Exploring Mexico City in black & white

This blog experiments with a cinematic-like film-noir style of still photography.  While in Mexico City, I took several black and white photos to see how they might capturing and interpret the city's architecture, people and places I encountered on the streets.

I have selected, edited and sequenced the photographs in a way that I hope tells an ambiguous story without context or words. The viewer is invited to make sense of this series, and becomes a collaborator in the mystery of the story. I debated on the use of music to accompany the images or not and in the end I decided to incorporate some music. 

I would love feedback on this 3 minute experiment. 

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Mexico City: City of Museums

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

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

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

Museo Nacional de Antropologia 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museo Soumaya

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

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

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

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

Admission: Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dali's sculptures provide the comic relief. 

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

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

Museo Nacional de Arte

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

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

Admission: Free

Time: Minimum of 2 hours

 

The ornamentation of this building was spectacular. 

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

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

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

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

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

Diego Rivera, Zapatista Landscape, 1915

Jose Clemente Orozco, The Demagogue, 1947

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

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

Museo de Arte Popular 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The workmanship of the objects was outstanding. 

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

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


Secretaria de Educacion Publica 

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

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

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

Admission: Free

Time: 2 hours

The Arsenal, Diego Rivera

The Arsenal, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera

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

Wall Street Banquet, Diego Rivera

Capitalist Dinner, Diego Rivera

Agriculture, Diego Rivera

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

Museo Frida Kahlo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kahlo's garden oasis. 

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

Kahlo elaborate corset

Kahlo's contemporary dresses

Surrealistic display of Kahlo's artifacts

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

Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico (Toy Museum) 

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

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

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

Admission: 50 MX pesos per person

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

Mexico's Toy Museum office block. 

Walt Disney fun.

What would a toy museum be without truck and planes. 

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

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

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

One of about 10 pedal cars. 

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

Every toy museum must have toy soldiers. 

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

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

Last Word

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

Hot Tips

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

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Infill Development Levies: Don't cook the goose that lays the golden eggs!

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo Section on November 28th, 2015 titled "Do proposed development levies double dip on City taxes?" 

Is the City of Calgary about to “cook the goose that has been laying the golden eggs?”  For over a decade, Hillhurst Sunnyside has lagged behind the Beltline, Bridgeland, East Village, Eau Claire, West End and Inglewood in attracting new, mid-rise condo development.  It is only in the past few years we have seen any new mid-rise condo developments in and around the Sunnyside LRT station - St. Johns Tenth Street, Pixel and VEN, with Kensington and Lido currently under construction. 

Not only have and will these new condos add more diversity and density, allowing Kensington Village community to continue to thrive, but they have also provided significant new property tax revenues for the City – and at no cost to the City.

In the case of VEN, developer Bucci paid (or should I say VEN residents paid as the costs always get passed down on to the purchaser) over $500,000 in infrastructure costs (including $275,000 for new water service, $127,000 for Hillhurst Sunnyside Park, $45,000 for new sidewalks/wheelchair ramps and $20,000 for streetlights).  That amounts to about $4,400 per new condo.

VEN replaced 11 older homes that paid $35,000 total in property taxes. Now, the 114 condo owners will pay $272,000 total per year - for a net gain of $237,000 annually to the City (or a whopping $2,370,000 over the next 10 years from VEN alone).  If we assume a similar amount from St. Johns, Pixel, Kensington and Lido, the City will gain $1,000,000 annually ($10+ million over ten years) from new condo development.

St. John's On Tenth condo.

Why a Vancouver Model?

However, it seems the City isn’t satisfied with the millions of new property tax dollars that it is getting from new inner city condo development. It is now working on a new density bonus levy based on a Vancouver model to pay for local public realm improvements like new and renovated parks, plazas and streetscape improvements. The monies will not be eligible for things like sewer and water pipe upgrades.  

For example, Pixel paid about $80,000 to the existing bonus levy (yes, there is already a levy in place) when it was built in 2014. However, over the past year, the Planning Department has been considering a major increase in the “public realm improvements only” levy.  In one scenario, a project like Pixel would pay as much as $2.1 million; in a second scenario, $700,000. The calculation of the proposed new Hillhurst Sunnyside density bonus levy is currently still being reviewed, but in all likelihood the cost per unit for the “public realm improvements only” levy could increase from $800 to between $7,000 and $21,000/unit. This could easily drive purchasers to the suburbs where they can get more for their money.

As stated earlier, the City will net about $237,000 each year from increased property taxes, so after three years a new condo project like Pixel, will contribute an estimated $700,000+ in new tax revenue - the same amount as in scenario two of the proposed new public ream levy. Does the City really need both the increased “public realm” levy AND new property tax revenue for public realm improvements? 

Why too would the City of Calgary use a Vancouver model for development levies given Vancouver has the highest housing costs in Canada and some of the highest in the world?  Why too is it that so many of Calgary’s urban condo developers are Vancouver-based (e.g. Anthem, Bucci, Concord Pacific, Embassy Bosa, Grosvenor, Landmark-Qualex)? Is it in part because Vancouver’s excessive development levies have caused them to look elsewhere for development opportunities?

Perhaps we should be asking the fundamental question, “Why does the City need more money for public realm improvements in established communities?” It would seem - given both residential and commercial property owners in Hillhurst Sunnyside have been paying taxes for many decades - there should already be money set aside for upgrading parks, tree planting, sidewalk replacement as part of an ongoing maintenance program. Why should the burden be placed on the new residents to fund the cost of community improvements?

Pixel condo with crane for Lido condo under construction.

Did Somebody say “Cash Grab?”

Another document emailed to me illustrates how suburban developers currently pay a development levy of about $350,000/hectare for off-site regional infrastructure, but no levies for public realm improvements projects. Depending on the scenario Council chooses for the Hillhurst-Sunnyside the public realm levy, it could work out to between 4M and $14M/hectare. Is somebody saying “Cash grab?” If not, they should be!

City Councilors, Administration and Community Associations love the density bonus levy as it gives them access to new dollars for specific public space improvements that make living in the community more attractive.

On the flipside, landowners hate it because it decreases the value of their property. Developers have to pay the City more to develop the land, which in turn means they have to deduct the same amount from their offering price. Developers who have already assembled land and paid a price based on the old development cost formulas will now have to increase the pricing of their new projects - or delay construction given the current housing market won’t bear the new pricing. Potential new condo owners also don’t like it as the cost to live in established neighbourhoods will rise, making suburban homes and condos more cost effective than established communities ones.

While the City’s Municipal Development Plan (aka its vision/master plan) and Councilors with strong urban agendas have been strongly encouraging growth in established communities for Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds, increasing development levies will have the opposite effect. As the cost of inner city condos increases, fewer and fewer Calgarians can afford to live established communities, accelerating the gentrification of these communities. Nobody wants that!

Last Word

In 2013, the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Transit-Oriented Development Proposal Activity Snap-Shot listed 16 potential projects with over 1,000 dwelling units.  Four were under construction (now completed), two are now under construction and the other 10 are in various stages of planning.

All Hillhurst-Sunnyside developers are now waiting until the density bonus levy program is finalized.  If the levy increase is too high, it may be years until there is any new condo development. That would be a real shame as Hillhurst-Sunnyside should be Calgary’s signature transit-oriented urban village given it sits next the city’s first urban LRT station built back in the ‘80s.  It shouldn’t take 30+ years!

You can also bet the Vancouver-based levies won’t stop in Hillhurst-Sunnyside but be applied to all new condo developments (maybe even to new single and duplex homes) in all established communities, driving more development to the suburbs and fostering urban sprawl. Exactly the opposite of what the City wants.

I am all for public realm improvements but “cooking the goose that lays your golden eggs” is not the way to pay for it.  

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New Condos Create Hidden/Invisible Density

I am not sure who coined the phrase “hidden or invisible density” but I first heard it in the late ‘90s from Brent Toderian, then City Centre Manager, City of Calgary and now, an international freelance urban planner.  In his case, he was referring to lane housing, which is exactly as it says – new homes built facing the back lane in established communities, i.e. they are hidden or invisible from the street.  Since then, lots of “lane housing” has happened – and continues to happen - in established communities across Calgary. 

However, recently I have become aware of two condo projects I think would fit an expanded definition of “hidden or invisible density.”  One is in Altadore along 16th Street SW by Brookfield Residential and the other is in West Hillhurst, just off Crowchild Trail being built by Truman Homes.   

In both cases, the density being added is significant (i.e. on the same scale as a mid-rise condo project at about 100 units/acre), yet the housing isn’t any taller than the neighbouring new infill homes. From a pedestrian experience, these modest condo developments fit nicely into the traditional streetscape with their front lawns, sidewalks and small porches.

Altadore 36 streetscape

Altadore 36

Brookfield Residential has recently begun marketing Altadore 36, located at the corner of 16th Street and 36th Avenue SW (hence, the name).  In this case, the developer will be replacing eight dilapidated old homes with two 3-storey buildings containing 62 contemporary condo homes. “How can that be invisible or hidden?” you ask. 

Well, Calgary architect Jesse Hindle designed two, interlocking L-shaped buildings that cleverly utilize the adjacent streets, alley and an interior courtyard to create three different streetscapes for the ground floor units. From the street, each ground floor townhouse has a small front lawn and patio that function much like the front porch of those early 20th century homes we all love. The above-the-ground-floor condos are two-storey flats, each with a generous glass, half-walled balcony that fosters interaction between the street and the building.

All “interior” homes (both ground and upper units), i.e. those that face onto a courtyard with sidewalk, trees and plantings, provide an attractive street-like view from their patio or balcony.

Altadore 36 design is very compatible with the new, flat-roofed, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired single-family homes in the community. Hindle chose a sandstone-coloured brick, yielding a warm and timeless look.  The refined rectangular-shaped buildings with their clean edges have a traditional yet contemporary sense of place. Good urban design is about quality materials as well as respecting the scale and architecture of the past and the present.  Altadore 36 is an impressive hybrid of modern urban and suburban design that will fit almost invisibly into the new Altadore.

Altdore 36 will also add a much needed affordable housing option for middle-income earners and retirees in a community where most infills are million dollar homes.  Great communities offer a variety of housing options at different price points to attract people of all ages and backgrounds.

Altadore 36 Courtyard.

Upper West

Upper West (hopefully they can come up with a better name, one that reflects the location,) is located just east off Crowchild Trail on 2nd Ave NW in West Hillhurst.  It is on an interesting block, one that already includes two seniors’ multi-family buildings in a community of mostly single-family homes. Truman’s Upper West condo will replace three single-family homes that are nearing their “expiry dates” with 45 new homes (a mix of 17 one-bedroom and 28 two-bedroom condos) in a 4-storey building.

2nd Ave NW homes that will be removed to make way for Upper West, with red brick seniors' apartment. 

The building’s design - very contemporary with its three sloped roofs and large corner balconies - resembles the mega new infill homes being built not only in West Hillhurst, but also in neighbouring Briar Hill, Parkdale and St. Andrew’s Heights. The materials are conservative greys with some wood fencing at street level.  All parking will be underground, leaving the street parking for everybody to share.

Located just a “hop, skip and a jump” from Crowchild and Kensington Road means anyone living in Upper West has easy access to Mount Royal University, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital and downtown, by transit, car, bike or on foot.  This should make it very attractive to young professionals as well as empty nesters. 

There are more amenities in the area than you might think nearby - including two meat shops, a gelato café, a pizza and pub shop, liquor store and convenience store. Upper West is also within easy walking distance to both West Hillhurst’s historic Main Street (aka 19th Street) and the Parkdale Loop (Lazy Loaf Café). Best of all, residents are just minutes to the Bow River pathway for walking, running or cycling, making it a perfect location for increased density.

Upper West condo on 2nd Ave NW.

Last Word

While these two projects are adding densities (100units/acre) similar to those of the 4 to 8-storey new highrise condo buildings in Kensington, Bridgeland or Mission, visually they will not rise above the height of existing apartment blocks and new infill homes. Altadore 36 and Upper West will be almost invisible in scale, design and materials to neighbours.

Kudos to Altadore and West Hillhurst communities’ YIMBYs (Yes In My BackYard) who will soon be welcoming many new neighbours to their community.

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Kensington Legion: NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

The acronym NIMBYism is often use by media and others to describe those who object to new developments (condos, office buildings, affordable housing) in their communities. What we seldom hear is the term YIMBYism (Yes in My BackYard) applied to supporters of the same development. There is something seemingly innate in humans that makes us protest louder when we don’t like or understand something.

A good case study of NIMBYism vs. YIMBYism is the proposed redevelopment of the Kensington Legion land (Kensington Road and 18th St. NW). Recently, I attended a meeting with 120 others, most of whom opposed the development. Afterwards, I posted a blog about why I liked the project and to my surprise got as many emails, tweets and comments in favour of the project as opposed. The first person to respond, who was also at the meeting said, “I was afraid to speak up in favour of the project.” What does that tell you?

Since posting the blog, I have communicated with 20 or so community people about the project and it is pretty much divided into those who live closest to the site (truly in their backyard) who don’t like it and those who live a few blocks away and think it is great.

I don’t envy City Planners and Council - who should they listen to?  Do they listen to the 100 or so people who live near the site and will be most affected by a development new? Or, do they listen to the greater community of say 5,000 people who are near the site but less impacted? Do they follow the City’s Master Plan which encourages more people to live in established communities (meaning more condos on under-utilized, well-located sites)?  More specifically, does the City follow through with its Main Street Initiative to create 24 pedestrian shopping streets in strategic locations across the City – one of which being Kensington Road from 14th St. NW to Crowchild Trail? 

If the City is looking for a poster child project for the Main Street initiative, they couldn’t pick a better site than the Kensington Legion. Located in the middle of the proposed Kensington Road Main Street, it would complement West Hillhurst’s historic main street on 19th St. and help connect the scattering of other retail, office and services along Kensington Road. It is also on a major bus route and it’s a very large site which can accommodate two large buildings.  With signature buildings and the right mix of uses, the site could be a wonderful addition to West Hillhurst, maybe even be the gateway to the community and a definite game changer.

Kensington Legion Site RevitalizationIn January 2015, the Kensington Legion (No. 264) entered into a partnership with Truman Development Corporation to redevelop their site. Since then, Truman has been working with architects and planners to develop a plan that will meet the needs of the neighbours, community and the City.

They are proposing a new four-storey office building on the western third of the site, which is a currently surface parking lot.  The Legion will own the building, use the street floor as its restaurant/lounge and the second floor as their office while leasing out the top two floors.

Once the Legion has moved out of its existing building, Truman would replace it with a contemporary condo building with retail at street level.  The original proposal for the second building would be 10-stories high along Kensington Road, then stepping down to 3-stories at the laneway on the north side.  The “step down” design will not only create an interesting shape, but will achieve the City’s density requirements while minimizing shadowing of neighbours’ backyards. The main floor will have 15,000 square feet of prime retail space.

Throughout the summer, Truman hosted open houses at the Legion every Wednesday and Saturday to get community input. The two major concerns were: size and height of the building and increase in traffic along 18th St NW (entrance to parkade will be via the back lane off 18th St NW) which is the access road for children walking to Queen Elizabeth (elementary, junior high and high) Schools.

Is Taller Better?

For many established community residents, the ideal maximum height for new condos is four storeys. However, the downside is there is only so much you can do with a 4-storey building design – they all tend to look the same. Once you go beyond 4-storeys, however, the condo usually becomes a concrete building which allows the more flexibility in the design and materials.

Many cities across North America have determined mid-rise buildings (5 to 12 storeys) are the most appropriate to revitalize established communities (especially for signature sites) as they create sufficient density to attract retailers and restaurants while still being pedestrian scale.  Kensington Road has the potential to become a vibrant pedestrian street with the addition of strategically located mixed-use projects like Legion No. 264.

North side of condo building with garden facing to homes. 

Is Traffic a Real Concern?

As with all major infill developments, the City of Calgary requires an independent
“Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA)” be conducted. Bunt & Associates Engineering Ltd. has submitted its TIA of this office/condo project based on parameters developed jointly with City administration. It will first be reviewed and technically scrutinized by the City administration and then circulated to the community to determine what, if any, changes are needed to minimize the traffic impact of the development on the community.

Bunt & Associates’ preliminary findings:

  • All intersections will continue to meet the City requirements. 
  • Sidewalk improvements are required.
  • Current crosswalks meet City standards.
  • Calgary Transit confirms it can accommodate site users.
  • Parking requirements will be met on-site.

Having completed many similar TIAs for various Calgary inner-city condo developments over the past few years, Bunt and Associates have observed, “density doesn’t always bring more traffic.”  For example, traffic volumes in Mission (on 2 St SW, 4 St SW, and 5 St SW) are lower now than they were in 1987, despite the addition of many new condos.  The same trend is already being experienced on Kensington Road where traffic volumes have remained constant despite West Hillhurst’s population growing 11% over the past five years.

The City and Bunt believe increasing residential density is contributing to lower vehicle usage in part due to:

  • Attracts new local business reducing the need for residents to drive to a restaurant, store or fitness studio. 
  • Supports more frequent transit which attracts more transit users from the entire community.
  • Located near employment centres (downtown, post-secondary institutions, hospitals) makes cycling more viable and increases need for cycling infrastructure, leading to increased cycling by the entire community.

Aerial view of project looking west. 

Back alley parking design. 

Truman has listened

Before submitting their proposal to the City, Truman took all the comments received and published a “What We Heard” report.  This 97-page report is a comprehensive document of the community engagement comments and how the Truman will respond to them, with excellent visuals. With respect to the above concerns, they have made the following changes – reduced the condo building height to 8-storeys, developed a proposal for traffic-calming measures for 18th St NW (which Truman will fund), exceed on-site parking requirements and will ensure residential permit parking only for surrounding blocks. 

Shadowing effect of tiered building design

Street between office and condo building.

Last Word

Truman’s team has created two attractive buildings that fulfill the City’s goal for mixed-use, modest density development of key sites in established neighbourhoods near major employment centres.  The proposal meets the expectations of YIMBYs living west of 14th Street, east of Crowchild Trail and north of the Bow River to the escarpment in creating a more walkable community. However, it will never meet all the demands of NIMBYs living in the immediate area.   

No development is perfect, but the Legion No. 264 proposal checks off all of the boxes on any City’s list of good infill urban projects principles. Indeed the project could be the poster child for the City’s Main Street Initiative and the catalyst for West Hillhurst becoming one of Canada’s best urban communities.

If you like this blog you might like: 

Intelligent infilling or Living in a bubble?

Enhancing Established Communities: Make Multi-Family A Permitted Use

Calgary: The Paskapoo City

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

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

Old City Hall, 800 Macleod Trail SE

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

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

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

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

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

Old City Hall Clock Tower

Alberta Hotel Building, 808 – 1st Street SW

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

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

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

Alberta Hotel, 1890

Grain Exchange Building, 815- 1st Street SW

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

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

Grain Exchange Building, 1909

Memorial Park Library, 1221- 2nd Street SW

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

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

Memorial Park Library, 1912

McDougall Centre, 455 - 6th Street SW

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

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

McDougall School, 1907

McDougall Center plaza

Last Word

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

Haultain School, 1894

Calgary Collegiate, 1907

Lougheed House and gardens, 1891

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Tourism Calgary

 

 

 

 

 

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

Altadore 36: An Ideal Infill?

One of the key issues facing Calgary politicians and planners, as well as established communities, is how best to foster the integration of new infill condos on single-family housing streets without the “constipation of consultation.” Brookfield Residential, with its Altadore 36 project (located at the corner of 36th Avenue and 16th Street SW) could well become the model for future condos in established communities.

Brookfield Residential, headquartered in Calgary, is one of North America’s largest homebuilders and perhaps best known for its suburban, master-planned communities like McKenzie Towne and SETON.  What is amazing about Altadore 36 is that it got City and community approval in just 11 months, despite increasing the density ten-fold, i.e. six dilapidated, single-family homes are being replaced by 62 condo homes.  In many cases, a project like this would take years to get community and City approval for a building permit.

Architect Jesse Hindle (he lives in Altadore and his office is in nearby Currie Barracks) created two interlocking ‘L shaped’ buildings oriented east/west along 35/36th Avenues SW. By aligning the development lengthwise along 35/36 Avenues, he maximized the street frontage for each unit and minimized the depth of each of the two buildings across the site.  The result: two, long narrow buildings that wrap around a 30’ x 160’ central landscaped courtyard.  Each unit located on the courtyard or 35/36th Avenue has 30’ of street frontage, allowing for large windows that provide residents with views, natural light and fresh air.  The two-storey, two-bedroom suites along 35/36th Avenues and the courtyard have a total of 60’ of street frontage.  All this and the building isn’t any higher than the fourplex next door.

Architect's drawing of how the two L-shaped building work together to create interior courtyard and provide active street and alley frontages. (photo credit: Hindle Architects)

Bigger isn't always better?

Though the zoning would have allowed a fourth floor, the architect and developer thought this scale was more synergistic with the existing buildings.  Good infill development isn’t always built to maximum density.

The design of Altadore 36 is also very compatible with some of the new, flat-roofed, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes in the community. Hindle chose a sandstone-coloured brick, for a warm and timeless look.  The refined rectangular-shaped buildings with clean edges have a traditional, yet contemporary presence – nothing wild or wacky about this condo!  Good urban design is about quality materials, as well as respecting the scale and architecture of the past and the present.  

From the street, each townhouse unit has a small front lawn and patio that function much like the front porch of early 20th century homes.  Above the street are the penthouse flats which have glass, half-walled which foster interaction between the street and the building.  Good urban development is about cultivating exchanges between neighbours, not complete privacy.

All interior homes face onto a courtyard with sidewalk, trees and plantings providing an attractive view from their patio or balcony. Altadore 36 is designed as an impressive hybrid of urban and suburban design.

Rendering of the interior courtyard with its urban mews sense of place. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential)

Affordability/Beautification?

While some might lament the loss of the six older homes which were providing affordable rental housing for some Altadore residents, the new homes starting in the mid $300s will provide affordable housing for first home buyers, seniors or single parents of moderate income.  In fact, with a monthly mortgage cost in the $1,300 range, the cost of these homes won’t be any higher than renting a two-bedroom Altadore apartment.

As well, in addition to diversifying the housing stock in Altadore, Brookfield’s Altadore 36 project will create a much more attractive pedestrian experience both along the street and the back alley for a win-win proposition.

Altadore 36 will create an attractive pedestrian street experience. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential)

Last Word

This Hindle-designed, Brookfield Residential condo could well become the “model” for successfully diversifying the housing in Calgary’s established communities.  It is projects like Altadore 36 that will evolve our predominantly single-family, mid 20th century communities into attractive, animated 21st century ones designed be appealing for generations to come.

NB. An edited version of this blog was commissioned for Condoscapes column in Condo Living Magazine.

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

Altadore: An opportunity to create a model 21st Century Community

King Edward Village

Are school sites sacred cows? 

Kensington Legion Redevelopment: Taller is better?

On September 9th I attended a meeting organized by Calgarians concerned about the redevelopment of the Kensington Legion site. In fact, it was openly organized by those who opposed the development - there was full transparency about that.

This was not an official Open House organized by the City or Truman Development Corp. who has joint-ventured with the Kensington Legion to redevelop the Kensington Road Legion site. I found out from a friend who lives near the site and had a notice placed in his mailbox. Given I live in West Hillhurst and the 19th Street/Kensington Road intersection is quickly becoming our Town Centre. I attended to better understand their concerns.

Of the 120 or so people there, all but a few others (including me) vehemently opposed the redevelopment for various reasons. Most were concerned about the proposed height of the concept building (10 storeys) and the number of condo units (190), which would make it the largest project in the central northwest - larger than anything in Kensington Village.  It was referred to many times as “a game changer” and “precedent setting.”

Conceptual rendering of the Kensington Legion site redevelopment, with the new Legion / Office Building on the left and the mixed-use condo building on the right.  The design and materials create a unique sense of place and function as a gateway to West Hillhurst. 

Looking northwest this rendering illustrates how the building relates with the community. Note the height of the building next to the homes on the north side is not any higher than a new large infill single family house. 

This rendering illustrates the sites proximity to downtown, Bow River and Kensington Village. 

This rendering illustrates the sites proximity to downtown, Bow River and Kensington Village. 

The Proposal at a Glance

Truman has submitted an application to rezone the land into two parcels and it is being reviewed by the City of Calgary. The smaller parcel on the west side would become home for a four-storey mixed-use Legion building. The first two floors would be the Legion’s new home and the top two would be new office space to be leased to tenants as a means of increasing and diversifying their revenues. This could become a new redevelopment model to rejuvenate struggling Legions across Canada.

As a trade-off for building at turn-key home for the Legion,Truman is seeking to rezone the land where the existing Legion and parking lot exists to allow for a mixed-use mid-rise development i.e. retail at street level and condos above.

This is where it gets confusing. Despite there being two phases to the project, the Land Use rezoning for both is happening at the same time. To complicate matters further, Truman is also submitting the development application for the 4-storey office building, however this will only happen if Truman is successful with the Land Use rezoning for a four-storey office building.

It is also expected Truman will be submitting the mixed-use (retail/condo) development application this fall even though the Land Use Rezoning decision by City Council – including a public hearing where anyone can get their 5-minutes to address Council – will not be made until December at the earliest.

Site 1 is where the proposed Phase One 4-storey office building will be located and Site 2 is where the proposed Phase Two mixed-use retail/condo building will be located. 

What is Land Use Rezoning?

Every piece of land in the City is zoned for a certain type and scale of development – there are dozens of different types. In layman’s terms, some land is zone exclusively for single-family residential; other zoning allows for condos and townhomes at various heights and densities, some zoning allows for a maximum of four-storey multifamily with retail at the street, or six story wood frame. There is also separate zoning classifications for commercial, industrial or institutional development.

Zoning is the means the City strategically develops land in a compatible and balanced manner with neighbouring land uses and infrastructure, as well as with the City’s overall need for residential, commercial, industrial and institutional development.

Rezoning of Land Use happens quite frequently.  While a landowner thinks s/he has a better idea for the use of the land than the current land use, s/he applies to the City for change-of-use and provides their rationale. The application is evaluated by City Administration and other stakeholders (Community Association) as part of the review process. The City Administration then makes a recommendation to Calgary Planning Commission who in turn make a recommendation to City Council to determine if the Rezoning is aligned with the City's strategic long-term planning policies and goals as set by Council, and also if it fits with the best interest of the neighbours and community. If Council, ultimately approves the Land Use Rezoning the landowner can apply for a development permit based on the new zoning.

The timeline shows how the new Land Use Redesignation (or Rezoning as it is sometimes called, just to confuse the matter more) will be conducted including the public engagement and public hearing aspect of the process. (from Turman website) 

The timeline shows how the new Land Use Redesignation (or Rezoning as it is sometimes called, just to confuse the matter more) will be conducted including the public engagement and public hearing aspect of the process. (from Turman website) 

This illustration documents how the development permit application process works including public engagement.  (from Truman website)

This illustration documents how the development permit application process works including public engagement. (from Truman website)

This illustration documents how the Site 2 (mixed-use building) development permit application will proceed with public engagement continuing into 2016. (from Truman website)

This illustration documents how the Site 2 (mixed-use building) development permit application will proceed with public engagement continuing into 2016. (from Truman website)

Kensington Legion: Prime Site For Redevelopment

In the case of the Kensington Legion site, it is currently an underutilized site with its one-storey building and large surface parking lot located 3 km from downtown, along a major bus route, near schools and the historic West Hillhurst Main Street (along 19th St NW).  It not only has great access to downtown but also to SAIT, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital and Mount Royal University.  These factors make it ripe for redevelopment.

The City's Municipal Development Plan identifies Kensington Road (between 10th St NW and Crowchild Trail) as a Neighbourhood Corridor supported by Primary Transit (i.e. Bus Rapid Transit) and as a Neighbourhood Boulevard, which makes it an ideal site for retail at street level, with office spaces and condos above.  The great debate is how much retail, office and condo development should go on the site and how does it get configured.

Kensington Road (from 14th Street to Crowchild Trail) is part of the City’s new Main Street Initiative,  which looks at how the City can foster the development of more pedestrian-oriented streetscapes with restaurants, cafes, boutique retailers, yoga/fitness studios, professional offices and low (under 4 storeys) to mid-rise (under 12 storeys) condo buildings so as to create walkable communities.  

Interesting to note that a Kensington Road Main Street Open House (ironically held at the Legion Building), citizens indicated strongly that they wanted to see more retail, restaurants, an urban grocery store and more condos in high quality buildings - almost exactly what Truman has proposed.  One caveat some in attendance (not all) stated the maximum height should be four-storeys. At the same time they also said they didn’t want it to look like Kensington Village, but something unique to their community.

With the current the Legion sitting on uniquely large inner-city site there is potential for a much larger and taller building than you would typically find in Kensington Village, Marda Loop or Mission.  Truman’s concept building cascades downward from 10 storeys (at Kensington Road), to just three storeys (adjacent to the alley).

Truman did not set out to design a 10-storey building, but achieve a particular floor to land area ratio (FAR) goal as per Land use requirements. One way the FAR goal could be achieved with this project is by creating a cascading building form and height with 10-storeys on the southside next to Kensington Road stepping down to its lowest height on the northside next to the single-family homes. This helps to minimize the shadow impact on existing neighbours. 

This illustration shows that the 10-storey configuration of the concept building actually creates less of a shadow than a six-storey box structure would. 

Summary of comment from Kensington Road NW Main Street Open House. 

This Google Earth image illustrates the proximity of the Kensington Legion site to key employment centers and amenities. 

The Objections to the Development

While I believe many people in attendance at the September 9th meeting were in favour of some development, there were a plethora of reasons they objected to Truman’s 10-storey development. Comments I heard were:  

  • West Hillhurst should remain a single-family home community

  • Will bring “hordes” of panhandlers and drug users

  • Shouldn’t be any development taller than four storeys

  • Will lower the value of my home

  • Would be better as a park

  • Some feared that if 10-storeys was allowed with this project the next project could be 15+ storeys.

  • Back alley concerns from delivery trucks and poor garbage removal by businesses

The most interesting objection was parents concerned about all vehicular access to the site being from 18th Street (via the back alley) as 18th Street is an important street to access Queen Elizabeth (QE) Schools (elementary, junior high and high school).  It was also stated that QE is a “walk-only” school. (I later checked with the Calgary Board of Education who said they don’t use that term, but QE is a designated community school which many children walk to. But they also added QE offers many alternative programs that attract students from other neighbourhoods who are bussed to school.)

I do see dozens of school buses and cars parked outside the three schools every school day dropping off and picking up students. The kids walking to school are already used to negotiating the busy streets surrounding the school. I appreciate some parents’ concerns about the increased traffic exiting and entering off of 18th Street and the safety of children, but I wonder if this objection is a red herring. 

As for the worst objection, my “vote” goes to…

Some people complained Truman didn’t do enough to notify people that about the development and provide ample opportunity for input as most of the engagement happened over the summer. Perhaps that is true if you were away all summer, but really, how many people go away all summer?

In reality, Truman manned a display room in the Legion building every Wednesday (4 to 7 pm) and Saturday (11am to 2 pm) from July 15th through August 29th for people to view the proposal (poster board information panels and a 3D model) and chat with their development team one-on-one.  In all, there were 14 different sessions totalling 42 hours. In addition, a website had all of the information about the project and contact information since early July - and it still exists.

Thirdly, sandwich boards were placed at various locations near the site along Kensington Road inviting people to visit the Display Room at the Legion. A small kiosk next to the sidewalk in front of the Legion also had information about the proposal and post-it notes for people to provide comments anytime day or night.

Temporary kiosk located at the Kensington Legion site next to sidewalk to allow neighbours to read about the project and provide comments. 

Concept images of the proposed buildings for Kensington Legion site redevelopment. 

Concept images of the proposed buildings for Kensington Legion site redevelopment. 

Information panel outlining the process for rezoning and development permit approval at the kiosk. 

Information panel outlining the process for rezoning and development permit approval at the kiosk. 

 

Last Word

The last thing I would like to see is cookie cutter, four-storey box condo all too commonly seen in urban renewal communities not only in Calgary, but in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Edmonton.  The Kensington Legion site has the capacity to be home for a signature building that would be the gateway to the new West Hillhurst.  How exciting would that be!

Yes, it is a “game changer” - and that is a good thing. It could be the impetus for transforming West Hillhurst into a wonderful 21st century urban village with a vibrant town centre complete with local shops, cafes and offices. 

Yes, it is “precedent setting” and I hope the precedent will lead to more low to mid-rise, mixed-use buildings along Kensington Road, thereby attracting more people to live/work/play in OUR community. 

I also hope it has the potential of being the catalyst for a name change from West Hillhurst to Grand Trunk, the original name of the community. 

It is time for West Hillhurst to step out of the shadow of the neighbouring Hillhurst/Sunnyside community and become Canada’s next best community. This YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) says YES!

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

Kensington Village: One of North America's Healthest Communities

Calgary: Flaneuring 19th St. NW

West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild

Seattle vs Calgary: Capturing the urban tourists' imagination?

For years now friends and colleagues have been telling me “You have to go to Seattle. You will love it!” In May, we did visit Seattle (we have been there before but it was 12 years ago) and yes we did love it, but I couldn’t help but wonder why people love Seattle so much when Calgary has as much urban culture to offer.

Seattle, like Calgary, is a corporate city - Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks are all headquartered there.  However their downtown doesn’t feel as “corporate” with downtown blocks having a good mix of hotel, residential and office buildings, with some street level retail and restaurants thrown in.  In fact, on Seattle’s downtown neighbourhood map, they refer to it as the downtown retail core.  In contrast, Calgary has 40-blocks filled with two, three and sometimes four office towers per block and no street retail except for Stephen Avenue.

Downtown as a tourist attraction

Perhaps the biggest difference is Seattle’s downtown is perceived as a major tourist destination. Great tourist cities have iconic attractions.  In Seattle, hands down, the icon is Pike Public Market.  But Seattle also has converted their 74-acre, 1962 World’s Fair site into a year-round attractions district, clustering the Experience Music Project, Chihuly Gardens, Science Centre, Children’s Museum, Space Needle, IMAX and Key Arena into an area called Seattle Centre. Calgary’s equivalent would be Stampede Park - if we added the Calgary Tower, TELUS Spark and the new National Music Centre.

To visualize what the Calgary Flames are proposing for West Village, Seattle would be a good place to visit given its side-by-side baseball and football stadiums at the south end of downtown along the water’s edge, next to the LRT and Amtrak tracks.  We explored the area a couple of times (when there were no games going on) and it was like a ghost town. I hope the Flames do better.

From an urban design (architecture, public art and public spaces) perspective, Seattle and Calgary are similar, both having early 20th century historical buildings districts (Pioneer Square vs. Stephen Avenue) as well as many shinny late 20th and early 21st century towers.  Seattle’s free Olympic Sculpture Park along their waterfront includes a who’s who of international public art, while Calgary’s entire downtown is a sculpture park with over 100 artworks. 

The Seattle Art Museum (known as SAM), like Calgary’s Glenbow, is both an art and history museum.  We lucked out on the day we went - SAM is free on the second Thursday of the month. The place was packed – making me wonder why the Glenbow doesn’t offer one day free per month like most museums and galleries in major cities. 

Seattle, with its huge convention centre, makes Calgary’s look very minor league.  I loved that the public areas have hundreds of artworks that are free for all to explore.

Loved the psychedelic reflection of the Seattle Needle in the facade of the futuristic Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project building.

Seattle Convention Centre has a galleria over the road connecting the large exhibition spaces and meeting rooms.  Inside there are hundreds of artworks that create a free public art gallery.  A similar galleria was proposed for Stephen Avenue in Calgary connecting Bankers Hall and TD Square but never got built. 

The Seattle Central Library is an iconic architectural gem that is popular with both locals and tourists.  Hopefully Calgary's new Central Library will have the same popularity. 

Like Calgary Seattle has public art everywhere.  This piece that using water from the roof of the building caught my attention. In addition, Seattle has a massive Art Park with a "who's who" of public art artists. 

Hotel Fun

The hotel culture in Seattle seems very different from Calgary’s, focusing much more on the leisure tourist vs. the corporate traveler.  In “sleeping around” downtown Seattle, we discovered a delightful commonality - a vibrant “Happy Hour scene.” The historic Mayflower Park Hotel (famous for their martinis) offers guests free appies in their intimate Oliver’s lounge. The hipster Hotel Max offered free local craft beer in their lobby/living room (as well as great art and several large picture windows for catching the city’s “sidewalk ballet”). The playful Hotel Monaco offered a wine tasting with very liberal pours.  Seattle could well be the Happy Hour capital of North America, with 600+ happy hour listings in “The Sauce “magazine.

Mayflower Park Hotel is full of historic charm and character.  It is perfectly located for shoppers just a block away from Nordstrom and Macy's. 

Hotel Monaco had the most colourful hotel rooms we have ever stayed in.  The yoga mat was a nice touch.  

Every room at the Hotel Max had a door with a large photograph on the door by a local artists.  On our floor all of the doors had photos of Seattle musicians.  Very cool!

Like Calgary, Downtown Seattle lacks a real Main Street for shoppers.  From a tourist shopping perspective, I was surprised at not only how fragmented their retail is, but also that Nordstrom’s flagship store wasn’t more grand and upscale. Calgary’s The Core shopping center surpasses anything Seattle has to offer shoppers and Holt Renfrew is grander than anything in Seattle.

Urban Living

Urban living is exploding in Seattle - 58 residential projects will add 10,000+ residential units in their City Centre over the next few years. In comparison, Calgary has 7,194 units approved or under construction in its City Centre. Like Calgary, trendy urban communities surround Seattle’s downtown core. 

Dozens of highrise condos dot Seattle's urban landscape.  Seattle's monorail provides a futuristic perspective of the city for tourists, as does Calgary's 20 km +15 elevated walkway. 

Cafe Culture 

Belltown is Seattle’s Beltline with lots of new highrise condos, trendy restaurants and its link to the Seattle Centre (1962 World’s Fair site) i.e. their Stampede Park. 

Capitol Hill and First Hill communities are separated from Seattle’s downtown core by the I-15 interstate. Capitol Hill is the city’s hipster district with several new low to mid-rise condos and restaurants opening weekly.  It is home to Starbucks’ mega new Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and several other local roasteries. Calgary’s equivalent would be Mission/Cliff Bungalow with its 4th Street restaurant row or Kensington with its abundance of coffeehouses and roasteries.

This Coke machine appeared mysteriously over 15 years ago, outside of the Broadway Locksmith near the corner of John and Broadway in the trendy Capitol Hill district.  Nobody knows who it belongs to, where the money goes or who restocks it.  It seems pretty popular as two people stop to buy a beverage while I was taking photos. 

The Denny Triangle is an extension of the downtown core, much like Eau Claire is in Calgary with a mix of office and condos. Amazon purchased three blocks in the district to create its highrise campus, which will be analogous to Eau Claire’s campus-like collection of dark blue glass oil patch towers - Devon and Centennial towers soon-to-be joined by Calgary City Centre and Eau Claire towers.

South Lake Union, Seattle’s newest urban community, anchored by a Whole Foods store is quickly becoming surrounded by condos, restaurants and shops.  Bridgeland would be Calgary’s equivalent.

Whole Food patio in South Lake district creates a wonderful street buzz. 

Urban Living Test Drive 

For anyone thinking of moving to one of Calgary urban communities and wondering what urban living is all about I’d recommend a trip to Seattle and staying in a couple of different hotels. Our penthouse (12th floor) suite at the Mayflower was equipped with two bathrooms, a lovely living room area with city and sea views and Macy’s and Nordstrom across the street.  If you like old world charm, this is your spot.

If you want some fun new home décor ideas, check into Hotel Max or Hotel Monaco.  At Max, each room door features a full, door-size local photographer’s work. Walk the hallways and enjoy the free photography exhibition. Our room had original art, as well as a record player with local musicians’ records. How cool is that?

Hotel Monaco is like living in an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein 60s Pop Art artwork with its use of bright colours and bold patterns. It is amazing how big 500 square feet can look and feel when the city lies outside your front door.

Seattle is know for its coffee, what surprised us were the scrumptious biscuits and jam that on many menus. Yum! Yum! 

Last Word

Creating a vibrant city centre is more than just making it a place to “live” (new condos) and “work” (new office towers).” It is about creating a fun urban playground – shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes, concerts, pubs, festivals, theatre, parks, public art and architecture. Calgary’s city centre has much to offer urban tourists as Seattle, Portland or Denver, but for some reason it hasn’t captured the attention of urban tourists. 

It is certainly not from a lack of trying by Tourism Calgary!

Click on links below for Calgary blogs that connect to statements made in this blog about Seattle vs Calgary: 

Beltline: North America's best hipster neighbourhood?

Kensington: One of North America's Healthiest districts

NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Ramsay: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District

East Village: A Masterpiece In the Making?

Soon hundreds of new residents will be invading East Village, the first since Battistella Developments’ Orange Lofts in 2003.  When Mayor Bronconnier announced the City was forming the Canada Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), in 2007, to develop yet another master plan for East Village (after 2005 World’s Fair bid failed) many were doubtful it would be successful.

Under the leadership of Chris Ollenberger, CMLC’s first CEO, the development of an ambitious and comprehensive East Village Master Plan was fast tracked. Soon major infrastructure projects commenced – 4th Street Underpass, Riverwalk and rebuilding of all the roads – to demonstrate to potential developers and future purchasers the new East Village was going to happen.

Over the past few years, East Village has been a mega construction site with a mix of exciting projects – condos, museum, library, hotel, and pedestrian bridge. It is not a coincidental the Simmons Building and St. Patrick’s Island both reopened just as new residents are about to move in.  It was all part of the master plan; each project was timed to create a synergy that will foster a vibrant new mixed-use urban village for Calgarians.

I must admit when I first saw the computer renderings for the new East Village condos I was less than impressed.  I was expecting designs that were more intriguing, innovative and individual.  

East Village sales pavilion, with new condos in the background.

Generic Design?

FRAM+Slokker’s 18-storey condo “First” seemed conservative for a 21st century urban village with its rectangular podium at street level with another rectangle tower on top.  The only contemporary elements are two black boxes jutting out from the white façade.  I couldn’t help but think of Battisella’s fun Pixel condo in Kensington with its sunshine yellow boxes, which to me are more cheerful and charming.

Similarly, Embassy BOSA’s “Evolution” a white two-tower condo with brick podium also seemed like a generic design that could be anywhere.  Nothing shouted out to me “this is new, this is innovative, this is the new East Village in Calgary.” In fact, they look like something borrowed from South Beach, Miami or some other ocean resort community.

I was surprised neither design integrates some of the blue/green palette of the Bow River. Rather it seems the palette for East Village condos (including N3) - white, black and grey - was taken from Riverwalk, rather than Bow River.  

Embassy BOSA's Evolution project in East Village.

FRAM+Slokker’s 18-storey condo “First” 

Don't need to be bold?

However, after recently hanging out in East Village my thinking is changing. The big, bold architectural statements in East Village will be the National Music Centre and the new Central Library, with the condos playing a supporting role.  I now realize, First, Evolution and N3 don’t need to be bold, they need to work in harmony with the new Library and National Music Centre and historic buildings like the Simmons Building. 

National Music Centre / King Edward Hotel is currently under construction. 

New downtown library is currently under construction. 

The new George King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island which has been revitalized into an urban playground with elements like pebble beach. 

St. Patrick's Island's pebble beach.

East Village River Walk geometry. 

Simmons Building on the River Walk is home to a restaurant, cafe and bakery. 

Last Word

In a good landscape painting there are usually one or two focal points with the rest of the painting providing visual interest through their line, shape, space, colours, textures, contrasts, variety, rhythms and patterns that are synergistic with the focal points.  East Village’s landscape painting is still a work in progress, but it is getting better every month. It could well be a masterpiece in the making.

If you like this blog, you might like:

The importance of the public realm.

West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary

Aerial view of East Village (see towers with yellow cranes) and St. Patrick and St. George Islands. (photo credit Peak Aerials Photography)

The Art of Architecture and Colour

For the past 35 years, I have observed - with interest - the evolution of Calgary’s urban design culture from its pragmatic prairie conservatism to today’s more liberal contemporary designs. Perhaps the biggest change has been the use and abuse of colour.  I was reminded of this when recently exploring the Beltline and seeing Lake Placid Group’s The Park - the new condo next to Memorial Park with its dark blue glass facade. 

I was a bit shocked as it was, to my eyes, so strikingly different from the promotional renderings which showed a more transparent, light green building, like a huge green house and more synergistic with the greens of the park.  My first impression of the deep blue was it was too dark, too heavy and too gloomy.  I have the same reaction to the dark glassed Keynote Towers just further east.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and my eyes are always attracted to buildings with bright, bold, cheerful colours like the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Guess I am a kid a heart!

Original computer rendering of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Actual photo of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Actual photo of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Does anyone care?

I decided to ask Rob Taylor, President of the Beltline Community Association to see what he and his group thought of the change of the design. He informed me many people didn’t even notice the change and some that responded negatively at first, later changed their minds. He reminded me “that not everyone has to like every building.” How true!

I then thought I would get some other insights into Calgary’s new culture of colour. Joe Starkman, Partner at Knightsbridge Homes is the guy responsible for those bright orange and yellow University City condos on Crowchild Trail at the Brentwood LRT Station.  He indicated the public response has been a 50/50 split between those who like the colours and those who don’t.  The colours by the way were inspired by colours of grasses, bushes, flowers and trees at different seasons in Nose Hill, Blakiston Park, Strathcona Hill and Canada Olympic Park - all of which can be seen from the condo’s picture windows.

The multi-coloured University City condos at the Brentwood LRT Station.

Mid '90s green glass condos in Calgary West End.

Arriva condo in Victoria Park -  subtle use of colour. 

Beige/Brown City

Bruce McKenzie, VP at NORR architects, who designed the striking AURA I and II across the street from the Beltline’s Barb Scott Park shared with me that when he and his family arrived back in Calgary in 1991 after four years in Bermuda (where architecture celebrates the vitality of the island with vibrant colours), they were astonished at the “brownness” of the city.  He is a big fan of integrating colour into architecture and looking to nature for colour inspiration. At the same time, he cautions the use of bold colours in large scale as they create a “look at me architecture without any meaning or relevance to sense of place.”

New Pixel condo in Kensington.

Paul Battistella, General Manager at Battistella Developments has championed the idea of colour and condo design for several decades now. For him “colour is very personal and is reflective of a person’s personality.”  His design team uses colour both literally (bright yellow balcony highlights in Pixel) and psychologically. “We try and tap into the psychological appeal of colour and how it connects to a person’s self image.” Orange was chosen as the name for their ‘90s East Village condo (when East Village was only a dream) because the colour matched the “eclectic creative” people that live there.  Their new East Village project named “Ink” will have multiple colours on its exterior, reflecting the diversity of psychological profiles of purchasers.

A not-to-be-named architect once confided in me, saying, “many architects do not understand colour. Many are afraid of colour as it adds a complexity to the form, rhythm and light of the architecture which confuses them.”

AURA condo from Barb Scott Park.

Last Word 

Starkman, an architect by training, thinks “the new architecture we are seeing being built in Calgary today is quite refreshing and spectacular in many circumstances…all contributing to a dynamic rebirth of downtown Calgary.”  I think most Calgarians would agree with this statement.

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtown Calgary: Paint it black

Tale of three Calgary Pedestrian Bridges

Chicago: Architecture River Cruise

Everyday Tourist follower Sonny Tomic sent in this photo of a colourful new boutique office building in downtown Calgary.



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

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

 

 

 

Flaneuring Calgary's original craft brewery

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

But seeing is believing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcards from CB&MC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calgary: Wake up and smell the lilacs!

Too often we forget – or never even give a thought to Calgary once having been mostly sloughs and prairie grasslands, with a few wooded areas along the rivers.  It wasn’t until William Reader, hired as Calgary’s Park Superintendent in 1913 that a vision of Calgary as a city of beautiful parks, streets and pathways was created.   Some of his most famous projects were Memorial Park (Beltline) and Reader Rock Gardens (on the hill on the southeast corner of Macleod Trail at 25th Avenue SE).

Reader was inspired by the early 20th century, international City Beautiful Movement, which envisioned the entire city planned as a beautiful place with a formal master plan.

Healthy lilacs add colour, charm and privacy to homes in many early 20th century communities in Calgary.

Reader’s Vision:

Unfortunately the historic lilacs along the boulevard of Bowness Road have not been properly cared for. 

His vision was to develop Calgary into one of the most desirable cities of western Canada. The intent was to illustrate that Calgary was a civilized city with high quality public spaces. One of his principal initiatives was the creation of streets lined with trees and developed with landscaped boulevards and medians. In 1913, Reader stated "I doubt that any other public improvement will tend to create and foster a civic pride in Calgary to the same extent as will the making of boulevards, and planting of trees on our streets, nor will any other feature of our city impress visitors so favorably." (Source: City of Calgary website)

Evidence of Reader’s vision is everywhere amidst Calgary’s early 20th century luxury residential communities like Elbow Park, Mission, Mount Royal, Roxboro and Scarboro all on the south side of the Bow River. 

On the north side of the Bow River, there is one street in particular that epitomizes Reader’s implementation of the City Beautiful Movement principles in Calgary. That is Bowness Road from 14th Street NW to 17th Street N. It is unique for its regularly spaced purple flowering Common Lilacs planted in 1932 along the street’s boulevard. 

In addition to the tree-lined street and lilac median, the 1700 block of Bowness Road is home to one of Calgary’s oldest lawn bowling clubs, also built in 1932 and including a lovely garden originally created by Reader himself in 1936.

Today lilacs have fallen our of favour for new flowering ornamental trees like these planted next to the Bow Valley Lawn Bowling Club. My friends at Ground3 Landscape Architecture tell me they are Amur Cherry trees. 

Why Lilacs?

Lilacs are very hardy shrubs, able to withstand the heavy frost, Calgary experiences every winter. They also grow rapidly and have an attractive early spring flower with a lovely fragrance (that was very alluring to early settlers after a long winter) and attractive green foliage when not in bloom. 

Lilac hedges and trees are popular in Calgary inner city communities.  It is not coincidental that the 4th Street Lilac Festival is one of Calgary’s most popular annual events attracting over 100,000 people to the Mission neighbourhood in late May.

Advocates of the City Beautiful Movement believed high quality designed streets and public spaces would foster a harmonious social order that would enhance the quality of life of its citizens and reduce undesirable social behavior.  It may seem far-fetched, but walking along these blocks of Bowness Road can be like a walk back in time; an ethereal tranquility may even come over you.

There are still many small cottage homes along the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Bowness Road that retain the small town charm that was once Calgary. 

A reminder of how modest homes were 100 years ago - hard to believe that a family of ten or more could have lived in a house like this. 

Last Word

It is truly one of Calgary’s beautiful places, especially in the spring when you can revel in stopping to smell the lilacs. Only a lucky few Calgarians can live on one of these three blocks.  While today there are many modern million-dollar homes on the street, it still retains a sense of when Calgary was a sleepy little prairie town. 

Editors's Note: This blog was commissioned by inner city specialist realtor Ross Aitken. I thought I would repost it in honour of this Sunday being Calgary's popular Lilac Festival. Perhaps the City should declare next week Lilac Week to celebrate the importance of lilacs in Calgary's early urban placemaking history. 

Colourful new infills have allowed Bowness Road in Hillhurst and West Hillhurst to evolve into a very attractive 21st century address.

Gone are the lilacs in favour of other