Calgary: East Village Envy

It all happened so innocently. I saw a tweet inviting East Village residents to visit the National Music Centre (NMC) free on Sunday, August 6th and tweeted back “Why were only East Village residents getting in free?” I was quickly bombarded with tweets and an interesting twitter conversation ensued over the next 10 hours.

Some thought it was a great idea, given East Village residents have had to put up with construction for so many years.  Others thought it would be great for the seniors living in the affordable housing complexes who can’t afford regular admission.  Yet others like me, thought it was strange that one community had been singled out for free admission. 

Studio Bell or National Music Centre is a massive building that has attracted significant attention from the international design community for its unique shape and design. 

Studio Bell or National Music Centre is a massive building that has attracted significant attention from the international design community for its unique shape and design. 

Calgary's East Village is perhaps one of the largest urban construction sites in North America with several new condos, hotels and retail developments, as well as an iconic new library currently under construction. 

Calgary's East Village is perhaps one of the largest urban construction sites in North America with several new condos, hotels and retail developments, as well as an iconic new library currently under construction. 

Truth Is…

On Monday morning, I checked with the National Music Centre to learn what the rationale was for free admission for those living in East Village only.  Turns out the free admission was sponsored by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), the city body responsible for managing the redevelopment of East Village and one of the investors in the Museum.  

In 2017, CMLC has a $1.5 million dollar budget just for Community Relations and Marketing - no other community in Calgary has anything near that, not even ones with a Business Improvement Area levy like downtown, 17th Ave, Kensington or 4th Avenue.

For me this was another reminder East Village has a special status that no other Calgary community has.  Over the past year, I have been hearing comments like “How did East Village get a deluxe community garden given to them when we had to raise our own money? How did East Village get St. Patrick’s Island redevelopment while our park gets little or no attention? I sure love the benches in St. Patrick’s Island; how can we get one in our park?  Who is paying for all the free community events happening in East Village every weekend?” 

In fact, no community in Calgary has received as much municipal investment in such a short time as East Village. 

Yes, some of the investment like St. Patrick’s Island Park and Central Library are citywide amenities, but if that is the case, then the Rivers District Community Revitalization Levy (RDCRL) probably shouldn’t fund them.

Riverwalk has become a very popular place on the weekends for people to sit and stroll.  It has been heavily programmed by CMCL as a marketing strategy for selling condos.

Riverwalk has become a very popular place on the weekends for people to sit and stroll.  It has been heavily programmed by CMCL as a marketing strategy for selling condos.

What is the RDCRL?

To accomplish the mega makeover of East Village, the City of Calgary set up a special Rivers District Community Revitalization Levy in 2007. To date City Council has authorized $276M (additional revenue has been generated by the sale of city owned land in East Village) to be borrowed to make all the necessary infrastructure and other improvements needed to create a 21st century urban village, with the loan payments being paid for by the new property tax revenue from new developments.  

The RDCRL boundaries not only include East Village, but Victoria Park and Stampede Park and downtown.

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Council also set up the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (with its own Board of Directors) as a “wholly owned subsidiary of the City of Calgary with a mandate to implement and execute a public infrastructure program approved by the City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta to kick-start Calgary’s urban renewal in East Village.”

CMLC has done an amazing job of the mega makeover of East Village converting it from a sea of surface parking lots, a prostitute stroll and drug dealers’ den to a haven for YUPPIEs and empty nesters. 

To date, CMLC has attracted $2.7 billion of new construction in East Village which has generated the $357 million in levy revenues and it is anticipated to be whopping $801 million by 2027 when the RDCRL expires.  

Calgary's "float boat" shaped Central Library with its playful geometric decals is destined to become Calgary's newest postcard to the world.    

Calgary's "float boat" shaped Central Library with its playful geometric decals is destined to become Calgary's newest postcard to the world.    

How has the $357 million been invested to date?

The first wave of projects were budgeted at $143 million for infrastructure improvements (raising the roads, sewer, environmental clean-up and new sidewalks) $55 million for the 4th Street Underpass and $23 million for phase I & II of RiverWalk.  

St. Patrick's Island has been transformed from an under utilized, almost forgotten park, into a wonderful urban playground for the growing number of families living in the City Centre. 

St. Patrick's Island has been transformed from an under utilized, almost forgotten park, into a wonderful urban playground for the growing number of families living in the City Centre. 

The second wave of projects were less infrastructure projects and more about making East Village a 21st century urban playground. 

Specifically, the St. Patrick’s Island makeover cost $20 million plus $25 million to replace the existing pedestrian bridge. 

There was $22 million to restore historical buildings, $70 million to the New Central Library once it was decided it would be located in East Village (total cost of the new library is $245 million) and $10 million to the National Music Centre.

Bloom by Michel de Broin is just one of several public art pieces (permanent and temporary) that CMCL has commissioned for East Village. 

Bloom by Michel de Broin is just one of several public art pieces (permanent and temporary) that CMCL has commissioned for East Village. 

As well, smaller projects included the Elbow River Traverse pedestrian/cycling bridge ($5 million), C-Square, a plaza along the LRT tracks designed as a passive gathering / small event space ($3million) and a community garden with 80 plots ($75,000).

Collectively, all of these projects convinced developers the new East Village was an attractive place to invest and they have worked with CMLC to transform East Village from an urban wasteland to an urban playground.

Excerpt from CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan.

Excerpt from CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan.

Is $357 million too much?

While I appreciate East Village was woefully ignored by the City for many years and therefore in need of a huge investment to kick-start the redevelopment, I think the investment of $357 million by the City of Calgary via CMLC in one community is excessive.

When I pointed out to Calgary’s Twitter community that while East Villagers have indeed put up with a lot of construction, they have gotten - or are getting - a lot in return – spectacular new library and museum, beautiful new RiverWalk, lovely sidewalks with hanging baskets, a wonderful redeveloped park, new playground and an upscale community garden, I was (not surprisingly) lambasted by some and applauded by others. 

These benches in St. Patrick's Island have a contemporary sculptural look with the mix of wood, concrete and minimalist sensibility. The design is very clever as one person can be lying down on one side while two people can be sitting on the other side of the back support and two more on the concrete slab.  Not that I have ever seen that happen. Wouldn't they be lovely in parks across the city?

These benches in St. Patrick's Island have a contemporary sculptural look with the mix of wood, concrete and minimalist sensibility. The design is very clever as one person can be lying down on one side while two people can be sitting on the other side of the back support and two more on the concrete slab.  Not that I have ever seen that happen. Wouldn't they be lovely in parks across the city?

Perhaps the most poignant tweet was by Elise Bieche, President of the Highland Community Association who wrote “And we thought asking for the creek to be daylighted was too much for the developer or the city to handle.” 

(FYI. Daylighting in this case refers to that community’s request to have the creek that used to run through the Highland Golf Course and has been covered over for decades (the water currently run through a pipe underneath the golf course) to be returned to its natural state and become an public amenity for the entire community.)

Indeed, the first wave of East Village projects were much needed infrastructure improvements – raising the roads, new underpass to connect to Stampede Park, flood protection, new water and sewer lines and sidewalks (about 50% of investments to date).

However, I don’t believe RDCRL revenues should have helped pay for the new Central library, National Music Centre, redevelopment of a regional park (St. Patricks’ Island), a deluxe community garden and children’s playground. These are not infrastructure projects, as per the intent of the levy

I do not blame CMLC. They have done an amazing job. But I am questioning how much taxpayers’ money has been invested in East Village to create a public realm that raises the bar way beyond what the City can provide in other communities.  

These summer chairs look like something you might find on a cruise ship.  They create a very welcoming sense of place along the Riverwalk.

These summer chairs look like something you might find on a cruise ship.  They create a very welcoming sense of place along the Riverwalk.

Nenshi’s Cultural Entertainment District Proposal

It is very possible the next wave of RDCRL projects could be a new arena in Victoria Park and an expanded convention/trade show centre in Stampede Park. They will be the equivalent of East Village’s Central Library and National Music Centre. Other projects included in Nenshi’s Bold Plan include renovations to Olympic Plaza (Riverwalk), Expanded Arts Commons (St. Patrick’s Island/Bridge) and Victoria Park development (Traverse Bridge).

Indeed, the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation is lobbying the City to create a CRL to fund their new arena/events center be it in Victoria Park or West Village. 

I ask – “Is this the best, most appropriate way for the City to fund these two mega projects?” I am not sure it is. It is my understanding that CRL's work best when the levy's pay for infrastructure projects that are the catalyst for private sector (tax paying) projects.  

Perhaps it is time to rethink how Community Revitalization Levy funds are used to ensure fairness to all Calgarians.

Mayor Nenshi kicked off his 2017 re-election campaign announcing his bold vision for Culture and Entertainment District that not only included East Village, but Victoria Park, Stampede Park and the existing cultural district around Olympic Plaza. FYI: All of these ideas and projects were included in CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan published earlier in the year. 

Mayor Nenshi kicked off his 2017 re-election campaign announcing his bold vision for Culture and Entertainment District that not only included East Village, but Victoria Park, Stampede Park and the existing cultural district around Olympic Plaza. FYI: All of these ideas and projects were included in CMLC 2017 - 2019 Business Plan published earlier in the year. 

Last Word

As my father of four used to say “If I give it to you, I have to give it to the other three.”  While I realize not all communities are created equal (i.e. not all communities have the potential to attract $2.7 billion in new investments like East Village), I do think it might be time to rethink the RDCRL. 

Do CRLs create an uneven playing field for private developers in Calgary where they have to pay for all of the public amenities and pass on the cost to the new home buyers? Think Currie, Seton, Quarry Park or University District?

And yes, I am envious of all the lovely amenities in East Village. I think many other Calgarians are too.

If you liked this blog, you might like these links:

East Village: The Lust Of The New Playground

East Village: A Masterpiece In The Making?

Crazy Idea: New Arena In Victoria Park

Calgary's Audacious New Library