Downtown West: A Quiet Evolution

While Calgary’s Downtown’s East Village has been getting lots of attention for its amazing transformation, Downtown West is quietly being transformed into an urban village also.   

Downtown West is the gateway to Calgary’s City Centre by car, bike, transit or walking.

Downtown West is the gateway to Calgary’s City Centre by car, bike, transit or walking.

It is home to Shaw Millennium Park, that includes one of the best skate parks in the world.

It is home to Shaw Millennium Park, that includes one of the best skate parks in the world.

While Downtown West doesn’t have a fancy river pathway like Eau Claire or East Village, it does have a very functional pathway along the Bow River that includes the Nat Christie Park. The Downtown West pathway is popular place for Calgarians of all ages to stroll year-round .

While Downtown West doesn’t have a fancy river pathway like Eau Claire or East Village, it does have a very functional pathway along the Bow River that includes the Nat Christie Park. The Downtown West pathway is popular place for Calgarians of all ages to stroll year-round.

Bet you have never heard of the The Nat Christie Park or that it is home to The Stone Sculptor Guild of North America’s small art park with several intimate stone sculptures.

Bet you have never heard of the The Nat Christie Park or that it is home to The Stone Sculptor Guild of North America’s small art park with several intimate stone sculptures.

Downtown West’s quiet evolution is about to get a bit louder with the West Village project that is going to be another architectural landmark for Calgary.

Downtown West’s quiet evolution is about to get a bit louder with the West Village project that is going to be another architectural landmark for Calgary.

Hidden Gem

Indeed, East Village has lots of headline grabbing projects in East Village – the spectacular new library and museum, the mixed-use St. Patrick’s Island Park, bridge, riverwalk, the fun community garden and playground, as well as the shiny new condo towers. 

At the other end of downtown, Downtown West, has quietly been evolving since the mid ‘90s with new condos, parks and public art making it an ever more attractive place to “live and play.”  So much so, that over the next 10 years, it could become a hidden gem. But first it needs to sort out its name as some City documents refer to it as Downtown West, while others call it Downtown West End. The Community Association calls itself Downtown West so that is what I’m going with.   

Personally, I would love it if they renamed it Mewata, a Cree word for “pleasant place” or “to be happy.”  Seems appropriate to me.

Link: Downtown West Community Association

The University of Calgary’s Downtown Campus Building’s snake-like facade proceeded that of of East Village’s National Music Centre.

The University of Calgary’s Downtown Campus Building’s snake-like facade proceeded that of of East Village’s National Music Centre.

Downtown West was home to Calgary’s Planetarium and Science Centre, which is ear marked to become a public art gallery. It is the gateway into the downtown for LRT riders.

Downtown West was home to Calgary’s Planetarium and Science Centre, which is ear marked to become a public art gallery. It is the gateway into the downtown for LRT riders.

In 1911, Downtown West became the home of Mount Royal College on the parking lot on the north side of the LRT Station. In 1949, the college expanded adding the modern red brick Kerby Memorial Building that still stands today on the south side of the Station. The College moved to Lincoln park in 1972, the original building was demolished and the Kerby Memorial Building become the Kerby Centre for Seniors.  Backstory: Rev. George Kerby established the Methodist College in 1910, in what is now the Central United Church. It became the Mount Royal College when it wanted provincial accreditation. Rumour has it Premier Rutherford said it needed a new name so Kerby looked out the window and saw the new Mount Royal neighbourhood and suggest that should be the name. (credit: Historic Walks of Caglary, Harry M. Sanders)

In 1911, Downtown West became the home of Mount Royal College on the parking lot on the north side of the LRT Station. In 1949, the college expanded adding the modern red brick Kerby Memorial Building that still stands today on the south side of the Station. The College moved to Lincoln park in 1972, the original building was demolished and the Kerby Memorial Building become the Kerby Centre for Seniors.

Backstory: Rev. George Kerby established the Methodist College in 1910, in what is now the Central United Church. It became the Mount Royal College when it wanted provincial accreditation. Rumour has it Premier Rutherford said it needed a new name so Kerby looked out the window and saw the new Mount Royal neighbourhood and suggest that should be the name. (credit: Historic Walks of Caglary, Harry M. Sanders)

Downtown West 101

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Downtown West is the neighbourhood between 8th and 14th Streets SW and between the CPR tracks and the Bow River.  

It is home to University of Calgary’s Downtown Campus building, the historic Mewata Armoury, Shaw Millennium Park and the Kerby Centre. 

 Its two LRT Stations, (at 8th and 11th Street SW) give its residents connections to both LRT legs.  

Back in the late ‘90s, (i.e. long before East Village’s renaissance), new residential towers were popping up everywhere in Downtown West – including Axxis, Discovery Pointe, The Barclay and The Macleod at Riverwest, Five West and Tarjan Pointe. These were the first new residential developments in Calgary’s City Centre since the late ‘70s. 

One of the key developers to kickstart the ‘90s Downtown West condo craze was Vancouver’s Nat Bosa, father of Ryan Bosa, President of BOSA Development who today ironically is the leading condo developer in East Village (he is also building Royal condo in the Beltline).  The BOSA Development website’s section on Calgary proudly states, “In the mid-’90s we offered an alternative, delivering a series of five high-quality condominium developments in the downtown West End.”

Today, Downtown West it home to 2,757 Calgarians.  The community’s largest cohort is 25 to 34 year olds i.e. young professionals, who love the fact they can walk to work, run along the river and/or play at Shaw Millennium Park.  

Fast forward a decade or so later. Early in the 21stcentury, Downtown West development began to stagnate as other City Centre communities became more attractive– Beltline, East Village, Mission and Bridgeland.  In fact, there was no increase in the community’s population from 2009 to 2014, and an increased of only 470 since then.   

Unfortunately, Downtown West without a master plan to guide its development and a walkable main street to provide those important the everyday walkable amenities (e.g. grocery store, cafes, restaurants, medical services) is at a huge disadvantage compared to Calgary’s other City Centre communities. 

Several new condos were constructed in Downtown West in the ‘90s, creating a very urban streetscape.

Several new condos were constructed in Downtown West in the ‘90s, creating a very urban streetscape.

Unfortunately over the past 10 years many of the empty lots in Downtown West have not been maintained, however this is about to change.

Unfortunately over the past 10 years many of the empty lots in Downtown West have not been maintained, however this is about to change.

Mewata Armoury was completed in 1918 and is still used by several Arm Forces groups. It would make a great weekend farmers’ market.

Mewata Armoury was completed in 1918 and is still used by several Arm Forces groups. It would make a great weekend farmers’ market.

New Developments  

Until recently, that is. First, Grosvenor/Cressy completed phase one of their two tower upscale Avenue West project adding 195 new condos.  Then, La Caille completed Vogue, their art deco -inspired 36-storey project, adding 232 new condos. Cidex isactively building phase 1 of their Dubai-inspired West Village Towers (the project was co-designed by NORR’s Dubai and Calgary architectural teams), a three towers project that will see 575 new homes and 90,000 square feet of retail added to the community. 

In fact, West Village Towers could be a game changer for Downtown West if the retail space includes a urban grocery store and other key amenities to make urban living in the community more attractive. I do wonder thought about the confusing name “West Village” as this project not in West Village a proposed new community west of 14th Street SW several blocks away.  

In addition, a major $10 million redevelopment of Century Gardens is currently underway at the southeast edge of the community will provide a passive urban space that will complement Shaw Millennium Park. 

Link: Revitalizing Calgary’s Downtown West

Avenue West is Downtown West’s first luxury condo in many decades.

Avenue West is Downtown West’s first luxury condo in many decades.

West Village is destined to become one of Calgary’s architectural gems.

West Village is destined to become one of Calgary’s architectural gems.

The new Century Gardens will be more open and better linked to the streets. It will included a space for a cafe and will have a splash pond for families.

The new Century Gardens will be more open and better linked to the streets. It will included a space for a cafe and will have a splash pond for families.

East Village vs Downtown West 

The iconic Jack Long-designed Planetarium/Science Centre built in 1967 is about to become a new public art gallery. While not on the scale of East Village’s new Central Library or the National Music Centre, it will put Downtown West on Calgary’s art and cultural map.  While East Village has Calgary’s two new iconic buildings (Library and National Music Centre), West Village has Calgary’s best historic iconic building – Mewata Armouries.  It is like having a castle in your backyard! 

Shaw Millennium Park is home to numerous summer festivals, and the equivalent of East Village’s St. Patrick’s Island Park. 

While Downtown West doesn’t have a high profile public art program like East Village’s, the lovely Nat Christie Sculpture Park along the Bow River just east of the 14thStreet bridge and several other pieces scattered in the community definitely make it more attractive. 

Downtown West is not only well connected to the downtown, but it is within easy walking distance to Kensington with its shops and major grocery store, as well as to the Beltline and its tow two grocery stores. While East Village will be getting a grocery store eventually, it can’t match Downtown West’s array of grocery stores, including Kay’s, an independent grocery store and the “coming soon” Urban Fare in the Beltline. 

Like East Village’s N3 condo, which has no parking, Cidex Group has plans for “The Hat on 7th” building at the 11th Street LRT station with no parking. 

Millennium Park is a popular spot for photographers and painters.

Millennium Park is a popular spot for photographers and painters.

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Community involvement on the rise

The Downtown West Community Association was successful this past summer in lobbying the City to create three murals, a temporary park on land that is currently unused and the sprucing up of the small plaza next to the Avatamsaka Monastery as a means of making the community more attractive.  Proof positive that Downtown West’s residents are taking pride and ownership of their community’s future.  

Even without a master plan, a champion and the investment of mega tax dollars in infrastructure, public spaces and buildings, Downtown West has seen significant improvements over the past 25 years as a place to live and play.  Imagine what might happen as the community becomes even more involved in shaping its future. 

Downtown West has one of the most thought provoking new murals in the city on the side of the Attainable Homes building. Attainable homes is an organization that helps low income families buy homes and the child in the mural lives in one of their projects. How appropriate? The piece is titled “Chalk Drawing” and is by Jason Botkin.

Downtown West has one of the most thought provoking new murals in the city on the side of the Attainable Homes building. Attainable homes is an organization that helps low income families buy homes and the child in the mural lives in one of their projects. How appropriate? The piece is titled “Chalk Drawing” and is by Jason Botkin.

Bet you have never heard of Downtown West’s Poet Plaza! Yep this is it. It is small so you could easily miss it.

Bet you have never heard of Downtown West’s Poet Plaza! Yep this is it. It is small so you could easily miss it.

Poet Plaza is home to Ascension a public art work by INCIPIO MODO an artist collective founded by two sculptors, Danira Miralda and Edward Beltran from Mexico City.

Poet Plaza is home to Ascension a public art work by INCIPIO MODO an artist collective founded by two sculptors, Danira Miralda and Edward Beltran from Mexico City.

Game Changers 

A real game changer for Downtown West would be if the City and community work together on the redevelopment of the huge Louise Crossing site - currently an ugly surface parking lot on the southeast side of the Louise Bridge.  Technically the site is in Eau Claire but really should be part of Downtown West. At one time this site was considered for the new Central Library, while I believe some thought it might be a good home for an Opera House.  It could be (and should be) something special. 

The time has come to set up a steering committee to look at the biggest and best use of the site to create an attractive link between Downtown West End, Eau Claire and Kensington, as well as create another multi-user urban playground along the Bow River.   

It is also an opportunity to create a vibrant mixed-use TOD (transit-oriented development) around the 11th Street SW LRT station, given the Kerby Centre’s plans to relocate and its adjacent surface parking lot begging to be developed. 

The Louise Crossing site is waiting for an innovative and imaginative project that will make it the waterfront playground for not only Downtown West but the entire west side of the inner city. It would link Downtown West, Eau Claire and Kensington.

The Louise Crossing site is waiting for an innovative and imaginative project that will make it the waterfront playground for not only Downtown West but the entire west side of the inner city. It would link Downtown West, Eau Claire and Kensington.

The Downtown West LRT Station is also a prime site for development with a mix of retail, restaurants and residential.

The Downtown West LRT Station is also a prime site for development with a mix of retail, restaurants and residential.

The 8th St LRT Station is on the eastern edge of Downtown West.

The 8th St LRT Station is on the eastern edge of Downtown West.

Westmount Towers was completed in 1979 and sat alone for 15 years, until new condos were built in the mid 1990s. It is another example of a strange Downtown West building name as Westmount is the historic name for the community across the Bow River from Downtown West where the old CBC building was located.

Westmount Towers was completed in 1979 and sat alone for 15 years, until new condos were built in the mid 1990s. It is another example of a strange Downtown West building name as Westmount is the historic name for the community across the Bow River from Downtown West where the old CBC building was located.

Last Word

While East Village is shouting out “look at me,” Downtown West is quietly positioning itself to become the City Centre’s next vibrant urban village.  

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos section on Nov 17, 2018.

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On-It: Calgary Regional Partnership's Legacy

When I first heard (October 2016) that the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP) had negotiated an agreement with SOUTHLAND Transportation Ltd and several communities south of Calgary to pilot a commuter transit service, I immediately thought, “wow this is forward thinking.” 

As a member of the advisory board for the Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change, I am keenly aware of the importance of regional transit as part of any long-term strategic tourism and economic development initiatives.  Colleen Shepherd, the CRP’s Executive Director also sits on the advisory board and we have had numerous discussions about CRP’s leadership role in managing the growth of the Calgary region from a  different perspectives.

With much fanfare Colleen Shepherd (brown jacket) and others launched On-It Regional Transit in October 2016. 

With much fanfare Colleen Shepherd (brown jacket) and others launched On-It Regional Transit in October 2016. 

Love Pilot Projects

I am a big fan of pilot projects vs. the “paralysis of analysis” that often happens in the public sector.  You can do numerous market studies, look at “best practices” in other cities and survey the public about what they want (or rather what they think they want) but eventually you have to test your vision in the real world. 

To me, On-It’s two-year pilot was an appropriate timeframe to understand the demand, make adjustments, re-test the market and then make a decision regarding the current demand for a niche transit service for our region’s southern communities.

I was also pleased Southland Transportation was part of the On-It partnership, as they would bring a different “value for money” perspective to the pilot from the municipalities.  

I also thought the CPR was wise to launch On-It with a comprehensive website, an on-line ticketing reservation system and luxury coaches giving the pilot every opportunity to succeed. 

But wait, the CRP wasn’t done yet.

Their entrepreneurial and opportunistic spirit resulted in them teaming up with Parks Canada, and the towns of Banff, Canmore and Cochrane to offer a Calgary/Banff weekend transit service last summer.   

The Calgary/Banff service turned out to be wildly successful (in part due to Canada 150’s free park admission) with sold out buses starting in the second week of operation and by the end of the summer several buses were sold out each day.

Ettore Iannacito, Regional Transit Program Manager, Calgary Regional Partnership was the master-mind behind On-It.

Ettore Iannacito, Regional Transit Program Manager, Calgary Regional Partnership was the master-mind behind On-It.

Private Sector now in the driver’s seat

I was not surprised to learn the voluntary Calgary Regional Partnership made up of 11 municipalities in the Calgary region is winding down its operations, as it has been known for a while, that the Provincial Government was creating something called the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board (CMRB). What we didn’t know was what its mandate would be. 

Turns out the CMRB will take on most - but not all - of the CRP’s roles and responsibilities for growth management in the Calgary region.

One of the responsibilities the new CMRB isn’t mandated to take on is regional transit.  Rather than let the On-It pilot and all of taxpayers investments just disappear, Shepherd worked with her Board and the SOUTHLAND Transportation executives, to transition ownership of the On-It brand, operations, research and collateral materials to SOUTHLAND Transportation Ltd.

SOUTHLAND has agreed to:

  • Merge the On-It south leg pilot into its own commuter service which will lead to some minor modifications.
  • Negotiate with Parks Canada, Banff and Canmore to operate a Calgary/Banff service again this summer and perhaps even expand it to other months. (If I were a betting man, my money would be on YES there will be Calgary/Banff weekend bus this summer.)
  • Evaluate with Strathmore and Chestermere Council's the option to pilot a commuter service for those two communities.

In addition, SOUTHLAND will also be rebranding its direct to downtown Calgary service from Cochrane and Okotoks with the On-It brand and look for ways to merge all of its commuter services into a bigger and better integrated transit system for the Calgary Region.

People all ages and backgrounds used On-It to get to Banff in the summer of 2017.  

People all ages and backgrounds used On-It to get to Banff in the summer of 2017.  

Does Calgary need regional transit?

Calgary is unique in that it doesn’t have large satellite cities. In Calgary, 89% of the region’s 1.4 million people live within the City of Calgary.  The City of Vancouver represents only 26% of its regional population, City of Toronto 51% and the cities of Edmonton and Ottawa come in at 71% each.

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The Calgary region has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in Canada for many years.

However, since 2011 Cochrane has had a population increased of 47% since 2011, Airdrie, 42% and Chestermere 34% means some of our satellite cities are growing significantly faster than the City of Calgary’s 13%.

The need for regional growth management is increasing every year, so now is the perfect time to be developing innovative projects like On-It.

In some way Calgary’s LRT system functions like a regional transit system bringing people into the city from suburban communities which would be independent cities in many metropolitan areas. 

It should be noted that both of the On-It pilot programs were integrated with Calgary Transit. The south pilot’s terminus in Calgary was the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station so passengers could access both the LRT and connecting buses. Similarly the Calgary/Banff service linked into Calgary’s LRT system at both the Crowfoot and Somerset-Bridlewood stations.

Having a regional transit system is critical to the recruitment of major corporation to locate in Calgary.  Amazon’s HQ2 bid document specifically requested detailed information on the applicant’s regional transit system as they recognized their employees would want a diversity of living options from urban to suburban, from small town to rural.

Creating a regional transit system is about enhancing the quality of life for everyone living in the Calgary region.  At 626,000 people Calgary was an early adopter of LRT, why not regional transit at 1.4 million.   

Mike was just one of the thousands of happy users who tweet out about how great it was to have weekend transit service to Banff and Canmore from Calgary.  

Mike was just one of the thousands of happy users who tweet out about how great it was to have weekend transit service to Banff and Canmore from Calgary.  

Last Word

While I am sad to learn the Calgary Regional Partnership will be no more, I can’t think of a more appropriate legacy for the 13-year voluntary partnership than the continuation of the “0n-It” brand as a memory of their forward thinking.

It will also be interesting to see how SOUTHLAND Transportation capitalizes on this opportunity to expand its role as a transportation leader in the Calgary Region.

It would be amazing if the private sector, rather than government were to successfully manage the next phase in development of a regional transit system for Calgary. 

If you like this blog, these links will interest you: 

Calgary/Banff Transit: It is about time!

Calgary Regional Transit: On-It Love In!

On-It Canada 150 Calgary/Banff Weekend Transit