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!

Dublin Revisited In 36 photographs!

A year ago we were flaneuring the streets, pubs, museums and shops of Dublin, Ireland. As all good “everyday tourists” do on their one-year anniversary of a trip, I reviewed my collection of photos and revisited the many great memories of Dublin. 

Also this week, I received a lot of positive feedback from my Summer Sunlight photo-essay blog so I thought it would be fun to do a photo-only blog of Dublin.  I have picked 36 photos (there is no magic in the number) that cover everything from art to architecture, food to fashion, parks to plazas and of course beer and pubs.

In no particular order, the photos are in true flaneur-like fashion.  Let the photos aimlessly take you on an off-the-beaten path stroll of Dublin. 

If you want to know more about our Dublin adventures you can check out the links for learn more about the city, its people and places:

Dublin: FAB fun in The Libertines

Dublin: Newman University Church a hidden gem

Dublin vs. Calgary /Apples vs. Oranges

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

Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library – Look but don’t touch

Dublin: Iconic barracks makes for great museum

Everyday Tourist goes to gaol!

Parks: Calgary vs. Dublin/Florence/Rome

the poor
pillars

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? 

Myth of Excellence

Editor's Note: Earlier this week I participated in a twitter debate about the importance of striving for excellence in city building with two Councillors and several twitter followers.  It all started when I questioned the need strive for excellence in "urban design" with projects like Paskapoo Slopes, when so much of master planning is subjective and changes over time. I became the lone wolf in the debate which went on for several hours.

Afterwards I started thinking about the book "Myth of Excellence" I had read several years ago and wondered if I could find my book report.  Not only did I find the book report, but also my Calgary Herald column I wrote on the this very enlightening book, so I thought I'd post it for you to read and comment on. 

Myth of Excellence (Calgary Herald)

In 2001, Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews published “Myth of Excellence” that recommended businesses should not get caught up in the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their business. Their research showed companies that pursue excellence at everything ended up not being “world-class” at anything. Their research recommended businesses focus on being excellent in one key management area, above average in one or two other areas and just average for others areas.  It was their conclusion that it is a myth that you have to be excellent at everything to succeed!   

What has this got to do with cities you ask? Personally, I think a lot.  Too many cities are trying to be “world-class” or “best of class” in too many areas. Too often you hear politicians and special interest advocates say – we must have “world-class” architecture, parks, sports and recreation facilities, tourist attractions, airports, roads, transit, bike paths, libraries or recycling programs.   Too often we are commissioning “Best Practices” studies which then leads to Best Practices Syndrome. 

Today we seem obsessed with city ranking. Every week there seems to be a new ranking - which city is ranked highest for liveability or walkability, which is the most attractive to the creative class, families or retirees, which city is the most affordable or most expensive, which is the most wired or has the lowest taxes, which is most business friendly. These rankings are then used by politicians and advocates to lobby for more funding to improve their cities ranking. Note - Calgary often ranks very high in most world-wide city reports, but it is not usually at the top, except for being the world's cleanest city!  

Rather than beating ourselves up because we don’t have the best recycling program, the best bike lanes, the best snow removal program or the best contemporary architecture. We should accept that these are not our priorities.  Calgary can’t be all things to all people.  As the book states,  we only need to be average in most areas and excellent in one or two.  

Let’s not fool ourselves, people live in Calgary because there are lots of jobs here, in particular private sector jobs, not because we have the best library, art gallery or bike paths. Yes there are nice to have but the key to Calgary’s past and future success will be our ability to foster an environment that will continue to attract business investment to Calgary.  For example, Calgary doesn’t have the history, climate, geography or proximity to major markets to be a major year-round tourist city.  

In many ways Calgary is still a frontier city, looking for pioneers who will come and invest in the development of our natural resources for profit. As such Calgary, must be focused on being a “Business First” community.  Calgary must be excellent at Economic Development. 

We also need to be above average in the area of City Planning. A rapidly growing boom/bust city like Calgary must have a robust planning department able to meet the needs of a very diverse and discerning population.  Planning that is decisive, that can conduct the analysis and consultation to make good decisions quickly re: suburban planned communities, new urban villages, urban renewal programs, business parks, downtown office developments, road and transit planning. All these things must happen at the same time in a complex and coordinated manner that will enhance the quality of life for Calgarians.  

New Rocky Ridge Recreation Centre 

Excellence in Parks & Recreation 

One of Calgary’s key differentiators should be our Parks/Recreation.  I think these two areas go hand-in-hand in a young family-oriented city like Calgary. In the summer parks of all sizes and in the winter indoor recreational facilities are critical to making Calgary an attractive place for  families to live.  Calgary should be a “Families First” community (that doesn't mean we ignore singles, DINKS and seniors).

Calgary’s moniker should be “The City of Parks and Pathways” as we have an amazing collection of parks from Fish Creek to Nose Hills, from Stampede Park to Heritage Park, from Prince’s Island to the Calgary Zoo.  Calgary is blessed with one of the world’s best recreational pathway systems and one of the most unique urban pedestrian systems - +15 walkway – both need to be celebrated.   

From a recreational perspective, yes we have a lot of needs and wishes – more arenas, more soccer fields - but we also have a lot to be thankful for like our excellent recreation centres.  We also have some very unique recreational facilities – Olympic Oval (speed skating), Canada Olympic Park (luge, bobsled, centre of excellent for Winter Olympic athletes), Spruce Meadows (equestrian), Calgary Polo Grounds and Riley Park (cricket). 

New SETON Recreation Centre 

When do we just say "No!"

In all other areas of city management we just need to be average, OK, good enough. We have to make choices we simply can’t be excellent at everything. When do we say - “No?”  When do we say - “enough is enough?”

Do we really need a new airport tunnel that won’t be needed for several years and some say will never be needed with a $300+ million price tag? Do we really need two iconic pedestrian bridges at $25 million each over the Bow River? Do we need a signature Central Library at another $200+ million?  Do we need a comprehensive commuter bike path system for a few thousand people most who will use it for only six months of the year at $28 million?  Just asking!

Calgary Herald, February, 2011

New Quarry Park Recreation Centre 

Last Word

This Herald Column was written in early 2011, while the airport tunnel debate was top of mind. Since then we have completed or started construction on most of the projects listed above.  At the same time we have also started construction on four new recreation centres - Rocky Ridge (opens in 2017, cost $191M), SETON (opens in 2018, cost $200M), Quarry Park (open in 2016, cost $63M) and Great Plains (opens in 2016, cost $33M). In addition, the has created several new parks and renovated others both in the suburbs and City Centre - Barb Scott Park, ENMAX Park, St. Patrick's Island Park, Bowness Park and Ralph Klein Park, as well as the 132km Rotary Mattamy Greenway.  

Collectively, these investments enhances Calgary's reputation as "The City of Parks & Recreation.   

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Calgary: Needs vs Wants?

Calgary: Preservation vs Prosperity Perdicament

Calgary: The City of Parks & Recreation 

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."

If you like this blog you might like: 

Calgary: North America's Newest Cafe City?

Top Ten Places To Eat Like A Local in Cowtown

Calgary leader in addressing urban issues?

In May Huffington Post published a list of ten cities that are frequently mentioned as innovators in addressing urban life issues – specifically, environmental, social, transportation and urban design. While there were no real surprises in the list of cities identified and what they have accomplished or were attempting to accomplish, I was immediately struck that Calgary could and should be on the list. Yet again, Calgary flies under the radar of the international news media for the incredible work the public and private sectors have done to create a city with one of the highest standards of urban living in the world.

What Other Cities Are Doing?

Vancouver makes the list for its work in creating policies that allow more families to live in the city centre, its mandatory composting program and supervised safe injection site.  Stockholm is praised for its “Walkable City” plan that focuses on making all streets pedestrians and cycling-friendly and “Vision Zero” plan to reduce road deaths.

New York City’s $20 billion plan to defend the city against future storms was on the list. Reykjavik’s unique geology allows for its use geothermal heating to produce electricity and heat 95% of its buildings. Berlin’s claim to fame is its ability to repurpose old buildings like power plants into nightclubs and the Nazis Tempelhof Airport into a giant public park.

Singapore has introduced free subway fares to riders who leave the system before 7:45 am as a means of unclogging both street and transit traffic during peak commuter hours.  Hong Kong has created a very handy service where airline passengers check their bag sat a designated station along the Airport Express subway line and it gets taken right to the plane.

Paris’ tentative plan will give the City first right of refusal on 8,000 new apartments being built which they plan to turning into subsidized housing to help eliminate gentrification of communities helps it make the top 10 list.

Copenhagen is noted for its plan to be completely carbon neutral by 2025 through the use of wind power, biomass fuel and other alternate energies.  San Francisco’s DataSF project collects comprehensive data for use by citizens and businesses to foster a better quality of life and increase accountability. For example, Yelp uses the data to give its users information on restaurants’ latest health inspections as a means of reducing food bourne illnesses.

While these are all commendable projects and some are innovative, when it comes to innovative urban living initiatives, Calgary is providing as much leadership as any of these cities. Don’t believe me? Read on!  

Calgary’s Environment Leadership

Not only is Calgary is currently ranked at the cleanest city in the world (and has consistently ranked in the top three for many years) of Mercer Global Financial and HR Consulting “world’s cleanest city.” The ranking is based on water availability and drinkability, waste removal, quality of sewage systems, air pollution and traffic congestions.  The $430-million Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Centre is one of the most technologically advanced and environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment plants in the world.

When it comes to responding to perils of Mother Nature, Calgary’s Emergency Management System shares data from 32 partner organizations from the police to Calgary Board of Education, as well as draws information from social media sites.  The system has been praised as the best in the world and was instrumental in the highly successful response to Calgary’s great flood of 2013.

Did you know Grow Calgary has an 11-acre farm just west of Canada Olympic Park, where a group of volunteers manages Canada’s largest urban farm - all of the fresh produce being donated to the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank?

 Grow Calgary farm within the city limits. (photo credit: paulin8@blogspot.com)

Grow Calgary farm within the city limits. (photo credit: paulin8@blogspot.com)

Pine Creek Water Treatment Plant (photo credit: City of Calgary)

Calgary’s Urban Design Leadership

Calgary is arguably the “Infill Capital of North America.”  When it comes to redevelopment of established communities, Calgary boasts several mixed-use urban villages – Currie Barracks, East Village, Quarry Park, SETON, University District and West District.  What other city builds Transit-Oriented Development before the transit has been built – SETON and Quarry Park? Our downtown is surrounded by vibrant urban communities experiencing a renaissance due to dozens of infill condo developments. And thousands of  new “family friendly” homes being built in ALL of our inner-city neighborhoods. 

Green spaces have been identified as critical to healthy urban living.  Calgary boasts over not only 5,000 parks, two being the among the largest in the world (Fish Creek and Nose Hill), as well as one of the world’s longest urban pathway systems that is quickly closing in on being 1,000 km. 

The Calgary Parks Foundation is working on the 138 km Rotary/Mattamy Greenway project that will create a network of parks and pathways around the perimeter of the city connecting over 100 communities.

Our City Centre has recently completed or in the process of completing at least six new or renovated parks and plazas including the St. Patrick’s Island mega makeover.

  Map of the Rotary Mattamy Greenway.

Map of the Rotary Mattamy Greenway.

Calgary’s Transportation Leadership

Calgary was an early adopter of “Light Rapid Transit” in 1981 and in 2001, was the first public transit system to claim all of its electricity from emission-free wind power.  Today, Calgary’s LRT ridership is the third highest in North America, behind Toronto and Guadalajara, both cities having w a population five times that of Calgary and ahead of cities like Vancouver and Portland twice our size.

The Pembina Institute report “Fast Cities: A comparison of rapid transit in major Canadian Cities” (2014) states Calgary leads Canada in rapid transit infrastructure per capita (53km/million citizens) and has, over the past decade built the most rapid transit 22 km. 

For decades, Calgary has implemented some of the most restrictive downtown parking bylaws in North America, including allowing developers to build only 50% of the estimated required parking for new office buildings.  As a result, 60% of downtown commuters use transit, an impressively high percentage and one unheard of in North America except for places like Manhattan. Further to that, City Council recently unanimously approved Canada’s first condo with no parking – N3 in East Village. 

In my mind, Calgary is one of the most pedestrian and cycling-friendly cities in the world. Where else do drivers routinely stop so pedestrians and cyclists can safely cross the street?  I am constantly reminded of this when visiting other cities.

  Cars routinely stop to let cyclists and pedestrians cross the road in Calgary.  

Cars routinely stop to let cyclists and pedestrians cross the road in Calgary. 

  N3 condo in Calgary's East Village will have no parking stalls for residents. 

N3 condo in Calgary's East Village will have no parking stalls for residents. 

Last Word

Calgary doesn’t get the respect it deserves from the international media and planning communities with respect to the numerous, significant, successful and innovative urban living initiatives recently or currently being implemented by both the private and public sectors. Sure, we have our problems and our urban sense of place isn’t for everyone.

But when push comes to shove, Calgary is at the top of most quality of urban living lists and should have been included in the “top 10 cities shaping the future of urban living.”

This blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section on June 27th titled "Calgary a top-ten city." 

If you like this blog, click on these links for related blogs:

Calgary deserves more respect from international planners

NYC's High Line vs YYC's +15 Walkway

The suburbs move to the City Centre in Calgary

Calgary: The importance of a good mayor!

 

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.

If you like this blog, you might like these:

Urban Living is in its infancy in Calgary!

What is urban living and who really cares?

Condo living: More Time For Fun

Window Licking in Seattle

For me, one of the fun things to do when visiting another city is to check out the reflections of streetscapes in windows. I first discovered this obsession (yes, I think it has become a bit of an obsession) when visiting Paris where many of the storefront windows are like mini art exhibitions.  You might expect this given the Paris' fashion culture, but it was more than just upscale shoes and purses, it was the juxtaposition of the people, architecture and the sense of spontaneity and surprise.  

What was also interesting in Paris were the great windows weren't just on the retail streets, but also in the little shops in the residential neighbourhoods.

Let me out....

Picture perfect? 

Why window licking? 

Some might just call this "window shopping,” but in French window shopping is called it "faire du leche-vitines," which literally translates into “window licking” in English. Since Paris, I have made sure that in every city I visit, I spend some time "window licking."

While it is not measurable, I am convinced there is a direct correlation between the quality of the street windows and the quality of the street life.  Unfortunately today, too many retailers and others with street windows don't appreciate the importance of great windows in making people stop, look and think.

Our recent trip to Seattle provided me with some great "window licking" experiences. Not only was downtown Seattle populated with some interesting windows, but so were the the neighbouring communities like Pioneer Square that offered some great surprises.  But the best window licking was along Ballard Avenue, i.e. main street for the community of Ballard. 

This is downtown Ballard when the Sunday market takes over its main street. It is a great people watching experience and has some of the best windows in Seattle.

Window licking in Pioneer Square.

It wouldn't be Seattle without some glass art window licking.

Last Word

While Richard Florida has coined the terms  Bohemian Index, Diversity Index and Gay Index as a way of measuring the health of a community, I am thinking he might want to look at the "Window Licking Index."  This index would look at how often and long people stop and look in the windows along a given street, as a measure of the street's attractiveness to pedestrians. 

Intuitively, I'd probably give Seattle an 8.5 out of ten on my "Window Licking" index.  Have a look at these some more samples and the links to window licking in Paris, Chicago and Florence and let me know what images you like best.

PS. In reviewing my window licking images I realized that almost everyone has trees in it.  One of the first things I noticed about Seattle and loved about the city's streets was the wonderful filtered light from the canopy of wonderful trees. 

Surrealism is a frequent theme in window licking art.

Luxury fashion shops are always good for window licking photos.

The classic mannequin historical building window.

This is perhaps the most unique window I have experience to date. 

If you like this blog, click on these links to other window licking blogs:

Window licking In Paris

Window licking in Chicago 

Window licking along Florence's Via Tornabuoni

 

 

 

Calgary: Interchanges as art?

A few weeks ago,  I became intrigued with a tweet by @roadknots with its attached Google Earth photo collage of some of the world’s most complex and convoluted interchange.  Upon opening the photo I was startled by the images and puzzled by the term “road knots,” never before having encountered the term.  

This is the collage of international Road Knots created by Nicholas Rougeux for google maps.

Note: After posting this blog received a tweet from Nicholas Rougeux saying, " Road Knots is a silly name i came up with for complex and beautiful interchanges. Glad you like them."  It will be interesting to see if this catches on. 

This is a collage of some of Calgary's road knots created by Peak Aerials.  Note: one of them is not a road. Can you tell which one? 

A quick Google search didn’t help – it seems this a new term.  However, it is appropriate given many of the interchanges have elements of some of the knots I learned as a Boy Scout many, many years ago – the Bowline, the Sheepshank and the trusty old Clove Hitch.

Never wanting Calgary to be left out of any new urban design discussion, I started surfing Google Earth to see how our interchanges compared.  I quickly found some interesting Calgary road knots. 

Then I contacted Keith Walker at Peak Aerials who I knew has a collection of aerial photos (mostly from Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Fort McMurray) to see if he might have documented some of Calgary’s incredible, implausible, inconceivable and improbable interchanges. 

Sure enough, in his 250,000+ collection of aerial images he had many photos of Calgary’s road knots.

Calgary's interchanges take on a whole new context from the air with their sensual twists and turns.  Some looked like cartoon figures,others like abstract drawings or petroglyphs.  It was also intriguing to see how they changed with the seasons.   

Below are the ten Calgary road knots I found the most interesting.  I have chosen not to identify their location so you can appreciate them for their aesthetic qualities first and place second.  Hopefully they will engage your imagination as they did mine.  Send me your favourite road knots or share some of your thoughts on  these or other road knots. Did I save the best for the end?

Figuring out which knots they most closely resemble I will leave up to you. 

Calgary's Top Ten Road Knots?

Photo Credit: Peak Aerials 

Photo Credit: Peak Aerials 

Photo Credit: Peak Aerials 

Photo Credit: Peak Aerials 

Photo Credit: Google Earth 

  Photo Credit: Google Earth

Photo Credit: Google Earth

Photo Credit: Peak Aerials 

Photo Credit: Google Earth  

Photo Credit: Peak Aerials 

Photo Credit: Google Earth 

Comments welcomed!

Sydneysider loves Cowtown?

Guest Blog: Marissa Toohey

I grew up in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, well known for its surf culture and miles of coastline. A few years ago, I set my sights on North America and was fortunate enough to find my way to Calgary in October 2012. I had heard it was a city with bright job prospects, lower taxes than other Canadian cities, a welcoming community and a lovable mayor. And, of course, cowboys. I have to admit I was nervous about winter weather though, having watched the airport scene of the Cool Runnings movie too many times before my arrival.

These days, I spend my free time playing hockey and skiing the Rocky Mountains, rather than going to the beach or firing up the barbie. In chatting with Calgary’s Everyday Tourist, we thought it would be interesting for me to compare the two cities from a Sydneysider’s perspective.  

To provide some context, Sydney was founded by the British in 1788 and it attracted a significant number of immigrants. Today, Sydney is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with around 4.8 million residents spread across an area about 12,368 square kilometers. It is divided into over 30 local government areas with elected councils responsible for functions delegated by the state government.

Calgary’s history, on the other hand, as a city begins in about 1875 or one hundred years later. It is a city of 1.2 million and covers an area of 825 square kilometers for the city proper and if you add in some of the satellite cities and towns it is an additional 704 square kilometers. Calgary is famous for its rivers, parks and access to the Rocky Mountains.

Calgarians love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk. 

Sydneysiders love going to the beach.

Parks & Recreation

In Sydney, the weather is always warm and the landscape is dominated by waterways and bushland making for an incredible selection of natural attractions - some iconic ones being Hyde Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney Harbour and the Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. Local councils maintain a multitude of free public beaches and rock pools, while volunteer lifeguards keep swimmers safe.

The innercity offers some excellent play areas too, such as the Darling Quarter community with its climbing ropes, swings, slides, and a flying fox (zip line). It’s surrounded by hip restaurants, wine bars and often has festivals and outdoor movies, making it a great area for the entire family to enjoy day or night.

Similarly, Calgary has many natural attractions including the world famous Rocky Mountain playground.  I love the city’s great urban outdoors - Fish Creek Provincial Park, the pathways along the Bow and Elbow rivers, Canada Olympic Park, as well as the many outdoor ice rinks throughout the city in winter. I still can’t get enough skating at Prince’s Island surrounded by fairy lights and listening to friendly tunes.

In the summer, my favourite thing to do is float lazily down the Bow River. In fact, just getting outdoors any time of year is a treat because you can see the environment adapting with the change of seasons.

Sydney's botanical gardens is an urban oasis next to the City Centre.

Calgarians love their 800+ kilometres of walking, running and biking pathways.  The red pedestrian bridge in the background is the Peace Bridge designed by the world famous Santiago Calatrava. This is lunch hour downtown!

Calgary's Fish Creek Park is one of the world's largest urban parks.

Calgarians love to float down the Bow and Elbow Rivers enjoying the sandstone cliffs, Douglas Fir forest and downtown skyline. 

Urban Design

There are many examples in Sydney where art installations have transformed underused areas and attracted more people. The City of Sydney is implementing a laneway regeneration program, investing in infrastructure that turns hidden laneways into pedestrian thoroughfares, while using public art displays to create more welcoming spaces.

One of the more interesting projects is the new paving, lighting and stunning permanent birdcage art installation (it plays the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney) in downtown’s Angel Place laneway. Today, an average of 4,000 visitors pass through the laneway every day, double the number from 2007.

Calgary’s also has some great public art pieces.  I love the Chinook Arc, Promenade (next to the Drop-In Centre), and Wonderland at The Bow.  But for me,

the real standouts - from a creative city perspective - have been Calgary’s temporary installations and unique festivals. Wreck City last year transformed an entire residential block into a massive work of art before it was demolished. Exploring dramatically transformed homes was a lot of fun. Beakerhead, an event where citizens interact with a smash up of art, science and engineering over the space of a week in September feels distinctly Calgarian.

When it comes to great architecture, Sydney has its Opera House and the Coathanger Bridge (named because of its arch-shaped design).  Not to be outdone, Calgary has the Peace Bridge and The Bow. Sydney has the Opera House, Calgary has the Saddledome. Both cities have strong central business districts dominated by office tower and corporate headquarters architecture.

Forgotten Songs was created by Dave Towey, Dr. Richard Major, Michael Thomas Hill and Richard Wong.  The piece commemorate the songs of 50 birds once heard in central Sydney, before they were gradually forced out by European settlement. The calls, change as the day shifts to night; the daytime birds' songs disappearing with the sun, and those of the nocturnal birds, which inhabited the area, sound into the evening. 

One of the signature things to do when visiting Sydney is to walk across the Coathanger bridge. 

Calgary's Saddledome arena is located in Stampede Park (the greatest outdoor show on earth) on the southeastern edge of the City Centre. 

Transportation

Sydney has one of the longest reported commute times in the western world, with residents navigating a dizzying system of highways, tolled freeways, main streets, laneways and a growing cycle network. The 3-kilometre drive across the City Centre in peak traffic can take up to an hour and driving in Sydney often costs a considerable amount of money in tolls at the Harbour Bridge, Harbour Tunnel, the Eastern Distributor and several other freeways. The alternative to driving is utilizing an extensive public transit system made up of ferries, light rail, buses and trains that extend to the outer suburbs. A free inner-city shuttle circuit connects visitors to tourist attractions.

In contrast, Calgary’s clever downtown grid of roads and the ring road that connects the outer suburbs are extremely easy to navigate. The fact that many roads are numbered rather than named makes it foolproof to find your way around.

Best of all, the roads are free too. The fare-free C-Train zone downtown is brilliant. As a young city, Calgary’s public transit system still has a lot of room to grow and City Council and administration have the opportunity to learn from other cities and to implement new infrastructure in ways that are conscious of future growth.

I believe better transportation to and from the airport as well as easier connections to more tourist attractions would help in attracting some of Banff’s visitors to stay in the city as well. My brother has visited from Australia three times in the last 15 months to ski and hike the Rockies and to eat, shop and relax in Calgary. Unfortunately, he had to drive to destinations like Canada Olympic Park, Heritage Historical Park and CrossIron Mills shopping centre because of limited transit. But he happily explores the innercity by foot and has discovered some lovely little art galleries around Inglewood that even I wasn’t aware of.

Map of Sydney's public transit system. 

Despite a comprehensive transit system, traffic jams like this are a common occurrence in Sydney.

Urban Living

Residential architecture in Sydney has evolved over many years evidenced by the variation in styles along innercity and suburban streets. A lot of Sydneysiders live in heritage housing styles such as terrace houses, workers’ cottages and federation homes. After World War II, the “Great Australian Dream” of home ownership produced a sprawl of detached homes, often with wide verandas and swimming pools in the backyard. High-rise and mid-rise buildings were erected in transit hubs during the following years to increase density.

Nowadays, it’s common for residents to buy an old home or land in a more affordable area in order to build a new oversized “McMansion” that doesn’t quite fit with its surroundings. Yet, the co-existence of conflicting styles adds to the character of many neighbourhoods.  It is very similar to what is happening in many of Calgary’s older communities.

These days, Sydney’s housing prices are among the most expensive in the world, with the median house price around $850,000 (Canadian and Australian dollars are currently at par with each other). That will get you a detached home around 1,200 square feet 30 km from the City Centre or a small two-bedroom inner-city apartment with no view and no parking. The average rent for a small one-bedroom, apartment is around $2,000 a month. With the cost of living in Sydney, it’s not surprising that many people share accommodation or are long-term renters with no plans to ever own a home.

The variety in Calgary’s housing stock both in the innercity and suburbs is impressive, with row houses, laneway housing and mid-rise condominium developments on the rise. The former Calgary suburban trend of building tidy rows of beige homes seems to be shifting as many new communities are featuring bright colours and walkable amenities. The city is also increasing density with infills, resulting in new homes being built alongside older homes in existing communities.

The relatively reasonable cost of living in Calgary was one of the things that attracted me to the city but with the average house price now approaching $500,000 and monthly rent over $1,200 for a decent sized apartment, the landscape is quickly changing. Fortunately, community leaders (private and public) seem focused on improving the mix of housing and affordability for all citizens, with several innovative home ownership programs.

Small cottage homes are being replaced my McMansions in both Calgary and Sydney. 

A parade of new infills on one inner city block in Calgary just 3 kilometres from the downtown core. 

New high-rise condos are changing the skylines of both Calgary and Sydney. 

 Last Word

While Sydney has diverse cultural, recreational and creative offerings, the commute times and cost of living detract from its many upsides.

If you’re not afraid of living with arctic temperatures for a few weeks, it is hard to beat Calgary’s lifestyle and employment opportunities even with the downturn in the energy sector.  I had no job when I landed in Calgary, but within a week I had secured a great position.

I could live anywhere.  I choose Calgary. The city is doing a good job of attracting people here for work and play. But one of the challenges I now face is staying here, as it is not easy to renew a visa.

 Calgary has the advantage of being young enough to learn from the mistakes made by cities like Sydney.  And, with its ambitious and infectious energy, I am confident Calgary will only get better and better as it grows up. I can’t wait to explore the new St. Patrick’s Park this summer.

 While the grass is greener longer in Sydney, the sky is bluer in Calgary. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary vs Paris 

Olympic Cities: Calgary vs Salt Lake 

Denver vs Calgary: A Tale of Two Thriving Downtowns 

 

 

Editor's Note: Marissa Toohey is currently the Communications Manager at Attainable Homes, in Calgary, Alberta. She has travelled extensively around Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America and her career includes a stint in Vietnam working for Habitat for Humanity International.  She loves to live, work and play in Calgary, not necessarily in that order. 

Dublin vs Calgary / Apples vs Oranges

Dublin is a city steeped in history, dating back over 1,000 years when the Vikings first settled the area in 841 AD. However, while there are many buildings or ruins dating back to the Middle Ages, such as Dublin Castle founded in 1204 AD, most historical buildings are from the 18th century Georgian period and later. In the 18th century, for a short period of time, Dublin was the second largest city of the British Empire and fifth largest in Europe with a population of 130,000.  Today, Dublin has a population of 527,612 with an urban population of 1,110,627, which is very similar to Calgary’s. But that is where the similarity ends.

By comparison, while First Nation peoples have visited the Calgary area for centuries, it was just a little over 100 years when a permanent settlement was established. And, it is only the in past decade or so that Calgary has really become a global city. 

In 2012, while Dublin was ranked (based on global connectivity in the areas of accounting, advertising, banking, finance and law) as an “Alpha–“ city (Alpha++ being the highest ranking), Calgary is rated a “Beta-“city (Beta being the second highest ranking).

Anyone who visits Dublin can’t help but see that this city definitely puts the PLAY into the axiom “live, work, play.” The sidewalks, shops, restaurants and especially the pubs are full of locals.

Anyone visiting Calgary on the other hand, would think we are a bunch of workaholics as with our downtown sidewalks are empty except at lunch hour.  Calgary’s urban streets are dominated by the hoarding of the construction sites not people.

Pub Culture vs Café Culture

One of the biggest differences between Dublin and Calgary is that Dubliners hang at pubs while Calgarians love their cafes.  Dublin’s pub culture is one where people of all ages hang out, chat, listen to local musicians or watch sports – pubs are like a community living rooms. Hurling is my new favourite sport - an action-packed game that combines elements of lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, soccer and football. There is no hunching over the laptop while nursing a vegan soy peanut butter latte all day in Dublin!

There is literally a pub on every block, even in residential areas.  What is also great about pubs is that they don’t close at 9 pm like most cafes.  In fact, that is about the time things are just getting started with live music.  One of our most memorable experiences was listening to a Saturday jam session of string players from our front row bar seats in a little pub on the edge of a plaza in Smithville district with people from 5 to 85.  

There is a neighbourhood pub on almost every block and they have live music everyday of the week. 

Pedestrian Malls

Dublin has not one, but two pedestrian malls (one on each side of the river), both being magnets for locals and tourists looking to shop or people watch.  These streets are filled with one of the quintessential sounds of Dublin - the clickity clack of luggage wheels being pulled along their streets (the other quintessential sound is that metal Guiness kegs clanging as they are rolled down the sidewalk to a pub).  And it was not just one or two people; often dozens of suitcase-dragging tourists could be found along the Dublin malls.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone pulling luggage down Stephen Avenue. 

Dublin had some of the best buskers I have ever seen. 

On the south side of the Liffey River is the Grafton Street Mall that links St. Stephen’s Green with Trinity College and is home to an eclectic mix of local, national and international shops.  On the north side of the river is the Henry Street Mall, dominated by department stores.  Both malls had literally thousands of people on them any time of the day. 

The fact that no tall office towers surround Dublin’s pedestrian malls could well be the key to their pedestrian vitality. 

Indeed, most of the people are in downtown Dublin to play. Those who are there to work are serving those who are playing.

It was very common to see tourist dragging their suitcases down the street.  This photo was taken at about 3 pm on a Wednesday. 

Parks / Public Spaces / Rivers

Though Dublin’s two urban parks - St. Stephen’s and Merrion Square are very nice, they are no match for Calgary’s Prince’s Island, Memorial Park, Shaw Millennium Park, Fort Calgary, Riley Park and the new St. Patrick’s Island.

Similarly, Dublin’s canal-like River Liffey, River Dodder, Royal Canal and Grand Canal, can’t compete with the natural beauty of the tree-lined shores and glacier water of the Bow and Elbow Rivers with their active pedestrian and cycling pathways.

Dublin's rivers and canals were very attractive as you moved away from the City Centre. This is at high tide, at low tide they can be more like mud pits.

Phoenix Park, at the northwest edge of Dublin’s city centre is a huge 1,762 acre park (for reference, Nose Hill is 2,780 acres) that includes the residence of the President of Ireland, the Victorian People’s Flower Garden, Dublin Zoo and a herd of free-roaming Fallow deer.  Calgary’s equivalent would be the combination of the Calgary Zoo, TELUS Spark, Tom Campbell’s Hill Natural Park, Pearce Estate Park, Inglewood Wildlands Park and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary on the eastern edge of our City Centre.

Bridges

Ha'penny Bridge was probably the busiest pedestrian bridge I have ever seen. It functioned well to connect to pedestrian areas on either side of the river. It was experiential. 

I was most impressed with the 16 bridges that span the River Liffey along a 4 km stretch of Dublin’s City Centre.  I loved that many of the bridges were named after key figures from Dublin’s rich history– James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, and O’Connell.  

The most popular bridge was the white cast iron Ha’penny pedestrian bridge, built in 1816 to replace the ferry service. Having had various names over the years, its current one reflects the ha’penny toll charged for first 103 years.

Today, over 30,000 people cross the bridge each day.  Perhaps in a century or two, Calgary’s Peace and St. Patrick’s Island pedestrian bridges will have the same traffic.

Calatrava has designed two bridges in Dublin. This is the Samuel Beckett Bridge, the other is the Jams Joyce Bridge further upstream. The bridge cost 60 million Euros or about $86 million Canadian.

Character Districts

The sidewalks of the International Financial District were mostly void of people. 

Dublin’s city centre is comprised of several character districts, each easily worth a half-day of exploration.  Although the International Financial Services Centre is a 12–block area of mostly new office buildings with a striking contemporary Convention Centre and new arena, it pales in comparison to Calgary’s 40-block downtown office core when it comes to daytime vitality. At night, both are relatively quiet, sterile places.

Calgary has nothing to match Dublin’s Viking/Medieval Area and Cathedral District with its St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle and the Chester Beatty Library Galleries.

Temple Bar (originally St. Andrews Parish and a suburb of the medieval area back in about 1300AD) is home to hundreds of bars and ten of thousands of nightly party people (including many “stag parties” and “hen nights”) and spectators. The closest Calgary comes to having something like the Temple Bar nightlife was in the ‘80s when 11th Avenue SW was known as Electric Avenue.

This Trinity College sign says "Keep Off." Seems strange to have a piece of public art out in the open like this and not encourage people to have a closer look. 

Trinity College is considered by many to be the heart of Dublin with its famous Book of Kells (an illuminated manuscript Gospel Book in Latin, created in 800AD). And though Calgary’s downtown Bow Valley College is no match for Trinity College, the SAIT campus is.  While SAIT can’t match Trinity College’s centuries of history, SAIT’s Heritage Hall, which opened in 1916, is as monumental as anything I saw on the Trinity College campus.  This along with SAIT’s striking uber-contemporary Trades and Technology Complex, the Art Smith Aero Centre, Brawn Fieldhouse and parking garage and the spectacular view of downtown and Bow River Valley makes SAIT a more inspiring campus than Trinity College.     

The Liberties, Dublin’s charming working class neighbourhood noted for its antique/vintage shops and street market, is no match for Calgary’s Inglewood community with its diversity of art galleries, shops, restaurants and music venues.

The Smithfield Plaza with its grocery store, hotel, condos and Jamieson Brewery was empty most of the time.  We did see a guy with walking a horse one day, but that was the most animation.   

In addition, Dublin has nothing to match Calgary’s ambitious East Village urban renewal project.  The closest comparison would be Smithfield with the renowned Jamieson Distillery as its anchor.  It has a few new condos and a hotel, but most of the retail at street level is vacant, except for an urban grocery store. It would be great if East Village could attract a cinema complex like the funky Light House Cinema with its eclectic mix of arthouse and Hollywood movies, as well as special events.  

Dublin’s trendy shopping streets like Camden, Rathmaines and Capel with their vibrancy day and night beat out Calgary’s 17th Avenue, 4th and 10th Streets and Kensington Road.

Last Word

Comparing Calgary and Dublin is like comparing apple and oranges. Dublin flourished hundreds of years before Calgary, meaning it had to adapt to a completely different history of innovations in technology, revisions in urban planning theory, as well as economic and political changes.  Like apples and oranges, I like both Dublin and Calgary. 

For comparison images of Calgary's urban culture check out these blogs:

Calgary: North America's Newest Cafe City?

Calgary's got its mojo working?

Calgary's NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Calgary's Rail Trail 

By Richard White, March 1 2015

Richard White has written urban development and urban living for over 20 years. He is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. Email Richard@ground3.com  follow @everydaytourist 

This blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "Let's Compare Calgary and Dublin" on February 28, 2015.

Calgary's Park Avenue ???

“Darling I love you, but give me Park Avenue” was one of the lines in the theme song of the popular late ‘60s TV show, Green Acres.  Park Avenue is well known as the street where Manhattan’s rich and famous live. While Calgary doesn’t yet have an uber-luxury street like Park Avenue - or for that matter even a luxury condo neighbourhood like Chicago’s Gold Coast - it soon may have one.

New York City's Park Avenue. 

Mission’s Millionaire Row

26th Avenue in Mission is home to several luxury condo buildings.

Over the past few decades, the three-block stretch of 26th Avenue east of 4th Street SW in Mission has gradually become home for many of Calgary’s rich and famous.  One of Calgary’s first luxury condos was Roxboro House built in 1977.  Though there was not a lot of condo construction in the ‘80s and ’90, early in the 21st century (in 2000 to be exact), saw the opening of 56 luxury homes in the 16-storey The Grandview on the east side of 2nd street on 26th Ave SW.

Since then, Calgary’s condo culture has evolved significantly, with more and more baby boomers becoming empty nesters and wanting the all the comforts and freedom condo living offers up.

Mission has become the preferred place for many of those who live in the mansions of Roxboro, Elbow Park and Mount Royal to retire. Seizing the moment, 26th Avenue River Investments Inc. working with DIALOG architects, conceived The River, a 15-storey condo building with townhomes along the street.  The resulting 38 homes are huge from 3,000 to 5,000+ square feet; this is a vertical mansion. 

The River became notorious in 2012 with its record-breaking sale of a penthouse (5,626 sf with 2,950 sf of outdoor space) for almost $9.5 million.  It also broke with 26th Avenue tradition with its more contemporary glass and sandstone-coloured façade and an interlocking rectangular design that sets it apart from the brick facades of the older condos.  The River’s townhomes form a long linear cube-like streetscape with two hard edge rectangles, one being glass and the other, stone, which forms the tower above. The design is very contemporary in a conservative and timeless way.

What also sets The River apart from the older condos is that it is on the south side of 26th Avenue backing right onto the Elbow River.  Complete with a self-serve wash bay where you wash Lassie’s muddy paws after a walk in the park or along the river.  The River is expected to be move-in ready by mid 2015.

The proposed new XII condo is both futuristic and chic. 

The new kid on 26th Avenue is The XII, designed by Calgary’s own Sturgess Architecture.  There is nothing conservative about this condo with its fully automated parking system (drop your car off at ground level and it parks itself) and its Pac-Man/Transformer-like design.  There is a two-storey white façade base at street level, with the white façade continuing up the back of the building to a stark protruding white two-floor penthouse condo that mimics the base.  Inserted inside the white mouth-like vertical element is an 11-floor dark grey/black façade tower with large white protruding balconies. There is a peculiar dissonance in the juxtaposition of the dark and white elements.  The XII is like nothing seen in Calgary before and will definitely add to Calgary’s growing reputation as North America’s newest design city. 

The River offer a more traditional design on the banks of the Elbow River. 

Riverfront Avenue

Like Mission’s 26th Avenue, Riverfront Avenue in Eau Claire is also vying to be the “Park Avenue” of Calgary.   The all-brick Eau Claire Estates (built in 1981)was designed by world-renowned highrise architectural firms Skidmore, Ownings and Merill (founded in 1936, it is one of the largest and most influential design firms in the world, one of their signature buildings the worlds’ tallest building, the Burji in Dubai). Eau Claire Estates’ design, well ahead of its time has 10 connected towers (the tallest being 25 floors), with no more than two homes per floor and all situated around a beautifully landscaped central courtyard.  With 14 elevators, there is no waiting to get home and enjoy the sun setting over the downtown skyline and majestic Rocky Mountains for its residents.

The Princeton offers luxury urban living on the Bow River but just minutes from Stephen Avenue Walk and the Olympic Plaza Cultural District. 

Eau Claire Estates sat alone on the Bow River until the ‘90s when Prince’s Island Estates and the Princeton joined it along with the Eau Claire Y and Eau Claire Market. In the past few years, development along Riverfront Avenue has increased dramatically with Vancouver’s Anthem Properties’ Waterfront project on the old Greyhound Bus Barns site east of Eau Claire Market. With 1,000 condos in three highrise towers, as well the low-rise condo/townhomes along the pathway, this is Calgary’s largest condo project to date.

However, the big new luxury condo news for Riverfront Avenue (technically it is on 1st Avenue) was made in June of 2014 when Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Inc. announced they had engaged prominent Canadian architects Arthur Erickson and Peter Busby (both of Vancouver) to design 185 luxury suites just west of the Princeton, across from the Peace Bridge.  Though The Concord’s list of amenities is huge, the one that caught my attention was the golf simulator (though I expect the four seasons park, which will include a pond for skating in the winter, will attract most people).

The two-building design, with each tower cascading down in height from 1st Avenue to the river, has  the two towers facing away from each other in a V-shape to create maximum privacy.  The design and juxtaposition will also create large patios and spectacular views of the river valley and the private park.  In many ways, it is a modern version of the ‘80s Eau Claire Estates.

The 2007 Princeton meets the early '80s Eau Claire Estates. 

YYC’s Central Park

Park Point will become the signature contemporary building in Calgary's Beltline community. (image courtesy of Qualex Landmark)

Park Avenue’s name is derived from the fact that it offers spectacular views of the iconic New York City’s Central Park. Calgary’s Central Park (aka Memorial Park) located in the Beltline between 2nd and 4th ST SW and 12 and 13th Ave SW pales in comparison, but it is too surrounded by intriguing upscale new residential towers. The Park at the corner of 13th Avenue and 2nd street is glass tower that cascades downward from south to north, giving the top floor penthouses spectacular views of both Central Park and Haultain Park, as well as Calgary’s dynamic downtown skyline and huge patios. 

The newest kid on the park is Qualex-Landmark’s Park Point (corner of 12 Ave and 2nd St. SW) designed by Tony Wai and his team at IBI in Vancouver. It has a very striking black and white façade design that segments the 34-story tower into five, black grid-blocks (the largest box is at the top, making the tower look top heavy) that look like an upside-down sound bar from an old stereo receiver or rock concert soundboard. 

The façade design is also reminiscent of the sculptural, wedding cake highrise towers popular in Chicago and New York City in the early 20th century, except it is upside down. 

I expect it will become the Beltline’s signature building.

The beautiful Memorial Park could eventually be surrounded by luxury condos like Park Point and The Park. (image courtesy of Qualex Landmark)

Last Word

While Calgary cannot match New York or Chicago for luxury, highrise, urban condo living today, it is certainly making great strides to get there.

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Enhancing Established Community Development: Multifamily

If the City of Calgary is serious about wanting more Calgarians to live in established neighbourhoods there are three initiatives (perhaps they could be New Year resolutions) Council could undertake in 2015 that would benefit the City, homebuyers and developers.

  1. Make Multifamily Development a permitted use
  2. Subdivision and Development Appeal Board reform
  3. Remove bureaucracy

Over the next three weeks, we will look at each one of these initiatives beginning with “making multi-family development a permitted use.” 

The Problem

I know of a recent case where the City Planner thought it would be a good idea to ask the developer to create homes that face both the street and back alley. The developer agreed and proceeded to create a design that would accommodate both street and laneway homes. The Community Association was on side with the design when it was presented to them. But a couple of neighbours didn’t want to share the back alley with the new homes, so they appealed the decision - and won. 

 Parkdale boutique infill condo project is not much taller than some of the new single-family, mega mansions in the community.

Parkdale boutique infill condo project is not much taller than some of the new single-family, mega mansions in the community.

Now, after more than a year of debate, it is back to the drawing board for the developer. The net result is the new project will have more expensive homes, as the developer needs to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the first design and community engagement. This is an example of just one of the lost opportunities to build more affordable homes in established communities in a timely manner as allowed by the existing zoning rules.   And, I know this isn’t an isolate example.

Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is a comprehensive document that will guide Calgary’s growth over the next 40 or more years.  One of its stated goals is to encourage 33% of future housing growth to be accommodated within the city’s developed area (established or existing communities); this means 80,000 new housing units, or approximately 2,000 new condo and townhomes per year.

The Plan recognizes that as Calgary evolves and society changes so does Calgarians’ housing wants and needs. Fifty years ago single-family homes dominated every new community in Calgary - Lakeview, University Heights or Acadia. But this changed starting about 2010 with the increased demand for multi-family housing mostly by young professionals, empty nesters and affordable first homes for young families.

In fact from 2003 to 2013, 74% of all new housing units in Calgary were multi-family condos and apartments or row housing, however, 90% were in new suburbs.  The dilemma is that in established communities there is always a vocal minority who has difficulty accepting multi-family housing in their neighbourhood.  This makes building new multi-family buildings in established communities, difficult and expensive.

  Row or Townhomes in Currie Barracks create an attractive streetscape with their diversity of facades and hidden density - no side yards. 

Row or Townhomes in Currie Barracks create an attractive streetscape with their diversity of facades and hidden density - no side yards. 

Permitted vs. Discretionary Uses

The City of Calgary’s Land Use Bylaw zones all land in the city for specific uses e.g. Commercial, Residential or Industrial. The Bylaw even goes further to specify what types of buildings can be built on residential land e.g. single-family, town-homes or multi-family.  It even dictates what size of multi-family building can be built - how many units, how high and how many parking stalls are needed, just to name a few of the requirements. 

While the City has several multi-family, land-use categories, that define what size of multi-family building you can create on a specific piece of land, it is still at the City’s discretion if they will let a developer build a multi-family building on the land they have purchase at a cost that reflects the approved multi-family zoning i.e. the more density the land is zoned for the higher the land cost.  However, with discretionary use, it means the developer first has to buy the land, design the project and then present their plan to City, community and neighbouring landowners to and then they must wait to see if the City will allow them to build their project even if it meets all of the City’s approved conditions for development.  This is a very time consuming and costly way to foster multi-family development in established communities.

  University City is an attractive (some don't like the bright colours, I do) and affordable phased multi-family project adjacent to the Brentwood LRT Station. It transform a parking lot into a village and adds to the diversity of housing in the community .  The City wants and needs to capitalize on its investment in LRT with projects like these at every LRT station.

University City is an attractive (some don't like the bright colours, I do) and affordable phased multi-family project adjacent to the Brentwood LRT Station. It transform a parking lot into a village and adds to the diversity of housing in the communityThe City wants and needs to capitalize on its investment in LRT with projects like these at every LRT station.

The Solution

Make multi-family developments a “permitted” use on land zoned for multi-family development - not discretionary.  If the proposed development meets all the approved standards (which have already been debated when the Land Use Zoning was approved by City Council) for the site (e.g. parking, height, landscaping, density and setback), it gets approved without debate.  If a proposed development meets the existing rules as approved by the City and community, shouldn’t the project simply get approved without debate? If not, what was the point of creating the rules in the first place? If the proposal requires relaxation from the approved requirements only then should the project is open for debate and approval at the City’s discretion.

As it is, today all new multi-family projects are discretionary use, which means planners and the community get to comment on everything from the aesthetics of the roofline and window placements, to door colour and tree planting.  When I was on Calgary Planning Commission, I remember reading a community association’s letter saying, “we would like each unit to have granite countertops.”

As one might expect, debating the merits of a development can take months, even years, to get approval with so many different knowledge bases and aesthetic sensibilities.  There is no perfect development for everyone. Everyone might like the proposal except for a small component (and in fact it is often a different component for each person who is opposed to the development) and you end up with a refusal.

Or you get approval from the City, but one or more individuals appeal the project to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board, which can then delay the project for several months, which will be the subject of next week’s column.

  Savoy condos, with main floor retail, on Kensington Road in West Hillhurst are located within walking distance to downtown and SAIT and have excellent bus connections to University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre complex and downtown. Increasing the density of people living along Kensington Road could be the catalyst for its transformation into a Main Street. 

Savoy condos, with main floor retail, on Kensington Road in West Hillhurst are located within walking distance to downtown and SAIT and have excellent bus connections to University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre complex and downtown. Increasing the density of people living along Kensington Road could be the catalyst for its transformation into a Main Street. 

Last Word

I am told Edmonton developers and planners get a chuckle when told “multi-family developments are a “discretionary use” in Calgary, even when they are on land zoned for multi-family buildings.   This alone should be the catalyst for a change in Calgary’s Land-Use Bylaw in 2015. 

Richard White, January 25, 2015 (this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on January 24, 2015 with the title "A call to streamline the approval process."

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Calgary deserves more respect from international planners!

While flaneuring Winnipeg’s Sherbooke Street on a cold day last December, I happened upon a copy of Ken Greenberg’s book “Walking Home” or “The Life and Lessons of a City Builder” in the Salvation Army thrift store for a buck. Who could resist? Greenberg, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY is a highly respected new urban designer for over 25 years, working on projects internationally with Toronto as his base.  In 2008, he was engaged by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to be part of the River walk design team.

The book reads a like an autobiography, but unlike entertainment stars who talk sex, drugs, relationships and life lessons, Greenberg talks only of urban design which can be a pretty boring subject except to urban nerds like me. What surprised me was how little he mentioned Calgary (just three times to be exact) given our City has been one of the fastest growing cities, (downtown, inner city and suburbs) over the past 25 years in North America.  It seemed every time he made a point about how great other cities were, I could find as good or better example from Calgary.  

Collaboration

Early in the book, Greenberg identifies “collaborations as the lifeblood of successful city building.” Later, he talks about private public partnerships, identifying organizations like Cityscape Institute in New York City and Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance both founded to foster the development of parks and public spaces citywide. 

Parks Foundation Calgary (PFC), founded in 1985, has been responsible for $150M in parks, playgrounds and pathway development. Greenberg can be forgiven for not mentioning PFC’s ambitious new project the 138 km The Rotary/Mattamy Greenway that will soon circle our city, given his book was published in 2011.

  The historic Haultain School, home to the Parks Foundation Calgary, is appropriately located in Haultain Park and across the street from Memorial Park.

The historic Haultain School, home to the Parks Foundation Calgary, is appropriately located in Haultain Park and across the street from Memorial Park.

Public Spaces

Throughout the book he talks about the importance of rich and varied public spaces and the importance of the public realm (even devoting an entire chapter to “reclaiming the public realm”). He points to Scandinavian cities as having some of the best public spaces.   I was disappointed there was no mention of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk and its evolution from a pedestrian only mall to an innovative flexible space that is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. As a designer for the East Village River walk surely he was aware of the success of the Bow River Promenade in Eau Claire and Prince’s Island, one of the best downtown festival sites in the world. While I realize, Greenberg is more interested in urban spaces, I think it was a major oversight in my mind not to mention Calgary has the most extensive citywide pathway system in the world at nearly 1,000 km that links our suburbs, inner city and downtown communities.

When you talk about diversity of public spaces, you can’t get much more diverse than Calgary which offers everything from an urban skateboard parks to snowboard hills, from handicapped parks to Douglas Fir trail. Olympic plaza.  With over 5,200 parks and over 1,000 playgrounds, Calgary is the envy of almost every city.

The Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall is a unique experiment in urban placemaking. It is a pedestrian mall by day and one-way street by night. 

  Century Gardens is a pastoral, urban oasis for downtown workers and residents. 

Century Gardens is a pastoral, urban oasis for downtown workers and residents. 

  The Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular meeting spot for downtown workers and shoppers. This public space is a good example of go urban design as it is built on top of a 700-stall parking garage, includes a major public artwork, has lots of seating and is directly linked to an LRT station. 

The Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular meeting spot for downtown workers and shoppers. This public space is a good example of go urban design as it is built on top of a 700-stall parking garage, includes a major public artwork, has lots of seating and is directly linked to an LRT station. 

Urban Streets

Greenberg doesn’t even give Calgary a nod for the great work it has done in fostering the development of 9th Avenue in Inglewood, 10th Street and Kensington Road in Kensington Village; 4th Street in Mission, 17th and 11th Avenues and 1st Street in the Beltline.

Surely, Bridgeland’s renaissance as a result of the General Hospital’s “implosion” and plans for Calgary’s multi-billion dollar East Village mega-makeover (one of North America’s largest urban redevelopments) could have been worked into the text as urban experiments to watch.

 The streets of Kensington Village are full of pedestrian oriented shops, making it one of Canada's best walkable urban neighbourhoods. 

The streets of Kensington Village are full of pedestrian oriented shops, making it one of Canada's best walkable urban neighbourhoods. 

  One of the trendy ideas in North America these days it to transform street parking into pedestrian oriented spaces. Sometimes the parking spaces become patios or as in this case the patio is on the actual sidewalk and the parking spaces become a new sidewalk. 

One of the trendy ideas in North America these days it to transform street parking into pedestrian oriented spaces. Sometimes the parking spaces become patios or as in this case the patio is on the actual sidewalk and the parking spaces become a new sidewalk. 

  Pedestrian oriented streetscapes exist in numerous Calgary communities like this one on 19th Ave NW in West Hillhurst.

Pedestrian oriented streetscapes exist in numerous Calgary communities like this one on 19th Ave NW in West Hillhurst.

  Calgary also has its fair share of quirky cafes like this one in Ramsay's Industrial district. 

Calgary also has its fair share of quirky cafes like this one in Ramsay's Industrial district. 

  Neighbourhood farmers' markets are also popular in Calgary. 

Neighbourhood farmers' markets are also popular in Calgary. 

  Who says Calgary's City Centre isn't for families? The Beltline's Haultain Park is full of families using the playground, tennis courts and the playing field for a pick-up game of soccer. 

Who says Calgary's City Centre isn't for families? The Beltline's Haultain Park is full of families using the playground, tennis courts and the playing field for a pick-up game of soccer. 

Suburban Urbanization

While Greenberg talks endlessly about the need to urbanize existing suburban communities, he falls short on mentioning some efforts that have been made in cities like Calgary to create more diverse and dense suburban communities.  Calgary’s new master-planned communities are being created at a density that surpasses those of early 20th century communities with a mix of single-family, duplexes, four-plexes, town homes and condos designed with singles, families, empty-nesters and seniors in mind.

  McKenzie Towne street.

McKenzie Towne street.

Surely too, he must have known about Calgary’s pioneering community of McKenzie Towne developed by Carma Developers LP, now Brookfield Residential in the mid '80s. 

Brookfield’s SETON project was also on the horizon in the late 2000s when Greenberg was busy researching and writing his book.  The idea of creating a new downtown at the edge of a major city with a mega teaching hospital as an anchor is both innovative and unique in North America’s quest to create a new suburban paradigm.

And what about Remington Development’s Quarry Park project? It definitely warranted a mention with its mix of office park, market place and residential development all linked to future LRT development. 

What city builds a transit-oriented village before the transit is even built e.g. Quarry Park and SETON!

  Pancake breakfast in McKenzie Towne.

Pancake breakfast in McKenzie Towne.

  Quarry Park is an ambitious 400 acre urban infilling project, given is was an old quarry in the '90s and today it is well on its way to becoming a mixed-use community with four million square feet of office space, for 20,000 workers (including the head office of Imperial Oil), home to 6,000 residents, 140 acres of nature space and a retail/grocery district.

Quarry Park is an ambitious 400 acre urban infilling project, given is was an old quarry in the '90s and today it is well on its way to becoming a mixed-use community with four million square feet of office space, for 20,000 workers (including the head office of Imperial Oil), home to 6,000 residents, 140 acres of nature space and a retail/grocery district.

  Aerial view of Brookfield Residential's SETON with the new South Health Campus constructed on land sold to the province by the developer as the employment anchor for a new downtown that will serve all of the surrounding communities. One of the interesting partnerships is the YMCA's operation of the Wellness Centre as part of the Health Campus. It is the first YMCA to be integrated into a hospital setting. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

Aerial view of Brookfield Residential's SETON with the new South Health Campus constructed on land sold to the province by the developer as the employment anchor for a new downtown that will serve all of the surrounding communities. One of the interesting partnerships is the YMCA's operation of the Wellness Centre as part of the Health Campus. It is the first YMCA to be integrated into a hospital setting. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

City Building: A Two-Way Street

Greenberg talks about the important role the city and the private sector play in city building, focusing on Vancouver as the model city with the development of Yale town, False Creek and Coal Harbour.  It would have been nice to have included examples from other Canadian cities – like Garrison Woods in Calgary or the above mentioned new developments East Village, Quarry Park, Bridges and Currie Barracks that were conceived in '00s.

Garrison Woods streetscape (photo credit: www.mardaloopherald.com)

Beltline's yimbyism

Greenberg talks about his work in Paris with its arrondissements and New York with its boroughs. He talks of the important role of community boards to reconcile the needs of the whole city, while acknowledging the importance and individuality of the different parts of the city.  He notes that New York’s 59 community boards play a key role in shaping how that city has evolved and suggests it might be helpful to establish community boards in Toronto where there is a significant urban suburban divide.

I would suggest any urban planner interested in the “good, bad and ugly” of how community boards and community engagement is shaping a city today, should look no further than at how Calgary’s 150+ community associations are increasingly shaping our city.

Calgary’s Beltline community in particular is especially deserving of praise internationally for its uniqueness in welcoming density and mega mixed-use developments. Its community association has been known to demand developers build to the maximum density allowed. I think their motto is “leave no density behind” as they have turned “Nimbyism into Yimbyism (yes in my backyard)!”

Infill Development Gone Wild

Greenberg talks about the importance of selective infill development in the suburbs and need to increase density horizontally, as much as vertically.  Of all the 20 or so cities I have visited over the past 10+ years, Calgary is the leader when it comes to inner-city infill residential development.  

Nowhere have I seen the diversity and magnitude of old single family homes being replaced by larger single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes or several homes being bought up and replaced by new within established neighbourhoods. I can literally say that they is a construction site on every other block in Calgary's inner city communities near downtown. 

A parade of new infill home in Calgary's trendy West Hillhurst just 3 km from downtown. 

  University City is a multi-phase development that will convert a retail power center with a sea of parking into an urban village next to an LRT Station (middle of image far right side) across from the University of Calgary (other side of Crowchild Trail). 

University City is a multi-phase development that will convert a retail power center with a sea of parking into an urban village next to an LRT Station (middle of image far right side) across from the University of Calgary (other side of Crowchild Trail). 

New condo development at the Lions Park LRT Station with direct link to North Hill Shopping Centre, Safeway and public library. 

Suburban / Urban Divide

Greenberg remarks often about how Toronto and other cities’ struggles with forced amalgamation that often results in dysfunctional regional councils.  Or the flight of businesses and people to edge cities in the middle and late 20th century, leaving the old central city to crumble and die (e.g. Detroit or Hartford).  The suburban urban dichotomy is something that every city in North America is facing today as the continent becomes more and more urban.

I think it would interest Greenberg’s readers to know that Calgary has a unique uni-city model as a result of annexing smaller communities and land on its edges before they could become large independent competing cities.  As a result, the city’s tax base has not been fragmented and there is little regional competition for economic development amongst the various edge cities.  The city benefits from having a single Police, Fire and Emergency services, single transit and roads system and integrated water and sewer system.  While the city has a large environmental footprint, it also has one of the most contiguous growth patterns of any city in North America.

While Calgary’s uni-city model is certainly not perfect (I am convinced there is a no perfect model for city-building or city-governance), it is unique and should be studied internationally for both its pros and cons.

This image shows how contiguous Calgary's growth has been as a uni-city.  You can see the large spaces taken up by parks like Nose Hill, Bowness, Fishcreek and the rivers, as well  as the airport in the northeast.

Last Word

Perhaps by now you can sense my frustration that Calgary gets no respect from the international planning community for its leadership in city building over the past 25+ years.

Sorry Mr. Greenberg if I took too much of my frustration out on you and your book. Indeed, your book provides lots of interesting ideas to explore in my future columns and blogs. For example, I love the concept of  “social spaces vs. public spaces.”  I invite you to spend more time in Calgary, as many of the things you suggest cities need to be doing to enhanced urban living in the 21st century is already happening in Calgary.

We might not be the best at anything, but we are better than most at almost everything. 

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Calgary: The importance of a good mayor

Recently, I read Ken Greenberg’s book Walking Home where is shares his lessons learned as a “city builder” in various cities around the world.  One of his comments that sticks in my mind is “mayors are the chief designers of their cities.”  That got me reflecting on how Calgary’s mayors have influenced the design of our city over the past 35 years, when just four very different mayors governed our city. 

Calgary’s Mayor Terms

  • 1980 to 1989                        Ralph Klein          
  • 1989 to 2001                        Al Duerr
  • 2001 to 2010                        Dave Bronconnier    
  • 2010 to 2017?                      Naheed Nenshi

 

Klein: The Communicator

Unlike the USA, any Mayor in Canada has limited power to drive his/her agenda - unless their power of persuasion can convince the majority of their Council members to buy into their vision or agenda. 

Klein

That being said, Calgary has benefitted from having strong mayors for 35+ years, each capitalizing and adapting to the economic cycles of our boom and bust economy.  Calgary entered the 1980 in a building boom that rivalled that of today, however the Federal government’s National Energy Program (NEP) quickly put Calgary into a recession that lasted into the mid ‘90s.

Post-NEP, Ralph Klein adopted a Roosevelt-style of government, negotiating with the Province to help fund major city projects like Northeast LRT, Municipal Building and Performing Arts Centre.

He was instrumental in the negotiating with the Province to ensure Calgary’s Saddledome got built for the Calgary Flames and 1988 Winter Olympics. Klein, and then Premier Peter Lougheed enjoyed a synergistic relationship that was instrumental in getting not only the Saddledome built but also the Northwest LRT constructed in time for the Olympics.

Therein lies an important lesson - it is critical for Calgary’s mayor to have a good working relationship with the Premier and his cabinet. Master of persuasion and relationship building - with citizens, other governments and the President of the International Olympic Committee - Klein was pivotal in making Calgary an international city, much like Nenshi is today.

The Saddledome at Stampede Park on the southeast edge of downtown.

The Municipal Building, old City Hall and Olympic Plaza.

Construction of the Performing Arts Center with its concert hall and four theatre spaces with a total of 3,200 seats, made it one of North America's largest centres in 1985. 

Duerr: The Planner

The early ‘90s was a period of little growth in Calgary. We were still in a recession and our infrastructure was in pretty good shape, so much so that there were no tax increases for five years.

Duerr

As a planner, Mayor Al Duerr realized this was a good time to review outdated planning documents like the Transportation Plan, so he initiated a community engagement process that resulted in the Go Plan being approved in 1996. The process was critical in that it forced Calgarians to look into the future and determine what kind of city they wanted to build.  One key issues at the time was mobility and lengthening commuter times – sound familiar.

A key idea of the Go Plan was the creation of mini downtowns in the suburbs, allowing some of those who lived in the ‘burbs to live work and play close to home. Today, were are doing just that with, for example Brookfield Residential’s SETON and Livingston’s town centres, as well as urban villages at Westbrook, University and Bridgeland LRT Stations.  

The city and development community have also created significant new communities in the SE and NE quadrants close to the city’s large manufacturing, warehouse and distribution employment centres, making it possible to live work and play without crossing the Deerfoot Divide.

Another major decision of the Go Plan was no new Bow River crossing.  Calgarians were already starting to think about the environment, our rivers and sustainable growth. Before the Go Plan, the City plans called a river crossing at Shaganappi Trail (in Montgomery) and another one in Bowness.  Unfortunately, without these crossings and the City’s significant residential only growth on the westside, we now have the Crowfoot Trail crisis.

Under the guidance of Duerr Calgary became a more “caring city.”  He was instrumental in the development of the Calgary Homeless Foundation in 1998, which was unique in North America at the time and a far cry from the Klein’s famous “creeps and bums” fiasco.

By the end of Duerr’s reign, a new Transportation Plan was in place, setting the stage for Bronconnier, the builder and project manager, to take over the reigns.

  The Bridges is a master planned community on the site of the old General Hospital on the northeast edge of the City Centre, based on transit oriented development principles.

The Bridges is a master planned community on the site of the old General Hospital on the northeast edge of the City Centre, based on transit oriented development principles.

Brookfield Residential's SETON (which stands for southeast town), is a new live, work, play community with its own downtown being created at the southeastern edge of the city 20 years after the approval of the GO Plan. It will eventually be linked to the rest of the city by the SE LRT. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential and RK Visuals)

Bronconnier: The Builder

Bronconnier

Dave Bronconnier had an agenda and was always ready to share it.  From day one, he said we needed to improve Calgary’s infrastructure and he delivered.  Bronco (his nickname for good reason as he rode the horse no matter how hard it tried to buck him off) knew how to count to 8 (not seconds) Alderman as that is what he need for a majority vote at Council.  By 2004, he had successfully negotiated with the Province to get a share of the gasoline tax paid in Calgary for infrastructure projects. With the funding in hand, he was the catalyst for the extension of all three legs of the LRT out to the new suburban communities and the funding and design of the West LRT on time and on budget.

Bronco, recognizing the need to balance the city’s investment in both transit and roads, included several major road projects including the gigantic GE5 (Glenmore, Elbow Drive and 5th Street underpass), as well as numerous over passes at key intersections around the city as part of his agenda.

He was also instrumental in realizing the mega East Village makeover after over 20 years of false starts by negotiating with the Province an innovated new funding model based on the USA’s TIF (Tax Increment Financing) model.  And he was able to convince his colleagues on Council to form the controversial Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to develop and implement a master plan for East Village utilizing both the city and private sector lands. East Village has the potential to become Calgary’s postcard to the world of urban planning and living.

I am told Bronco was able to negotiate an amazing $15B from the Federal and Provincial governments for Calgary infrastructure projects during his term. He was instrumental in working with other Big City mayors to get municipal funding from the Federal Fuel Tax and Federal GST refund. The latter provided seed money for Calgary's new Science Centre and Library as well as major upgrades to Heritage Park and the Zoo.  He was also instrumental in setting up the ENMAX Park Fund. Bravo Bronco!

The northeast LRT extension included the new Martindale Saddletowne station. (photo credit: GEarchitecture)

  Aerial view of the GE5 interchange (photo credit: PCL)

Aerial view of the GE5 interchange (photo credit: PCL)

Nenshi: The Ambassador 

Nenshi

Perhaps it is too early to tell how current Mayor Nenshi will shape our city, but already he has exercised his persuasive powers to get the controversial Airport Tunnel approved (only time will tell if this was the right decision). 

Nenshi, a tireless champion of the need to create a more urban Calgary, has encouraged more dense communities at the edges of the city and infilling of older existing communities.  To date, several major inner-city urban village projects have been approved Stampede Shopping Centre, West Campus and West District. 

To date, he has been less successful when it comes to the approval of secondary suites and cutting the red tape around the approval of infill projects in established neighbourhoods to allow for more density and diversity. However, it is not for lack of trying!

He has been a strong advocate for making transit a priority and trying to get funding for both the North and SE LRT legs.  While the funding for LRT is still a long way away, a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit that will run along the same route as future LRT tracks) program is in the works as the first phase in the development of these two “game changing” transit routes.

Nenshi has also been an outstanding ambassador, building the City's reputation internationally as a young, hip, progressive city. At home, his negotiating skills will be tested by the City's growing urban/ suburban divide, the long list of "wants and needs" vs revenues and the growing NIMBYism in established communities. 

  Airport Tunnel construction. 

Airport Tunnel construction. 

Transit routes

Last Word

Greenberg identifies “civic pride” as a key ingredient to successful city building. I doubt Calgary’s civic pride has ever been higher than it was after the Olympics in 1988. Unless of course it was after the 2013 flood, when Calgary demonstrated its amazing community spirit, under the leadership of Mayor Nenshi.  While no mayor is perfect, Calgary has been very fortunate to have effective mayors who for the past 35 years have helped Calgary evolve into one of the most liveable cities in the world. 

By Richard White, January 16, 2015

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Parks: Calgary vs Dublin, Florence & Rome

It’s true - you have to travel to appreciate what you have back home.  After six weeks in Europe, specifically Dublin, Florence and Rome, I have a much better appreciation for Calgary’s parks, especially those in and around our downtown. 

While Dublin had several nice parks including St. Stephens Green and St. Patrick’s Cathedral Park, it had nothing to match the quality and quantity of Calgary’s urban parks.  The public parks in Florence and Rome, are in a word, “disgusting” with their uncut grass, weeds, muddy pathways, tired playgrounds and dog crap.

  The river pathway in downtown Florence. 

The river pathway in downtown Florence. 

  A weed infested playground in Rome.  This was the norm for public playgrounds in both Rome and Florence. 

A weed infested playground in Rome.  This was the norm for public playgrounds in both Rome and Florence. 

Not only does Calgary have great parks, but also on the verge of getting even better. Recently, the City of Calgary announced $75 million in park funding from the ENMAX Legacy Parks program for 18 parks, including mega makeovers of Century Gardens in downtown’s west end, the Beltline’s Thomson Family Park (the former Calgary Lawn Bowling site on 16th Avenue at 11th Street) and Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s Bow to Bluff Park.

In addition, to the park improvements being completed using ENMAX funds several other urban parks have been recently completed or in the process of being completed.

  The site of the new ENMAX Park at Stampede.

The site of the new ENMAX Park at Stampede.

Rendering of what ENMAX Park will look like.

  Century Gardens today looking from the top of the fountain on the northeast corner of 8th Street and 8th Avenue SW.

Century Gardens today looking from the top of the fountain on the northeast corner of 8th Street and 8th Avenue SW.

  The iron gate to Calgary's historic Calgary Lawn Bowling field. 

The iron gate to Calgary's historic Calgary Lawn Bowling field. 

  Plans for renovations of Century Gardens Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

Plans for renovations of Century Gardens Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

  Information panel informing residents of plans for new park space with a mix of uses. 

Information panel informing residents of plans for new park space with a mix of uses. 

  Information panel.

Information panel.

  Concept plans developed by Ground3 Landscape Architects for the old Calgary Lawn Bowling site.  This is just one of several information panels on the fence allowing everyone to know what is being planned. It doesn't get more transparent than this.  

Concept plans developed by Ground3 Landscape Architects for the old Calgary Lawn Bowling site.  This is just one of several information panels on the fence allowing everyone to know what is being planned. It doesn't get more transparent than this. 

New Urban Parks

This past May, the City completed the new Barb Scott Park on the west side of the Calgary Board of Education headquarters on 12th Avenue at 9th Street.  It has added much needed green space to Calgary’s most densely populated community and is home to the popular “Chinook Arch” public artwork.

The City is also in the midst of creating a new park in a somewhat strange location - Macleod Trail and 11th Avenue SE.  Enoch Park will incorporate the historic Victoria Park Queen Anne house built by clothing entrepreneur Enoch Sales in 1905. The new park will hopefully become a meeting space for the many new condo dwellers surrounding the park.

  Aerial view of Enoch Park looking west. 

Aerial view of Enoch Park looking west. 

Signature Urban Parks

Prince’s Island is currently Calgary’s signature urban park, but soon it is going to have to vie with St. Patrick’s Island for that stature.  St. Patrick’s Island is getting a seasonal beach, an outdoor amphitheater, tobogganing hill, firepit and picnic areas as well as a wetland area. Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, after extensive public consultation, has delivered on almost everything on Calgary’s wish list for this park.  

And let’s not leave out Fort Calgary, which is in the middle of multi-million dollar upgrade and expansion. Shaw Millennium Park too has to one of the most unique urban parks in North America as a combination festival/skateboard park.

  Kudos to CMCL for its community engagement and ability to incorporate almost everything on my wish list for St. Patrick's Island. 

Kudos to CMCL for its community engagement and ability to incorporate almost everything on my wish list for St. Patrick's Island. 

NoBow Parks

The north side of the Bow River also has its fair share of urban parks.  Riley Park is over 100 years old and is unique with its cricket pitch. Plans for the Bow to Bluff Park will see the public corridor along the Sunnyside LRT line from the Bow River to the McHugh Bluff transformed into a linear urban park.

Also in NoBow is the 6th/5th Avenue Parkway, from 10th Street to 26th Street, where there is a park/playground space every few blocks – Riley Park, Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre Park and Community Gardens, Queen Elizabeth School Park, West Hillhurst Park/Bowview Pool, Grand Trunk Park and Helicopter Park. 

  Bow to Bluff Park along the Kensington/Sunnyside LRT line. (image credit: City of Calgary)

Bow to Bluff Park along the Kensington/Sunnyside LRT line. (image credit: City of Calgary)

  Detail of one of the nodes of the Bow to Bluff Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

Detail of one of the nodes of the Bow to Bluff Park (image credit: City of Calgary)

Playground Parks

It is crazy how many cool urban playground parks there are in the greater downtown.  I expect there are over 30 vibrant relatively new playgrounds in the schools and parks from Mission to Crescent Heights and from Inglewood to Parkdale.  

Did you know that there are over 1200 playgrounds in Calgary - that averages out to about 6 per community.  Since 2010, the Parks Foundation of Calgary through the Playgrounds and Communities Grant Program, has funded over 100 new playgrounds valued at $15 million.

Last Word

These are only some of Calgary’s awesome array of urban parks.  I haven’t even mentioned lesser-known parks like Humpy Hollow Park, the tiny Paget Park, Chinatown’s Sien Lok Park, the Nat Christie (sculpture) Park along the Bow River. Indeed, when it comes to parks and playgrounds, Calgary doesn’t take a back seat to any city in Canada or around the world.

Our beautiful parks are a big reason Calgary is the 5th Most Livable City (Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2014 Global Livability Index) in the world and Canada’s Best Place to Raise Kids (Money Sense Magazine, April 2014).

When it comes to making Calgary a better place to live, work and play (downtown or in the suburbs), the investment of $75 million into new and improved parks across the city will pay dividends for decades to come.  I think it is wise for a city to build on its strengths.

By Richard White, January 11, 2015

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East Village Condo: No Parking, No Problem

Imagine a world without cars. Imagine Calgary without cars. Many futurist say it will eventually happen. One of the first steps will be to experiment with condo towers in strategic urban locations with no parking for residents. 

Joe Starkman, CEO of Calgary’s Knightsbridge Homes is prepared to be a pioneer with his proposed 15-storey condo project, N3 in East Village that would have 167 units and no parking.  While some Councilors and planners are questioning the parking relaxation (current regulations would require 101 parking stalls, 84 for residents and 17 for visitors) that would be required to approve N3. I say “no residents’ parking, no problem.”  

I originally thought the developer should provide the required visitor parking, however with a bit of digging I found out there are 1658 existing public parking stalls within 300 metres of N3, and Calgary Parking Authority has plans to build a new 630 stall parkade. I also found out that to add even one level of parking would add  $70K per unit, as the high water table would require expensive "raft construction."  

After reviewing Bunt & Associates' "N3 East Village Zero Parking Feasibility Study," I say "no visitors' parking, no problem."  The study clearly stated that after a comprehensive review of best practices and experiences with no or limited parking in cities across North America, N3 could be successful without any parking given the excellent access by transit, cycling and walking to key amenities, as well as easy access to 1,000s of public parking spots when needed. 

I would also like to note that the City should not approve any reserved street parking for residents of this or any condos in East Village. In fact, all street parking should be public parking, either metered or a 2 to 4 hour limit depending on the time of day and day of the week. 

Computer rendering of N3 next to the St. Louis Hotel on 8th Avenue and 4th Street SE.

Who would live in a condo with no parking?

All of the N3 units are small - 460 to 620 square feet - meaning the primary market for these homes is singles, be that young, middle-aged or seniors.  More specifically, the market is for urbanites who don’t want or need to have a car.  A $200,000 home in downtown Calgary would be very attractive to the young geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers (GABEsters) who populate the office towers just blocks away. 

I also think N3 would be attractive to empty nesters who are travelling a lot and newly widowed seniors.  My mother moved to downtown Hamilton and gave up her car after my Dad passed away (not that she needed to but because she wanted to) so she could walk to the library, market and church.  She has never been happier.

Back story, a recent CBC report from Hamilton indicated that city has a potential crisis in the making with seniors who are trapped in the suburbs without a car. My Mom was smart to get out while she can. Learn more: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/why-a-revitalized-downtown-is-what-hipsters-want-and-seniors-need-1.2843931

I think corporate Calgary would purchase a few units for out-of-town consultants and board members when in town on business.  Maybe even some local executives who live in the ‘burbs or on acreages might purchase a unit to have a place to stay after a long day at the office, an early morning meeting, Flames game, concert, theatre or bad weather. 

I am also betting there are individuals in Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge who might want to have a “pied-a-terre” allowing them to be part of downtown Calgary’s growing culture – National Music Centre, High Performance Rodeo, Folk Festival, Stampede etc.

N3 street view with retail at grade to animate the sidewalk. 

East Village is perfect!

Calgary Parking Authority has plans for a new parkade on 9th Avenue across from the Salvation Army just a few blocks away where residents and visitors will be able to find parking when needed.  The fact people will have to park and walk a few blocks is great as it will animate the sidewalks and add more eyes to the street adding to improved public safety. 

East Village is the perfect place for Calgary to experiment with a "no parking" condo as all of the City’s amenities are within walking distance – walking and cycling pathways, parks, museums, art galleries, library, theatres and LRT. There will be lots of cafes, pubs, lounges, restaurants, patios and even a grocery store only a block or two away. It will be a shoppers’ paradise as you can easily walk to Inglewood, The Bay, The Core, Kensington, Design District and 17th Avenue or catch the train to Chinook.

Building a condo with no parking works in East Village, and would also work in some places in Beltline, Hillhurst Sunnyside and perhaps in few other locations where the proximity to public parking, transit and amenities allow for a "no car" livestyle. 

RK Visualization rendering of East Village pedestrian street at night with dinning and shopping activities. (photo credit: Calgary Municipal Land Corporation)

No Car / No Problem

With Car2go there is less and less of a reason to own a car if you live in Calgary’s greater downtown neighbourhoods.  Why own a car that sits idle 95% of the time and costs $10,000 a year to own and operate when you can use Car2go for a few dollars for most of your trips? 

There are also taxis and car rentals for other trips on an as-need basis.  There are advantages to taking a taxis to certain places (e.g. hospitals) as you save on the parking costs or to renting a car as you can rent what you need when you want (e.g. four wheel drive for that skiing trip to the mountains or a SUV for the golf trip to Montana).

Buyer Beware

Sure, the market for small condos with no parking stall is limited, but in a city with over 450,000 homes, I am sure there are 167 individuals who would love to save $70K (cost of an individual underground parking stall if developer required to supply all of the required parking) on the purchase of their home and probably another $5,000 a year in transportation costs.

I would hope that anyone buying in N3 would realize that the future resale of their home would be to a narrow market, even though there is plenty of research documenting the “no car” market is growing in North America. I expect Calgary's "no car" lifestyle market will grow significantly as our city becomes more urbanized.

RK Visualization of new Central Library and LRT in East Village (photo credit: Calgary Municipal Land Corporation)

Laptop Generation

Knightsbridge Homes is no newbie when it comes to pioneering innovative new condo designs and developments. It is same team that created the vision for University City at the Brentwood LRT station that is currently transforming a sea of surface parking spaces into a transit-oriented condo village.  I expect they have learned a lot from that project and are applying it to N3. 

I chatted with Starkman about that project awhile back and he share with me his thoughts about the next generation of condo dwellers, a group he called the  “laptop” generation.  His observation is that many young adults are not interested in condos with big kitchens as most don't cook and most often dine on “take-out or take-away” while playing video games, shopping online, watching TV shows or movies on their laptops. on their laps.  As Bob Dylan sang, “For the times they are a-changin’.”

The times are "a-changin" also when it comes to Americans' love affair with cars. Since the turn of the century young Americans have been driving less, don't believe me read this report:  http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/transportation-and-new-generation

Last Word

Like all good developers and entrepreneurs, Starkman is always looking for emerging markets and trying to stay ahead of the curve.  What I also like about the N3 proposal is that it will diversify the demographics of East Village. And in my opinion, diversity is more important than density in creating urban vitality.

I hope the City won’t require the developer to do more research or commission another study thus resulting in paralysis by analysis. Sometimes you just have to trust your intuition.

PS

Wonder where the name N3 comes from? It official stands for New Attitude, New Vision, New Lifestyle - clever eh! But I am thinking it stands for No parking, No cars, No problem. 

 

By Richard White, January 9, 2014

 

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