fact, many European cities are experimenting with removing signs, allowing roads and public spaces to be self-governing. We seem to enact the polar opposite approach, ie. more signage and more complicated signage. Perhaps we are too busy trying to read and understand the signs instead of just having some basic signs and rules and then just using common sense.

For some reason, it seems that part of Calgarians’ psychological DNA includes the need for lots of space around us – big houses, big vehicles, big streets, etc. Granted, it is what we have had and in most cases, what we continue to have; it is what we are used to. For us, the extent of “crowded spaces” experience consists maybe of rush hour transit rides and at Stampede or major street festivals.

If we want to create street animation, we need to learn how to share our space. I am a big fan of “Share The Road” signs, four way stops and painted bike lanes as cost-effective traffic calming measures vs. speed bumps, roundabouts and separate bike lanes.  Why is it that Calgary always seems to find the most expensive way to manage the sharing of our streets? 

Last Word

If we really want urban vitality in Calgary, we can’t live in our own individual bubbles. If we really want a sense of community, we have to be aware of and connect with others, embrace sharing public spaces and avoid “safety-phobia.” Safety + Space + Segregation = Sterility – it’s definitely not an equation I want for Calgary.   

By Richard White, November 1st, 2014. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on November 1st, 2014. 

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Calgary: A Bike Friendly City?

Design Downtown for Women and Men Will Follow?

 

 

Calgary: Beautifying The Beltline

Over the past five years, the City of Calgary and the Beltline Community Association have strategically and successfully developed and implemented plans to beautify Calgary’s most densely populated community. The Beltline has 6,963 residents per square kilometer, while Calgary’s overall density is 1,329 with communities like Hillhurst/Sunnyside and Aspen Woods 3,207 and 1,676 per square kilometer respectfully.   The City’s and the Beltline community’s goal is to foster its growth from the current 20,000 urbanites to 40,000 by 2035.  Both groups realize to fulfill this vision the Beltline must have great public spaces that attract people of all ages and backgrounds.

Memorial Park 

The first beautification project was the $11 million, renovation of Memorial Park, Calgary’s oldest park (1912) transforming it from a 20th century to 21st century public space. Completed in 2010, the renos included the addition of new pathways, seating, fountains, flower plantings and washrooms.   It is now the signature public space for Beltliners who want to sit and relax in the shadows and glitter of the downtown skyline. The addition of the Boxwood restaurant and patio was a stroke of genius as it adds an entirely new dimension to the park experience. 

Developers built upon the Memorial Park revitalization project with two new condo projects – The Park (an 18-storey, 156 unit condo by Lake Placid Group of Companies, now mid-construction) and Park Point, a 34/27-storey, 502 unit condo by Landmark Qualex just beginning construction).

Playing in the water in Memorial Park.

Relaxing in Memorial Park.

  Enjoying the patio at Boxwood restaurant.

Enjoying the patio at Boxwood restaurant.

13th Ave Greenway 

The next beautification project is the 13th Avenue Heritage Greenway, which will eventually create an enhanced pedestrian and cycling experience from Macleod Trail to 17th Street SW.  The Greenway will create a multi-use path, as well as a traditional sidewalk on the north side of the road, separated from each other and the road by a row of trees. Phase One from Macleod Trail to 4th Street is now open and when completed, the Greenway will create four character areas – Sunalta, Victoria Crossing, Connaught and West Connaught.  It will also connect several heritage sites along 13th Avenue including Haultain School (1894), Central Memorial Park/Library (1912), First Baptist Church (1912), Lougheed House / Beaulieu Gardens (1891), Ranchman’s Club (1914) and Calgary Collegiate Institute School (1908).

Enhanced sidewalks, new trees and grasses along the 200 block of 13th Avenue. 

13th Avenue streetscape at Barb Scott Park.

Barb Scott Park

Next up was the Barb Scott Park (named after the late Barb Scott, City of Calgary Councilor from 1971 to 1995 and parks champion) on the west side of the new Calgary Board of Education headquarters (9th Street from 12th to 13th Avenues). Opened in May 2014, this public space includes a large oval grass area that allows for impromptu kicking and throwing games like soccer, Frisbee and football.  The park is anchored by the popular “Chinook Arch” public art work at the corner of 9th Street and 12th Avenue SW. 

 Like Memorial Park, the new Barb Scott Park has also been a catalyst for new condo development, including the colourful Aura I and II towers by Intergulf-Cidex directly across the street.

New seating and playing field on the west side of the new CBE building. 

Chinook Arc on the northwest corner of Barb Scott Park.

Future Projects

The pace of the Beltline beautification program is accelerating. There are currently three projects at various stages of development – Enoch Park on Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th Avenues is under construction, the ENMAX Park on the Elbow River (part of the Stampede’s mega makeover) is in its final stages of design, as is the lawn bowling park on 11th Street at 16th Avenue SW.

Enoch Park

Enoch Park (City website is still calling it new East Victoria park) gets its name from the Enoch House that will be moved a few meters east into the Park allowing its former location to make way for a Canada’s first ClubSport Hotel by Marriot International. The 1905 Queen Anne home one of the few stately homes still standing in Victoria Park and built by clothing entrepreneur Enoch Sales, has seen better days. But as part of the development of a new park on Macleod St between 11th and 12th Avenues it will be restored and transformed into a restaurant – think Boxwood or River Café. 

The park will be more like a plaza with lots of linear, canopied tree plantings, informal lawn areas, criss-crossing pathways with the lots of seating – some fixed along walls and some café style with tables and moveable chairs allowing for great views of the ever-changing downtown and Beltline skyline.  This park is scheduled for completion I expect by summer of 2015 (City of Calgary website says fall of 2014).

  Enoch Park under construction.

Enoch Park under construction.

Plans for Enoch Park.

Enoch House.

ENMAX Park @ Stampede

The Stampede’s Master Plan has long called for the creation of a 30-acre park along the Elbow River in the northeast quadrant of the grounds from the railway bridge to right behind the Saddledome.  Recently, ENMAX stepped forward as the naming sponsor for the park, which will be home for the new Indian Village during Stampede.  During the rest of the year, the park will be open to the public and consist of two large green spaces for both passive and programmed activities, including small festivals and events.  There will also be a Western Heritage Trail, an open-air museum with sculptures and self-guided history panels creating a walk through time.  The park will be synergistic with the Stampede’s plans for a vibrant Youth Campus on the west side of the Elbow River.

ENMAX Park showing enhanced park space including new Indian Village site.

Stampede is converting this parking lot into a park.

16th & 11th Park

The lawn bowling park in the southwest corner of the Beltline at 16th Avenue and 11th St SW is still in the final design stage.  We do know that the lawn bowling facility will be moving and this will allow for a number of possible uses.  An extensive community consultation process has generated copious ideas (exhibition space, skating rink, flexible seating, season vendors, urban pond, picnic area, orchard, game space and community garden) on how to make this a year-round public space.  This new park could be the catalyst for the revitalization of 11th Street SW, a street with all the ingredients to become a micro-retail/restaurant hub for those living on the west side of the Beltline.

Already with a Good Earth Café, Galaxie Diner and Kalamata Grocery store, it’s got a great foundation.

Ideas for revitalizing the park.

Clustering and organizing ideas.

Developing ideas into reality.

Signs of Success

The “Beautification of the Beltline” initiative has been a huge success to date.  Currently there are 10+ condo projects under construction, which means potentially 15,000+ new residents in the next few years.  Indeed, the Beltline is not only one of Calgary’s most attractive urban communities, but one of North America’s too.

The citizen-led “Blueprint For The Beltline” vision adopted in 2003 has served the community well, especially when it come to Development Principle #37 – “In order to enhance the public realm and to encourage and complement high-quality private development, The City will continue to invest, subject to Council’s future budget deliberations, in improvements to public assets such as parks, cultural and recreational facilities, streets, boulevards, sidewalks, pathways, bikeways and lanes.” Amen!

By Richard White, October 1, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in Condo Living magazine's October edition.)

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Calgary: Names & Placemaking Challenge

A pet peeve I have about condo developers is that they should do more research into the names of their condos and capitalize on the opportunity to use the names as part of the evolution of a sense of place. 

Two of the best examples of missed opportunities are the new condos facing onto Memorial Park – Park Pointe and The Park.  With a little research, imagination and respect for the area’s history, they could have been called Andrew or Carnegie. Why? Because the historic Memorial Park library (the first library in Alberta) was funded by an $80,000 Andrew Carnegie grant (total cost was $100,000 in 1912).  Or perhaps they could have been named after William Reed, Calgary’s first parks superintendent who created park.  Or, maybe even Alexander Calhoun Calgary’s first chief librarian could have been the inspiration for naming rights.  For that matter, one of the condos could have simply been named The Library.  

On a related but different note, from a design perspective, it would have been nice to have had a strong sandstone element in the exteriors of condos near as the ground level to pay respect to the historic sandstone Memorial Park Library building.

  Rendering of new The Park condo looking southeast from historic Memorial Park.  It makes no reference in design or name that would enhance the sense of place the area  or of 13th Ave SW as an important historical street. 

Rendering of new The Park condo looking southeast from historic Memorial Park.  It makes no reference in design or name that would enhance the sense of place the area  or of 13th Ave SW as an important historical street. 

Montana?????

Another good example of a missed opportunity is the Montana, the relatively new condo next to the Nellie McClung House on the 700 block of 16th Avenue SW.  Might have Neillie or McClung Place/Tower have been better?

  The Montana condo with the McClung house in the foreground on the left side.

The Montana condo with the McClung house in the foreground on the left side.

 

Church,  Homestead, Carpenters?

Hats off to the developers in Kensington who are doing a better job with names like St. John’s on Tenth St. (after the church that used to be on the site) or Lido (after the Lido Café, that was torn down after over 70 years of calling the block where the new condo will be built home).  That being said, I am think there must be a better name for the community’s latest condo, Kensington. I can think of two – The Riley (the entire Hillhurst / Sunnyside/ West Hillhurst /SAIT area was once part of the Riley family ranch) or The Carpenter (given the site was home to the Carpenter’s Union Hall for many years).  

  St. John's condominium on the site of the church of the same name.

St. John's condominium on the site of the church of the same name.

  Plaque on the side of St. John's condo documenting a bit of the history of the site.

Plaque on the side of St. John's condo documenting a bit of the history of the site.

Savoy / Riviera ?

I also question the name Savoy for a new condo in West Hillhurst, a community with a rich history.  The Savoy name is most commonly associated with a five-star luxury hotel in London.  I am not aware of any association with the site or the community.  Grand Trunk, the original name for the section of land that it is located on, would have been a much more interesting and appropriate name.  

In my opinion, the same could be said for the Riviera now under construction in Parkdale. 

  Savoy condo in West Hillhurst at the corner of 19th St NW and Kensington Road.

Savoy condo in West Hillhurst at the corner of 19th St NW and Kensington Road.

I also don’t get the names for Calgary’s three upscale condos - River, Avenue and Concord. These names are simply too generic or have nothing to do with Calgary and they do not add any value to the sense of place of the communities they are located in.  

There are a plethora of new condos next to the downtown that could easily have had names that would have fostered a unique sense of place for both locals and visitors. 

  These four condo towers are located near Stampede Park on Macleod Trail, in Victoria Park one of Calgary's oldest communities are called Sasso, Vetro, Nuera and Alura. What a missed opportunity to preserve some of the community's rich history?  

These four condo towers are located near Stampede Park on Macleod Trail, in Victoria Park one of Calgary's oldest communities are called Sasso, Vetro, Nuera and Alura. What a missed opportunity to preserve some of the community's rich history?  

Community Names

Taking it a step further, the same criticism could be said about some community names.  What’s with the name “West District” in West Springs?  Surely, there is a more meaningful name that is linked to the history of the land – West District could be anywhere.  I also hate community names like Royal Oak, Tuscany or Maple Ridge. Lovely as they may sound, they have no relevance to Calgary.  On the other hand, names like Quarry Park make sense (the site was once a quarry) and Silver Springs (it actually has springs with silver water).  Chinook Park makes perfect sense, as does Garrison Woods and Currie Barracks.

  Currie Barracks does a great job in fostering a sense of place by using historical names for the streets and with their banner program.

Currie Barracks does a great job in fostering a sense of place by using historical names for the streets and with their banner program.

  At the west entrance is a huge memorial with bronze statues and plaques that share some of the stories that are associated with the site's rich military history.  

At the west entrance is a huge memorial with bronze statues and plaques that share some of the stories that are associated with the site's rich military history.  

The Challenge

I challenge developers to invest a little more time and effort into naming condos and new communities with names that are relevant to Calgary’s history, climate, topography, flora and fauna.  

I would suggest engaging one of Calgary’s historians – Harry Sanders or David Finch - to help out with the research.

Richard White, September 24, 2014 

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West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild?

Richard White, September 15, 2014 

It wasn’t that long ago that suburban developers in Calgary created a new community master plan, presented it to city planners, got comments, made changes, held a one night community open house (if there was another community close by), integrated the community’s input and then got the  “go ahead” from the city. But no longer is one, or even a few open houses sufficient to get the City and the community’s approval for new developments – large or small.

In 2003, the City of Calgary adopted a community engagement (CE) policy called “Engage” that governs how both the City and developers must work with citizens (stakeholders) to ensure they are informed and engaged in all developments that impact their quality of life. Over the past 10+ years, community engagement has become more and more complex.  The City even has an “Engage Team” with a director and manager to ensure the proper engagement protocol has been followed not only by the private sector, but also by City departments.

  The EngagementHub aka EngagementHug along 85th Street in the community of West Springs. 

The EngagementHub aka EngagementHug along 85th Street in the community of West Springs. 

EngagementHub  (EH)

At first, developers were hesitant to embrace the idea of CE, but today most developers understand the need to get community support before you go to City planners, not after.

I recently learned Truman Development Corp. has embraced the idea of CE to an extent never before seen in Calgary and I expect Canada, maybe North America.  This past April, they launched an information-rich website announcing plans for creating a new 96-acre urban village community called West District in the new community of West Springs.  (For comparison East Village is 113 acres in size.)  

Then in June they opened a purpose-built “EngagementHub” building on the 700 block of 85th Avenue SW.  This 2,000 square foot EngagementHub that looks like a hip café from the street, was open for four weeks in June/July to talk to the community about “neighbourhood building” principles, then for another four weeks in August/September to share visuals around a proposed vision based on previous input.  The plan is for it to be open again in October to present even more detailed information. That is a total of over 200 hours of pre-application open houses - and, this doesn’t include all of the private meetings that have taken place with individuals and the community associations!

Is this an example of “community engagement gone wild?” Have developers finally abandoned the 20th century “design and defend” model of community planning i.e. the developer and consultants spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars developing a master plan and then defend it to the public and planners.

The EH is full of large concept renderings of sample streetscapes with shops, restaurants and patios, as well as concepts for modern, Paris-scale condos (six to eight floors high) and park spaces.  There are also worktables and lots of urban design books for the public to leaf through and share their ideas on what West District should bring to their community.

While some would say Truman’s vision for West District is like Calgary’s Kensington shopping district, in fact, it is the other way around - West District is what Kensington is trying to become as it starts adding more condos into its mix of existing shops and single-family homes.

Perhaps a more fitting name for Truman’s EngagementHub might be the EngagementHug as Truman has totally embraced the idea of community buy-in upfront, not at or near the end of the approval process. 

I can’t help but think the developers who so clearly seek community input should be rewarded with an accelerated approval process.  If the community supports the development, why should the City delay its approval - especially given it won’t cost the city a penny to service the land. This is in fact a mega infill project.

Inside the Engagement Hub is a massing model of the proposed community, along with lots of display boards with facts, figures and pictures. 

  Just a small section of the post-it board full of ideas and concerns left by visitors. 

Just a small section of the post-it board full of ideas and concerns left by visitors. 

  A works station with survey questions and interactive presentation screen.

A works station with survey questions and interactive presentation screen.

  Just a few of the resource books available for looking up ideas. 

Just a few of the resource books available for looking up ideas. 

  Interactive video screen with all of the key information at a touch.

Interactive video screen with all of the key information at a touch.

West District At A Glance

West District is a 96-acre, master-planned new community in West Springs, at the corner of 85th Street SW and Old Banff Coach Road.  Truman’s vision is to create a new walkable, mixed-use community with 3,500 residences (that could house 7,000+ people), as well as 500,00 square feet of street retail (think Kensington Village) and 1.2 million square feet of office space employing about 5,265 people. This is significantly different than the 700 residences (for 1400 people) and about 200 jobs that the current zoning allows for. 

Truman’s vision fits perfectly with the City’s vision of walkable suburban development. In the past, new communities might have 3 to 5 units/acre. West Springs and nearby Cougar Ridge (WSCR) has a current density of only 3.1 units per acre.  West District’s plan calls for 36 units per acre, which, while 10 times the current density, would only increase the overall density of the WSCR to 5.3 units/acre, well below the City’s 8 units/acre benchmark for new suburban development.

You would think it would be difficult to sell the idea of a modest density, mixed-use community in the middle of an existing upscale, suburban single-family community like West Springs.  However, to date, while some have questioned the idea of an urban village in the suburbs, everyone seems to have appreciated the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of their community. It will be interesting to see how the vision evolves as it enters the final stages before submission to the City later this fall.

Kudos to Truman Development Corp., Intelligent Futures and CivicWorks Planning + Design for establishing a new benchmark for community engagement in Calgary. 

  Conceptual condo rendering with ground floor shops and seven floors of residential. It should be noted that Truman is both the developer and builder so what you see should be what you get.  In most new communities, the developer creates the vision and then sells parcels of the land to builders who interpret the vision and often make changes from the conceptual drawings. 

Conceptual condo rendering with ground floor shops and seven floors of residential. It should be noted that Truman is both the developer and builder so what you see should be what you get.  In most new communities, the developer creates the vision and then sells parcels of the land to builders who interpret the vision and often make changes from the conceptual drawings. 

  Proposed land use map for West District. Not how streets link with existing community to the east. 

Proposed land use map for West District. Not how streets link with existing community to the east. 

  Map of the fragmented ownership of the West District site.  One of the issues the City has for development of the land on the west side of the city is fragmented ownership, which doesn't allow for comprehensive community planning. Truman has been able to get development agreements with all of the landowners, which then allowed them to develop an integrated community vision. 

Map of the fragmented ownership of the West District site.  One of the issues the City has for development of the land on the west side of the city is fragmented ownership, which doesn't allow for comprehensive community planning. Truman has been able to get development agreements with all of the landowners, which then allowed them to develop an integrated community vision. 

Last Word

More and more Calgary is seeing development of urban villages outside of the inner city – including Brookfield’s SETON in the southeast and Livingston in the far north. Traveling out to West Springs area is like traveling to a different city for an inner-city guy like me. Who knew that 85th Street is the new 4th Street with Mercato West, Vin Room West, Blue Door Oil & Vinegar and Ohh la la Patisserie? Maybe they will even host the Lilac Festival in the future!

With the predicted average of 20,000+ people moving to Calgary each year for the foreseeable future, the City and developers must find a way to work together to facilitate the approval of one of these urban villages every year, in addition to developments in new suburbs and inner-city communities.  

And although I realize planning approval resources are tight, the City must find a way to expedite projects like West District that help fulfill the City’s vision of creating walkable new communities. It must not be delayed it in a heap of red tape.

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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. 

Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Richard White, July 2, 2014

Everyone everywhere has heard about rush hour, lunch hour and happy hour, but the term power hour I think is unique to Calgary.  I first heard the term in the mid ’90s when the manager of the downtown Hudson Bay department store and I were chatting and he talked about his power hour. When I asked what was a “power hour” he informed me that for his store “noon hour is when downtown employees do their power shopping.”

Since then I have expanded the term to beyond just shopping, especially in the summer when downtown employees’ noon hour thoughts are not only about shopping or lunch, but about getting out for a power walk or a run. 

Recently, I decide to get out on my bike and check out what happens in Downtown Calgary at noon hour when 150,000+ employees are let out to play for an hour.  

Stephen Avenue Power Hour

Power Hour on Stephen Avenue looking west from the +15 bridge connecting TD Square with Bankers Hall.  The 300W block of Stephen Avenue is one of the most densely populated blocks in Canada with 200 floors of office buildings. So when the bell rings for lunch, they pour out onto the street like elementary students into the school yard. (photo credit: Jeff Trost).

This is what the power hour looks like at street level on The Bay block.

  A "power hour" lunch on Stephen Avenue looks more like the board room than the lunch room.

A "power hour" lunch on Stephen Avenue looks more like the board room than the lunch room.

  Even the kids like to get our for a "power hour" ride. 

Even the kids like to get our for a "power hour" ride. 

You never know what you will see on Stephen Avenue during the power hour.  It is a popular place for marketing promotions and give-aways. 

Bow River Power Hour 

In addition to Stephen Avenue Walk, Calgary's downtown "power hour" is also celebrated along the south and north sides of the Bow River on the north side of downtown.  Here you will find joggers, power walkers, cyclists, strollers, bladers and skateboarder all mixing and mingling. 

The Bow River promenade in downtown's Eau Claire district on the north side of downtown is a very popular spot for joggers, walkers and cyclists.  

The new Calatrava Peace Bridge over the Bow River can become grid-locked during the power hour.

The Eau Claire Plaza pool is a popular place for families to meet up during the power hour and have some quality family time. 

Not everybody love to work up a sweat during power hours, some are happy to just gets some fresh air or meet up with a friend along the Bow River. One of the big advantages of working downtown is that you can easily meet up with family and friends who also work downtown. I just happened to run into an old acquaintance who I hadn't seen in 10 or more years on this everyday trip.

Downtown's Outdoor Power Spots

While Stephen Avenue and the Bow Promenade are the busy "power hour" spots, downtown Calgary has many outdoor places where office workers can catch some sun, relax and chat.  

  Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is downtown's newest public space created as part of the new Calgary Courthouse complex. It is about as "centre ice, mid-field or center court" as you can get. 

Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is downtown's newest public space created as part of the new Calgary Courthouse complex. It is about as "centre ice, mid-field or center court" as you can get. 

As a winter city, Calgarians love to sit in the sun whenever they can. 

A bocci ball game during the power hour at Hotchkiss Gardens.

Many of the Stephen Avenue power walkers are heading to Olympic Plaza where they can sit, have their lunch and people watch.

Century Gardens on the west side of downtown has a sunny grassy knoll that looks out to a pond, cascading stream and tall coniferous trees to create park-like setting in the middle of the high-rise office towers. 

Two young children exploring the Century Gardens river while Mom and Dad have lunch nearby.

Promenade to McDougall Centre a century old sandstone school that has been converted into the Alberta Premier's office when he is in town. The school sits in the middle of the block with public spaces all around it.

The McDougall Centre backyard. 

Prince's Island is an old gravel bar in the Bow River that has be transformed into a downtown park that offers workers some alone time at lunch. It is also home to the Calgary International Folk Festival and Shakespeare In the Park.  

There is a steady stream of people heading back to work at the end of the power hour from Prince's Island.

This could be the most minimalist downtown park in Canada - no name, no trees, no decorations, just green grass and four picnic tables randomly spaced.  

This downtown office worker climbs Jaume Plensa's "Wonderland" sculpture on the plaza of the Norman Foster designed Bow office tower during his power hour.

Footnote:

While many see downtown Calgary a concrete jungle, you can see from these pictures that it is full of interesting public spaces some intimate and some animated, many with lots of vegetation. All of these spaces are within one square kilometre of each other.  Everyone who works in downtown Calgary has access to an attractive outdoor public space no more than a five minute walk away.    

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Historic Calgary Postcards: St. George's Island

While Central/Memorial Park and Bowness Park were the showpieces of Calgary’s early parks, the Bow River Islands - St. George, St. Patrick and St. Andrew have an interesting history as parks.  The Islands were first leased by town council for development of parks in 1887.  The three islands were named for the patron saints of the United Kingdom - St. George of England, St. Patrick of Ireland and St. Andrew of Scotland.

In the late 19th century, there was no Prince’s Island. It was merely a shifting gravel bar and more of an isthmus. That’s until Peter Prince created a channel in the river (now the lagoon) to allow logs to float to Eau Claire Lumber Mill at the site of the current Eau Claire Market.  The St. Andrew Island was created by a lagoon between it and St. Patrick Island which has since been filled in to create one island. 

Back in1892 through to 1900, a ferry service connected St. George's Island to town, increasing its popularity as a weekend playground. In 1900, a foot bridge was constructed.  Construction of the existing St. George’s Island Bridge for cars and pedestrians ridge in 1908 cost of $25,000. At the same time an old Elbow River Bridge was moved to the island’s north side providing a link to the then new Calgary General Hospital and the new communities of Bridgeland and Riverside. In 1910, the federal government gave the islands to the town, on the condition they remain parks.

It was the natural beauty St. George's Island that captured the attention of Calgarians and Park Superintendents.  The Island was enhanced with the planting of more trees, cinder pathways, fireplaces for picnickers and the Biergarten dance hall band shell.  By 1911, the island was home to over 200 weekend picnic parties and the Sunday afternoon band concerts drew an average of 1,500 to 2,000 people (note the population of Calgary was only 43,704).

The two-story German Biergarten, built on the site of today’s Calgary Zoo’s Conservatory at a cost of $4,560 in 1912 became a well-known Calgary architectural landmark.   Much to the embarrassment of Parks Superintendent Richard Iverson and the City, it was illegal to sell beer on City property so the building was converted to a teahouse.  However, this didn’t work well either as the noise from the bands on the top floor drove the tea drinkers from the main floor.  It became known as the “old bandstand.”

Several attempts were made to create a zoo in Calgary early in the 20th century.  The zoo at St. George’s Island began in 1917 when two wayward deer found in the park and were corralled in cages by the dogcatcher near the Biergarten. The deer were so popular, the zoo began to grow under the direction of parks superintendent William Reader. By 1929, the Calgary Zoological Society was formed which was the beginning of St. George's Island as the home of the Calgary Zoo Botanical Garden & Prehistoric Park. 

This postcard reminds me of George Seurat's 1984 painting a Paris Park titled "A Sunday at La Grande Jatte (see below).  Calgary's sense of place was more closely linked to European at the turn of the 20th century than it is today.  

Calgary was once called "Paris on the prairies." 

A Sunday at La Grande Jatte, George Seurat, 1884

   The explosive growth of Calgary, in the early 20th century prompted a need to put some serious thought into long-term city planning. In 1912, British Landscape Architect Thomas Mawson was commissioned by the city to prepare a master plan to address the rapid growth of the city. Mawson's proposal was an ambitious plan on par with Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III.  The focus of Mawson's plan was on the Bow River, not the CPR railway line.     

The explosive growth of Calgary, in the early 20th century prompted a need to put some serious thought into long-term city planning. In 1912, British Landscape Architect Thomas Mawson was commissioned by the city to prepare a master plan to address the rapid growth of the city. Mawson's proposal was an ambitious plan on par with Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III.  The focus of Mawson's plan was on the Bow River, not the CPR railway line.

 

The biergarten, dance hall and eventually tea house on St. George's Island. 

pathway
  St. George Island summer amusement park. 

St. George Island summer amusement park. 

Prince's Island early 20th century. 

  Eau Claire Lumber Mill at Prince's Island

Eau Claire Lumber Mill at Prince's Island

A landscape designer by profession, Reader emigrated to Canada from England in 1908 when he was 33. He became parks superintendent in 1913.  He was responsible for the planning and implementation of establishing Calgary's first parks - Central/Memorial Park, Riley Park, Mewata Park, St. George Island and the Memorial Drive trees to commemorate soldiers killed in World War I. During his 29 year rein as parks superintendent he transformed Calgary from a dusty prairie town to "the garden city of Western Canada." 

West Campus: Calgary's First 24/7 community

Richard White, July 13, 2014 (an edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Calgary's West Campus could be our own city that never sleeps," July 12, 2014

Could Calgary soon have its first 24/7 community?  West Campus (since this blog was written West Campus has been rebranded as University District) is the working name for the development of an urban village (residential, retail, restaurants and office buildings) on the University of Calgary’s lands west of the current campus – hence the name.  It is all of the undeveloped land north, south and west of the Alberta Children’s Hospital. In 2011, the West Campus Development Trust (WCDT) was created to continue the development of the master plan that was developed in 2006. 

The reason the West Campus could be Calgary’s first 24/7 community is because the chief economic engines are not only the University, but also the Foothills Hospital and Alberta Children’s Hospital, both of which are 24/7 operations.

Unlike downtown offices, which are busy from 7 am to 7 pm weekdays only, or the shops in Kensington, 17th Avenue or Inglewood that are open from 10 am to 6 pm, or the restaurants, pubs and clubs that open at noon and close at 1 am; the hospitals are open around the clock. Imagine meeting friends for happy hours or to work out at the gym at 11 pm, or maybe after work at 8 am; this is when hospital shifts end and begin.

The University of Calgary campus also operates 7 days a week, with activities starting at about 7am and going on into the evening with classes, performances and recreational activities.  

Today, on any given day, nearly 100,000 people visit (work, school and medical appointments) what I call the “Learning City” - University of Calgary, SAIT/ACAD, Foothills Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Market and North Hill Malls.  Currently, 55,000+ people live in the 12 communities in and around the University of Calgary. 

However, by 2030, the University of Calgary campus could be the heart of a new city with its own culture based on academia, wellness and sports excellence. It could be surrounded by several vibrant self-sustaining pedestrian-oriented urban villages e.g. University City, Stadium Village, West Campus and McMahon Village. 

 

The 184 acres of underutilized land west of University of Calgary main campus is part of a bold development plan for a new urban district in Calgary’s northwest. The development will create a dynamic new community with all net revenue going back to support University initiatives.

West Campus Vision Highlights

While other universities have been the catalyst for a university village with its own street culture - shops, restaurants, cafés pubs, live performance venues - on its boundaries, the University of Calgary has been a bit of an island with no interaction with neighbouring communities. 

However, if James Robertson and his WCDT team have their way the University of Calgary’s campus will become more of a university town with its own town centre. 

Recently, I along with hundreds of others attended one of three Open Houses to learn more about the WCDT’s vision and master plan for West Campus.  The plan is an ambitious one as it includes not only “optimizing financial return to the University” but also “ensuring the Plan connects and harmonizes with surrounding neighbourhoods and the university.”

The plan calls for the 184 acres calls for:

  • 40 acres of parks, ponds, gardens and public space (size of Prince’s Island)
  • 12 km of pathways
  • 6,000+ multi-family residential units (15,000+ people)
  • 245,000 square feet retail and restaurants (a four block Kensington-like pedestrian street)
  • 1.5 million square feet of office space (10,000 workers)

West Campus is designed to be a pedestrian and transit first community, meaning that many of the people will live, work and play within a few kilometers of their home. The plan includes a shuttle to link the University campus with the University LRT Station, Foothill Hospital campus and the Alberta Children’s Hospital, which makes transit a very attractive option.  There is also a comprehensive cycling program that includes dedicated cycling lanes on some streets

Developer interest in the project is very strong, already a grocery store has said it will “paper a deal” i.e. commit to building on a site when it is available.  Rumour has it another major deal could happen quickly if the City approves the Plan. It is possible, West Campus if approved could happen quicker than other projects like Bridgeland or East Village given the level of interest being shown by developers.

 

Concept Plan Rendering.jpg

Land Use Plan: Mustard is residential 2-3 storeys, Orange is residential 4 storeys, Light brown is residential up to 8 storeys, Dark brown is high density up to 16 storeys, Red is mixed-use retail/residential with 2-3 storey podium and then up to 6 storeys above and Purple is mixed use retail/office 4 to 8 storeys. 

Public Questions

I heard some concerns about the traffic and could the project really get people out of their cars and walk or take transit to work, shopping or the gym.  While this good in theory and every planners dream, I don’t think it is just a dream in this case. Why? Because University Heights already has 49% of its residents walking, cycling or taking transit to work.  There is no reason to believe that West Campus can’t achieve the same results given there will be even more amenities, connectivity and it will be more pedestrian friendly.

Others were concerned about the height of the buildings, which could be as high as 16 storeys.  I also heard concerns that the plan was underwhelming and lacked innovation as an urban design.  There were also concerns that there is no provision in the plan for townhomes in the plan - everything is multi-family.

It is really difficult to judge a project at the Land Use Plan stage as the plan looks like an abstract artwork with its blocks of magenta, purple, green, orange, baby blue and tan representing the different land uses from residential low, medium and high density, mixed-use retail/residential, mixed-use retail/office, municipal reserve and environment reserve.

As I said to one person “this is just a land use plan, it doesn’t mean everything will be built at maximum density or exactly as zoned.  What ultimately gets built we be determined by market demand if there is no demand for a 16-storey condo then it won’t get built.” I also expect that there will be some townhomes at street level in some of the multi-family condos.  Over the next 20 years (the expected build-out period) the market for housing, office and retail will change dramatically and the plan for West Campus will have evolve with it - this is just a starting point.” 

I believe there is no such thing as a perfect plan!  Looking at the West Campus Plan it checks all the boxes for right mix of residential, retail, restaurant and recreational spaces, as well as integrating existing and new work places.

 

A four acre urban park just south of the main street spans an entire block and is the potential home for a farmers' market, an outdoor skating rink and pop-up performance spaces. The space will encourage people to meet and mingle year-round. 

   The plan incorporates a variety of building types ranging from townhouses up to 16-storey high rise apartments. With direct access to the street at ground level through patios and public-oriented uses, a ‘porch culture’ will extend from the main street into residential neighbourhoods, and even the office district, creating a sense of safety and social interaction. With 12 kilometres of pathways throughout, the streetscape is interconnected, lively, and supports the day-to-day activities of a vibrant community.

The plan incorporates a variety of building types ranging from townhouses up to 16-storey high rise apartments. With direct access to the street at ground level through patios and public-oriented uses, a ‘porch culture’ will extend from the main street into residential neighbourhoods, and even the office district, creating a sense of safety and social interaction. With 12 kilometres of pathways throughout, the streetscape is interconnected, lively, and supports the day-to-day activities of a vibrant community.

Last Word

The really difficult task in new community building is linking vision with reality.  Anyone can present animated streetscapes, parks and public space with fun, funky buildings as part of their vision document– in fact to the untrained eye all community master plans look pretty much the same. 

The challenge is to enlist developers and urban designers to create places and spaces that are competitive (price, size of units and amenities) with other projects in Calgary that offer similar lifestyles. 

Calgarians are lucky as they have several new inner-city urban villages to choose from - East Village, University City and Bridgeland, with several more to come Currie Barracks, Stadium Shopping Centre, Westbrook Station and Jacques Lodge  site.

The test will be “if you build it, will they come?” I think West Campus will be very attractive to healthcare workers and academics.  

  There has been significant community engagement from the very beginning of the West Campus project with numerous open houses to present ideas and gather feedback.

There has been significant community engagement from the very beginning of the West Campus project with numerous open houses to present ideas and gather feedback.

Dubai's Healthcare City has many parallels with Calgary's West Campus. 

Calgary: New downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification.

By Richard White, June 28, 2014

(An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section, June 28, 2014 titled; "Embrace downtown's explosive growth.")

I have received several comments from readers expressing concern that the term "downtown sprawl" is negative and inappropriate, especially as it relates to urban development and as the term urban sprawl.  One reader suggested the "downtown ripple effect."  In giving this blog further consideration I decided to retitle the blog "Calgary: New downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification," which I think better reflects my thesis. 

Calgary: Benefits of Downtown Sprawl? 

Calgary’s urban sprawl is unique in that it’s happening both at the edge of the city as well as all around its downtown.  While much attention is given to the ever- increasing number of new suburban communities by city politicians, planners and the media, the number of new master-planned urban villages close to downtown (under construction or in the design phase) is significant. Perhaps we can coin the phase “downtown sprawl.”

With over 7 million square feet of new downtown office space constructed over the past five years and another 5 million under construction or in the design phase, Calgary is a leader in downtown growth in North America. Twelve million square feet of office space will accommodate another 40,000 office workers, many of whom will undoubtedly want to live in or close to downtown.  

In May, Altus Group reported that there are an amazing 12,447 residential units proposed, pre-construction and construction stage in the Downtown and Beltline. (Note: this doesn’t include the condos proposed for communities north of the Bow River, east of the Elbow River or any of the new inner city urban villages along or near Crowchild Trail).

Brookfield Place 

Telus Sky Tower

Manulife office tower

Proposed Eau Claire Market site redevelopment with five new towers. 

East Village condo construction as downtown sprawls eastward.

Urban Transformation

Calgary’s thriving downtown has literally transformed the Beltline into a parade of show condos; there are new condos being built on almost every other block.  Over the past decade, the Beltline has evolved into one of North America’s best yuppie communities with great restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, two grocery stores and a health food store.

Everyone knows about the incredible transformation underway in East Village, designed to become a new urban village of 10,000 people. There are currently more construction cranes in East Village than in the entire downtown core!

And, of course there is Bridgeland where the old General Hospital site is in its final phases its master planned redevelopment.  Mission is quickly becoming the Mount Royal of condo living with numerous luxury condos along the Elbow River.

More recently, the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community is also experiencing the impact of downtown sprawl with several new, mid-rise (under 10 floors) condos recently completed, under construction or in the design phase. New urban-type condos (main floor retail with condos above) area also popping up in Marda Loop, West Hillhurst and Montgomery – with more to come.

But the impact of downtown sprawl doesn’t stop here. There are plans for several new planned urban infill villages - Currie Barracks, Jacques Lodge, West Campus, University City, Stadium Shopping Centre and Westbrook Village. 

Each of these planned, mixed-use developments has been carefully researched in collaboration with the neighbouring communities and City Planners to create “walkable” villages where residents’ everyday needs will be within walking distance. They will also be well served by public transit, allowing easy access not only to neighbouring employment centers, but also to downtown. In fact, Currie Barracks' key marketing message is "An urban village only seven minutes from downtown." 

Over the next few months, I will be profiling each of these new urban villages.  

Creating great urban places to live is more than densification i.e. building more condos.  The Bridges has created a new Main Street for the Bridgeland community incorporating both old and new retail spaces. 

University City will create a new urban hub at the Brentwood LRT station. 

St. John's on 10th is just one of many new mid-rise condo developments in the Kensington Village area.  This is a model new urban community as it integrates old and new, single-family, small apartments/condos, low and mid-rise residential, with strong retail and an LRT station. 

Inner City Makeover

In addition to the new urban villages, Downtown sprawl is responsible for the incredible demand for inner city single-family infill housing.  Over the past five years, inner city communities from Altadore to Tuxedo and from Inglewood to Spruce Cliff, Calgary’s inner city communities have become a parade of infill show homes. 

From 2008 to 2013, 3,345 new infill homes (excluding condominiums and apartments) were built in Calgary's inner city communities.  At three people per home, that is the equivalent of building an entire new community for 10,000 people.  Most new communities take 10 to 15 years to build out (e.g. Aspen Woods), yet we have, in effect, built a new inner-city community in just five years. 

The value of these new homes is estimated at one billion dollars, equivalent to the value of one major office tower the size of Eight Avenue Place or the Bow. These homeowners will pay $15 million in dollars in property taxes per year; about five times what was being paid by the small cottage homes they replaced.

New infill homes mean new families moving into the inner city, a very healthy evolution as young families bring a new energy to schools, parks, playgrounds, recreation centres and local retailers. 

Even some major businesses are looking beyond the traditional greater downtown, boundaries for office space. A good example would be the relocation of Venture Communications last year to the old UMA building at the corner of Memorial Drive and Kensington Road in West Hillhurst last.  Recently, the Calgary Co-op opened a liquor store next to Venture Communications and rumor has it that a New York Style café opening on the same block.

The Memorial Drive / Kensington Road corner (in the early 1900s this area was called Happyland) has the potential to become a micro-hub; there already are several professional offices, a convenience store, two sportswear stores and Bob’s Pizza/Pub nearby. Another rumor has Phil & Sebastian and Starbucks looking for a location in the West Hillhurst area, further evidence that the influence of downtown’s growth is spreading north and west. 

Lane housing in West Hillhurst.

Main Street Montgomery has added a new condo with retail at street level.  There are dozens of new infills under construction in this community. 

Venture Communications new head office in an area of West Hillhurst once called Happyland. 

The Calgary Co-op liquor store is more evidence of the urbanization of the West Hillhurst community. 

A parade of new infill homes in West Hillhurst.

Calgary is Unique

While some may lament the loss of the tiny cottage homes and the independent mom and pop shops, and that includes me sometimes the old adage rings true - change is the only constant in life.  And, in community development I might add.

I liken community development to gardening.  Plants grow for a few years, but eventually, some die and some need to be split and transplanted.  A garden needs constant attention – new planting, weeding, fertilizing, deadheading and pruning.  A community, like a garden, is never static; it is growing or it is dying.

Over the past year, I have visited numerous cities across North America (Winnipeg, Hamilton, London, Memphis, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Tucson and Portland) all of which would love to have the downtown sprawl Calgary has.  

Instead of complaining, we should consider ourselves very fortunate and capitalize on the opportunity to make a good city great.  Calgary has an incredible opportunity to transform its established single-family oriented communities into vibrant new mixed-use urban ones - thanks to a thriving downtown.

Calgary's International Avenue Deserves More Respect

By Richard White, June 26, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours feature titled "Eclectic International Avenue is changing.") 

For many Calgarians, International Avenue (17th Ave SE) is on the wrong side of the “Deerfoot Divide” i.e. they never go east of Deerfoot Trail. Too bad. They don’t know what they are missing. 

 International Avenue has 425 businesses along its 5-km stretch of 17th Avenue SE between 26th and 61st Streets.  Under the leadership of the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ) formed in 1993, these small independent businesses have continued to thrive - some for over 40 years – Gunther’s Fine Baking, Illichmann’s Deli, Harmony Lane, Totem (now Rona) and Calgary Co-op to name a few. Over 30% of the businesses are food-related, with many wholesaling to Calgary’s upscale restaurants, hotels and food trucks. 

To some, International Avenue is a hodgepodge of one to three storey buildings from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.  There are few chain stores (Target picked International Avenue for one of its first Calgary stores) mostly local “mom and pop” shops.  It’s also a place where you are likely to hear a dozen different languages spoken within a few blocks. In the words of Executive Director Alison Karim-McSwiney, “it has a small town feel with a global marketplace.”

John Gilchrist, Calgary’s foodie guru and author of “My Favourite Restaurants Calgary, Canmore and Banff spends a lot of time on International Avenue. Why? “On this strip, you find food cultures as close as they come to their native lands.  It lives up to its name ‘International Avenue’ with great restaurants like Mimo (Portuguese), Fassil (Ethiopian), Pho Binh Minh (Vietnamese) and many other favourites of mine,” says Gilchrist.

Similarly, Mike Kehoe, Fairfield Commercial thinks International Avenue is “an eclectic commercial strip where ‘the world meets the wild west.’ I love the mix of ethnic tastes with dining options from around the globe and the interesting retail diversity along 17th Avenue SE where it seems anything is commercially possible.”

Unity Park is just one of the many improvements the International Avenue BRZ has spear headed since its inception. 

Desert on 52nd is just one of the many mouth-watering bakeries along the Avenue. They even have diabetic baklava. 

Tipping Point

International Avenue is at the “tipping point” of change with many major new projects in the works. One example is artBox, a 5,4000 square foot multi-purpose art space located in the old Mill’s Painting Building (1807 – 42nd ST SE) with studios and performance space for local artists. Almost anything goes at artBox from Aboriginal to African art.  It is quickly becoming a meeting place for artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and anyone interested in art. 

International Avenue is also home to an active mural program initiated in 2001; the murals capture the ethnic diversity of the community. In 2014, two new murals will be added to the collection, one celebrating the community’s African cultures and the other its Italian heritage.

In 2010, the City of Calgary working with the communities and the International Avenue BRZ, approved the Southeast 17 Corridor Land Use and Urban Design Plan that recognized International Avenue as one of the City’s important urban corridors.  As a result Land Use changes to allow for more mixed-use developments will result in the addition of 13,000 new residents and 9,000 new jobs to the community over the next 30 years. 

The International Avenue BRZ also successfully lobbied the City to designate land for new 1,000-seat arts and culture performance space.  City funding is also in place to create a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) route along 17th Avenue SE as part of its Green Line that will provide better east/west transit connectivity.

Artists rendering of International Avenue's proposed performing arts cultural centre. 

  An old paint store gets new life as artBox. 

An old paint store gets new life as artBox. 

A rendering of the vision for International Avenue as a tree lined boulevard that integrates auto, bus rapid transit, pedestrian friendly sidewalks and mid-rise condos and offices. 

Festival Fun

International Avenue is home to not one, but two signature events – “Around the World in 35 Blocks” and “Global Fest.”  Initiated in 1997, “Around the World in 35 blocks” is a food tour that happens 14 times a year and everyone is sold out. The June 28 tour is already sold out, so reserve your tickets now for the August 23 or September 27 tours.  These fun bus tours (35 people) take you to five different continents, sampling food from places like Asia, Africa, Middle East, Portugal and the Caribbean. 

Global Fest is an international fireworks festival as well as the “One World” multi-cultural festival.  The fun and festivities take place at Elliston Park, with its 20-hectare pond (the size of Prince’s Island).  This year’s festival takes place August 14 to 25.

Market Collective a diverse group of young artisans now calls International Avenue home; this is an example of how International Avenue is quickly becoming Calgary's new hipster district. 

No Respect

While Calgary’s “other 17th Avenue” doesn’t have the cache of 17th Avenue SW, to those in the know, it is one of Calgary’s hidden gems – especially if you get out of your car and explore.

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River Living: Come Hell or High Water?

By Richard White, June 19, 2014 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the summer edition of Domus magazine). 

As we celebrate the first year anniversary of the great flood of 2013 I thought it would be interesting to see what impact it had on inner-city luxury home design and the housing market in the upscale communities that were impacted.

The most obvious changes in house design has been to raise the elevations of the entire basement, higher concrete window wells at ground level, water proof all window barriers, move all electrical systems and panels to the main floor or to the garage. Nothing too exciting or earth shattering, but logical changes (more later).

We have also seen a bit of a shift in where luxury homebuyers are looking.  Communities like Altadore have broken the two million dollar barrier as buyers are moving to higher ground.  Britannia, BelAir and Mayfair have seen their listing sell faster and at higher prices also as the lower Elbow Park, Glencoe and Roxboro buyers moved up Elbow Drive, but not past the dreaded Deerfoot barrier.

The Canadian Armed Forces had to be called in to help. 

Some homes had to be completely destroyed. 

  Thousands of homes in the Bow River and Elbow River flood plain were damaged by the flood of 2013.

Thousands of homes in the Bow River and Elbow River flood plain were damaged by the flood of 2013.

West Hillhurst / Hillhurst Revival

In chatting with Ross Aitken, at ReMax his observation is that West Hillhurst and Hillhurst have never seen more interest from today's luxury homebuyer. These two communities did not flood and their proximity to the river pathways, downtown, Kensington, SAIT, ACAD, University of Calgary and Mount Royal, as well as both the Foothills and Children’s Hospitals making them a very attractive choice for urban professionals. He pointed out that the 22 million dollar plus home sales in these two communities since the flood is more than Altadore and Elbow Park.

Aitken also pointed out to me that in the 10 months prior to the flood only 20% of the million dollar plus homes sold in Calgary were in the NW quadrant, but that number has risen to 28% for the 10 months since the flood. While the upscale homebuyer, especially the oil patch executives have always preferred the SW, perhaps that is changing.

Acreages aren't hip?

One might think the inner-city luxury homebuyer might have moved out of the city entirely, but that is not the case.  Westside acreages in communities like Elbow Valley and Stone Pine are not moving quickly, in fact their sales have stagnated and prices are being reduced significantly to get a sale.  One theory is that today’s homebuyer is more “amenity conscious” and while living on an acreage has its advantages, it might not be enough anymore for the young hip GABESTER families (geologist, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers) who want to be close to live music and theatre venues, spin class / yoga studios, Calgary’s growing café/patio culture and having the option to cycle or walk to work.

Calgarians are moving to higher ground. 

One of the many new mansions on the ridge in St. Andrews Heights.

A parade of new infills in West Hillhurst.

Just one of many new home construction sites in communities like Britannia, Altadore and Briar Hill located on higher ground. 

New Rules

You might think the luxury buyers would be looking at the Bow River’s northside ridge communities of Crescent Heights, Rosedale, Houndview Heights, Briar Hill and St. Andrew Heights.  However, the new monster mansions on the ridge in St. Andrew’s heights are struggling to sell.  The impact of the flood on prices and sales in the other Bow River ridge homes has been more or less neutral.  

Recently, the City of Calgary passed tougher new rules for rebuilding homes in flood-prone areas.  Things like all new homes and buildings in the flood fringe and overland flow areas must be 60m from the edge of the Bow River and 30m from the Elbow, Nose Creek or West Nose Creek.

All new homes must also must be constructed at a minimum of 0.3m above the highest grade existing on the street abutting the parcel of land that contains the building and all electrical and mechanical equipment must be located at or above the first floor.

Paul Battisella, whose inner city home was flooded and is General Manager of Battisella Developments builders of new condos in the Beltline, East Village and Hillhurst agrees with the changes. He would add that new homes in flood prone areas should also be installing large sump pumps in the basement with portable back-up generators in case of power failure and thicker basement slabs and waterproofing of foundation to avoid ground water issues, which was a big part of the flooding problem last year.

Battisella indicated the City has to proceed with caution regarding how it applies the new rules to existing homeowners so as not to be punitive to those wanting to do modest renovations and additions to existing homes.

Some are even questioning the wisdom of using the basement as a living space at all.  It is probably not the best idea if you are in a flood prone area to create an expensive home theatre space in the basement with lots of high-end built-ins like a bar and or vintage wine cellar.  Have we seen the last of the walk-out basement to the river?

This City of Calgary diagram visualizes how the terms floodway, flood fringe and flood hazard area is defined. (photo credit: City of Calgary website)

This is an updated map of the Bow River Floodway / Flood Fringe showing that the new Ven condo project by Bucci Developments is not in either.  (Photo Credit: Bucci website)

Similarly, a map of the Elbow River's Floodway/Flood Fringe from Bucci Development showing that Tribeca condo is outside the flood risk area. (photo credit: Bucci website)

Last Word

The impact of the flood of 2013 is not over and mitigation discussion are sure to continue for years.  

In March, homeowners in Elbow Park, Elboya, Ramsay, Erlton, Mission and Rideau-Roxboro area concerned about riverbank repairs, a new berm and flood barrier work currently underway at Stampede Park questioned what impact redirected flood water might have on their homes.  This is just the beginning of what is sure to be long and heated debates on the impact, cost and value of proposed flood mitigation projects.

The demand for home in in Calgary’s Elbow River communities continue to be strong. There has not been a mass exodus from these communities as one might have expected.  In many ways it is business as usual for luxury home and condo sales in 2014. The sale of luxury homes (over one million dollars) for the first four months of 2014 is up 12.8% from the same period in 2013.  When one looks at two million plus sales, the numbers are almost identical in 2014 and 2013 for the January to April period in the flood-affected communities.

Another sign the flood has not deterred Calgarians from wanting to live next to the river is the commencement of construction of the upscale The River condo located on the bank of the Elbow River, in Mission. More recently Concord Pacific announced they are proceeding with their luxury  condo project in Eau Claire on the Bow River. And, last fall Harvard Developments Inc. shared plans for a mega billion dollar redevelopment of their Eau Claire market site. 

Indeed, Calgarians love living near their rivers “come hell or high water!”

Concept rendering of the Eau Claire Market site redevelopment along the Bow River which flooded most of downtown Calgary in 2013.

Public Art vs Playgrounds in the 21st Century

Note: On September 27,  2014 Richmond, B.C. tourism officials will open an one-hectare, one million dollar playground based on the area's agricultural history. The playground is located in Terra Nova Park in the northwest corner of Lulu Island, on the site of a former farm house and stables. The playground includes a farm inspired water and sand play area, and a "log-jam" - a climbable timber structure that mimics walking on beach logs. There is also tandem 35-meter-long ziplines, a tree house and aerial rope walkway.  The new playground is being billed as a tourist attraction. FYI - this is Richmond's second million dollar playground, the first was Garden City Community Park, built in 2008.

 Kids climbing on the log jam structure. 

Kids climbing on the log jam structure. 

  In the 21st century slides and climbing structures take on a whole new dimension. 

In the 21st century slides and climbing structures take on a whole new dimension. 

By Richard White, June 16, 2014

Over the past decade in Calgary (and I expect in many cities around the world), children’s playgrounds have become more and more colourful, creative, sculptural and elaborate.  No longer do a few simple swings, metal slide, teeter-totter and “rocking” duck or horse sufficient for the 21st century playground. I am told by my friends at Ground3 Landscape Architecture that $100,000 would get you a reasonably sized playground and $30,000 get you one small combined play piece.  Since 2010, the Parks Foundation Calgary through the Playgrounds and Communities Grant Program has funded over 100 new playgrounds in Calgary valued at $15 million - many in low income communities. 

While Calgary may not have bragging rights a having one of the top ten playgrounds in the world, our children are blessed with over 1250 playgrounds in parks and schoolyards across the city – that’s about six playgrounds per community.  Nobody is more than a few blocks from a playground in this city.  Perhaps Calgary’s moniker should be The City of Playgrounds.

One of my favourite mid-century modern playgrounds is located in Lakeview. It is interesting in that it is only accessible by walking along a tree-lined pathway from Linden Dr. SW, as there are no streets directly adjacent to the pocket park and its playground. It truly is a hidden gem.  Some of the original playground equipment is still in use and I hope the community will recognize its uniqueness and keep the retro equipment.

Lakeview's hidden playground with simple retro playground equipment - rocking horse and small metal slide. 

Parkdale's Helicopter Park is one of Calgary's most popular playgrounds. The park is looked just below Foothill's hospital and its heliport, hence the park's name as helicopters flying over area a common sight. 

Smaller Backyards / Bigger Playgrounds

I am not sure if it is true, but it seems, as private backyards get smaller, (today’s housing lots are smaller due to infilling in the inner city and mandated smaller lots in new suburbs) there are fewer large backyard swing sets that were poplar in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Or perhaps trampolines, hot tubs and the mega deck with their outdoor kitchens have replaced them.  As result: community playgrounds are becoming more important for young families and those caregivers, grandparents etc., looking after children.  Personally, I think this is great. It means more community socializing which in turn, helps create stronger neighbourhood ties.

I remember one spring day after school; we took the seven-year-old twins next door to the playground across out street. Soon, several other families joined us and before long, we had a community soccer game happening with 4 parents and 8 kids.  Gotta love an impromptu community soccer game. 

Given the recent controversy over public art in Calgary and most other cities (too often, public art is difficult for the public to appreciate, or is simply just not that good), I can’t help but wonder if maybe we should be focusing on commissioning artists to design playground equipment that would be fun and inventive. Imagine if every playground was a mini artpark.

Imagine a scaled down Wonderland (big white head sculpture at the Bow office tower) in the middle of a park where children, teens and adults could climb on it.  There is something innate about human wanting to climb things. Once when I was at the Bow, I saw an office worker climbing Wonderland in his suite and dress shoes (actually he took off his jacket) - he had no problem getting to the top. Unfortunately, the Bow now has security to chase away would be climbers.

It is interesting too how the two mega public art works in Chicago’s Millennium - Park Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain - have become as much playgrounds as public art.

Could we also encourage landscape architects to be more creative in their design of parks and public spaces?  Whenever walking Rossi (our friends’ dog) at River Park, I am always impressed by the “cluster planting” of trees that capitalizes on the subtle synergy of their sculptural shapes as well as the strategic placement of benches to capture vistas of the park, river and downtown skyline. There is an aesthetic quality to the design of the River Park that is very similar to art.  

 

Calgary office workers just can't resist climbing Wonderland. You can take the child out of the playground, but you can't take the play out of the man!

Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain in Chicago's Millennium Park is a playground for locals and tourist of all ages.

Cloud Gate, also in Chicago's Millennium Park is a magnet for people to look and play with it.

This well-treed playground in Chicago'sGold Coast community attracted dozens of families mid-week, mid-day in April.

Calgary's Beltline community is one of Canada's most dense communities. It boast this very popular playground in Haultain Park.  Downtown Calgary is very family friendly. 

New playgrounds have lots of fun colourful climbing equipment that has many parallels with modern art. 

The mono-chromatic blue playground in Tuxedo also has many links to art - line, colour, shape and composition. 

The trees in River Park have a sculptural quality to them.  Overall the park with its diversity of trees, rolling landscape is

New Trends in Playground Design

Perhaps the best playground I have ever seen was in Container Park in Las Vegas.  In the middle of a new urban development made of railway containers was a fun children’s playground the size of half a football field.  At one end was a computerized piece of playground equipment that could be programmed so people of all ages could play games of their choice. At the other end was a three-storey tree house that was fun to climb.  In between were other interactive play areas – no swings, no slides and no teeter-totter here. 

Surrounding the playground were outdoor patios where people could sit and watch – providing some of the best people watching I have ever done. The new “digital” playground components have great appeal especially to adolescents and adding a new dimension to playgrounds.

 In the UK, the Dinton Pastures Country Park (335-acre park with 7 lakes, two rivers, meadows and a 1904 farm house converted to a cafe) recently opened a new Children’s Play Park that epitomizes the movement to use more natural materials as part of playground design. The park includes several nest towers, the largest 4 meters tall, zip wires, giant climbing logs, a willow maze, story-telling area, woodlands obstacle course and picnic area. Designed by landscape architects Davies White in collaboration with artists and fabricators, local materials were used as much as possible.  View Video

The newest trend in playground equipment is computerized games that are attractive to younger children and parents during the day and my young adults at night.

Young adults enjoying the Container Park playground

While these lounge chairs have been removed from East Village's Riverwalk, they would make for a good addition to another neighbourhood park as kids would love to climb over and under them and adolescents and adults would use them to lounge and chat. They also have a wonderful sculptural quality to them. 

This Henry Moore sculpture in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario becomes a fun place for older children and adolescents to hang out and chat.

Parque Gulliver

Parque Gulliver in Valencia Spain is Cristal McLean's (principal at Ground3 Landscape Architects) favourite playground. Located in the old channel of the Turia River, the playground is based on the story of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. As per the story, a giant wanders into town and scares the tine Lilliputian people so they tied him to the ground while sleeping. Today it is the children who are the Lilliputian people who can climb all over the giant. trying to get to know him.  The sleeves become caves to explore, the legs are stairs to climb and the hair is a slide.  And its free!  First built in 1990, it was completely refurbished in 2012 and continues to be one of Valencia's biggest tourist attractions. 

Parque Gulliver aerial view

Every part of the giant is available to climb on and slide down. 

Giant ant is both public art and a playground. 

Last Word

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me that we should be hybridizing public art and playgrounds to create public spaces that are more interactive.  We should think long and hard before we ever commission a static public artwork again.

Similarly, I would love to see landscape architects be given freer reign to exercise their creativity in designing our parks and plazas.

Perhaps Calgary should change its current “1% of capital project costs for public art” policy to “1% of capital project costs for public space enhancement” to allow us to better create unique and active public spaces that more citizens can embrace at some level year-round for years to come.

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Calgary's Learning City is blooming!

By Richard White,  June 4, 2014

While much of Calgary’s urban development debate seems to revolve around new suburbs vs. City Centre i.e. Downtown, East Village, Beltline and Bridgeland vs. Seton, Cityscape and Walden, there is a mega transformation happening in the northwest. 

I doubt many Calgarians are aware of the multi-billion dollar investments that have been or are being planned for Foothills Hospital (teaching hospital), SAIT / ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design) and the University of Calgary.  These three campuses, all located within about five kilometers of each other, are the economic engines of Calgary’s emerging “Learning City,” which extends from the Bow River north to Nose Hill and from SAIT Campus to Shaganappi Trail.

The Alberta Children's Hospital has added a new dimension to Calgary's growing learning city. It is also one of Calgary's signature modern architectural buildings. 

The Children's Development Centre located across the street from the Alberta Children's Hospital is home to several agencies that help children in need.  It was one of Calgary's first LEED buildings. 

  Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) has undergone a billion dollar expansion over the past 10 years.   

Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) has undergone a billion dollar expansion over the past 10 years.  

  SAIT's Heritage Hall is Calgary's finest historic building.

SAIT's Heritage Hall is Calgary's finest historic building.

Catalytic Projects

The Learning City has numerous catalytic projects on the books, which will reshape it over the next 15 to 20 years into a more all-inclusive city. For example, along its “Crowchild Trail Corridor” there are major developments at several LRT stations including the transformation of the Brentwood Mall into University City village with highrise and midrise condos, retail, restaurants and other amenities designed to appeal to students, young medical professionals and empty nesters. 

The Dalhousie LRT Station is also adding mid-rise condo development on its west side, turning it into a more mixed-use station when factoring in the retail on the east side.  And this is just step one in the evolution of this station into a more diverse urban place. 

Motel Village (the collection of old motels across from McMahon Stadium) is also quietly evolving.  A new office building was completed a few years back and plans for upgrading the motels and hotels has begun with the new Aloft Hotel slated to open in February. The University of Calgary is also looking at the potential to redevelop the McMahon Stadium site, studying if this is the best use of site given it gets used to its maximum about 10 times a year.  Given stadium and playing fields proximity to the LRT, the university, hospitals and downtown, it’s “prime picking” for transit-oriented, mixed-use development. 

As well, the mid-century Stadium Shopping Centre is past its “best before” date, with the city having approved zoning to allow for 800,000 square feet of mix of retail, residential, office and hotel buildings this will become a “community within a community.”  The development will be synergistic with the needs of Foothills Hospital workers and visitors, as well as the neighbouring residential community.

But the biggest catalytic project for the “Learning City” is the West Campus project. It will see 205 acres of underutilized University of Calgary campus land immediately west of the Olympic Oval converted into a 21st century walkable “live, work, play” community.  The area already includes the Alberta Children’s Hospital, Ronald MacDonald House, Child Development Centre, University’s Physical Plant and family housing.  While the final plans are still being developed you can be sure the new village will include parks, pathways, a central plaza and community gardens all carefully linked to a variety of housing types, retail, restaurants and personal services, as well as office space. While no specific date has been set for the start of construction, this will be probably be a 2016 to 2025 project.

McMahon Stadium site is currently being looked at by the University of Calgary to determine how it might be redeveloped. (Image courtesy of Ross Aitken, Remax)

Owners of the Stadium Shopping Center (highlighted in yellow), which is located across from the Foothills Hospital are working with the City and community to create a mixed-use (residential, retail, office and hotel) village.  (Image courtesy of Ross Aitken, Remax)

The proposed West Campus university town is well conceived and is already getting lots of interest from developers. (Image courtesy of West Campus Development Trust).

A great place to play!

The Learning City boast some of Calgary’s best urban amenities from indoor shopping (Market, North Hill and Northland Malls), to bobo street retail and restaurants in Bowness and Montgomery.  

Abundant recreational facilities exist - from Shouldice Park to Canada Olympic Park and numerous City of Calgary indoor recreational facilities.  The University and SAIT also offer major recreation facilities to students, faculty and public, not the least of which is the Olympic Oval. It is also home to some of Calgary’s biggest and best parks – Nose Hill, Bowness and Bowmont.

Culturally, the University of Calgary has several performing art spaces for music, theatre and dance.  ACAD is home to the Illingsworth Kerr Gallery and its renowned semi-annual student art sales popular for those looking to start an art collection.   And of course, the Jubilee Theatre is part of the SAIT/ACAD campus.

For those interested in adult education on any given evening everything from travel classes at the University, to culinary classes at SAIT, to art classes at ACAD can be had. 

A great place to live!

The Learning City also offers a diversity of housing options. Upscale communities like Briar Hill, Hounsfield Heights and St. Andrew’s Heights have many spectacular million-dollar view lots along the north bluff of the Bow River.  Both St. Andrew’s Heights and Varsity Estates qualify as million dollar communities as the value of the average home sale is now over one million dollars.

There are lots of new single and duplex housing in all of the communities bordering the Learning City’s employment centers, with new infill construction on almost every block.  These homes with their modern kitchens, three bedrooms and developed basements are particularly attractive to young families.  

The Learning City is very family-friendly with numerous school options (public, Catholic, charter and private) from kindergarten through to high school, post-secondary and university and colleges, as well as Renfrew and Woods Home schools for special needs.

University City at Brentwood Mall will be the first high-rise living with its two colourful 20-story towers (tallest buildings north of the Bow River) – one Royal Gold (yellow) and one Sunlit Topaz (orange).  This emerging urban village will appeal to those wanting a more urban lifestyle with all of the amenities walking distance away and the university across the street. 

The Renaissance condos offer a unique lifestyle in Calgary as they are attached to the North Hill shopping center, which means you can shop without having to go outside.  There is a library just a half a block away and the Lions Park LRT station is across the street. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.

West Campus will create a 21st century pedestrian-oriented community for 15,000 or more people. 

The first two University City towers which are part of a mega transformation of the land east of the Brentwood LRT station from a retail power centre, into a mixed-use transit oriented urban village. 

The Renaissance condos are attached to the North Hill shopping mall and are within l walking distance of SAIT and Lion's Park LRT Station.

Last Word

Today, on any given day, nearly 100,000 people visit Calgary's Learning City (University of Calgary, SAIT/ACAD, Foothills Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Market and North Hill Malls to work and shop, or attend a class or medical appointment. Currently, 55,000+ people live in Learning City communities; this could double over the next 15 years.

By 2030, the University of Calgary campus could be the heart of a new city with its own culture based on academia, wellness and sports excellence. It could be surrounded by several vibrant self-sustaining pedestrian-oriented urban villages e.g. West Campus, University City, Stadium Village and McMahon Village (redevelopment of McMahon stadium site).  

Dubai Healthcare City looks very similar to the proposed the West Campus Development Trust's plan for the University of Calgary's West Campus. 

Launched in 2002, Dubai's Healthcare City (DHCC) is home to two hospitals, over 120 outpatient medical centers and diagnostic laboratories with over 4,000 licensed professionals occupying a total of 4.1 million square feet of medical facilities. 

Dubai is also home to the  Dubai International Academic City (DIAC) as part of their city’s master plan.  Formed in 2007, it currently has 20,000 students from 125 nationalities and offers over 400 higher education programs. The campus has 18 million square feet of state-of-the-art facilities. 

Like Dubai, Calgary's Learning City is blooming into one of the world's more interesting urban places for healthcare, academic and athletes to live, work and play. 

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Inglewood: Calgary's most unique community?

By Richard White, May 29, 2014 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours section, May 29, 2014, titled "Cool Inglewood perfect for life, work and play).

Inglewood has the distinction of not only being Calgary’s oldest community (established in 1875), but also one of the most desirable urban communities in the City. And, while there are many fine historical buildings and relics from the past -including two old barns and an old brewery - still in the community, what makes its future particularly exciting are the many new private investments.

Two of the biggest additions to the community are George Brookman’s West Canadian Digital Imaging headquarter building at the east end of 9th (Atlantic) Avenue and Jim Hill’s Atlantic Art Block at the west end (the very modern 4-storey red brick building with the wavy roof).  These commercial anchors, combined with the existing shops, restaurants, cafes, clubs and pubs are critical to making Inglewood a perfect “live, work, play” community.

Live

Inglewood offers a diversity of housing options - from early 20th century cottages and Bow River mansions, to new infill homes  and low-rise condos.  At the far east end of Inglewood along 17th Avenue, almost at Deerfoot Trail, lies the 15-acre SoBow (south of downtown) condo development by Calgary’s M2i Development.   While Bridgeland, Beltline and East Village tend to get all the attention SoBow offers arguably the best amenities and accessibility of any new urban village Calgary. 

In minutes, you can be on the Deerfoot, Blackfoot or Barlow Trails, or an easy cycle or walk into downtown if you live in SoBow.  From an amenities perspective, the Zoo, Pearce Estate Park, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and the shops on 9th Avenue are basically in your backyard.

This large development has six phases and when complete, will consist of approximately 700 units, effectively creating a new “village” of 2,000+ people. (Click here for aerial views).

Heritage apartment blocks like this one make for great artists' live work spaces. 

Work

The Atlantic Art Block not only offers office space, but at street level there are retail shops, a restaurant and the uber cool 15,000 square foot Esker Foundation Art Gallery in the penthouse. At street level, the building is home to the popular Gravity Café and Bite Groceteria - both have been an instant hit with foodies. It is a great example of a mixed-use building. 

West Canadian Digital Imaging 60,000 square foot building is a more tradition office only space. It employs not only his  250 workers, but another 90 Travel Alberta employees.  

Creating a “live, work, play” community is more than just about densification by building more condos and adding grocery stores, restaurants and shops.  It is just as critical that business owners like Brookman and Hill decide to locate their businesses in Calgary's established communities and not just downtown or suburban office parks.  Workers are critical to the survival of the shops, cafes and restaurants as they provide weekday customers, while the residential spaces fill the “customer” role evenings and weekends.

The Atlantic Art Block combines both contemporary architectural design (wave roof and glass walls at the corner) with more traditional brick three storey warehouse massing mid-block to create an exciting architectural statement as you enter Inglewood from the west. 

West Canadian Digital Building is a  more traditional modern interpretation of early 20th century warehouse architecture. 

Play

Inglewood could be branded as Calgary’s music district as it is not only home to Recordland, Festival Hall, Ironwood and Blues Can, but also many of its old cottage houses and walk-up apartments are home to local musicians. 

If you haven’t been to Recordland, you should go. It is one of the largest privately owned record stores in Canada with over two million records.  The Festival Hall is the new year round home of the Calgary Folk Festival, as well as concert space for local and touring musicians. Ironwood and Blues Can offer live music seven days a week.  

Tim Williams at the Blues Can jamming with friends from around the world.

Recordland is just one of many local shops in Inglewood that makes it a fun place to flaneur.

Inglewood is a great place for window licking with lots of unique window installations. 

Rouge combines history and contemporary dining for a unique experience. 

  Nerd is just one of many hipster hangouts in Inglewood. 

Nerd is just one of many hipster hangouts in Inglewood. 

Did You Know?

In 2004, EnRoute Magazine identified Inglewood as one of the Canada’s top 10 “coolest neighbourhoods.”  Over the past 10 years, it has gotten even cooler. 

The Inglewood Lawn Bowling Club (established in 1936) has become a tony place for Calgary hipsters.  The Club is so popular they have just completed a shiny new clubhouse.

In 2006, Inglewood’s Rouge restaurant placed 60th on the S. Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants list. Rouge, is located in the A.E.Cross house, built in 1891.  (Back Story: Cross was one of the “Big Four” investors in the Calgary Stampede).  The restaurant boasts its own vegetable garden that covers six city lots. How cool is that?

Every Saturday afternoon, Calgary’s own “cool cat” Tim Williams hosts a Blues Jam at the Blues Can in Inglewood.  Williams is the winner of the 2014 International Blues Competition in two categories: best solo and duo artist and best guitarist. 

Inglewood’s boundaries are the Bow River (north) to the CPR Yard (south) and the Bow River (east) to Elbow River (west).

Last Word

With everything from lawn bowling to Saturday jams; from the sounds of the Zoo animals to the sounds of trains and planes; from one of the world's best restaurants, to Canada's best used record store; Inglewood is definitely, Calgary’s most unique community. 

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Don't be too quick to judge

Yes, Inglewood does still have two barns. I believe the red barn serves as storage for Calgary's own Canadian Pickers.

This is the historic Stewart Livery constructed in 1909 at 806 14th St. SE. Livery stables were integral to the daily life of frontier cities. They served many functions - hire of horse and vehicles, sale of horses and vehicles as storage of hay, coal and wood.  

Union Square: Living on the park!

By Richard White, May 23, 2014 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the May edition of Condo Living's Magazine). 

The addition of new high-rise condos, new retail and the expansion of Hotel Arts retail and office space have resulted in a significant change over the past few years to First Street SW south of 12th Avenue.

For example, Union Square, the sleek monochromatic industrial grey 25-story condo sits on the southwest corner of First Street and 13th Avenue.  Living on a park, specifically Haultain Park (Memorial Park is just a block away), has its advantages.

One key one is that Union Square offers – and will always offer - unobstructed views of the mountains, river valley and downtown in an ever increasingly crowded Beltline skyline. 

Union Square condo (the first one) from 13th Avenue (next to Haultain School, park and playground) looking east from Memorial Park.  

Haultain Park playing field.  There are also tennis courts and a community garden. 

The historic Haultain School which is now the headquarters of the Calgary Parks Foundation.

Community Collaboration 

The story of this condo is intriguing on many levels.  From a design perspective, it is classic, podium point tower, i.e. the first two floors cover the entire site while the upper 23 floors of condos are narrower, to create the thin tower that reaches up to the sky.  The tower design changes subtly from bottom to the penthouse; this is not a flashy “look at me” building with walls intersecting at weird angles and bright colours.  Rather, it is a timeless - some might say conservative - design that fits well in scale with the two other new highrise condos on First Street SW – Chocolate and Colours.

The project proceeded only after intense discussions and collaboration between the architects (BKDI), the developers (Apex and Western Securities), the City of Calgary (Planning and Parks) and the community.  The result is a façade on the First Street side, which is red brick at street level to integrate with the historic brick Underwood Block into the street level retail.  However, on the west side facing Haultain Park there are sandstone townhomes which mirror the character of the historic Haultain School built in 1894. The goal was to ensure that the building didn’t turn its back on the park with a large blank wall.  The townhomes, with their patios looking directly into the park, make for a very attractive transition from small scale to high-rise in a short space.

The backstory of Union Square gets even more complex. The original plan called for two towers, which required more parking than, could be built under the buildings. So, a deal was stuck to extend the parkade under the park.  To do so, the developer made a one-time payment of $250,000 to the City for park improvements. In addition, the condo association also pays an annual rental free to the city for the parkade under the park. Union Square really puts the PARK in parkade. As a result, there is a well-used playing field and children’s playground (you would be surprise how busy the playground is) in Haultain Park.

Union Square town homes with patios facing the park.

The popular Haultain playground.  Downtown Calgary is more family friendly than most people perceived!

Second Tower?

The first Union Square tower was completed in 2009. However the second tower was put on hold after the condo market crash in 2008.  Now that demand for Beltline condos continues to be strong, rumour has it that plans are being finalized to complete the second tower which would add to the vitality of First Street SW south of the tracks, an area evolving into an attractive, active pedestrian zone.

Unlike many new condos Union Square doesn’t have on-site amenities like a fitness room, pool, lounge or library.  It was determined that urban living is not about hibernating in one’s condo, but rather getting out and using the abundant amenities that already exist in the community – like the cafes, restaurants, yoga and workout studios, as well as the Memorial Park Library - that surround it.

An enlightened philosophy that will enhance community vitality for decades to come. 

The fountains at Memorial Park with Union Square in the distance (one block away). 

First Street SW is an important pedestrian link between the Beltline and Downtown and from the Elbow River to the Bow River.  Every year more shops, restaurants and clubs are being added to what is already a diverse and attractive streetscape.

 

Last Word

There are currently over 13,000 condo and apartment units under construction, approved or in the planning stages in the eight communities next to Calgary's downtown core (central business district).  Calgary's City Centre (all of the communities within 5 km of downtown) is one of the most attractive and vibrant urban places in North America today.

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Do we really need all of this public art?

By Richard White, May 16, 2014

It hurts me to say this, but “do we really need all of this public art?” Over the past year, I have visited dozens of cities making a point to always seek out the public art wherever we go.  I have seen literally hundreds of public artworks, big and small, abstract and representational, local and international artists.  I have served on a jury for selecting a public artwork for a Calgary LRT station and I have written several blogs and columns on the pros and cons of public art.

In all of my travels (dozens of cities across North America) I have only experienced four public artworks that I feel have captured the public’s imagination enough to make them stop, look and interact with the art.  Sadly, most public art within a few months quickly becomes just a part of urban landscape.  More often than not, public art doesn’t really add to the urban experience by creating a unique sense of place or a memorable experience.   

 While I love art, I appreciate that I am in the minority; that for many, there is not much public appeal in public art that is being installed around out city (and other cities).  It is therefore not surprising that many Calgarians as well as many in other cities, question the value of spending tax dollars on art that adds little value to their life.

Found this public public art piece in downtown Portland the "Bike Capital of America." What do you think? Does Calgary need more bike art? More horses? You can't please everyone. 

Fun & Interactive 

Of the four pieces of public art that did engage the public, two were in Chicago’s Millennium Park – Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa and Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. These were by far the most successful with hundreds of people actively engaged by their intuitive playfulness.   

In Vancouver, “A-maze-ing Laughter” by artist Yue Minjun in a small pocket park (Morton Park) next to English Bay beach seems to always have people young and old wandering around the 14 (twice life size) bronze cherub-like, laughing figures.  The park is full of laughter and smiles, something urban spaces need more of.

The fourth piece is Jeff de Boer’s “When Aviation was Young” at the Calgary Airport West Jet waiting area. This two-piece, circus-looking sculpture with toy airplanes that spin around when you turn the large old-style key is a huge hit with young children waiting to board a plane.  Like most successful public art, it is fun, and encourages public interaction.

In Calgary’s downtown the two pieces I see the public most often stop, take pictures and interact with are “The Famous Five” on Olympic Plaza and “Conversation” on Stephen Avenue Walk.  Interesting to note that they are both figurative, pedestrian scale and located in an active public space.  Downtown Calgary boasts over 100 public artworks, but none of them are a “must see” attractions (at best they area a “nice to see” and get a walk-by glance).

For all the hoopla over Jaume Plensa’s “Wonderland” (big white head) when it was first installed on the plaza in front of the Bow Tower, today it sits alone attracting only a few visitors a day.  

This is not just a Calgary dilemma. Even in Chicago, major public artworks by the likes of Picasso, Calder and Miro (three of the 20th century’s most respected artists) situated on office plazas just a few blocks from Millennium Park, are devoid of any spectators outside of office hours.

Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" is so popular with the public that it has a nickname - THE BEAN! When the public gives an artwork a nickname you know they like it!

"Root Like a Liquid Flung Over the Plaza" by Acconci Studio graces the corner in front of the Memphis Performing Arts Center.  It has many of the qualities of Kapoor's "Cloud Gate," it is fun and there are interesting reflections and places to sit, yet it attracts no crowds.  

Juame Plensa's "Crown Fountain" is popular day and night. It is a wonderful place to linger.  It attracts thousands of people most days spring, summer and fall.  

Jaume Plensa's "Wonderland" located on an office plaza in downtown Calgary attracts only a few visitors a day. 

Come on admit it, even this photo of "A-maze-ing Laughter" brings a smile to your face.

Calder's "Flamingo" was unveiled in 1974.  It is fun, colourful and playful piece, but it doesn't invite any interaction. Over the years it has become less and less a magnet for tourist and locals to visit.  

William McElcheran's "Conversation" on Stephen Avenue Walk is very popular with the public.  Often people will place a coffee cup in their hand or add a scarf to one of the figures.  The public loves to have their picture taken with the two businessmen. 

Barbara Paterson's "Famous Five" sculpture in Calgary's Olympic Plaza invites the public to come and sit with them, have your picture taken and some even like to leave a tip.

Big Names / Big Deal 

Commissioning a big name artist clearly doesn’t guarantee the artwork will be successful in capturing the public’s imagination. 

Claus Oldenburg’s “Big Sweep” sculpture in front of the Denver Art Museum or “Roof Like a Liquid Flung Over the Plaza” by the Acconci Studio on the plaza of the Memphis Performing Arts Centre are both major pieces by established artists, yet they have done nothing to animate the space around them. 

Perhaps we need to thing differently about commissioning public art.  Nashville has a program, which commissions local artists to create bike racks that serve a dual purpose. Some are very clever and some I think are tacky, but at $10,000 each you can afford to have a few duds. 

In the early ‘90s the Calgary Downtown Association initiated the “Benches as sculpture” project, commissioning local arts to create sculptures that also serve as benches. The artwork (benches) have become a valued addition to the downtown landscape, so much so that the Provincial judges lobbied to make sure the “Buffalos” were returned to the courthouse plaza after it was renovated to add a parking lot underneath.

Claus Oldenburg and Coosjevan Bruggen's "Big Sweep" sits outside the entrance to the Denver Art Museum. It is fun, but static, and there is signage next to it with several rules that restrict how you can interact with it. 

This piece sits outside the Tucson Public Library in their Cultural District.  I couldn't find information on the artist or the title.  We passed this piece several times and never saw anyone stopping to look at it. 

The City of Calgary allows office developers to build taller buildings in return for pubic art on their plazas like this one. The developers get more space to rent and in theory the public gets a better quality urban space to enjoy. In reality this space on the southwest plaza at Bankers Hall is enjoyed by only by a few smokers a day. 

Nashville's fun bike racks as art program adds some whimsy to this streetscape. 

Lessons Learned

It hurts me to say this, but Calgary is not being well served by the millions of dollars we have invested in public art, both publicly and privately.  In my opinion, what would be best is if we pool all of the available public art money (bonus density and 1% for public art) and create dedicated art parks.  I am thinking we could have sites in each quadrant and perhaps a couple in the greater downtown that are designated for new artworks. When a new project is approved the public art contribution would be designated to the closest art park. 

The current, “democratic” approach of placing public art of all shapes, sizes and subject matter randomly throughout the city (parks, LRT stations, bridges, plazas) simply fragments and isolates the public art experience.  What was supposed to be a program to humanize and make the urban environment more interesting and attractive, has only served to outrage many and create rifts in our community.

The time has come for Calgary and most cities to rethink their public art policy.

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The Famous Five at Olympic Plaza 

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Vegas' Crazy Container Park

By Richard White, May 15, 2014

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 just 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.

At night the entrance to Container Park is very dramatic with a fire breathing grass hopper that is like something out of Burning Man. 

Once inside it is a place to dine, have a drink and hang out with friends.  It is like a patio or back deck party. 

NEOS is a fun playground game that everyone seemed to enjoy. 

During the day it was the kids enjoying NEOS with the adults watching on. 

  The three storey tree house was popular during the day.  Who would have thought of a playground as the central element of an urban village. BRILLIANT! 

The three storey tree house was popular during the day.  Who would have thought of a playground as the central element of an urban village. BRILLIANT! 

Container Park by day with downtown Las Vegas in the background.

Container Park is like one large patio, with wonderful soft seating.  I took this picture quick as one group left and another was about to grab it. 

The learning campus is quiet more contemplative place. I took this just after a group had finished some sort of meeting workshop. 

Footnotes:

As a Calgarian I am totally jealous of Vegas' Container Park.  It would be a great way develop some parking lots or vacant sites along a major transit route with retail, residential or office buildings.  Perhaps it could be the model for a mixed-use development of the land around an LRT station.   

I encourage everyone to check out Container Park when you are next in Vegas!

 

I wonder if the dogs are intimidated by this fire hydrant. This is actually a private dog park, - you have to be a Hydrant Club member to access it.  Dog owners pay a subscription fee for obedience training, doggie day care and access to this grass oasis in a sea of gravel parking lots.