Brewery Districts: Edmonton vs Calgary

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

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

Missed Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

Impressed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharp Edge

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

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

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

Calgary’s Fledgling Brewery District

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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Group Think Or Good Urban Planning?

Visually it is eerie how similar Austin’s 2nd Street District and Calgary’s East Village look.

On a recent trip to Austin I was amazed at how similar their 2nd Street District’s recipe for urban renewal is to Calgary’s one for East Village.   The 20-block includes numerous high-rise condos, mixed with a few mid-rise, and dashes of - a new library, city hall and signature pedestrian/cycling bridge over Lady Bird Lake (aka long narrow reservoir on the Colorado River).

While Calgary’s East Village has an old Simons Mattress building as its signature historic building on the river, Austin’s 2nd Street has the historic Art Deco Seaholm Power Plant, currently being transformed into a mixed-use building with condos, offices retail. 

Austin's downtown skyline is dominated by condo towers.

City of Austin Power Plant that is being repurposed as part of the mega makeover of their downtown next to Lady Bird Lake. 

The Simmons Limited warehouse building has been transformed into multi-tenant restaurant, cafe and bakery on RiverWalk next to the Bow River. 

Austin’s 2nd Street District, like East Village, is still a work in progress. But it is perhaps a five year head start as it already has two grocery stores (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and boasts 50+ upscale places to sip, savour and shop – East Village has three.

From a housing perspective, 2nd St. District has several completed high-rise condos including The Austonian a 56-storey currently the tallest building in Austin. There are also several condos under construction including The Independent, a funky chunky tower, that surpass The Austonian by 2-feet.

Calgary’s current tallest building The Bow, office tower, is 58-storeys.  And though technically in East Village, in reality it faces southwest into the downtown central business district and turns its back on East Village.

The major difference is that Calgary’s East Village has direct access to the Bow River, while Austin’s 2nd Street District is cut off from the Lady Bird Lake by a major highway (Cesar Chavez Street).  However, Austin’s 2nd Street District has much better connectivity to it’s neighbouring districts than Calgary’s East Village which is cut off from its neighbouring districts by the Municipal Building and CPR railway tracks.

Austin's 2nd Street District is cut off from the waterfront by a major highway. 

Road connecting Austin's 2nd Street District to major road along the river similar to Calgary's Memorial Drive. 

Calgary's East Village condos this summer. Residents are now moving in and new mixed-use projects are commencing construction. 

Calgarians have direct access to the Bow river from East Village.  

Fostering Urban Vitality

Interestingly the streets of Austin’s 2nd Street District were devoid of urban vitality weekdays and weekends despite thousands of residents. It was only around the James D. Pfluger pedestrian bridge and the reservoir pathway that we experienced Austin’s urban vibe. 

Like Calgary, the pathways along Lady Bird Lake were packed with people of all ages - running, walking and cycling.  I dare say they are used even more than Calgary’s. Austin’s pathways are literally just a wide “bare ground” path that weaves its way naturally along the heavily treed shoreline. There is no separation for different users.  This is very different from Calgary’s expensive, highly designed, hard-surfaced Eau Claire and East Village pathways.

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

James D. Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge doesn't feel like a bridge, more like a promenade. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

Austin's river pathway near 2nd Street District on the weekend.  

Lady Bird Lake is very animated with canoes, kayaks, fishing boasts and other water craft creating a colourful and animated sense of place. 

St. Patrick's Island in East Village is quickly becoming a popular hang-out spot for families in Calgary. 

Calgarians love to stroll along the Bow River near downtown. 

St. Patrick's pathway along the Bow River in Calgary's East Village also offers passive places to sit, think and reflect.

Too soon to judge

One can’t help but wonder if there is a real urban planner group think when it comes to creating early 21st century urban villages as they all seem to have the same formula – lots of high-end, high-rise condos for young professionals and empty nesters with a smattering of grocery stores, retail and restaurants at ground level and anchored by major public spaces and one or two mega public buildings.  

Rendering of Austin's new public library located in the 2nd Street District. The library is under construction.

Rendering of Calgary's new public library in East Village, which is also under construction. 

Austin's 2nd Street retail streetscape. 

East Villages street retail is just starting to take shape. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

Billion Dollar Experiments

I am reminded of some of the lessons of Jane Jacobs community vitality activist and author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities that has become the bible for many urban planning. She warned, “beware of planners and urban development plans that try to encourage orderly city planning.”

I hope these billion-dollar experiments in city building in both Calgary and Austin work as planned. Only time will tell.  Calgary’s East Village experiment is looking good now, but it won’t be until 2040 that we will really know if the East Village master plan has resulted in an attractive, sustainable, vibrant urban community.

Calgary's East Village emerging skyline from St. Patrick's Island. 

Austin's downtown condo skyline at night.

Last Word

The time to judge the success of any new master planned community, urban or suburban, is about 10 to 15 years after it has been completed.

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine. 

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