Downtown Calgary: A Train Runs Through It!

It runs through the heart of Calgary like a steel spine. Our city was built around it. Our city exists in no small measure because of it.

The track of the Canadian Pacific Railway is a fundamental part of our urban geography. It is a daily factor in our relationship with the core of our city. It bisects the core from the Beltline. It runs through our neighbourhoods. It has become so familiar that their significance in shaping our city can be easily overlooked.

Yet now, in the wake of derailments, noise complaints, and visions of what our city's urban landscape should look like, Calgary's relationship with it's rail is again up for debate.

It's a complex situation with no easy answers.

CP's main line runs through the middle of Calgary's City Centre. The land next to the tracks is in play for major developments. 

OUR FIRST SPIKES

From the moment that the first spikes were driven, the rails have been an economic life-line for Calgary.

The CP has shaped our city’s evolution more than any other corporation over the past 100 years. Some might even say Calgary’s entrepreneurial spirit is a legacy from the CP’s entrepreneurial vision of building a transcontinental railway over 100 years ago.

The massive 158-acre Odgen Yards, which opened in 1912 immediately, became our largest employer, and stayed that way for decades as goods were shipped in and out of the city. At one time, all of the City’s streetcar routes were organized to get workers to the yards.

The rails were also the main point of entry to our city. The now long since vanished CP station was where newcomers alighted to begin their lives in our city – others just came to visit, staying at the purpose built Palliser Hotel next to the station.

CP rail tracks in the early 20th century transported both freight and passenger trains.  

In fact, the CP once owned most of Calgary’s downtown. CP created the design of the familiar street grid we still live with today. And Stephen Avenue,  Calgary’s signature street, is named after Lord Mount Stephen - the first CP President.  Mount Royal was created as Calgary’s first estate community for CP executives, and the iconic Calgary Tower was built by a CP subsidiary in 1968.

For better or worse, the rails have shaped us for a century. As Calgary's economy prospered and the city grew up around them, buildings like Gulf Canada Square, City Centre and the Palliser Parkades created a wall between downtown and the Beltline. 

But fast-forward to the early 21st century, and today our city of 1.3 million is renegotiating its relationship with the rails.

A NEW RELATIONSHIP

What was a geographic scar through the city is being redesigned.

While once the land near the downtown tracks were mostly surface parking lots, today they have become construction sites for major new office, hotels, condos and museum buildings. The Ogden Yard, is now CP’s head office campus - with four buildings being renovated into contemporary head office campus with 450,000 square feet of Class A office space and the old Locomotive Shop converted into a 600-stall parkade.

The CPR even operates differently within the city, as Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra has successfully champion the railway to cease work between 11 pm and 7 am at their Alyth yard in deference to peace and quiet in the neighbourhood.

But is is the question of safety that is the most fraught.

Councillor Evan Woolley, amongst others, have publically questioned the movement of dangerous goods through downtown and the Beltline. This, in light of disasters like Lac-Mégantic, but also derailments here in Calgary like the one in at the Alyth yard in 2013.

There may come the day when freight trains will not be allowed to pass through the middle of the city, perhaps the tracks might even be removed entirely. 

This would be a game changer for Calgary’s city centre. And the idea has been floating around for awhile.

Today the railway tracks are a major barrier between the Beltline community where people live and play and downtown commercial core where they work.  

THE POSSIBILITIES

In 2004, a team of City planners and community members worked together to develop a 100-year vision for what they called “Midtown” the area. That's south of the CP tracks to 13th Avenue SW,  from the Elbow River to 14th street SW. 

When it came to the railway, the ambitious plan identified some key ideas that would make the Midtown district a vibrant place to live work and play.

  1. Leave the tracks as they are
  2. Raise the railway line slightly to permit better access north and south
  3. Eliminate all together
  4. Bury them underground

Interesting ideas. But easier said than done.

From Midtown Urban Design Strategy. 

David Watson, General Manager, of Calgary's Planning, Development and Assessment division, said at the time, “the bottom line was the cost of moving the tracks was prohibitive.”

The CP’s position was somebody else would have to pay for all the relocation cost and they would still retain ownership of the land. That turned out to be a non-starter.

So the conversation quickly turned to how to make the tracks work better by creating better underpasses, redevelop the surface parking lots, and address safety issues.

But event this takes big money.

Part of that strategy has been implemented with the enhancement of existing underpasses like the $15 million dollar makeovers to the 1st and 8th Street SW underpasses. And the building a new $60 million underpass at 4th Street SE linking East Village to Stampede Park and 

8th St SW underpass in 2014. 

Rendering of the future 8th St. underpass, currently under construction. 

But is this enough? There's still an argument about removing the tracks all together.

The big idea from the Midtown Urban Design Strategy was the transformation of 10th Avenue into a pedestrian friendly 'grand boulevard', with a streetcar that would link Millennium Park and the Bow River on the west with the Stampede Park and the Elbow River on the east.

Sounds lovely until you crunch the numbers.

It would cost billions and could take decades. Even if you could just dig up the main line, it's linked to an entire network of sidings in the Calgary region, which would also have to be reconfigured.

Would those billions be better invested in other infrastructure improvements?

But wait! There're other options. The past could become future.

Rendering of the new Hudson Yards in New York City. Imagine something like this linking Calgary Beltline to downtown over the rail tracks. 

PASSANGER RAIL

In fact, relocation could be the worse thing we could do, as the tracks are critical to the region’s future transportation plans as we wean ourselves off the automobile.

Peter Wallis, President and CEO of the Van Horne Institute at the University of Calgary, notes “the tracks are an important part of future plans for Alberta’s high-speed rail link,” which the Van Horne Institute has been championing for years.

And discussions have also been ongoing about the feasibility of the CP track right-of-way being used for future commuter trains from Canmore and Cochrane to downtown Calgary. Also possible are commuter trains from the north and south like the GO Train in southern Ontario.

This raises the tantalizing possibility of Calgary once again having a major downtown passenger railway station.

This would take the combined efforts and agreement of the City, CP, developers and community members. But perhaps this moment, when oil has bottomed out, is the time to do it.

9th Avenue was once home to an active train station and vibrant commercial street. Today it is mostly entrances to parking garages. 

DOWNTURN OPPORTUNITES

Francisco Alaniz Uribe, at the University of Calgary’s Urban Lab says, “we should use the current pause in our city’s growth to develop a private/public partnership to determine what is the biggest and bests future use of the CP Rail’s City Centre corridor for private and pubic uses.”

And certainly there seems to be more 'infrastructure' money floating about these days as governments look to boost Calgary's economy.

Uribe acknowledges the huge huge economic and engineering challenge presented by changing the tracks, but he thinks our city has a chance to imitate other city's faced with the same challenge.

He's for spending the money to boost the economy and bury the tracks. As he says, this would create a continuous public realm at street level between 17th Avenue and the Bow river. Which would represent the greatest gain for the public. This could allow Calgary to create something with grandeur, like New York City’s Hudson Yards or Chicago’s Millennium Park in the future.

Chicago's Millennium Park is one of the most successful public spaces created in the last 50 years.  It was built over railway tracks. 

Last Word

Whether now or later, for esthetic or safety reasons, speculating about the future of the CPR tracks is sure to continue. It's just another example of how while in Calgary we can find ourselves at a crossroads, our visionary nature continues to create a world of opportunities.

This blog was first published by CBC Calgary for its online feature under the title "Possible futures for the CP Rail line in downtown Calgary" on September 16, 2015.

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Calgary's International Avenue Follows Jane Jacob's Advice

Jane Jacobs, the 1960s guru of urban renewal, once said, “gradual change is better than cataclysmic development.” International Avenue certainly seems to be heeding this sage advice. 

The ten blocks of 17th Avenue SW between 4th Street and 14th St SW currently branded as RED (Retail Entertainment District), is one of Canada’s top pedestrian streets and well known to Calgarians. 

But further east on 17th Avenue, specifically the blocks between 26th and 61st Street SE (aka International Avenue) flies under the radar for Calgarians and tourists.  It is one of Canada’s hidden urban gems. Soon that may all change as International Avenue (IA) is about to undergo a mega makeover – a $96 million transformation to be exact. Starting this September, construction will begin to make 17th Avenue SE a “complete street” i.e. it will accommodate cars, dedicated bus lanes for Bus Rapid Transit, transit stations, bike lanes, new wide sidewalks all graced with hundreds of trees.  

  International Avenue is great example of messy urbanism with its multiple sidewalks, angle parking and mash-up of shops and services. 

International Avenue is great example of messy urbanism with its multiple sidewalks, angle parking and mash-up of shops and services. 

Urban Boulevard: A Game Changer

Alison Karim-McSwiney, International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone’s (BRZ) Executive Director since its inception in 1992, started working on this transformation in 2004. Collaborating with faculty and students at the University of Calgary’s School of Environmental Design, a 21st century vision for 17th Avenue SE was created, long before BRT, bike lanes and walkability became hot topics in our city. 

The vision to create a vibrant urban boulevard to accommodate all modes of transportation and foster a diversity of uses – retail, restaurant, culture, office and condos and even live/work spaces - was very ambitious for the modest communities of Forest Lawn, Albert Park and Radisson Heights that are its neighbours.

While it has taken over 10 years to refine the dream and secure the funding and approvals, land use changes are now in place allowing for several mixed-use developments along 17th Avenue SE, which could result in 13,000 new residents and 9,000 new jobs over the next 25 years. 

Chris Jennings, of Stantec Calgary who facilitated the design of new International Avenue told me,  “I love the ideas and vision that have been put forward for this project.  Not all of them can be accomplished during this project, some of them are ideas that will occur on lands not on city property and some of the ideas will need delivered as future development occurs – but man, it is going to be something special in 10 to 15 years.”

Link: City of Calgary 17th Avenue S.E. BRT Project

 A conceptual drawing of what International Avenue could look like in the future.

A conceptual drawing of what International Avenue could look like in the future.

Foodie Haven

IA has all of the ingredients for a funky food-oriented urban village. Currently, of the 425 businesses, over 30% are food and restaurant-related.   Since the late ‘90s, International Avenue has been home to the “Around The World In 35 blocks” event that allows participants to sample the eclectic flavours of IA from September to June. 

Did you know that IA is home to an Uzbekistan restaurant called Begim? Have you even heard of Uzbekistan cuisine?  In his Calgary Herald review, John Gilchrist described Uzbek cuisine as “fairly mild with some hot chillies and spices such as dill, cumin and coriander. Kebabs come in beef, chicken, lamb and lyulya (ground beef). There is no pork or alcohol at Begim as the Madjanovs (owners) are Muslim and all of their meats are halal.” 

Gilchrist once told me, ““On this strip, you find food cultures as close as they come to their native lands.  It lives up to its name ‘International Avenue’ with great restaurants like Mimo (Portuguese), Fassil (Ethiopian), Pho Binh Minh (Vietnamese) and many other favourites of mine.”

Love this example of how a modest house has been turned into a restaurant, not just any restaurant but an Uzbek restaurant. 

Arts & Cultural Hub

One of Karim-McSwiney’s 15 goals (yes, the website ambitiously lists 15) is to transform IA into an “arts and culture” hub. In 2013, IA became home to its own arts incubator called “artBox”, a multi-purpose art space located in the old Mill’s Painting Building (1807 – 42nd St SE) with studios and performance space for local artists. Almost anything goes at artBox, from Aboriginal to African art, from concerts to exhibitions.  It has quickly become a meeting place for artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and as well as patrons of the arts.

So successful, it spawned “Emerge Market,” a retail pop-up shop in a shipping container on the front lawn of artBox.  Its goal is to assist young artisans and entrepreneurs to set up shop to test their products before taking the major step of opening up a permanent shop.  How smart is that?

The BRZ’s website lists six venues in IA that have live music weekdays and weekends. Who knew?

Angela Dione and Angel Guerra Co-founders of Market Collective (a collective of Calgary artisans established in 2011) were at a transitional point in the collective’s evolution when the International BRZ found them space in a former car dealership showroom for their pop-up Christmas Market in 2012.  Market Collective has since gone on to become just one of 17th Avenue’s incubator success stories.

Art box is an old retail paint store that is now a multi-purpose art space.  It has been so successful that a pop-up sea container has been added to allow artisans to showcase their work. 

Gentrification Free Zone

While places like Kensington, Mission, Bridgeland and Inglewood are quickly becoming gentrified, i.e. places where only the rich can afford to live, eat, shop and play, one of Karim-McSwiney’s goals is to foster development without significant increases in rent for retail and restaurant spaces, thus helping ensure the local mom and pop shops don’t have to close their doors or move elsewhere.

She and her Board realize one of the keys to IA’s future is to retain its established small unique destination with its local shopkeepers and restaurateurs. Illchmann’s Sausage Shop and Gunther’s Fine Bakery have both called IA home for 45 years and La Tiendona Market for 21 years.  It would be a shame to lose these icons as part of any revitalization, which is what happens all too often.

I love the fact that there are no upscale urban design guidelines for International Avenues facades.  Love the colour, playfulness and grassroots approach. 

  There are also several great neon signs along International Avenue. Love that this one has a phone number not a website address - how retro is that?

There are also several great neon signs along International Avenue. Love that this one has a phone number not a website address - how retro is that?

Last Word

For more information on events and new developments on International Avenue go to their website. Link: International Avenue BRZ 

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Why NIMBYs speak louder than YIMBYs?

In October 2015, I wrote about the NIMBYs vs YIMBYs as it related to the Kensington Legion site redevelopment in West Hillhurst.  This February, Jim Brown interviewed me on his CBC Radio show The 180 about my thoughts and experience on the ever-increasing amount of community engagement cities require before approving new development projects in established communities.

Kensington Legion site redevelopment is now underway with the construction of the Legion/Office Building.  

During The 180 I talked about how it seems people who feel negatively about a new project in their neighbourhood are much more passionate and motivated to speak out than those who think it is a good idea.  I then made an off the cuff remark “that if anyone is aware of research that documents that human’s negative feelings are stronger than positive ones’ I love to hear from them.” 

To my surprise I got 10 responses from listeners with suggestions of books and research papers to read and a TED Talks to check out, all relating to how humans process negative and positive impacts on their lives. 

I thought it would be interesting to share my research, given the NIMBYs recently delayed approval of a controversial Land Use change in Chinatown to allow for more community consultation.   

Link: War Over Future of Calgary's Chinatown, Globe & Mail, April 28, 2016

“GSIN Syndrome”

Alison Ledgerwood’s (University of California at Davis, social psychologist) TED Talk “Getting stuck in the negative” gave the best explanation of how humans innately focus more on the negative than the positive.

In a series of very simple experiments Ledgerwood cleverly documents that once humans see something as negative their opinion stays negative, even after they are given some positive new or information.

On the other hand, people who think of something as positive initially can change their thinking and become negative when presented with some negative news.

She even documents humans process negative new faster than positive news. 

Ledgerwood’s take away message is “our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt towards the negative. It is easy to go from something being good to it being bad, but much harder to go from bad to good.”

While Ledgerwood doesn’t coin the term, I think it might be useful to call this the GSIN (getting stuck in the negative) Syndrome.

Link: Ted Talk: Getting stuck in the negative!

Link: 8-storey Hillhurst condo project irks community members, CBC, May 28, 2014

  Ezra condo is now under construction in Calgary's Hillhurst community   after more than two years of community engagement and redesigns. 

Ezra condo is now under construction in Calgary's Hillhurst community after more than two years of community engagement and redesigns. 

Losses trump gains

Several of the people who responded pointed out that what I was talking about was “loss aversion.” An existing psychological term the refers to the fact humans feel impacted more negatively by the loss of something than they feel impacted positively by an equal gain. 

Link: Angry Harvest Hills homeowners vow to fight golf course redevelopment, GlobalNews, Nov 5, 2016

  Proposed parks and open space for the Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment will give residents more not less public space.   Link: Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment  

Proposed parks and open space for the Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment will give residents more not less public space. Link: Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment 

Eureka Moment

So what we have happening when we get a few people, who are adamant that a new development in their neighbourhood is bad, is not necessarily NIMBYism (not in my backyard) but really “loss aversion.” It makes sense. The negative lobbyist are always those who are going to lose something tangible – a park, green space, golf course, quiet street, parking in front of their house, sunlight and/or privacy. 

On the other had, those who are positive about the new development see the future gains in much more abstract terms – maybe increase transit, school enrollment, park improvements, cafés and shops.  They are not as likely to be as passionate.

What Ledgerwood’s research shows is that if enough negative information is presented to those who were at first positive or perhaps even sitting on the fence they have the potential to become negative. 

This is exactly what happens with major projects in established community over and over again. Those who think negatively will come out to meeting after meeting vehemently opposed; send emails to politicians and media and demand that changes be made to fit their exact view of what is acceptable. 

They will rant to their neighbours and anyone who will listen to them about all the negatives, in hope of converting them to the negative side. The longer the engagement goes on the more passionate, frustrated and larger then negative lobby becomes.

Ledgerwood’s work demonstrates those who feel negatively about a new development in their neighbourhood will rarely change their mind no matter how much positive information they are given. This means no amount of community engagement will change their thinking from negative to positive. In fact the unintended consequence of an extended collaboration process could be to create more negativity? 

Link: University Heights residents lose fight over high-density project. CBC, July 30, 2013

Last Word

Perhaps it is time we accept there is no perfect project and that some people will get “stuck in the negative” and no amount of public engagement is going to change that.

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, Saturday May 21, 2016 titled "Some people will always dwell on the gloom." 

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

Kensington Legion: NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

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Calgary Economy Outlook: This Could Get Ugly?

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog by Everyday Tourist reader Chris Provencher in response to the announcement that Calgary’s downtown office vacancy rates have increased to 20% - near record level. I have often stated Calgary's downtown is an office ghetto from an urban design perspective, now it could literally be the case.

This Could Get Ugly

I am quite concerned about the economic environment in Calgary, and Alberta/Western Canada, not only today, but also for the foreseeable future. The current geo political and commodity pricing environment reminds me of what Alberta experienced with the National Energy Prices and low energy pricing back in the 80s. It is further complicated with influence of global political uncertainty in play.

Yes, the energy price will improve. However, Canada is at a disadvantage because we do not get world pricing for our oil and gas products due to a lack of pipeline access to sea for export internationally. The United States may be our largest customer, but it is now a serious competitor and is taking our ideas, technology and talent to gain a presence in the global marketplace.

CBRE Group Q1 Calgary Office Report

Money is exiting Alberta & Calgary

What we are also seeing are individuals and companies moving their investment monies to plays in other countries. Our local, provincial and federal governments are not reacting to this significant shift. Tax revenues from the energy sector are not going to recover for at least a decade; governments (local, provincial and federal) can’t continue to spend like this is a temporary situation.

It will take years for this capital investment to return to Calgary, Alberta and Canada. I believe foreign investors and companies with a long-term investment viewpoint will acquire Calgary/Canadian assets at low prices and wait for the business environment to improve in the energy marketplace.

Retail/Real Estate Crash

In recent trips to shopping areas in the downtown, Beltline and Kensington, I found it scary. A lot of empty retail space, few shoppers and empty parking lots. People are not spending money and it will only get worse. 

The real estate situation in Canada, especially Vancouver and Toronto, really concerns me. Having seen real estate busts before, all the signs are there for a significant decline in house prices.

Talking to investors, money managers and mortgage brokers in Calgary, nobody wants to rent or give mortgages to clients who are a high risk because they might lose their job in the near future.

Change of Attitude by NDP

With all this said, we need to foster a more positive attitude again in Calgary. I do not think the NDP government giving small business a tax reduction and then hiking their expenses with a Carbon Tax is the right approach.

There is no doubt in my mind that we will see further tax increases from the Provincial NDP and Federal Liberals, with no serious/real attention given to reducing or better managing expenses in government dealing in health care and education.

The federal Government is doing nothing to help Alberta. Justin Trudeau should look again at what damage resulted from his father’s business actions i.e. the National Energy Policy.

In your blog “Let’s not panic. Yet!” you talk about how Montreal has reinvented itself since its crash in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  I remember what Montreal used to be like, being born there and later having major corporate clients there. When the companies and individuals left, Montreal never got back to its previous business and social/ culturally attractive environment.

When we lived in Toronto in early 90s, it was unbelievable the number of Montreal professionals and business leaders who had recently moved there. This is a direction I hope does not occur in Calgary, but it we;; could if something is not done to correct it quickly.

Calgary and Alberta may become an unattractive place to work for many Calgarians today. 

The grass is definitely looking greener elsewhere.

Last Word

I hope I am wrong, but this could get ugly and it could be ugly for a decade or more. And it won’t just be Calgary that suffers; Canada will soon follow as the entire country has been living off of the energy sector tax revenues for the last 30 years and there is nothing on the horizon to replace it. 

Maybe we shouldn’t panic, but public and politicians need to get their respective heads out of the sand.  The public needs to lower its expectation on the quality of living we can afford.  Politicians need to realize that they HAVE to cut spending and SUPPORT business investment.

Chris Provencher is a recently retired sales/marketing professional from a major International accounting firm and a long time Calgary resident. 

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Calgary's Chinatown Postcards

Chinatowns are fun places to flaneur in any city. Recently, I found myself near Calgary's Chinatown on a sunny spring afternoon with some time to wander so thought I'd check it out. 

I am sad to report it was like a ghost town - no street vitality, shops were empty (many vacant) and many of the building were looking very tired.  For example The Opulence Centre, with HSBC as its anchor, should be an embarrassment for both the bank and the building owner. 

Calgary's Chinatown lacks the hustle and bustle, clutter and chatter that is commonly associated with a healthy chinatown.  

Below are photos of Calgary's Chinatown - the good, the bad and the ugly!

Racy dolls found in Dragon City Mall shop window.

Flickering spring sun on Chinatown's Golden Happiness Plaza and Bakery. 

Archway to Chinese Seniors Centre provides a wonderful vista of the Centre Street Bridge and its iconic lions. 

Chinatown's bilingual culture. 

Chinatown's street vitality includes cars parked on the sidewalk, while street parking spots sit empty and only seniors on the sidewalks.  

One of Chinatown's many lions, with office tower looming in the background. It looks angry!

This fun dragon cut-out that can be found on the railing of Chinatown shop is just one of the many urban surprises. 

Another dragon adorns the entrance to the indoor Dragon City Mall. 

Another fun urban surprise. 

Next to the Bow River, this fish wall is yet another surprise.  

Dragon City Mall has been empty every time in have visited for over a decade. 

Who knew Calgary's Chinatown has a street art alley? 

A Chinatown alley waiting for a couple of murals? 

Super Hero Window in Dragon City Mall.

Colourful Chinatown retail display. 

   Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese Cultural Centre with downtown office towers looming in the background

Last Word 

It would be a shame to lose Calgary's Chinatown as it has been part of our downtown for over 100 years and has the potential to add so much charm and character next to our central business district.  

It should also be a vibrant fun urban playground, not only for those living in Chinatown but all of Calgary's City Centre residents. 

Learn more about Calgary's Chinatown: Link to Calgary's Chinatown History 

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University District: Urban Format School mindfully planned!

As a long time advocate for the diversification, intensification and integration of both old and new schools sites within the neighbouring community, Calgary's Everyday Tourist is excited by the idea of integrating a new school into a larger building (perhaps a seniors' centre) at Calgary's Urban District. 

The University District (UD) team not only uses the term “mindfully-made” when talking about the new urban village planned for the west side of the University of Calgary campus but they also “walk the talk.”

Indeed, everything about University District (a new community being developed on the west side of the University of Calgary campus around the Children's hospital) is carefully thought-out and all options are looked at in advance and evaluated to determine what is in the best interest of creating a vibrant, inclusive community. 

A great example would be the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that has been signed between the University District and the Calgary Board of Education to explore building an Urban Format School if and when the need arises.

The University District's shopping street will be similar in scale to 10th Street in Calgary's Kensington Village. 

What is an Urban Format School?   

As part of the early planning and design process the University District planning team looked at the South Shaganappi Communities Area Plan (SSCAP) for guidance.  One of the concerns identified in the Plan was that as the communities were getting older, school enrollment was declining and schools were facing possible closures.  University District was seen by neighbouring community leaders as a positive development that would attract more families with school age children to the area. As such the UD planning team, wanting to share community infrastructure like schools did not include a school site in the original University District plan.

However, as planning discussions continued the various stakeholders like the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) it was determined they might indeed require a school in the future, while the Calgary Catholic School District indicated they would not.

Initially the CBE indicated they needed a traditional large 7-acre parcel of land set aside for a new school.  However, the University District team was able to work with the CBE to look at an urban format school, which could place a purpose-build school space within a mixed-use building at a site next to a community park and playground.

Based on research and tours of new urban villages with schools in multi-use buildings in other cities, the University District team and CBE officials were able to identify two sites in the University District’s Land-Use Plan next to land already designated for 1-acre community parks that would be ideal sites for an urban format school.

After further negotiations, a MOU was signed by University District authorities and CBE officials that will allow the CBE to exercise its right to develop a new school at one of the two sites, depending on how demand for classroom space evolves as University District gets built-out and neighbouring communities evolve.

What would an Urban Format School look like?

The building would be designed specially to accommodate a 38,000 sq. ft. school space (built to Alberta Education standards) that could be on multiple floors, with additional floors being available for other uses.  Already one of the possible compatible uses that has been identified is seniors’ housing.

The school would be situated next to a park with a playground that can be easily accessed by the students for outdoor activities, as well as to the University of Calgary and all of its amenities.

Backstory: Since, 1995, the CBE has successfully operated the W.H. Cushing Workplace School a workplace school (Kindergarten / Grades 1 to 3) in the Len Werry Building on 7th Avenue at 1nd St SW in the heart of the downtown core with classrooms in retail spaces along the 7th Avenue sidewalk next to the LRT. Students used a second floor plaza a half a block away as their playground space (until the construction of TELUS Sky) and a church for their gym. The downtown is considered part of their extended classroom (W.R. Castell Library, Devonian Gardens, Olympic Plaza, Glenbow Museum etc.) The school was open to everyone not just TELUS employees.  This workplace school was the first of its kind in Canada.

Len Werry building is a 17 storey office building., until recently the ground floor was home to Canada's first workplace school.  

What are the benefits of an Urban Format School?

Allows for a more compact, mixed-use development of the entire University District site.

Plans have already been discussed to possibly include seniors’ housing as part of the mixed-uses of the Urban Format School building that would allow for innovative multi-generational programming.

Students at the school could have an enriched experience as they can easily interact with the community on field trips be that local artists studios or amenities at the University of Calgary.

Subject to approval by the Provincial Government, the CBE could potentially lease the space as an operational cost, rather than the tradition method of financing new schools as an upfront capital cost.

There is built in flexibility by having two sites identified for a school, if the CBE determines demand isn’t sufficient when the first site is ready for development they can defer to the second site and wait until the community is more built out to determine ultimately if a school is warranted.

The Urban School Format will be a pilot project that could be duplicated in other new Calgary urban villages being planned like Currie.

Computer rendering of the proposed central park plaza that will become the gathering place for the University District residents and employees. 

Last Word

As an champion for the diversification, intensification and integration of both old and new schools sites within the neighbouring community, this MOU is very exciting. 

Kudos to University District team for presenting the idea and for the CBE, the City and neighbouring communities for buying into it the idea.

Also perhaps instead of calling them urban format schools we should be calling them "integrated schools," as the idea of integrating schools into the community, rather than isolating could (should) happen anywhere in the city and we would all be better off for it. 

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Calgary's NW quadrant is coming of age!

Surfing the realtor.ca website (which I am prone to do every once in awhile), I wondered how the economic downturn is impacting the sale of luxury homes in Calgary and area.  Plugging in a lower limit of one million dollars while keeping the screen the same size, I scrolled over the inner city communities immediately north and south of the Bow River and to quickly find how many homes met those criteria.

No surprise that Mount Royal, Roxboro, and Elbow Park resulted in the most hits (61). But what was surprising was West Hillhurst, Parkdale, St. Andrew’s Heights and Briar Hill (WPAB) got the second most hits (53).

SAIT campus expansion has resulted in some of Calgary's most interesting contemporary architecture. 

University City playful condos at Brentwood LRT station. 

Why is WPAB Booming?

The University of Calgary's campus has also added several architecturally significant buildings as part of their expansion. 

Calgary is segregated into four quadrants, each with its own economic engine.  The SW communities’ vibrancy is linked to downtown and the oil and gas engine, the SE neighbourhoods serve Calgary’s thriving warehouse/distribution engine, while the NE communities thrive on the every-expanding airport engine and the NW neighbourhoods support the city’s mega education and medical campuses. 

While downtown gets most of the attention as Calgary’s major employment centre, (as does the airport with its multi-billion dollar expansion), Calgary’s NW quadrant, aka The Learning City, has also experienced significant growth. In the past decade, SAIT and the University of Calgary have undertaken huge expansion programs, as has the mammoth Foothills Medical Centre campus. As well the Alberta Children’s Hospital moved to the NW in 2006 into a new mega building.  

Since 2001, SAIT has added four major new buildings including the opening of the 740,000 square foot Trades and Technology Complex that can accommodate 8,100 full and part time students.  Today SAIT has 2,600 faculty and 15,311 students (a 9% increase since 2012).  Similarly, student enrollment at the University of Calgary has grown from 24,000 in 2006 to 31,000 today, with a faculty of 1,800.

Alberta Children's Hospital will become part of the University of Calgary's new urban village called - University District (6,000 multi-family homes, 245,000 sf Main Street retail and 1.5 million square feet office).

These expansions bring with an increase in high-income earners. Sure, the doctors and professors don’t have the stock option plans of the oil patch, but their salaries and reasonably secure jobs are sufficient to support a strong luxury home market.

A quick check of the city’s website shows the median annual household income for a couple with children in WPAB ranges from Briar Hill’s $181,167 to Parkdale’s, $132,276, compared to the city average of $115,908. 

Today, custom homebuilders’ signs are commonplace in WPAB.

St. Andrew's Heights infill home. 

Location Location Location 

Beach volley ball fun at Parkdale Community Centre (ice rink in the winter)

WPAB is perfectly situated for a short commute (walk, bike, transit or vehicle) to all NW post-secondary and medical campuses; as well Mount Royal University is just a few minutes south on Crowchild Trail (except at rush hour). In addition, downtown is also minutes away for those oil patch employees, bankers and lawyers who want more bang for their housing buck.

WPAB is not only great for families with kids attending post-secondary schools, but also for those with young children.  There are literally playgrounds every few blocks; including Helicopter Park (named after the STARS helicopter that often flies overhead on its way to the Foothills Medical Centre and yes, it does include a helicopter climbing apparatus) one of the most popular playgrounds in the city.

When it comes to skating rinks, WPAB is charmingly old-school - several outdoor skating rinks exist and it is not uncommon to see dad out flooding the rink next to one of the playgrounds just like it was the 1950s all over again.

Residents of WPAB enjoy easy access to the Bow River Pathways, making for a short and easy bike ride to downtown for work or pleasure, or a nice, walk or run year-round.  From a recreation standpoint, the old-school West Hillhurst Recreation centre offers an arena, gym, squash courts and an outdoor pool and tennis courts.  As well, many amenities exist at SAIT and the University of Calgary, especially if you work there.

Culturally, a 10-minute drive in the evening gets you to downtown theatres or live music venues, the Jubilee Theatre as well as the University of Calgary and Mount Royal theatres and concert halls.  You can walk to McMahon Stadium for Stampeder games.  And if you want to get to the Rockies for skiing, boarding, hiking or biking, it is just 6 stoplights or less until you are out of town. 

Notable restaurant patio in northwest's Montgomery community.

Luxury Home Evolution 

West Hillhurst's historic Main Street includes Dairy Lane established in the '50s.

 Full disclosure: yes, I live in West Hillhurst and have lived there since the early ‘90s. When I first moved here, almost all of the infills were “skinnys,” i.e. houses on 25-foot lots.  However, about 15 years ago things started to change and more often than not these new infills were either large luxury homes on 50-foot lots, or attached duplexes that looked like mansions. 

Who would have thought 25 years ago that you could sell a duplex in West Hillhurst or Parkdale for over a million dollars? 

For over 20 years, I have observed new infills of all shapes, sizes and styles being built on almost every block in WPAB. Yet there are still many cottage homes from the 30s, 40s and 50s on almost every block in West Hillhurst and Parkdale.

The same phenomenon exists along the St. Andrew’s Heights and Briar Hill ridge, where multi-million dollar, multi-level, Architectural Digest - worthy homes are interspersed with what were luxury ranch homes in the 50s and 60s.

WPAB is testament to how healthy communities evolve slowly over time. I expect in another 20 years, my early ‘90s home will be ready for the next generation to move in and renovate or build something new that better meets the needs of mid-21st century families.

Roberto Ostberg Gallery Bee Kingdom reception in northwest's Capitol Hill Village. 

Kensington Village's Container Bar. 

The University of Calgary's West Campus Development Trust is planning to create Main Street as part of their University District that will be similar to 10th St and Kensington Road NW.

Last Word 

While some may think the infilling of Calgary’s inner city communities is happening too quickly, in fact, it is happening gradually over decades – there are still lots of older homes on most streets.

Healthy communities evolve over time in a manner that will attract new families who will keep them viable and vibrant.

Calgary's inner city northwest communities are becoming very cool urban places to live, work and play. 

Note: This blog was commissioned by Source Media for their Domus Magazine in January 2016. 

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Postcards from "Buffalo The Bold"

With the advent of cell phone/camera, I doubt (with the exception of Postcard Willie who has taken the art of postcard writing to a higher level) many of you send postcards to family and friends when travelling anymore. Why would one?

Though postcards are relatively cheap, the postage is not – case in point we paid $3 last year to mail one from Italy to Calgary - and half the time you arrive home before the post card.  It is hard to compete with free and immediate photos and messages via texts, emails, tweets and instagrams. But the problem with these generic images is people glance at them once, often never to be looked at again. On the flipside, the great thing about postcards is they are often kept for months, years and sometimes even decades.  I see my photos as custom postcards, images of the off-the-beaten path, hidden gems we find when prowling the streets and alleys of a cities we visit.

Recently, we had a chance to spend three days in Buffalo, New York. We loved it - especially the history, the architecture, the food, the beer, the art and the renaissance.  There is a unique urbanity to Buffalo that makes it true to itself and not trying to be like everyone else. There is an compelling contrast between the modest working class homes and the majestic mansions, between the brutalist architecture of cement grain elevators and the art deco design of their City Hall. There is subtle boldness to Buffalo’s early 21st century renaissance that it beginning to match the City’s heyday a century ago.

I hope you will enjoy these everyday tourist postcards of “Buffalo The Bold.”

Douglas: Jim Hodges, Look and See, sculpture creates a wonderful Matisse like cut-out abstract shapes of sky, architecture and sculpture. You would love it.  Cheers! R

Charles: WOW, this paper sculpture hangs from the top of one of the abandoned grain elevators. You could easily miss it if you didn't look up. The silo tour was definitely a highlight of our visit. RnB (just found out these are paper gears created by Daniel Seiders a landscape architect for the City of the Night public art show in 2013) 

Mom: You would have loved Henry Hobson Richardson's (father of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style) mega state-of-the-art Buffalo State Assylum for the Insane in 1872 and opened in 1880. It is currently being converted into Hotel Henry: Urban Resort Hotel & Conference Centre and Buffalo Architecture Museum. Love Richard

Knox: You would love these canoes by Nancy's Rubins. The real title"Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Monochrome I, Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here" seems pretentious. Can you say pretentious? Roscoe 

Don: A pay phone as an art gallery with iPad fireplace can be found at Hydraluic Hearth Pizza and Brewery in Larkinville. The food and beer was good too. RW

Ashley:  I think this fun, funky, quirkly Elmwood Laundry would be fun for you and Knox to check out.. R

Judy: Yes there are buffalos in Buffalo, this one is on the iconic Post Office Building. So many great turn of the century buildings. You would love it here.  R

  Chris: The kids would love these bikes.  Buffalo is a great winter city. Everyone loves ice biking at Buffalo's Canalside skating rink - the size of three NHL rinks. They even have a Tim Hortons' across the street. R

Chris: The kids would love these bikes.  Buffalo is a great winter city. Everyone loves ice biking at Buffalo's Canalside skating rink - the size of three NHL rinks. They even have a Tim Hortons' across the street. R

C:  You would love COOCOOU27 salvage warehouse. This postcards says it all...wish you were here. R

Barbara: Loved the Martin House. The celebrated sculpture, Winged Victory of Samothrace, commonly known as the Nike of Samothrace, is a sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike. The statue was a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright and he used reproductions of it in a number of his buildings including the Martin House in Buffalo. Best Wishes! RW

Ken: Simply amazing. Sol Lewitt's largest scribble drawing title "WALL DRAWING #1268: SCRIBBLES: STAIRCASE (AKAG), CONCEIVED 2006; EXECUTED 2010" encompasses the entire staircase connecting the 1905 and 1962 buildings. It is created entirely by scribble lines. R

David: These ruins from at Riverworks will become the coolest summer patio in 2016. R

Charlie: Gothic City has everything including the bath tub...perfect for your next project. RW

Lawrence: The Pierce Arrow Museum was a great find...loved the playboy car but this hood ornament and hundreds of others made me envious. R

Knox: Now this is a drink! These Labatt Blue Cans are abandoned grain elevator silos 10 storeys tall and are part of Riverworks sports oriented entertainment complex. RW

Tom: Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV is one of many American masterpieces in the Albright Knox Art Gallery's collection. You should get to Buffalo next time you are in Toronto. R

Amy: You would love the acoustics inside the cement silo grain elevators. George: they are a fun place to photograph...wish you both were here. RW

Linda/Charlie: You'd love this porch at Inn Buffalo. You'd love to stay at the Inn, the place oozes history and breakfast is DELICIOUS...RnB