Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent?

I received the comments below from childhood friend Bill Browett and thought that EDT readers would enjoy his insightful perspective on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Human Rights.  I have received many other comments from readers which I have added to the end of the blog.  I hope you will enjoy this revised blog. 

Bill Browett writes:

I have been thinking about this blog since you sent the link out. Rather than focus on whether the money was well spent, I was struck by your subtitle …

“Museum without artifacts …  One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  “

I too love seeing the artifacts, but mostly when I go to museums and art galleries what I am doing is looking at the stories that are told … the meta messages … Stories that reveal the attitudes and aspirations of the curators, owners, and artisans in both the artifacts and messages. Public institutions tend to tell institutional stories, and institutions pretty much by definition are conservative. Dissenting opinion is often. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is no exception, as noted by “WB”.

Canadians have played pivotal roles in the progress of Human Rights … e.g., the creation of the UN "Universal Declaration of Human Rights” … I am all for celebrating both the positive contributions … However, these celebrations are empty and appear only as propaganda, if the institutions do not reconcile and work to reconcile Canadian failures, and entrenched cultural bigotries whether colonial and tribal [e.g., European biases] histories, e..g, genocidal policies, such as the Residential School program for First Nations children, and failure to include reconciliation in the Truth and Reconciliation process that is on-going.

I will visit the CMHR if I manage to make it to Winnipeg. Nonetheless, if the website is any indication, https://humanrights.ca/exhibit, this museum has failed to capture not only the rich, and on occasion dark history of the human rights struggles in Canada, but the CMHR has not put into a global context the Canadian struggles and contributions. … We are left with what I call a “happy face” institutional interpretation … sanitized and romanticized versions of the past.

If the CMHR, as the website suggests, has very narrowly defined the history of Human Rights, as I suspect, … then it has done a significant disservice to the many, many Canadians who have deeply sacrificed in these struggles, and worse does a disservice to current and future generations by suggesting that there are not serious conflicting histories of what Human Rights are.

Perhaps the "expressions" section of the website captures my concerns better than most, and illustrates the point of institutional messaging … (https://humanrights.ca/exhibit/expressions

 “Developed by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, this travelling exhibition explores the ways that Canadians have defined, made and kept peace at home and around the world. Peace is examined on three levels: how we negotiate to obtain and protect it; how we organize and demonstrate to demand it; and, sometimes, how we fight to achieve it."

To no one’s surprise, and as someone who has been an active participant in the Canadian peace movement all his adult life, the content in the "expressions” section is a very narrow definition of how "Canadians have defined, made and kept peace at home and around the world."

For many of us, on many levels, Human Rights struggles continue both in Canada and around the world. Appropriately, this is the season for such reflections.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Money Well Spent???????

By Richard White, December 10, 2014

The September 2014 opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg was probably one of the most anticipated, new 21st century buildings in Canada. It is the first new national museum since1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region.  The design is strange, intriguing, and not just a big box museum. In the words of Antoine Predock, the architect, “ the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450-million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark.”

 Indeed, the building is a new landmark and tourist attraction for the City of Winnipeg and another wonderful new addition to the city’s urban meeting place, The Forks, which is on par with places like Vancouver’s Granville Island.

 On a recent visit to the Winnipeg, I had a chance to tour (two plus hours) the CMHR. And while I was initially impressed by the design and the exhibitions, something seemed to be wrong. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but gradually I began to question whether Winnipeg - and Canada for that matter - got full value for the $350 million cost.

CHRM looking east is a strange juxtaposition of shapes.

The "Welcome Wall" video has a series of shadow figures who quickly enter write the word "welcome" in various different languages and then exit.

The entrance to the first exhibition hall is along this dramatic and sombre hallway. 

Museum without artifacts

 One of the things I associate with great museums and art galleries is allowing visitors the opportunity to see things you can’t see anywhere else.  CMHR has very few unique artifacts consist mainly of text and videos.  In many ways, this museum’s experience is like walking through a huge documentary film at your own pace.  This got me to thinking again perhaps a series of documentaries could have worked just as well.

 I was also struck by the fact there wasn’t much “new” in the museum; most of the information is available to anyone with a computer and Internet.  One really has to rethink the role of museums in the 21st century.

 Interesting to that the museum’s website has no video of the exhibitions – not even a short “teaser “one. I can’t but help but wonder if they realized that if they did a good video tour, there would be no need to go to the museum. 

 There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

There are quotes from individuals scattered throughout the museum. 

IMG_7322.jpg
  The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

The first exhibition hall is dominated by a wall that documents the history of human rights on the left and video on the right. The wooden basket at the end is a small theatre space for a video.  

  Detail of the history wall.

Detail of the history wall.

  Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

Several of the exhibition halls are dominated by a large billboard like video screen with words and images. 

  Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Children loved the interactive floor of colour. As each person stepped onto the floor they were surrounded by a ring of colour and as you moved closer to others your coloured rings joined.  If there are enough people, and you worked together you get the whole floor to light up. 

Opportunities Lost

Any museum that is focused on human rights is going to be controversial, and if it isn’t, it is not doing its job. This is an even larger issue when it is funded by the Federal government, with the many political considerations and constraints. This museum needs much more in the way of interactive and thought provoking exhibits.  There is no shortage of topical human rights issues in today’s world; it simply takes the freedom and courage to address them.

One of the most memorable exhibits is Jamie Blacks’ The REDress Project (see photo) that looks at violence towards aboriginal women.  Winnipeg and Manitoba have the largest First Nation and Metis population of any city or province in Canada and this population is rising at four times the overall rate of the city and province.  Governments at all levels are struggling with First Nation housing, education, health and crime challenges that are not being addressed. There is no shortage of aboriginal issues that could be dealt with in this museum in a thought-provoking and illuminating way.

Another of Canada’s most pressing current human rights issues is the chronic unemployment or underemployment of disabled Canadians who want to work but can’t find job.  Perhaps the money might have been better spent on job creation programs for the disabled.

And there are many other topical issues of today – violence against women, increasing government surveillance of the general population, the militarization of police forces, the role of women in today’s major religions, abuses of civil rights under the banner of the fight against terrorism, and on. This museum could be a beacon of light if it had some ideas for solutions.

Perhaps some of the space could be utilized for the topical issues of today, and allow outside organizations could develop the exhibits without bureaucratic or political interference.  The museum needed to focus more on how could we move from awareness to action. Now that would be a museum worth a visit.

 

  Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

Jaime Black, The REDress Project, 2010 to present, empty dresses collected by community donation with digital backdrop. The REDress Project is an ongoing public art installation. It is a response to the overwhelming number of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. The installation seeks to engage the public in discussion about the sexist and racist nature of violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

  Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Photo of residential school.  The information panel included the following quote: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic..." Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, 1913 to 1931. 

Japanese

Big & Bold Architecture

 While the vastness of the building is part of its provocative statement, one can’t help but wonder, why there is so much empty space.  My guess is that less than 50% of the buildings’ space is utilized for exhibitions and offices.  This means incredible cost for heating and air-conditioning the building, especially with Winnipeg’s long cold winters and hot summers. 

One rumour I heard was that it will cost $100,000 a year just for window cleaning.

One of the biggest issues facing most major museums across Canada today is operating cost; this is not going to be efficient building to operate. 

The interior of the museum is dominated by a floor to ceiling atrium that filled with ramps that take you from floor to floor. The luminous walls are an interesting visual metaphor for the "enlightenment" that the museum is trying to foster.

While the ramps and atrium create a very haunting and perhaps uplifting space, it takes up 50% of the museum space.

The glass walls from the inside are an intricate and rhythmic pattern that fragments the visitors view of the city. 

Even when you look up to the tower, the view is blocked by all of the mechanical pipes and girders - there is no sense of awe that you might expect.

It is strange to have a glass wall that is blocked by so many lines.

Last Word

After a few days of mulling my CMHR experience over, I continue to think the $350 million spent to build a human rights museum and probably another $10 million per year to operate it, might have been better spent actually dealing with the human rights issues themselves.

I would highly recommend that if you are in Winnipeg that you visit CMHR and decide for yourself if it was "money well spent!"

If you like this blog, you might like:

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Phoenix: Musical Instrument Museum

Calgary: Military Museums

Readers' Responses:

CW writes: 

Your blog is written rather mildly. Perhaps the CMHR building could be repurposed as Museum of the Scams We Have to Endure in This Life: the CMHR structure, the Edmonton Oilers & Toronto Maple Leafs, Bre-X, the music industry for the last 40 years, and now the Wildrose Party of Alberta. Blog that one please.

KG writes: 

I asked myself this question as well and I do believe it's money poorly spent. From my perspective, the internet allows us to reach people with almost all the content contained in the museums walls – focussing just a quarter of the money on digital media content, rather than a lavish physical monument could have led to something exciting.  Now, granted that won't bring tourists. But, will the physical museum? I doubt it, especially not repeat visits.And don't even get me started on "starchitects" designing sculptures instead of functional spaces. How many human rights were violated to get all that steel just to tie the glass facade to the actual building.

JR writes: 

I fear that a third of a billion dollars was thrown down a rat hole. Question: what part of the money was raised from private citizens; from public companies; from “we the people”? Question: where does the $10M annual operation cost come from, speculate “we the people”? Question: how are they measuring the gigantic influx of tourists who are surely flying from all over the planet to see the museum?

Anyway the real depressing part is the annual cost. Assuming a “cap rate of 5.5”, I make it that there is a negative valuation ($181,000,000) i.e. to lose $10,000,000 annually“we the people” have to deploy $181,000,000 of capital earning 5.5% return to support it, all that after deploying $350,000,000 that makes no return. Poor bloody taxpayer.

WB writes: 

Great and inquisitive article on the CMHR. Many people I know in Winnipeg have little interest in visiting the museum owing to a litany of issues. You mentioned the $10m in annual operating costs but I believe e the figure is pegged at around $26m give or take a mill.

Why? No mention of Aboriginal genocide. No Palestinian causes represented. Only 4 of the 11 galleries completed? Why? ETC. "Controversial" starts with exclusions and lots of pink slips. The CMHR may be the first politically directed public cultural museum in Canadian history and that story has yet to be aired in public.

 

 

 

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 

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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 

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Brookfield Residential: Working together to make Calgary better!

Calgary's MAC attack!

Integration critical to new community vitality

 

 

80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs.

"When it comes to house prices, here's how much location matters" was the title of a Maclean’s article in their November 17, 2014 edition. The story looked at how Canadian homebuyers in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary can save thousands of dollars by buying a home further away from downtown. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Most Calgarians and I expect those in other cities figured that out a long time ago.

But it was interesting to see that in all the cities except Calgary, the savings increased with every 10 minutes further you lived from downtown. But in Calgary, the price dropped from an average of $665,500 10 minutes from downtown to $515,900 if you lived 20 minutes from downtown and stayed in the $500,000 to $550,000 range until you got 50 minutes away.  Calgary’s big ring of established communities with similar housing stock in the 20 to 40-minute commute range to downtown, making them very attractive to downtown professionals with their higher than average salaries, stock options and profit sharing. 

Majority of Calgarians simply can’t afford to live in established neighbourhoods.

Do the math and you quickly find out the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live in the established neighbourhoods. A family income of $100,000 (Calgary’s median family income was $98,300 in 2012, Statistics Canada) will support a mortgage of only $300,000. I am told 3 times your gross income is a good benchmark for how much mortgage you can afford.  If we assume a generous down payment of say 20%, that means 50% of Calgarians can only afford a house or condo under $360,000.

A quick review of the City’s average home sales costs by community shows that in the southwest has no communities with an average selling price in the $360K range and there are only two in the northwest.   In the southeast, there would are three or four, while in the northeast almost all of its communities are close to the $360K mark. I realize that even with an average selling price over $360K in established neighbourhoods there will be many homes under that price, but most of them will be smaller and in need of renovations that will bring the price over the affordability of most Calgarians. 

So While the City of Calgary wants to encourage more Calgarians to live in the established neighbourhoods in the inner city west of the Deerfoot Divide, most Calgarians simply can’t afford the $500,000+ cost.  In fact, only 21% of Calgary’s households have an income over $150,000 which in turn would allow them to have mortgage of $450,000 which combined with say a $100,000 down payment would, get them a $550,000 house.  

If only 20% of Calgarians can afford to live in established communities, this means we have to accommodate 80% in the suburbs until we can find a way to build affordable housing for the average Calgarian in established communities. 

  A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

  A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

  A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

  These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

  New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

Why are we always focused on downtown?

However, my biggest beef with this study - and most of these kinds of studies for that matter is they are only looking at the downtown commuters, which represents only 25% of Calgary’s commuters. For the majority of Calgarians, their decision where to buy a house isn’t governed by the commute to downtown, and that majority is getting larger every year.

The City’s most recent job growth numbers from 2006 to 2011 show that downtown job growth was only 11.5% of the new jobs in the city, while growth in the City’s industrial areas accounted for a whopping 77% of the job growth.  Is it any wonder there is a huge demand for homes and condos in the southeast and the northeast near the industrial and warehouse developments?  In the ‘90s GO Plan, the City’s goal was to get people to live closer to where they work.  That being the case, we need to build more communities near our industrial lands.

The majority of Calgarians don’t need to live near downtown.

Retired Calgarians can live anywhere; commuting time is not a factor.  Many retirees I know have a goal of not leaving the house until after 9 am and being home before 3 pm leaving the roads available for those who need them.   

For those working in and around the airport, the ability to live in the far northeast and northwest means minimal time on the Deerfoot and a shorter commute time.  Living east of the Deerfoot in the far southeast also results in a short, 10 to 20-minute commute for those who work there.

With only one leg of the LRT serving the NE and none the SE the quadrant, workers in our major industrial, transportation and distribution centres have limited transit access and so the majority must drive to work.

Unfortunately, the large tracks of land needed for industrial and warehouse operations don’t create the concentration of jobs in a small geographical area needed for effective rapid transit. Transit only works well for downtown, and a few other places like large employment centres (e.g. university, hospitals), but not for the majority of Calgary workers. 

Calgary’s urban planners and politicians must realize that today’s Calgary is as much a distribution warehouse city as it is an oil & gas downtown office city. Did you know that transportation & manufacturing (mostly east of Deerfoot) accounts for 125,000 jobs in the city, while oil & gas adds up to only 72,000?  The NE with growth of the Calgary International Airport has evolved into a major economic engine for the city and could in the future rival downtown. Did you know that there are more hotel rooms in the northeast than in downtown?

Why Calgarians love the burbs.

While many young urban singles are willing to live in a 500-square foot home and pay $450+ per square foot that won’t work for families.  A young family of four wants 2,000 square feet (the same 500 square feet/ person), which means they can not afford the $500,000+ an older established neighbourhood home, but the home doesn’t meet their needs.  As a result, the majority of young Calgary families are forced to go to the edge of the city where starter homes or larger condos can be had for $300,000 to $400,00 and don’t need any major renovations.

Did you know 67% of Calgary households have children and another 2.3% are multiple family homes? It is therefore not surprising 62% of Calgarians want a single-family home, 16% want a semi-detached home and only 22% desire a multi-family one (Calgary Growth Benchmark, 2014).  Currently, there are more multi-family homes being built than single or semi-detached. Obviously, since supply isn’t meeting demand, the cost of single and semi-detached homes will only increase, making them even less affordable.

I know some will ask, “Why does a family have to be raised in a single-family dwelling?” And, indeed some parents will choose a semi-detached or multi-family home but most desire a single-family home where the kids to run, play and make noise without disturbing the neighbours. As well multi-family buildings don’t meet the storage needs for an active family in a four-season city like Calgary.

  Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

  Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

  Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

The BIG Question.

Should we be pushing families to live in multi-family housing in established neighbourhoods they can’t afford and aren’t any nearer to work? I fact, if we get more people to move into the established neighborhoods west of Deerfoot, we will be encouraging more people to drive to work, creating more traffic issues as there is no effective transit to their jobs in the far northeast and southeast. 

  Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

  SETON happy hour.

SETON happy hour.

A Radical Idea.

Instead of trying to get more people to live in the established communities (where the existing community members don’t necessarily want more density and the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live there anyway), we should focus on how we can improve the live/work/play opportunities in Calgary’s northeast and southeast quadrants of the city.

In the 20th century urban thinking was to separate housing from employment centers so most of the housing was west of the Macleod and Edmonton Trails and the jobs east. By the late 20th Century the Deerfoot became the dividing line between living and working.  In the 21st Century, we need to look at integration, not separation of live/work centres. We need to rethink the balance between inner city and suburban growth. We need to think of suburban growth as mega infilling projects. 

We need to think of Calgary differently, as a federation of five different economic zones - NW, NE, SE, SW and Inner City.  Each one needs to have its own growth management strategy (land use, transit, roads, recreation, retail) that capitalizes on each zone’s unique aspects as a place to live, work and play. 

By Richard White, November 26, 2014.

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Public Art vs Street Art: Calgary, Florence, Rome

After six weeks of recently wandering the streets of Dublin, Florence and Rome, I was puzzled by the lack of new public art (approved by a public process), appalled by the abundance of graffiti and intrigued by the street art (no public approval).

There was really only one piece of what looked like new public art that caught my eye. It was in Rome, in the tiny off-the-beaten path Vicolo dell’Oro square. The piece “Personal/NonPersonal” by Simone D’Auria was commissioned by the Gallery Hotel Art which is located next to the square. A very ambitious piece that encompasses the entire square, it has 18 ghost-like man/animal figures strategically placed from the earth to sky, including several figures climbing the side of the building. 

The artwork represents an imaginary world populated by white creatures with a human body and the head of an animal. The inspiration has its roots in the past of those great men who have made the city of Florence and its history and who repesented themselves through emblems depicting the head of an animal followed by a motto that extolled the value and virtue of action. Some examples? The turtle with a sail for Cosimo I,  symbol of prudence combined with the power of action; a rhino for Alessando de Medici to symbolize his strength and strong will; a weasel by Francis I, the symbol of cunning.

"Today, in my work, those animals and the meanings they carry with them become faces of men and women, ironic caricatures in which they can identify themselves, visible expression of their deepest inner values; portraits, in fact," says D'Auria. The circus-like animation is a welcome relief in a city dominated by somber ruins of past cultures and statues of people long passed away.  It was definitely a refreshing and welcomed surprise.

I can’t help but think that an artwork like this would be a good addition to downtown Calgary.  It would be very appropriate for a space between the many two-tower office blocks or for the alley space between the towers of the Hotel Le Germain project on 9th Avenue SW. 

fying
climbing the wall
bums
flying figures
seated figures

Florence Street Art

While Calgary invests millions of public and private dollars into public art, in Florence and Rome, temporary free street art seems to be the rage.  Very soon after arriving in Florence, I started to notice the appearance of faceless, simple cartoon-like stick figures with balloons and words like “exit, freedom and resistance”.  For me, it soon became a fun game of spotting the next piece. And they were all over the place!

Later, I found out by googling that the no-name artist was from Pisa, Italy a hot bed for street art. The title of the project is “Exit/Enter” with the purpose being to tickle the imagination of street spectators, to be a catalyst for a smile or a smirk and maybe even be a bit thought-provoking as one tries to understand the ongoing narrative.  I thought the title was very appropriate as the streets and alleys of Florence are full of doorways and corners where people are always entering or exiting. 

CLET

While walking around Florence’s San Niccolo district we discovered a t-shirt shop with some very interesting street-sign decals so we popped in.  We quickly learned that they were the work of CLET, a very well-known, European street artist who has his studio in the area at Via Dell’Olono 8r. CLET cleverly alters road signs around cities with removable stickers. Seems the local authorities tolerate the work, which again adds humour to an urban landscape polluted with street signage.  Once, we knew about CLET we started to find the altered street signs everywhere. 

  This is the entrance to CLET studio. The Fish sign is CLET's, the hear and stick figure is from the "Exit/Enter" project and the blue piece is by Blurb another street artist (see below) and butterflies by another artist. I am not sure who did the guns or the black figure with paint roller. 

This is the entrance to CLET studio. The Fish sign is CLET's, the hear and stick figure is from the "Exit/Enter" project and the blue piece is by Blurb another street artist (see below) and butterflies by another artist. I am not sure who did the guns or the black figure with paint roller. 

close up


collage
kisses
cross
t-shirt
blind corner

Exit/Enter Project

waste
Resistance
resistance 2
Exit bike
Lost
balloon
woman and child
ladder
natzi
fly away

Blurb 

A third street artist, Blurb, takes on major masterpieces of art and dresses them up in scuba gear.  The title of the project is “Art knows how to swim” and while I have no idea was the meaning is, they too added an element of fun to serious works of art like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David.   Many of the works on paper are ripped and faded to the point where they blend right in with the urban patina of the city. 

david
Blurb
mona lisa
red hat

Rome Street Art 

In Rome, we didn’t find any new public art or graffiti street art like Florence (though we did find a few Exit/Enter pieces). However, in the graffiti-filled streets of the San Lorenzo district near the university, we found the motherlode of street art. 

Along the retaining wall of a playing field in an elevated park are two block-long linear art galleries with works by various artists intertwined to create a powerful statement about the area’s sense of place. 

These are not the refined, pretty, decorative street art works you see in some cities, but rather the evolution of graffiti and tagging into expressionist paintings full of social and political protests.  In some places, it was hard to tell where the graffiti ended and the street art began.

   A typical streetscape in San Lorenzo.

A typical streetscape in San Lorenzo.

  One side of the street art wall.

One side of the street art wall.

  Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall

  Detail from art wall

Detail from art wall


  The second side of street art wall is devoted to the work of one artist.

The second side of street art wall is devoted to the work of one artist.

  Street art on the security doors of a shop.

Street art on the security doors of a shop.

  PsychoLAB

PsychoLAB

  Need food not football?

Need food not football?

Calgary Street Art

Earlier this year, Calgary experimented with some street art on the retaining walls of the busy pedestrian (4th and 14th Street SW) underpasses connecting 9th and 10th Avenues.  And although in most cities street art is painted without permission on public and private walls and is permanent, most of Calgary’s street art is approved and temporary.

For example, this past May, as part of the Beakerhead, program Michael Mateyko and Hans Theiseen (also known as Komboh) created a pair of 27-foot long murals on 4th Street and 12-foot murals on 14th Street. Eco-chalk graffiti, an environmentally-friendly product that can be easily removed was used.  The murals consisted of several cartoon robot-like figures that mimicked people walking to work. 

The spontaneity, surprise and fun-ness of the artwork that appeared overnight was dampened by a large text informing everyone, “This temporary public artwork is created with eco-calk and application and removal process approved by the City of Calgary.”

As well, in East Village, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation organized two interesting temporary street art projects. The first “I am the River” by Derek Besant and the current “The Field Manual: A compendium of local influence” by Calgary’s Light & Soul Collective, both using the new RiverWalk’s bridge abutments, storage sheds and robo-bathrooms as their canvas.  

 

  4th Street Mural from the other side of the underpass.

4th Street Mural from the other side of the underpass.

  The 4th Street mural pedestrian perspective.

The 4th Street mural pedestrian perspective.

  Example of one of the fun and clever cartoon characters.  

Example of one of the fun and clever cartoon characters. 

  Love this cartoon of a woman walking with her briefcase and plugged in to the sky aka icloud.

Love this cartoon of a woman walking with her briefcase and plugged in to the sky aka icloud.

  Somehow I felt this signage took some of the fun and spontaneity out of the work.

Somehow I felt this signage took some of the fun and spontaneity out of the work.

Last Word 

One has to wonder if Calgary and other cities would be better served by encouraging more temporary street art, both approved and unapproved, than expensive permanent public art works.  Not only is street art cheaper, it doesn’t have any maintenance costs and if the public doesn’t like it, well, it will literally disappear in a few months or years.

  Found the juxtaposition of the bike and the skeleton figure quite provocative. 

Found the juxtaposition of the bike and the skeleton figure quite provocative. 

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:

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A Surprise Playground Lunch

After a fun day of exploring Rome’s hipster Trastevere district, we were getting hungry. So, as good flaneurs do, we started asking shopkeepers where to go to lunch with the locals. Following the suggestion to check out the restaurants along Via G.A. Bertani, we eventually ending up at triangular Piazza San Cosimato. 

 To our surprise, the piazza was animated with a pop-up farmers’ market and a few permanent food vendors.  We quickly spotted a butcher making some great looking fresh sandwiches.  We stood in line to get one.  When our turn arrived, we non-Italian speakers pointed and said “two.” A few minutes of charades later, we found out we needed to go to the bakery on the street behind the butcher to purchase the buns and then return to the butcher who would make us our sandwiches.

 Buns in hand, we were back at the butcher’s in a flash. While he was making our sandwiches, I realized I really wanted a beer, so in another round of charades, I asked if he had one.  At first he pointed back to the bakery/grocery store, but then he nodded, smiled, grabbed a beer out of the fridge (I expect it was his personal beer fridge) and handed it to me.

 After paying up, we went to find a place to sit and enjoy our big fat, paper-wrapped sandwiches.  The only obvious spot was the benches along the inside perimeter of the tiny playground at the tip of the piazza. 

 

  Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

  One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

   Big brother helping sister.

Big brother helping sister.

Playground Fun 

It turned out to be the perfect spot, with dappled sunlight and a front row seat for the Cirque du Soleil-like performance by young children and their parents. As we ate, we were treated to a series of children hopping from one orange stationary, stool-like structure to another, spaced just far enough apart to make the jump difficult for younger children.  It was too much fun to watch as dads helped their kids and older siblings helped the younger ones.  We even had a couple of amazing performances by the dad – interesting to note that none of the moms gave it a try. It was amazing to watch how long the families jumped back and forth on this simple, low-tech playground equipment.

 The playground was also a great people-watching place. Locals of all ages and backgrounds came and went – it was a cast of characters.  I was even befriended by a little guy with a soccer ball who wanted somebody to kick it back and forth, which we did for few minutes until his Mom said they had to leave (or at least I think that is what she said as she smiled and said “thank you.”) As we left, I discovered what must be one of the largest blackboards in the world. Somebody had cleverly turned the concrete retaining wall along the edge of the piazza into a huge blackboard, probably close to 100 feet long.  I wish I had brought my sidewalk chalk.

 

  The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

  The spectators bench. 

The spectators bench. 

  The world's longest blackboard?

The world's longest blackboard?

  A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

  Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Last Word

This was definitely a far cry from the $250,000+ mass-produced, mega colourful playgrounds being constructed in parks in communities throughout Calgary.  This playground was integrated into the community’s everyday pursuits with shops and restaurants surrounding it on all sides.  Yes, there was a fence around the park, but there were no Playground Zone signs and no isolating the playground in a park far away from pedestrian, bike, motorcycle and car traffic. Rather, it was an integrated part of the everyday activities of a community that embraced outdoor urban living.  It truly was a community meeting / hangout place.  

 We love urban surprises and the Piazza San Cosimato ranks high as one of the best surprise of our 7 days in Rome.

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Dublin: St. Stephen's Green vs St Patrick's Cathedral Park

I have always believed that great cities have great parks.  A recent visit to Dublin and its two urban parks reminded me or the importance of parks in creating attractive urban places for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

St. Stephen's Green 

Until 1663 St. Stephen's Green was a marshy common on the edge of Dublin, used for grazing. In that year Dublin Corporation, seeing an opportunity to raise much needed revenue, decided to enclose the centre of the common and to sell land around the perimeter for building. The park was enclosed with a wall in 1664. The houses built around the Green were rapidly replaced by new buildings in the Georgian style and by the end of the eighteenth century the Green was the urban playground for the city's rich and famous. Much of the present day streetscape around the Green comprises modern buildings (some in a replica Georgian style) with very little from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today St. Stephen's Green is a green oasis for people of all ages and backgrounds  in Dublin's bustling city centre. The current park was designed by William Sheppard in 1880.  The park is adjacent to one of Dublin's main shopping streets, Grafton Street, and to a shopping centre named for it, while on its surrounding streets are the offices of a number of government office and the city terminus of one of Dublin's LUAS tram lines.  At 22 acres, it is the largest of Dublin's Georgian garden squares, others include nearby Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square.

  Map of St. Stephen's Green

Map of St. Stephen's Green

There is a wonderful calmness in the park that invites you to sit and relax. 

  Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch.  

Parks are great places to sit, chat and people watch. 

Fusilier's Arch is located at the entrance/exit to the park from Grafton Street. Built in 1907, it is dedicated to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fought and died in the Second Boer War (1899 - 1902).

  The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

The Park's playground is very popular with the little people.. 

  Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

Stephen's Green has a wonderful pastoral ambience to it.

  The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The park is surrounded by high dense hedges that serve as noise and sight barriers, which contributes to the sense of an oasis and privacy. 

The Park is full of monuments, mostly formal statues, but this contemporary piece titled "Famine,"  by Edward Delaney caught our imagination.  Parks make great spaces for public art, as they allow people to contemplate the artwork and move around it.

St. Patrick's Cathedral Park 

  I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

I love that Baileys sponsored this information panel about the park and cathedral. 

  The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

The formal park is centred around a modest fountain. 

  Every park needs a playground. 

Every park needs a playground. 

  Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

Parks should appeal to people of all ages.  This little guy turned a ramp into his private playground.

  Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

Parks and public space should invite people to sit and linger.

  Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

Liberty Bell, by Vivienne Roche occupies a prominent spot in the park.

  At first I missed this peace of public art at is was so well integrated into the park I thought it was just another table and chairs. The location is perfect for looking out at the park or the cathedral. The piece is titled "Havel's Place" was designed by Borek Sipek and is dedicated to late Czech President and human rights advocate, Vaclav Havel. There are several of these monuments around the world.  Click here for more info.

At first I missed this peace of public art at is was so well integrated into the park I thought it was just another table and chairs. The location is perfect for looking out at the park or the cathedral. The piece is titled "Havel's Place" was designed by Borek Sipek and is dedicated to late Czech President and human rights advocate, Vaclav Havel. There are several of these monuments around the world. Click here for more info.

Parade of Writers

Another fun element of the park an area set aside to recognize the tremendous contribution made by writers who have lived in Dublin. It is truly amazing that one city could be the home for so many influential writers over such a long period of time.

panel
famous writers
beckett

Last Word 

I am not sure if anyone has done the study, but I expect there is a direct correlation between the quality and quantity of urban parks and the vibrancy of the City's City Center. Think New York's  Central Park, Vancouver's Stanley Park or Montreal's Mount Royal Park.  

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Public Art & Playgrounds in the 21st Century

Beautifying the Beltline

Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

Florence with its 10+ million visitors annually is full of touristy places to shop, eat and people watch. You really have to dig deep to find the “real” Florence.  As avid flaneurs, we are always on the lookout for locals who have a hipster, modern, funky or designer look about them, as they are good bets for having the best insights into the city’s true culture. 

Once you have sussed out such people, good questions to ask them beyond the usual “Where is a good place to eat or shop? “are:

  •  Is there a design or galley district in your city.
  • Are there any retro, second-hand, antique or used bookstores nearby?
  • Where do the locals like to hang out?” 

After 10 days of flaneuring in Florence, we found three streets that offer a more authentic Florence experience – Niccolo, Pinti and Macci.  Yes, there are still lots of tourist traps on these streets, but there are also great local hot spots.

Borgo Pinti District (from Via Egidio to Via dei Pilastri)

Even though this street was just a block away from where we were living, it took us a couple of days to find it.  As there are no cars, it is a popular pedestrian and cyclist route into the core from the edge of the City Centre.

Here you will find several upscale shops (from kids to high fashion), bakery and restaurants catering to locals and off-the-beaten path tourists.  We loved the three vintage/retro boutiques – Mrs. Macis (#38), SOqquadro (#13), Abiti Usati & Vintage (#24) and a funky hat and jewelry shop, Jesei che Volano (#33).  Note the numbers in brackets are the street numbers, but Florence has a strange way of numbering homes and shops with different coloured numbers; even by the end we were not sure we had figured it out.  

The big flaneur find on Pinti was FLY (Fashion Loves You), which looks like a high-end fashion store, but is in fact a boutique run by students from the fashion department of the Florence University of the Arts. FLY has very trendy, well-made designer purses, jewelry and clothing created by the students.  It also has some of the friendliest and knowledgeable staff we have ever encountered.  We were immediately given information about other places to check out including their cooking school/restaurant on Via de Macci (more below).

 

  This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

  Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Jesei che Volano is dominated by wall of hats on fish head hooks.

Niccolo District

On the other side of the Arno River, away from the main tourist traps, is an up and coming area anchored by Via di Niccolo, at the base of the hill to the Plazzale Michelangelo.  Already home to several good restaurants and artisan studios, and lots of construction, it might be too late to call this a hidden gem, but it is definitely worth checking out.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri (Via dei Renai, 15r) has a “North American meets Florence” atmosphere. The high-ceiling back room salon with an eclectic assortment of big comfy antique chairs and couches and classic music oozes relaxation. I had perhaps one of the best chocolate desserts I have had here - an unbaked chocolate torte, garnished with thin chocolate leaves.  Though we didn’t taste the gelato, it sure looked good!  And, while sitting enjoying your coffee and dessert, you can also enjoy some voyeuristic fun as the pastry chef’s kitchen is in the loft space above the salon.

If you are into luxury and love shoes, a visit to the Stefano Bemer studio is a must.  Here they make custom shoes from scratch and promise a perfect fit for both of your feet (few people have both feet the same size or shape). The front of the shop is both a showroom and workshop where you can see young artisans at work and view some of their samples (mostly men’s shoes, but some women’s flats). Don’t expect to walk away with new shoes; there is a six-month waiting list. Rumor has it Salvatore Ferragamo’s son buys his shoes here. Note: Be prepared to shell out 3,000 euros of a new pair of shoes, but this also includes the one time molds.

We were amazed at how friendly all the artists in this district are. Don’t hesitate to go in and chat. They all speak some English, were happy to talk about their art and often had interesting tips on what to see and do in the area. 

Stefano Bemer's wall of foot moulds each with the names of the owner created a visual delight.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri's cozy back room oasis. 

  CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

  Collage of CLET signs.

Collage of CLET signs.

Via de Macci District

We found this street after checking out the area’s Ghilberti Market. Here you will find interesting artisan shops like Ad’a’s Studio (#46) with a great selection of knitted and crocheted handbags, hats, mitts and scarfs made right on site.

Brenda loved the L’Aurora Onlus charity (thrift) shop (#11) located in the decommissioned San Francesco al Tempio hospital, church and convent complex built in 1335 (open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). Part of the church space has been converted into the most amazing thrift store space we have ever encountered, with its intact cathedral ceilings with their religious paintings on them.  Unfortunately, the lighting is poor so you might have to use the flashlight on your phone to look at things. And the fitting room is a tiny, back storage room with poor light and no mirror. Brenda says, “it is like shopping in the twilight zone!”

At the I Mosaici di Lastrucci (#9) workshop and gallery, you can watch amazing artisans painstakingly create amazing realistic mosaic artworks from very thin slices of different coloured rocks.  The art of natural stone inlaid work dates back to 15th century Florence. This is truly is a walk back in time, when everything was handmade by local artisans.

Danda Necioni’s (#27) is an etching and map shop that is literally jam packed with historic works – a great source for a unique souvenir from Italy. All of the works come with documented authentication, making them real collector items.

Based on the hot tip from the staff at FLY, we lunched at GANZO (#85), the restaurant owned by the Florence University of the Arts and run by students.  If you are looking for a break from dark spaces and ancient architecture, its bright white walls, contemporary furnishings and large black and white student photography provides respite from the dark and decaying places outside.

The food is “stellar,” says Brenda.  Her tuna steak on polenta cake with autumn pesto had us both wanting more. I loved my pumpkin puree soup with floating candied pumpkin; mint scented ricotta and an olive powder. The desserts were a work of art; mine a pumpkin tartlet and Brenda’s Sorrento lemon, Sicilian orange and tangerine scent mousse on a chocolate cookie base.  Our sweet teeth were happy!

GANZO: pumpkin dessert combined with salted caramel and balanced by the creaminess of goat cheese. Served in a cinnamon-flavoured pastry tartlet. Looks like a work of art to me!

Ad’a’s Studio is a fun place to explore.  Check out the surprise at the back?

Can you believe this is charity/thrift store? 

Other Finds:

We found Trattoria Ciacco after a morning of strolling one of the world’s longest flea market (3+ kilometers) in Le Cascine Park on the far west side of the City Centre. We were hungry. So we crossed the river, as that is where most of the people seemed to be headed and were willing to take more or less the first place we found. Lucky us, it was Ciacco!  The place was full of locals but we were welcomed and took the only table available.  (Note: if you are looking for a good restaurant, we always find the busier they are the better.) Noticing what the couple (our age) next to us ordered, we thought it might be a good idea to do the same (the only Italian menu board wasn’t helpful to two non-Italian speaking tourists).  Again, lucky us, as it was pasta with fresh truffles and it was delectable.

When our lunch arrived, the couple smiled and said “good choice” and we continued chatting getting lots of hot tips, including the name of another good restaurant popular with locals near the Piazza Della Passera called il Magazzino.

The Florence University of the Arts also has a photography school which we visited thinking they would have a public gallery of student works. Wrong! But the staff was extremely friendly and we learned the university offers cooking classes for small groups. There we got two hot tips for restaurants – IL Santo Bevitore and Dilladarno.

 BFF (Best Flaneur Find)

One of the great things about Florence is the vibe of its thousands of young university students.  One of the first things you notice about Florence restaurants is that they cater to the students – many offering discounts.  Every night while roaming the streets and alleys for on our daily gelato fix, we would run into a street where there were dozens of students all eating sandwiches and drinking beer or wine on the street.  After a few nights we realized (yes, sometimes we are slow learners) this must be the place for sandwiches and indeed it was.  If you are ever in Florence you have to check out All’ antico Vinaio located at 65/R Via De’ Neri.

students
All' antico Vinaio

 Last Word

The golden rule of an everyday flaneur is “Look for a local and when you find one, don’t be afraid to ask.”

By Richard White, November 9, 2014

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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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Casel: Paris on the "on ramp"

Calgary’s Nikles Group took a huge risk in developing Casel condo on the corner of 17th Avenue and 24th Street SW.  It is a strange corner as 24th Street heading south serves as the “on ramp” to Crowchild Trail; not exactly the most attractive place to live.  It is also up the hill and west of the 17th Avenue action so not the most attractive walk to those living to the east in Scarboro or Bankview who have to cross the Crowchild Trail Divide to get to the retail.  As well, it is not near a LRT station; though it does have good bus service to downtown. Despite the negatives, Nikles Group has made it work.

Casel looking southwest on 17th Ave SW.

Casel, opened in 2011, could very well be the prototype for future condos in many Calgary inner city communities. It is unique in that it is nine stories with ground floor retail, second floor commercial and concrete construction. In contrast most new condos in Bridgeland, Marda Loop, West Hillhurst or Montgomery are four floors, with main floor retail, three floors of residences and wood frame construction.

It is also unique in that the main floor retail is not your usual fast food joints, café and professional offices.  The Nikles group successfully created a European market- like atmosphere with the cluster of Cassis Bistro, Market 17, J.Webb Wines and Bros Dough.  Many of my retail colleagues had doubts that these upscale retailers would survive in this location, yet now three years later and they seem to be doing well.

  J.Webb Wine Merchant is Calgary's oldest and one of its most respected independent wine merchants. 

J.Webb Wine Merchant is Calgary's oldest and one of its most respected independent wine merchants. 

  The market at Casel.

The market at Casel.

The design of Casel is also unique in that the two-floor podium is set square to the corner block location, while the seven floor condo tower is turned 45 degrees to the street.  This clever positioning of the condo tower provides everyone with great views of either the mountain or the downtown. It also makes for a better pedestrian experience, as there is no nine-storey wall adjacent to the sidewalk.  And thirdly, it means those living on the lower floors are further away from the street making them quieter.

Casel looking from the navy base on the east side.

At first I was disappointed by the dull grey and sliver façade of the building as seen from Crowchild Trail.  Being a colourist, it seemed to me the addition of colour would have added to the visual appeal of the building. However, when I explored the area on foot I realized that the colour and material of the condo tower is similar to the HMCS Tecumseh Navy Base on the block to the east of Casel.

Back story: Perhaps one of the strangest things in land-locked Calgary is that we have a navy base. Yes, in 1943 the Calgary Navel Reserve division was formed and named after a Shawnee chief who fought with the British and Canadian military forces in the War of 1812.

  The  HMCS Tecumseh Navy Base has a similar facade as the Casel condominium building.

The HMCS Tecumseh Navy Base has a similar facade as the Casel condominium building.

As the City of Calgary looks at how best to evolve our inner city communities from primarily residential to mixed-use walkable communities, we can expect to see more projects like Casel along key transit corridors with major bus routes like 17th Avenue and Kensington Road.  

By Richard White, October 26, 2014

An edited version of this blog appeared in Condo Living Magazine, October edition.

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Window licking along Florence's Via Tornabuoni

One of the things I love to do when flanuering any downtown is take pictures of the reflections of buildings and people in the windows of the fashion boutique.  This works particularly well in cities where there is a strong fashion culture as the fashion boutique window are often like mini art exhibitions. In Florence, the Via de' Tornabuoni is the high street for fashions with the likes of Gucci, Salvatore Ferrogamo, Tiffany's, Enrico Coveri, Damiani, Bulgari and Buccalllati calling it home.

When Brenda said she wanted to go to the Salvatore Ferrogamo Museum, I secretly said "Yahoo" as it meant I would have some time to do some window licking on Via de' Tornabuoni.

Back story

The literal English translation of the french term for window shopping is "window licking," which I have adopted for my practice of window photography as I am often so close to the window that it looks like I could be licking it.

Window licking on Tornabuoni 

I have chosen these images as I feel they convey the diversity of visual imagery along Tornabuoni.  I have also chosen not to provide captions as I would prefer the reader to study each image without my influence.  I hope you will enjoy them as much as I did taking them and studying them afterwards. 

Reflections

I have tried window licking in my hometown Calgary many times, but I never seem to get the same quality of images. I don't know if it is the light, the lack of quality fashion windows or just my poor luck. 

Almost everyday, I like to take some time to look at and reflect on my travel photos. The ones I seem to gravitate to the most art the "window licking" ones. I'd love to hear from you which one was your favourite and why?

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Lyon sidewalk ballet

Montana aka Nellie: What's in a name?

I always thought the name Montana, for a condo on the 800 block of 15th Avenue near the hub of the 17th Avenue shops and restaurants, was strange.  Perhaps it was called that because on a clear day looking south from the penthouse of this 27-storey condo you can see all the way to Montana. (A reader has informed me the name actually comes from the TV show Frasier, who lived in the Montana condo. Still doesn't make much sense to me, but makes for a more interesting story). 

A more appropriate name might have been “Nellie”, given it sits on the same block as the Nellie McClung house. She was one of the “Famous Five” women who successfully lobbied the federal government in the early 20th century for women’s rights.  In fairness, the developer Pro Cura did recognize Montana’s proximity to Nellie’s birthplace by calling one of the condo designs Nellie. They also donated $1,000 from the sales of some of the units to the Famous Five Foundation.

Calling it “Nellie” might have seemed a bit strange back in the late ‘90s when Montana was conceived, before it became very popular to give condos a person’s name - two recent additions to the Beltline condo line-up being Smith and Drake by Grosvenor. I expect the trend will continue as developers scramble to find curious names with some cache and brand value for marketing purposes.

Montana’s design is an example of modified “wedding cake” architecture made popular in New York City in the early 20th century as a result of a 1916 zoning bylaw that forced developers to reduce a building’s shadows at street level.  To do this, architects created buildings that were narrower at the top than the bottom, by creating distinct tiers stacked upon each other like a “wedding cake.”  This gives the building a taller and slimmer profile so the upper floors casted a much smaller shadow.

The shape also creates a number of interesting corner opportunities which ProCura exploited, creating not one, but 35 penthouse suites.  Granted, the developer was a bit liberal in their interpretation of what is a penthouse, but hey, that’s marketing.  For Montana, a penthouse is defined as just a larger suite with a corner view and expanded balcony - not just the top floor.

Montana’s pyramid-like roof has been nicknamed by one of my colleagues as a “party hat” roof, as it has the same proportions as one of those silly conical-shaped hats people wear at birthday parties.  Personally, I like the roof. I think it enhances the building’s elegant profile and is much more visually interesting than the flat rooftops of most buildings in the Beltline.  I also think it enhances the building’s art deco character.

Designed by Calgary’s own BKDI architects (who recently merged with Zeidler in July to form Zeidler BKDI), Montana’s exterior is composed of brick and limestone, two of the most timeless construction materials. It enhances the building’s link to the past when most of the warehouse buildings south of the CPR tracks were brick with some accent stone, including limestone.  

Last Word:

Good urban design often builds on the past with a modern twist, which is exactly what Montana does. 

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Calla: Linking past to future

Too often Calgary’s downtown and Beltline are negatively portrayed as a jungle of concrete and glass when in reality, there are numerous parks and gardens that make it a very attractive place to live.  Sometimes it takes outsiders see this. For example, Vancouver’s Qualex-Landmark saw the potential to create something special on a site just east of the historic Lougheed House and Beaulieu Gardens and just a nine iron from the century old Ranchman’s Club. The result a charming condo called Calla.

Calla looking from Lougheed House.

Located in the heart of the Beltline at 14th Avenue SW and 6th Street SW, Calla is in a residential enclave with a mix of old homes, small walk up apartments as well as mid-rise apartments and condos.  It sits on a quiet, tree-canopied street that could easily be a postcard for idyllic urban living.

It neighbour to the west the 1891 Lougheed House christened with the regal name Beaulieu or Beautiful Place inspired calla’s design.  The home was built on a 2.8-acre site on the southwest edge of downtown as a powerful symbol of Lougheed’s growing prestige and influence that would continue for the next 100 years. By the early 1900s, the estate included the residence, carriage house and stable, as well as a formal garden complete with swan sculpture fountain.

Backstory, Sir James and Lady Isabella Lougheed often entertained royal guests at Beaulieu, including the Duke and Duchess of Connaught (the community around Beaulieu was named Connaught until 2003 when Connaught and Victoria Park communities merged to form the Beltline community) and their daughter, Princess Patricia, as well as the Duke of Windsor (when he was the Prince of Wales). Beaulieu remains one of the finest and last remaining sandstone residences in Alberta.  If you haven’t yet been to the Lougheed house and gardens it is a “must see.”

Unlike most new Beltline condos which 18+ storeys, the 12-storey Calla fits right in with its mid-century 4 to 12-storey neighbour apartment and condos.  At the same time, it makes its own architectural statement, with its terraced massing (Beaulieu Gardens also are terraced), floor-to-ceiling windows and glass balconies, contrasting with the mostly brick and concrete facades of its neighbours.  Vancouver`s Rafii Architects have created a chic, clean, contemporary building that adds a new dimension to the streetscape, as well as the skyline for those living in the heart of the Beltline. It even has park homes (rather than townhomes) that open up right onto a 2.8-acre sanctuary of peace and tranquility in the middle of the Beltline.     

Calla streetscape

Calla is like a magnificent greenhouse, which is appropriate given it is adjacent to the beautiful historic Beaulieu Garden. The Garden is noteworthy for its plant material that is historically accurate to the 1891 to 1925 period.  It is no coincidence that the condo was named after the flower Calla Lily, “calla” derived from the Greek word meaning “magnificent beauty.”

Indeed, Calla serves to link the beauty and ambition of Calgary`s past to that of its future.

Calla at night


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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Calgary's NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Most of the attention for the renaissance in urban living in Calgary is focused on the high-rise communities south of the Bow River (SoBow) - East Village, Eau Claire and West End, Beltline and Mission. Meanwhile the communities north of the Bow River (NoBow) provide an appealing alternative to highrise urban lifestyle of SoBow. 

The NoBow communities along the Bow River (i.e. Montgomery, Parkdale, Point McKay, West Hillhurst, Hillhurst/Sunnyside) and those just above the river to 16th Avenue N (i.e. St. Andrews Heights, Briar Hill, Hounsfield Heights, Rosedale, Crescent Heights and Bridgeland/Riverside) are all walkable urban communities. 

These urban communities differ from SoBow in that not only do they not have any highrises, but they also are not so downtown-oriented.  NoBow residents are just a likely to walk, cycle, take transit or drive to SAIT, ACAD, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children’s Hospital as to downtown for work.

The common perception of the NoBow communities is that they are just another inner city community. But over the past few years, they have been evolving into charming walkable and diverse communities.  In addition to the plethora of new single-family infills, there are numerous mid-rise condos being built. 

For example, in the Kensington Village area (10th Ave NW and Kensington Road), there are approximately 1,000 condos homes recently completed, under construction or in the design stage that will add over 2,000 new residents. A new condo village is emerging on Kensington Road along 19th Street SW with the 55-unit Savoy project and the redevelopment of the Kensington Legion site.

  St. John's condo 

St. John's condo 

Savoy Condo

Main Streets

Bridgeland/Riverside is also emerging as a new urban village with numerous mid-rise condos recently completed or now under construction.  They too have their own funky “Main Street” that just gets better and better each year with the likes of the bobo Bridgeland Market. 

Montgomery’s “main street” captured the attention of one of Canada’s best restaurateurs Michael Noble, who decided to locate the tony Notables restaurant there.

Edmonton Trail is NoBow’s “Restaurant Row” with places like Diner Deluxe, OEB Breakfast, Carino Japanese Bistro, Open Range, El Charrito Taqueria and Boogie Burgers. The Trail is also home to Lukes Drug Mart, a fixture in the community since 1951, which houses Calgary’s only Stumptown Café.

Hillhurst/Sunnyside has both 10th Street and Kensington Road as their pedestrian- oriented streets full of shops, restaurants and cafes, and even their own art house cinema.  The Canadian Institute of Planners has recently recognized it as one of the “great places in Canada.”

Pages bookstore is one of the few independent bookstores left in Calgary. 

Happyland/Parkdale

Happyland is quickly becoming a micro-commercial hub.  Backstory, the triangular piece of land around Memorial Drive, Crowchild Trail (24th Street) and 4th Ave NW was called Happyland in the early 20th century was it became a new Calgary subdivision.  Recently, Arlene Dickinson’s Venture Communications and new Co-op Liquor store joined nearby Bob Pizza (aka neighbourhood pub), a horse and pet supply store, a three specialty sporting goods stores, Jen Meats, another sporting goods store, Ten Thousand Villages and Cartwright Lighting.

Less than a kilometer down the road is the Parkdale Loop (Parkdale Crescent NW) with a few shops including the popular Lazy Loaf Café, a quilt shop, women’s clothing store and Leavitt’s Ice Cream Shop. Several new boutique condos have recently been built or are in the planning stage near the Parkdale Loop.

Despite having no trendy streets -17th Avenue, 4th Street or Design District - NoBow has lots to offer including what was Western Canada’s largest shopping center in 1958 - North Hill Mall. Today it is evolving into a mix-use urban village with shops, restaurants, condo, library and playing fields right next to the Lions Gate Station.  The Mall’s SEARS site is next up for redevelopment.

  Hillhurst Farmers' Market

Hillhurst Farmers' Market

The Plaza is home to Calgary's film community. 

Bob's Pizza has perhaps the smallest patio in the city. 

Dairy Lane has been the 19th St. anchor in West Hillhurst for over 50 years.

Lukes Drug Mart family owned since 1951 has Calgary's only Stumptown Cafe. 

  Kensington Village architecture

Kensington Village architecture

  Buskers on 10th Street.

Buskers on 10th Street.

  Bridgeland Market in downtown Bridgeland.

Bridgeland Market in downtown Bridgeland.

Great Amenities

NoBow is also blessed with great schools. In addition to several elementary, junior high and high schools in these communities, postsecondary students have easy access to SAIT, University of Calgary and ACAD.  This makes NoBow very attractive to families with adolescents and young adults.  

In addition to schools being one of the key criteria people look for when evaluating a potential community to live is the distance to hospitals. The NoBow communities are just minutes away from Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children’s Hospital. 

Next on the criteria list of sought after amenities is grocery stores. There are three Safeway stores within the NoBow communities and another Safeway and a Calgary Co-op on the edge of the district - that’s five grocery stores.

Recreational facilities too are key to community appeal.  NoBow rates high with the West Hillhurst Recreation Centre, as well as Shouldice Athletic Park.  There are also excellent recreational facilities at SAIT and the University of Calgary that are easily accessible and available to NoBowers. Residents also have access to arguably the prettiest stretch of the Bow River pathway for walking, running and cycling year-round.

NoBow is also blessed with numerous parks including Riley Park with its vintage wading pool and historic cricket field, which has hosted games since 1910.   There is even the historic and bucolic 1936 Bow Valley Lawn Bowling Club at 1738 Bowness Road – lawn bowling is the new golf.  Two curling complexes (North Hill and Calgary Curling Club) are also within its boundaries. 

For those who love gardens, Senator Patrick Burns Memorial Rock Garden on 10th Street NW at 8th Avenue NW. It is a gem. And, for those who love treasure hunting, it’s hard to beat the Sunday flea market at the Hillhurst Community Centre.

Running along the Bow River at Poppy Plaza.

  Lawn Bowling in West Hillhurst.

Lawn Bowling in West Hillhurst.

NoBow is for families

NoBow’s total population is 36,130 (based on 2011 Census figures from City of Calgary, Community Profiles).  This compares favourably with the SoBow communities of SunAlta, Beltline, Inglewood, West End, Downtown, Eau Claire, Chinatown, East Village and Inglewood, whose total population is 40,765.

What really makes NoBow different; as an urban precinct is that it is home to 5,582 children under the age of 19 - almost twice the 3,046 children living in SoBow communities. With 15% of its population under the age of 19, NoBow is not far off the city average of 24%. Healthy urban communities are family-friendly.

  Riley Park wading pool

Riley Park wading pool

NoBow loves seniors

There are also several enclaves of seniors housing complexes scattered throughout NoBow that have been around for years, as well as the funky new Lions Club Seniors complex in Happyland. 

The Colonel Belcher Retirement Residence (175 units) moved from the Beltline to Parkdale in 2003. And the Bethany Care Society has called West Hillhurst home since 1945 when the Evangelical Lutheran congregation in Alberta raised $10,000 to purchase the 4.75-acre Riley Estate at the bottom of North Hill (from 18a St to 17th St, and from 8th Ave to 10th Ave NW). The Bethany Calgary site is home to 400 long-term care residents. On the 2400 block of  3rd Avenue NW Calgary’s Kiwanis Clubs have built and operated for years the Parkdale and Crowchild Manors for years.

  Parkdale seniors apartments

Parkdale seniors apartments

  Lions Village seniors complex in Happyland .

Lions Village seniors complex in Happyland.

Last Word

NoBow has a Jane Jacobs urban sense of place about it. Specifically, the urban landscape is not dominated by highrise buildings, nor by upscale national and international retailers and restaurants. Rather, it is a nice mix of single-family homes, duplexes, fourplexes and low to mid-rise apartments and condos.  It has everything from 600-square foot early 20th century cottages and affordable housing complexes for seniors to multi-million dollar mansions.  It boasts mostly local independent stores, coffee shops and restaurants. And, there is a charming mix of old, new and renovated homes and commercial buildings.

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section with the title, "Don't count out eclectic NoBow" on Saturday, September 20th 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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Guest Blog: Ross Aitken

In the inner city communities of many older cities you will often find old homes converted into funky shops and restaurants – places like Height/Ashbury, in San Francisco and Yorkville in Toronto immediately come to mind. While Calgary lacks the charm of a street of big old houses that have been converted into charming boutiques and bistros, there are some good examples of how old homes can become trendy places to shop and dine in Calgary.

The best example would be the century old Cross House in Inglewood that has been converted into the Rouge restaurant. It is not only one of Calgary’s best restaurants, but in 2010 it ranked #60 in the S. Pellegrino’s top 100 restaurants in the world.  Not many Canadian cities can boast a world class restaurant in an iconic home built in 1891 for heroic local citizen – A.E. Cross was one of the big four who started the Calgary Stampede.

A good example of a house that has become a boutique is located in the Parkdale Loop.  “Where you ask?” Parkdale Loop is the cluster of shops just off of Parkdale Boulevard on Parkdale Crescent NW. The cul-de-sac is probably best know as the home of Lazy Loaf Café. But, also on the Loop is Chateau Country Lace a popular women’s boutique that has been around for years in what looks like a mid-century bungalow.

Another great example of a historic house that has become a restaurant is Laurier Lounge in the Beltine. This unassuming Tudor Revival house built in 1908 was the birthplace of George Stanley designer of the Canadian Flag.  But for as long as I can remember, it has been a popular restaurant and lounge, know for its tasty poutine.

Rouge restaurant in Inglewood, Calgary.

Chateau Country Lace, Parkdale Loop. Calgary.

Laurier Lounge, Beltline, Calgary. 

Integration vs Segregation

Recently, I was driving to Marda Loop and in order to bypass the bustling traffic on 33rd Street, I slipped over to 34th Avenue and discovered a half-block of old cottage homes mixed with new two-storey shops that look like modern infills that are home to variety of interesting shops including an upscale tailor and two hair salon. I am convinced this is the future of inner city retail in Calgary.

I am thinking the next evolution of inner city infilling could be like the 2000 block of 34th Avenue in Marda Loop with small shops that look like houses in scale and design being added to the mix of single family, duplex and small condo projects especially on busy transit corridors like Kensington Road in West Hillhurst. 

  Cottage home in Marda Loop gets a new life as a business.

Cottage home in Marda Loop gets a new life as a business.

Several cottage homes in Marda Loop that have been converted to retail along with a new two-storey modern home purpose built for retail.

Better Walkscores

The city of Calgary’s vision is to enhance he walk score of every community in the city. This means more people walking to meet their everyday needs. If this is going to happen, it will mean the City will need to encourage the conversion of more inner city streets to become more like the Parkdale Loop, Marda Loop or the wonderful Britannia Plaza on 49th Avenue in Britannia.

While some might complain the new businesses will add more traffic to their inner-city community, remember they will also convert some drivers to pedestrians and cyclists. And, don’t worry about your property values – Britannia, Parkdale and Marda Loop’s property values have skyrocketed because of their mix of residential with retail and restaurants.

If we are truly serious about creating walkable communities we must allow for the integration of residential, retail and restaurants on the same block - not segregate them!

Ross is a RE/MAX realtor checkout his website rossaitken.ca

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Calgary: Urban Forest vs Tree Abuse?

By Richard White, September 6, 2014 (An edit version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "From bald prairie to urban forest," on September 6, 2014)

Recently, Toronto-based Lamb Development Corp. announced it would be creating orchard between the two condo towers on 12th Avenue next to Stampede.  I thought this was a strange idea being Calgary is not know as fruit belt by any stretch of the imagination. But after a little digging I learned that since 2009, the City of Calgary has been planting fruit trees and shrubs as part of a pilot community research orchard program.  The three pilot orchards are in Hillhurst-Sunnyside (50 trees), Baker Park (100+ trees) and Ralph Klein Park (no number given on city of Calgary website).  The first two focus mostly on apple trees, while the later will consist of a variety of pear trees.

The City of Calgary recommends two varieties of apple trees - Prairie Sun and Prairie Sensation, both are about six feet tall and produce about 20 lbs. of apples when mature.  The two varieties of pears recommended are “Ure” and “Early Gold.” The “Capilano” apricot is also recommended, as are several varieties of cherries.  Fruit bearing shrubs include the “Hinnomaki Red” gooseberry, American Hazelnuts, Honeyberries or Haskaps. 

A quick check of Calgary greenhouse and landscape websites confirmed that indeed, several other varieties of fruit trees would grow well in Calgary. In fact, I forgot but when we moved into our house in West Hillhurst (aka Grand Trunk) in there were two mature apple trees in the neighbour’s backyard that produced a massive amount of apples.  They removed the trees a few years later as the apples quickly drop to the ground, became very mushy very quickly, becoming “wasp magnets. They weren’t much good except for applesauce, which we ate a lot of that summer.

At this time, the City has no plans to create more community orchards, but interested individuals should contact their community association if they are interested. The city might consider facilitating an orchard in your community – could be in a pocket park, community garden or along the boulevard near your home.  The City even has an “orchard steward” program i.e. someone who takes an active role in caring for and maintaining an orchard by pruning, monitoring health and harvesting the fruit.

Silver Springs experimental orchard.

Apple tree on the front lawn of a century old home in Inglewood. 

Treeless Prairie

While digging I also found out a lot more about Calgary’s urban forest. Indeed, Calgary’s urban forest is a remarkable achievement given the City’s climate doesn’t naturally support trees.  It is estimated that 3% of trees in Calgary’s urban forest die annually.

Early photographs of Calgary show a treeless prairie landscape, however in the 1890s William Pearce, envisioned Calgary as a “city of trees,” developing an experimental farm with an irrigation system so he could grow more types of trees.  His home and farm is now known as Pearce Estates Park, located at the far east end of Inglewood where the Bow River turns south.

He also encouraged Calgarians to improve the appearance of the City by planting trees around their homes. And, in 1899, the City Council passed not only the first tree protection bylaws, but also started promoting tree planting.

Calgary before trees.