Airdrie: The Drivable City

Unlike Calgary’s other satellite cities - Cochrane, Canmore, High River, Okotoks and Strathmore - Airdrie doesn’t have a traditional downtown Main Street lined with historical buildings that once  were (and in some cases still are) shops, banks, hotels, pubs, post office, City Hall and Court House lining the sidewalk. 

Rather, Airdrie’s downtown Main Street is lined with free surface parking next to the sidewalk. The shops (including a grocery store) and services (City Hall, Library and Medical Centre) are all set back from the sidewalk in suburban, strip mall fashion.  It is a bit like International Avenue along 17th Ave SE in Calgary. 

If you drive five minutes south (next to the lovely Nose Creek Pathway) or north along Main Street you arrive at two new power centers with the classic mix of big box retailers (restaurants, hardware and grocery stories) to meet resident’s everyday needs. 

  In 2007, six handcrafted totem poles were donated to the City of Airdrie by Gwacheon, Korea to commemorate the 10th year of sharing a sister city relationship. They are now located in Airdrie's  Gwacheon Park. 

In 2007, six handcrafted totem poles were donated to the City of Airdrie by Gwacheon, Korea to commemorate the 10th year of sharing a sister city relationship. They are now located in Airdrie's  Gwacheon Park. 

 Creative Airdrie is very active fostering art projects like this mural wall. 

Creative Airdrie is very active fostering art projects like this mural wall. 

Transit Oriented Development

But, if instead you walk a few blocks west from downtown, over the railway tracks and across Nose Creek environmental area, you arrive at what looks like a future Railtown.  Several new low-rise condo buildings sit next to the tracks, while across the street is a power centre with a Sobeys grocery store and other amenities including a Good Earth Cafe.  It is just waiting for a train station to be built to take commuters to and from  Calgary – yes, 25% of Airdrie’s workforce commutes from Calgary.

To help meet commuter needs, Airdrie currently has four very successful bus commuter routes.  One that links Airdrie workers to CrossIron Mills and McKnight LRT Station, two that are express routes to/from downtown Calgary (one from the east side and one from the west side) and an Airdrie to Crossfield route.  The City is also experimenting with a local transit service.

  QEII highway which links Alberta with Mexico divides Airdrie in half. 

QEII highway which links Alberta with Mexico divides Airdrie in half. 

Adapting To Families

While all the talk these days in the urban planning world is about making cities and new communities more walkable, cycleable and transit oriented, nobody is talking about how to make urban places more driveable.  We have walk scores and bike scores that measure a communities proximity to various amenities 5 or 10 minutes away by foot and pedal, but nothing that measures the amenities that are within a 5 or 10 minute drive.

In today’s busy world, of two income families with lots of extracurricular activities (parents and kids), walking and cycling is in reality, mostly a recreational activity, not a form of transportation.  Walking and/or cycling, as a part of everyday living is just not practical for the average family, no matter how close they are.  The automobile is not going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon, no matter what the urban evangelist say.

For Airdrie, it is even more critical that its urban design adapts to the needs of the families with young children - a whopping 24% of the population is under the age of 14 (16% in Calgary).

Having recently driven and walked around Airdrie, it seemed to me everybody lives within a 5-minute drive to one or more major grocery stores, probably the most important amenity to a growing family.  It also seemed the Rocky View School Division has been able to locate schools as needed in its new residential communities.

  Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

  Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Place to play

Kudos to the City of Airdrie and Rocky View School Division for collaborated along East Lake Boulevard on the city’s east side by co-locating the Bert Church High School, Bert Church Theatre and Genesis Recreation Centre (Pool, Gyms, Twin Arenas and Fieldhouse) next to each other so the facilities can be shared.  This should be the model for every high school site in every region- also include a public library.  In the future, all school sites should be community/ meeting places. 

Airdrie boasts an ambitious schedule of annual family festivals - a Santa Claus Parade that attracts over 20,000 people (Calgary doesn’t have one), Festival of Lights (older than Calgary’s Zoolights), New Year’s Eve Fireworks, Canada Day Parade and Spring Music Festival (with over 400 musicians).  The Airdrie Pro Rodeo is one of the top 10 pro rodeos in Canada with $146,000 in prize money.

Today, Airdrie boasts 1,200 acres of parks, 104 km of pathways, 63 playgrounds and 5 off-leash dog parks.  For those who want to walk or bike, Airdrie has lovely pathways and parks along Nose Creek and the many canal communities in the city. Everybody is just 5 minutes away from a park, playground or a pathway.

The city also a thriving Farmers’ Market in Jensen Park, which was the site of the historic Jensen family farm - that’s authenticity.   Every Wednesday from June to Thanksgiving, from 3:30 to 7pm dozens of vendors sell fresh produce, food trucks serve up good grub and artists entertain, creating a fun, family food festival.

“Airdrie goes beyond the typical chain-only style of many bedroom communities. Certainly there is no shortage of chain restaurants in Airdrie but there are many high-quality independent places too such as Thai Charm, Abe’s Restaurant, Sushi Haru and Taj that satisfy a very sophisticated market,” says Calgary food and restaurant critic John Gilchrist.

Genesis Centre, Airdrie's Recreation Complex

Nose Hill Creek creates a pastoral setting in the middle of the city. 

Place to work

While most people think of Airdrie as a bedroom community of Calgary, in reality only about 50% of Airdrites work in Calgary.  Airdrie has over 20 companies that employ over 100 employees - Propak Systems Ltd. being the largest with 1,000 employees. 

One of the biggest employment sectors is the grocery industry (I counted 6 major grocery stores with another under construction - I may have missed one or two) currently employ over 2,500 people.

As well, Airdrie has 1,300 home businesses (out of 21,000 homes) partly as a result of an innovative program that proactively encourages the development of home-based businesses.  It consists of an online course for starting, running and growing a home business, as well as a mentorship program with an existing business leader.

Over that past 10 years, Airdrie’s commercial development has been growing as fast as its residential development as the ratio of commercial to residential tax assessment values has maintained its 17% commercial to 83% residential split.

Airdrie is more than just a bedroom city.

 Good Earth Cafe and patio part of a car-oriented big box power centre, is also walkable from several major condo complexes a block away. 

Good Earth Cafe and patio part of a car-oriented big box power centre, is also walkable from several major condo complexes a block away. 

 Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Airdrie At A Glance

It’s young: The median age group is 30-34 years of age, 83% of the population is under 65 years old with the majority, 64%, under 45 years old. The median age in Airdrie is 32.4 compared to Calgary (36.4) and Canada as a whole (40.2) years.

It’s growing very quickly: Airdrie is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada; population growth for the past sixteen years has exceeded 5.5%. Between the census years of 2006 and 2011, the population of Airdrie increased by 47.1%. The City is projected to grow a further 75% by 2030 to reach a population of 90,000.

It’s recent: Over half of Airdrie residents have lived in Airdrie for less than 5 years. According to 2014 survey, of those who have been at their residence for less than 1 year, 38% moved from Calgary and 32% from within Airdrie.

It’s mobile: Over 90% of Airdrie residents report that their primary mode of travel to work is single vehicle transportation (for Calgary its 72%. While a large number of residents commute to the City of Calgary for employment, 50% work within Airdrie or places other than Calgary.

(Source: Great Places Plan, 2016, City of Airdrie)

Last Word

It is important urban planners adapt their thinking to the needs of the contemporary family life, rather than expecting families to adapt to planner’s urban utopian ideals.

Kudos to Airdrie’s planners, politicians and business leaders for daring to be different, for embracing “driveability” as the key element to enhancing the quality of life for everyday living for its citizens.

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Fall Edition of Loving Airdrie magazine. 

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Kansas City here we come....

Who knew Kansas City was a hot bed of art and architecture?  Sometimes strange things just happen. 
  The Thinker thinks about badminton?

The Thinker thinks about badminton?

First I get a website comment from an Everyday Tourist reader saying, “you have to go to Kansas City!” The next day, while having dinner with Saskatoon friends at the boisterous Cannibale Barbershop + Cocktails, they tell us Kansas City (KC) is a hidden gem and one of their favourite cities (both have travelled the world and love cities).  Then a few days later, I pick up Walter Cronkite’s autobiography from my pile of thrift store book finds and he begins by singing the praises of Kansas City where he grew up. Somebody is telling me something!

I thought it might be fun to blog about a city I have never actually visited using comments and photos from three fellow everyday tourists and the Internet.  

In the words of Wilbert Harrison who wrote the song Kansas City -  “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.” Interestingly, the lyrics talk about taking the train, plane or even walking there but not about driving to KC. 

Here we go…

Country Club Plaza

“I have just returned from Kansas City, Missouri. Its downtown shopping area, called "Country Club Plaza," is a redevelopment that started in 1923. It is several blocks wide and long and it is like Britannia Plaza (he had just read my blog about Calgary’s Britannia’s 21st century transformation) on steroids. The angle parking, the Boulevard, the wide sidewalks all appeal to shoppers. Our Inglewood and Kensington areas could certainly benefit from these design elements,” so GB comments on Everyday Tourist website.

I immediately thought, “What a strange name for a downtown plaza - sounds like a golf course development.”  Turns out it is a 15-block area that some call the “Rodeo Drive of the Midwest” with its Seville, Spain-inspired architecture, statues and fountains.  Who knew?

I love the story on the Internet about how a single stand of Christmas lights over a store entrance in 1925 has become a 15-block holiday spectacular called Plaza of Lights.  That is surely something Calgary’s downtown could use.  Imagine lighting all of the buildings, +15 bridges from Eau Claire up Barclay Mall to Stephen Avenue then over to Olympic Plaza and finally River Walk in East Village.  Or what about lighting up the silhouettes of all the historical buildings along Inglewood’s Main Street.  Maybe someday?

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Nelson-Atkins  Museum of Art

Both GB and my Saskatoon scouts tell me I have to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art when in KC.  Yikes, I have never heard of this place and I spent 20 years as an artist, curator and Executive Director of a public art gallery.

Their photos immediately reminded me of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Museum which we visited earlier this year. The story is that in 1915, William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star, left his estate to a trust to purchase artwork for the public. At the same time, schoolteacher Mary McAfee Atkins, relatively unknown in the community, left one-third of her million-dollar estate to purchase land for a public art museum.  The two estates were combined and in 1933 the art museum opened it doors.  Gotta love those American philanthropists.

Today, the museum has over 35,000 works of art and welcomes over 500,000 visitors a year.   The playful “shuttlecocks” that sit on the vast lawn in front of the museum by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, make for a fun entrance.  

Wouldn’t the Glenbow love that kind of attendance (currently they have about 125,000 per year)? Perhaps is has something to do with the free admission?

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

KC… was a hot bed of art?  The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (KMCA) designed by Gunnar Birkets is s sleek, angular building in the vein of Calgary’s TELUS Spark. KMCA holds an amazing collection of Chihuly, Warhol and O’Keefe to name a few renowned artists. Free parking and admission make it very public-friendly. 

Calgary missed a big opportunity to create a museum of contemporary art when the Nickle Museum opened in 1979 at the University of Calgary.  Today it is seems all but forgotten having been integrated into the Taylor Family Digital Library a few years ago.

Screen Shot 2016-11-04 at 8.29.33 PM.png

Architecture Tour

Kansas City – a great city for architecture?  Here are some samples from the Internet – you decide.

 

The Kauffman Performing Arts Centre by Canada’s iconic architect Moshie Safdie. 

  Another view of Kauffman Centre.

Another view of Kauffman Centre.

  Kansas City Central Library parking garage is called the "Community Library." The facade consists of 22 huge books whose titles were suggested by the public and chosen by the Library's Trustees.  

Kansas City Central Library parking garage is called the "Community Library." The facade consists of 22 huge books whose titles were suggested by the public and chosen by the Library's Trustees.  

  Zahner Head Office.  

Zahner Head Office.  

  Sprint Centre, designed by HOK

Sprint Centre, designed by HOK

  Kansas City Convention Centre designed by HNTB Architects was built over a 6-lane freeway. Perhaps Calgary should build a new convention trade centre overtop of the downtown CPR rail tracks. 

Kansas City Convention Centre designed by HNTB Architects was built over a 6-lane freeway. Perhaps Calgary should build a new convention trade centre overtop of the downtown CPR rail tracks. 

 Bartle Sky Stations. Located in downtown Kansas City, artist R.M. Fischer worked with Zahner to produce the stainless steel and aluminum sculptures which rest upon massive pylons at the intersection of three major highways. After completion in 1994, these four sculptures quickly became icons synonymous with Kansas City's downtown cityscape.  These sculptures are inspired by 1930s Art Deco style, which can be seen throughout the Municipal Auditorium's chandeliers and decorative designs at Bartle Hall. 

Bartle Sky Stations. Located in downtown Kansas City, artist R.M. Fischer worked with Zahner to produce the stainless steel and aluminum sculptures which rest upon massive pylons at the intersection of three major highways. After completion in 1994, these four sculptures quickly became icons synonymous with Kansas City's downtown cityscape.

These sculptures are inspired by 1930s Art Deco style, which can be seen throughout the Municipal Auditorium's chandeliers and decorative designs at Bartle Hall. 

 The Kansas City Power & Light Bridge  This project is not a bridge for people or cars, but for the primary electricity conduits that feed downtown Kansas City. Designed by the architects at  Helix , utilitarian truss structure is cladded with a perforated black zinc skin which fills with pulsing lights during the evening. The 165 foot-long utility structure bridges the gap over the interstate highway, connecting the Crossroads Art District with the Power & Light Entertainment District, two of Kansas City’s hubs for arts & entertainment.

The Kansas City Power & Light Bridge

This project is not a bridge for people or cars, but for the primary electricity conduits that feed downtown Kansas City. Designed by the architects at Helix, utilitarian truss structure is cladded with a perforated black zinc skin which fills with pulsing lights during the evening. The 165 foot-long utility structure bridges the gap over the interstate highway, connecting the Crossroads Art District with the Power & Light Entertainment District, two of Kansas City’s hubs for arts & entertainment.

Power & Light District

Between 2005 and 2008 a new downtown entertainment district was created around the art deco Kansas City Power & Light Building.  Today, it includes the multi-use Sprint Centre Arena (home to no professional sports teams), a covered outdoor plaza, Almo Drafthouse Mainstreet Theatre (cinemas), Midland Theatre (3,500 capacity music hall) and numerous bars, restaurant and offices including H&R Block world headquarters. 

Maybe this is something the Calgary Flames might want to look at for West Village i.e. drop the stadium and field house and focus on the arena, entertainment activities with perhaps a hotel and numerous condos. 

Better yet, could the Calgary Stampede and Flames collaborate to create something like this at Stampede Park?

Crossroads Arts District is delirious….

Our Saskatoon friends sing the praises of the Crossroads, a historic district south of downtown, which is animated by dozens of art galleries, housed in repurposed warehouses and industrial buildings.  It is also home to several restaurants, cafes, housewares shops, designers’ shops and live music venues.

HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm has their headquarters there. (They are the architects for Edmonton’s’ new Rogers Place arena). Speaking of Edmonton, KC is also home to A. Zahner Company, an innovative architectural metal & glass company that was responsible for the Art Gallery of Alberta.  Their website’s portfolio page is like eye candy for designers. Who knew (not me, anyway) that the massive ribbon of stainless steel that wraps around and through the AGA represents the northern lights and is officially called “The Borealis.” Furthermore, the form of the roof’s canopy that then drops to the ground serves as a “snow cone” collecting snow and ice.  Where do they get these ideas?

“Delirious” was how those two Saskatoonites described themselves after flaneuring the Crossroads.

Link: Zahner Portfolio

City of Fountains

Beginning in the late 1800s, Kansas City started erecting fountains to serve dogs, horses and birds.  Then in 1910 the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, built in Paris, was near the iconic Country Club Plaza.  The larger-than-life equestrian figures represent four rivers: the Mississippi, Seine, Rhine and, Volga (Europe's longest river).

Then came the Meyer Circle Sea Horse Fountain, purchased in Venice, Italy in the early 1920's and named for the three mythological sea horses perched atop the stone pyramid.

Still later, the Northland Fountain, flowing year-round, features an 80-foot circular base and center geyser that can propel water 35 feet high. This fountain is especially popular because the frigid winter temps transform it into a spectacular ice sculpture highlighted by a wide array of frozen shapes. This I gotta see!

Every year, on the second Tuesday in April, the city celebrates Greater Kansas City Fountain Day, when all 48 publicly operated fountains spring back to life.  I have always loved the idea of fountains in urban spaces.

Last Word

It always amazes me how much second and third tier cities in North America have to offer.  It is not all about New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver or Toronto. 

Did you know that KC has the second most boulevard streets in the world after Paris and is nicknamed “Paris of the Plains?” Kansas City wasn’t on our list of cities to visit, but it is now.  Kansas City, here we come!

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Simply Priceless: Travel, Treasure Hunting & Kijiji

One of the fun things we do as “everyday tourists” is to visit second-hand stores (both when we are away and at home) hunting for buried treasures (yes, they are often buried under or behind the other junk). It might be an artwork, vintage home décor item or even clothes. Sometimes we keep them, but most times we display and enjoy them for awhile and then sell them on kijiji.   

Brenda loves to find hidden gems, sometimes things look interesting but she is clueless as to what they are.  She then can spend hours looking for them and then hours researching them - half the fun is in the research!  Often it leads to fun travel back in time.  There is an “eureka moment” when she finds out what they are and their history.

But the fun doesn’t end there.  We both love the people we meet (even if for a just a few minutes at the door) and the stories they share with us about why they are purchasing the piece which often involves some more time travel. 

 Everyday Tourist's world headquarters Kijiji Division 

Everyday Tourist's world headquarters Kijiji Division 

FOR EXAMPLE 

Just this week I wandered into Brenda’s kijiji headquarters and on the floor was a vintage-looking licence plate.  Turns out that same day she was in a Calgary Salvation Army store and spotted an unusual looking license plate in the cart full of things a staff member was just putting out. 

Side story: Brenda is like a sniper when it comes to spotting treasures in the rough.  She loves second-hand stores that are full of junk where you really have to hunt. Who doesn’t like a challenge? 

In this case, she found a clean, mint condition, authentic, aluminum license plate from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. A little research uncovered the fact that Red Lake rejects state jurisdiction, so they issue their own license plates to tribal members without (like the several other Minnesota tribes that have special plates) having to go through the state licensing. Who knew?

She also learned that the numbering (0000) on her plate reflects the fact it was a sample license plate. The two, large blue “blobs” in the design represent the reservation’s two, large, linked lakes. 

If we ever get to Minnesota, we will be sure to check out Red Lake!

TRIP TO LAPLAND?

A few weeks back I get an email with a photo saying “Look what I found, with the sticker still on it!” It was a nice enough looking glass pitcher but I didn’t give it much thought. When I got home, Brenda was quick to “fill me in.”

Turns out is was a“Iittala Ultima Thule Ice Lip Pitcher.”  Inspired by the melting ice in Lapland and with its uncompromising and timeless design, this distinctive, mid-century modern piece is claimed to be responsible for company Iittala’s international breakthrough. Again, who knew! 

Designed in Finland in the late 1960s, to this day it continues to be made in Finland and be the company’s signature piece. Note: “Ultima Thule” makes reference to the furthest possible place in the world – and a product line name of Iittala’s. She bought it for $4, it retails for $200 and she listed it for $125. 

The profit won’t get us to Lapland, but it will buy us a nice dinner on our next trip.  

Note: This piece sold quickly for $100 to a young woman who bought it because it reminded her of her grandmother who had one and when she passed away her aunt got the grandmother's pitcher. She had been looking on kijiji for one for awhile.  More often than not, the treasures go to a good home.

BACK TO FLORENCE

I have gotten into the habit of wandering into her room on almost daily to see what she has found or taken out of “inventory”.  Last week I noticed a decorative gold tray and had to ask, “Where did you get that?” 

Turns out it is a vintage Italian Florentine Gilt Gold Wood Tray she picked up in Winnipeg two weeks back.  It was ironic as we were in Florence exactly two years ago, it brought back fond memories.

Back story: During the Renaissance, Florence was renowned throughout Europe as a centre of fine art, particularly in painting, gold gilding, bronze work, and furnishings inlaid with intricate designs in marble or rare wood. The fine craft traditions associated with some of these arts never entirely died out. A museum of decorative arts, opened in 1865, was pivotal in helping boost Florence's economy by promoting its crafts to tourists.  That tradition continues today with many such items as trays being a collector’s item today.  Too bad today’s souvenir tourist economy involves tacky throwaway items and not meaningful local craftwork.

This gem was posted on Kijiji as a 1940 slightly raised scalloped-edged tray (12”by 18”) that “would look beautiful for a touch of shabby chic to any space - on a coffee table, on a sideboard, on a vanity.”

She bought it for $3 and hopes to get $20.  It will be interesting to see who buys it and why?

VINTAGE SUITCASE

Speaking of Winnipeg, I knew she had lucked out in the Salvation Army on Sherbrook Street when she came up to me with a big smile and carrying a vintage cardboard suitcase.  Again, she had picked it up just as it was being taken out of the back room (timing is everything).  

She couldn’t wait to get some history on it - turns out it is probably from the 1930s or 1940s.  Now listed on kijiji, it is described as a two-tone brown cardboard suitcase with its silver-coloured metal accents (i.e. rivets, clasps and corners - with "Cheney" (of England) engraved on clasps), brown vinyl reinforced outer corners and brown plastic/metal handle, and lined with paper – in a fun, brown checked plaid pattern. A nice piece of shabby vintage chic for display purposes – and/or storage. Dimensions are: 22” x 11” x 7”. Clean (no smells), closes/opens well – in very good vintage condition (just some minor wear and scratches on the outer corners and interior paper lining). No key.”

She hopes to turn her $3 find into a $40 sale, which should pay for lunch on our next trip.

BACK TO MINNESOTA

Something tells me we are meant to go to Minnesota as another of her October finds is a signed handmade pottery vase 7” high x 4¼” diameter. Its maker is experienced and long time, American potter Chad Briggs of Minnesota. 

I don’t understand why anyone would settle for mass produced when you can have one-of-a-kind piece?  Bought for $2 in Okotoks and sold for $15 – that’s coffee and dessert somewhere in the future. 

PINK PYREX IS HOT, HOT, HOT....

Brenda didn’t realize what a great find she had when she brought home (again from Winnipeg) a Pink Daisy Casserole Dish w/Cover Lid a few weeks back. In the late 50s, this oblong“Space Saver” baking dish was promoted as being great for “storing leftovers in space-challenged kitchens and fridges” – not unlike how a marketer might promote it today to those living in small condos or apartments!

Her Kijiji ad read, “It comes complete with matching clear glass cover/lid. The white stylized daisies on the pretty pink background are oh-so-charming.” And bonus... not only is this a rather rare piece, but it is clean and in excellent condition (no chips, cracks, faded colour/pattern)... ready to display in your kitchen or be put to good use!”

This sold in 20 minutes (by a repeat customer) with a profit of $35, which should buy a nice bottle of wine on our next trip (probably to Minnesota).  She had dozens of inquires a few hours of listing. Lesson learned: pink P Pyrex is hot.   

LAST WORD

We are hardly going to get rich buying and selling these artifacts, but it is a revenue neutral hobby that fits nicely into our love of travel, research and people.  And the stories, laughs, tears (of joy) and even gifts (yes, was even given a gift from a particularly grateful customer) are well, simple priceless.  

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Calgary vs Austin / 17th Ave vs South Congress

Great cities have signature streets that capture the imagination of tourists from around the world.  Austin's signature street is South Congress in Calgary it is still up for grabs. This blog compares Calgary's 17th Avenue with Austin's South Congress as a tourist attraction. 

 

Calgary's 17th Avenue 10 blocks south of downtown is a quirky mix of restaurants, cafes and shops. 

To some, the 17th Ave SW shopping and dining corridor (2nd to 14th St. SW) is still Uptown 17, while to others it is the Red Mile and yet others (specifically the 17th Avenue BRZ), it is RED (Retail Entertainment District).  For many Calgarians, the heyday of 17th Avenue was during the 2004 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup playoff run when tens of thousands of Calgarians took over the street after every game.  The impromptu street festivals captured national and international media attention, creating an image of Calgary as a fun city. 

Austin's South Congress Avenue looking north to downtown is a major highway. 

But after the Flames lost in the Stanley Cup finals, 17th Avenue has never really been able to capitalize on the opportunity of becoming one of the great urban streets of  North America. Melrose Sports Bar, the epicenter of the Red Mile, closed in January 2014 after 23 years of operation.  It has recently opened with much fanfare as Trolley 5 Restaurant & Brewery. 

Today, 17th Avenue struggles with its branding.  Is it a restaurant row? Absolutely. It is home to Pigeon Hole, #1 in enRoute Magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants (2015) and Model Milk #2 (2012). It has also become a very popular destination for pizza lovers with restaurants like Una and Cibo.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has a vibrant cafe culture. 

Is it a shopping street? Indeed. Some long-standing destination retailers include Rubiayat, gravitypope (love the new space), Reid’s Stationary and Purr, as well as two of Calgary’s best optical boutiques - Eye Candy and Brass Monocle.   Newer additions include West Elm, Modern Duke, Structube, Steelng Home and Kit and Ace.

17th Avenue's gravitypope shop is dazzling. 

Both 17th Ave and South Congress have fun candy stores....this is 17th Ave's!

Both streets have quirky retail shops...this is one of the Rubiayat's many display cabinets with unique curiosities, home decor and collectables. 

Entertainment a key element for tourists

Is it an entertainment district? In my opinion, a resounding, “No!”  There are no cinemas, no theatres and no performing arts centres. The only live music venue of any renown is the Ship & Anchor Pub.  

When I think of “entertainment,” I think of more than shopping, drinking and dining, I also think of sidewalks full of people, buskers, lots of street vendors and food trucks. This is exactly what we experienced along South Congress Avenue in Austin earlier this year with its Stampede-like atmosphere on weekends as well as Thursday and Friday evenings, despite there being nothing special happening.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has vibrant patio culture. 

Physically, South Congress Ave and 17th Ave are very similar. Both area about a 10-minute walk from downtown. Both are a mix of retail and restaurants about 10 blocks long with lots of patios. However, this is where the similarities end.

Shortly after I got back from Austin, I made a point of visiting 17th Avenue on a nice spring Saturday to check out the action. Yes, there were people on the sidewalk but it was hardly the lively impromptu street festival atmosphere experienced on South Congress.

South Congress Avenue's sidewalks on Saturday afternoon have a festival-like atmosphere.

South Congress has numerous outdoor live music spots that open out to the sidewalk. 

South Congress' corners are animated on Saturday afternoon. On the opposite corner is a lively food truck hub. 

We loved this busker on South Congress who would create a poem on the spot based on the subject of your choice.  We had him create a poem about thrifting...we loved it. 

17th Avenue's Tomkins Park on Saturday afternoon is too often devoid of any vitality. 

Creating Vitality

Firstly, there is a greater sense of spontaneity about South Congress, with buskers performing day and night.  What would be surface parking lots in Calgary were Food Truck lots in Austin. There is even an artisan market on a parking lot one night a week. And the patios are more animated, several offering live outdoor music.  

Speaking of music, the biggest difference between the two streets is that South Congress has several live music venues (indoor and outdoor) that add an additional element of entertainment. Live music is everywhere in Austin, including the airport lobby. Branding the city as the “Live Music Capital of the World” is very appropriate.

The Continental Club one of Austin's iconic live music venues is located on South Congress. 

A third difference is there are few financial institutions on South Congress, while 17th Avenue seems to have one on every corner.  Banks on corners are urban vitality killers – they do nothing to add to the street vitality. I realize they are prepared to pay the high rent for the corner visibility so landlords are quick to lease to them. Perhaps we need a bylaw that prevents (or limits) banks from leasing corners on pedestrian-oriented streets as part of Calgary’s new Main Streets program.  

Too many of 17th Avenue's corners are taken up by financial institutions which create no sidewalk vitality.

ATB Financial, 17th  Ave Calgary

Who needs density?

Something else struck me as unusual on South Congress – there were no highrise condos anywhere nearby.  No mid-rise condos either for that matter.

We are lead to believe by urban planners that density is the key to creating 18/7 urban vitality, yet South Congress is thriving without any significant infill projects.

17th Avenue on the other hand has numerous highrise and midrise infill condos completed over the past few years with more to come. It has also seen numerous new and renovated retail spaces open up, attracting new retailers like West Elm and Best Buy.  It will be interesting to see what impact Embassy BOSA’s new 34-storey Royal tower (223 upscale condos) with an Urban Fare grocery store at street level and second floor Canadian Tire when it opens in 2018.  

FYI: I was hoping for a cinema complex as part of the Royal development.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has several highrise condo towers, while Austin's South Congress has none. 

Streetscape Improvements

What I also found interesting is that South Congress has no significant streetscape improvements or beautification initiatives.  There were no street banners, no fancy benches and few bike racks.  The sidewalks were adequate but nothing special and it certainly isn’t a tree-lined boulevard.  In fact, it is an old fashioned, much maligned six-lane highway.  Yet, at the same time, it remains a vibrant pedestrian street. 

Neither is there a park or plaza space on South Congress for people to gather or events to take place. It has nothing to match 17th Ave’s Tomkins Park and certainly nothing like 17th Ave’s high-tech public washroom installed in the park in 2008 that attracts over 40,000 “visitors” a year.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is currently receiving a major upgrade - new sidewalks, buried power lines, new LED streetlights, more trees and crosswalks.  While these changes will enhance the 17th Avenue experience I am not convinced they will add significantly to its vitality.  What is really needed is more entertainment – music, theatre, comedy club and cinema venues. 

Last Word

Whatever you call it - Uptown 17, Red Mile or RED – Calgary’s 17th Avenue has many of the ingredients needed to become one of North America’s BoBo (bohemian and bourgeois) streets. It has the “rich and famous” living near by in Mount Royal and the “young and restless” living in the Beltline.  It has a good mix of retail and restaurants too. But what it lacks is the 18/7 street animation and entertainment venues to become a tourist attraction like South Congress in Austin.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "17th Avenue Needs An Entertainment Scene" on September 24, 2016

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Austin & Calgary: Sister Cities?

By the numbers, there are some amazing similarities between Austin and Calgary.  Both are young highly educated cities – Austin’s average age is 31 with 46% of Austinites having a postsecondary degree.  Calgary’s average age is 36, with 60% having postsecondary education.

Austin’s is a rapidly growing city. Its current population of 912,791 is growing by 150+ people a day.  Calgary with a population of 1,200,000 was the fastest growing city in Canada according to Stats Canada – growing 13% (from 2006 to 2011).

Like Calgary, Austin is young and active.  This is the pedestrian bridge over the Lady Bird Lake, aka Colorado River with Austin's 2nd Avenue condos in the background that look very much like Calgary's East Village. 

Like Calgary, Austin has a downtown skatepark, not as large as Calgary's but it definitely attracts some talented athletes. 

Calgary's Peace Bridge, designed by world famous bridge architect Santiago Calatrava is a popular playground for Calgary's young and restless. 

Love Their Rivers

Both Austinites and Calgarians love their rivers - the Colorado River and Barton Creek in Austin and the Bow and Elbow Rivers in Calgary.  Both cities have very busy river pathway systems packed with walkers, cyclists and runners when weather permits (not too cold in Calgary and not too hot in Austin). 

Austin's river pathways are very popular on weekends. 

It is very common in Austin to see boats of all types in Lady Bird Lake...in the distance is a fishing boat. 

Calgarians love their green beaches like this one in Stanley Park. 

Fishing on the Bow River in Calgary.  

River surfing on the Bow River. 

In the summer, thousands of Calgarians raft on the Elbow and Bow Rivers in Calgary. 

Party Towns

Austin’s infamous SXSW, a huge 10-day film, music, interactive media technology festival / trade show / conference generates $411 CDN million into the city’s economy in 2015 and attracted 140,000 participants.

By comparison, the 10-day Calgary Stampede annually attracts over 1 million (350,000 being out-of-town visitors) for concerts, rodeo, chuckwagon races, grandstand show, midway rides and agricultural exhibition.  Its annual economic impact is estimated at $350 CDN million.

Austin's Kite festival is an amazing site and a fun family party. 

Look carefully and you will see that most of the people are dressed up as they have just participated in Calgary's POW - Parade of Wonder as part of Calgary Expo aka Comic-Con. 

Music Cities

Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” with 100+ live music venues and its world famous Austin City Lights music program.  Everybody gets into hosting live music in Austin from grocery stores to the airport.

The City’s historic music district is downtown along East 6th St. a grungy street resembles Calgary’s Electric Avenue (11th Ave) back in the ‘80s.  Home to numerous loud and seedy bars, as well as the 1929 Ritz theatre, it is more a tacky tourist street than a serious music district.  Today, the best music venues are in neighbourhoods outside of downtown.

Calgary is in its infancy as an emerging international music city boasting an International Folk Festival, SLED Island as well as numerous smaller emerging music festivals. Calgary has only a handful of live music venues and only a few that offer live music 7 days a week.  (Some of Austin’s venues offer 3 acts a day - happy hour, headliner and midnight band.)  The opening of the National Music Centre will definitely enhance our city’s reputation internationally.

Stephen Avenue is Calgary’s equivalent to Austin’s East 6th Avenue as downtown’s primary pedestrian oriented street.  However, Stephen Avenue is a more attractive and diverse street with its mix of shops, restaurants, concert and performance theatres, art house cinema and restored historical buildings. 

Just one of hundreds of live music venues in Austin offering a plethora of genres of music. 

Calgary's Tim Williams at the Blues Can. Williams won the International Blues Competition in 2014. 

Urban Living

Urban living in Austin is booming.  Although the current downtown population is only 12,000 it has been growing rapidly with 6,832 condos and apartments built since 2000 and another 2,000 currently under construction.  

However, this pales in comparison to Calgary’s 36,000 urban dwellers.  Urban living is also booming in Calgary with almost 15,000 new residential units since 2000 and 2,200 under construction.

Austin’s budding 2nd Street urban village, looks amazingly similar to Calgary’s East Village with several shinny new high-rise white condo towers, a new library and City Hall and sprinkling of shops, Whole Foods and Trader Joes grocery stores and a signature pedestrian bridge over the river. 

Austin’s 82,000 downtown employees work in 9 million square feet of office space (1.3 million square ft. under construction), 7,800 hotel rooms (2,140 under construction) and hundreds of restaurants, retailers and bars in 1.9 million square feet of commercial space.

By comparison, Calgary City Centre (downtown and Beltline) roughly the same size as Austin’s downtown) has 150,000+ employees occupying over 40 million square feet of offices, 4,000 hotel rooms (500 under construction) and 1,000+ retailers and restaurants in whopping 6.4 million square feet.

Downtown Austin has no department store, indoor mall or shopping street; shopping is scattered all over the place.  Austin has nothing to match Calgary’s historic Bay Store, Holt Renfrew or the stunning The CORE shopping centre. 

Austin also lacks a contiguous historic district like Stephen Avenue or Inglewood. However, Austin does a much better job of animating its downtown corners with outdoor patios, rather than the banks and office lobbies dominating Calgary’s corners.

A view of downtown Austin from South Congress aka SoCo.  SoCo is a an eclectic pedestrian street (despite being a major road) with shops, restaurants, music venues, great patios and numerous permanent food trucks on empty lots. 

Austin's 2nd Avenue District is blooming as an urban village with new condos, two grocery stores and shops. 

Austin's condo skyline. 

The Core in downtown Calgary is a three block long indoor shopping mall with 1 hectare indoor garden.  

Stephen Avenue is Calgary's downtown Main Street and a National Historic District linking the Olympic Plaza Cultural District with the Financial District.  Austin has nothing like Calgary's iconic Hudson Bay department store. 

Urban Street Life

Austin’s hip street is SoCo (South Congress Avenue), which, like Calgary’s Kensington Village, is on the other side of the river from downtown.  Even with South Congress Avenue’s six lanes of traffic, it supports a vibrant street life with a great mix of shops, restaurants, bars and live music venues.

What makes SoCo outstanding is its outdoor culture.  Austin’s climate allows Austinites to play outdoors year-round – there are patios everywhere, live music is played on the front lawns and empty lots and food trailers occupy what would be surface parking lots in Calgary.   Every weekend SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere!

Kensington’s container bar and a few outdoor patios pales in comparison. On the other hand, Kensington boasts a better café culture and more infill residential development.

While, SoCo provides Austinites with a vibrant street culture, it is the only game in town, with nothing to match Calgary’s 17th Ave, 11th Avenue or Inglewood.

On weekends Austin's SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere. 

Gueros on SoCo is famous for its free live entertainment. 

SoCo has numerous quirky shops. 

Austinites love their Tacos. 

Calgary's 17th Avenue is popular urban playground even in the winter; this photo was taken in February. 

Cafe Beano on 17th Avenue is perhaps where Calgary's cafe culture began back in the '80s. It is popular with both artists and CEOs. 

Analog Coffee on 17th Avenue the new kid on the block. 

Calgary's Kensington Village offers lots of urban surprises given its proximity to the Alberta College of Art and Design and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. 

One of the best surprises in Kensington Village is the Container Bar. 

Kensington Village is also home to Calgary's year-round flea market and summer farmers' market. 

Big Differences

The biggest difference between Austin and Calgary is in transit use.  We never saw Austin’s LRT and bus service is limited.   Thank God for car2go, which allowed us to explore Austin’s outlying business revitalization zones by day and music venues by night.

We stayed in a lovely Airbnb in the upscale Clarksville community, which we thought would be convenient for walking. We quickly discovered sidewalks in poor condition (or non-existent), and very few streetlights making walking at night treacherous.

While there were some lovely homes, Austinites’ pride of home ownership seems much lower than in Calgary’s inner-city communities – even desirable neighbourhoods have lots of unkept properties, weed-infested lawns and gardens and crumbling sidewalks.

Calgary has one of the busiest Light Rapid Transit systems in North America. 

Austinites love to dance - as soon as the music starts people get up and dance. 

Austin condos have above ground parkades like this one, whereas Calgary condos and office buildings have their parking underground. 

Downtown Calgary has 40 million square feet of office space, making it one of the top 10 in North America, compared to Austin's 10 million square feet. 

Last Word

In my humble opinion, after visits to Austin and Portland (considered by many urbanists as two of the best emerging urban cities) Calgary offers as many - or more - urban amenities.

Unfortunately, Calgary continues to fly under the radar with planners and tourists as an emerging urban playground. 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "City Scenes: Austin vs Calgary," June 11, 2018

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Buffalo vs Calgary / Boom vs Bust Cities

Every city has its heyday! Both Buffalo and Calgary have seen their fair share of good times and bad times. Everyday Tourist dissects these two very different cities. 

Strange looks appeared when I told people “we are going to Buffalo!” Even the USA border guard gave us a second look when we said we were spending three days and two nights in the Queen City. 

While many still have the impression of Buffalo as a city in decline, I had read lots of great things about the NEW Buffalo and wanted to check it out. 

Buffalo City planner Chris Hawley’s blog on “Beer-Oriented Development” first caught my attention, but the tipping point for my decision to go was learning their Canalside outdoor skating rink will attract over one million skaters this winter.

This I had to see!

Ice skating at Canalsie (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Buffalo 101

Buffalo, founded in 1801, quickly grew to become the dominant city of the eastern Great Lakes.  It became a major headquarters city for the grain, steel and automobile industries because of its strategic location on the Erie Canal and railway between the Midwest and the Atlantic coast. It became one of the wealthiest cities in North America. 

Three major factors resulted in the decline of the City’s economy by 1950s.  One was the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a new and the second was the emergence of trucking transportation as an alternative to rail. Thirdly, suburban living became popular, which meant many people and businesses moved to the suburbs and with them, significant tax dollars. But today after 60 years of decline, Buffalo is definitely on the upswing. I thought it might be interesting to do a Calgary/Buffalo comparison.

Urban Design 

Every city has its heyday - Buffalo’s was from 1880 to 1950.  As a result, it has a wonderful legacy of late 19th and early 20th century architecture and urban design matched only by New York City and Chicago. 

Buffalo’s strong economy resulted in several iconic early 20th century architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson and Fredrick Law Olmstead designing signature buildings and parks.  

Buffalo’s city hall designed by John J. Wade is a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture that is still used today, with the 28th floor’s observatory offering a spectacular view of the city’s radial street pattern.

Buffalo City Hall (photo credit: Nancy Vargo) 

Buffalo The Beautiful 

Calgary’s early 20th century booms didn’t produce anything on the scale of Buffalo’s great architecture and parks. And, Calgary’s heyday started in the mid 20th century, only recently resulting in signature buildings by internationally renowned architects like Sir Norman Foster (Bow office tower), Santiago Calatrava (Peace Bridge), Bjarke Ingles (TELUS Sky) and acclaimed artist, Jaume Plensa (Wonderland).  St. Patrick’s Island Park has the potential to become a classic example of early 21st century thinking on urban park design.

The “City Beautiful” movement was popular in North America in the early 20th century with its principles of creating new urban communities that were more park-like with lots of trees, green spaces, non-grid streets and beautiful roundabouts. And while, Mount Royal is the best example of a “City Beautiful” community in Calgary, Buffalo has an entire “City Beautiful” District.

Richardson Olmsted complex, Buffalo (photo credit: Ed Healy) 

  Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Aerial photo of downtown Buffalo, with Canalside and First Niagara Arena in the background

Downtown Calgary Skyline looking over Stampede Park and Scotiabank Saddledome arena

WOW Factor 

We were fortunate to stay at the Inn Buffalo on Lafayette Street, the home of industrialist H.H. Hewitt in the middle of this district.  The Inn Buffalo includes a library, music room, dining room, drawing room and lower level “Admiral Room” in addition to 9 suites on the second and third floors. 

It is a “preservation in progress” which allows guests to see the layers of history of the 115-year old home - from the gold leaf Persian-inspired ceiling to the silk damask wall coverings.

Walk for blocks in any direction and it is one “WOW” after another.  You could easily spend a day exploring the boulevard streets called “parkways” designed by Olmstead (designer of New York City’s Central Park) and an extension of his iconic Delaware Park.

We must go back in the summer! 

The front porch of Inn Buffalo was inviting even in early January.  The entire mansion was a walk back in time. 

Unicity vs. Fragmented City 

Today, the City of Buffalo has a population of 260,000 but its metro population of 1,135,000. The metro area comprises 6 cities, 37 towns and 21 villages, each independently governed with a separate tax base.

The current City of Buffalo is roughly equivalent in size and population to Calgary in 1961 when Fairview, Westgate and Wildwood were new communities, Bowness was an independent town and Forest Lawn and Midapore where newly annexed.

Unlike most North American cities, Calgary’s urban growth was through a series of annexations resulting in contiguous growth into one mega central city (with 90% of metro population) with only a few small edge cities and towns (i.e. Airdrie, Cochrane, Okatoks and Strathmore).

One of Calgary’s biggest economic advantages over almost every other major city in North America is its unicity government, meaning one major police, fire and emergency, transit, parks and recreation departments. Imagine having 60+ City/Town Councils each competing with each other for developments and each having their own City departments, which is Buffalo’s reality.

The Arts

Buffalo’s downtown theatre district boasts 10 theatre spaces including the iconic 4,000-seat Shea’s Performing Arts Centre, built in 1926 and 20 professional companies. Buffalo has a rich jazz history with the “Coloured Musicians Club” being the equivalent of Calgary’s King Eddy Hotel and its connection to the blues.

When it comes to the visual arts, Buffalo’s Albright Knox Museum (AKM) houses not only one of the best collections of abstract expressionism and pop art in North America, but also a representative collection of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Constructivism art.  AKM’s galleries are a “who’s who” of modern artists – Monet to Motherwell.

Albright Knox Art Gallery is a gem both for its architecture and collection. 

They arguably have the world’s best museum/art gallery front desk receptionist. Gretchen, clearly very proud of the museum and its collection, was friendly and full of insights, like how Seymour Knox was an early adopter of modern 20th century art, noting many of the iconic artworks were added to the collection within a year of being created. She also pointed out AKM has a great bistro.

In addition, Buffalo has the shiny zinc and cast stone clad Burchfield Penny Art Centre (across the street from the AKM) on the campus of Buffalo State College which is devoted to local artists while down the road is the Buffalo History Museum. An Architecture Museum is slated to open later this year at the renovated Richardson Olmstead complex (a magnificent 140-year old Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane) just a few blocks away.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Art Commons, Contemporary Calgary, Fort Calgary and new National Music Centre don’t quite match up to Buffalo’s Museum district’s art, artifacts and architecture.

Buffalo's Theatre District becomes very vibrant when Shea Theatre is hosting a major event.

Shopping

Buffalo's Market Arcade Building, 1892

Buffalo has little downtown shopping - all the department stores have closed and they never did build an indoor shopping mall like Calgary’s TD Square and Eaton’s Centre (now The Core).  But they do have three vibrant pedestrian streets – Allentown, Elmwood and Hertel Street would be on par with Calgary’s Inglewood, Kensington Village and 17th Avenue.

While Calgary has Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall as its historic downtown street, Buffalo has the Market Arcade Building. Built in 1892, it is a stunning example of early 20th century architecture with its elaborate terra cotta ornamentation and Corinthian columns.  Calgary’s equivalent is the historic Hudson Bay building with its colonnade on Stephen Avenue.

Calgary's The Core shopping centre, renovated in 2010 boasts a 656 foot long point-supported glass skylight that is the longest in the world. 

Urban Renewal 

Buffalo’s Habor Centre, Canalside and Riverworks redevelopments sites are noteworthy (Calgary Flames might want to look at Buffalo as a model for its Calgary NEXT project in West Village). 

Collectively, this waterfront redevelopment includes a new NHL arena, two new hotels, waterfront parks and pathways and the huge winter ice rink (size of 3 NHL rinks and morphs into paddle boat feature in the summer) as well as four other ice rinks for everything from curling lessons to a college hockey tournaments. Plans for a Children’s Museum are currently being finalized.

The area has many similarities to Calgary’s West Village as it lies in the shadow of the elevated Peace Bridge and major highways at the entrance to downtown.

Canalside Carnival...looks a lot like Calgary's East Village and potentially West Village (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Healthy Food Trucks?

On downtown Buffalo’s east side Larkinville, once home to the Larkin Soap Company’s (the Amazon of the early 20th Century) and many other major warehouse buildings (some 600,000 square feet) has undergone a mega-makeover thanks in large part to the passion of the Zemsky family who formed the Larkin Development Group (LDG) to buy, renovate and lease historical buildings.   Today, over 2,000 people work in buildings redeveloped by LDG.

The Zemsky family also created Larkin Square, a modest public space that they actively program mostly from April to October. Their signature event “Food Truck Tuesdays,” routinely attracts over 7,000 people and 30 food trucks not only from Buffalo, but as far away as Rochester.

Opened in 2013, Larkin Square programming attracted over 130,000 people last summer.  Backstory: I was told the success of the Food Truck and other programming was free parking, liquor licence that allows people to wander the square with their drinks and the corporate sponsorship of First Niagara and Independent Health. And, as a result of Independent Health’s participation, all of the food trucks must provide a “certified healthy” menu option.

Larkin Square's Food Truck Tuesdays (photo credit: Rhea Anna) 

Tower Power 

When it comes to residential redevelopment Buffalo has nothing to match Calgary’s urban tower boom that turns five or six surface parking lots into vertical residential communities every year.  In fact I didn’t see one new condo tower. However over the past 15 years, 58 properties have been renovated to create 880 residential units the equivalent of about 4 condo towers.

And I certainly couldn’t leave before seeing for myself Buffalo’s “Beer Oriented Development” (a tongue-in-cheek analogy to the transit-oriented-development so commonly talked about by urban planners). It all began with Community Beer Works, a craft brewery which opened in 2012 in an area full of abandoned industrial spaces.

Today, the area has a name “Upper Rock” and a growing cluster of hip businesses - Resurgence Brewing Co., two galleries and this summer, an upscale restaurant.  Area homes, which could be had for a little as “one dollar” (no lie!) just a few years ago, now have value and are now being renovated and valued sold at prices over $100,000. 

Today, the City and its urban pioneers are now turning their attention to the redevelopment of their Belt Line, a 15-mile continuous rail loop circling its city centre with its 12 million square feet of largely vacant or underutilized industrial space prime for mixed-use redevelopments.

Buffalo's cement grain elevators have been turned into a unique screen for a nightly light show, that can be viewed from shore or by kayak. (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Wall of condos and apartments in the west end of Downtown Calgary. 

Last Word 

There seems to be an incredible sense of community pride in Buffalo. Everyone we met oozed a passion and excitement for their neighbourhood revitalization.

Today, Calgary struggles with some of the same challenges that faced Buffalo 60 years ago with major economic changes wrecking havoc with our prosperity.

If your travels take you anywhere near Buffalo, it is definitely worth checking out.  

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Lo-Burn: Austin's Vintage District

Mid-century flaneuring always makes me happy. I think it is the cheerful colours – bright oranges, baby blues, spring greens and sunshine yellows.

If you are into vintage and visiting Austin the Lo-Burn (Lower Burnet Road) district is a “must see.”

You can't miss Top Drawer Thrift with its huge floor lamp, lime green facade and drawers on the roof.  

Lo-Burn IBIZ District

We stumbled upon this up and coming district when we entered “thrift stores” on Google Maps and saw a cluster on Burnet Road (pronounced “Burn-it” by locals) from 49th N Street to North Loop Boulevard. Conveniently, it was in the car2go home area, so off we went.

Here you will find not only three thrift stores, but two mid-century furniture shops, an antique store and an outlet designer women’s clothing boutique, as well as local eatery favourites - Torchy’s Tacos and Tiny Pies. If you walk further south there are some other places that look interesting…but who has time to eat when there are treasures to be found.

Top Drawer Thrift (SW corner of Burnett and W 49th St)

Top Drawer Thrift was the best thrift store we found in Austin by a long shot.  While it isn’t the largest it had great quality and selection of vintage clothing, home accessories and art. The displays were fun and exotic. The staff were friendly and the prices were great.  The electronic section was the big surprise with unusual items from a huge pile of vintage radio tubes (Brenda couldn’t resist adding one to her collection) to old film projectors.  I got a framed kitschy artwork with a Cowboy face and Old Made cards background.

Vintage radio tubes at Top Drawer Thrift

Vintage electronics at Top Drawer Thrift

Vintage Fun

Uptown Modern (5111 Burnet Rd) is like walking into a mid-century furniture art museum.  The show room is spacious and the displays are grouped by colour.  If I was starting an art collection, this is where I would head.

Gypsies Antiques (5202 Burnet Rd) is a traditional antique store with many very interesting vignettes under glass domes.  And Vin Taj (52,000 Burnet Rd) has not only interesting furniture and home accessories, but some great paintings that we would have loved to take home.  Darn those airline baggage size restrictions!

Learn more about Austin’s mid-century modern scene

Uptown Modern has a wonderful collection of vintage furniture, home accessories and art. 

One of several glass dome pieces at Gypsies Antiques

Spring Frost Boutique (5101 Burnet Rd)

Though Spring Frost is not a vintage shop (it stocks designer clothing and shoes at deep discount prices), it is worth checking out. The staff were friendly and let me take all the photos I wanted. I love photographing women shoes – to me some are like works of miniature works of art.

Spring Frost shoe fun!

American League Alliance (4901 Burnet Rd)

Across the street from Top Drawer is a large American League Alliance thrift store, which is definitely worth stopping into. checking out. They had some great deals on cowboy boots when we were there. It is staffed by charming retired ladies who are very attentive to creating wonderful displays that give the store a vintage, grandmother-like atmosphere.

Savers (5222 Burnet RD)

Savers is Austin’s equivalent of Value Village and is just three blocks north of the Top Drawer.

American League has everything including the piano. 

Refreshments

I am told Torchy’s Tacos (5119 Burnet Rd), an icon in Austin, started with a single food cart. It now has several stores across the city.  The Burnet Road eatery’s patio is good place to recharge your batteries. 

Tiny Pies (5035 Burnet Road) - Zagat says, “The pies are just like mom used to make, only much much smaller. The petite offerings are modern twists on family recipes and include everything from breakfast pies to strawberry-basil pies, plus quiche, pie pops and mason-jar desserts.”  We loved the pecan pies after our Torchy’s tacos.

There is also a fun food truck hub village across the street from Tiny Pies. A bit hidden in the parking lot at the back, but it is worth a look with its own playground and a barbershop up front. How cool is that?

Pinthouse Pizza, Apothecary Café and Wine Bar, Pinthouse Pizza and Phoenicia Bakery and Deli south of W 49th Street all looked interesting.

Torchy's Tacos hit the spot!

Lo-Burn's food cart lot includes several food carts, a barber shop and playground. Very Cool!

IBIZ 101

Of Austin’s eight IBIZ (Independent Business Improvement Zones) Lo-Burn was the most interesting.

The criteria for an IBIZ district include:

  • At least 75% locally owned businesses (currently, all districts host 95% to 100% locally owned businesses)
  • Have 20 to 100 businesses (current districts have 23 to 90 businesses)
  • No more than one mile in walkable distance (current districts range from .4 to 1 mile)

Top Drawer Thrift fashions!

Last Word

Don’t expect a lot of streetscape improvements - banners, hanging flower baskets or street furniture – along Austin’s IBIZs.  And while the distances are walkable, the sidewalks may not be in the greatest shape (nor might there always be one) and streets are more vehicle-oriented than pedestrian-friendly.

But for the urban wanderer, these are interesting places to explore. We went to Lo-Burn twice!

Bonus: We were lucky enough to have the same car2go we’d parked 3 hours ago, still parked in the same spot we left it. 

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Calgary: Tea Trader & Lapsang Souchong

I can’t remember when I first discovered Lapsang Souchong tea, but probably at university (a lot of experimenting happened then), but I have continued to enjoy its smoky (or as someone likes to say “smelly socks”) essence ever since.  Over the years, I have purchased my tea from a variety of suppliers, but for the past few years my favourite supplier, hands down, has been Tea Trader in Inglewood. 

 Tea Trader's entrance on 9th Ave SE, aka Atlantic Avenue, or Inglewood's Main Street. 

Tea Trader's entrance on 9th Ave SE, aka Atlantic Avenue, or Inglewood's Main Street. 

I love that the entrance is just a door on Atlantic Avenue which, upon entering, immediately leads you up a steep narrow stairway to the warehouse-like store.

Authenticity

When you arrive, you are immediately immersed in a world of tea – from the wall of tea tins to the burlap bags of tea piled up on the floor.  It feels authentic and like an oasis at the same time.  And the soft-spoken Kate, the store manager who always seems to be there when I go echoes the sense of tranquillity. 

Each time I go to get my little bag of Lapsang Souchong tea, I also get a little more of Tea Trader’s backstory. However on my most recent visit I asked Kate about other teas that I might like, and without hesitation and like an octopus, she enthusiastically started grabbing tins, while telling me about each of them, and inviting me to smell them. It was then that I realized Kate and my little tea shop was a pretty special Calgary business.

Kate loves to talk about the art and science of teas.

Backstory

Tea Trader, is owned by Ted and Colleen Jones, is located above Robinson’s Camera on 9th Avenue SE (formerly Atlantic Avenue) and has been in business since 1994 (It was the first tea only shop in Calgary).   I only found out recently that its current location is its fourth in Inglewood. It started directly across the street sharing space with one of the many, at the time, antique stores, then it moved two shops west sharing with a craft store, then for a few years it was east of the Blackfoot Truck stop until it settled in its present location for the last eight years.

Its roots lie in Ted’s working in London in the late ‘80s amongst a wide group of commodity traders coal, oil, and notably tea and coffee. Wanting his own business and liking the combination of tea, its customers and the buying/selling environment were key factors in the creation of Tea Trader.

The office/warehouse. 

Calgary Perfect

Ted a Brit, met Colleen from Ontario, while both were working in London and after three years in Cape Town, South Africa, they decided in 1990 that they wanted to live in the Western Canada. Even though they liked Vancouver, housing was too expensive even then. Calgary's lower cost of living, proximity to mountains and the fact they fell in love with Inglewood on their first visit to Cowtown made it a perfect place to start their new life and business.  

Over the years, Tea Trader has shipped tea to customers in Portugal, Britain, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Germany and Mexico, as well as all over North America. About 30% of their business is mail order and 60% is in-store.  Though, they couldn’t give me an exact volume of sales in pounds or kilograms, Kate did confirm “We sell tons of tea and at 3 grams a cup, that is a lot of tea!”

  There is a small collection of vintage tea cups and pots. 

There is a small collection of vintage tea cups and pots. 

Alberta Clipper Tea

At any given time, they have 100 to 160 teas in stock. Because tea is a seasonal commodity, they have to buy enough tea for the whole year when it becomes available; otherwise they miss the boat.  The Jones buy from an assortment of suppliers in India, China, Sri Lanka and Taiwan – some are actual tea garden growers while others are tea agents for growers. 

The Jones create many of their own tea blends - customers’ favourites being Bow River Breakfast (a blend of Assam BOP and Darjeeling first flush black teas) and Alberta Clipper (a blend of Darjeeling, Assam and Yunnan second flush black teas).  blends. Eight Bells is one of their most popular teas - an Earl Grey combining vanilla and passion fruit petals.

Tea Trader was the first store in Calgary to offer non-tea infusions like rooibos, which brought a whole new clientele of South Africans to the shop. Today, hundreds of regulars for whom tea is part of their everyday life, come in like clockwork to buy  at Tea Trader. 

The wall of teas is impressive. 

Funny Stories

Ted was once stopped at Heathrow Airport in London when his bag had 3kg of tea in it.  The security guard, by the look on his face, thought he had the bust of a lifetime, though Ted said it was just tea.  He walked to his supervisor standing nearby and Ted watched patiently as he explained what he had found. The supervisor listened for a few minutes, looked over at Ted and without coming over to the table, waved Ted through.

Perhaps the strangest request they have had was an inquiry for tea to make a special paint for industrial use. The Jones put the prospective customer in touch with Twinings in South Carolina knowing they stocked large quantities of broken tea leaves, which would do the job, and have the specific skills for such a request.

  There are lots of fun subliminal messages. 

There are lots of fun subliminal messages. 

Good Tea

Cooking & Baking

Kate informed me tea can be used in cooking and baking. For example, Matcha, a powdered green tea can be added to shortbread, macaroons and even ice cream. Adding my favourite Lapsang Souchong can impart its smoky flavour when roasting meats or fish.

Japanese green teas can be brewed and used to add a full, rich flavour to soup broth. Tea can also be fermented using a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to produce a drink called Kombucha.

Tea Trader offers a good selection of accessories.

Last Word

On my last visit, Kate informed me Lapsang Souchong is a pine-smoked variety of china black tea - the smoky flavour is not inherent to the tea leaf but rather the result of the smoke drying process. The story goes, the tea was created during the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) when the passage of armies delayed the annual drying of the tea leaves in the Wuyi Mountain in southeast China. Eager to satisfy demand, tea producers sped up the drying process by having their workers dry the tea leaves over fires made from local pine trees. It was Winston Churchill’s favourite tea; I heard he would also add a few drops of Lapsang Souchong tea to his scotch.

She also sent me home with a sample of a Keemun Mao Feng that she thought I might like (free taster bags, gotta like that). She was right!

Info:

  • Location: 1228A - 9th Avenue SE, 1-888-676-2939 / 403-264-0728
  • Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm / Sunday, noon to 4 pm MST.
  • Website: teatrader.com
  • Email: shop@teatrader.com

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