Battle of Alberta: Urban Design

The opening of the iconic Rogers Place and the creation of the new Ice District with its new hotels, condos, office buildings and casino has rocketed Edmonton to “star city” status.  Meanwhile, Calgarians struggle to figure out if they even want the mega CalgaryNext sports complex in their city centre. Some Calgarians are already suffering arena envy! 
Rogers Place recently opened in downtown Edmonton sparking some Calgarians to have arena envy.  

Rogers Place recently opened in downtown Edmonton sparking some Calgarians to have arena envy.  

The “battle of Alberta” goes way beyond hockey and football.

In fact, it started back in the 1905 with the inception of the province when the two cities vied for being Alberta’s capital city. Soon after in 1908, they again went head-to-head to see who would get the province’s first university. In both cases, Calgary lost! And of late, signature buildings and architectural design are another way our two cities are battling it out.

Rendering of new Calgary Central Library currently under construction in Calgary's East Village. When completed it will add to Calgary's reputation as an emerging design city. 

Rendering of new Calgary Central Library currently under construction in Calgary's East Village. When completed it will add to Calgary's reputation as an emerging design city. 

CALGARY SWAGGER

For the hundreds of thousands of Calgarians who have moved to Calgary in the 21st century, it is hard to believe Edmonton was the dominant Alberta city for much of the 20th century. In fact, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that Calgary’s population exceeded Edmonton’s.

Hosting, the 1988 Winter Olympics gave Calgary its swagger. Then in the mid ‘90s, the relocation of three major corporate head offices to Calgary - Canadian Pacific (from Montreal), Shaw Communications (from Edmonton) and Suncor (from Toronto) to Calgary was the catalyst for the emergence of Calgary's city centre as Canada’s second largest corporate headquarters and Western Canada’s economic engine.

Take that Edmonton.

At the same time Edmonton’s city centre plateaued - there were no major new office buildings built in the ‘90s and ‘00s, only a few new condos and their historic downtown Hudson’s Bay store relocated to a suburban-looking downtown building. While Calgary’s Stephen Avenue became one of Canada’s best pedestrian streets, Jasper Avenue became an embarrassment.

Cowtown got the moniker of Canada’s “Nowtown” while Edmonton became “Deadmonton.” For awhile, we almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

But has the tide the turned.

Edmonton has nothing to match Calgary's Stephen Avenue Walk at lunch hour. (photo credit: Jeff Trost)

Edmonton has nothing to match Calgary's Stephen Avenue Walk at lunch hour. (photo credit: Jeff Trost)

EDMONTON RISES

Edmonton’s City Centre is once again thriving with 35 active development projects worth over five billion dollars.

The opening of the iconic Rogers Place and the creation of the new Ice District with its new hotels, condos, office buildings and casino has rocketed Edmonton to “star city” status.  Meanwhile, Calgarians struggle to figure out if they even want the mega CalgaryNext sports complex in their city centre. Meanwhile, we are all forced to trek north because the 'big concerts' are in Edmonton now, because the Saddledome is past it's best by date.

Even when it comes to office buildings, Calgary's are emptying out rather while Edmonton's fill up.

What is perhaps even more shocking is Edmonton will soon have a taller building than Calgary *gasp*. The new Stantec Tower, at 251 meters (66 storeys) will dwarf Calgary’s tallest building, Brookfield Place, by a whopping 4 meters. 

And just this week, Alldritt Land Corp. announced they are looking at and 80-storey residential tower that could be 29 meters taller than the Stantec Tower.  

Is Calgary about to become, Edmonton's little sister?

 

This is a computer rendering of the new Edmonton Ice District with Rogers Place bottom left and Stantec Tower being the tallest building.  

This is a computer rendering of the new Edmonton Ice District with Rogers Place bottom left and Stantec Tower being the tallest building.  

The new Alberta Provincial Museum is current under construction in downtown Edmonton. It is an attractive contemporary box design. 

The new Alberta Provincial Museum is current under construction in downtown Edmonton. It is an attractive contemporary box design. 

BIG ISN'T ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL.

While Edmonton is the media darling of late, if you examine the 'Battle of the Two City Centres' from an urban design perspective, Calgary might actually be winning.Yes, Edmonton has the box-like Stantec Tower. But Calgary has funky, twisty Telus Sky (221 meters) that has been designed by Bjarke Ingles, arguably the world’s hottest young architect.

In addition, Calgary has two other major office buildings under construction that are architecturally significant – Brookfield Place and vessel-shaped 707 Fifth, the latter designed by SOM Architects who are responsible for One World Trade Centre in New York and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Sure Edmonton has the futuristic-looking Rogers, but Calgary has an equally futuristic new public library designed by the highly sought after architectural firm, Snohetta, designers of iconic libraries around the world.

But yes, let's concede, Edmonton’s downtown library is getting a $63 million facelift that will definitely add to the city’s centre’s futuristic sense of place.

More worrying, Edmonton will soon boast the new Provincial Museum (opening late 2017). Dang. And it's sounds like it's going to be great. But hey, it pales in comparison to Calgary’s uniquely shaped Brad Cloepfil designed Studio Bell (aka National Music Centre).

Edmonton’s City Center also has the shiny, curvy Art Gallery of Alberta, but then Calgary’s angular Telus Spark glows in the dark. Not to be out done, Edmonton’s Telus World of Science is getting minor facelift putting it on par with plans to convert Calgary’s old Science Centre Planetarium to a public art gallery.

Art Gallery of Alberta is a flashy, wacky Frank Gehry imitation building. 

Art Gallery of Alberta is a flashy, wacky Frank Gehry imitation building. 

TELUS Spark's facade is grey by day, but at night it comes alive with a multi-colour light show. (photo credit: DIALOG Design)

TELUS Spark's facade is grey by day, but at night it comes alive with a multi-colour light show. (photo credit: DIALOG Design)

Even our malls are head--to-head. Edmonton's downtown indoor shopping mall is getting a $40 million new food court. But for my money, Calgary’s $250 million renovation of The Core shopping centre with its mega glass ceiling, which links to our historic Hudson’s Bay department store and upscale Holt Renfrew, blows away anything Edmonton has for shoppers.

The Core shopping center has a massive two-block long glass ceiling that is the largest of its type in the world  . Edmonton has nothing to match this urban gem.  

The Core shopping center has a massive two-block long glass ceiling that is the largest of its type in the world. Edmonton has nothing to match this urban gem. 

TelusSky Tower is currently under construction in Calgary.  The bottom floors will be office space for Telus, while the upper floors will be residential. 

TelusSky Tower is currently under construction in Calgary.  The bottom floors will be office space for Telus, while the upper floors will be residential. 

The vessel shaped 707 Fifth glass office tower is also under construction in Calgary. 

The vessel shaped 707 Fifth glass office tower is also under construction in Calgary. 

THE URBAN LIVING RENAISSANCE RACE

The eastern edges of both city centres evolved into huge, ugly surface parking lots by the end of the 20th century. And urban planners have realized, 'we dun wrong.'  So...

Today ambitious urban renewal plans for The Quarters (in Edmonton) and East Village (in Calgary) are underway. At this point Calgary, leads the way with several new condos completed and more under construction, as well as a new library, museum, hotel and a major new retail/residential development.

But in all fairness (insert grudging respect here), The Quarters also has several projects underway – the 28-storey Five Corners Residential tower, the 13-storey Hyatt Place, restoration of Lodge Hotel and Brighton Block (new home of the Ukrainian Canadian Archives and Museum of Alberta). As well, Artists’ Quarters will create 64 live/work spaces if they can find the money.

Still, The Quarters it has nothing to compare with East Village’s new public spaces - Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island. Score one for the home team.

And Edmonton has lots of condo construction in various places throughout its centre, but nothing to match the integrated urban village developments of Calgary’s Beltline, Bridgeland and Kensington communities. Also, Edmonton’s city centre has nothing to match our new parks - Hotchkiss Gardens and ENMAX Park at Stampede Park, or our network of bike lanes.

Edmonton's skyline has numerous attractive new high-rise condos but nothing like Calgary's condo boom.

Edmonton's skyline has numerous attractive new high-rise condos but nothing like Calgary's condo boom.

Over 30 new residential high-rise towers have sprouted up in Calgary's City Centre over the past decade. 

Over 30 new residential high-rise towers have sprouted up in Calgary's City Centre over the past decade. 

New hotel in Edmonton's Quarters is like a precious jewel-like ring setting.  

New hotel in Edmonton's Quarters is like a precious jewel-like ring setting.  

Calgary's newly revitalized St. Patrick's Island and Riverwalk leaves Edmonton's City Centre public spaces in the dust. 

Calgary's newly revitalized St. Patrick's Island and Riverwalk leaves Edmonton's City Centre public spaces in the dust. 

SISTER CITIES?

While Edmonton and Calgary will never be sister cities, their sibling rivalry is a healthy one. And, it makes both cities better places to live, work and play.

Let the hockey season begin….and while some Calgarians might have Edmonton envy, I think the Saddledome fosters a more unique and Calgary specific sense of place than Rogers Place which could be in any city.  

Scotiabank Saddledome was built for the 1988 Winter Olympic.  Its unique saddle-shaped roof is synergistic with Calgary's contemporary cowboy brand. (Photo credit: GEC Architecture)

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog was published Oct 1, 2016 by CBC Calgary's "Calgary At A Crossroads" titled, "Design Wars: It's Edmonton vs Calgary for the architectural cup."  

Calgary's 7th Ave. Transit Corridor: Better But Not Great

It all began innocently enough. A tweet by Sonny Tomic, an international urban planner and the former Manager of Calgary’s Centre City in which he said “Great street today – not 10 years ago,” with a photo of the 4th Street LRT Station at Hochkiss Gardens.  I responded, “this block is nice, but some blocks are not that great.”

This immediately started a flurry of emails about 7th Avenue’s transformation over the past 10 years and if 7th Avenue truly is a “great street.”  Even Jermey Sturgess, one of the urban designers for the new LRT stations along 7th Avenue contacted me wanting to know more about my thoughts on 7th Avenue, as he is part of the design team for the LRT’s Green Line. 

Sturgess and I recently did a walkabout so I could share my thoughts on how I thought 7th Avenue’s station and sidewalk design could be improved. 

The 4th Street LRT station (designed by Calgary's Sturgess Architecture) that empties onto the Hochkiss Gardens and historic Courthouse building is the highlight of Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor.  The rest of the corridor still leaves lots to be desired as a pedestrian friendly public space.  

7th Avenue History

Originally 7th Avenue was called McIntyre Avenue. It wasn’t until 1904 when the city dropped street names in favour of numbers that it became 7th Avenue.  In some ways, 7th Avenue has always played second fiddle to 8th Avenue as Calgary’s best urban streetscape.  The original City of Calgary trolley system used 8th Avenue not 7th Avenue and given this was before mass car ownership this meant almost everyone arrived downtown on 8th Avenue.

In the ‘70s, the situation changed. 7th Avenue became Calgary’s downtown’s transit corridor when part of 8th Avenue was converted to a pedestrian mall and rebranded as Stephen Avenue Mall. At the same time, new office shopping complexes like TD Square and Scotia Centre turned their backs on 7th Avenue having their front doors on 8th Avenue.  7th Avenue has struggled for the past 35+ years to find its mojo.

But if you look closely, you’ll see 7th Avenue is more than just a transit corridor.  It is home to Old City Hall, W.R. Castell Central Library, Olympic Plaza, Hudson’s Bay department store, Core Shopping Centre, Holt Renfrew, Devonian Gardens, Harley Hochkiss Gardens, Calgary Courthouse complex, Century Gardens and Shaw Millennium Park.

Indeed, 7th Avenue has all the makings of a great street and has had for many years with parks, plazas, shopping, churches, major office buildings etc.  It is also currently being radically transformed by three major new buildings, sure to become architectural icons – TelusSky, Brookfield Place and 707 Fifth. TelusSky is notable also as it will bring much needed residential development into the downtown office core. 

The Hochkiss Gardens with its trees, public art and lawn is a very attractive public space in the heart of downtown Calgary along the 7th Ave Transit Corridor. There is literally a park, plaza or garden every two blocks along the corridor.

Brookfield Place when completed will add a new plaza to 7th Avenue with a grand entrance unlike office tower built along 7th Ave in the '70s and '80s. 

707 Fifth Office Tower will also have an attractive entrance and plaza onto 7th Avenue when completed. 

Great streets are pedestrian friendly

To me, a great street is a place with lots of pedestrian-oriented buildings and activities i.e. inviting entrances, open seven days a week, daytime and evening with pedestrian-oriented activities (e.g. shopping, eating, browsing, entertainment, and recreational activities) at street level. 

Great streets are where people like to meet, gather and linger. This is not the case for 7th Ave for many reasons:

The City Hall/Municipal Building complex turns its back on 7th Avenue.  Yes, there is an entrance to the complex off of the LRT station but it is a secondary one that looks more like an afterthought.

The Convention Centre snubs 7th Avenue with no entrance at all from 7th Avenue, only emergency doors.

Olympic Plaza too discounts 7th Avenue with its large coniferous trees blocking transit riders’ view of the plaza activities. I am no tree expert but the lower branches could easily be trimmed so people could see into and out of the plaza along 7th Avenue? It would also be good for public safety.

The Hudson’s Bay store also gives the cold shoulder to 7th Avenue with its glorious colonnade along 8th Avenue and 1st Street SW but not extending around to 7th Avenue. As well, its larger display windows on 7th Avenue are poorly utilized and the sidewalk looks like a patchwork quilt of repairs.  

The side walk along 7th Avenue at the Hudson's Bay department store is an embarrassment. 

This is just one of several blocks and corners along 7th Avenue that are not public friendly.

Pride of Ownership?

Scotia Centre’s main floor food court entrance is several steps above street level effectively making it invisible from the 7th Avenue sidewalk. And its stairs are in very poor shape - no pride of ownership here.

Historically, TD Square followed suit, turning its back on 7th Avenue with the entrance being more office lobby-like than one opening onto a grand shopping complex.  The recent LRT Station improvements nicely integrates the station with building by creating sidewalk ramps at both ends that stretch from building edge to street, but the entrance is still more lobby-like than grand.

As for Holt Renfrew’s entrance off of 7th Avenue – well, it looks more like a dull hallway than a stately entrance to downtown’s upscale fashion department store.

7th Avenue lacks the cafes, restaurants and patios most often associated with great pedestrian streets. There are also no galleries, bookstores and shops fronting 7th Avenue that are would attract browsing pedestrians.  Most of the restaurants and cafes that do front onto 7th Avenue are closed evenings and weekends.  

One of the biggest obstacles for 7th Avenue is the fact that it is lined with tall office buildings that allow little if any of Calgary’s abundant sunlight any light to shine on the sidewalks, making it a very hostile pedestrian environment, especially in the winter.

Getting off and on the trains is a challenge as the numerous canopy pillars are in the way.  

If it isn't a pillar in the way it is a shelter, garbage can, signage or benches that make movement on the stations very difficult to navigate especially at rush hours. 

7th Avenue at Olympic Plaza is hidden from view by pedestrians and riders by lovely trees. This creates a very narrow sidewalk and safety issue (good public spaces have good sight lines so people can see into and out of the space). This streetscape would also improve with some colourful banners.  

Other Observations

What’s with the tacky baskets full of plastic flowers hanging at the LRT stations? I recently did a blog about banners being a better alternative than flowers and, though not a scientifically sound survey, everyone agreed the plastic flowers suck – including Councillor Farrell.

And speaking of banners, there are hundreds of banner poles along 7th Avenue - but most of them are empty. What a missed opportunity. They could be used not only to add colour to the street (especially in the winter), but also in conjunction with arts and event groups to promote and showcase upcoming art exhibitions, theatre shows and festivals.  

Also, though the new LRT stations are a big improvement, they are very “cluttered” with pillars, benches and ticket machines positioned in a manner that not only negatively impacts pedestrian movement but also exiting and boarding the train. 

And whose idea was it to locate huge public art pieces in the middle of the sidewalk at the entrances to the stations on the west and east end stations and a heat ball thingy in the middle of station?

The new design 7th Avenue is not pedestrian friendly as the sidewalk an obstacle course of garbage cans, artwork, trees, posts and fences.  

Putting a heat ball thingy in the middle of the sidewalk was just a dumb idea. 

7th Avenue looks great with lots of people and banners to add colour to the street. 

Last Word

As Calgary continues to work on the design of the new LRT Green Line, I hope the station and streetscape design team will learn from the clutter on 7th Avenue and create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. 

Kudos to Sturgess - he seemed to get it!  

If you like this blog, you will like:

10th Avenue Renaissance

Urban Design is not a science?

Banners are better than flowers?

Calgary’s Stunning Parkades “Get No Respect”

I kept procrastinating about doing a blog about Calgary’s three unique above-ground parkades for some unknown reason until I saw a blog on

Flipchart entitled, “House of Cars: 8 Stunning Parkade Structure Designs.”

Its first paragraph reads:

“Ever since Miami’s 1111 Lincoln Road, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, put the parking structure on the architectural map, there’s been a steady stream of other projects that elevate the lowly building type. They may not be hosting wedding ceremonies and dinners as 1111 Lincoln Road has, but they still have the visual chops to delight, shock or surprise. We take a look at eight parking structures that are also capable of engaging passersby in dialogue and the key material palettes their architects used. (And you’ll be surprised to know that some of these gems were pre-Lincoln Road.)”

I was aware of the fancy 1111 Lincoln Road parkade and the fanfare it got when it opened in 2010, for its design and because of the world-renowned architectural firm, Herzog and de Meuron, who designed it. Imagine stooping so low as to design a parkade.

A quick flip through the blog and yes, there are some stunning parkades, but Calgary’s Centennial Parkade, Alberta Children’s Hospital Parkade and SAIT Parkade could easily go head-to-head with any of author’s Shelia Kim’s picks.

Read: "House of Cars: 8 Stunning Parkade Structure Designs"

 

This is the stunning, shimmering, facade of the SAIT Parkade that from a distance becomes a huge artwork.

The Ombrae Sky mural on facade of the SAIT parkade. (photo credit Ombrae Studio) 

SAIT Parkade is located next to Calgary C-Train so it is seen by thousands of people everyday. (photo credit: Ombrae Studio) 

SAIT Parkade

To say Vancouver’s Bing Thom Architects and Calgary's MTa (Marshall Tittemore Architects) parkade is a stunning work of art is an understatement.  In fact, the entire east and south façades are actual artworks created by Vancouver artist Roderick Quin.  The metal façade with its thousands of holes resembling opened tabs of a beer can, each strategically punched, create a giant (560 feet long for the east wall and 260 feet for the south wall) artwork titled "The Ombrae Sky" inspired by the dramatic prairie clouds and skies. The artwork not only changes throughout the day with the changing light, but also allows natural light into the parkade.  The star of this show is Quin and his programable Qmbrae sculptural system

The structure is nicely nestled into a hill on campus, allows for the roof to be an artificial turf playing field for SAIT athletes. It also provides a perfect vantage point to view the campus’ signature 1921 Heritage Hall and Calgary’s stunning downtown skyline.

Its two very contemporary glass pyramids thrusting out of the ground serve as access points to the campus from car parkade and also allows more natural light into the parkade.  They create tension, drama and a little playfulness in juxtaposition to the stoic, gothic architectural statement of Heritage Hall.

The parkade won a Mayor's Urban Design Award in 2011 for best urban architecture, it should have also won for best public art. It is a shame most Calgarians have probably never seen the parkade’s artwork (one of Calgary’s best public artworks) or Calgary’s delightful pyramids.

Aerial view of SAIT Parkade with wrap around mural and roof top playing field (photo credit: Bing Thom Architects).

Glass pyramid entrance from campus ground level with Heritage Hall in the background. 

Close up of cloudscape mural from ground level. 

The Ombrae Sky transforms into smoky, burning fire mural at night. (photo credit: Ombrae Studio) 

Centennial Parkade

The common downtown joke back in 1995 when Centennial Parkade was being built was that the City was getting calls from people wanting to rent office space in the new building going up at the along 9th Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets.  It looked good then and still looks good 20 years later – brick is timeless!

Centennial Parkade from across the tracks. 

Centennial Parkade Colonnade is devoid of pedestrians as there is not pedestrian oriented businesses located along it. 

The brick façade give it more of a warehouse or office building look than a parkade.  Not surprising as the design was inspired by the early 20th century brick warehouses that lined the downtown CPR tracks at that time and still be found along 10th Avenue SW. 

Some still call it the Taj Mahal of parkades because instead of being an ugly, bare concrete utilarian structure it makes an positive architectural statement and fits with the history and sense of place next to the Canadian Pacific Railways’ main line.  

Completed in 1996 and designed by Calgary’s Gibbs Gage Architects, today it is home to not only 840 heated parking stalls, but also 17 cows in the Udderly Art Pasture.  What is this you ask?

Back in the year 2,000 one of Calgary’s millennium projects was to create and place 100+ cow sculptures throughout the city, but mostly downtown.  As a legacy to the project, 17 of the cows found a permanent home in the +15 (second floor) walkway along 9th Avenue SW. Accompanied by information panels with fun factoids, photo of all 100+ cows, it is a great place to bring young children.

Read: Udderly Art Pasture Fun

+15 level of the Centennial Parkade is bathed in sunshine in the winter. It is also home to the Udderly Art Pasture. 

Could be better? 

The City has been criticized, for not utilizing the site for something more than just a parkade.  The opportunity for a couple of floors of live/work spaces for artists and entrepreneurs would have certainly help add more life to the block. We weren’t thinking mixed-use as much in the ‘90s as we are today.

And, while attempts were made to create a pedestrian-friendly colonnade along 9th Avenue with street-level retail spaces to animate the street it failed to attract any retailers. So, spaces were quickly converted into the Calgary Parking Authority’s offices, and remain so today.

Oh, and in case somebody thinks this beautiful parkade is a waste of taxpayers’ money, the parkade was paid for by the City’s “cash-lieu-policy.” The policy restricts downtown office developers to building only 50% of the parking requirements under their office towers and mandates them to give the city the cash to pay for the other 50% of the parking requirements in a parkade built and operated by the city.

Centennial Parkade looking west along 9th Avenue. Note the black hole that is the sidewalk colonnade for pedestrian to walk through to the Calgary Parking Authority offices. 

Alberta Children’s Hospital Parkade

Opened in 2006, it is part of the Lego-inspired design of the complex.  (Backstory: There was a children’s advisory group that helped the Calgary design team at Kasian Architecture design the building.  The children said they wanted lots of bold colour and big windows, like something they would create with Lego, and they got it!) 

The huge green parkade (not green because of its environmental features, but that is its colour) is very welcoming and playful with it large yellow and red blocks of colour and huge car graphics on the façade.  Indeed, it is toy-like – even a big SUV or pick-up truck looks like a dinky toy when parked in this mammoth garage. 

Most above-ground suburban parkades are open to the elements but this one is entirely enclosed and heated making it very patient and visitor friendly (for those struggling with strollers, wheelchairs and slow walkers).  Don’t even think about criticizing this upgrading of the basic parkade design standards – the government did not fund it.

Alberta Children's Parkade uses bright colours and lots of large windows to create a cheerful atmosphere. 

On the exterior facade are several very large storybook images of car. 

Inside the parkade warm cheerful colours and children's graphics are employed to create a child-friendly atmosphere. 

This stunning picture window has outstanding views of the downtown skyline and the Rocky Mountains. 

Last Word

When it comes to widespread acknowledgement and recognition for Calgary’s urban design gems – buildings, public art, public spaces, bridges and yes even parkades, the words of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield come to mind, Calgary “gets no respect.”