Winnipeg vs Calgary: The Forks vs East Village

Then it hit me; The Forks isn’t an urban village it is a tourist district. 

Recently I was in Winnipeg for a wedding and had some time to wander their mega urban redevelopment The Forks, which is aptly named as it is located where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet in the middle of their City Centre.

As I wandered around at noon hour on a nice Friday in early October I wondered; “Where are the condos? Where are the office buildings? Where are the people running along the river?” 

I couldn’t help but reflect on how the location next to two rivers and just east of downtown was very similar to Calgary’s East Village and yet so different.

The Esplanade Riel Bridge connects The Forks to the community of St. Boniface across the Red River.  It has a restaurant in the middle that offers spectacular views of downtown, the river and the Human Rights Museum. 

East Village's pathways along the Bow River in St. Patrick's Island Park with the George King bridge in the background.

East Village's pathways along the Bow River in St. Patrick's Island Park with the George King bridge in the background.

Similarities

Both sites were meeting places for First Nations peoples long before the pioneer settlers arrived. 

Both sites are about the same size - The Forks is 63 acres (doesn’t include Shaw baseball park) and East Village is 49 acres (doesn’t include Fort Calgary Park).

Both sites were once industrial sites, with The Forks being an old CN rail yard next to their Union Station, while East Village being more of a light industrial area with a rail line running along its southern edge.

Both sites struggled in the middle of the 20th century to find new uses.  CN Rail moved their yards to the suburbs in 1966 leaving the site vacant.  East Village buildings were torn down in the ‘60s to create ugly overflow surface parking lots for downtown.

Both sites lack good connectivity to downtown and neighbouring communities due to rivers and railway tracks.

Winnipeg's Union Station and railway sheds separate The Forks from downtown. 

Today, both sites are managed by a CEO who reports to a government appointed Board of Directors.  The Forks CEO, Paul Jordan reports to The Forks North Portage Partnership Board which was established by the Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments.  East Village President and CEO, Michael Brown reports to Calgary Municipal Land Corporation Board appointed by City of Calgary. 

Both sites have a major new museum, Human Rights Museum at the Forks and National Music Centre in East Village.  Both of which are only national museums located outside of Ottawa.  The Forks also has a Children’s Museum, Children’s Theatre and skatepark, while East Village has a mega new library and the family oriented St. Patrick’s Island Park.  And each has popular pedestrian pathways, plazas along the river’s edge and an iconic pedestrian bridge over the river. 

Both The Forks and East Village have very active programming to attract people to the site.  The Forks attracts over 4 million visitors to the site and is the City and Province’s number one tourist attraction.

The uniquely shaped Human Rights Museum dominates The Forks. In the foreground is a multi-purpose plaza that can serve as a skatepark, busker/performance space or casual sitting area. 

East Village's National Music Centre

East Village's National Music Centre

The Fork's river landing and pathway along the Assiniboine River just before it flows into the Red River. 

The Fork's river landing and pathway along the Assiniboine River just before it flows into the Red River. 

East Village's Riverwalk with the Langevin bridge, 4th, 5th and LRT flyovers in the background. 

East Village's Riverwalk with the Langevin bridge, 4th, 5th and LRT flyovers in the background. 

The Market at The Forks is part food court (main floor), part retail space (second floor). 

East Village: The Simmons building has an upscale restaurant, cafe and bakery. 

East Village: The Simmons building has an upscale restaurant, cafe and bakery. 

Winnipeg's Children's Museum is one of several cultural facilities located at The Forks. 

Computer rendering of the Caglary's new Central Library looking west from East Village.

Computer rendering of the Caglary's new Central Library looking west from East Village.

Differences

The Forks North Portage Partnership purchased all of the land from CN Rail for $66 million, whereas the City of Calgary owned about 50% of the East Village lands at one point. 

Aerial view of The Forks

Aerial view of The Forks

The Forks has no master plan governing how all of its land will be developed eventually, but rather is governed more organically adapting to new opportunities and needs as they arise.  The first thing CMLC did was create a comprehensive master plan with a detailed 3D video to help everyone understand the vision of the new East Village as a 21st century urban village.

The Forks is actively working with developers to convert 12 acres of surface parking lots next to the railway tracks and Union Station into Railside. The vision calls for $500 million to be invested by large and small developers to build 20+ buildings no taller than six storeys with retail at street level and offices and condos above and $50 million in public spaces. (Railside will be more like Calgary’s University District than East Village in that the land will be leased not owned, as The Forks partnership wants to retain ownership of the land).

New condos and the East Village sales centre. 

New condos and the East Village sales centre. 

East Village’s development was funded by a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) that was used to upgrade infrastructure and help build new public amenities like St. Patrick’s Island Park, National Music Museum and new Central Library.  The $357 million CRL has resulted in $2.4 billion in private sector development and is expected to generate $725 million in new tax revenues by 2027, which will more than pay back the $357 million levy. 

The Forks is a unique government led partnership with the return on investment (ROI) being shared by the three parties - City receives new property tax revenue, Province provincial sales tax paid on site and Federal Government getting all GST revenues. 

Like East Village, two of the most popular reason for visiting The Forks are Canada Day festivities and summer concerts.  What is very interesting is the Forks has been very successful in creating winter attractions – skating on the river and the Winter Park are listed as the third and fourth most popular activities in a 2015 Survey and not far behind summer concerts the second most popular activity, festivals being number one.   

East Village hosts an ambitious year-round program of events.

Winnipeg's ice skating trails

Winnipeg's ice skating trails

Winnipeg’s Winter Wonderland

The Fork’s “Warming Huts” is a stroke of genius.  Since 2009, an international competition has been organized inviting designers to submit proposals for shelters to be installed along the river skating rink so people can stop, chat and warm up.  The program has captured international attention including the New York Times with the Travel Section headline “In Winnipeg, a Skating Rink That Doubles as a Sculpture Park.”

It has also captured the imagination of starchitect Frank Gehry who designed an igloo made of clear blocks of ice in 2012.

Winnipeg Ice Hut

Last Word

East Village is an intriguing example of private public collaboration based on an ambitious vision, master plan and implementation with a 20-year return on investment and build out.   It reflects Calgary’s corporate culture and the love of the mega projects.

After 30 years, The Forks is just now completing the return on investment for the three levels of government and is still decades away from complete build out.  It reflects Winnipeg’s government culture and love of grass roots development.

Paul Jordan and his Board of Directors are happy with The Forks’ slower redevelopment timeline as it allows for organic growth and the ability to respond to community needs over time rather than being locked into a fixed master plan.

I guess you could say there is “more than one way to skin a cat.”

If you like this blog, you will enjoy:

Winnipeg vs Calgary: Urban Hot Spots (Part 1) 

Winnipeg vs Calgary: Urban Hot Spots (Part 2) 

Winnipeg's Old World Charm

 

 

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.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtown Calgary: Historical Postcards

Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Is Calgary too downtown centric?

Fun Ideas for Downtown Calgary