East Village: Lust of the new playground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lust of the new playground

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

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

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

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

East Village's pebble beach.

East Village's pebble beach.

Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Test Of Time

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

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

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

Sound Familar?  

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

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

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

Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.   

Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calgary’s best communities may surprise urbanists 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

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

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

Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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

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Calgary: Empty Nesters Find New Nests In City Centre

For many, their 50s and 60s are like a second adolescence in that they are free again to decide, “what do I want to do with my life.” After 30 years of family and/or career commitments, the kids are gone, their careers are over (or winding down) and they just want to have enjoy life, which usually means travel and more “me/us” time.

Though for some that may mean moving to a new city or town, for many Calgarians it means moving to the City Centre where they can enjoy fine dining, theatre, live music and art galleries just blocks away, festivals almost every weekend or lovely river walks. It means no more grass cutting, fence or deck painting or snow shovelling. In addition to travel, more time can be devoted to golfing, hiking, fishing, quilting, knitting and spending time with friends.  

Today, about 100,000 Calgarians between the ages of 50 to 70, (there are about 300,000 Calgarians in the age bracket, but many are content to stay in their homes, some have already moved to City Centre and some will move to other cities) who are prime candidates to sell their family home in the ’burbs and move to the City Centre.

View from the Brekke's tree house of the downtown skyline on a cold winter day.

The Tree House

Richard and Debbie were in their early ‘50s when they realized they didn’t need their 3,200 sq. ft. 1950s Elbow Park home they had totally renovated, lived in and raised their family for 22 years. If they were going to stay in the house, it would need new windows and another major update. Richard was also tired of looking after the yard and the three crabapple trees that “dropped tons of apples every year – there’s only so much jelly a person can eat!”

They liked the idea of condo living. It fit their minimalist lifestyle. They also enjoyed the European lifestyle experienced when travelling.

They looked for two years before they found the right place.  They wanted to stay close to the Elbow River and ideally wanted an older condo with good bones, a good reserve fund and a good view.

They found an 1850 square foot condo in Riverstone, a 1981 red brick condo on the Elbow River with floor to ceiling windows that provided a spectacular view of downtown.  They quickly nicknamed it the “Tree House.”

Debbie, an interior designer immediately recognized the potential of the space and after a complete makeover, they now have a home worthy of an Architectural Digest feature.

Their new home wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan or London. 

The great room (24' by 32') with its 12' by 36” vein cut Travertine tile from Italy is very European chic - no trendy hardwood, no rug here. The Poggenpohl kitchen cabinetry from Germany with its LED backsplash is uber cool. The upper cabinets are white matte lacquer, while the bottom cabinets are titanium. The countertop is white Caesarstone, with an induction cook top on the island (the building wasn’t fitted with gas). Appliances include a sub-zero fridge and Miele dishwasher both fully integrated so they aren’t “visible."

The lighting throughout the condo was redone with recessed LED spotlights, a Mooi pendant in the kitchen eating area and 5 MP rail pendants over the Le Corbusier glass dining table. All doors are custom slab doors, including the closet doors, with contemporary chrome horizontal hardware and were lacquered in a mid-tone grey.

Debbie also designed the custom openings at the top of the den’s millwork to display Richard’s vintage radio collection with overhead lighting. In addition, three display “boxes" were created in one of the walls of the great room to highlight their vintage collections of Barbie dolls, Sherman jewelry and more radios.

It wasn’t without its trials and tribulations - labour costs are higher for condo renovations due to hauling everything up and down an elevator and limited working hours due to condo rules. 

It was also challenge for Debbie to not only be the designer, but to have her husband as the client. But they both agree, “it was totally worth the end result! We love our view in our first brand new home, as our two previous homes were used.”

26th Avenue SW in Mission along the Elbow River is a millionaire's row.

Mission's Main Street (aka 4th Street) is home to a wonderful array of cafes and restaurants and the annual Lilac Street Festival each spring. 

Mission's Main Street (aka 4th Street) is home to a wonderful array of cafes and restaurants and the annual Lilac Street Festival each spring. 

The Grand Piano Home

Roger and Janet were tired of driving along MacLeod Trail several times a week to downtown; they wanted the “excitement of living downtown” and the freedom to “lock and leave.”  The kids were gone, their three-story Lake Sundance house (5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, den, dining room, living room, family room and large kitchen) was too big and they were tired of its maintenance, so they started looking for a new home. 

The Concord is a two building condo located at the south side of the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Calgary's Eau Claire community. 

The Concord is a two building condo located at the south side of the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Calgary's Eau Claire community. 

They found what they wanted in the currently-under-construction Concord, the uber luxury Eau Claire condo designed by iconic Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.  Blown away by the amenities, Barbara says, “I LOVE the pool and the gym is going to see a lot of use.” Other amenities include three car wash facilities, golf simulator and their own skating rink in the winter.  They were also completely taken by the views, and access to downtown and Kensington.Their new nest is a 1977 square foot condo with 3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths that is part of the “Private Residence” option, which includes private elevator access and private garage door. 

Empty nesters in Eau Claire get to enjoy the St. Patrick's Island oasis. 

Their nest also includes luxury finishings including Italian marble countertops, a Poggenpohl kitchen and high-end Miele and Samsung appliances.  Their northwest corner suite, with sliding doors from each bedroom allowing access to their private outdoor space, offers expansive views of Prince’s Island, the mountains and evening sunsets.  

Roger and Janet looked seriously for a year and a half to find the right condo building, in the right location and with the right unit design.  They knew they wanted about 2,000 square feet with at least two bedrooms, as well as an office/den AND room for the grand piano. “To be honest, the process was a bit stressful because even though we both wanted the same thing, we couldn’t find it. Also it took us some time to figure out which downtown community we wanted to live in,” says Janet.  

Roger thinks “it is fun watching the excavation of the condo, knowing the ‘Hole’ as we call it will soon be our home.”  It is anticipated their Grand Piano Home move in will happen in spring 2018.  

Roger's pit (aka the Concord parking garage). 

Last Word

When it comes to luxury City Centre condos, there are really only a handful to choose from in Calgary, most being clustered into two areas - Eau Claire Avenue SW along the Bow River and 26th Ave SW in Mission along the Elbow River.

Both are vibrant urban neighbourhoods offering spectacular views, pedestrian- oriented streets with shops, restaurants, pubs, patios, cafes and river pathways nearby.  Both host a signature festival - Eau Claire has the Calgary International Folk Festival, while Mission has the Lilac Street Festival.

In Calgary, though downtown living is still in its infancy, more and more Calgarians are embracing the vibrancy of urban living. Janet says, “most of our friends are considering doing the same thing i.e. moving downtown, so we have had a lot of support for our decision.”

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned for Domus Magazine's summer 2016 edition. 

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Sunnyside's containR site ideal for affordable housing

Everyday Tourist looks at Calgary's efforts to provide affordable living options in one of its most expensive City Centre communities. 

Our City Councillors continue to talk about the need for more affordable housing but nothing seems to happen. The latest rant came from Councillor Woolley who was invited by CBC News to write a New Year’s message to Calgarians as part of its “Calgary at a Crossroads” series of guest editorials. Woolley’s, piece “Why we need to work our asses off,” focused on the City’s need for more affordable housing.  He stated that over the past two years, the City of Calgary had not put a single new subsidized home on the market, adding “On Council, we commission dreamy reports that are long on process but short on action.”

Okay the, its time for Woolley and his colleagues to start walking the talk.  I challenge Council and Administration to design and approve a residential development for the unique city-owned containR site in Sunnyside at the corner of 2nd Ave and 9th Street SW by the end of 2016.  It is my understanding the site has been earmarked for a mix of affordable and market housing for years.  I also understand the immediate neighbours and community are more or less on side, subject to seeing actual design plans.  So why has nothing happened?

I also challenge Council and Administration to make this Calgary’s first large-scale sea-container building, knowing Sunnyside Councillor Farrell has suggested in the past that container construction has many advantages for affordable housing. Surely it can’t be that difficult to make this happen.

containR site is used for a variety of art events.

Container Construction 101

There are many benefits to container construction for residential development. The biggest being it is very cost effective. It is cost-effective because 80% of the on-site activities are moved indoors, meaning optimization of materials and labour, reduction of theft and fewer lost hours due to inclement weather.  As well, because it is metal, it is non-combustible, making it safer.  Also it doesn’t warp or shrink and has the capacity for superior sound-insulation between units, making container buildings quieter.  They can also be constructed to heights of 12 storeys, making them ideal for affordable housing projects on larger sites.

And when it comes to infill development, neighbours and communities will love the fact that on-site, container-based construction happens 30 to 50% faster than conventional construction, meaning a significant decrease in the inconvenience of road and/or sidewalk closures and noise. Container construction is also environmentally-friendly given the repurposing of surplus shipping containers.

Backstory: Calgary, as one of North America’s largest inland ports, has a surplus of sea containers.   Yes, literally thousands of sea containers arrive in Calgary every month via rail or truck from China and other countries full of everything from electronics to furniture. With nothing to send back many become surplus. 

From a design perspective, container buildings don’t have to look significantly different than current new multi-family residential buildings, both in their exterior or interiors.  From the street, they can have a funky, colourful, industrial urban look or they can be clad with vinyl siding to fit with neighbouring suburban homes.

In a nutshell, container condos are “cheaper, faster and better” than conventional wood or concrete multi-family residential construction. This makes them very attractive for affordable housing construction.

Ladacor is a Calgary company that is becoming a leader in container construction. 

Economic Diversity

Calgary-based Ladacor has developed an “Advanced Modular System,” a proprietary modular construction method that allows for high quality container construction, which meets if not exceeds all Canadian Safety Approval standards. Ladacor is on the leading edge of container construction in North America, having already built the largest container hotel in Canada.  A local demonstration container project could be just what Calgary needs to create more jobs and become North America’s leading contain construction headquarters.  What’s holding us back?

containR site would add much needed density and diversity to the nearby Kensington Village

containR site is ideal for an affordable housing project with a Safeway just a block away, as well as an LRT station, meaning owning a car is optional. 

Last Word

It is almost too good to be true that Sunnyside’s temporary containR park (with several containers already on site) is the perfect location for Calgary’s first affordable housing project in a few years and our first container building. 

My plea to Council, Administration and Sunnyside community - please fast-track the design and approval of the “Sunnyside Container Village” as model affordable development by the end of 2016, with people moving in by early 2018.  Let’s be “short on process and get those asses working.” 

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Calgary's NW quadrant is coming of age!

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

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

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

University City playful condos at Brentwood LRT station. 

Why is WPAB Booming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, custom homebuilders’ signs are commonplace in WPAB.

St. Andrew's Heights infill home. 

Location Location Location 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notable restaurant patio in northwest's Montgomery community.

Luxury Home Evolution 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kensington Village's Container Bar. 

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

Last Word 

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

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

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

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

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