Brewery Districts: Edmonton vs Calgary

On a recent trip to Edmonton, I was excited to discover they have begun to develop a Brewery District at the old Molson Brewery site at 104 Avenue and 121 Street.  However, upon further exploration, I was left scratching my head, wondering why they would allow a suburban power centre (multiple, stand alone buildings far away from the sidewalk with a big surface parking lot in front) at the west end of their City Centre. 
  Unfortunately all of the main buildings in Edmonton's Brewery District area separated from the street by a major surface parking lot, making it less pedestrian friendly. It is more like a suburban power centre design with several independent low-rise buildings each with there own surface parking lot.

Unfortunately all of the main buildings in Edmonton's Brewery District area separated from the street by a major surface parking lot, making it less pedestrian friendly. It is more like a suburban power centre design with several independent low-rise buildings each with there own surface parking lot.

Missed Opportunity

In this prime urban location, one would expect the stores to line the sidewalk with all parking underground (only 66% of the parking is underground) and mid-rise (8 to 15-storeys) retail, residential and office above.  Instead, the site is dominated by a big surface parking lot with low-rise buildings far away from the sidewalk.

There is absolutely no connectivity to the neighbouring Oliver community, a feature contrary to good urban development.  And although plans call for a direct link to the future 120th Street LRT Station, that still doesn’t excuse the lack of connectivity to Oliver.

Sure, they have used brick to link to the old brewery, incorporated some internal sidewalks and added some patios, but the result is most definitely a car-oriented development - in my opinion, a missed opportunity.   

Is Edmonton so desperate for downtown development they felt they had to approve this suburban project in their City Centre?
  City Market in Edmonton's Brewery District is a full-scale grocery store that meets the diversity residents' needs.  

City Market in Edmonton's Brewery District is a full-scale grocery store that meets the diversity residents' needs. 

Impressed!

On the flip side, there was one element of Edmonton’s Brewery District that I most was impressed with, Loblaws' City Market with Winners store directly above.

The City Market, at approximately 40,000 square feet (yes, I eye-balled it) is a full-size grocery store, not a boutique store dominated by high-priced organic produce and specialty products.  The selection was great as were the prices; there was even a bin at the entrance with free bananas for kids! Never seen that before!

The City Market concept is what Loblaws has planned as part of the mega full-block development in Calgary’s East Village, development which will also include two residential towers (500 condos within 40- and 23-storey towers) and 188,000 square feet of street and second floor retail space, all branded as 5th & THIRD.  Now that is good urban development i.e. diversity of uses and density.

  Loblaws City Market concept borrows liberally from Whole Foods as an urban grocery store.  It will be a welcome addition to Calgary's East Village. 

Loblaws City Market concept borrows liberally from Whole Foods as an urban grocery store.  It will be a welcome addition to Calgary's East Village. 

  Arris condos above a retail podium at street level and second floor in Caglary's East Village is under construction which will include a Loblaws City Market. 

Arris condos above a retail podium at street level and second floor in Caglary's East Village is under construction which will include a Loblaws City Market. 

Sharp Edge

How big is 188,000 square feet, you ask?  A little bigger than Eau Claire Market.  With Loblaws City Market and Shoppers Drug Mart as Arris’ retail anchors, East Villagers, by the end of 2018, will have their everyday needs met within easy walking distance. This is essential to making East Village a postcard for North American 21st century urban villages.

The name “Arris” refers to a sharp edge formed by the meeting of two flat or curved surfaces. At this point, RioCan (retail developers) and EmbassyBOSA (residential developer) have integrated, as best as possible, best practices in urban design as possible into Arris. 

And, while the Arris name was originally in reference to the architecture, it could also reflect the sharp edge where retail and residential uses meet the sharp edge between success and failure.

Calgary’s Fledgling Brewery District

Calgary Brewery buildings have lots of character, but are in very poor shape and don't lend themselves to repurposing. 

In the spring of 2015, I toured the Calgary Brewery & Malting Company historic site (Calgary’s potential brewery district in Inglewood) with Eileen Stan, Development Manager with M2i Development Corporation, the company who currently owns this site which has been vacant since 1994. 

This is arguably one of the most complex redevelopment projects in Canada today given the 20+ buildings and various states of their decay. The site also has the largest collection of sandstone buildings in the city outside of Stephen Avenue, creating some interesting preservation challenges and opportunities.  

While Calgary’s current economic downturn has put any major redevelopment of Calgary’s Brewery District on ice (pun intended) for the time being, I am glad there is no hint of creating a power centre development like Edmonton’s Brewery District. 

Patience and strategic development is M2i Development Corporation’s mantra when it comes to developing this historic gem.  Fortunate for Calgary.  

This building is slated to be phase 1 of the site's redevelopment when the time is right. 

The Calgary Brewery site is well treed, which is usual for an industrial site and is both a challenge and an opportunity. 

 Eroding sandstone foundations are a huge problem at the Calgary Brewery & Malting site. 

Eroding sandstone foundations are a huge problem at the Calgary Brewery & Malting site. 

Last Word

They say, “Good things come to s/he who waits!” I sure hope that is the case with the Calgary Brewery & Malting site.  

And, I anxiously await seeing East Village’s City Market and the 3rd & Fifth retail complex.

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's on November 26th, 2016 titled "Brewery Controversy: Redevelopment hit and misses. 

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East Village: Lust of the new playground

As tempting as it is, one of the key lessons to learn when judging new public spaces, retail developments or communities is not to judge them too quickly.  

Too often when a new playground, park, restaurant or store opens it is very popular for the first few years and then the popularity wanes.

I was reminded of this lesson  one Sunday this summer when I visited East Village in the morning and Eau Claire in the afternoon.

  Eau Claire Market when it first opened was very animated with market stalls, cafe, restaurants, patios, cinemas and Calgary's first IMAX.  

Eau Claire Market when it first opened was very animated with market stalls, cafe, restaurants, patios, cinemas and Calgary's first IMAX.  

  East Village's Riverwalk has become a popular meeting place. 

East Village's Riverwalk has become a popular meeting place. 

  Eau Claire's River Promenade is enjoyed by thousands at noon hour on weekends and all day on weekends.

Eau Claire's River Promenade is enjoyed by thousands at noon hour on weekends and all day on weekends.

Lust of the new playground

It was delightful to see all the families enjoying the pebble beach area of St. Patrick’s Island and the other areas of East Village, Calgary's new urban playground.  The two and half year old I went with loved it as did his parents -  so much so his parents took him back there after his afternoon nap that same day.

East Village's Riverwalk was also animated - people walking, cycling and boarding along the promenade, as well as playing PokemonGo (whose popularity was at its peak). The area around the Simmons Building was literally packed with people.

It is great to see East Village come alive after years of dormancy. However, I wonder will this last, or is it just the “lust of the new?”

What will happen when the marketing and programming funding is no longer available and it become just another of Calgary’s 200+ communities?  Fortunately Calgary Municipal Land Corporation will continue to fund and manage St. Patrick’s Park and all of the East Village public spaces until the end of the Community Revitalization levy term, which is 2027.

  East Village's pebble beach.

East Village's pebble beach.

  Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Test Of Time

I remember when Eau Claire Market and Plaza (with wading pool) opened in the early ‘90s. It was a big hit. Then came the new Sheraton Hotel and Eau Claire Y, as well as a new office building.  Prince’s Island got a makeover with a new stage for the Calgary Folk Festival, improved space for Shakespeare in the Park, River Café, enhancement of the lagoon and redevelopment of the eastern edge of the island as the Chevron Interpretive Trail. 

New condos followed and there was even the creation of Barclay Mall with its wide sidewalk, large flower planters, trees, public art and a traffic-calming, snake-like road design linking to the downtown core and 7th Avenue transit corridor.

It seemed to be the perfect recipe for creating a mixed-use urban village.  In the early ‘90s, everyone had great hopes Eau Claire would become a vibrant residential community on the edge of our central business district.

Sound Familar?  

Fast forward to today - Eau Claire Market and plaza have been struggling for more than a decade and are now waiting for a mega makeover that will totally change the scale and dynamics of the Eau Claire community - for better or worse? Only time will tell.

The good news is Prince’s Island is thriving. As a member of the Prince’s Island Master Plan advisory committee in the mid ‘90s, I am pleased the renovations to the Island have proven very successful.  There are no longer any complaints about the festival noise by the neighbours.  The Island is able to nicely accommodate the main stage, as well as several smaller stages for workshops and a mega beer garden to create a special music festival experience.  And yet, at the same time, the public is able to freely enjoy the eastern half of the island, the lagoon and the promenade.   

So while Eau Claire Market, plaza and surrounding developments have failed to create a vibrant urban community, Prince’s Island has. Our hopes are now pinned on East Village.

  Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.   

Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.  

  East Village's river's edge and pedestrian bridge. 

East Village's river's edge and pedestrian bridge. 

  Eau Claire's other pedestrian bridge is also a playground. 

Eau Claire's other pedestrian bridge is also a playground. 

  Eau Claire's proximity and link to the downtown office core makes it a very attractive lunch spot. 

Eau Claire's proximity and link to the downtown office core makes it a very attractive lunch spot. 

Calgary’s best communities may surprise urbanists 

I often say to people “don’t judge a new community until the trees are as tall as the houses.”  It is interesting to look at old photos of some of Calgary’s inner city communities in the early 20st century. The Beltline and Mount Royal look exactly like Calgary’s new communities on the edge of the city today – huge homes with no trees. 

Too often urbanists are quick to criticize Calgary’s new communities for their bland, beige, cookie-cutter architecture and lack of walkability.  However, it takes decades for communities like Bridgeland and Inglewood or Lake Bonavista and Acadia to evolve into unique communities. The old cottage homes of Sunnyside, when they were built, were pretty much all the same but over time each has taken on a unique charm with paint, plants and renovations. Also as the trees have grown taller and broader, the streetscape has become less dominated by the houses. 

It is interesting to look at Avenue Magazine’s Top 10 Calgary Neighbourhoods in 2016.  Three are early 20th century communities – Beltline (#1), Hillhurst (#5) and Bridgeland/Riverside (#9).  Three are mid-century communities – Brentwood (#2), Dalhousie (#3) and Acadia (#4) while four are late 20th century communities – Signal Hill (#6), Arbour Lake (#7), Riverbend (#8) and Scenic Acres (#10).  

I doubt many urban advocates would have Brentwood, Dalhousie, Acadia, Signal Hill, Arbour Lake, Riverbend or Scenic Acres on their list of Calgary’s best communities given they don’t meet the density, mixed-use and walkable benchmarks.

One of the interesting results of the annual Leger (a research and marketing company survey commissioned by Avenue) was in 2015 respondents valued walkability as the most important attribute for a good neighbourhood, but in 2016, walkability dropped to #8.  In 2016, the two most important elements of a good neighbourhood was access to parks/pathways and low crime rates. 

I am often very suspect of survey results, as people will often respond to questions based on what they think they should say or do or what is trendy and not what their actual behaviour. People might say they want a walkable community, but that means different things to different people. For some it might be the ability to walk to the park or pathway; for others the ability to walk to most of their weekly activities. Walkability also depends on an individual’s lifestyle, family situation and commitment to walking (I know too many individuals in my neighbourhood who could walk to the gym or the squash courts but never do).

  Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

  New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

  Eau Claire office buildings add a weekday population that is missing in East Village.

Eau Claire office buildings add a weekday population that is missing in East Village.

  Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

  I would venture to say the Eau Claire Y will attract as many people in a day as East Village's Bell Studio and perhaps the new Central Library. Time will tell. 

I would venture to say the Eau Claire Y will attract as many people in a day as East Village's Bell Studio and perhaps the new Central Library. Time will tell. 

Last Word

So, I plan to head my own advice and not judge new developments to quickly. I will reserve judgement on the success of St. Patrick’s Island, Simmons Building and East Village, Studio Bell and the new library for at least a decade. 

I also am not prepared to judge Calgary’s experiments with creating more urban (mixed-use) new communities like SETON or Quarry Park for at least a decade.  

And, I am also going to wait for a few years to judge if Calgary’s bike lane network is successful or not.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday, November, 12, 2016 titled "Don't Rush To Judgement On New Developments." 

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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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Downtown Calgary puts the PARK in PARKades

Calgary’s downtown has the dubious reputation as having some of the most expensive parking in the world! And there are several good reason for that. The most obvious is the city limits the supply of parking while the demand for parking by the 150,000+ downtown workers is very high (at least it was until recently).  But there are other reasons, like the fact Calgary has a greater percentage of underground parking than most cities. 

Above Ground vs. Underground?

That is not the case for other cities like Austin where almost all of their downtown parking is in above grade parkades that occupy the bottom 3 to 6 floors of their office, hotels and condos towers.  The further down you have to dig the more expensive the cost of underground parking.  It is my understanding that on overage an above ground parking stall costs about $20,000, while and underground stall averages out to about $60,000. 

In addition, the underground parking has to be heated which is not the case for above ground parking so they are more expensive to operate.  

Entrance to the underground parkade at James Short Park on a Saturday morning. 

Parkades as parks

The other big difference in Calgary downtown parking is that five of the parkades have parks above them – James Short Park, Civic Parkade, McDougall Centre, Harley Hotchkiss Gardens and York Hotel Plaza.  There is also a six park/parkade in the Beltline under the Haultain School Park that serves the Union Square condominium. 

Designing a parkade with a park on top increases the complexity of the design, engineering and materials, which in turn increases the cost of the project.  As each project is unique the cost can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

James Short Parkade (880 stalls)

James Short Parkade built is located on the block between 4th and 5th Avenues on the west side of Centre Street.  It is the site of the James Short School, which was originally 1905 Central School – the cupola from the school can be found at the NW corner of Centre Street and 5th Ave NW.  The school was torn down in 1969, but the cupola was saved and moved to Prince’s Island. 

Backstory: The cupola was designed to have a clock but it never had a clock while it was part of the school. It wasn’t until the park and parkade was developed in 1995 that the clock mechanism from the Burns Block demolished in the early ‘60s was incorporated into the cupola as part of the new park.

This passive two-acre park is used mostly as a place to sit, with some of the neighbouring Chinese community using it for Tai Chi exercise.  Above the park is Calgary’s only curved +15 that links Suncor Place with SunLife Plaza.

James Short Park is a quiet oasis in a sea of office towers. It is a peaceful place to sit, relax and chat. 

The James Short School copula sit at the southeast entrance to James Short Park. 

Old photo of Central Schools which later became James Short School and now is a park and parkade. 

McDougall Centre Parkade (658 stalls)

The historic McDougall school (has been restored and converted in the Premier of Alberta and the Calgary Caucus’ headquarters.  It is probably most famous for hosting the annual Premiers Stampede Pancake breakfast.  It opened 1908 as the Calgary Normal School, a teacher training facility. It became the McDougall (named for Methodist missionary John McDougall) elementary school in 1922 and continued in that role until 1981. The provincial government purchased the building, demolished the additions and reopened it as Government House South (now McDougall Centre) in 1987.

As part of the renovation design for the McDougall Center an underground parkade, with a lovely park above was created. There are two lovely tree-lined promenades that meet at the front doorway.  The back of the school has a cascading waterfall and pond under a canopy of large evergreens that is a popular place to sit at lunch.  And, when there is no water in the pond it makes for a great skate park. 

One of two lovely tree canopied sidewalks at McDougall Centre Park. 

McDougall Centre parkade is under the entire block of the 100+ year old sandstone school. 

On the west side of the Centre is a larger water feature which becomes a skate park when there is no water in the fountain and nobody is looking. 

City Hall Parkade (640 stalls)

The City Hall Parkade is located underneath the Municipal Building affectionately know by some as the Blue Monster. It is a popular evening parking spot for those attending an event at the Performing Arts Centre (opps Art Commons).

Few Calgarians, realize there is park on top of the parkade on the northeast corner of 9th Avenue and Macleod Trail.  It is not a ground level but at the +15 level so it is not visible to those driving or walking by.  It is a bit of a hidden oasis for City of Calgary employees and those in the know.  It is also home most years to Calgary’s first tree to leaf out as there is a microclimate created by its southwest orientation and the heat trap created by the dark brown brick Edwards Place apartments and the Municipal building’s dark blue glass. 

City Hall Parkade is invisible from Macleod Trail.  It is also sadly closed after hours and on weekends. The City of Calgary should be a leader in keeping downtown public spaces open on the weekends.   

City Hall Parkade Park offers good views of downtown architecture and it a quiet place to chat. 

Harley Hotchkiss Gardens (770 stalls)

The 1.5 acre Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is locate above the Alberta Court of Appeal (Court House #2) parkade that encompass the entire block from 6th to 7th Avenues and 4th and 5th Street SW.  The stately sandstone building has severed many different purposes including the Glenbow Museum from 1964 to 1977. 

At ground level is the old Court House, a futuristic LRT station with a connection to Holt Renfew, a water feature and the grassland gardens that is home to the Joe Fafard’s eight stampeding horses titled “Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do” On the north side of the Court House building is Joanne Schachtel’s artwork/bench titled “Buffalo Trail;” this piece was in the park before the parkade was created and the judges demanded it be incorporate into the new park. When the judges talk, everyone listens.

Hotchkiss Gardens located in the middle of downtown Calgary. 

Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular lunch spot. 

Joanne Schachtel’s artwork/bench titled “Buffalo Trail" is meant to double as a bench for people to sit on.  Unfortunately it is often in the shadow of the Courthouse building, which makes it less popular as a place to sit.  

Haultain School Park

The Haultain School Park is a hidden gem in Calgary’s park system.  It includes the 1894 Haultain School (now home to Parks Foundation of Calgary) was Calgary’s first school. The park also includes tennis courts, a playing field and a busy children’s playground. 

When the twin Union Square condos (on 1st Street at 13th Ave SW) were proposed the developer worked a deal with the city to gain access rights build a parkade underneath the eastern half of the park for residents.  The money was used to upgrade the park for the entire community’s use.  The current residents pay a fee to the city each year for leasing the land rights.

Temporary Public Spaces

In addition to these permanent parks, there are two other parkades that have attractive public spaces at ground level.  There is a lovely plaza on the northwest corner of 7th Ave and 2nd St SW that is has been waiting since 1982 for the second tower of the First Canada Centre to be built. Each year the plaza is decorated with lovely grasses and flowers that make for a lovely outdoor lunch spot.

More recently, the site of the York Hotel, 7th Ave and Centre St. S, which was suppose to have a small office building as part of The Bow tower development has been converted into a temporary plaza.  Designed by Sturgess Architect, the plaza is constructed primarily of wood, to look like a huge deck, with benches and planters for trees and grasses designed specifically for the plaza and manufactured local.  All of the materials are recyclable. 

It could easily be another 25+ years before we see an office building on either site, in the meantime downtown Calgary has two public space to enjoy. 

A view of the First Canada Centre plaza from the +15 bridge over 7th Avenue.  In the summer, there are lots of planting creating a cheerful and colourful place to sit in the sun at noon hour. 

The flower boxes are actually support beams for the unbuilt office tower, they create wonderful private spaces to to sit and read or have a chat with a friend or colleague. 

York Hotel Plaza is a perfect spot to see tow of Calgary's iconic pieces of architecture and art - The Bow Tower and Wonderland sculpture. 

Like Poppy Plaza, it looks very inviting to skateboards, too bad it couldn't accommodate them as it would create some animation of the space, every time I pass by there is never anyone there. 

The York Hotel plaza fence decorative elements were inspired by the designs on the Art Deco York Hotel. 

Detail of York Hotel's decorative elements. (photo credit: Canadian Architectural Archives) 

Last Word

So the when it comes to creating public space in downtown Calgary, we can thank the City, the developers and designers who have sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes creatively put the PARK in Calgary PARKades.

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Nations Fresh Foods: Where East Meets West!

While Whole Foods Market (often called Whole Paycheck) is the darling of most urbanists across North America (me included) I might have just found a better option. 

Back in 2013, my Mom spoke of a new grocery store opening up in Hamilton’s downtown Jackson Square shopping centre.  She checked it out for me, but wasn’t impressed when the customer service people didn’t speak English.  She was so disgusted she didn’t even remember the name of the store. Since then I have never heard anything about an innovative new flagship grocery store in Hamilton.

Hamilton has had a downtown Farmers’ Market since 1837 and is where I like to go whenever I am in town.  However, on my recent visit, my Mom suggested I also check it the now not so new Jackson Square grocery store, which is on the same mega block as the Famers’ Market, Central Library and First Ontario Arena.

WOW

I was immediately blown away by its size and vibe - even on a Monday morning there was a great mix of people shopping in the huge (55,000 square feet) store.

I had to look to find the name of the store as the entrance is from the middle of a ‘70s indoor mall, so there is no big box signage.  Eventually, I figured out it was Nations Fresh Foods.  I had never heard of it. Where have I been? Later I checked with some other urban retail colleagues and they hadn’t heard of it either. 

Turns out the parent company is Brampton based Ocean Fresh Foods Market and Nations is their upscale grocery store concept with two stores, with a third opening in Toronto later in 2016.  The motto for their stores is “Where East meets West” which means they offer food and produce as well as take-home cooked meals from around the world. While the stores have an European design the aisles are filled with products from around the world to serve southern Ontario market one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world.

Both Quality AND Affordability!

At the entrance was a lovely coffee station with pastries and gelato – I immediately thought my love of evening walks for gelato in Florence.  

The more I wandered, the more impressed I became with the selection. I loved the wall of teas, the seafood market full of live fish, the huge in store bakery, large sushi station and very fresh-looking fruits and vegetables.

I am told Nations carries lots of exotic foods like mungosteen, rambutan and dragonfruit; this is definitely not your average grocery store.

And the prices were good - three chocolate croissants for $1.99, artisan breads for $2.69.  Reviews of the store on the Internet were overwhelmingly positive - many saying they preferred it to Whole Foods.   Several people commented that Nations offers good quality at affordable prices; this almost never happens for other grocery stores.

While Nations’ by-line is “Where East Meets West,” I think I would use “Where old world meets new world.” 

Last Word

While I doubt Nations is looking at expanding to Western Canada anytime soon, a Nations’ grocery store would be a welcome addition in Calgary.  Perhaps as part a new development planned on the old Calgary Co-op site in the Beltline.  It would be perfect for the proposed mega development in Chinatown.  Eau Claire Market, University District or Currie would also be ideal locations.

I can’t help but think if Nations’ flagship store was in downtown Vancouver or Toronto, the urban planning world would be all over it as “god’s gift to urban villages,” but because it is in downtown Hamilton, it has been effectively ignored.

Oh, and after our visit, even my Mom was impressed enough to say maybe she would give Nations a second chance.

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Calgary / Edmonton: Let's Plan Together

With the release of the City’s review of the real costs of CalgaryNext proposal for a new arena, stadium and fieldhouse in West Village, the plot thickens on how Calgary’s professional sports facilities will evolve over the next decade.

Is it just me or has anyone else wondered why Calgary, Edmonton and the Province aren’t working together to develop a master plan for the provinces major sporting facilities in both cities and look for synergies.

In February 2016, Edmonton completed a study to look at the future uses of Rexall Place on their exhibition grounds, while Calgary has just put out a Request For Proposals to look at future uses of the Saddledome, also located on our exhibition grounds.  While there are differences between the two buildings, sites and markets, there much overlap. 

The same could be said for Alberta’s two football stadiums, which are both past their best before date and in need of a mega makeovers - Commonwealth Stadium opened in 1978 and McMahon Stadium in 1960.

Edmonton's Rogers Place is nearing completion, along with numerous other buildings including the Stantec office tower which will be 69 floors including mechanical making it Canada's second tallest office tower.  The streets around Rogers Place are being branded as the Ice district. 

CalgaryNext is a proposed arena, stadium and fieldhouse at the western edge of Calgary's downtown. 

Arena: Demolish vs. Repurpose  

In the case of the two arenas, Edmonton has already built its new arena and completed a 244-page report on the potential repurposing of Rexall Place.  Rather than spend $8.3 million to demolish the arena, Northlands has floated a plan to spend $85 million to convert it into multi-plex with six or seven ice surfaces on two levels with seating for 3,000 spectators, that would be used for various hockey, curling, lacrosse, ringette and other tournaments, as well as potential replacing some of the city’s aging community arenas for recreational activities.

The plan is linked to a $160 million makeover of Northlands that includes closing the racetrack and converting it into an “urban festival site” for audiences between 30,000 and 140,000 people.  Plans also call for converting the Expo Centre’s current Hall D into a 5,000-seat space for smaller concerts and sporting events.

Rendering of the proposed redevelopment of Northlands Park in Edmonton. The Rexall arena is the circle building at the bottom, the old race track is the new "urban festival site" at the top of the image. 

The Edmonton report researched 17 other North American NHL cities that have introduced new arenas since 1994, and found that 11 of the replaced venues were ultimately demolished.  Maple Leaf Gardens is now a Loblaws grocery store, Joe Fresh boutique and a LCBO liquor store as well as the Ryerson University athletic facility, which includes an ice rink on the third floor, which is used by university teams, as well as for other activities by outside users.  The Montreal Forum, is now a mixed-use building that includes a Cineplex Theatre complex, a bowling alley, sports bar, Tim Hortons and Montreal Canadian’s gift shop.

The Montreal Forum today.

Calgary’s situation is very different as there are no firm plans for a new arena, however, The City of Calgary and The Saddledome are in the process of engaging consultant to look at future uses of the Saddledome and the economic feasibility and community benefits of each option.

Ironically, this comes at the same time as the Calgary Stampede has announce it wants to expand the BMO Centre to create a major convention and tradeshow centre, by tearing down the Corral a 6,475 arena built in 1950 that is across the street from the Saddledome and attached to the current BMO Centre.  It has been postulated by some that perhaps the Saddledome could be reconfigured into a convention centre/trade show facility. 

It will be very interesting to see what ideas the consultants generate for the Saddledome and how that links with the Stampede’s master plan.

The Saddledome is one of Calgary's few iconic buildings.  It provides a postcard view of the City's stunning skyline.  

Football Stadium

In the case of the two football stadiums, Edmonton is again ahead of the game having just appointed MTa: Urban Design/Architecture (offices in Calgary and Edmonton) to review the future of Commonwealth Stadium. Given it looks more and more, like Calgary’s City Council is favouring renovating McMahon stadium, doesn’t it make sense to engage MTa to review both stadiums and their sites to determine how best to invest the taxpayers dollars. 

It is hard to justify a new stadium 30,000+ seat stadium that gets filled for 8 home games, perhaps a playoff game and a Grey Cup every 10 years.  Ideally the new stadium if designed with noise reduction acoustics could also be major concert venue in the summer.

If it is determined a new stadium makes the most sense, one possibility in Calgary would be to build a new stadium north of the existing one, perhaps in a way that could include a baseball stadium and fieldhouse to maximize its use.

The current site of McMahon Stadium includes an outdated baseball park, as well as running track and other playing fields.  Could this site be redeveloped into a multi-sport complex that would serve professional sports (football, soccer, baseball), university athletics and recreational teams city-wide. 

An interesting twist would be to plan any renovations so that one is completed before the other e.g. while Calgary’s McMahon Stadium is being redeveloped the Stampeders could play in Edmonton and then Calgary could return the favour when Commonwealth Stadium is being renovated. 

There would be some cost saving to doing the two renovations in tandum and creating two similar stadiums, just like the Jubilee Theatres.  

Last Word

It will be very interesting to see how these urban renewal sagas play out over the next few years.  What lessons Calgary might learn from Edmonton, who have already built a new arena with a very controversial funding structure that was debated for many years.

In Calgary the debate is only getting started.  

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Urban planning / Travel / Participant Observer?

My recent blog about urban planning not being a science but more of an art, got lots of comments from the public and planners, some in support and some in disagreement. 

As a result, I have been giving more thought to different approaches to urban planning and city building and the importance of the “power of observation” i.e. what works and what doesn’t in creating vibrant cities. 

I have always been intrigued by the idea of the role a “participant observer’’ plays in understanding the world we share, how we live together in urban places and how we shape our urban spaces. 

I have often thought of myself - rightly or wrongly - as “participant observer.” 

Mexico City and many other cities close down a City Centre street on Sunday to create a fun carnival experience. Why doesn't every city?

So I checked with colleague Harry Hiller, Urban Sociologist at the University of Calgary to see if he could with what is a “participant observer.”

Hiller quickly emailed back:

“Participant observation is a concept and research strategy that is
rooted in the scientific or scholarly community.  As such, it requires the utilization of the logic and canons of science.  This does not mean others cannot engage in participant observation, but it often has a less rigorous procedure.  
From a scientific perspective, we begin with a literature review in order to know what is already known about a topic and how that knowledge was discovered.  Then a research plan is established that seeks to isolate explanatory variables for that phenomenon and then to alert the researcher for the link between variables that are desired to be tested.  
So before going out into the field of research, a careful plan and set of objectives are established first that clarify what to look for, the pitfalls in doing so, and above all, an empirical strategy is created that allows one to speak to results within a carefully designed framework.  
This does not mean no one else can observe things as a participant, but it does mean that a researcher is more aware of how their presence as a participant affects the results and it means that observing is structured by a background of knowledge and a research plan.  
Perhaps one difference from journalism is that the researcher engages in research like this to make a carefully planned contribution to knowledge with some sense of certainty about the results and how they are to be evaluated.  
There are many "observers" of urban planning actions and consequences who bring their own biases to bear in their evaluations, but a good researcher is open to a variety of outcomes and can weigh the results with more depth.  
That is the challenge!”

A challenge indeed, by this definition I am definitely not a "participant observer," as I am certainly not that rigourous as flaneur cities aimlessly, enjoying the urban surprises.

In Dublin transit, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers all share the road. Travel opens everyone's eyes to new possibilities in urban design and sharing space.

Top Planners Are Often Participant Observers

While doing some Internet searching, I found an interesting 2014 article from the American Planning Association’s magazine. Written by Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, he referenced a 2009 poll of Planetizen (an independent resource for people passionate about planning and related fields) members asking them who the believe have been the “Top Thinkers vs. Top Academics” in the history of urban planning.  Ewing noted,  “Topping the list was Jane Jacobs, the ultimate participant-observer, who analyzed the built environment from her apartment in Greenwich Village and wrote in poetic fashion.  

Also high on the list were Allan Jacobs (no relation to Jane), Donald Appleyard and William H. Whyte all participant observers in Ewing’s mind.  He concludes, “observational methods seem particularly well suited to urban design.”

One of thousands of public open houses and workshops held every year in Calgary to engage the public in how their city should evolve short and long term, big and small projects.

We are all observers!

I have often thought many tourists are quasi “participant observers.” When you travel to a new place, you are looking with “fresh eyes” and often wonder “why don’t we have a park, street, museum, store, café, festival etc. like this in our city?” or “why does this seem to work better here than back home?”

Sometimes the thinking stops at just wondering. Other times it may go further as one tries to understand the rationale for what works and what doesn’t in making our city a more attractive place to live, work and play. More and more the public is becoming more engaged in designing the evolution of their community and city with their participation in workshops, open houses and Council meetings.

Post-it notes are essential to any public meeting/workshop.

Last Word

Today, as community engagement has become the norm for projects big and small on a community, citywide and regional basis. More and more, politicians, planners and developers are realizing the value of getting a diversity of citizen input (even if some is diametrically opposed and some isn’t feasible) to capture the hidden expertise that comes from the average person’s observation and day-to-day experience of their community, as well as experiences when travelling in other cities.

 

One could say, “it takes more than just academics to create a great community/city.”

 

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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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The rise of the wood frame condo!

 

Everyday Tourist looks at how Calgary's Centre Street N could become the showcase for how wood frame condos can revitalize established neighbourhoods, not only in Calgary but other cities. 

Not only in Calgary, but across Canada, cities and provinces have revised their building codes to allow for wood-framed condo construction up to six-floor from the previous four.   British Columbia was first in 2009 and now has hundreds of five and six storey wood-framed condos.

Proposed Tigerstedt Block on Centre street with retail at street level and condos above. 

Why is this important? 

Because it allows for increased density of on infill condos urban sites that previously would have had to use more expensive concrete foundations. Championed by Rollin Stanley (City of Calgary’s Planning, General Manager) Calgary changed its regulations in November 2014 with the hope it would foster slightly larger and lower price point infill condos in established communities along transit corridors, as well as greenfield projects in new communities. 

In an email response to an inquiry to Stanley asking about the city’s development community’s uptake and lessons learned on the new development opportunity he indicated:

One of the challenges for six-storey wood as for any six-floor building is the parking requirement.  If the requirement drives a second level of concrete underground parking, the economics of any six-storey building is challenging. 

We need to address our parking requirement, which is high by most other cities.

We have had lots of preliminary discussions for six-storey wood framed condos, but mostly in the greenfield areas where large sites with one storey of underground parking make it feasible.

We are looking at promoting five and six-storey condos at as part of our Main Streets initiative.  Makes sense given good transit on those routes

To date the City has received two condo applications under the new building code ironically both on Centre Street North – Centro (5-storeys) and Tigerstedt Block (6-storeys).

Centro condo under construction at the corner of Centre Street and 20th Ave. 

Educate, Educate, Educate

In addition, Jayman Modus is currently working on Westman Village (a high-end, 6-storey, 900-unit urban village project) in Lake Mahogany.  In chatting with Wallace Chow, VP Development at Jayman Modus, he enlightened me that one of the key issues for developers to move from four to six-storey buildings is to educate Calgary’s workforce on the new techniques and code issues associated with this type of construction.  “You don’t build a 6-storey wood-framed building the same way you do a four-story” he emphasized. 

Another challenge Wallace and his team face is educating the public about wood-framed condos. For example, the biggest fire issue for wood framed condos isn’t after the condo is constructed, but during construction. He noted that new sprinkler regulations, fire-rated drywall and construction techniques have resulting in significant improvements in fire safety for wood-framed condos.  

Another challenge is people’s perception wood frame condos are nosier than concrete. Jayman Modus has noise tested their new wood building construction with concrete and it is the equivalent of an 8” concrete wall.

For their Lake Mahogany project, he has hired Integra Architecture out of Vancouver as they have the most experience with six-story condos.  If all things go as planned people will be moving into Westman Village in Q4 of 2017.

Last Word

The Tigerstedt Block (named after the 1930s photo studio that was located in the building with the Art Deco neon sign) is what the City had in mind when they approved increasing the height of wood framed condos.

Currently Leaseco Certus Development Inc. (LCDI) has submitted an application for a development permit. If approved, it will transform an entire block of Centre Street into an attractive (white brick with black steel industrial balconies and trim) human scale (6-storeys) building with retail at street level and condos above. Residents will be able to walk, cycle or take quick transit ride downtown. 

Tigerstedt Block could be the revitalization catalyst for Centre Street North as a vibrant pedestrian street with shops, cafes and restaurants.

LCDI has two other properties on Centre Street that are ripe for redevelopment, if their first one succeeds.  Lets hope it does

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The rise of the mid-rise condo!

It seems like in every major North America city these days the mid-rise is becoming the most popular built-form for infill condos in established communities.  In Calgary, once you get out of the City Centre (17th Ave SW to the Bow River, from Stampede Park to 14th St. SW) the mid-rise is the dominant condo type. 

Pixel condo is now complete and its sister condo Lido is under construction in Kensington Village.  

Calla condo next to Lougheed House gardens, is surrounded older mid-rise residential development from the '80s in Calgary's trendy Beltline community.    

Allowing development of more mid-rise condos along transit corridors in the GTA would open affordable home-ownership options and help revitalize commercial "dead zones," a new report says. (Toronto Star) Avenues and Mid-Rise Study City of Toronto Report

What is a mid-rise? 

Well there are a multitude of definitions out there but the most common is a five to 11 storey building.  The reason for five is until recently most building codes allowed wood frame buildings to be a maximum of four storeys, above that it had to be concrete.  It was convenient to make the break between low-rise and mid-rise at four storeys the same as the transition from wood to concrete. 

I am not sure why the division between mid-rise and high-rise is at 11-storeys.  My theory is mid-rise buildings are often marketed as being human scale; meaning humans walking along the street don’t feel dwarfed by them as they do with highrises, but I don’t see what is the magic in 11-storeys vs. 10 or 15 depending on the site.

Mid-rise office buildings are also important for creating vibrant urban communities. Meredith Block Edmonton Trail at Memorial Drive. 

Benefit of a Mid-rise

Today in Calgary when a mid-rise is proposed in an established community next to a single-family homes, city planners and developers try to convince the neighbours a mid-rise has minimal impact when it comes to shadowing, traffic and parking issues.

Try telling that to the neighbours of the Kensington Legion site redevelopment or the Ezra condos at Riley Park (5th Ave and 13th Street NW) where proposed 8-storey condos were/are being vehemently opposed by the neighbours.  In Inglewood, the neighbours protested the AVLI condo that was 2.5 meters above the allowed height.  Obviously height matters!

There are many benefits of a mid-rise to the city, developer and the community. 

Kensington Road Legion site is currently being redeveloped with a low-rise office building on the left and mid-rise condo on the right. It is a good example of a developer willing to employ some enhance design elements to create a less box-like condo. 

From the city’s perspective a mid-rise creates more density, more quickly i.e. one mid-rise can have two or three times the number of people as a low-rise condo. This creates more immediate utilization of transit, bike lanes, parks etc.  It also means the city only has to spend time with one development application instead of three.

From the developers point-of-view a mid-rise means can be develop on sites that are too large for low-rise and two small for high-rise buildings.  They also don’t need to sell as many units in advance before construction can start and construction can take half the time as say a 20 or 30 storey high-rise. This means they can take advantage of shorter windows of opportunities in the market.

  An example of impact of mid-rise condo on the neighbouring properties in Marada Loop.  In this case these houses have become incubators for small businesses. Altadore and South Calgary are good example of evolving established community. 

An example of impact of mid-rise condo on the neighbouring properties in Marada Loop.  In this case these houses have become incubators for small businesses. Altadore and South Calgary are good example of evolving established community. 

From the community’s perspective, they get increased density in one building rather than three or four, which means the roads and sidewalk disruption time is reduced.  Also the increased density can mean better bus service, improvements to parks, school enrollment, new restaurants, cafes, medical services and increased the viability of existing small businesses.

Mid-rise condos are ideal for transit-oriented development next to Calgary’s LRT station.  The twin 10-storey Renaissance Towers at North Hill Mall, next to Lions Park are a good example of creating good density in an established community.  The same could be said for 9-storey The Groves of University at the Dalhousie Station.

One of the things I love about mid-rise buildings is that they offer more opportunities for creative designs than low-rise and high-rise condos, which seem to all look the same i.e. variations on a rectangle.

In My Opinion

I don’t know what is so magical about four-storeys condos, but many Calgarians seem to think is the absolute maximum height for any condos near single-family homes.

Rather than focusing on the density and height of new infill condos, I think we should be focusing on the quality of the design of the building and the overall impact it will have on the entire community and city - not just the immediate neighbours.

St. John's condo on 10th Street NW in Kensington Village.

Mid-rise Madness

Currently in Calgary, there are many mid-rise condos recently completed, under construction or nearing final approval.  In Inglewood, AVLI a 7-storey condo is starting construction across the street from the funky Art Atlantic building.  Bridgeland has two mid-rises; Bridgeland Crossing (8-storeys) is nearing completion and Radius (7-storeys) it getting ready for construction to start.

Casel condo with ground floor retail and second floor office is locates on 17th Avenue SW at the entrance to Crowchild Trail.  It is pioneered mid-rise condo development west of the City Centre

In Hillhurst, Battisella recently completed Pixel (perhaps one of the coolest entrances for a condo I have ever seen) and Lido is currently under construction. Across the street from Lido, is Bucci’s Kensington condo that comes in at 6-storeys and then there is Ezra (named Ezra Hounsfield Riley who once owned all of the land that is today Hillhurst/Sunnyside) at Riley Park (5th Ave and 13th St SW) which will be 8-storeys.

In West Hillhurst, Truman has submitted a proposal to the City to rezone the huge Kensington Legion site for a 4-storey office and 8-storey condo (reduced from 10-storeys due to neighbours’ protest) that is very contemporary design that could be a new benchmark for urban living Calgary’s northwest quadrant. (Note: since this blog was written the Kensington Legion site redevelopment has been approved). 

Bridgeland Crossing is a good example of a mid-rise condo adjacent to an LRT Station and within easy walking and cycling distance to downtown. 

University City at the Brentwood Station includes two high-rise condo buildings, then transitions to mid-rise and  then town homes as it connects to the Brentwood community. This is phase one of a larger plan to create a transit-oriented village at the Brentwood LRT Station. 

Note: This blog was commissioned by Source Media for January Condo Living Magazine. 

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Calgary: Planners and Politicians are too downtown and ego centric!

Everyday Tourist Note: We love getting comments and insights from readers. This week, we received a very thoughtful email about Calgary's urban/suburban divide that warranted a guest blog. 

I keep reading about the urban/suburban divide, the evils of sprawl, and the mismanagement of development. At the same time, I read of the declining importance of downtown, with the majority of employment growth occurring in the outside areas – the industrial parks, the distribution centers, universities and hospital campuses, the airport – and on.

Downtown is an island of high-rises that has less and less relevance to the majority of Calgarians. (photo credit Peak Aerials) 

What is downtown Calgary?

We have dozens of office towers occupied by oil and gas companies, banks, legal firms, investment advisors, and government.  It certainly isn’t representative of the full economy of the city.

And while there is a retail component to downtown, it is certainly not a draw for the majority of people who have much more accessible shopping without any of the hassles and expense of going downtown.

Many of the towers would not exist but for the extravagance of the oil industry in good times, and now that the industry has again fallen on hard times, the downtown is paying a steep price.

Many believe that this is a long term, or even a permanent problem, as the economic structure of that industry has changed.  At the very least, we may again be facing a lost decade, similar to the 1980’s.

Yet employment growth, and economic expansion, continues in Calgary, as does population growth. But despite the fact that the large employment centers outside the downtown are out-performing the downtown, the city remains disproportionately focused on downtown.

We continue with our hub and spoke approach to public transit, our tunnel vision on all things downtown, be it bike lanes, parks redevelopment, pedestrian bridges, and on. And all we hear about are the evils of sprawl.

 

This City of Calgary Land Use Typology map illustrates how Calgary NE and SE have be designed as major industrial employment centres (purple). However, these areas are serviced mostly by road rather than transit.  It also illustrates how most of the residential zoning is on the west side of the city with employment on the east, yet most transit routes are oriented north and south. The City is responsible for the disconnect in Calgary's land uses, not developers. 

Calgary's current and planned LRT routes are all downtown centric. 

Change focus

Where is the focus on the access needs of the industrial parks, the distribution centers and other outlying employment centers?

Who is championing public transit that will service these areas without the inevitable connection to the C Train or routing through downtown. 

Where is the encouragement to better link these employment centers to surrounding residential with the same access that we fund in the core?

Is there any less need for funding of pedestrian access and bike routes in the suburbs, or to these employment centers?  Some would argue the need for bike routes is even greater, given the city’s long standing approach to development, where suburbs are essentially individually walled off communities, and the routes in an out are mid to high speed roadways with no pedestrian or bike access.

SE Inland Port anchors a major employment centre in Calgary with minimal transit service. 

Quarry Park is a major employment centre in Calgary's SE quadrant but has poor transit service as a result of all transit in SE focused on existing South LRT leg service to downtown.

Southeast is booming

Over the past few years, two major employment centers have developed in the Southeast – Quarry Park and Seton (the South Hospital Campus).  These are not centers that were being redeveloped and face the limitations of decisions and designs of decades past. 

They were clean sheets of paper, and could be designed and built to fulfill all of the pet initiatives being touted by council, city planners, and the various special interest groups that arise every time changes are planned in communities.  

But neither development can be viewed as overly pedestrian or bike friendly, transit oriented, or even planned to encourage living in nearby suburbs.

Somehow we have developed this skewed vision of a world-class city, with a downtown full of architecturally significant towers and condos, with these great public areas, art work, parks, etc.  Unfortunately, that is not where the majority of the population is, wants to be, or can afford to live. Nor is it where the majority work.

South Health Campus will anchor a new Healthcare focused city at the southern edge of the city. (photo credit Peak Aerials) 

Urban Sprawl City's fault

Calgary is where it is today because of our city administration and planners.  They annex the land.  

They layout and approve the subdivisions, shopping centers, employment centers, industrial areas, and transportation routes.

They layout the rules for all the development that happens in new communities.

Yet it is the developers who seem to be at fault for the sprawl, the transportation issues, the lack of density, the dependence on cars, and on and on.

Something is amiss.  

Map of Calgary's vision for Rapid Transit routes is still downtown centric, but there are more east west routes.

Out of whack? 

I think the City’s basic priorities are out of whack. The future of Calgary is not in the downtown, nor in the million dollar infills or luxury condos. 

Calgary is a city of young, growing families, most with jobs outside of the downtown, with a focus on raising families with ready access to parks, recreation facilities, neighbourhood schools and shopping.

While the designer bridges and public artworks look great on postcards, they have little impact on the majority of Calgary’ citizens.

Gerry Geoffrey is a retired CFO of a major Western Canadian corporation and a resident of Calgary since the mid 80’s. His sentiments are similar to the feedback received from many Everyday Tourist readers.

Finally, the SE quadrant will be getting not one but two new recreation centres - SETON and Quarry Park.  (photo credit, SETON Recreation Centre, City of Calgary website).

Downtown urban design makes for dramatic postcards, but don't serve the needs of the majority of Calgarians. 

The Next Step: Linking East Village & Stampede Park

The recent announcement that Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) and Calgary Stampede have signed a memorandum of understanding to work together is very exciting from an east side City Centre urban revitalization perspective.   

Stampede Park entrance on 4th St SE, aka Olympic Way.  

Stampede Backstory

Since the mid ‘90s the Calgary Stampede has been working hard to implement an ambitious master plan that would to transform Stampede Park into a mixed-use, vibrant year-round gathering place for Calgarians AND a “must see” tourists destination. 

Calgary Stampede Master Plan showing the new Agricultural Building, Youth Campus and several new buildings along 4th Street SE will need to be significantly revised to integrate new develops like Green Line LRT, BMO expansion and Saddledome changes. 

To date, some progress has been made to fulfil the vision - the BMO Centre, Agrium Western Event Centre and ENMAX Park (opening June 2016). Plans for the creation of a Youth Campus that will include a new home for the Young Canadians, as well as the addition of Calgary Arts Academy School to the Park are just now coming together with construction set to begin this year.

However, The biggest disappointment has to be the failed attempt to transform Olympic Way (aka 4th St SE from 10th Ave to the Saddledome) into Stampede Trail with shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, saloons etc. It was a good idea, but perhaps 20 years premature as the Trail needs too be surrounded by a mix of other uses to make it work.

Attendance at the ten day Calgary Stampede plateaued in the ‘90s, largely because there are only so many people the site can accommodate in a day and still offer a quality experience.   At about 120,000 per day, the Calgary Stampede attracts three times as many people per day as Disneyland.  There is a relationship between the size of a venue and attendance and Stampede’s sweet spot is about 100,000 people. 

Stampede Park growth is challenged because it is hemmed in by Macleod Trail on the west, Cemetery Hill to the south, Scotchman’s Hill to the east and CPR tracks to the north, making expansion of the site impossible.

As such, the Stampede has wisely turned its focused over the past 20 years to becoming more of a year-round events centre.  For example, the number of events at the BMO Centre has increased from 191 in 1994 to 550 in 2015.  It has also become home to many major annual events like the Calgary Expo, which attracts over 100,000+ Calgarians each year, making it one of Calgary’s largest annual events.

The Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo (AKA: Calgary Expo) is a four-day pop-culture convention held each spring  at Stampede Park. Attendees can shop hundreds of vendors and exhibitors, check out panels and workshops, meet their favourite stars and creators, and celebrate what makes them geeky with thousands of other fans in cosplay.  Calgary Expo takes place April 26th to May 1st 2016.

At its March 15th, 2016 annual general meeting, Stampede CEO Warren Connell announced the organization is working on plans to significantly expand the BMO Centre as the next phase in the evolution of Stampede Park.

Stampede Park is at a tipping point. A mega-makeover is needed to allow better utilization of the land, existing and new LRT stations as well as links to new developments in East Village.

Stampede Grandstand is full for Rodeo, Chuckwagon races and Grandstand show during Stampede. 

Stampede's Macleod Trail entrance is now being crowed by condo development which is creating new opportunities for Stampede to become a year-round sports, entertainment and educational district. 

East Village mega-makeover!

At the same time as Stampede Park has struggled to realize its vision, East Village, under the guidance of CMLC, has undergone a multi-billion dollar makeover with Riverwalk, St. Patrick Island redevelopment, George C. King pedestrian bridge, National Music Centre, Central Library, new hotel, Simmons Building restoration and several new condos.

While, time will tell if the vision of East Village as vibrant urban village is realized, it sure off to an incredible start.  Since 2007, CMLC has invested $357 million into East Village infrastructure and development, which has attracted $2.4 billion of development taxable development – new condos, hotel and retail.

However, one of the keys to East Village’s ultimate success will be to ensure 4th St SE becomes a vibrant pedestrian zone. It takes more than just two anchors (library and museum) to make a great pedestrian street.  It takes a diversity of things to see and do - daytime, evening and weekends - for locals and tourists alike.

It is in the best interest of both CMLC and Stampede to work together to make 4th St SE a great street that connects the two communities.  The fact that they have agreed to work together bodes well for the success of both visions.

The new National Music Centre will become a grand entrance to East Village for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers exiting Stampede Park along 4th St. SE. 

Opportunity Knocks?

It would appear now is the perfect time to make something special happen on 4th St SE given the following major developments and decisions:

  1. National Music Centre (aka Studio Bell) opens this year on 9th Ave at 4th St SE.
  2. Green Line will have a LRT station at 4th St and 10th Ave SE.
  3. RioCan and Embassy BOSA are getting ready to start construction of their shopping/condo complex just off of 4th St. SE.
  4. New residents are now moving into the Guardian’s twin condo towers on 3rd Street between 10th and 11th Ave. SE, as well as into several East Village condos.
  5. New Central Library currently under construction opens in 2018.
  6. Stampede’s Youth Campus construction begins this year.
  7. ENMAX Park, Deane House and Hunt House (Fort Calgary Park) reopen this spring.
  8. The Calgary Flames have announced plans to leave the Scotiabank Saddledome for greener pastures in West Village.  If they stay or go, the Saddledome will be a key site in the future of 4th St SE.
  9. Stampede is ready to expand the BMO Centre, one of the busiest trade centres in Canada with an occupancy rate of 72% (the average occupancy in Canada is 55%).

Perhaps, given Calgary TELUS Convention Centre is looking for a new site and new building, it is the time to bite the bullet and create a major convention and trade centre at Stampede Park. It is the logical next step to transform Stampede Park into a vibrant 21st century Sports Entertainment, Education District that compliments what is happening in East Village.  

Another idea now surfacing for Stampede Park redevelopment is to allow vehicular traffic on 17th Avenue to pass through Stampede Park and then along 4th St SE to East Village.  

Wouldn’t it be great if the Stampede Park’s guardhouses were removed it became a place where Calgarians and tourists could freely walk, bike and drive through. What a great way to link the City Centre communities of East Village, Erlton, Victoria Park, Stampede Park, Beltline and Mission.

What is needed is a 4th St SE master plan that creates more opportunities for human scale developments (under six stories) with pedestrian-oriented sidewalk shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs.  The key will be lots of smaller and shorter buildings (think Kensington, Inglewood, Mission and 17th Avenue SW) that don’t dwarf the pedestrians.

The 4th St. SE underpass presents a major challenge for linking Stampede Park and East Village. 

Stampede Park uses every possible space on site for the ten days of Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Over the past 20 years, Calgary's downtown, East Village and Beltline communities have been expanding closer and closer to Stampede Park making it much more a part of the City Centre. 

Last Word

I hope CMLC and Calgary Stampede  (with the cooperation of the City Council and Calgary Convention Centre) can work together to capitalize on the full potential of East Village,  Beltline and Stampede Park in creating a unique sense of place for locals and tourists, on the east side of Calgary’s City Centre.

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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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Urban Planning is not a science!

Recently, I have been criticized by several planners and urban lobbyists for saying; “urban planning is more an art than a science and vibrant streets, public spaces and communities happen more by chance than master plans.”  Ouch! 

My critics tell me current urban research on best practices around the world means planners today can develop plans that have a high probability of creating vibrant streets, spaces and new communities using accepted good urban design principles.

But I counter with the fact that for decades urban planners have been telling Calgarians they have the recipe for creating urban vitality. In the ‘60s, planners thought the idea of clustering a new hotel, museum, convention centre, observation tower, office and retail at Centre Street and 8th and 9th Avenues SW was just the ticket to revitalize the east end of downtown.  I trust they were using what they thought were the best urban design principles at that time. Today the blocks of 8th and 9th Avenue near Centre Street are still devoid of street life most of the time.

Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit corridor was recently enhanced with new stations and sidewalks, but it still lacks an urban vibe. 

This is the entrance to Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Glenbow Museum taken at Stampede time in 2015.

Marriott Hotel's 9th Ave entrance across from the Calgary Tower at Stampede 2015.

Let's Try Again

Then in the ‘70s, new planners (again presumably based on current best practices thought) transforming 8th Avenue into a pedestrian mall, 7th Avenue into a transit corridor and building a huge indoor shopping centre with a winter garden and two office towers above it would boost downtown vitality. 

Toronto was doing it - Eaton’s Centre, Vancouver was doing it - Pacific Centre, so Calgary should do it – hence TD Square. Later, we added our own mini Eaton’s Centre and more recently we combined the two renaming The Core.  Hamilton, Winnipeg and Edmonton also tried the downtown indoor mall experiment to create urban vitality with little success.

Eaton's Centre in Toronto is a major tourist attraction. 

The Core shopping mall in downtown Calgary is the city's fourth busiest mall. 

Two More Times

In the ‘80s, planners once again turned their attention to the east end of Stephen Avenue with a mega block development - the Performing Arts Centre (Arts Commons). Surely, building one of North America’s largest performing arts centres (five space and 3,200 seats) with a new civic plaza would be just the ticket to create some vibrant downtown nightlife.  

Then in the ‘90s, urban revitalization best practices indicated the key to adding urban vitality to a neighbourhood was to include a mix of uses.  The Eau Claire plan included a market, an IMAX, a (multi-screen cinema), restaurants, shops, the Eau Claire Y recreation centre, new condos, a new hotel, a promenade along the river and upgrades to Prince’s Island Park.

All of these ambitious plans were based on current urban planning best practices at the time yet all met with limited success in creating a vibrant and attractive urban sense of place for Calgarians over the long term.

Stephen Avenue Walk today.

Unfulfilled Promises

And it’s not just Calgary.  For decades, urban planners around the world have researching and creating new best practices theories for creating vibrant streets, public spaces and urban communities, but in most cases the promise of urban vitality is unfulfilled.

More than one planner has admitted to me that much of urban planning today is about undoing the bad planning of the past. Personally, I don’t think it is actually bad planning, but the fact that urban planning is more like an experiment, where you have a hypothesis and to test it you have to build something to see if it works.

And, like most experiments they fail (or don’t work out exactly as planned) more often than they succeed.

However, I wouldn’t get too depressed. Calgary’s isn’t as bad as some urban planners would have us think. 

Barclay Mall is an enhance pedestrian street linking Stephen Avenue to Eau Claire, Prince's Island and Bow River. 

In fact, Calgary is very healthy!

Every year the Calgary Foundation produces what they call Vital Signs. It is a report card on how Calgarians feel about their city as opposed to how urbanists feel about our city.

Each year the results indicate Calgary is very healthy city. For example the 2015 reports states:

  • 87% enjoy their quality of life in Calgary
  • 91% describe themselves as happy
  • 78% are happy with their job and satisfied with their work
  • 75% participate actively in their community of interest
  • 90% report they are surrounded by loving family/companions/friends
  • 83% rated their physical well-being as high
  • 86% rated their mental well-being as high
  • 77% rated Calgary as a vibrant, lively, appealing place to live

These are pretty positive numbers and tell me Calgarians overall are pretty happy with the quality of life Calgary affords them. What more can you ask for?

Olympic Plaza in winter attracts a few skaters. 

Last Word

 In 2012, Scientific America published Sarah Fecht's paper titled “Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?” The opening paragraph reads:

 “In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. ‘Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense’ she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.”

Cities are very complex organisms, with way too many variables to be a science. City building is an endless experiment in adapting to new realities – economic, technology, citizen demands and urban design thinking.  

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Calgary's CBD is unique!

Recently I did a piece for CBCNews Crossroads about Calgary’s downtown being an office ghetto.  The two criticisms I received from several urban planners were: 1) what I was really talking about was not Calgary’s downtown, but its “central business district” (CBD) and 2) all CBDs are office ghettos and therefore ghost towns after office hours. 

CBD is an urban planning term that refers to the place near the centre of a city that is predominantly a place to conduct business. To confuse things, some cities like Toronto, called it the Financial District, as it is where the major national banks have their headquarters.

Calgary's CBD includes several blogs of early 20th century buildings that have been declared a National Historic District as well as several other historical buildings. 

Calgary’s CBD (Downtown Commercial Core, is City of Calgary’s official name for it) is defined as the area from 9th St SW to 1st St SE (behind Municipal Building) and from 9th Ave SW to the 4th Ave SW.  It is about 1.3 km by .6 km in size and excludes Eau Claire, Chinatown or East Village.  For most Calgarians, I expect this is also their definition of downtown give or take a few blocks.

Read: Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

All CBDs are ghost towns?

The critics were quick to point out, “in Toronto, the Bay and King Street area is dead outside of office hours; the same is true for the blocks around Manhattan’s Wall Street.”

I agree with their observation CBD’s are typically ghost towns outside of office hours, because they basically have nothing else but offices towers. 

However, Calgary’s CBD is different.  While it is 80% office buildings it also includes major shopping, entertainment, cultural, historic and residential elements, on a scale that most other major city CBDs don’t include.

For example, Toronto’s CBD, at about 2 square kilometers, though about the same size as Calgary’s, doesn’t include Toronto Eaton Centre, The Bay, their theatre and entertainment districts. Their major tourist destinations, Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum and CN Tower are also not in their CBD.  The same could be said for Vancouver or Seattle, their tourist are not hanging out in their CBD.

Calgary's CBD has over 3 million square feet of retail space, twice that of Chinook Mall.  The Core shopping mall links the historic Hudson's Bay department store with a flagship Holt Renfew store.  It is connected to 9 office towers and to Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall and the 7th Avenue transit corridor.  It is also connect to a major indoor public garden.  It is one of the most dense and mixed-use three-blocks in North America. 

Calgary's CBC has two pedestrian oriented streets with wide sidewalks, planters, banners and other enhancements. 

Why Calgary's CBD is different?

In Calgary, our CBD includes the city’s largest concentration of retail shopping. At 3.6 million square feet it is more than twice Chinook Centre’s. It includes the flagship Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew department stores, as well as the-uber cool The Core shopping center with the mammoth glass ceiling.

Calgary’s CBD also includes two major tourist attractions the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Towers, as well as our Convention Centre. While the historic districts in Toronto and Vancouver are outside of their CBD, Calgary’s Stephen Avenue (a designated National Historic District) and a major restaurant row sits at centre ice in our CBD.

Calgary is also unique in that eight performing art spaces with over 4,000 seats and an art house cinema are located in our CBD.  It is also home to two significant public spaces (Devonian Gardens and Olympic Plaza), over 100 public artworks and two enhanced pedestrian-oriented streets (Stephen Avenue and Barclay Mall). 

Our CBD is home to some of Calgary’s best restaurants, albeit many of them have “expense account” prices, making them more for special occasions only.  It also includes major nightclubs like Flames Central and smaller music venues the Palomino Room or Wine-Ohs.

And, it I home to major festivals like Calgary International Children’s Festival and High Performance Rodeo, as well as the Stampede Parade and Stampede’s Rope Square.  

Indeed, Calgary’s CBD is unique in North America offering a greater diversity and great concentration of things to see and do for tourists and locals than a typical CBD.

Read: Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Calgary's CBD comes alive at noon hour in the summer when workers and tourist love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk aka 8th Avenue. 

Calgary's 7th Avenue LRT station at Holt Renfew, opens to a lovely park that is popular with workers at noon hour.

Stephen Avenue is a major restaurant row, that is lined with patios from May to September. 

Calgary Telus Convention Centre is located in Calgary CBD.

Olympic Plaza is another public space located in Calgary's CBD. The red brick building is part of the Arts Commons complex that includes that entire block.  it includes four theatre spaces and one concert hall.  On the next block is the Glenbow Museum and the Telus Convention Centre with Hyatt and Marriott hotels. 

Thousands of people live in our CBD

Our CBD also has a significant residential population of 9,000 residents. In fact it is one of Calgary’s largest residential communities ranking 52 out of our 250+ communities in population. It is also includes 10 major hotels with over 3,000 rooms.

In comparison, Toronto CBD’s residential population is only 2,239 (Toronto Financial District Business Improvement Area).

Read: Calgary new downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification

One of several residential buildings in Calgary's CBD. 

Facing Reality 

Our CBD is our downtown in the minds of most Calgarians.  And it is generally perceived as a place to work - not live or play.

Calgary’s CDB downtown has not captured the imagination of Calgarians as a place to play, dine, shop, be entertained, wander, linger or hang out except on special occasions. Neither, has it captured the imagination of Calgarians as a “must see” place for visiting family and friends except for special events.  

Nor has it captured the imagination of tourists as a weekend urban playground – music, festival, events, food, pubs, clubs, gallery/museum browsing, shopping, theatre etc.

9th Avenue is a typical Calgary CBD street with office buildings lining the street allowing little to no light to the sidewalk creating an unfriendly pedestrian environment. 

Another example of a street in Calgary's CBD that is just a wall of glass from office buildings. 

Last Word

In theory, Calgary’s CDB/downtown has many of the ingredients urban planners say you need to have for a vibrant urban place – shopping, public spaces, pedestrian- oriented streets, museums, art galleries, iconic architecture, public art, cafés, restaurants and festivals. 

Despite the tremendous efforts (think billions of dollars) by the City of Calgary, the private sector and the Calgary Downtown Association to create a CBD that is attractive to office workers during the weekday and tourists and Calgarians citywide in evenings and weekends, it is still a ghost town after office hours.

Unfortunately, office buildings are urban vitality exterminators and they trump everything else.

Full Disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association from 1995 to 2006. 

 

Are downtowns relevant in the 21st century city?

Everyday Tourist Note:

I recently asked Harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary in an email if he would comment on the importance of a vibrant downtown from his urban sociological perspective. His comments may surprise you ….they surprised me.

I have taken his email and with his permission formatted it as a thought provoking blog on the future of downtowns, not only in Calgary but for many cities.

Downtown Calgary Skyline (photo credit: Tourism Calgary).

Downtown & Consumption

The notion of a downtown as the central core of a city is a somewhat outdated concept because many activities - formerly occurring only in the core - now take place in many locations throughout the city. 

Historically, the central core of cities had three functions: trade, worship (e.g. cathedrals) and governance. It was not a place to live. 

Industrialization altered this pattern somewhat primarily because factories and warehouses were built in the city center adjacent to transportation networks such as railroads and waterways.

In the summer at noon hour, Stephen Avenue comes alive with downtown workers and a few tourists. 

Post-industrialization transformed the central core of cities yet again as employment shifted from factories (blue collar jobs) to offices (so-called white collar jobs) in high-rise towers.  This process contributed to another transformation in which consumption through entertainment, shopping, museums, galleries, and dining have become economic engines for downtowns.

These leisure activities (beyond the 9 to 5 pm working hours) opened up the possibility for a very different downtown core, one that is less about workers and more about urban living and playing.

This creates a vibrancy of a different type downtown. But this concept has not caught on in Calgary yet? Why not?

7th Avenue Transit corridor station

Stephen Avenue is a inhospitable place in the winter when it cold and windy.

Barclay Mall or 3rd Street SW, downtown's other pedestrian-oriented street linking Stephen Avenue with the Bow River.

Is downtown still relevant?

17th Avenue sidewalks are full of pedestrians even in February.  Calgary wasted a great opportunity to capital on the Red Mile brand as a tourist attraction. 

The problem for Calgary is the city is still young, suburban and dominated by child-rearing families. In addition there is little incentive for families to come downtown after office hours and most downtown workers just want to "escape" it.

It needs to be recognized contemporary cities are now multi-nucleated, meaning that there are many nodes for shopping, dining, entertainment and professional services away from the downtown core.  Suburban malls or pedestrian streets like 10th Street NW, 17th Avenue SW, 33rd Avenue SW or even strip malls minimize the need for people to go downtown. In fact, many suburbanites never need to visit the central core for any reason at all.

Downtown is less relevant to more Calgarians than ever before.

In fact many want to avoid or "escape" downtown.

 

  Calgary Next would add two major event facilities to our downtown, with the potential to host major events as well as sports teams. 

Calgary Next would add two major event facilities to our downtown, with the potential to host major events as well as sports teams. 

Downtown as a tourist attraction?

This is where the current proposal for CalgaryNEXT needs to be evaluated.  The idea of building new arenas, stadiums, ballparks and convention centres is currently in vogue in many cities across North America because it provides anchors and a site for both residential and consumptive activity.  

Edmonton's Ice District and Winnipeg's downtown SHED (sports, hospitality, entertainment district) is meant to play a role in rejuvenating the downtown. Certainly, sport facilities (BC Place and Rogers Arena), convention facilities, and cultural activities have played a major role in making Vancouver an attractive place to live and play even superseding downtown’s role as an employment center.

But there is another important point to be made.  Great cities always support downtown tourism (e.g. New York or San Francisco) where people (suburbanites or visitors from other places) come to the downtown core for the weekend, stay in hotels, go shopping and dining, and take in cultural or sport events.  

I discovered hotels in San Francisco are busier on the weekends than they are during the week as people come from everywhere to enjoy the options in the downtown core.  If you look at cities with vibrant downtowns, they are almost always tourist hot spots.

Unfortunately, Calgary lacks the 5+ million population within a 2 or 3-hour drive that cities like San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto or Montreal have.  Some argue you need this population base to support an urban playground on weekends.  If just 2% of the people decide to head downtown on any given weekend that is 100,000 people. That's about the population of Calgary’s weekday downtown core workforce!

Downtown Calgary boast many great parks and pathways for recreational activities that are slowing attracting more people to want to live downtown.

Our downtown must become a place “to play”

I was at an event with Ken King recently and told him I believe many people do not understand the potential of the CalgaryNEXT proposal to create a hub of activity synergistic with other consumption activities in the central core along the LRT line.

Alternative sites for CalgaryNEXT (McMahon Stadium site or site adjacent to the Deerfoot) do not acknowledge how the proposed project could contribute to a more vibrant central core. 

Yes the proposed West Village site is complex, but in many ways it is also ideal with its proximity to LRT, major roads, downtown and the river.

Urban development is always complex.

The Core, downtown shopping centre is one of the largest and most attractive indoor shopping centres in Canada, but it has not capture the imagination of suburban Calgarians to come down and shop on weekends. Tourists on the street outside often don't even know it exists. 

Other than Stephen Avenue, the streets in the downtown core have nothing for pedestrians to see or do.  It is a ghetto of office buildings for office workers. 

9th Avenue, downtown Calgary

Macleod Trail, downtown Calgary

Last Word

Much of the current debate about CalgaryNEXT could be improved by greater public awareness and discussion about the role our downtown core should play in the future of the city.  From my perspective, our downtown must become more than just a place to work, which is the current reality. The sooner the better!

Dr. Harry Hiller, Faculty Professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Calgary.

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Poem: Naming The Streets of Calgary

"Naming the Streets of Calgary" is simply a lament that we have failed to lend substance to 'place' by ascribing only numbers to our pathways...a monumental failure in my mind." Gord Menzies

 

I follow her on a Monday meandering

through the Cold Garden under blue sky

damning and cursing the grid work of 1904

watching the numbers fall from street signs

clattering over the curbs as she passes

streets and avenues dropping numbers

and demanding words of remembrance

she almost prances as she speaks them

Brown Bottle Lane, Riverwalk Avenue

Prairie Wind and Magpie Streets

Dancing Horse Drive, she touches

street signs as she passes and I

follow, writing them all down, some

just rediscovered and given life again

as she peels up the asphalt, touches earth

her fingers finding letters 'midst the stone

her lips finding adjectives, in shadow

and river spray wanderings, knowing

we cannot sink our roots into numbers

only names can make these places ours

in Gaelic and Siksika and English

Alainn Street, Ki'somma Avenue

our pathways come to life and rise

I determine not to kiss her on 6th Avenue,

but take her by the slender waist

on Winter Rose Lane, and the moment,

is planted like a flag in the pressing of lips,

and fixed as a star among our names

By Gordon R. Menzies, 2016

Menzies' Backstory 

Since coming to Calgary five years ago I've always found the numbering system somewhat unsettling from the perspective of both my literary and historical eye...so the seed of the poem has been present for some time.  The loss of historical perspective and aboriginal consideration in light of current societal pressures of various kinds impacts the heritage of everyone laying down roots here.  

For example, I have heard Carseland repeatedly referred to as "Car's Land" whereas the origin is Auld (Old) Scots - 'carse' is a fertile river land.  Calgary itself is of Gaelic origin, though its meaning is debated.  I chose one of them 'cold garden' for the poem.  The intended name, of course, would only be known to James MacLeod, who may or may not have had a solid mastery of the language.  

The etymology remains uncertain today.  In any case, the naming of things is unique to our species and of incredible historical and cultural importance, though admittedly only in our hearts and minds...the earth knows its own names and what we assign is ultimately only of true importance to our various peoples.  

Menzies' Last Word:

Although numbers do have the capacity to become iconic, memorable or impactful, e.g. 9/11, Area 51, Prisoner 24601, 1984, etc., the truest of powers resides in words.  We name things - our children, our homes, our lands, our weapons - to give them strength and identity.  

We should not be living in binary code, we need the warmth and sense of place that comes with written language.

In Calgary's Garrison Woods, the developer Canada Lands Corporation has used authentic military names that celebrate the land being home to a Canadian Armed Forces Based for many years. 

Inner-City Revitalization: More Than Just Building Condos

Creating vibrant inner city communities is more complicated than just building more infill homes and condos to increase residential density. Equally as important is increasing the diversity of activities that happen in the community - daytime and evenings, weekdays and weekends.  Calgary’s inner-city communities are currently dominated by single-family homes and therefore serve as bedroom communities to the surrounding downtown, post-secondary or hospital campuses.

To become 21st century communities they need to have all three elements of the “live, work, play” equation that makes for vibrant and viable communities.  This means they need new offices buildings, as well as retail, cafés, restaurants and convenience services (e.g. dry cleaners, florists, medical and financial) at key corners and along key streets easily accessible by car, transit, bike and foot.

Marda Loop Revitalization

Construction cranes building Odeon, Marda Loop. 

A good example of an emerging vibrant inner-city community would be Marda Loop with 33rd Avenue SW as its “main street.”  Treo@Marda Loop is a six-storey building that includes 52 condos above street level retail (anchored by a Shoppers Drug Mart which is open 8 am to 10 pm seven days a week and Phil & Sebastian’s first storefront cafe) and a second floor of office spaces.   Across the street, on the northeast corner of 20th St and 33rd Ave SW, sits the currently-under-construction handsome Odeon building designed by McKinley Burkart Design Group. It too has retail at street level but with three floors of offices above.  If 33rd Ave SW is to become a viable 15/7 (7 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week) pedestrian-oriented street, it must become a mini-employment centre.

Treo@Marda Loop mixes retail, office and residential uses along 33rd Ave in Marda Loop. 

And just a few bocks away, the 1912-built King Edward School is currently being transformed into cSPACE, an arts centre that will include a wonderful mix of uses – everything from artists’ studios, performance spaces and offices for arts groups to new residential development.  It has huge potential to continue Marda Loop’s evolution from a bedroom community to a vibrant “live, work, play” neigbourhood.

Schematic of the redevelopment of the King Edward School in Marda Loop. 

Lower Edmonton Trail Revitalization

Another up and coming vibrant inner city district is 4th Street NE and Edmonton Trail couplet at Memorial Drive with its scattering of pedestrian-oriented shops, cafes, restaurants and small office buildings, including the flagship Lukes Drug Mart established in 1951 surrounded.

Remington Development Corp’s new, seven-storey Meredith Block will anchor the lower Edmonton Trail district with its 170,000 square feet of office and 9,000 square feet of retail space will attract hundreds of workers and visitors to the area Monday to Friday when fully leased-out.  This traffic is sure to serve as the catalyst for other developments in the surrounding blocks like the new Whitehall restaurant in the 1910 de Waal Block (one of Calgary Herald restaurant reviewer John Gilchrist’s top new restaurants in 2015).  The revitalization won’t happen overnight; rather it will be a gradual redevelopment of neighbouring blocks, which are all ripe for mixed-use redevelopment.

Just a few blocks away, O2 Planning + Design and Minto Communities have proposed the redevelopment of the 1.5-arcre, Bridgeland School site in a manner that converts the 1921 sandstone school into residential condos along with townhomes along the streets next to it.  If approved (like every inner city development, NIMBYism seem to reign supreme), this development will attract new people to the community, which in turn will enhance existing, as well as attract new small businesses to enhance the districts “live, work, play” equation.

Meredith Block will anchor the lower Edmonton Trail district. 

West Hillhurst Revitalization

This northwest community is also showing signs of evolving from its suburban residential-only roots to a vibrant urban community. If Truman Development’s proposal for a four-storey office and eight-storey condo building on the existing Legion site (18th St NW and Kensington Road) gets approved (yes NIMYism is in full force here too), it would serve as the east end anchor of the community’s new “main street.”  A little further west, sit two school sites - perfect opportunities for development into unique, mixed-use redevelopments that integrate the schools.

Venture Communications’ relocation to West Hillhurst (where Kensington Road meets Memorial Drive) after the flood in 2013 is a very exciting, not-your-average office building and would be the logical west anchor at 25th Street to create a 7-block future West Hillhurst “main street.”  Headed up by Arlene Dickenson of Dragon’s Den fame, the first two floors are the “District Ventures Accelerator, where entrepreneurs can get help to succeed” says Justin Burrows (Chief of Staff, Venture Communications), who goes on to say “it is a place where experienced entrepreneurs, with a new product that already has some sales can get help with branding and venture capital.” What is perhaps most interesting is the Accelerator focuses on new consumer packaged goods, food & beverage and health & wellness, NOT oil & gas opportunities.”

Calgary Co-op has also discovered Kensington Road with its new liquor & spirits store next door to Venture Communications.

Between Venture Communications and the Legion at 19th Street is West Hillhurst’s historic “main street” with several small retailers, restaurants and small offices including the historic Dairy Lane diner established in 1950.  Two small sites are currently being looked at for redeveloped to add new street level retail with offices and residential above adding to the diversity of activities.

At the corner of 19th Street and 5th Avenue is the increasingly busy West Hillhurst Recreation Centre that offers up numerous programs and amenities for people of all ages and backgrounds including the relatively new and funky The Barn Public House overlooking the arena ice.

Venture Communications' District Accelerator adds a new dimension to the West Hillhurst's "live, work, play" equation. 

Last Word

Healthy cities have inner-city communities that are evolving to meet the diversity of new needs of the next generation of families and small businesses. Calgary is very fortunate, all of its inner-city communities have been experiencing continued revitalization for the past 20+ years. 

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday "Inner-City Evolution," Saturday January 16, 2018

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