Mexico City: A Kaleidoscope of colour

Recently I posted a slide show of black and white photographs of every day places and space in Mexico City that was very well received, however, several readers also pointed out that Mexico is known for its splendid colour.  I too was overwhelmed by the colour of streets of Mexico City and one of the reason I chose to take some b&w photos was to see how the city looked without all of the colour.  

Based on reader feedback, I decided to put together a slide show that would capture the wonderful colour of the everyday people and places of Mexico City.  I hope you will enjoy the slide show.

Below is the Mexico City: Noir slide show if you'd like to compare. 

Comments are welcomed!

Affordable Housing: Unique Situations?

As cities and towns across Canada age and evolve, old buildings become outdated or are no longer needed for their original purpose. Neighbourhoods also evolve - what was once a warehouse or industrial district near downtown becomes a trendy upscale place to live.  What was the wrong side of the tracks is now the right side, meaning low-income housing is being replaced by upscale homes. One of the key issues facing cities and towns across Canada today is how to provide affordable housing. 

Karine LeBlanc, Media Relations Officer with Canada Mortgage and Housing indicates that “CMHC provides provinces and territories with funds through the Investment in Affordable Housing program which gives them the flexibility to invest in a range of affordable housing programs and initiatives to meet local housing needs and priorities. Initiatives can include, for example, new construction, renovation, homeownership assistance, rent supplements, shelter allowances, and accommodations for victims of family violence.”

One way CMHC has identified to create more affordable housing is adapting old non-residential buildings into housing.  While there are no specific limitations on the types of non-residential buildings that may be converted to residential use, certain types of buildings lend themselves more easily to conversion - old schools, hospitals, offices, motel and hotels buildings can be converted into apartments. Warehouses and factories are suitable for open concept live-work spaces.

CMHC studies identify seven advantages of converting non-residential buildings into housing including; construction costs are usually lower, housing is delivered faster, less stress and resistance from the neighbours, opportunity for historical preservation, neighbourhood revitalization and environmental friendliness given reuse of materials and building. 

The key barriers to conversion from CMHC’s perspective may be; difficulty in obtaining traditional financing, additional time for design, land use changes and building permit approval, expensive environmental cleanup, loss of employment in community and unexpected problems in construction.  

Lessons Learned From the Netherlands

One of the most objective and comprehensive studies of the feasibility of converting non-residential buildings into housing was conducted in 2014 in Europe. The “Adaptive reuse of office buildings: opportunities and risks of conversion to housing” study looked at 15 buildings in the Netherlands, all of which were office building conversions to housing.

The study found the advantages of conversions were, preservation of the unique heterogeneity of architecture in a neighbourhood, office buildings are constructed to carry more weight than housing, in most cases additional floors could be added to improve the economic feasibility of the project.  In addition the study identified the reuse of a building that is vacant and derelict as positive outcome, as well as, adds diversity to the housing inventory of the community, which attracts new and diverse residents.

On the negative side the study showed, older buildings don’t meet modern building code, which often leads to major renovations to both the exterior and interior of building and residential buildings require more vertical shafts for electricity, water and plumbing than office buildings especially after 1965 when pre-stressed concrete was used which loses its strength when cut.  Another major barriers were the fact that many older buildings lack parking, green space and balconies, all required to create attractive residential buildings.  In addition, their low ceilings don’t allow for the higher ceilings that are the norm in modern residential development today. Like the CMHC study, the Netherlands research found cost overruns as a result of slow approval process and increased hours spent developing solutions to unforeseen problems as key issues faced in office building conversions.

Success Factors!

The authors concluded in all 15 cases, the success factors for the conversion of offices to residential buildings were - low purchasing price, adaptable floor plan, government subsidies, purchase and conversion by housing associations that in general work with long-term investment scenarios and do not require profit-maximization

A municipality may use several approaches to encourage the conversion of non-residential buildings for the purpose of affordable housing. These approaches include adopting flexible zoning policies such as those for mixed-use developments and live-work spaces and allowing residential conversions as a permitted or conditional use in appropriate commercial or industrial zones. 

Other municipal led initiatives include, undertaking an inventory of vacant public and privately-owned buildings that may be suitable for conversion and notifying affordable housing providers about publicly owned, non-residential buildings that are suitable for conversion and offering these buildings to such providers on favourable terms.

Critical to successful adaptive reuse projects is providing technical assistance from building inspectors and planners to groups interested in converting non-residential buildings into affordable housing. And finally, providing tax exemptions, fee exemptions, waivers, reductions, grants or other financial incentives

CMHC Case Studies

Regina’s Renaissance Retirement Residence

 In early 2005, the Derrick Building was an abandoned city-owned, five-storey office building in Regina, unoccupied for 15 years. By late 2006, it was transformed into a seven-storey seniors’ residence with a mix of market and affordable units. The conversion of the building into the Renaissance Retirement Residence was carried out by a private company with support from all three levels of government.

Renaissance Retirement Home

The project budget was $14.5 million ($92,357/door), financed through private investment, mortgage financing and $2.1 million from Canadian Association Heritage Professionals ($1,055,000 from CMHC and $845,000 from the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation). In addition, the City of Regina provided a five-year property tax exemption, valued at $211,000 as the project supported the City of Regina’s priorities of downtown revitalization and conversion of non-residential buildings into affordable housing.

The architectural firm of Alton Tangedal designed the converted building. Structural analysis showed that it would be possible to add two more stories to the five-storey building, thus improving the feasibility of the project.

The conversion retained the shell but fully gutted the interior, creating a total of 157 units (104 studio suites, 42 one-bedrooms and 11 two-bedrooms). In addition, there are two floors of common amenities’ space. The main floor has a lounge and reception area, while the downstairs has a large recreation area complete with a theatre, library and dance floor. In addition, outside there is an 800-square metre deck with gardens that the residents help maintain.  There are only 25 parking spaces for residents.

Renaissance Retirement Home interior

A priority for new and repaired government-assisted housing under the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals (CAHP) is improved energy efficiency to contribute to a greener environment and to lower costs for residents. This was achieved at the Renaissance Retirement Residence by incorporating 30 solar panels on the roof as well as a system of geothermal wells with 54 boreholes to a depth of close to 150 metres (500 feet). The integration of these two systems maximizes the seasonal efficiency of heating and hot water for the building.

The government assistance enabled 80 of the 157 units to be offered as affordable accommodation with optional assisted living services, renting at around 25 per cent below market rates. The Renaissance has been highly successful and currently has a long waiting list.

Salt Spring Island’s Murikami Gardens

Murakami Gardens

On Salt Spring Island, a popular resort isle in British Columbia, a 27-affordable units housing complex was created by the conversion of an unused fish plant gifted by the Murakami family, long-term Island residents. The capital cost was $5,037,150 (or $186,561/door) in 2008.

Murikami Gardens wouldn’t have happened without CMHC provided seed funding and proposal development funding of $31,000, plus $648,000 in Rental Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program monies.  The Ministry of Housing and Social Development provided $1.8-million in interim construction financing and one-time grants totally $1,312,000. The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, through Community Action on Energy Efficiency (CAEE), provided $15,000 towards energy upgrading. The Murakami family provided $442,412 in land equity and a forgivable loan of $200,000. John Lefebrve provided a $500,000 interest-free loan for construction. The Capital Regional District provided $324,000 in Regional Housing Trust funding.  Salt Spring Island Community Services contributed $110,000 cash and $104,738 in-kind donations. The Real Estate Foundation provided $50,000 while The Islands Trust approved zoning that allowed for higher than normal density.

Murikami Gardens has been a huge success since day one. 

Thorold’s Welland Mills Centre

The Welland Mills Centre is an imaginative reuse of an old stone flour mill building located on 16-acre historic landmark site in downtown Thorold, Ontario.  The building was converted into an 18-unit affordable housing development for singles and seniors by Keefer Developments Ltd with assistance from both the City and the Region.

The City waived $40,392 in development charges and provided $237,633 in municipal grants. The Region of Niagara waived $47,880 in development charges. With further funding from the Province and the federal government, as well as a $100,000 developer contribution, the Welland Mills Centre got built and officially opened its doors in 2006.

Completed in 2006, the total cost of the project was $2.2 million (or $122,222/door) and it continues to serve the community well.

Welland Mills Centre interior

 Adaptive Reuse Requires Subsidies

While there are many examples of successful reuse of old buildings, many architects, engineers and developers caution that adaptive reuse is not a slam dunk every time.  It is not a panacea for old neighbourhoods and it comes with significant risks, costs and compromises. 

Barry Lester, retired VP at Stantec in Calgary, with extensive experience in historical building renovations, perhaps articulated it best when he said “The interesting thing about the reuse of old buildings is that in many cases, it ends up costing more than building something new. Usually very little of the original building is salvageable -the structure of course, and maybe the envelope or cladding. But most old mechanical and electrical systems don't work efficiently or don't meet new codes. And the finishes are all likely all to need replacement.

If one thinks in terms of construction costs, the structure is usually about 20% (or less) of the total building cost and the cladding (or envelope) may be another 10% provided that it is moisture and thermal-resistant. So the potential savings of using an older building versus a new, built-for-purpose facility are generally 30% or less. And this 30% savings can very quickly be eaten up by the inefficiencies inherent in fitting residential uses into a commercial or historical space and by the premium cost of renovation versus new construction.”

Lester concludes, “The argument must be made on some other inherent value of the older building such as heritage or community pride.”  

Last Word

CMHC’s Leblanc cautions, “While some conversion projects, including the Renaissance Retirement Residence in Regina have been made possible in part, due to financial assistance from CMHC, the funding was part of other programs delivered by the Corporation and not a program specifically designed to support the conversion of non-residential buildings.”

Indeed it obvious from the three Canadian case studies that significant subsidies, heritage preservation and community pride are the key factors in adaptive reuse of old buildings into affordable housing. Where there is a will, there is a way!

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog was published by Manasc Isaac Architects for publication in their Winter 2016 magazine reimagine titled " Reuse It or Lose It."  

Read Winter 2016 issue of "reimagine"

Click here for more information on Manasc Issac Architecture

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Mexico City: City of Museums

Mexico City is rumoured to have over 150 museums and I don’t doubt that number. There seems to be a museum or two on every street in the 150-block historic centre (Centro Historico), as well as many outside it. My mom estimates that over our 18-day visit, we visited over 30 museums.  Quite frankly, I lost count.

But whatever the number, we do agree on our seven favourite museums (no particular order):

  • Museo Nacional de Antropologia
  • Museo Soumaya
  • Museo Nacional de Arte
  • Museo de Arte Popular
  • Secretaria de Educacion Publica
  • Museo Frida Kahlo
  • Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico (aka the Toy Museum)

Museo Nacional de Antropologia 

Built in 1964 and designed by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (MNA) still looks very contemporary - flat roof and huge central plaza largely covered with a 275-foot canopy balanced on a 36-ft pillar decorated with European and Mexican civilization reliefs.  Unlike many new museums and art galleries in the late 20th and early 21st century, the architectural design of MNA enhances, not competes with the artifacts. Just as it ideally always should.

The museum is unique also in that the ground floor, dedicated to archaeological finds from ancient Mexico - each room dealing with a particular civilization or region of the country - allows you to wander outside into gardens and courtyards thus recreating an “in situ” experience with the artifacts.   I loved the outdoor reconstructions of the Mayan temples and Monte Alban Tomb.

This is a huge museum with 23 exhibition rooms on two levels, covering 800,000+ square feet and sitting on almost 20 acres.  While most people we talked to spend about 2 hours at the museum, they must have been running through it. I think all North Americans should visit this museum to develop a better appreciation of our collective history – the artifacts and stories are compelling.

Admission: 64 MX pesos (about $5 CDN) (no children or family pricing)

Time: Could easily be 4+ hours. While you are in the area, you might want to check out the Mexico Zoo or the Chapultepec Castle at the top of a hill in the middle of the park of the same name – both are close by. There are also two other smaller museums nearby - Museo Tamyo and Museo de Arte Moderno.

Tamayo's bold and beautiful mural graces the entrance to Mexico City's insightful Anthropology Museum a "must see" for all North Americans. 

The museum's courtyard has a zen-like atmosphere.

This single pillar not only holds up the entire canopy, but it serves as a powerful waterfall and relief sculpture. The museum is gracefully designed to enhance and respect the sense of place created by the artifacts.  It is part of Mexico City's wonderful connectivity between the past and present. 

The entrance to the first gallery tells the story of man's evolution on the planet earth. 

The gallery spaces are spacious but not overwhelming, making for a enjoyable experience. 

The exhibition spaces are a wonderful link to the architecture and artifacts of past cultures. 

One of the many gardens that link the indoor galleries with outdoor spaces to create a unique museum experience. 

Found this Mayan mural when I stuck my head into one of the ruins spaces it covered all the walls and roof. I couldn't help but immediately think of Picasso's Guernica and how the early Mexican cultures foreshadowed many of the 19th and early 20th century European art practices.  

The upper floors of the museum showcase information on the diversity of indigenious cultures in different parts of Mexico. 

It was interesting to see this image, after encountering two young men wearing contemporary deer heads masks in the Zombie Walk. 

When you see an artifact like this you quickly make the connection to the iconic skull-like face paintings of the "Day of the Dead" festival. 

Found this one-eyed figure painted on a artifact and was stuck by how contemporary it was.  

  As an urbanist, this panel made me realize that Mexico City has centuries of architecture and urban design to build upon. I realized how infantile we are in Calgary. 

As an urbanist, this panel made me realize that Mexico City has centuries of architecture and urban design to build upon. I realized how infantile we are in Calgary. 

  This panel was enlightening as it illustrates how violence and war has been part of Mexico's (and many other nations') culture for thousands of years. It is very hard for Canadians to understand this. 

This panel was enlightening as it illustrates how violence and war has been part of Mexico's (and many other nations') culture for thousands of years. It is very hard for Canadians to understand this. 

Museo Soumaya

A private museum of Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, it is named after his deceased wife Soumaya Domit, designed by his son-in-law Fernando Romero and engineered by Frank Gehry and Ove Arup.

The six-story building is an uber-contemporary design with its flat base (perched above the sidewalk) and roof anchoring a twisted tower that gives the building a tension and shape that defies description. The 16,000, shiny, hexagonal, aluminum tiles (supplied by a company owned by Slim) are like the skin of a snake.  Opened in 2011, the museum anchors the Nuevo Polanco district, which includes several other contemporary office, hotel and shopping centres including a modern Costco across the street.

Inside, you are greeted by a huge, stark white minimalist lobby that is home to just three artworks - murals by Mexico’s iconic artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo and the renowned sculpture “The Thinker” by Rodin. This is just the beginning of your exploration of the 66,000 pieces of art including the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic and colonial era coins.  If that isn’t enough to make you want to go, how about seeing the largest collection of casts of sculptures by Auguste Rodin outside of France. Its a “who’s who” of works by modern European artists like Dali, Picasso, Renoir, Miro, Monet, Matisse and van Gogh. 

The museum is easy to navigate thanks to ramps that wind their way up the side of the building, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The galleries are full of art and artifacts that appeal to all ages.

Admission: Free

Time: Give yourself at least two hours to explore the museum and another hour or so to explore the area’s architecture and shopping.  As well, Acuario Inbursa, one of the world’s top aquariums, is located across the street.

This museum is diametrically opposed to the Anthropology Museum as it shouts loudly -  "Look-At-Me" design.  

The shape and the facade skin make the building very photogenic. 

Inside the lobby and staircases are as cold as ice, which contrasts with Mexico's culture of warm and colourful artifacts and murals. 

The top floor sculpture gallery is a bit of a free-for-all of sculptures. 

  These dark powerful Rodins figures are centre piece of the gallery.

These dark powerful Rodins figures are centre piece of the gallery.

Dali's sculptures provide the comic relief. 

 The Palanco community around the museum is full of modern buildings that make for some interesting exploring.  Note the green wall on the right; this is one of many green walls in Mexico City, including one that covers the entire entrance wall of a parkade for probably 200 + feet. 

The Palanco community around the museum is full of modern buildings that make for some interesting exploring.  Note the green wall on the right; this is one of many green walls in Mexico City, including one that covers the entire entrance wall of a parkade for probably 200 + feet. 

Museo Nacional de Arte

An equestrian statue of Charles IV guards the entrance to the National Museum of modern Mexican art, which opened in 1982.  While the art is spectacular, the Ministry of Communications and Public Works building (completed in 1911) is the star of this show. In the words of my mother, “this museum is worth a visit for the building alone.” Our Eyewitness Travel book agrees, “Its double staircase, in bronze and marble, is enclosed by a semi-circular staircase, three stories high. The interior, with its intricate ironwork and many candelabra, is sumptuous.” We agree; we were in awe!

The artwork spans the time from 16th century to mid 20th century, with excellent examples of works by Mexico’s great muralists - Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. The collection of Mexican monumental religious paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries was a real eye-opener, never before appreciating the quality and depth of Mexican art. At points in our visit, we just had to sit and rest, as the art and architecture were overwhelming.

Admission: Free

Time: Minimum of 2 hours

 

The ornamentation of this building was spectacular. 

The three-floor spiraling stair case was jaw-dropping.

  Just one of the many ceiling paintings. They were truly heavenly!

Just one of the many ceiling paintings. They were truly heavenly!

The colour in this photograph is real, it was an assault to your senses. I will let the other images speak for themselves.

This is a painting of Mexico City in the 16th century. Not the lake and mountains in the distance.  Today the lake is gone and the city is climbing the mountains, severing as a reminder of how urban sprawl has existed from centuries, it is not a late 20th century phenomena. 

Diego Rivera, Zapatista Landscape, 1915

Jose Clemente Orozco, The Demagogue, 1947

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Self Portrait, 1945 (Could he be taking a selfie?) 

Ramon Alva de la Canal, The Cafe de Nadie, 1930

Museo de Arte Popular 

When flaneuring the hardware district, we happened upon this museum because of its cathedral-like, art deco building amongst a mish-mash of buildings with facades covered with gaudy signage.

The museum brings together folk art from all over Mexico, from traditional to contemporary pieces, representing the country’s cultural and geographical diversity.  The exhibition spaces and displays were world class.

The museum is best known as the sponsor of the yearly Noche de Alebrijes (Night of the Alebrijes) parade in which fantastical creatures are constructed on a monumental scale (some up to 25 ft high) and then paraded about 10km from the Zocalo to the Angel of Independence monument.  We missed the parade, but we did see the 200+ creatures on the street the next day, which made for a free, fun outdoor gallery experience.

A highlight of our visit to this museum visit was seeing a school tour of very excited junior high students who seemed to love everything about the museum.  Of course, my Mom had to chat with them and they were only too willing to practise their English.

Admission: 40 MX pesos, Free for seniors (over 60) and children under 13

Time:  1 hour (Don’t forget to stop into their lovely gift shop – great for souvenir hunters)

The streets surround the Popular Arts Museum are full of hundreds of small shops selling "Home Hardware" type goods, including the kitchen sink. 

The classic art deco building was originally the Fire Department Headquarters. 

The interior courtyard of the building has been glassed over to create a wonderful gallery space that looks like a modern South Beach Hotel. The colourful Alebrijes creatures in the distance bring the space alive in a fun folk-art manner. 

The windows in the courtyard were used to display items from the collection.  I loved the exquisite interaction of the reflections of the artifacts and architecture. 

The galleries were full of exhibitions of crafts of all kinds.  These devil creatures captured by imagination. 

The workmanship of the objects was outstanding. 

An image from the video of the Night of the Alebrijes Parade 

The Alebrijes creatures on parade on the sidewalk next to the Angel of Independence monument. 


Secretaria de Educacion Publica 

This museum is a hidden gem – it took a bit of searching to find it on our last day, but my Mom wouldn’t give up and I’m glad she didn’t as it has, in our opinion, the best collection of murals in Mexico City. Bonus – there was no line up (in fact, we had the entire place to ourselves).

This former convent, which dates back to 1639, has hundreds of Diego Rivera murals from 1923 to 1928, illustrating the diversity of his artistic practice and influences – Italian frescoes, cubism and pre-Columbian Mexico.  The ground floor is dedicated to the glorification of labour - rich colourful paintings and monochromatic portraits depicting scientific, artistic and intellectual pursuits.  On the staircase and second floor are a series of landscapes and state emblems from different parts of Mexico. The third floor showcases stories about the Revolution including one of his Rivera’s signature pieces “The Arsenal” where his wife, artist Frida Kahlo is shown handing out guns to the revolutionaries. It was a reminder of how much political revolution and violence has been part of Mexico’s history for centuries.

While most visitors line up to see the Palacio Nacional with its iconic murals, temporary exhibitions and gardens, our recommendation - if you are pressed for time - is to come here instead.

Admission: Free

Time: 2 hours

  The Arsenal, Diego Rivera

The Arsenal, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera

All of the walls of the building are covered with murals each telling a story of the lives and rich history of Mexico.  

Wall Street Banquet, Diego Rivera

Capitalist Dinner, Diego Rivera

Agriculture, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera (Note the deer head on the shaman-like figure. Rivera was very interested in the ancient cultures of Mexico as he was the modern art of Europe). 

Museo Frida Kahlo

This Museum is the actual house where Frida Kahlo was born, lived most of her life, painted some of her best works and died.  Generally, not a big fan of famous peoples’ homes that have been turned into shrines, I was thus not impressed when we first arrived and had to line up.  We had been spoiled to this point of just walking into museums and having them pretty much to ourselves.

However, we got to chatting with some young people in line about our thoughts about Mexico City and their insights into what is it like living and growing up in Mexico City - the time did pass quickly. 

 The house and gardens where a delight to wander, even if it was too crowded for my liking.  The house was donated to the nation in 1955, by Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera shortly after Kahlo died.  As you would expect, the home is full of Kahlo’s artwork, artifacts from her studio and everyday items and artifacts she collected.  This includes a lovely collection of small religious paintings on metal called Votive paintings, which interested me having purchased one for our art collection earlier in the week.  I also found the simple, cartoon-like, giant “Judas” figures made out of paper (later I learned these are burned on Easter Sunday as a symbolic destruction of evil) both playful and eerie. 

One of the surprises was the contemporary display of some of Kahlo’s dresses and personal belongings. Especially spooky was the black dark room featuring her corsets (in lighted glass cases) that she used to hide her body (it was disfigured by childhood polio and a near-fatal traffic accident that forced her to have over 30 operations, including a leg amputation in her later years).  It certainly added to the surrealistic experience, as did the lovely garden oasis – a sea of tranquility in a life of torment.

Admission: 120 MX pesos weekdays and 150 MX pesos weekend for adults; 40 MX pesos for post secondary students and 15 MX pesos for children and seniors

Time: 1 hour to tour the museum, but you should give yourself 30 minutes in the line-up (you can purchase tickets in advance). If time permits, the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky is near by and/or the Coyoacain community which is full of cafes, shops and parks.

Kahlo's Museum had the best "Day of the Dead" altar that we found in Mexico City.

Kahlo's garden oasis. 

Like Rivera, Kahlo was interested in both past and present cultures. This was a display of her dresses. 

Kahlo elaborate corset

Kahlo's contemporary dresses

Surrealistic display of Kahlo's artifacts

There were dozens of Judas figures like this one scattered around the house. I chose this one as it seemed to relate to the suffering and hardship of broken body that Kahlo experienced in her life. 

Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico (Toy Museum) 

Located in the heart of the Doctores neighbourhood, this museum, located in a five-story office building, is definitely off the beaten path.  However, for urban explorers and those who love toys, it is a “must see.” In fact, it is more like an antique or flea market than a museum as there are no fancy display cases, no labels with titles, dates and artists’ names, no information panels and no security guards. In fact, the main floor sells toys that could easily be extras from the museum – you will not confuse it with a typical gift shop.

The museum was started by Roberto Shimizu, a Mexican of Japanese descent, who began to hoard every toy he could get his hands on since the age of 10.  Most of the 20,000+ toys, games, dolls etc. date back to mid-20th century.  One of the highlights for me was the small peddle-cars. Backstory: My Mom tells me I loved my peddle-car so much they had to replace the tires!

The museum is absolutely chockablock full of toys, piled up everywhere, making you have to step over and around them in this hoarder’s dream. There is a “thrill of the hunt” atmosphere to the museum with lots of smiles and giggles from parents and children.

Admission: 50 MX pesos per person

Time: Give yourself about 1.5 hours depending on how much you are into toys and nostalgia.  There is not a lot else to see and do in the vicinity of the museum.

Mexico's Toy Museum office block. 

Walt Disney fun.

What would a toy museum be without truck and planes. 

  The museum is full of vignettes like this one of small toy people. 

The museum is full of vignettes like this one of small toy people. 

There are many home-made toys and displays like this one.  Note how the inside is filled with figures. 

One of about 10 pedal cars. 

I wish I had one of these as a kid...it might have changed my life. 

Every toy museum must have toy soldiers. 

The museum is full of fun displays like this one of yo-yos. 

This flying saucer fill of robot vignettes was perhaps my favourite piece. 

Last Word

I was constantly amazed during my adventure in Mexico City how their contemporary culture still seems to evolve around evil, death, religion and spirituality. It made visiting the museums seem more relevant and authentic, with the strong connectivity between past and present in Mexico City.

Hot Tips

You could easily plan a 7-day vacation in Mexico City just around visiting these seven museums.  Be aware too that many of the museums are free on Sundays for Mexicans so they can be quite busy and distract from the experience, so we suggest choosing a less popular museum on Sundays if possible. Also, many museums are closed on Mondays, an exception being the Museo Soumaya (open Mondays and closed Tuesdays) making it a good destination for a Monday adventure.

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Mexico City vs Calgary / Public City vs Private City

Recently, I embarked on an 18-day adventure in Mexico City to see what could be learned about city building from a mega city. “How can you compare Calgary, a city of 1.2 million and just 100 years old, with Mexico City, a city of 21 million that’s five centuries old?” you ask.  While there were many differences and some similarities, the biggest revelation was an appreciation for how people in Mexico City experience personal and public space.

Personal Space

Calgary is a very private city - we love the privacy of our cars, our single-family homes (often with six-foot fences and attached garages), our 6,000+ parks, playgrounds, green spaces, plazas and 800+ km of pathways all of which give us the option of not having to mingle with others.

Mexico City is the complete opposite - families work, play and even dine on busy sidewalks and 75 percent use a very crowded pubic transit as their primary mode of transportation. A typical home or apartment is a third the size of an average Calgary home.  Young children quickly learn how to live without much personal space.  Babies are carried (no humongous strollers) until they can walk, then they just walk alongside their parents everywhere.

In Mexico City a popular activity is reading the newspaper on the sidewalk. 

Family dining on the street in Mexico City.

In Mexico City you don’t live in the entire city, but one of the 16 boroughs (ranging in size from 116,000 to 1.8 million), which are further divided into 160 colonias. While this is somewhat like Calgary with its four quadrants and 200+ communities, the density eight times greater than Calgary’s.  

How is that accomplished? Surprisingly, not with a lot of highrises but rather with homes having no front yards, backyards or driveways, as well the average home being 70% smaller than Calgary’s. In fact, many homes are called “informal homes,” i.e. self-built on “found” vacant land.  Only recently has the City adopted more formal zoning and building permit processes.

Also there are few schools with huge playing fields, large community playing fields, green spaces and no dedicated dog parks.  I didn’t see a single huge surface parking lot anywhere. 

Public Space 

Like Calgary, homes in Mexico City’s inner city are the most expensive, but unlike Calgary, its suburbs are where the low-income, transit-dependent, working class live. Mexico has one the most extensive and well-used transit systems in the world; the subway and buses are packed from 7 am to 10 pm, a far cry from Calgary where its transit is only heavily used for a few hours in the morning and afternoon on weekdays.  Transit fare in Mexico City is ridiculously cheap at 40 cents per trip.

Despite being packed in like “sardines-in-a-can,” sellers jump on the subway trains, pawning everything from USB keys to BIC pens. Backstory: Vendors are literally everywhere on sidewalks, including in front of new iconic office buildings.  Can you imagine The Bow or Eighth Avenue Place’s plazas/sidewalks being occupied by dozens of haphazardly placed vendors?

A crowded subway car with vendor selling trinkets for Day of the Dead in Mexico City, mid-afternoon.

Upscale vendor sheds on the sidewalk in front of one of Mexico City's newest office towers. 

Street Vitality

Having transit operate at capacity all day long does not mean less road traffic road in Mexico City; the main streets are probably 20 times more crowded with cars, buses, taxis and delivery trucks than Calgary.  A constant, ear-piercing symphony of honking and traffic police whistling accompanies the dance of pedestrians and vendors on crowded, narrow and uneven sidewalks and roads. 

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Check out the video below for a sample of Mexico City's street symphony.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Sidewalk dining on a side street in Mexico City.

Mexico City has lots of market streets like this one that are a free-for-all, while at the same time full of life and energy. 

Sterility vs Vitality

Whoever coined the term “messy urbanism” must have had Mexico City in mind.  There is garbage everywhere, partly due to no garbage cans anywhere and to the streets being filled with thousands of food and retail vendors with all their accompanying waste. The City has also lost the battle with graffiti; it exists on pretty much everywhere. There is a totally different urban aesthetic in most of Mexico City. The streets are a beehive of activity with people coming and going, setting-up or taking down their stalls, cooking, eating, selling and buying – messy, but alive!

Head to Avenida Presidente Masaryk in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco district and you discover a typical Calgary urban street scene – wide, clean sidewalks, trendy boutiques, larger restaurants and patios and no street vendors. Here, like Calgary, the sidewalk is devoid of people - even on a nice Saturday afternoon.  Could Calgary’s streets be too sanitized to create the vibrant street life the late urban lobbyist Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet?”

Avenida Presidente Masaryk in the upscale Polanco district is devoid of people, like many of the sidewalks in Calgary's urban districts. Could it be that pretty streets are empty streets?

Crowds quickly gather waiting to cross the street in Mexico's historic district's pedestrian malls. 

Typical Mexico City sidewalk ballet.

Public Space: Keep It Simple

Like Calgarians, people living in Mexico City love their public spaces.  The Zocalo square, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest) is always crowded. Calgary’s equivalent would be Olympic Plaza. In the 18 days I was there, it was used for a huge book fair, world archery championship, major concert and Day of Dead activities. The Monumento `a la Revolucion plaza is also huge with the monument/viewing platform in the middle, underground museum, two huge flat plaza areas as well as sunken, flat hard-surfaced areas activities like soccer and dog play. Calgary’s equivalent might be Shaw Millennium Park.

Check out the video below of how Revolution Monument plaza is used for an outdoor dance studio.  We also saw it used for a street performance and wedding photos and lots of other informal activities. 

People trying to get to and from Monumento a la Revolucion plaza for a major event. 

Public Affection = People Friendly 

Mexico City is home to one of the world’s great urban parks – Bosque de Chapultepec.  At 1,695 acres, it is 1,000 acres smaller than Nose Hill or Fish Creek Park. One third of the park is home to numerous museums including the world class Anthropology Museum, a zoo, castle, walkways, garden and ponds while the rest is a natural area.  It was amazing how refreshing it was to walk in this and other Mexico City parks - you get a real appreciation for parks being the “lungs of the city.”

Boulevard road in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec.

Mexico City’s parks are more urbanized than Calgary’s with buildings, attractions, vendors, formal walkways and lots of benches, while their plazas are simple, open spaces with little ornamentation allowing them to be multi-purpose spaces.  In contrast, Calgary has lots of parks, most left natural, while our plazas are heavily ornamentalized.

The "art of sitting" is popular everywhere in Mexico City. 

While Calgarians always seem to be on the move (walking, cycling or jogging) in our parks and pathways, Mexicans have mastered the art of sitting, talking, people watching and engaging in public affection. (Couples young and old love to hug, cuddle and kiss in public and people of all ages hold hands in the streets.) I was surprised too at how they loved to have their pictures taken by strangers.  Collectively, this created an unexpected and lovely pedestrian friendliness in a harsh urban environment.

Delivering toilet paper takes on a different perspective in Mexico City.

Last Word

Mexico City’s public spaces not only serve as a community living room, but also as their kitchen, dining and bedroom. It is not unusual in the evening to see a family dining at a street vendor, young children playing on the sidewalk while older children do their homework. In Mexico City the majority “live, work and play” in public, not in the privacy of a home. 

Let’s remember Calgary is only 100 years old. We have grown very rapidly in geographical size based on 20th century planning and regulations (good and bad) not organically and without public engagement and regulations over centuries, as is the case for Mexico City and many other vibrant urban cities. 

For Calgary, the 21st century will be one of infilling development projects (big and small), which will dramatically change our personal and private spaces.  It has already begun and it is to be expected many will “kick and scream” about losing their privacy and personal space.

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo Section on November 21, 2015. 

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Mexico City: Full of Surprises

One of my criteria for a great urban experience is how many fun surprises you encounter while on your way to other places.  Recently, while in Mexico City for 18 days, I was super impressed by the number and diversity of surprises my mother and I encountered – everything from coming upon thousands of locals participating in a Zombie Walk, to a plaza’s fun dancing waterfall with coloured lights that attracted hundreds of families and young adults on a Sunday evening.  

Reforma Fun

The first surprise happened on our first day when I unexpectedly discovered I could walk on 8-lane Reforma Boulevard (think Paris’ Champs-Elysees), as it closed Sunday mornings to allow cyclists, joggers and walkers to wander. After a few blocks, my second surprise was happening upon some 20 feet tall, colourful and fun paper-mache creatures. Soon I realized there were over 200 sculptures lined up like a parade on both sides of the boulevard.  Hundreds of people, taking pictures and laughing at the imaginative sculptures that linked indigenous spiritualism and decoration with modern surrealism, created a carnival atmosphere.

Everyone loves a parade, especially if there are fun, colourful and imaginative floats like these ones.  In this case the floats were stationary and the people paraded around them. 

Sundays on Reforma were amazing with cyclists, joggers, pedestrians and public art.  Who could ask for anything more? 

One of Reforma's traffic circles was turned into a fun playground.  Caught these guys trying their hand at double-dutch skipping.  How cool!

Archery Fun

On another day, I wandered to the Zocalo Square having earlier noticed new bleachers had been set up. I found a small crowd watching a dozen or so archers with their high-tech bows seemingly firing arrows randomly and silently to a target about 100 meters away. Alternatively you could actually stand by the targets and hear the “invisible” arrows “thud” as they hit the their targets – almost all of them dead centre or just inches away.  Given there was no protection from a stray arrow; it was a bit of a hair-raising experience.  I soon realized they were warming up for the World Archery Competition that was happening in the temporary stadium in another part of Zocalo.

Ready! Aim! Fire!

Pretty good shooting if you ask me?

Loved how they use the area underneath the bleachers for swings.  

Bakery Fun

Later that same day, as we were wandering back from the fabric block (my Mom is an avid quilter), I was intrigued by a reflection in a bakery window and the word “Ideal”.  Upon a closer look in the window we realized this was Pasteleria Ideal, the motherlode of bakeries - there were hundreds of people inside and we couldn’t see all the way to the back.  Once inside we were in awe - this was definitely the biggest and busiest bakery we had ever seen. The size of a small department or grocery store (estimated 40,000 square feet), it even had a second floor gallery with specially decorated cakes for weddings, birthdays, first communions etc. The place was swarming with people many carrying huge trays (30 inches in diameter) heaping with their favourite breads and pastries.  So mesmerized, we didn’t even buy anything that day.

This was just one quarter of the store and you can see how packed it is with people.  They truly were swarming around.

This was just the pastry section of the store.

The second floor exhibition space is much less crowded. 

Hammock Fun

Another surprise was the 20+ fire engine red shed-shaped metal structures that appeared one day in Alameda Central Park. Interesting-looking, but we had no idea what they were all about. The next day as we wandered by, we noticed they now had hammocks attached to them – which were all occupied. Later in the day, I figured out it was part of Design Week, which included dozens of pop-up displays and exhibitions throughout the city.  Very cool!

How cute is this?

People of all ages and backgrounds loved the hammocks. 

St. Jude Fun

Then one night we were kept awake by firecrackers going off every few minutes – my Mom was not happy.  I was thinking this might go on for several days, as the Day of the Dead was still a few days away. The next then we encountered a small parade with people carrying statues of St. Jude and a small marching band.  My mother, a devout Catholic, quickly realized we were at St. Jude Church and it was October 28th – St. Jude’s Day. They were simply celebrating this apostle and patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.

The street in front of St. Jude Church was packed with people buying statues and other items. It was like the Stampede midway. 

Zombie Fun

Perhaps the biggest surprise came when we got off the bus late in the afternoon of our first Saturday as we were heading back to our hostel. We found ourselves in the midst of tens of thousands of people (from infants to seniors) dressed up in gory outfits with makeup to match. “Was this the beginning of the Day of Dead celebrations?” we wondered.  The procession of people was slowly walking from Revolution Plaza towards the historic city centre. Only later did we find out it was a Zombie Walk.  Too fun!

The Zombie Walk took over the road and both sidewalks with participants and spectators for several blocks.

It was a blood bath!

People of all ages joined the fun.

These two girls crawled up to me as I was taking photos. Parents smiled and nodded "Yes" when I asked if I could take their picture.  

Fountain Fun 

Then there was also our first Sunday when we decided to take an evening walk toward an eerie pink-lit building in the distance.  Not only did we discover it was the monument at Revolucion Plaza that is lit every night, but that it has a large, fun, dancing fountain that attracted hundreds of people (young and old) to watch or run through it.  The squeals and screams of happiness were infectious. 

People gathering around the fountain with the Revolution Monument in the background. 

It was like being in a surrealism painting watching people play in the fountain.

One night we were treated to an impromptu performance of all women moaning, groaning and dancing on the plaza next to the fountain. Great public spaces allow for lots of spontaneous activities.  

Another popular activity was for young women to get dressed up like princesses and have their picture taken at the fountain. It was like being in a Disney movie.  

Lottery Fun

The BEST surprise was attending the National Lottery draw.  Early in the day, we finagled our way into the art deco National Lottery building (who can say “no” to an 84-year woman politely asking questions in English) with its spectacular murals and auditorium. It turnout, a public draw takes place to choose the winning lottery numbers.  As chance would have it, there was a draw that night at 8 pm.  We didn’t give it much thought until we were just about back at our hostel and realized it was 7:45 pm and we were just a block from the National Lottery building. We decided to see if we could get in.

Again, my mother thanks managed to talk our way in and we were treated to the most amazing evening of entertainment.  As we headed for our seats, we encountered about a dozen young people (ages 10 to 16) in military uniform lined up waiting to get into the auditorium.  No sooner had we taken our seats then they marched in and up onto the stage. After a flurry of hand-shaking and greeting of the head table dignitaries, the young people took over the night, managing the elaborate system of ball dropping and number calling/chanting – a spectacle almost impossible to describe.  Watch the video and you will know what I mean.

Canoodling Fun

The public displays of affection that occurred in the parks, plazas and sidewalks was a delightful surprise. Everywhere we went, couples (young and old) were sitting on benches canoodling, not the least bit shy about it (they even liked having their pictures taken). We also noticed how handholding was very popular with people of all ages. Paris may commonly be known as the “City of Love,” Mexico City – in my opinion – gives it a run for its money.

These couples saw me taking photos from a distance and smiled as I went by. I asked if they'd like their picture taken and they nodded "yes." 

Just one of dozens of photos of people hand holding in Mexico City. How many couples can you count holding hands in this photo?

Hostel Suites Fun

Our final surprise happened as we were leaving. My Mom, returning to our room after saying goodbye to the hostel staff, held two decorated sugar skulls – gifts from the Hostel Suites staff. The staff there are the best!

Me, Mom and Hostel Suites staff member

Our home away from home in Mexico City Hostel Suites. 

Last Word

We came to Mexico City for the "Day of the Dead" and Our Lady of Quadalupe shrine but left with memories of dozens of other fun, memorable and everyday surprises. 

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Calgary: The Paskapoo City

In the early morning hours of November 7, 1886 fire broke out in the rear wall of Parish & Son Flour and Feed store on 9th Ave SE.  By the time the fire was extinguished at noon, 18 buildings were destroyed.  As a result, town officials recommended all future major buildings be constructed of local Paskapoo sandstone (16 sandstone quarries soon operated near Calgary) rather than wood.

Today, dozens of early 20th century Paskapoo sandstone buildings can be found in and around our downtown. Here are five iconic ones that create a nice 60 to 90 minute walking tour.

Old City Hall, 800 Macleod Trail SE

Calgary’s old City Hall, constructed in 1911 and designed by Calgary architect William M. Dodd is a four-storey Richardsonian Romanesque building with central clock tower, rows or recessed windows and a red, pressed metal tile roof.  It is still used today as the offices for the Mayor and Councilors.

The building’s storied past includes the halting of construction when the original $150,000 budget ran out and the by-law authorizing additional funds was turned down by the citizens.  Eventually, the building was completed, but without a lot of Dodd’s decorative elements. 

In the late 19th century, Calgarian William Pearce envisioned Calgary as Canada’s “City of Trees” encouraging the City and citizens to plant lots of trees.  Pearce loved to experiment including the planting of 210 palm trees next to the old City Hall, one of which survived until 1935 because it was moved indoors.

The City’s coat of arms carved in relief at the top of the entrance includes a glaring error, the scroll below the shield has two dates; signifying Calgary’s incorporation as a town (1882) and city (1894), but Calgary didn’t become a town until 1884.

Old City Hall built in 1911, with new municipal building in the background.

Old City Hall Clock Tower

Alberta Hotel Building, 808 – 1st Street SW

Walk west down Stephen Avenue from City Hall and you will discover several historic sandstone buildings, but the one with the most storied past is the Alberta Hotel Building.  Built in 1890, it quickly became the urban playground for southern Alberta ranchers.  Here, Guy Weadick convinced the Big Four ranchers (Patrick Burns, George Lane, A.E. Cross and Archibald McLean) to finance his idea for a “Frontier Week” celebration, which became the Calgary Stampede.

It was also renowned for its 125-foot long bar, the longest bar west of Winnipeg at the time. Future Prime Minister R.B. Bennett lived on the third floor and took all his meals in the dining room at the “Bennett table.” 

Today, the building is home to upscale outdoor clothing stores, a boutique wine store and one of Calgary’s best restaurants – Murrieta’s.

Alberta Hotel, 1890

Grain Exchange Building, 815- 1st Street SW

Head south to the Grain Exchange building built by William Roper Hull in 1909. At six storeys, it was Calgary’s first skyscraper and foreshadowed Calgary’s future as one of North America’s premier skyscraper cities.

The Grain Exchange stands out historically because of its decorative elements, which include the elaborate carved sandstone arch over the entrance with relief lettering announcing the original anchor tenant, as well as the exquisite oak doors with beveled glass and the interlocking letters next to the entrance that form Hull’s monogram. It is also notable for having Calgary first passenger elevator and is a reminder of Calgary agrarian past. Today it is home to artist’s studios, not-for-profits and start-ups.  On the street level is one of Calgary’s best fly-fishing shops.

Grain Exchange Building, 1909

Memorial Park Library, 1221- 2nd Street SW

A short walk under the CPR tracks sits Memorial Park Library, a fine representation of French Beaux-Arts architecture. At the eastern edge of Calgary’s first park, it was designed by Boston architects McLean & Wright. The interior, with its terrazzo floors, iconic columns, classically-inspired decorative moldings and marble staircase is worth checking out.

Opening in 1912, it was Alberta’s first library thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Foundation.  Originally, both the library and park were called “Central,” but in 1928 the name was changed to “Memorial” when the cenotaph at the west end was unveiled and the park became a war memorial site. 

Memorial Park Library, 1912

McDougall Centre, 455 - 6th Street SW

Completed in 1907, McDougall School was Alberta’s first normal school, used for the training of teachers. In 1922, the building was purchased by Calgary Board of Education, who renamed it McDougall School in honor of Methodist missionary George McDougall and operated it as a junior high and elementary school until 1981. That same year the Government of Alberta purchased the building and converted it into office space for the Premier, Calgary Caucus and a government meeting and event space.  Today, sitting proudly in the middle of a one-block park, a testament to the early 20th century vision of Calgary as a major urban centre.

Its character-defining elements include the entrance with its entablature (a horizontal structure that rest on columns) bearing the words “McDougall School,” circular tablets bearing the numerals “1”, “9”, “0” and “7”, triple-arched doorways and the two-story columns.

McDougall School, 1907

McDougall Center plaza

Last Word

Calgary's City Centre is home to numerous other sandstone buildings including several major turn of the century schools.  Stephen Avenue (aka 8th Avenue SW from Macleod Trail to 4th Street SW is home to so many sandstone and other historical buildings, that it is a National Historic District. 13th Avenue SW from 1st Street to 8th Street SW also makes for a great historical stroll with numerous historical buildings and parks (Calgary's Secret Historical Trail)

Haultain School, 1894

Calgary Collegiate, 1907

Lougheed House and gardens, 1891

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Tourism Calgary

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise and Fall of the Grocery Store!

Recently, I wrote that Calgary’s greater downtown communities are being well served by the numerous existing supermarket chains and specialty grocers.  However, several readers questioned me about the need/opportunity for boutique urban grocery stores given the numerous condos popping up everywhere around the downtown.

Their comments haunted me for a few weeks until recently, when west driving along 20th Avenue NW from 10th to 19th street (where there is a mid-century corner store every few blocks).  I was reminded how Calgary’s inner city communities, when first developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, all had “mom and pop” mini, grocery stores every few blocks. 

The mid-century corner store was critical to the walkability of those communities (back then it was one car per family).  It was not large, in fact no larger than neighbouring houses at about 1,000 square feet. Some were two storeys; others had an attached home to create the equivalent of today’s live/work space. The stores were usually located on major community access roads (like 20th Ave NW) that were enroute to other places, making them very convenient.

It had no surface parking lot, nor a requirement for assigned street parking - neighbours just accepted cars would pull up, get what they needed and drive off.  There were no concerns about children’s safety, even though they regularly played on the street. It was a place where kids as young as six years old could be sent to pick up a loaf of bread, a jug of milk and even occasionally allowed to spend the change on a treat from the penny candy selection.

It was also a time when people didn’t demand organic foods, exotic fruits from their favourite boutique orchard in Okanagan, farm-to-table vegetables or artisan breads.. It was a time of instant coffee and canned vegetables. People didn’t drive across the city to get their favourite coffee beans or find that specialty spice for an ethnic-inspired dish.

It was all about basic foods bought at convenient locations.  The “mom and pop” corner store, evolved into chain convenience stores like 7-Elevens and Mac’s, in the ‘60s, which served a similar purpose but weren’t located every few blocks. 

Jimmy's A&A Deli is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 13th St NW. 

Browns's Grocery is located at 20th Ave and 11th St. NW.

Weeds Cafe is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 18th St. NW.  I expect it was a grocery store when first built. 

21st Century Corner/Convenience Store

Might bringing back the convenience store be something developers and city planners in Calgary should be looking at - both for established communities and new suburbs?   Would creating a land use that would allow a small corner store every few blocks along access roads in new communities make sense? Would people support them?

Perhaps the MBA yuppie types laid off in the oil patch might consider using their entrepreneurial skills to create the 21st century convenience store. Two good case studies for a model new convenience store can be found in Bridgeland, where both Lukes Drug Mart and Bridgeland Market, though very different, seem to be thriving. 

Lukes Drug Mart is very interesting model. Family-run since 1951 and today under Gareth Lukes’ leadership, it is more than just a drugstore - it is also a coffee bar (serving Four Barrel coffee from San Francisco), grocery store (basement) and hipster store (with numerous niche brands of specialty retail and dry goods).  In this tiny store, you can buy groceries, have a prescription filled, access to Canada Post office and shop for unique items like Rifle Paper cards, Vance Family Soy Candles or Mast Brothers Chocolate.

Did you know that Lukes was named one of the Top 11 new record stores in Canada by Aux (a Canadian specialty TV channel and website) in 2013?  Yes, Lukes carries vinyl too!

Bridgeland Market at the east end of First Avenue NE is a second example of a 21st century corner grocery store. Compared to Lukes, it is a more traditional mid-century corner grocery store but with a modern twist. They pride themselves on having some of the “rarest, freshest and most ethically created products in the community.”  You can complete their “Product Request” form online if there is something you think they should bring in and  sign up for Marketgrams for updates on when they’re cooking up something fresh.

Along with artisan breads of all kinds, you will find croissants and “Made by Markus” treats like macaroons.  Combine that with other offerings like Santa Cruz Lemonade and Green Cuisine tofu and you see how convenience food has morphed into today’s increased demand for organic comfort food.

However, like Lukes and even the mid 20th century corner store, Bridgeland Market is family-owned and operated. As they say, “we’re just a bunch of locals.”

Both Lukes and Bridgeland Market are small spaces - less than 2,000 square feet (the size of today’s typical Calgary home) and certainly not to be confused with new urban grocery stores like Urban Fare at 30,000 square feet, (coming soon to Lower Mount Royal), a Shoppers Drug Mart at the base of a condo building (15,000 square feet) or a destination supermarket (50,000+ square feet).

Lukes Drug Mart is located on 1st Ave at 4th St. NE

Bridgeland Market is located on 1st Ave and 10th St NE.

Bridgeland Market's provides great local grocery shopping.

Bring back the milkman?

All this thinking had me also wondering if the next evolution of grocery shopping isn’t the “bricks and mortar” local grocery store at all, but rather home delivery.  With the rise of online shopping, one can’t help but think the next step in the evolution of grocery stores will be to bring back the 21st century equivalent of the ‘50s bread man and milk man.

Instead of creating mega supermarkets or micro-grocery stores, everyone may well have a “Shopping List” App that links to a giant warehouse that will deliver your groceries and dry goods at your convenience. For those living in downtown condos, that would mean one less reason for owning a car.  And for everyone, it would free up a lot of time for extracurricular activities.

In fact, online grocery services already exist in Calgary. One is called Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery (or Spud for short) focusing on organic food. Sunterra also has an online grocery ordering and delivery service, as does Walmart. 

Home milk delivery was common place until the late '60s in Calgary.

Last Word

Hmmm….could it be that in the future, at least some of those monolithic Walmart and Costco sites will become mixed-use condo villages? Never say never!

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Calgary's Trans Canada Highway Motel History

This week I received a second “everyday tourist” care package from my third cousin Sally in Los Angeles. In it were more historical Calgary postcards she hunted down at the Vintage Paper Fair, in Glendale, California. This time (last time it was a vintage CANADA Vacations Unlimited magazine from 1951), her big find was a bunch of postcards of Calgary’s mid-century motels, which coincidentally were mostly along the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Avenue N) near 19th Street – just blocks from where I live.

It was 1962 when the Trans Canada Highway opened and in Calgary, it went right through the City’s northern inner-city communities.   While today the urban planning buzz term is “urban village,” back in the ‘50s and ‘60s Calgary was famous for its “motel villages” both along the Trans Canada Highway (between 19th and 24th Streets NW, aka Crowchild Trail) long before the University of Calgary existed and the other in Montgomery (between 43rd to 46th St. NW) which didn’t amalgamate with the City of Calgary until 1963. 

After 50+ years, a few of the modest old motels from the middle of the 20th century still exist, although most have had a facelift or two.  Names like Red Carpet Inn, Thriftlodge, Days Inn, and Traveller’s Inn dot the streetscape along the Trans Canada highway in Montgomery. While the Motel Village next to McMahon Stadium includes names like Super 8, Travelodge, Thriftlodge and EconoLodge, as well as hotel brands like Best Western, Hamptons and Ramada.  There is even a funky boutique hotel – Aloft.  However, the classic mid-century modern motels like the Mount Eisenhower Motor Court, the Highlander Motor Hotel and the Cavalier Motel are gone - survived only by these postcards.

The Highlander Motor Hotel located on the Trans Canada Highway at 17th St NW provides ideal connections to Downtown, a multi-million dollar Shopping Centre, Jubilee Auditorium, McMahon Stadium and The University.  Today it is the site of the Home Depot. 

Calgary North, Travel Lodge, 2304 16th Ave NW. Bus at the door.Your Hosts: Ed and Carol Sandor (A member of the world's largest network of hotel). 

The Cavalier Motel, 2304 - 16th Ave NW. The essence of luxury - 50 modern units, equipped with televisions and telephones. Large heated swimming pool, adjoining restaurants, close to the largest shopping centre on the Trans Canada Highway i.e. North Hill Shopping Centre. Yes, the North Hill Shopping Center opened in 1958 and it was not only Calgary's first shopping center, but the largest along the entire Trans Canada Highway. 

Mount Eisenhower Motor Court, 2227 Banff Trail, 20 new units, modern AMA & AAA approved.

Importance of 16th Avenue North

If you drive or even a walk along the Trans Canada Highway today, you still see bits of evidence of how this was once Calgary’s most important vehicular street, long before the Deerfoot, Glenmore and Crowchild Trails or Memorial Drive.  It was, and still is, the gateway to Calgary’s first post-secondary campus – Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).

At one point, it was also the gateway to the Calgary Airport located in Renfrew.  The historic Rutledge Hangar (731 – 13th Ave NE), built in 1929, is the only building remaining from Calgary’s first publicly operated airport, commonly known as the Stanley Jones Airport.  It was the first airport in Canada to install runway lights to facilitate twilight landings. It was also home to a short-lived airmail service for the Prairies and served as a training site for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War Two.  

In addition, to small retail shops and restaurants all along 16th Avenue North, it was the gateway to Calgary's first shopping center - North Hill Shopping Centre in 1958. Calgary’s iconic Peters’ Drive-In (219-16th Ave NE) located on the Trans Canada Highway is another testimonial to 16th Avenue’s mid-century, automobile-oriented history.  Today you will still find numerous Tire, car parts and oil change shops along 16th Avenue. 

Banff Trail Motel is typical of the many modest motels that use to exist all along 16th Avenue North in the mid-20th century. 

Trans Canada Highway at Motel Village looking east with the SAIT residence in the background.

Calgary's Motel Village today is a hub of low-rise motels, an office building and 10+ restaurants. It is walking distance to the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology campus.  It is adjacent to a LRT Station that is just 5 minutes from downtown. 

Other Mid-century Motels

In downtown, while the Palliser Hotel adjacent to Canadian Pacific Railway Station was the City’s signature hotel, the Caravan Motor Hotel with its Steak and Rib House (4th Ave and 4th Street SW) touted itself as Calgary’s finest downtown motor hotel, only three minutes from the city centre. Another reminder of just how much our city has changed over the past five decades.

But for me, the best postcard was of the Bow River Motel (103, 24th Street NW aka Crowchild Trail).  On the back was their motto “It is quiet by the river” and the phone # AT 3-0777.  It was a reminder that not that long ago Crowchild Trail was a tranquil dirt road with no sidewalks and lined with small businesses and homes… a far cry from the speedway with bland, concrete sound barriers that it is today.

Caravan Motor Hotel and Steak and Rib House, 89 ultra modern units, completely air-conditioned, each room thermostatically controlled. TV, Hi Fi, Radio. Complete room service. 

 Bow River Motel, 103, 24th St. NW (aka Crowchild Trail). Note the road looks like it is still dirt and there are no trees or sidewalks. This was the edge of the city in the '50s. 

Bow River Motel, 103, 24th St. NW (aka Crowchild Trail). Note the road looks like it is still dirt and there are no trees or sidewalks. This was the edge of the city in the '50s. 

Last Word

I couldn’t help but wonder if 16th Avenue North hadn’t become the Trans Canada Highway in the ‘60s, would have it evolved into a more pedestrian-oriented, retail street like 17th Avenue South. Just wondering.

If you like this blog, you might like these:

Flaneuring the Trans Canada Highway

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 1)

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 2)

Calgary: History Capital of Canada

 

A Brief History of the Bow River Islands

With the recent reopening of St. Patrick’s Island, I have been getting a lot of questions about the history of Calgary’s urban islands. So with the help of a few historian friends, history books and Google searches here are the Coles Notes of the Bow River Islands.

In the late 19th Century, when Calgary was first being developed along the banks of the Bow River, there were several large islands between what is now Deerfoot Trail and Crowchild Trail.  In 1890, Calgary’s Town Council named the lower (east) island St. George’s and the upper (west) island St. Patrick’s. In 1908, at the suggestion of William Pearce, the federal government donated three islands in the Bow River to the City of Calgary - St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick - on the condition they be used for recreational purposes.  Nobody seems to know where the names came from other than their strong link to British history and hence, Calgary’s history. The islands were little oasis on the otherwise treeless prairie, with their towering poplars nearly a meter in diameter as well as being full of raspberry and saskatoon bushes and strawberry patches.

St. George's Island

St. George’s Island was the first to be developed with the establishment of a bandstand and dancing platform in 1909. At the same time, Calgary Alderman Fred Curry started the fledgling Calgary Zoo.  

The next development was the Firth of Fourth, a small, narrow waterway between St. George’s and St. Andrew’s Island into a lagoon, swimming pool and large children’s playground with a rustic bridge connecting the two islands.  It became the place for Calgarians to enjoy a family outing on a weekend.  Following a drowning in 1920, the lagoon and swimming pool were closed, the strait filled in and the Island of St. Andrew’s became part of a larger St. George’s Island.

  St. George's Island's bandshell.

St. George's Island's bandshell.

  St. George's Island ways a popular spot for a summer picnic. 

St. George's Island ways a popular spot for a summer picnic. 

St. Patrick’s Island

St. Patrick’s Island (just west of the Zoo) and until recently had been left in a natural state with just a few pathways and a disc golf field in the middle.  In the late 20th century, it became a haven for many of Calgary’s homeless. 

With the early 21st century development of the new East Village to the south and the revitalization of the Bridgeland/Riverside community to the north, St. Patrick’s Island became an ideal location for a 21st century urban playground. A redeveloped St. Patrick’s Island was seen, as critical to the revitalization of these communities as was a redeveloped Prince’s Island to the communities of Eau Claire, Chinatown, West End, Hillhurst and Sunnyside in the ‘90s.

St. Patrick's Island's pebble beach is popular on a warm summer day. 

The redeveloped St. Patrick's Island includes "Bloom" a piece of public art created from street lamp-posts that resembles a blooming flower. 

St. Patrick's Island's new pedestrian bridge is quickly becoming a tourist attraction.  The downtown Segway Tour includes a stop on the bridge.  

Man-made Island

Today, the most famous of the Bow River islands is arguably Prince’s Island, named after Peter Prince Manager of the Eau Claire Lumber Mill that operated on the island from 1886 to 1944. Some accounts have the Island as being no more than a shifting gravel bar while others suggest it was in fact not an island, but a peninsula in the river until the company dug a channel (now the lagoon) to get logs from Kananaskis closer to the sawmill on the banks of the river, thereby creating an island. Yes, Prince’s Island is a man-made island.  However, a late 19th century map of Calgary shows Prince’s Island as a smaller, but distinct island.

In 1889, Prince formed the Calgary Water Power Company to supply electricity to the town for streetlights.  At first, steam-generated by burning sawdust powered the Mill, until in 1893 the first hydroelectric plant was built near the east end of the lagoon. 

It wasn’t until 1947 that the City of Calgary purchased the land from the Prince family and created a park.  Today, Prince’s Island is one of the premier urban parks in North America.  It is home to one of Calgary’s signature festivals, Calgary International Folk Festival, as well as one of our best restaurants, River Café.  In addition, there is skating on the lagoon in the winter, a small sculpture garden, a popular children’s playground and numerous other festival and events.

As well, the entire east end of the island is the Chevron Learning Pathway where visitors learn how wetlands serve as natural habitat for wildlife and act as a filtration system to clean storm water from the city before it enters the river.

  This postcard shows logs floating down the Bow River to St. Patrick's Island and the Eau Claire Lumber mill. 

This postcard shows logs floating down the Bow River to St. Patrick's Island and the Eau Claire Lumber mill. 

  This 1883 map of Calgary documents several islands in the Bow River as it flows by downtown. 

This 1883 map of Calgary documents several islands in the Bow River as it flows by downtown. 

The Peace Bridge just west of Prince's Island is popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists. 

The Unknown Island

There was also a substantial island just west of Crowchild Trail (24th Street) called William’s Island, that was the location of the City’s water works infiltration plant in the early 20th century.  Damaged in the flood of 1929, the plant was replaced by the Glenmore Reservoir in 1933.

The Island was then transferred to Calgary’s Parks Department and the old reservoir on the island used by the infiltration plant became a local swimming hole, and the Calgary Archery Club also called the island home (hence, the nickname Archer’s Island).  In the mid-20th century, the island and surrounding Bow River at Crowchild Trail was used for gravel operations for various construction projects, resulting in the destruction of the swimming hole and some of the island.

Today, the island is a popular breeding site for ducks and geese as well as a popular fishing hole for West Hillhurst’s family of osprey.

Pieces of Wiliam's Island just west of Crowchild Trail can be seen in this Google Earth image. 

Last Word

Though, the Bow River Islands enhance the quality of urban living for Calgarians from all parts of the city, it is especially so for those moving into the many condos being built along or near the river.  They are also quickly becoming an urban tourist attraction with their iconic pedestrian bridges, signature festivals/events, great restaurant, public art and fun people watching.

NB. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on September 19, 2005. 

If you like this blog, you might like these links:

Historic Calgary Postcards: St. George's & St. Patrick's Island 

Calgary: The History Capital of Canada

Calgary's secret heritage trail?

Aerial view of St. Patrick's and St. George's Islands along the Bow River (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 






A Staycation with a Twist Francais

As “everyday tourists” we are always looking for creative ways to have a tourist experiences even when we are at home in Calgary.  Recently, friends invited us to join them for dinner at Fleur de Sel, an established Parisian-style restaurant in Calgary’s trendy Mission district.  Of course we said “yes,” but what we didn’t anticipate was how the dinner would bring back vivid memories of our past trips to Paris and Lyon.  

Charming Fleur de Sel restaurant in Calgary's tony Mission district.

As soon as we walked into Fleur de Sel, we were immediately reminded of the charm of Paris bistros.  Upon looking at the menu, I noticed one of the items was cassoulet, a traditional peasant dish of meat and beans that is popular in Lyon. This immediately conjured up memories of one evening in Lyon, France ironically with the same friends.

One of our best meals was a cassoulet dinner in an off-the-beaten path old house that had been a bouchon for over 200 years. Not only was the cassoulet excellent, but they also offered us a couple of free brochette de quenelles they had made for the early seating and wouldn’t keep for the second seating.

I finished the meal off with a flourless chocolate cake that was perhaps the most decadent dessert I have ever tasted. My mouth waters even now thinking about it! 

Decadent flourless chocolate cake in Lyon, France.

The memories didn’t end there as we quickly all recalled that special night didn’t end with the meal.  While walking back to our hotel, we heard some music a few blocks away, so decided to head in that direction. Stopping to listen outside the church, someone came out and invited us to come in. It was truly magical to experience - centuries old music in a centuries old church. 

Listening outside historic church in Lyon.

The quaint Hotel de Champe de Mars

As the recent evening’s discussion continued, it centered mostly around our other visits to France including our first visit as travel neophytes.  For that trip, we were given us a copy of the Wine Spectator with a feature on Paris by Richard Harvey of Calgary’s Metrovino wine store to help us plan out trip.  As a result, we found ourselves in the tiny tony Champ d’ Mars Hotel across from the iconic Marie-Anne Cantin cheese shop and down the street from the Rue Cler pedestrian mall. We couldn’t have been luckier for our first trip to Paris at Christmas. 

Rue Cler is one of the best pedestrian streets not only in Paris, but in the world. At Christmas it is simply magical.

One of the fondest memories of that visit was dinner at a nearby restaurant recommended in the Wine Spectator feature.  We went by earlier in day to make a reservation to learn there had just been a cancellation (otherwise we’d have been out of luck). 

We came back for dinner and the place was an amazing buzz of conversation.  We quickly realized we were the only tourists in the place.  After asking a few questions (clearly showing our naiveté) our server asked, “Can I just look after you?” We said “yes!” And we are glad we did.  

Food and wine just kept coming out from the kitchen and we just kept eating and smiling.  Turns out this husband and wife-owned restaurant was only open three days a week and is always full weeks in advance.  We even got to see their two children who lived upstairs and came downstairs to say good night.  It is a memory etched in our memories.

Back to Calgary

As the dinner at Fleur de Sel continued, it became much more like our Paris dinner experience as the server knew our dinner mates well and they chatted like old friends, just like in the Paris bistro. 

But perhaps the highlight of the night came near the end of the evening. All of a sudden, the sound system blasted Marilyn Munro singing Happy Birthday and disco lights floating around the room.  Soon our server came rushing in with a chocolate-dipped strawberry speared by a birthday candle, complete with a sparkler and three balloons.  He quickly put down the strawberry, broke the balloons, the sparkler fizzled out and the song was over.  The fun pop-up birthday party was all over before we really knew what was happening.  What first I thought it was pretty kitschy, really was a fun celebration. 

  Happy Birthday Surprise!

Happy Birthday Surprise!

Last Word

While a trip to your local French restaurant won’t replace a trip to France, it can be a great way rekindle the memories of past trips to France.  You can do the same thing by checking out your local authentic Mexican Italian, Turkish, Vietnam, Ukrainian or other favourite ethnic restaurants.  

Similarly, a night out at the theatre might be the catalyst to evoke memories of a trip to New York and an off off Broadway play. Or, a trip to a museum or art gallery might be the stimulus to recall a trip to London or Frankfurt.

Whatever you choose, it could add a whole new dimension to “staycation.” 

We even got doggie boxes to take home and enjoy the next day.  Gotta love the FUN and CREATIVE packaging. 

If you like this blog, click on these links: 

Window licking in Paris

Lyons Sidewalk Ballet

Adapt or die? 

Stampede Park vs Spruce Meadows vs CalgaryNEXT

Great cities need wealthy individuals with vision and insights to create great architecture, public spaces and collect art that government can’t justify using taxpayer dollars - think of the Rockefellers (New York) or Carnegie (Pittsburg). 

In 2014, I blogged about how Tony Hsieh invested $350M of his own money (Hsieh sold Zappos an online shoe and clothing site to Amazon for $1.2M) to create Container Park in Las Vegas an incubator for new businesses and how Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO of Target, spent $250M of his own money to create the wonderful Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix.

With the recent announcement of CalgaryNEXT and the $200M the five partners are prepared to invest in a new arena and stadium, I think it fitting to look at how Calgary businessmen have helped shape Calgary’s culture over the past century – specificially two signature places - Stampede Park and Spruce Meadows.

Stampede Park

Most Calgarians may know about how in 1912, Guy Weadick came to Calgary with the idea of a world class rodeo, selling the idea to four Calgary businessmen - Patrick Burns, George Lane, A.E. Cross and Archibald J. McLean (who became known as the Big Four). They put up $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.5 million today) to underwrite a rodeo called the Calgary Stampede.  Backstory: All of the Big Four were successful ranchers, with Burns also owning a large meat packing business and Cross a brewery.

The rodeo took place at Victoria Park, 94 acres (another 54 acres were added in 1954) purchased by Calgary’s Agricultural Society from the Dominion of Canada. Back story: In 1908, a whopping (that is the word used by James H. Gray in his book Citymakers: Calgarians After the Frontier, I could find no actual dollar amount in my research) from the government allowed them to build several large exhibition pavilions, a roofed grandstand, a livestock sales pavilion with seating for 1,000 and horse barns.

  Stampede Park 1908 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede Park 1908 (from Canadian Geographic website)

In 1919, when the original Agricultural Building and Victoria Pavilion were completed, Weadick was invited back to Calgary to produce another rodeo (again backstopped by the Big Four) celebrating the end of World War I. Weadick was hired in 1923 to organize an annual rodeo until he was fired in 1931, but by then the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede was part of Calgary’s culture.

Since then, the Stampede Board and government have shared in funding the creation of a world class exhibition and tradeshow festival park that includes the Stampede Corral (1950), Big Four Building (1959), New Grandstand (1974), Saddledome (1983), Round-Up Centre (1981), expanded and renamed BMO Center in 2007 and most recently, the $60M Agrium Western Event Centre with $50M coming from government.  All of these facilities were funded mostly government dollars.

  Stampede Park 1959 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede Park 1959 (from Canadian Geographic website)

There are many parallels with CalgaryNEXT- the Big Four Building was the world’s largest curling rink; the Corral and Saddledome have hosted hockey, curling and lacrosse games.  The Grandstand and track was the home of Calgary horse racing for many years.

The Calgary Stampede and grounds, truly a shared vision of an individual entrepreneur and four Calgary businessmen, has been fostered over the past 100-years by its Board of Directors, staff, thousands of volunteers and significant funding from all levels of government. In 1944, then Mayor Andrew Davison said the Stampede “had done more to advertise Calgary than any single agency.” I expect Mayor Nenshi would say the same today.

  Stampede Park in 1985 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede Park in 1985 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede at a Glance

  • 148 acres (city owned)
  • 2,000,000+ annual attendance
  • Stampede Show Band/Young Canadians Home
  • BMO Exhibition Centre
  • Agrium Western Event Centre
  • Stampede Corral arena
  • Scotia Bank Saddledome
  • Big Four Building
  • Grandstand/Rodeo Arena
  • Casino
  • Horse barns
  • Numerous auxiliary buildings

Spruce Meadows

Spruce Meadows’ mission statement, established in 1975, states: “Spruce Meadows is committed to being the leading venue in the world for the international horse sports with a focus on the organization and hosting of show jumping tournaments of unmatched quality.”  Over the past 40 years, the Southern Family (the owners) have not only fulfilled their mission but admirably and created their legacy - all without any government (taxpayer) funding by investing $80M of their own money. 

Spruce Meadows was officially recognized by the FEI (the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the world governing body for the horse sports), as #1 in the world as both a venue and as an organization until 2010.  The FEI is comprised of 133 member national federations and each year sanctions over 1500 international show jumping tournaments. Since 2010, the North American Riders Group took over the ranking of equestrian shows and facilities and Spruce Meadows has been #1 for the past five years. 

Spruce Meadows stadium

Spruce Meadows organizes, six world-leading FEI tournaments annually.  Additionally, Spruce Meadows organizes and hosts 16 tournaments under the authority of Canada’s National Sports Organization (NSO), Equine Canada. Athletes from 60 nations have competed at Spruce Meadows since 1976, winning more than $112 million in corporately-sponsored prize money before over 10 million fans. The daily attendance record was set on the final day of the 2011 ‘Masters’ with 89,632 fans visiting the grounds.

Since Spruce Meadows opened in 1975, Canadian athletes have won 24 team or individual show jumping medals at FEI championships including the Olympic Games (3), the Pan American Games (15), World Cup Finals (4) and the World Equestrian Games (2). Much of Canada’s international success in the sport of show jumping is directly attributable to Spruce Meadows as a result of the international experience that Canadians gain at home against the best in the world.

More Than Just Show Jumping

Spruce Meadows hosts over 300 events annually in addition to the Federation sanctioned tournaments.  Included amongst these:  G8 Summit meetings, World Petroleum Congress, Joint Chiefs of Staff, NATO, Changing Fortunes Round Table, G20 Sherpas, Ministerial Summits, Government Caucus and Strategy, Corporate Sector Strategy Conferences & Forums (Automobile, Forestry, Energy, Petro Chemical, Agriculture, Fertilizer, Utility, Technology. Telecom, Transportation, Manufacturing, Retail).

Spruce Meadows’ international success, reputation, and recognition as one of Canada’s official institutional and sport SuperBrands (as is the Calgary Stampede) has, in large part, been achieved through its highly sophisticated and integrated professional media capabilities.

Each year Spruce Meadows issues over 400 individual media accreditations as well as agency and wire service accreditation to Reuters, CP, BBC World Service, Business News Network, IMG/TWI, Fox Sports, CBC, Post Media, Bell Globe Media, CNBC, NBC Sports, QMI, Bloomberg, Sun Media, Radio Canada, and CBC News World

Spruce Meadows Television produces and distributes 130 hours of Tournament, documentary and news production to 108 countries, with a viewing footprint of 2 billion - via the world wide web through the networks and distribution channels of CBC, Radio Canada, CTV, FSN, NBC, British Sky Broadcasting, BNN, Bloomberg, ESPN, EuroSport, CNBC, Fox Sports International, IMG, Rogers Broadcasting, cbcsports.ca and sprucemeadows.com.

Third party economic impact studies (Conference Board of Canada model) confirm Spruce Meadows as a major tourism destination, media entity, economic catalyst and employment centre, contributing in excess of $110 million annually to GNP in direct benefits with total benefits in excess of $300 million.

Spruce Meadows at a Glance

  • 500 acres (120 acres Tournament Grounds)
  • 20 buildings
  • 10 permanent stables
  • 2 indoor arenas
  • 7 outdoor grass rings
  • Community dog walk area
  • 500,000 visitors annually
  • Open 365 days of the year to everyone
  • General Admission $5 with children under 12 and seniorsfree

Last Word

While Stampede Park and Spruce Meadows have evolved over decades, if the proposed CalgaryNEXT plan happens the arena, stadium and fieldhouse will all have to come on stream at once.  As such, it will require a significant upfront investment by the private individuals who have created the vision and government, rather than smaller investments over decades that helped foster Stampede Park and Spruce Meadows.

It will be interesting to see how much “skin-in-the-game” the Big Five Billionaires of the 21st century (Edwards, Libin, Markin, McCaig and Riddell) are ultimately prepared to spend to realize THEIR vision compared to the Big Four Millionaires of 20th century (Burns, Cross, Lane and McLean) or even the Big One (Southern).

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Flamesville vs Stampede Park

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 2)

In Part 1, of CANADA Vacations Unlimited magazine looked looked at the first 20-pages of a 50-page magazine produced by the Canadian Government Travel Bureau in 1951 to entice Americans to visit Canada that was devoted to profile its Provinces.  Part 2 will summarize how the magazine promoted the "things to see and do" in Canada for tourist. I hope you will find it as enlightening and entertaining as I did. 

National Parks

The two-page spread on the National Parks of Canada includes photos of golfing in Banff National Park, trail riding in Riding Mountain National Park, fishing in Fundy National Park, lawn bowling in Prince Edward National Park, alpine meadows in Yoho National Park, Highland Games in Cape Breton National Park and a painter in Jasper National Park. 

Taking photos of wildlife at close range seems to be encouraged, “The animals, which have learned man will not harm them within the parks, have become astonishingly tame often approaching humans within a few yards…bighorn sheep allow visitors within camera range.” Yikes!

Canada’s Vacation Highways

A three-page spread promotes “Canada’s 150,000 miles of highways ranging from two-lane, crushed stone country roads to the four-lane, boulevarded super-highway.  There is scant danger of being stranded in Canada because of mechanical breakdown. Service stations and repair garages are plentiful and all popular U.S and British automobile makers maintain dealer units and parts depots across Canada.”

Photos include a couple eating at a roadside picnic table by the St. Lawrence River, a mounted police officer chatting with another couple in their red convertible in downtown Montreal and Niagara Falls, the “Honeymoon Haven” as well as Hope-Princeton highway and roads in Rockies and Laurentians, Atlantic inlet, Alaska Highway, St. John River and Gaspe Peninsula.

Fishing

The two-page spread on fishing features images with tags like: “Battling bass from historic streams,” “the battle is over for this Atlantic Salmon,” the fishing’s as exciting as the scenery,” “they grow ‘em big in prairie lakes,” “you can even cast from the highway” and “the morning’s catch sizzling in the pan.”

Canoeing and Camping

Canoeing and camping also gets a two-page spread with photo captions like: “shaving in cold water really isn’t so bad,” “somehow the food seems better outdoors” and my favourite “careful with that axe, Daddy.”

Swim and Relax

Yes, that is the title of a two-page spread about Canada having more than half the world’s fresh water offering visitors “sun-drenched sand, cool breezes and crystal-clear lakes and rivers.” The text ends with “Yes, there’s good reason why, in the season of sweltering heat, thousands of vacationers head north each summer to Canada, land of air-conditioning sunshine.”

I loved the photo of the Saskatchewan beach with a two parents and what looks like five kids with a canoe, inner tube and boat with the caption “small fry enjoying themselves.” But the best one - “cooling one’s heels is fun, this way!” referring to three bikini clad girls sitting on a rock ledge of small water falls dangling their feet in the rushing water alongside a young man ready to jump into the water.

Cruise Time

I never thought of Canada as a major cruise travel destination, but two-pages of the magazine pitch vacation cruising on Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes, speed boating in the Eastern Townships, cruising in Banff National Park, sailing off the coast of British Columbia and an inland steamer in BC. It also notes that Canadian yacht clubs extend a welcome to visiting U.S. yachtsman.  

Roughing it in Canada

This two-page spread covers everything from an Alpine Club of Canada hike and rock climbing in the Canadian Rockies to horseback riding and cycling. Did you know that “many Canadian resorts have saddle horses for their guests?”

Scenic Transportation

“By air, by land, by sea” reads the byline with images of “modern buses ply through the Laurentian area of Quebec, a Trans-Canada Air Lines plane wings its way over quiet Ontario countryside, Canada National Steamships vessel at Skagway, CPR train winds through Kicking Horse Pass” as well as cruise steamer on Saguenay River and Canadian Pacific steamer passing below the Lions’ Gate Bridge in Vancouver.”

Golf, Tennis, Winter Sports

One and a half pages are devoted to golf in this four-page section. One photo caption reading “Bing Crosby putts it out on the course at Jasper during the annual Totem Pole Tournament.”  Interesting factoids include a reference to “Canada’s northland” where the most northerly golf course in the Western Hemisphere - at Pangnirtung on Baffin Island with eight members and at “Yellowknife the clubhouse is a crashed B-29 aircraft, which proved too difficult to haul out of the wild.” 

Skiing is the only winter sport promoted. Skiing in in Canada is described as, “There’s Scandinavian-style skiing in Eastern Canada and the dashing Alpine kind in the West, each with plenty of accommodation comfort close at hand.”

Golf Tennis

Shrines and Historic Sites

The photo collage that accompanies this two-page feature includes Fort Ste. Marie (Midland, Ontario) restoration, Port Royal Habitation (Nova Scotia), Lower Fort Garry (Winnipeg), Brother Andre’s shrine (Montreal), Christ Church Cathedral (Fredericton), Ste. Anne de Beaupre (Quebec City), Old Fort Henry (Kingston), Fort Lennox Ile au Noix (Quebec), Fort Chambly (Montreal) and St. Andrew’s Church (Lockport, Manitoba).

Shopping

Can you believe shopping warrants only one page and the last page at that! “Part of the thrill of a Canadian vacation is shopping for native handicrafts…so many delightful ‘different’ things in Canadian stores…wood carving, hooked picture rugs, Indian beaded jackets and moccasins. It’s easy to find the Canadian handicrafts on display outside Canadian farms and village homes…and gracing the counters of many tourist courts and villas.” 

There is no mention of department stores like Hudson Bay Company and Eaton’s or specialty shops like Birks.

Mother Knows Best!

I emailed a draft of this blog to my Mom (who has lived all 80+ years of her life in Hamilton, Ontario, but who in her later years has visited the capital cities of all the Provinces and Territories except for Iqaluit, Nunavut) for her insights and thoughts on the magazine and my reaction.

Her comments were, “that is exactly what Canada was like in 1951.Toronto was hardly known, Montreal was the only city in Canada with any international awareness….the West was almost unheard of even in Ontario. We did know the Maritimes though.  There wasn’t anything on cities because there wasn’t really much to see in the cities then. Hard for you to understand in 1951, we were still an unknown country and Americans did not visit except for the cities along the border – maybe.”

This made me think she is right. I remember her and my Dad telling me stories about how young couple from Hamilton and Southern Ontario headed to Buffalo, not Toronto, if they wanted a fun weekend of dancing and drinking in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.

Last Word 

I defer to her for this blog’s Last Word, her email response ended with,  “This magazine sure has been an eye opener for you, as it will be for most of your readers.”

If you like this blog, you might like:

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 2) 

Cities of opportunity: Calgary/Hamilton 

Understanding Calgary's DNA

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 1)

My, my, how times have changed! Today I received a package of Calgary and Banff artifacts from a 3rd cousin living in Los Angeles who my Mom recently reconnected with. She is a big collector and loves treasure hunting at flea markets and fairs in the LA area.  When my Mom told her about my interest in old Calgary artifacts, she said she’d keep that in mind. 

I really never gave it much thought until very recently my Mom told me to expect a package in the mail from Sally.  Today it arrived - a nice two-page handwritten letter (can’t remember the last time I saw one of those), a dozen postcards and a magazine entitled “CANADA Vacations Unlimited,” all purchased at the Glendale, California, Vintage Paper Fair.  

While the postcards were wonderful, it was the 50-page, 1951, full-colour magazine that immediately caught my attention. Produced by the Canadian Government Travel Bureau (part of the department of Resources and Development), the magazine was aimed at enticing Americans to visit Canada.  It was captivating to see how Canada branded itself as a tourist destination 60+ years ago.

I was immediately struck by the lack of any information about Canadian cities; it is dominated by images of hunting, fishing, swimming, beaches, horseback riding and golf. Everything is family, rural and quaint. Shopping gets only minimal attention and food and dining isn’t even on the radar. 

No advertisements, no hotel listings, no phone numbers and no coupons and about festivals, museums, art galleries 

Branding the Provinces

The first 20 pages area devoted to profiling our 10 provinces – photo heavy and text light. And, nothing on the Territories.

British Columbia is branded as “Canada’s Pacific Province” with “great mountain ranges like Switzerland, deep costal inlets like Norway and valleys with pastoral charm of England’s quiet shires.” There is no mention of the charms of Vancouver except to say “it is the largest city in British Columbia, with more population than any state capital in the U.S. with the exception of Boston.  Images include the Empress Hotel (Victoria), Cathedral Grove (Alberni), Skyline Trail (Yoho Valley) and a generic game fishing photo. 

Cathedral Grove, Alberni (full page photo, quality of this image is similar to the one in the magazine as are most of the other images). 

The Empress Hotel, Victoria / Yoho Valley from Skyline Trail, Yoho National Park 

Alberta is branded as “Canada’s Mile-High Mountain Playground” where “cowhands and reservation Indians still roam Alberta’s grazing lands against the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, and the Calgary Stampede gets more spectacular each year.” The images are of “cowgirls sitting on a fence at Stampede, picnic at Waterton Lakes National Park, lookout on Banff Jasper Highway and Bow River from Banff Springs Hotel.”

Bow River Valley from Banff Springs Hotel (full page) 

Lookout Banff-Jasper Highway / Picnic with a view at Waterton Lakes National Park.

Saskatchewan branded as “Land of the last frontier” is where there’s fishing, hunting, swimming, boating, camping, hiking, golf, tennis and riding.” Images include Qu’Appelle Valley, public gardens (Regina), picnicking (Lake Waskesiu), golf (Prince Albert Park) and boating (unnamed river/lake).

Scene in the North Saskatchewan parklands (full page) 

Golf at Prince Albert National Park 

Manitoba is branded as “Inside the rim of Adventure” (whatever that means). The entire text is focused on fishing and hunting with no mention of Winnipeg as a tourist destination. But, it does point out that “the adventurous, if they have a special licence, can hunt the belugas and great white whales of Hudson Bay – boats and harpoons are supplied at Churchill and the big mammals sometimes weigh up to 2,000 pounds.” Images include ruins of old fortress at Churchill, a couple on the shore of Whiteshell Reserve, beach on Lake Winnipeg and shore of Clear Lake.”

On the shores of Clear Lake (full page) 

Ontario is “Canada’s All-Year Vacation Province” and includes names of the 14-tourist reception centres and how the climate ranges from Arctic temperatures in the north to peach, strawberry and tobacco growing in the extreme south, which by the way is south of northern California.  There are small photos of a Mountie and the Peace Tower in Ottawa, swimming in a quiet lake, sentry at Kingston’s Fort Henry, Niagara Falls and a “Niagara Peninsula blossom queen. No mention of Toronto - how can that be?

Full page image for Ontario 

When autumn paints Ontario woodlands / Summer sunning at a quiet lake

Quebec is “Canada’s French Heritage” that offers “vacation charm with a French-Canadian accent, exhilarating scenery, Scandinavian-type skiing as well as hunting and fishing.  Quebec City is North America’s only walled city and cosmopolitan Montreal is the largest in all Canada, as well as being the world’s greatest inland port.”  Images include a cruise ship passing Chateau Frontenac, looking out over the city of Montreal from Mount Royal, Gaspe Bay fisherman and highway along Lake Massawippi.  What? No mention of maple syrup or poutine!

Montreal lies below the lookout atop Mount Royal 

New Brunswick is branded as “Canada’s Unspoiled Province by the Sea” with more information about fishing, beach colonies and a quick mention of Magnetic Hill and Reversing Falls. Images include a woman sitting on the edge of canoe, salmon fishing in the Miramichi River, fishing smacks at Caraquet, fine game bird shooting and Bay of Fundy. 

Autumn comes to the St. John River Valley (full page image) 

“Canada’s Ocean Playground” is Nova Scotia’s brand, “where every village has a story and usually there is a historic background to the tale.”  Visitors who stay for more than a few days are eligible for the ‘Order of the Good Cheer’ North America’s first social club formed in 1606 by Samuel de Champlain.”  Images are of the beach at Ingonish, landing a giant tuna at Wedgeport and small sailboats in North West Arm in Halifax.

The North West Arm at Halifax (full page) 

A giant tuna is landed at Wedgeport / On the beach at Ingonish, looking towards Cape Smoky

Prince Edward Island is “Canada’s Garden Island Province” with “specialties of potato growing and oyster farming and where a lack of heavy industry have kept it from being better known.” (I am not making this stuff up; this is their promotional material.) There are photos of Parliament Buildings, silks and sulkies, north shore beach, Keppoch Beach and rural countryside.

Two-page spread promoting Prince Edward Island 

Lastly, Newfoundland is “Canada’s Newest Province” which in 1951 was a big deal as it just became the 10th province in 1949. There is a whole paragraph on St. John’s history and the city’s role in the American War of Independence, War of 1812 and World War II. The text ends with “The Canadian dollar has been the accepted currency in Newfoundland since 1894.”  Images include a fishing cove, Gander airport, lumber mill (Corner Brook) and scenic highway on the Humber River. I can’t believe there is no mention of icebergs or a photo of one.

Scene along the Humber River (full page) 

 Lumber mills at Corner Brook / S.S.Gulfport nearing Newfoundland shores / Gander Airport

Lumber mills at Corner Brook / S.S.Gulfport nearing Newfoundland shores / Gander Airport

Last Word

If you found this blog insightful, you will definitely want to read CANADA Vacations Unlimited Part 2 (later this week), which will look at how Canada’s Travel Bureau promoted National Parks, Vacation Highways, Fishing, Canoeing, Camping, Swimming, Relaxing, Shrines and Historic Sites to Americans.  You will be surprised, maybe even shocked at how we branded shopping in Canadian shopping.

If you like this blog, you might like:

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 2) 

Cities of Opportunity: Calgary/Hamilton 

Understanding Calgary's DNA


Chance Meetings: Garden, Volleyball, Sidewalk

One of the things we love to do in the summer is to go flaneuring in the evening and see what we can find in our extended neighbourhood.  This week we headed west, across the Crowchild Divide at 5th Avenue NW and quickly encountered a Little League baseball game about to start so we stopped and watched for bit. 

Soon our feet were itching to move along, so we continued west where we came to Parkdale Community Centre. There we noticed the usually dormant outdoor hockey rink full of young people jumping around. As we got closer, it turns out the rink had been converted into four beach volleyball courts.  How inventive! I was impressed; love to see mixed-uses of public spaces for year-round use. 

Next our eye was attracted to the adjacent new community garden, now in its second season with two rows of lush plant-filled raised gardens boxes, an herb garden and three men constructing a large shed. As I was taking pictures, a gentleman approached me and humbly suggested said I take photos of his garden, pointing to his backyard that faces onto the community garden.

Parkdale's Community Garden is a great addition to their community block that includes the community centre, playing fields, outdoor hockey rink and beach volleyball court and a wonderful train-themed playground. 

  Parkdale's community garden's lush vegetable plots.

Parkdale's community garden's lush vegetable plots.

Off the beaten alley 

Never passing up an opportunity to explore something, “off the beaten alley” I headed with him. He immediately told me he was growing more vegetables than the entire community garden.  Being a “Doubting Dick,” my skeptism quickly turned to awe when I saw his backyard garden.

In half of the yard of a typical inner city lot, he had arguably the most intense garden I have seen in my life. His 90 hills of potatoes will produce over 700 pounds of potatoes.  He estimates his garden will also produce, 300 cobs of corn and enough beets for 50 quarts of pickled beets (yellow, orange and purple).  He’ll also be harvesting two types of lettuce, 100s of cucumbers, several 5-gallon pails full of both peas and beans. In addition, he has various types of melons and a healthy raspberry patch.  Now, he does have help – his 98-year old mother who lives with him, helps with the garden and is in charge of canning 50+ quarts of tomatoes.

I sheepishly asked his name and without hesitation he said, “David K Weisbeck, its German.”  I asked if I could use his name in a blog and take a picture and he said, “OK” then shared some family history.

Turns out his family have been urban farmers in Parkdale for generations. They used to own a lot of the land around the block that is now the Parkdale Community Centre. For him, urban farming is a year-round hobby that starts in February when he starts many of plants that he grows from seeds and continues to the fall harvest and food preservation. 

I asked him if he ever goes on vacation and he said he couldn’t remember one, though he did admit, “I take off November and December because I have to focus on getting my 26,000 Christmas lights up!”  Dave was one proud man! We parted ways with me making a promise to drop off a print copy of the blog, as he doesn’t bother with modern technology.

Dave's backyard urban farm

Dave's garden is full of different types of squash. 

Dave with his friend in his garden. 

2-year olds 

Wow, how much fun was that chance encounter!  And while I was off with David, Brenda was involved in trying to catch a runaway dog (it turns out, according to its owner that a 2-year old “let the dog out). Happy to report owner and dog safely reconnected.

We then headed back to watch some beach volleyball where we met cute (big blue eyes and blonde curly hair) 2-year old Isla and her Mom who had driven from Queensland to watch her dad play. 

Heading towards home, we noticed a young couple out for a walk who looked a bit puzzled. I ask, “Can I help you?”  They said, “No, we are just looking for sidewalk markers.”  Too funny, as bunch us history/Twitter nerds had been tweeting about sidewalk markers (they are officially called sidewalk stamps) just a couple of months ago including a flurry of photos of different stamps from various communities.

Given they lived in West Hillhurst I told them they should check out the unique Saint Barnabas Church stamp and the 1912 stamp at the corner of 5th Ave and 11th St NW.  As we moved on the young women said "what a great chance meeting!"

Winter outdoor hockey rink becomes a summer outdoor beach volleyball facility in Parkdale.

One of Calgary's oldest sidewalk stamps in Hillhurst.

Since this photo was taken the sidewalk has been repaired, but city work crews carefully preserved this stamp. If you look carefully at the top you can see two circles and lines radiating outwards as if from the heavens above. Wouldn't it be great to have more art and names in our contemporary sidewalks.  Would make a great public art project, don't you think? 

Last Word

You gotta love it when you go for a walk and you get to meet interesting people.

It seems to me every community in Calgary these days is building a bigger and better community garden - some even have orchards.  I am most familiar with the three along 5th Avenue NW – Hillhurst Community Centre, West Hillhurst Community Centre and the newest one at Parkdale Community Centre.  

They are indeed a catalyst for fostering a greater sense of community letting strangers from Acadia to Silver Springs and beyond get to know each other. They are also a great source of community pride!

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Wake up and smell the flowers in Silver Springs

Flaneuring Fun along 19th St NW

Ten Commandments of a Flaneur

Peyto: Calgary's Every Street Walker

Starbucks Tasting Room vs Simmons Building

In December 2014, Starbucks opened its “coffee cathedral” in the former circa 1920s Packard automobile dealership building in Seattle’s tony Capitol Hill neighbourhood.  It was designed to roast and showcase Starbucks’ small batch, reserved coffees.   The 15,600 square foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (SRRTR) building has quickly become a mecca for local and international coffee cynics and zealots.

Not to be outdone, in June 2015, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation opened up its “flagship foodie fun spot” in the 1912 Alaska Bedding Company (ABC) warehouse building aka Simmons Building (in 1919 the Simmons Bedding Company purchased the building from ABC).  The 16,000 square foot building has quickly become the epicenter of Calgary’s growing café and food culture and could well be the project that puts Calgary on the international coffee/food map.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle.

Simmons Building facing East Village's Riverwalk. 

Let the competition begin!

As one would expect, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (SRRTR) dwarfs the Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters’ space in the Simmons building.  While both have roasterie machinery, SRRTR has the look and feel of brewpub - lots of shiny machinery, an amphitheater space for viewing and learning about the bean-to-brew process.  Yet there is still a vibrant café atmosphere with lots of seating, huge windows to watch the “sidewalk ballet” that invites you to linger. There is even a library space if a quiet space to read or have a small meeting is what you’re after. We loved the idea that you could get a flight of coffees (three brews for $15) like you might have at a wine bar or craft brewery. 

Compare that to Phil & Sebastian’s café and coffee where the experience didn’t differ significantly from any other P&S café or other Calgary cafes. Advantage: SRRTR.

SRRTR looks like a science lab.

Seattle hipsters tasting the coffee, food and treats at SRRTR.

Calgarians lined up for their coffee at Phil & Sebastians.

SRRTR has its own Coffee Ambassadors – and there were many - young coffee experts from Starbuck cafes around the world who greet you at the door, find you a place to sit, bring you free water, answer your questions and engage you in a discussion.  On the flip side, Simmons Building seems a bit confusing as you have to line up to buy your coffee in one place, then line up again to buy your dessert, salad or sandwich at another vendor in the building.  Advantage SRRTR.

While SRRTR’s focus is definitely on coffee, it does have a Tom Douglas (Seattle celebrity restaurateur) Serious Pie restaurant on site, which is well known in Seattle for its pizzas and desserts.  Similarly, the Simmons Building is home to Charbar owned by Calgary’s celebrity restaurant owners Connie DeSousa and John Jackson.  I would have to award the restaurant advantage to Calgary’s Charbar with its more interesting menu, which offers up ocean, prairie and local garden ingredients.  It also offers a vegetarian small plates options. Advantage: Simmons Building.

Charbar restaurant in the Simmons Building.

The bar at Charbar. 

Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie pizza restaurants are also well known in Seattle for their desserts but my mouth still waters whenever I think of the Sidewalk Citizen’s Bourbon Bread Pudding and Earl Gray Apple cake we had a week ago.  Aviv Fried, owner of Sidewalk Citizen quietly putting Calgary on the map, has amazing sourdough bread and pastries.  Advantage: Simmons Building.

Sidewalk Citizen bakery at the Simmons Building.

From an overall design perspective, I loved the open, transparent, sunlight feel of SRTR over the Simmons Building that seems dark, closed and confined.  Both buildings have their historical exteriors preserved but there is little sense of history in the contemporary warehouse interiors. Simmons Building wins the design competition with its rooftop patio offer spectacular views of the city skyline and river valley. Advantage: Simmons Building.

SRRTR is a bright and airy space with lots of places to sit and chat, people watch or learn about coffee. It is part laboratory and part classroom. 

The Library at SRRTR

If you like to shop, SRRTR offers a small retail area with all kinds of coffee paraphernalia.  Simmons Building has no retail for those would need their shopping fix. Advantage: SRTR.

The retail space at SRRTR with the Serious Pizza in the background.

In the real estate world, it is all about “location, location, location.” While SRRTR has a great urban location at the junction of downtown and Capitol Hill, it is no match for the Simmons Building’s location on the East Village Riverwalk, next to the Bow River, near the soon-to-be best new urban park in North America - St. Patrick’s Island and what is shaping up to be one of North America’s finest early 21st century urban villages – East Village. Advantage: Simmons Building.

Simmons Building roof-top pato with Bow River and East Village Riverwalk below. (photo credit @GiantBlueRing

Simmons Building rooftop patio. (photograph by Colin Way, courtesy of CMLC) 

My Last Word

Yes, as a Calgarian I am biased.  Yes, I did love the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and would recommend you check it out if you are in Seattle. It is one of the most welcoming and friendly places I have visited in a long time with a great buzz to it.  But when push comes to shove, I feel the Simmons Building offers a more interesting and diverse urban experience for tourists and locals alike.  

My only wish is that by next summer, Calgary’s own Village Ice Cream has a space in the Simmons Building so I can buy a cone while wandering the Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island.

John Gilchrist's Last Word

In chatting with John Gilchrist (CBC Radio One's Calgary Eyeopener food critic for 33 years, best selling author and international food writer and judge) while I was putting the final touches on this blog - he would argue Calgary is already on the North American coffee/culinary map. He reminded me Calgary baristas have won four of the last five national barista championships and Ben Put of Monogram Coffee just finished 3rd in the World Championships. As well, Phil &Sebastian's coffee has been sold nationally for a few years now and is respected internationally.

On the food scene, he emphatically stated "Calgary has become a culinary destination not only nationally but internationally. One small example is that the US-based Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Association is holding its annual conference in Calgary this fall, the first time it’s been held outside the USA."

Insofar as the Simmons building is concerned, he too would like to see Village Ice Cream join the family. John feels, "the Simmons building showcases three of Calgary’s fine culinary entrepreneurs, exposing them to more than the usual foodie cognoscenti. That’s great but we not always want a full meal or even a coffee in the afternoon. But ice cream is always welcome."

He added, "the Simmons is one of the most notable development in Calgary’s culinary scene I’ve ever seen. The partnership between the City and these three entrepreneurs is a fine example of private and public enterprise. And especially impactful in the development of the new East Village neighbourhood."

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Calgary: North America's Newest Cafe City?

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Stampede 2015: Have we lost that luv'n feeling?

On Saturday (July 4th), I thought I’d head downtown and check out what is new this year in terms of Stampede window cartoons and other street decorations.  I thought the cartoon art would add a whole new dimension to the “window licking art” I love so much.  

I realize some of the art purists or high-art nerds don’t think of it as art, but the Stampede graphics add a sense of fun and colour to our otherwise contrived conservative corporate downtown.

While there was some great windows (see photos below). I also found lots of street fronts on Stephen Avenue Walk disappointing?  I was thinking places like Sports Chek (Calgary based) and Winners (has been located on Stephen Avenue for years) would do a better job of dressing-up their windows – No!

Looks like just another Saturday at Winners on Stephen Avenue Walk.

Hys, Brook Brothers and Holts seemed to forget entirely that the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” was happening. The Stephen Avenue entrance to The Core showed no evidence of Stampede spirit. 

 

Where's The Stampede Spirit?

The Hyatt had nothing; same with Marriott on 9th Avenue.  The Glenbow, Convention Centre and Calgary Economic Development also showed no Stampede spirit. Even the Municipal Plaza had no real evidence of Stampede, unless you count the one window painting at the Municipal Building. Neither the Central Library, nor the Simmons Building in East Village had any Stampede spirit. 

Entrance to the Hyatt on Stephen Avenue, not even a hay bale?

Hard to believe Calgary Telus Convention Centre on Stephen Avenue could look this sterile during Stampede. 

The Marriott Hotel facing 9th Avenue doesn't exactly shout out "Stampede!" 

Where's the spirit? Where's the energy? Calgary Economic Development block shows no sign of Stampede spirit, or a sense of energy? 

Interesting, the Calgary Tower had a painting that said Yee Haw…I am pretty sure the Stampede cry is - Yahoo! 

Not only did the Simmons Building have no Stampede decorations, you couldn't even get an adult beverage at 3 pm.  What's with that?

I get there is a downturn in the economy, but this was a sad statement on our Stampede Spirit. Walking by the McDougall Centre on the way home, all they had was one small banner of Stampede flags across the entrance. 

Except for three blocks of Stephen Avenue Walk, our downtown looked deserted as it usually does on a weekend.  I seem to recall in the past most of the buildings and +15 bridges had stampede windows. Not this year - you would be hard pressed to know that Stampede was even happening. 

The Good Guys!

David's Tea I thought had one of the best windows.

Office lobby reflections create attractive Stampede streetscape.

I was surprise how few +15 bridges had window paintings in them this year. 

Most of the banks downtown were good at decorating their window with kitschy cartoons. 

Is that Ralph Klein on the window of the City Hall LRT Station?

Last Word

Has Calgary become too big for it britches to celebrate what is truly one of North America’s oldest, largest and most unique festivals?  Where is that community spirit?

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Stampede Park: Art Gallery/Museum

Stampede 2014: Footnotes

21st Century: Century of the Condo

Historians in North America will probably look back at the 20th century and coin it as the “century of the single family home.”  It was a time where the dream of every young married couple was to buy a home with front and back yards to raise their children.  The single family home was also where seniors wanted to live out their lives, kicking and screaming when their adult children suggested their home was too big and too much work to maintain. The single family home was everyone’s “castle.”

On the other hand, the 21st century is shaping up to be known s the “century of the condo” as more and more people - young and old - are choosing condo living.  It became crystal clear when recently when visiting Seattle and seeing the multitude of condos being constructed in that city. It seemed like on every city centre block was a condo recently completed or under construction.  While some were low and mid-rise, many were in the 40-storey range.

This got me reflecting on to recent visits to Chicago, Portland and Denver recalling they too had abundant of condo construction activity in their city center neighbourhoods.   And we all know that Toronto and Vancouver can’t seem to build condos fast enough.

High-rise condos are abundant in Seattle's Denny Triangle district. 

Mid-rise condo in Seattle's Belltown, would look right at home in Calgary's Mission District. 

Condo block in Denver's LoDo district could easily fit into Calgary's  Bridgeland or Kensington communities. 

YUPPIEs & DINKs

It is no surprise that many 21st century young urban professionals (YUPPIEs) and double income no kids (DINKs) have adopted condo living as their preferred lifestyle for many (not all) they have no interest in spending a lot of time cooking, cleaning, home maintenance or gardening.  In chatting with Joe Starkman, developer of University City Village at Brentwood Station and N3 (East Village condo with no parking) awhile back he told me his research showed many young buyers don’t want a big kitchen as they mostly eat “takeout” and don’t need room for a big screen TV as they watch movies on their laptop.

Another friend recently said their son and his girlfriend wanted to move from their 650 square foot condo in Kensington, as it was “too big to keep clean.”  I have often shaken my head when I saw my middle-age friends cutting grass or shovelling snow while their teenage kids slept in.   I suspect the idea of owning a home for young people today is daunting.

High-rise condos in Calgary's Beltline community just south of the central business district.

RUPPIEs

For many retired urban professionals (RUPPs) who have worked all their life downtown, the idea of living in or near the downtown, an area of familiarity, and enjoying the food, festival and cultural scene is very attractive.  Seattle, like Calgary, has very attractive walkable residential communities surrounding its vibrant downtown - Belltown, Capitol Hill and South Union Lake. In both cities, new restaurants and cafes seem to open weekly and festivals happen almost every weekend.

Retired professionals often want the freedom condo living brings – just close the door and drive away or jet off on the next travel adventure. Or, enjoy more time to bike, walk or meet up with friends, rather than spend time painting the fence, cutting the grass or cleaning the garage.

Montana condo near RED, Calgary's retail /entertainment district. 

St. John's condo in Calgary's tony Kensington Village would fit into almost any major city in North America. 

Block of new condos in Calgary's popular Bridgeland neighbourhood.

Even in Calgary's suburbs condos are as prevalent at single-family homes.

Last Word

And the 21st century condo living phenomenon is not limited to the city centre either. More and more condos are being built in suburban communities too.  In some cases, this is driven by price as the condo has become the “new suburban starter home” for first time buyers while in other cases, is it driven by the easy living lifestyle that condos preferring to retire in the ‘burbs near grandkids and friends.

Given that the evolution of urban living for centuries has been all about increasing “convenience and comfort,” it is perhaps not surprising that condo living is the next step in that evolution. 

An edited version of this blog was commissioned for  Condo Living Magazine.

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Flaneuring Calgary's original craft brewery

Long before Portland, Denver or (insert the name a city here) became the Craft Brewery Capital of North America and certainly long before Calgary’s Big Rock, Village or Wild Rose Breweries, there was Calgary Brewing and Malt Company (CB&MC) established back in 1892. Unfortunately the site on 9th Ave and 15th Street in Inglewood has been closed since 1994 and the buildings have deteriorated significantly.

 A few years back I attended a presentation by Calgary architect Lorne Simpson who also happens to be the city’s most experienced historical restoration expert on the state of the CB&MC buildings.  He has been responsible for most Calgary’s restoration projects for the past 25+ years.  The key take home message I got from his workshop was that most of the buildings were beyond restoration, pointing that many of the buildings had been added in such a way that if on was removed you had to remove several others as they were all supported each other.

While many have seen the full buffalo sculpture from 9th Avenue, this art deco style buffalo head in the middle of the site is a hidden gem. It definitely deserves to be a focal point of public space. 

This sandstone Calgary beer logo attached to the facade of this building also deserves a more prominent location with a storyboard. 

 

 

He did however off some suggestions on how the site might be developed to retain the industrial design character of those buildings while adapting them to new uses and modern building codes. While some of the audience was very disappointed that more of the site couldn’t be preserved, others were excited by the opportunity to create a unique industrial district that would keep some connection with Calgary’s past. 

 

 

My longtime mantra of linking vision with reality was put to the test for while one’s vision of a 21st century charming century brewery district with multiple 100-year-old buildings and garden with fish ponds, just didn’t jive with current economic, design and building code realities.  

This iconic buffalo has aged gracefully and it along with the previous two artifacts should be integrated to create a unique public space for the future Inglewood Brewery District (IBD). 

But seeing is believing…

For a while I have been bugging Eileen Stan, Development Program Manager, M2i Development Corporation to give me a tour.  Recently, our schedules jived and I got my wish.

I can’t believe how complex the redevelopment will be with numerous buildings scattered throughout the site making the location of major new buildings (needed to pay for the restoration) difficult.

Just one of areas where the sandstone foundation of the builiding is beginning to form mini hoodoos. 

Then there is the utilities right of way, set back from the street, CPR tracks and 17th Avenue (which use to run right through the middle of the site) to contend with.

I saw for myself how the sandstone on the buildings is “more sand than stone.” Brush it with your hand and sand pours down the side of the building, in some places, miniature hoodoos are being formed.

Inside, I saw how the building’s structure would make it difficult to convert to modern uses. Perhaps reusing materials makes more sense than repurposing the buildings.

The gardens and two buffalo sculptures were wonderful and would make a great tribute to the past. It would be lovely to somehow incorporate them into a plaza or pocket park that would be the centerpiece of a new brewery district.  

That is 17th Avenue SE which use to run right through the site and still has a utility right of way attached to it. 

Postcards from CB&MC

I am hoping that these images will help you appreciate the complexities of redeveloping the historic Calgary Brewing and Malting Company site for current uses. 

I am a sucker for "ghost signs" like this one for the The Alberta Government Fish Hatchery. Not sure how you save this wall and incorporate it into a new building/new use! I am told that it could become part of a sunny historic plaza that would document the full history of the site. 

In the middle of the site is a lush oasis of trees, walkways, bridges and concrete ponds. Not sure they are in the right location for a contemporary pocket park and they are at the end of their lifespand. 

One of the few building that is still in good shape, unfortunately it is not in a great position. 

There is an simplicity in the minimalist, cubist, industrial architecture of the brewery that could be respected in new buildings.  It is my understanding that the brick chimney will be preserved. It is kinda the Calgary Tower of Inglewood - should it remain the tallest structure in the community forever? 

There is a nice juxtaposition of the round and the rectangular shapes at IBD. 

This image illustrates how all of the building are interconnected, but each with different foundations and structures that makes restoration a nightmare. 

The interior spaces are very dramatic, but don't lend themselves to easy conversion to retail, office or residential uses. 

Some of the newer building from 1984 were never used and are actually overbuilt for future needs and have potential for adaptive reuse. 

Last Word

After walking around the site, I have a much better appreciation of the difficulties and complexities of redeveloping the site for modern uses - this is not a Currie Barracks, an East Village or a Bridges site. 

Rather than let the buildings further deteriorate and have a prominent site sit in limbo for another decade or more, the idea of developing the site incrementally starting with the Bottling Plant building as proposed by Stan’s team makes sense.  Great spaces and places happen organically, not systematically.

Though, some have suggested the need for a Master Plan before anything happens on the site, I disagree. We don’t want another “East Village” scenario (i.e. a new Master Plan developed every five to ten years with nothing happen for 30+ years).  Master Plans tend to all look the same anyway; I expect we will get something more unique and eclectic without a Master Plan.

 Jane Jacobs was also a big fan of incremental redevelopment rather than revolutionary redevelopment. I think she would have approved of starting by animating the 9th Avenue and 15th Street corner (across from the West Canadian Digital Print Centre) with some street retail like a ZYN wine and spirits store and warehouse. 

The Bottling Plant on the corner of 9th Avenue and 15th Street SE is being proposed as Phase 1 of the mega makeover of the Inglewood Brewery District. Different options for the restoration of the sign are being looked at. This is not the original sign.

This is a conceptual rendering of what the Bottling Plant and new streetscape will look like if Phase 1 is approved. 

This is the proposed site of the new BRT/ LRT station for Inglewood and Ramsay just two blocks from the Brewery District.  It will also link up with the 17th Avenue SE BRT route to create a major transit hub. The stars are beginning to align for two of Calgary's oldest communities.   

Bridges over the Bow!

Great river cities are often defined by their iconic bridges.  A recent trip to Dublin, Ireland gave me a better appreciation for just how important bridges are - not only as a means of transportation, but also as a means of celebrating local history and a city’s sense of design.

While Calgary lacks the 1,000s of years of history Dublin has, we do have several bridges along the Bow in the downtown with historical and architectural significance.  We have four historic bridges - Centre Street, Langevin, Hillhurst (Louise) and Mewata. Two are brand spanking new multi-million dollar pedestrian bridges by international designers - Peace and St. Patrick’s Island Bridges.  

Then there is the lesser-known Jaipur Bridge (named after Calgary’s sister city in India) that links Eau Claire to Prince’s Island.   And, we even have “No Name” bridges – 4th/5th Ave Flyover (three bridges - two for vehicles and one for LRT), the 9th St West LRT bridge with its pedestrian bridge below) and the Prince’s Island to Sunnyside bridge at the Calgary Curling Club.

Five bridges cross the beautiful Bow River at the northeast entrance to downtown. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

Jaipur Bridge recognizes the friendship and goodwill between Calgary and Jaipur, India.  In the winter the Bow River lagoon becomes a skating rink.  It is the entrance to Prince's Island Park on of North American's best urban parks. 

Centre Street Bridge

Did you know that the first Centre Street Bridge was built in 1906 by Archibald John McArthur so he could market his subdivision of Crescent Heights? So even 100 years ago, private developers were paying for urban infrastructure to facilitate growth!  The current bridge, which opened in 1916, was under construction when McArthur’s bridge collapsed in the 1915 flood.

 It’s best known for its four concrete kiosks each topped by a stately lion and two bison heads.  Designed by City employee James Langlands Thompson, they were patterned them after the lions in London’s Trafalgar Square.  The bridge offers spectacular views of the Bow River and city skyline, especially the juxtaposition of the Calgary Tower and Bow Tower.

Centre Street Bridge is a popular pedestrian link between upper and lower Chinatown. 

 Langevin Bridge

The current Langevin Bridge, opened in 1910, is named after Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation.  It is a “Camelback” bridge as the framework of structural steel looks like a camel’s back in profile.

Langevin Bridge by day.

Like the Centre Street Bridge, this is the second bridge at this site. The first one, a wood truss bridge opened in 1890 was called the Dewdney Bridge (after Dewdney Street, now 4th Street SW).  It provided more convenient access for settlers who chose to live on the unserviced lots across the river and the brothels along Nose Creek.

Today, it is best known for its 5,600 LED lights that can be programed in 156 different colour configurations to celebrate holidays or charity events.  (Back story: there was no public consultation for this lighting project and it cost just $350,000 – sometimes you just have to do it!)

Langevin Bridge at night. 

Hillhurst (Louise) Bridge

This bridge at 10th Street has connected downtown’s West End to Kensington since 1922.  It replaced the Louise Bridge a steel truss bridge (1906 to 1927), which had replaced the original Bow Marsh Bridge (1888 to 1906). The former was named after Louise Cushing, daughter of William Henry Cushing, Calgary’s mayor from 1900 to 1901. 

The current concrete bridge coexisted with the popular Louise Bridge for five years.  While the original name of today’s bridge was Hillhurst, Calgarians continued to refer to it as the Louise so in 1970, it was officially renamed it the Hillhurst (Louise) Bridge.

Made of reinforced concrete with five 32m wide arched wall spans over its 172m length, the bridge was rehabilitated in 1997, with a design by Calgary’s Simpson Roberts Wappel Architects at a cost of $5.1 million. 

The Hillhurst bridge provides some of the best views of the Bow River and the downtown skyline. 

Mewata Bridge

Built in 1954, the Mewata Bridge (14th Street) was the first major river crossing built in Calgary since the Louise Bridge in 1921.  It helped facilitate post-war suburban growth in northwest Calgary and the establishment of a system of one-way streets in downtown. 

A mid-century modern design, it was inspired by the recently completed Waterloo Bridge in London, England. Built using “box-girder” technology, it uses steel-reinforced concrete beams shaped like a tube with multiple walls. When built, it was the longest box-girder span in North America, the first in Western Canada, and the first in Canada to use the new technique of butt-welded, reinforcing steel.

Backstory.  In November 2016, a year after this blog was posted Norm Reid (now 94 years old and founding partner of Reid Crowther & Partners) contacted me to say he oversaw the design and construction of the bridge. 
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