Hillhurst/Sunnyside: Street Art Fun!

Hillhurst/Sunnyside (H/S) community is Calgary’s equivalent to San Francisco’s Haight–Ashbury - a haven for artists, hippies and hipsters.

While every other community surrounding downtown Calgary has been overtaken by new condos and infill homes (i.e. gentrified), much of H/S still is early 20th century cottage homes and small apartment blocks. Especially Sunnyside (east of 10th Street NW and west of Centre Street bridge).  A walk through H/S is a walk back in time. 

Calgary Street Art

One thing I love about flaneuring H/S is the funky street art you find there - in a back alleys, on abandoned buildings, community centre, schools, the side of a retail building and especially in their container park (Yes, they have a park with sea containers used for various performances and events). 

Every time I wander the community I seem to discover another piece of street art.

Link: Calgary graffiti: The good, the bad and reason it’s not all bad. 

Street Art Calgary

Not Public Art

Street art gained popularity during the graffiti art boom in New York City in the ‘70s.  It was then that graffiti evolved from small scribbles or tags to large murals, mostly with cartoon and fantasy-like characters, some with incredible skill and detail.

Originally, street art was often on blank concrete walls in rundown communities, on train and subway cars in derelict spaces.  Today, street art has become trendy.  It is often done with the approval of the landlord and is sometimes done as an anti-graffiti initative (given graffiti taggers often respect the work of street artists and don’t paint over them). 

Street art is to the late 20th early 21st century what murals by artists like Mexico City’s Diego Rivera were to the early 20th century. However, they will never last as long - often disappearing in less than a year. 

Today’s street art is also not considered to be public art as that artist has not received public funds and it is not sanctioned by a public authority. 

Despite/or in spite of this, street art can become a tourist attraction - if there is a critical mass of quality art for visitors to check out. 

Link: History of Train Graffiti

Link: 10 New York Graffiti Legends Still Kicking (Ass) 

Yes this is the infamous "Trudeau Finger" on the side of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre building.  

Yes this is the infamous "Trudeau Finger" on the side of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre building.  

I LUV Street Art why?

Street Art is usually colourful and playful, two key ingredients that appeal to my eye. As well, I love the sense of surprise, as they are often off-the-beaten path, which is synergistic to my love of flaneuring. I also love the immediacy of street art. While the technique can sometimes be refined, most often they are loose, gestural, drawings.

Street Art Calgary

Flashback

I went to NYC in 1982 to experience street art first hand. It was a time when I was an aspiring artist and felt a strong kinship with the work I was seeing in publications like ARTnews (my bible at the time). 

I came back inspired and created a series of graffiti-inspired paintings over the following two years and also organized the Street Art for Gleichen project, which eventually lead to my becoming the Director/Curator of the Muttart Art Gallery (now Contemporary Calgary) for a 10-year stint. 

It was a fun time. Thinking back, exploring those back alleys and vacant spaces of NYC was my first introduction to flaneuring!   

Last Word

Perhaps it is time for someone in to organize an outdoor art (street art, murals and public art) festival that would encourage Calgarians to get out and see, contemplate and question our outdoor art. I'd love to hear what children and teens think of the art. It is not all about just the grown ups!

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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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East Village: A Masterpiece In The Making

 

Britannia's 21st Century Transformation

Calgary’s urban transformation is not exclusive to the city centre. It is happening in many established communities as well.  In fact, one of the more interesting places is along Elbow Drive on the boundary between Britannia and Windsor Park at 50th Avenue.  (Did you know… 50th Ave SW was Calgary’s southern boundary from 1910 to 1956?)

There is speculation within the urban planning community and media that older wealthy communities are anti-development. Yet Britannia residents, with a median age of 46 years (the City’s is 36 years) and median household income of $227,000/year (the City’s is $81,000) have accepted three major new developments in recent years – Maison Senior Living, Britannia Crossing and The Windsor Block

The Windsor Block was just a big hole in the ground this summer - soon it will be a contemporary midrise office building.

The Windsor Block was just a big hole in the ground this summer - soon it will be a contemporary midrise office building.

Rendering of Windsor Block, designed by Ron Poon and the team at NORR architects in Calgary.

Rendering of Windsor Block, designed by Ron Poon and the team at NORR architects in Calgary.

NORR Corner / Poon Place

Given all three projects have been designed by Calgary’s NORR Architects Engineers Planners, this corner could be nicknamed NORR Corner or perhaps Poon Place (Ron Poon served as the lead architect for all three).

Completed in fall 2013, the Maison Senior Living complex (70 units for individuals wanting assisted living or help with memory loss) is located on the northeast corner of Elbow Drive and 49th Ave SW. Bordered by a school to the east and residential to the south, Poon decided to utilize a flat roof and traditional materials to minimize shadowing and create an articulated façade to look like several different buildings, making it compatible with the school and homes.

Next came Britannia Crossing for Opus (completed in summer of 2014) a mixed-use building that includes medical, office, retail and restaurant space.  This project required significant community engagement as it backed onto estate homes.

The solution was to terrace the building from five storeys at Elbow Drive to just two storeys next to the homes.  Poon and his colleagues also incorporated wood and stone into the façade, reflecting the materials used for homes in the community.  The block is anchored by the popular Brown’s Social House restaurant.

The third development Windsor Block, is currently under construction (completion in Fall of 2017). It is also five-storeys with retail at street level, offices on the upper floors and three townhomes on the southeast edge where the building intersects with other homes.  This project, the most contemporary and colourful of the three, will include two public art features, giving the street it a more urban appearance.

Britannia Crossing by Opus.

Britannia Crossing by Opus.

Maison's facade has a variety of materials in warm colours, as well as seating and patios to create a pedestrian friendly sense of place.

Maison's facade has a variety of materials in warm colours, as well as seating and patios to create a pedestrian friendly sense of place.

Britannia Plaza

The popular Britannia neighbourhood-shopping plaza, which opened in the summer of 1953, was the first, purpose-built shopping centre in Calgary and literally adjacent to NORR Corner.  In the 1950s,new suburbs at the edge of the City accelerated the transition from the traditional downtown shopping experience to suburban plazas. Post-war suburban consumerism in Calgary and the development of new roadways led to robust residential construction and retail plazas like Britannia.

The plaza is surrounded by condos and apartments with quaint names like California, Marlo and California Manor (the Calgary Golf & Country Club entrance is also at 50th Ave SW).

Michael Kehoe, Broker at Fairfield Commercial Real Estate cites “the charm of the Britannia Plaza is not only its simplicity, but that it is easily accessible by car, as well as by pedestrians. This retail gem enjoys high levels of occupancy and above-industry average sales. The key to Britannia Plaza’s enduring success is the adjacent affluent neighbourhoods that are amongst the highest income residential districts in Canada.”

There is one parcel of land left to develop which used to be a gas and serve station. It would be a great site for a mid-rise condo (with retail at grade) to add to the community’s diversity of uses and be an anchor for the City’s vision of 50th Avenue being transformed into people friendly urban corridor.

Surrounding the Britannia Plaza shopping block are these mid-century condos and apartments. 

Surrounding the Britannia Plaza shopping block are these mid-century condos and apartments. 

Last Word

The integration of old and new developments along Elbow Drive between 49th and 51st Avenues to create a mini urban village could easily serve as a model for redevelopment of several old commercial corners in established communities across Calgary. 

The traditional linear Main Street with shops on both sides of the street will not always be the best solution or even practical for established community revitalization.

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the October 2016 edition of Condo Living magazine.

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