Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary!

By Richard White, August 31, 2014. 

Since Calgary’s urban living renaissance began in the early ‘90s, Vancouver developers have been instrumental in shaping our city’s 21st century urban condo culture.  Vancouver’s Nat Bosa was one of the first developers to realize that Calgary’s downtown could more than just a place to work before heading back to the ‘burbs’ to live.  Today, his children - Ryan and Natalie Bosa - are championing the revitalization of East Village.

Calgary’s largest single condo development project to date  - Waterfront (eight buildings, 1,000+ condos and 1,200 parking stalls) on the old Greyhound bus barn site east of Eau Claire Market was the brainchild of Vancouver’s Anthem Properties. This developer also has a 5.4-acre site across from Erlton Station that could accommodate a similar scale project.

Vancouver’s Qualex-Landmark, has almost single-handedly reshaped the Beltline with five condo projects including sold-out Mark on 10th which is currently under construction.  It just recently announced Park Point, a two-tower (500+ condos) in the heart of the Beltline north of Memorial Park; this means Qualex-Landmark will have built 1,500 new condos over the past 10 years.

The list of Vancouver developers shaping Calgary’s urban condo culture doesn’t end there Bucci Development Ltd. is very active north of the Bow with mid-rise projects in Bridgeland and Kensington. Maple Project is responsible for Ten and UNO, both in lower Mount Royal, with plans for a high-rise apartment in the Beltline, as well as the redevelopment of the Highland Golf course.

Mark on 10th will establish a new benchmark for urban design in Calgary. It is fun, funky and quirky without being weird and wacky. 

The Waterfront condo project is the largest condo project in Calgary's history.

BOSA condos built in downtown's West End in the mid '90s. 

International Influence

More recently, Calgary’s new urban living renaissance has captured the interest of the global investment community.  Grosvenor, an urban development company based in London, England that dates back to 1677, identified Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto as the best three cities in the world for investment potential.  Currently, Grosvenor Americas based in Vancouver has three Calgary condo projects – Drake, Smith (Beltline) and Avenue (West End). 

Vancouver’s Concord Pacific (developers of the Vancouver Expo ’86 site), with ties to Hong Kong, recently announced they will be proceeding with their uber-chic Eau Claire condo project west of the Princeton.  Concord Pacific is associated with luxury condo communities with a reputation of choosing only the “best of the best” sites. Eau Claire and Mission are competing to see who will become the “Mount Royal of condo living.”

Toronto developers get some skin in the game

Toronto condo developers, though late in the Cowtown condo game, have hit the ground running.  Both FRAM+Slokker Real Estate Group and Lamb Development Corp. have entered the Calgary market in the past few years.  FRAM+Slokker is focused on East Village with three projects - First will be completed in 2015, Verve in 2016 and a site for an unnamed major retail, office and residential development has also been acquired.

Lamb has acquired two properties for development - one on 10th Ave SW next to the iconic Uptown Bottle Depot and one on 12th Avenue SE next to Stampede Park.  The latter named Orchard will be twin 31-storey towers with a one-acre apple orchard in the middle.

Rafiiville or Little Vancouver

Not only are Vancouver developers shaping Calgary’s condo culture, but so are their Vancouver design and marketing teams.  Vancouver architect Road Rafii has had more influence on Calgary’s architectural look than any other architect over the past ten years. In 2001, the Vancouver Sun identified Rafii as one of the 10 architects who shaped Vancouver’s urban sense of place.  In 2014, you could say he has also shaped Calgary’s sense of place as he was the design architect for Calla, Drake, Luna, Mark on 10th, Nova, Stella and Waterfront condo projects. Perhaps we should rename the Beltline “Rafiiville.”

Grosvenor is also using a Vancouver architectural firm - James KM Cheng Architects - for its Avenue condo project in our downtown’s West End while Concord Pacific is using Vancouver “starchitects” Arthur Erickson and Peter Busby for their Eau Claire condo project. In addition, Busby + Will Architects are designing a complete redo of the Eau Claire Market site for Regina’s Harvard Properties.  Could our downtown Bow River condo district become “Little Vancouver.”

One would think the out-of-town developers don’t think much of Calgary’s architectural community. However, it is more a case of being more comfortable dealing with a design and marketing team they are familiar with.  However, Brad Lamb, President of Lamb Development Corp., quoted recently in the Financial Post in conjunction with the announcement of Concord Pacific’s Eau Claire condo project said, “there are a few true luxury, high-rise developments in Calgary, but their architectural styles can be best described as pedestrian.” Ouch!

Obviously, it is not a coincidence that Calgary’s downtown skyline is perhaps looking a bit like Vancouver’s given the number of high-rise Vancouver condo developers who are capitalizing on the residentialization of Calgary’s urban core.

A rendering of proposed Orchard condo with the apple tree orchard between the two towers. 

Fostering a sense of place

From an urban design perspective, I am not convinced Calgary is being well served by out-of-town developers as most of their architectural designs are not breaking any new ground and certainly not contributing to creating a “made-in Calgary” sense of place. However, I am anxiously awaiting the completion of Qualex-Landmark’s Mark on 10th as it has potential to be a signature architectural statement for Calgary.

If I had to choose my favourite uniquely contemporary condo designs, I would pick ones designed by Calgary architectural firms. Arriva is probably my favourite - designed by BKDI. I have also come to admire what I like to call “The Chessmen” on Macleod Trail – SASSO and NUERA, designed by Calgary’s Abugov Kaspar Architects and Alura and Nuera, designed by Calgary’s S2 Architecture.  These condo towers make a modern, robust and masculine statement with their massing and mechanical design elements. To me they have an engineering look that reflects Calgary’s huge engineering community. 

Good architecture doesn’t have to shout out “Look at me! Look at me!” Rather, it just “stands out” over time as something interesting to look at.

These four condos by Cove Properties along Macleod Trail near Stampede Park have started to create a distinctive sense of place with their unique design. 

South of downtown on 17th Avenue red brick is more common as the facade material for high-rises and the design elements are more art deco and Manhattan like. 

The Beltline has an eclectic design sensibility, many of the new condos and apartments area adding an element of colour as part of their sense of place, like the Aura apartments across the street from the new Barb Scott Park. 

Condo living is in its infancy in YYC

“Condo living will soon be the norm in Calgary,” says Michael Ward, Senior VP & General Manager of Grosvenor Americas.  His rationale is that Calgary will have a very robust economy for the foreseeable future (although there will be periodic downturns) given its political stability and the large fixed costs and long-term commitments to the oil sands by both domestic and international firms.  This in turn will attract young professionals, not only from Canada but internationally to work in Calgary’s downtown office towers. He believes “living in condominiums is a preferred choice for an increasing number of young people, looking for affordable housing and centrally located.” 

He even postulates that “as seen in Vancouver, large parts of Europe and Asia, people are choosing to stay in condominiums after they form relationships and have families as they enjoy the convenience of living close to amenities, work and friends.”

Ward notes, “Condominium development has in the past garnered some bad publicity in Calgary, as smaller, opportunistic developers have walked away from half-finished projects through tough times and held on to purchasers’ deposits for years before commencing construction.”  He notes, “the fact Calgary is attracting major experienced national and international urban condo developers, means more condos will be completed on time with quality design and construction, which in turn will make condo living more attractive to more Calgarians.”  

For decades, Calgary has been predominantly a single-family home city, but over the past decade this has changed not only in the inner-city, but in the ‘burbs’ also.  For many the condo is the new ‘starter home.’ There are currently over 7,000 condos under construction across the city. As Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a- changin.” 

By Richard White. An edited version of this blog appeared in the September 2014 issue of Condo Living magazine, with the title " Cross Canada Connections." 

Condo from the 70s and 80s and 90s along the Elbow River in Mission.

In 1982, the Estate condo was built next to the historic Ranchmen's Club.  It was designed with town homes along the street with a tower above, nearly a decade before the podium and point tower became the Vancouver condo design craze. 

Confessions of a Public Art Juror

By Richard White, March 16, 2014

Recently, I was involved in a jury for a major public artwork (budget $500,0000+) being commissioned by the City of Calgary. Though I am not at liberty to give specifics, I thought EDT readers would be interested in knowing what happens when a City of Calgary public art jury is sequestered for a day to choose a public artwork.

Of the 17 people I counted involved in the jurying process, six had votes; the others consisted of eight engineers and three from the City of Calgary’s Public Art office.  The engineers were there to provide the jurors with technical information as need and to ask questions of the artists regarding installation and maintenance.

Of the sic voting members, there were three people from Calgary’s arts community, one from the City and one “shared” vote from the community (there were actually two community representatives, as the site linked two different communities, but their scores were combined to create one vote between them). 

This meeting followed one held in Fall 2013, when the same jurors reviewed over 50+ submissions from which three artists were chosen to present concepts for the site.  If memory serves me correctly, we were unanimous in our decision on the three short-listed artists.

Given the recent controversy over the Travelling Light (aka Blue Circle) sculpture on the Airport Trail Bridge, I think we were all very anxious about ensuring we chose the right work (whatever “right” means).  While all juries discuss the public accessibility of the work being considered, in this case there was a heightened awareness that this piece had to have widespread public appeal while still having artistic integrity.

The Drop, by inges indee, 2009, is a 65 foot raindrop on the plaza next to the Vancouver Convention Centre.  This is the same team of artists who created "Traveling Light" in Calgary. 

Family of Man, by Mario Armegol (1967) is ten 21-foot nude figures located on the plaza of the old Board of Education Building in downtown Calgary.

Homage, by Derek Besant (1989 is a 20 foot by 18 foot by 10 foot sculpture located on the campus of Mount Royal University, in Calgary.

The Process

Jurors were given background material on each of the artists a week before this second meeting to refresh our memories.  At the beginning of the jurying session, we were also reminded of the goals of the project and why we had chosen these artists.  I won’t bore you with all the details and needless to say the goal was to choose an artwork that would capture the imagination of Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds.

The City’s Public Art Manager then reviewed samples of each artist’s previous public artwork followed by each artist making a 20-minute presentation of their proposed artwork for the site, as well as the rationale for how it would enhance the site’s sense of place and capture the public’s interest and imagination.  The artist presentations were followed by 40-minutes of open “questions and answers.”

I couldn’t help but think maybe we had too much information.  Most people will just see the artwork and immediately decide if they like it - or not.  They won’t have access to or knowledge of the artist’s previous work. They won’t be privy to the artist’s rationale for the work. Sure, some may read about the rationale later or maybe even before they see it, but the majority won’t. Public art is usually a gut response.

Lack of colour 

It is always interesting to hear public art artists talk about their work.  Unlike artists who exhibit primarily in galleries, they are used to talking about their work, as going through a rigorous jurying process; it is part of what they do.  It is a bit like an RFP (request for proposals) process i.e. you are lucky if you get short-listed 25% of the time and selected 5% of the time.

I am also always amazed by their passion, depth of knowledge and the way they connect elements from a diversity of fields of study like mathematics, physics, poetry, history and current events. It is like they flaneur intellectually the many divergent parameters of the public art commission; site, community, city, their work and the work of others to come up with the idea, the metaphor and the materials which become their concept, their statement.  It is a fascinating journey.

I was particularly intrigued by how “out-of-town” artists see our City.  One told us his piece had lots of colour because when he visited Calgary in October (each of the short-listed artists visited the site before coming up with their concept), he was surprised by our lack of colour.  This resonated with me, as I love colour, but one juror didn’t like the colours chosen so while I loved it, another didn’t.  It is impossible to please everyone – even if it is just seven jurors.

Another artist talked about how “sunny” Calgary is and that is why the city is so “optimistic.”  We all smiled.  He also talked about Calgary’s magnificent vistas, something I think we too often take for granted.  It was these elements that inspired him and his team’s proposal.

One artist was asked if he had considered using recycled materials and objects given his piece could be interpreted as an environmental statement.  He explained that uniform elements and materials were critical to his work and added, “people will see what they want in the art.  If you are an environmentalist, you will look for a statement about the environment. If you are a banker or accountant, you will probably look at the cost. The engineer will usually look at how it was constructed. I can just make the best art I can. I can’t worry about what the different publics will think and say.” 

Sadko (red) and Kabuki (yellow) were created bySoel Etrog in 1972. These twice life-size sculptures add much needed colour to downtown Calgary's 2nd Street SW and Bow Valley Square. Downtown Calgary is home to over 100 public artworks, making it one of the world's largest art parks. 

THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER, by Ron Moppett (2012) is 110 feet long and 13 feet high mural constructed out of .  956,231 unique tiles.  It too adds colour and fun to the downtown Calgary's landscape. 

"The Field Manual: A compendium of local influence," by Light & Soul (Daniel j. Kirk, Ivan Ostapenko and Kai Cabunoc-Boettcher) consists of several murals along the River Walk in Calgary's East Village.  This is a temporary installation that was completed in the summer of 2013 and will remain for 24 months.

The Great Debate

Following the question and answer period, the jurors debated the three proposals for over two hours. We talked about each work from many different perspectives. 

The top ten questions I heard were:

  1. Is it stimulating? Engaging?
  2. How does it relate to the history of the site, the community and the city?
  3. Is it innovative?
  4. Is it durable? What about maintenance?
  5. Will it create a meeting/gathering place?
  6. How will it be seen from afar and close up?
  7. Will it create a sense of place?
  8. Is it accessible? Will it work for school tours?
  9. Is it feasible for the proposed budget? (the artists were asked to present a budget)
  10. What are the installation problems and other challenges?

We talked about “quiet” or “silent” art, i.e. art that is minimal or subtle (i.e. doesn’t shout-out “look at me!”).  We used terms like “the vernacular in art,” “mathematics and art” and “engineering aesthetics.” We looked at the universe from the macro and molecular level.  The proposals made links to Stonehenge, the Rockies, Vancouver airport, Ford 150 trucks, pickup sticks, teepee poles and cell towers. We even managed to work in urban sprawl, cycling and nesting sites for birds into the debate.

The Decision

In the end, we had to choose one artwork. Each juror independently evaluated each proposal using a 1,000-point rating system developed by the City of Calgary.  All of the jurors’ scores were added up and the artist with the most points was chosen. In the end, five of the six votes selected the same piece as their number one pick, making it almost a unanimous decision again.

I should also note, all jurors acknowledged all three were strong proposals and all three could have been successful as public artworks for the site.   Hopefully, the one chosen will capture the imagination and the heart of the residents in the communities near where it will be installed, as well as all Calgarians and visitors.  Hopefully too it will stand the test of time, becoming something cherished for generations to come.

Cloud Gate aka The Bean is by Anish Kapoor and was installed in Chicago's Millennium Park in 2006. This giant bean-shaped polished stainless steel sculpture attracts thousands of visitors everyday, who love to look at and manipulate their reflections in the concave and convex mirror surface.  Everyone is smiling and laughing; people of all ages and from around the world are sharing the space in and around this work of art.  The public is engaged, which is what good public art should do. 

A-maze-ing Laughter, by Yue Minjun, was installed in a small park in Vancouver's West End in 2009 as part of the Vancouver Biennale.  It has now become a permanent part of the community and is very popular with tourist walking along the waterfront at English Bay.  It is still very popular with locals and tourist five years later. This piece of art has definitely capture the imagination of the public.  The public loves art that they can touch and interact with. 

Wonderland, Jaume Plensa, 2012, sits on a plaza in front of The Bow office tower in downtown Calgary.  It is a 37 foot high head, made of painted stainless steel.  The piece invites people to climb it as this young office worker decided to do on his lunch hour in his business clothes.  A security guard is now on duty to prevent anyone from climbing the sculpture in the future.  I understand the issue of liability, however, the artist should have know that it is important to allow the public to participate and interact with his work. The piece is too static, you look at it for a few minutes then what?  Plensa's "Crown Fountain" piece in Chicago's Millennium Park is one of the most successful public art pieces in the world today, because the the public is allowed to play with it. 

Last Word

The jurying process for choosing City of Calgary-commissioned public artworks is one of the most rigorous I have ever experienced in my 30 years as a visual arts curator, freelance writer, artist and juror. 

Though it is comprehensive, fair and professional, I can’t help but wonder if there is overthinking and overanalyzing to the extent that the sense of surprise, spontaneity and immediacy that is central to the public art experience is lost to the jurors. 

I wonder too if jurors are sometimes too influenced by the artist’s passion, presentation and personality.  Maybe it would be best if jurors were just given visuals of each artist’s proposal upon which to make the decision.  That way we’d be judging the art and only the art; just like the public.  I once heard “art should speak for itself.” 

If you like this blog, you might like:


The rise of public art / The decline of public art galleries

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YYC Needs vs Wants: Arena, Convention Centre, Stadium

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

By Richard White, March 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needs vs. Wants

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

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

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

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

Do we need a new stadium?

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

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

Do we need a new arena?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calgary: North America's Newest Design City

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Calgary leads Vancouver in condo design?

By Richard White, January 10, 2014 

Calgary’s first high-rise condos were built at the end of the ‘70s early “80s boom.  Eau Claire 500 was built along the Bow River before there was the Eau Market, the Eau Claire Y and the Bow River Promenade.  The Estate was built as part of the Ranchmen’s Club’s extensive renovations in 1982. 

In many ways The Estate is the model for current condo development with its street level townhouses integrated into the design. Today townhouses at street level are the norm, but in the late ‘70s new townhouses in the Beltline were quite unusual.  

Could it be that Calgary was the inspiration for Vancouver’s plethora of townhouse podium with high-rises tower above that were built starting in the ‘90s? 

Calgary's Estate condo on 13th Avenue which was Calgary's millionaire's row in the early 20th century. 

Highrise condos with street level town homes was innovative in the '80s.

Calgary's historic Ranchmen's Club was established in 1914.


It is perhaps ironic that The Estate was designed by Vancouver architect David Tom who is now a partner in one of Vancouver’s most influential architectural firms BingThom Architects. In 2007, they were the architects for the SAIT Master Plan and in 2009, the architects for the new SAIT parkade which is an amazing work of art and architecture.

The proposed condo tower at 26 floors was way in excess of the ‘80s zoning height limit of 17 floors. The design also called for no balconies, which was also precedent setting urban design for the time.  The city agreed to transfer the density (floors) that would be allowed above the Ranchmen’s Club site if it were to torn down to the land to the west for the condo.  The city also accepted the lack of balconies; given the design included internal climate-controlled conservatories and the street level town homes along 13th Avenue SW. 

In 2014, the Ranchmen’s will be celebrating its 100 anniversary in its R.E. Donnell designed three story Renaissance Revival brick and terra cotta building.  The interior features extensive highly detailed dark woodwork that creates an immediate sense of history, character and charm.  The club is a reminder that Calgary’s original economic engine was ranching, not oil and gas.  Together with the historic Lougheed House and gardens across the street, this area is a hidden gem of Calgary’s history.  

The Estate reflects both the past and the present.  There is a sense of timelessness in the extensive use of brick as the main exterior material.  Yet, without balconies and any other ornamentation the design reflects modern minimalism.  However, it avoided the boxy look of most late 20th century high-rises by placing the tower on a diagonal to the street to create visual interest and maximize the views for each apartment. 

This blog first appeared in Condo Living Magazine, February, 2014. 

The entrance to the Estate is inviting and intimate. 

Designed without protruding balconies gives the Estate a clean modern sense of place, yet the facade pallet is harmonious with the historic design of the Ranchmen's Club. 

The Estate and Ranchmen's Club from the gardens of the Lougheed Mansion across the street.