Group Think Or Good Urban Planning?

Visually it is eerie how similar Austin’s 2nd Street District and Calgary’s East Village look.

On a recent trip to Austin I was amazed at how similar their 2nd Street District’s recipe for urban renewal is to Calgary’s one for East Village.   The 20-block includes numerous high-rise condos, mixed with a few mid-rise, and dashes of - a new library, city hall and signature pedestrian/cycling bridge over Lady Bird Lake (aka long narrow reservoir on the Colorado River).

While Calgary’s East Village has an old Simons Mattress building as its signature historic building on the river, Austin’s 2nd Street has the historic Art Deco Seaholm Power Plant, currently being transformed into a mixed-use building with condos, offices retail. 

Austin's downtown skyline is dominated by condo towers.

City of Austin Power Plant that is being repurposed as part of the mega makeover of their downtown next to Lady Bird Lake. 

The Simmons Limited warehouse building has been transformed into multi-tenant restaurant, cafe and bakery on RiverWalk next to the Bow River. 

Austin’s 2nd Street District, like East Village, is still a work in progress. But it is perhaps a five year head start as it already has two grocery stores (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and boasts 50+ upscale places to sip, savour and shop – East Village has three.

From a housing perspective, 2nd St. District has several completed high-rise condos including The Austonian a 56-storey currently the tallest building in Austin. There are also several condos under construction including The Independent, a funky chunky tower, that surpass The Austonian by 2-feet.

Calgary’s current tallest building The Bow, office tower, is 58-storeys.  And though technically in East Village, in reality it faces southwest into the downtown central business district and turns its back on East Village.

The major difference is that Calgary’s East Village has direct access to the Bow River, while Austin’s 2nd Street District is cut off from the Lady Bird Lake by a major highway (Cesar Chavez Street).  However, Austin’s 2nd Street District has much better connectivity to it’s neighbouring districts than Calgary’s East Village which is cut off from its neighbouring districts by the Municipal Building and CPR railway tracks.

Austin's 2nd Street District is cut off from the waterfront by a major highway. 

Road connecting Austin's 2nd Street District to major road along the river similar to Calgary's Memorial Drive. 

Calgary's East Village condos this summer. Residents are now moving in and new mixed-use projects are commencing construction. 

Calgarians have direct access to the Bow river from East Village.  

Fostering Urban Vitality

Interestingly the streets of Austin’s 2nd Street District were devoid of urban vitality weekdays and weekends despite thousands of residents. It was only around the James D. Pfluger pedestrian bridge and the reservoir pathway that we experienced Austin’s urban vibe. 

Like Calgary, the pathways along Lady Bird Lake were packed with people of all ages - running, walking and cycling.  I dare say they are used even more than Calgary’s. Austin’s pathways are literally just a wide “bare ground” path that weaves its way naturally along the heavily treed shoreline. There is no separation for different users.  This is very different from Calgary’s expensive, highly designed, hard-surfaced Eau Claire and East Village pathways.

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

James D. Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge doesn't feel like a bridge, more like a promenade. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

Austin's river pathway near 2nd Street District on the weekend.  

Lady Bird Lake is very animated with canoes, kayaks, fishing boasts and other water craft creating a colourful and animated sense of place. 

St. Patrick's Island in East Village is quickly becoming a popular hang-out spot for families in Calgary. 

Calgarians love to stroll along the Bow River near downtown. 

St. Patrick's pathway along the Bow River in Calgary's East Village also offers passive places to sit, think and reflect.

Too soon to judge

One can’t help but wonder if there is a real urban planner group think when it comes to creating early 21st century urban villages as they all seem to have the same formula – lots of high-end, high-rise condos for young professionals and empty nesters with a smattering of grocery stores, retail and restaurants at ground level and anchored by major public spaces and one or two mega public buildings.  

Rendering of Austin's new public library located in the 2nd Street District. The library is under construction.

Rendering of Calgary's new public library in East Village, which is also under construction. 

Austin's 2nd Street retail streetscape. 

East Villages street retail is just starting to take shape. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

Billion Dollar Experiments

I am reminded of some of the lessons of Jane Jacobs community vitality activist and author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities that has become the bible for many urban planning. She warned, “beware of planners and urban development plans that try to encourage orderly city planning.”

I hope these billion-dollar experiments in city building in both Calgary and Austin work as planned. Only time will tell.  Calgary’s East Village experiment is looking good now, but it won’t be until 2040 that we will really know if the East Village master plan has resulted in an attractive, sustainable, vibrant urban community.

Calgary's East Village emerging skyline from St. Patrick's Island. 

Austin's downtown condo skyline at night.

Last Word

The time to judge the success of any new master planned community, urban or suburban, is about 10 to 15 years after it has been completed.

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

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