Calgary: NE is on the rise!

For many Calgarians, the NE quadrant (east of Deerfoot) is a bit of an unknown. Other than going to the airport, or speeding by on the Deerfoot, we rarely venture into the hodgepodge of residential communities, small shopping centres and business parks that make up Ward 5.

However, the future of Calgary could well be in the NE - Calgary’s Airport City!

Ward 5 is dominated by the Calgary International Airport that takes up almost half of the landscape.

Ward 5 is dominated by the Calgary International Airport that takes up almost half of the landscape.

Eye Opener

I first became intrigued with Ward 5 when I went to the annual train show at the Genesis Centre a few years ago. I was shocked at the size and vibrancy of the centre. Then a friend introduced me to Afghan Kabob Cuisine, which he warned was nearly impossible to find. It was. But I enjoyed exploring the area’s maze of shopping centres and back alley shops, the restaurant, which sits next to the Apna-Punjab Sweets & Samosa, as well as several small industrial shops was an eye opener! 

Then earlier this year, when driving to the Canal at Delacour golf course, I was gob-smacked by the residential development - mix of single family, row houses and low-rise condos - along Country Hills Boulevard east of the Deerfoot.  New communities with intriguing names like – Redstone, Skyview Ranch and Cityscape lead me to do some research.  

Afghan Kabob restaurant is tucked away in a building that looks more like a big house that is accessed off of what looks like an alley for a auto body repair shop. It was an adventure to find, but totally worth it. There is lovely bakery next door.

Afghan Kabob restaurant is tucked away in a building that looks more like a big house that is accessed off of what looks like an alley for a auto body repair shop. It was an adventure to find, but totally worth it. There is lovely bakery next door.

Taradale vs Beltline

In Ward 5, only 29% of the population lives in single-family homes compared to 59%, city wide.  I was surprised to learn the density of Taradale is just 15% less than the Beltline, Calgary’s most densely populated community, one that is full of highrise towers. The tallest building in Ward 5 is the 10-storey Homewood Suites Hotel. 

Obviously, you can create dense communities without highrises. While the rest of Calgary is trying to get used to the idea of living in denser communities, many Ward 5 residents are already there.  

For years we have heard about mixed-use master planned urban communities in many other parts to the city – Bridges, Currie, Greenwich, Quarry Park, SETON Trinity Village, University District, West District and Westman Village. But none in the NE.  It begs the question, “Why not?”

Population growth from 2017 to 2018 of Calgary’s 14 Wards.

Population growth from 2017 to 2018 of Calgary’s 14 Wards.

The rise of the NE 

While we all know about the fall of downtown, do we know about the rise of the northeast?  Despite the decline in the oil and gas sector, the Calgary International Airport experienced a 3.8% increase in passenger traffic from 2015 to 2017 and it is on pace for a whopping 7% increase in 2018, and cargo tonnage is up 9% since 2015.   

Kent Bacon, a principal at Avison Young says the northeast Calgary and Balzac area is a highly desirable location for warehouses companies because of its location - next to the TransCanada Highway, the CANAMEX corridor (Deerfoot/QE II highway) and the airport. The area is also one of only three foreign trade zones in Canada.  (FYI: foreign trade zones have tax and duty advantages for warehouse distribution centers.) Currently, there are 2.2 million square feet of new construction in Ward 5 - that’s 30% larger than The Bow. 

Ward 5 is also Calgary’s fastest growing ward. Over the past year, its population increased by 6,522 (2018 Census), almost double any other ward. This is amazing given about a third of the ward’s land mass is taken up by the airport and business/industrial parks. 

Recently, I sat down with Ward 5 Councillor George Chahal to learn more about Calgary’s unique NE communities.  Born and raised in Saddle Ridge, Chahal holds a Master’s degree in planning with his thesis titled, “Planning for Ethnic Diversity.”     

Q: What are some of the Ward 5’s hidden gems? 

One would have to be the annual Nagar Kirtan Parade, Calgary’s second largest parade, organized each May by the Dashmesh Culture Centre in the community of Martindale. It attracted about 60,000 spectators in 2018. It features lots of singing and floats and everyone is invited - to watch or participate. 

Another hidden gem is the Country Thunder music festival in Prairie Winds Park. It has become one of Calgary’s signature summer festivals.  Take a walk in Prairie Winds Park and you will find out what the NE is all about. It is a mix of Riley Park, Bowness Park and Nose Hill Park.  

Ward 5 is home to 20+ different religious institutions, with several having architecturally significant buildings. 

Nagar Kirtan Parade

Nagar Kirtan Parade

Country Thunder music festival in Ward 5’s Prairie Winds Park.

Country Thunder music festival in Ward 5’s Prairie Winds Park.

Cricket match? practice? Saturday morning at Prairie Winds park.

Cricket match? practice? Saturday morning at Prairie Winds park.

Q: What are the biggest issues facing Ward 5 today? 

A: Bridging Calgary’s cultural gap. Ward 5 is Calgary’s most culturally diverse community with 50+ languages spoken.  It is home to the third largest Sikh community in Canada. We desperately need more programs and services to integrate newcomers our communities are home to about 50% of the City’s new immigrants.  

Diversity is our strength, but we also want to integrate into the broader Calgary community when it comes to working together to plan Calgary’s future. The City of Calgary is working on eliminating communication barriers through multilingual communication and engagement policies, however, there is still lots of work to do.

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Q. Is there a transformative project(s) that you would like to see happen in the NE? 

A: The expansion of the LRT into our northern communities, as well to the airport is critical as Ward 5 residents are one of the City’s biggest users of transit. 

A second major recreation centre, library and multi-use sports fields would also be transformative as the Genesis Centre is currently operating at capacity. 

The huge Calgary Train Show at Ward 5’s Genesis Centre is a must see for anyone who likes trains.

The huge Calgary Train Show at Ward 5’s Genesis Centre is a must see for anyone who likes trains.

Q. Do you believe religion and family play a bigger role in the lives of Ward 5 residents than in other wards? 

Yes, I would say so - 86% of Ward 5 residents have religious beliefs vs only 68% in the rest of Calgary.  And for many residents, attending a religious institution is a daily, not a weekly experience.  

Family is also important to Ward 5 residents, with more than one generation living under one roof being the norm. The average number of residents per household is much higher in Ward 5 than the rest of Calgary.  

It is critical for the development industry and those at City Hall to understand the cultural and family dynamics of Ward 5 so our communities are designed to meet our unique market demand.

Q. Do you think the NE is under appreciated by Calgarians? 

A. Yes.  Most Calgarians don’t appreciate how Ward 5 is a growing logistics hub for Western Canada. The future of the logistics sector is very positive - with things such as autonomous vehicles, commercial drone deliveries and other artificial intelligence advancements.  Ward 5’s importance as one of Calgary’s economic hubs will continue to grow.  Look for Ward 5 to be home to some ground breaking innovations in the future.

While there are no conventional main streets, our communities are full of small businesses and entrepreneurs.  Ward 5 is home to 100+ small businesses catering to different flavors around the world, from meat stores to local grocery stores, 234 restaurants and 2,200+ businesses in total.  As of November 2018, 318 new businesses were licensed, of which 60% were home based. 

Grant Galpin, who’s lived in Ward 5 since 2000 and led the $35M community fundraising campaign for Ward 5’s Genesis Centre (their $120 million, 225,000 square foot “living room”) agrees with Chahal, saying “the growing entrepreneurial base in the NE is due to the fact the offshore education of newcomers is largely not recognized, so they turn to small business, to establish themselves.  The result is a creative, family-based, small business culture that is largely under appreciated by Calgarians, government, economic and cultural leaders.”

Ward 5’s McKnight Westwinds LRT station is ripe for a mixed-use Transit Oriented Development, with a major grocery store already nearby.

Ward 5’s McKnight Westwinds LRT station is ripe for a mixed-use Transit Oriented Development, with a major grocery store already nearby.

Last Word 

Could it be that’s Calgary’s NE will take the lead in the diversification of Calgary’s economy over the next 25+ years? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos section on January 26, 2019.

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

Calgary: An Inland Port?

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Calgary is evolving into five different cities?

 

Calgary's Centre City Plan Revisited: Where diversity thrives?

Kudos to the City for taking the initiative to update the 2007 Centre City Plan rather than letting it gather dust.  Visions and urban plans often reflect the mood of the city at the time they are developed.

In 2007, Calgary’s City Centre was in a boom, today there is a feeling of doom, so there could be major changes. 

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Refresh?

Over the past six months the City has conducted what they call a “strategic foresight” process with various Centre City stakeholders to gather information, ideas, issues, opportunities so they can update the Center City Plan.  A draft of what they are calling “The Future of Calgary’s Center City: 2038 Through a Strategic Foresight Lens” is in the process of being developed and will be shared with the public and stakeholders in 2019 for more feedback.  

Link: City Centre Plan Refresh

There are big challenges facing the City Centre’s private and public stakeholders today – aging public buildings and spaces, contaminated land in West Village and thousands of empty office spaces to name a few. 

One might even ask: “Is Centre City the right name?” and “Do we have the right boundaries?” Perhaps we should revise the plan to accommodate a decline versus growth of our City Center. 

Let’s have a look.

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Name / Boundary Change 

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The first two changes I would make would be to change the name and boundaries.  

The name “Centre City” is confusing as most cities refer to the area around their Central Business District (CBD) as the City Centre and most of Calgary’s directional signage says “City Centre.

I wish urban planners would come up with a common terminology as it would help the public better understand what they are talking about. 

Calgary’s City Center should include Sunalta, Hillhurst/Sunnyside, Bridgeland/Riverside, Mission, Cliff Bungalow, Erlton and Inglewood.

All of these communities share many of the same development issues and opportunities as those in the current Centre City Plan. 

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Calgary’s City Centre is a much larger area than what the City’s current Centre City plan includes.

Calgary’s City Centre is a much larger area than what the City’s current Centre City plan includes.

Parking to People

Perhaps the biggest change since 2007 is the renaissance of urban living in the Centre City with dozens of new residential developments replacing surface parking.  

Anthem’s Waterfront project with 1,000+ condos is the largest condo project in the city’s history. The Le Germain condos sold out quickly at $1,000 per square foot, in 2010. Qualex Landmark alone has completed six condo buildings (1,298 suites) in the Beltline over the past 10 years.  And the East Village’s sea of parking is quickly disappearing. 

Since 2007: 

  • Residents increased by 31% 

  • Residences increased by 46% 

  • Children under the age of 15 increased by 131% 

One of several illustrations from the current Centre City Plan.

One of several illustrations from the current Centre City Plan.

Boom to Gloom 

Ten years ago, the City Center was booming, plans were being finalized for East Village, National Music Centre, new Central Library and West LRT. 

Everyone was excited about the possibility of the new RiverWalk, St. Patrick’s Island renovations and construction of the new George C. King Bridge.   

Bow Valley College was looking at a major expansion of its City Centre campus and the University of Calgary has just established its downtown presence.  

It was also boom time for new office buildings, plans for the Bow were announce in 2006 and the conversion of Penny Lane Mall into the elegant Eight Avenue Place were underway.

Fast forward to today and no new pipelines, the rise of the US oil & gas production has resulted in the collapse of Calgary as a major international oil and gas headquarters. The loss of 30,000 jobs and the construction of several mega office buildings has resulted 25% of downtown’s office space being empty.  The loss of property tax revenue City Centre office buildings has created a city wide tax crisis.  

Since 2007, Calgary’s City Centre has evolved from boom to doom and gloom. 

East Village’s new Studio Bell museum didn’t exist in 2007.

East Village’s new Studio Bell museum didn’t exist in 2007.

East Village’s new condos didn’t exist in 2007.

East Village’s new condos didn’t exist in 2007.

Downtown’s 7th Avenue transit corridor has been significantly improved since 2007.

Downtown’s 7th Avenue transit corridor has been significantly improved since 2007.

Unfortunately, downtown’s once hot business economy has turned cold since 2007.

Unfortunately, downtown’s once hot business economy has turned cold since 2007.

Big Challenges

Over the next 10 years our City Centre’s public and private leaders will have to tackle the following challenges, with a lot less tax revenue than in 2007.  

  • How to ensure the Green Line is a catalyst for private investment? 

  • Will Victoria Park revitalization including the new arena and expanded BMO center will be Calgary’s next East Village?  And what impact will that have on the much needed Arts Commons, Glenbow Museum and Olympic Plaza upgrades.  

  • Is there room for both the Calgary TELUS Convention Centre and BMO centre in the future. 

  • Stephen Avenue needs a major makeover to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclist and evening traffic which was not part of the original design. Perhaps extend it all the way to 8th or 11th Street SW. 

  • Do we finally clean up the creosote in West Village? Is there a need for West Village?

  • How to fill-up or redevelop the 10+ million square feet of empty office space for new uses. 

  • Will there be a demand for more residential development if the downtown core doesn’t recover?

How Victoria Park and Stampede Park could evolve over the next 20 years?

How Victoria Park and Stampede Park could evolve over the next 20 years?

Concept drawing for new BMO Convention / Event Centre at Stampede Park. Construction could begin in 2019.

Concept drawing for new BMO Convention / Event Centre at Stampede Park. Construction could begin in 2019.

The new Green Line will add a new dimension to the Centre City as it passes underground through downtown.

The new Green Line will add a new dimension to the Centre City as it passes underground through downtown.

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Last Word

The Centre City Plan vision statement reads:

“To make Centre City a livable, caring and thriving place: That is a premier urban living environment; That is a national and global centre of business; That is a centre for the arts, culture, recreation, tourism and entertainment, and; That welcomes people, in all their diversity, to live, work and visit here.”

It is a nice convoluted motherhood statement. However, I was once told a good vision statement is no longer than about 10 words and should be something aspiring, memorable and something everyone can recite easily. 

May I suggest:

“A City Centre where diversity thrives!”

Diversity to me includes: a diversity of housing options, diversity of businesses (sizes and sectors), diversity of parks and public spaces, diversity of festivals and events, diversity of entertainment/arts, diversity of restaurants/retail, a diversity of streets, a diversity of transportation options and a diversity of architecture (old and new). 

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

All downtowns must reinvent themselves

Calgary: The World’s Most Walkable City Centre

Calgary’s City Centre on of the best in North America

 

 

Calgary: City Planners Rethinking Community Plans

For decades, one of the key planning tools for community development in Calgary was the “Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP).” However, with the increasing number of communities (now over 200), the task to create new plans and update old ones has become formitable.  

So, the City of Calgary is experimenting with the idea of creating 40 or so “community districts,” each with their own strategic growth plans that incorporates the needs and aspirations of several neighbouring communities in a synergistic manner. 

That’s the hope anyway….

Does Calgary have too many communities?

Does Calgary have too many communities?

Is this a good idea? 

Jane Jacobs thinks so.  In her 1960s book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (which has become the bible for North American urban planning in the 21stcentury), she says “cities have too many communities - and that it leads to small town, inward thinking.” In her opinion, communities should be larger, about 50,000+ people, to allow for more diversity in perspectives and attitudes.  

At this scale, she feels a community will have sufficient votes to capture the politician’s attention and allow for more comprehensive planning rather than being fragmented into small neighbourhood plans.

Link: Video of Green Line LRT route

The Green Line is going to shape the redevelopment of Calgary for the next 50 years. It is going to be the catalyst for major changes in dozens of communities.

The Green Line is going to shape the redevelopment of Calgary for the next 50 years. It is going to be the catalyst for major changes in dozens of communities.

North Hill Communities 

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The City of Calgary’s first larger “community district” will be called North Hill.  

It will encompass  Highland Park, Mount Pleasant, Tuxedo Park, Winston Heights-Mountainview, Crescent Heights, Renfrew, Captiol Hill and Thorncliffe Greenview (south of Mcknight Blvd).  

These communities are all experiencing significant growing pains.

Infill housing developments of all shapes and sizes, as well as several major developments on the horizon - Highland Golf Course redevelopment, Green Line LRT and the 16thAvenue BRT will all dramatically reshape urban living in these communities.  

Edmonton Trail has huge potential to become a vibrant pedestrian street.

Edmonton Trail has huge potential to become a vibrant pedestrian street.

Did you know that 4th St NW is the site of Calgary’s first McDonald’s?

Did you know that 4th St NW is the site of Calgary’s first McDonald’s?

North Mount Pleasant Arts Centre is a hidden gem.

North Mount Pleasant Arts Centre is a hidden gem.

In the future Centre Street will (could) become a vibrant pedestrian street with an LRT station near this intersection.

In the future Centre Street will (could) become a vibrant pedestrian street with an LRT station near this intersection.

Centre Street as it passes through Highland Park with the Bow Tower in the background is ripe for redevelopment.

Centre Street as it passes through Highland Park with the Bow Tower in the background is ripe for redevelopment.

Is Bigger Better?

At this early stage the City will be hosting community meetings to gather ideas, issues and opportunities. It has a website https://engage.calgary.ca/NorthHill that allows everyone not just residents to ask questions and learn more about the plans for a North Hill Community Growth Plan.  

In the past the City, would have had to manage eight separate area redevelopment plans for communities ranging in size from 3,337 to 8,849 residents. The new “bigger is better” thinking model will develop one plan for 45,760 people.

Ironically this size fits with Jacobs’ belief.   

This is not the first time the City has developed growth plans that combined several neighbouring communities. Back in 2007, the City developed the Center City Plan which included Eau Claire, Chinatown, East Village, Downtown Core, Downtown West and the Beltline, recognizing that collectively, these urban mixed-use, high-rise communities shared a lot in common.  

Today, they have a combined population of 43,492, again near Jacob’s benchmark.  

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But wait there is more.   

Traditionally, Calgary’s communities have been established based on how developers and the City subdivided the land and built new homes. 

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However, the northwest community association of Northern Hills (not to be confused with North Hill) which includes Harvest Hills, Coventry Hills, Country Hills Estates, Panorama Hills Estates, Country Hills and Panorama Hills were all built in the ‘90s.  

All of these communities surround the regional VIVO (formerly Cardel Place) recreation and wellness centre which has become the heart, soul and gathering place for all six communities. 

It should be noted that the formation of the Northern Hills Community Association was led by the community, not by city planners or politicians.  

And it has a population of about 60,000 people. 

VIVO is a busy place….

VIVO is a busy place….

Last Word

The City of Calgary has moved to a more regional and integrated model for amenities like recreation and library facilities in the 1980s and developers have also moved to more regional shopping and entertainment centers since then. 

The concept of small independent communities (5,000 to 10,000 people) needs to evolve as urban living changes from being more local to more regionally based.   

VIVO and Calgary’s other mega recreation/leisure/library/wellness centres with their associated parks, playgrounds and playing fields have become the modern equivalent of the town squares of European cities built hundreds of years ago.  

City building is a continuous series of adaptations and the City of Calgary, developers and communities are obviously adapting to Calgary’s as it grows towards two million people and over 200 communities.  

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the December issue of Condo Living magazine.

If you like this blog you will like these links:

Does Calgary have too many neighbourhoods?

Mount Pleasant: Calgary’s Other 4th Street

Calgary’s Highland Park Deserves Better

 

 




Jan Morris: Edmonton A Six-Day Week?

Never visit Edmonton in the winter!

This was Jan Morris’ warning in the prologue to her 1990 essay about the City of Champions for Saturday Night magazine. She arrived and it was “COLD, VERY COLD and while everyone was friendly and the city seemed to be handsome and all of her creative comforts were satisfied she felt defeated.”

The longer she stayed the more she wondered “why on earth would anyone want to live there and she left a day early.” 

Today Edmonton celebrates its long cold winters with its ice sculpture festival in Hawrelak Park. Today, Morris could have used Uber instead of renting a car to get there. I am sure she would be impressed with how Edmonton has evolved since the early ‘90s.

Today Edmonton celebrates its long cold winters with its ice sculpture festival in Hawrelak Park. Today, Morris could have used Uber instead of renting a car to get there. I am sure she would be impressed with how Edmonton has evolved since the early ‘90s.

Jan Who?

Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.  

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do. The series of essays on Canadian cities in her book “City To City” were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.  

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  

Perhaps I am jealous?

This is from Edmonton’s Downtown Saturday street market from a few years back  .

This is from Edmonton’s Downtown Saturday street market from a few years back.

Poor First Impression 

It didn’t start well with her decision to attend the Full Moon Hootenanny at the John Janzen Nature Centre to listen to the hooting of owls and learn how to hoot herself. Blinded by snow flurries and baffled by the intersections, the city’s numbering of streets and avenues and the one-way bridges she couldn’t find the place. “I circled helplessly in the gloom.”   

The initial venture into local culture was a complete failure.  Not a good first impression, but read on as she has some nice things to say.

The second day wasn’t much better as she explored the city centre where the streets were half-deserted with only a few cars and trolley cars on the slippery streets and the subway stations looked abandoned. 

When she arrived at the downtown commercial district she thought, “I might be in Houston, Denver or almost any other provincial business city of the United States. The Legislature could easily be the capitol of one of the smaller American states and she notes it was American-designed. The unmistakably Canadian building, the venerable railway-baronial Macdonald Hotel was boarded up.” 

This was not a good start.

She did think Edmonton was a “forceful place” mostly because of the magnificent North Saskatchewan River. Adding, “The architecture is predominantly late Bauhaus with few post-modernist tomfooleries…seems to me to offer an urban vista of world class.” 

Edmonton has numerous parks and colour public art that I am sure Morris would enjoy if she visited today.

Edmonton has numerous parks and colour public art that I am sure Morris would enjoy if she visited today.

Strathcona to WEM to UofA

On the third day she “ignored downtown and went to the unmistakably indigenous quarter of Strathcona, whose very name struck me as allegorically of the country.” Here she found the archetypal prairie settlement of the 19th century, still recognizable and offers a homey contrast to the skyscraper clump in downtown. 

She loved Strathcona’s main street (Whyte Avenue) which still feels like a main street with grand old hotel, theatre, car dealerships, pinball arcade and various shops and restaurants. However, it offered her “no rumbustious vibration,” she sensed the “inherited strain of reserve to the Canadianness of Edmonton.” 

Morris found it strange that while the city swarms with every kind of foreigner it did not feel in the least like an immigrant city. “Even the few Indians I saw looked more integrated than most…it was hard to realize that only a few generations ago, Cree and Blackfoot lived in tribal panoply, pitching their tents on Whyte Avenue sometimes.”

“The Canadianness of the place worked on me rather slyly” she says, things like the destination names at the Greyhound Bus Station – Wandering River, Elk Point, Red Deer and Rocky Mountain House. She also met several interesting people that made her stay interesting. She noted her view out her hotel window was very Canadian in a “distinctly insidious way: the Great West Saddlery Co. Ltd., Café Budapest, W.C. Kay the Gold and Gem Merchants, the gentrified Boardwalk Market decorated with fairy lights, stacked office towers beyond, and the illuminated thermometer on a building across the street registering minus 27 degrees centigrade.”  

She acknowledges Edmonton’s one big international claim to fame is the West Edmonton Mall and so she decided to visit and judge for herself as someone had told her the Mall is “aimed at an average mental age of nine.” 

To her it is “mostly artificial, largely derivative, it is a very declaration of contemporary capitalism, the world-conquering ideology of our time. It is beyond nationality, beyond pretension actually, and however much you may detest it yourself, you must be a sourpuss indeed to resist the eager excitement in the faces of people young and old, for better or worse, as they enter its shameless enclave.” 

At the end of her fourth day she wondered “if the fantasy of West Edmonton Mall was the one thing in Edmonton that I really got the hang of.  For the rest of the city seemed to be losing, rather than gaining, clarity in my mind…so indeterminate does the civic message seem to be. Edmonton has few instantly recognizable features, and so far as I could see no very pronounced local characteristics.

People did not talk in a recognizably Edmonton way, or cook specifically Edmonton dishes…I noticed very few striking-looking people in Edmonton.” 

She concluded her rant with “sometimes I thought it the least Canadian of cities, in its lack of icons or traditions.” But then says “at other times I thought it the most Canadian of cities, but of an indistinct kind. I expected it to stand, temperamentally speaking, somewhere between Saskatoon and Calgary…in the end I concluded its character to be altogether unique!” 

This is followed by “Edmonton does not feel like a young city. There is nothing brash about it except the mall…it seemed to me a gradualist kind of place…Edmonton appears to have developed, through many a boom and many a bust, with persistent reasonableness.” 

She was not a big fan of the University of Alberta either, “the buildings look more or less indistinguishable from the apartment blocks and office buildings nearby.”   

She recognizes that Edmonton has always been a liberal city, a place of bureaucrats and academics. She also acknowledges “theatres abound, art galleries are two a penny, bookshops are nearly all within reach. The natural history dioramas in the provincial museum are the best I have ever seen. A professional symphony flourishes, there are several publishing houses, the Edmonton Journal isn’t bad and there is a lively film industry.” 

She concludes the essay with “For a city of its size Edmonton is cultivated not just by North American but by European standards. And yet it left me curiously indifferent – not cold exactly, except in a physical sense, but unengaged.”

Ultimately, she decided to leave a day early, hence the title of the essay “Edmonton, A Six-Day Week!” 

Edmonton’s nickname in the ‘90s was “Deadmonton.” Fortunately, Edmonton has got its mojo back today.

Edmonton’s nickname in the ‘90s was “Deadmonton.” Fortunately, Edmonton has got its mojo back today.

Edmonton’s downtown streetscapes have improved significantly since 1990.

Edmonton’s downtown streetscapes have improved significantly since 1990.

What was she thinking? 

In her essay, you can sense Morris’ frustration that she simply couldn’t understand the city’s sense of place, or why anyone would choose to live there. It is too bad she chose to visit in the winter, I am sure she would have had a completely different experience in the summer.  

Still I am surprised she wasn’t able to understand how the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) was a logically adaptation to winter, providing a warm and inviting place for shopping, entertainment and recreation.  How it became the city’s town square? How it usurped downtown as the city’s gathering place. How it reflected a city dominated by its new suburbs.  

I couldn’t help but wonder why she loved Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and hated WEM? Aren’t they pretty much the same thing?  In fact WEM, has a better mix of uses.

I also found it strange Morris was frustrated with the roads on her first day. I would have thought an experienced traveller would know anyone getting into a strange car and driving in a strange city almost always ends up getting lost and frustrated by the quirks of the city’s streets.

Add to that it was cold and snowing and one has to ask “what was she thinking?” 

The Art Gallery of Alberta adds some fun to Edmonton’s downtown.

The Art Gallery of Alberta adds some fun to Edmonton’s downtown.

Alberta’s Provincial Museum that Morris liked has moved downtown’s cultural district.

Alberta’s Provincial Museum that Morris liked has moved downtown’s cultural district.

Edmonton’s downtown is in the middle of a mega makeover with several new residential buildings.

Edmonton’s downtown is in the middle of a mega makeover with several new residential buildings.

Even Edmonton’s suburban transit hubs are fun.

Even Edmonton’s suburban transit hubs are fun.

Last Word

Morris found Edmonton to “disarmingly modest, in the biggest-west-of-Winnipeg mode.” This is not surprising as she finds all Canadian cities lacking in “bravado.” 

I wonder what she would think of Edmonton today with its shiny new downtown toys - arena, art gallery, museum, office and condo towers.  Surely, she would be impressed by how it has become one of North America’s best festival cities and how its river valley park system is one of the best in the world.  And I wonder what she would think of Edmonton’s current “ICE District” bravado?

Perhaps if she visited today, winter or summer, her essay would be titled Edmonton: An Eight-Day Week!

It is amazing how cities evolve.

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

Design Wars: Its Edmonton vs Calgary for the architecture cup

Edmonton vs Calgary: Who has the best River Parks?

Brewery Districts: Edmonton vs Calgary

Calgary's Municipal Development Plan: A Herculean Task!

Calgary has to do something to stop urban sprawl.  We have to find a way to encourage more Calgarians to live in communities that already exist, rather then continue our rather relentless suburban march outward to Okotoks, Strathmore, Airdre and Cochrane.   

To meet the MDP’s target of 50% of Calgary’s population growth in developed areas, means the City and developers have to approve and build about 150 projects this size each year from now until 2069.

To meet the MDP’s target of 50% of Calgary’s population growth in developed areas, means the City and developers have to approve and build about 150 projects this size each year from now until 2069.

The City’s economists estimate that from 2009 to 2069, Calgary will add 1.3 million people. That's a doubling. So where will we put everyone?

Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) has set a very ambitious target that 50% of all population growth from 2009 until 2069 will be in older established communities called the Developed Area. 

It is the blueprint for Calgary’s future.

Yikes, that means adding 650,000 to our existing neighbourhoods - if we achieve the 1.3 million population increase.

A noble goal.

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Herculean Task

But in reality, it'll be very difficult, if not impossible to convince Calgarians to move into inner-city communities for various reasons.

To accommodate 650,000 new people via infill, new build, rebuild and other projects in our established communities, we'd need to add about 10,000 people to those communities per year. That is like adding one East Village every year, for the next 50 years somewhere in our City Centre or the older suburbs.  

When you understand how the differential death/birth rates, demographics, household sizes, land assembly and approval times, all significantly favour population growth in suburbs you being to appreciate the City has set itself a Herculean task!

We all have skin in this game. The MDP is our roadmap for shaping the kind of city we want to live in. It affects roads and transit planning and residential property taxes.

It impacts our collective carbon and economic footprint.

It's a plan we need to understand in detail as it will mean many of us will have to change the way we live!

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To meet the MDP targets will mean more high-rises at strategic sites in many inner-city communities.

To meet the MDP targets will mean more high-rises at strategic sites in many inner-city communities.

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Note since 2012 the cumulative growth in developed areas has grown to 25% which is encouraging.

Note since 2012 the cumulative growth in developed areas has grown to 25% which is encouraging.

EASIER SAID THAN DONE

Calgary's MDP was adopted back in 2009.  

That was a time of a different reality for our city - pre downturn - but still, it's the vision we are using as we move forward.  

The City’s mid-term target is for 33% of all of Calgary’s population growth between 2009 and 2039, to be in established communities and 50% by 2069. 

To give you an idea of the radical change this would be, from 2006-2016, about 91% of Calgary's growth was in suburbs, and only 9% or so was in developed communities. 

Link: MDP Monitoring Report

To go from 9% population growth in the Developed Areas to 50% is going to mean a paradigm shift in how the City, developers and Calgarians live. The City would need to devote considerably more time and tax dollars to making the inner-city communities a more attractive and affordable place to “live, work and play” than it has ever done before.  

This will mean new mid-rise condos along major transit routes and the conversion of old shopping centre, church and school sites into mixed-use, multi-building developments in every inner-city community. 

Think Stadium Shopping Centre, Kensington Legion or Westbrook Village on the old Ernest Manning High School site happening in almost every inner-city community.

This will mean huge investments in things like inner-city Bus Rapid Transit, bike lanes, public spaces, park and recreational facility upgrades. It will also mean finding land, conducting complex public engagement and approvals and completing infrastructure upgrades to build 250,000+ new homes – singles, duplexes, row housing and low, mid and high-rise buildings in every established community.

How this will happen and can this mega makeover happen is complicated. There are a bunch of numbers and indicators that really question if the city has created a target that is impossible to achieve. 

T he MDP encourages increased density along major transit routes throughout the inner-city.

The MDP encourages increased density along major transit routes throughout the inner-city.

Demographics matter

Back to that 9% number and how our growth has always been and still is mostly in suburbs. Right now, despite thousands of new infill homes, multifamily builds, and hundreds of new condo buildings, developed neighbourhoods account for a very small bit of Calgary's growth.

How's this possible?  Get ready for some math.

It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the older suburbs are where the older Calgarians live. A quick check of the City of Calgary’s community profiles showed that in Lake Bonavista 22% of the population is over 65, Acadia 17%, Silver Springs 17% and Lakeview 20%. Whereas new communities like Aspen Woods, Bridlewood, Evanston and Auburn Bay have 5% of less of their population over 65. 

So, you'll find more grey hair, like mine, in the middle ring suburbs (communities built between 1950 - 2000).  

On average the City of Calgary forecasts about 7,500 deaths each year, unfortunately the City doesn’t track deaths by community. However, it is fair to say that significantly more deaths occur in the developed areas than the developing one. 

Similarly, there is a significant difference in the birth rates in Calgary’s established communities vs new ones. Again the City doesn’t track how Calgary’s annual 17,000 births are distributed throughout the city. But a review of the City’s community profiles shows there are significantly more young children in the new communities at the edge of the city than there are in older communities.  

In addition, established communities are more likely to have older teens and young adults who will be moving out of the house, which will further decreased their population over the next 25+ years.  

Simply put, the older suburbs don’t stand chance against the new suburbs when it comes to their population growth vs new suburbs given their low birth and high death rates.


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This is not a fair fight!

The City admits this is an issue.  

Their Municipal Development Plan / Calgary Transportation Plan 2018 Monitoring Progress Report states, “to meet the 33 per cent growth share of the Developed Area for the 2006-2039 period, approximately 47 percent of the growth will need to be captured annually in the Developed Areas over the next 20 years. 

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LAND, LAND AND MORE LAND. 

Then there's this.... most land in established communities is, by definition, developed – already built on.  So, how does the City expect developers to go about amassing sufficient land in these areas to build the 250,000 or so new homes that will be needed to accommodate the 650,000 more people the city expects to live there by 2069. 

The City and developers are going to face a hard time approving inner-city projects in established communities given the increasing complications of community engagement and infrastructure upgrades needed. 

But let's say we do build up, that also presents financial problems. 

To meet the MDP targets the City is going to have to work with developers to foster major residential development next to all inner-city LRT stations.   And the market demand will have to be there to ensure the developments are successful.

To meet the MDP targets the City is going to have to work with developers to foster major residential development next to all inner-city LRT stations. And the market demand will have to be there to ensure the developments are successful.

WHEN FREE ISN'T FREE

People often assume infill projects are free for the city, as they don’t need any new roads, transit, schools, police and fire stations etc. This is not true.   

More people create more pressure on old infrastructure. Which comes with a cost.

For example, the city is spending $44 million to replace aging on infrastructure upgrades along the 17th Avenue SW to make it more attractive for future business and residential development. In Forest Lawn, to accommodate future development the City is investing $96 million in BRT to connect the communities along International Avenue (17th Ave SE) to the City Centre, as well as create a more pedestrian friendly experience. 

And then is East Village, where the City has invested mega millions in new infrastructure, a well as new library, museum, public art, community garden, dog park and redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island Park.  

If we are going to accommodate up to 650,000 more people living in inner-city communities they are going to want more amenities equivalent the new suburbs – iconic recreation centres. Smacking down 10 thousand new people next to an older smaller library, or with a less developed park or community centre, is going to increase demands for better 'stuff'. 

But even if there is a commitment to redeveloping older neighbourhoods, and we come up with the money, it is the 'cost' of the actual 'house' itself, which will make the target of up to 650,000 more people in established communities difficult.

AFFORDABILITY

Most Calgarians today simply can’t afford the cost of homes in established communities.  

Think of it this way. In the 'burbs' a modern single family home can, lock stock and barrel, easily cost $500,000. In developed communities, especially the inner city a lot, just the lot, can cost $500,000. 

Yes, we could try to focus on condos replacing single family homes in redeveloping older neighbourhoods, but the cost of a condo can be twice as much in the City Center vs. one in the suburbs, especially if you are looking at a concrete building with underground parking.  

And it is going to take a huge shift in thinking to get Calgary families to adopt condo living as their preferred way of living.

Until the City and developers can find a way to build more affordable high-density infill housing, Calgarians will continue to gravitate to living in the city’s new suburbs or even in edge cities like Airdrie and Cochrane.

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Progress Is Being Made 

More and more niche infill developers are building small row housing projects or small condo complexes to replace two or three small mid-century homes in inner-city communities as a means of providing more affordable housing in established neighbourhoods.   

We are heading in the right direction. 

Many of our inner-city communities are bustling with new infill projects and the City Centre is full of cranes building new highrise residential towers.  In fact, the 2018 census showed a significant increase the population of the City Centre and the inner-city communities around it. 

However, there was a decline in the older suburbs between the inner-city ring and the new suburbs that offset most of the growth near the city centre. 

The evolution of the mid to late 20thcentury communities from almost exclusively single-family residential neighbourhoods to a mix of housing types will take more than two generations i.e. 60 years.  

Communities like West Hillhurst, Bridgeland and Altadore have been experiencing infill development for over 30 years and only recently have their populations begun to grow beyond what they were in the 60s.   

We have a long, long way to go, and a lot to think about, and a plan that needs to be more realistic to early be helpful. 

This map illustrates population change in Calgary’s 200+ neighbourhoods. The greener the better - pun intended. The grey and yellow neighbourhoods are the ones that are going to be difficult to redevelop - but not impossible.

This map illustrates population change in Calgary’s 200+ neighbourhoods. The greener the better - pun intended. The grey and yellow neighbourhoods are the ones that are going to be difficult to redevelop - but not impossible.

Linking Vision With Reality

Rhetoric or aspirational thinking that is not based in reality is a dangerous thing. While it can inspire, inform, encourage and energize people, it can also have the opposite effect. Rhetoric (which there is no shortage in our culture), that falls flat time and again, will jade the community and ultimate lose its power to motivate change.  

We must be careful of not setting impossible targets in the name of 'doing something' about sprawl, environmentalism, and economic development. 

The intent of the MDP is good, there are lots of good ideas and policies but the targets need to be achievable.  

We need to rethink the target of 33% of all Calgary’s population growth between 2009 and 2039, to be in established communities and 50% by 2069.   

A better target would be to achieve continuous improvement from the 90/10 new vs. old community split with perhaps getting to a 50/50 split by the year 2069.  

Or perhaps to establish different goals for the City Centre and older inner-city communities vs. the mid to late 20th century and early 21st century communities recognizing each have their own inherent opportunities for and barriers to diversification and densification.  


Calgary is not alone in struggling to get more people to live in the inner-city vs. outer suburbs.

Calgary is not alone in struggling to get more people to live in the inner-city vs. outer suburbs.

Last Word

Good plans are not static, they adapting to new information, opportunities and realities as they become apparent. In a discussion with the City staff, I learned the City is indeed planning a review and updating of both the Municipal Development Plan and Calgary Transportation Plan early in 2019.  

And YES there will be an opportunity for community engagement. So, put on your thinking caps and let the City know how we can realistically better manage our City’s growth to slow down urban sprawl. 

Let’s work together to make our city better….

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary as part of its Road Ahead feature. Link: Can Calgary really cram 650,000 more people into existing communities?

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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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Halifax: Quinpool Road is very cool!

Halifax’s Quinpool Road is a very cool place to flaneur.  Why? Because of its fun mix of old and new shops and buildings. No other street in Canada that I have visited has so many merchants with a 25+ year history on the same street.  

Quinpool Shoe Repair is just one many merchants who have called Quinpool home for decades.

Quinpool Shoe Repair is just one many merchants who have called Quinpool home for decades.

Quinpool’s Organic Earth Market has large stuffies hanging out in strange places throughout the store. Very cool.

Quinpool’s Organic Earth Market has large stuffies hanging out in strange places throughout the store. Very cool.

Old & New

At first glance, many might dismiss the street as being old and tired, especially if you are just driving by.  But if you get out of your car, or off the bus and walk along the sidewalk, you will begin to realize there is more to Quinpool Road than meets the eye. 

I think Jane Jacobs (an urban writer and activist who championed new, community-based approaches to planning from 1960 until her death in 2006), approve of how Quinpool Road is evolving with a nice mix of the old and the new.  

Halifax’s Quinpool Road is an eclectic mix of old and new “mom and pop” shops.

Halifax’s Quinpool Road is an eclectic mix of old and new “mom and pop” shops.

The Keep, Quinpool’s new mixed use condo project is just the beginning of a mega makeover.

The Keep, Quinpool’s new mixed use condo project is just the beginning of a mega makeover.

Quinpool is a walk back in time when inner city communities each had their own Main Street populated by “mom and pop” shops located in a hodge-podge of buildings. There is not designer furniture, street lights or public art. It is an authentic Main Street.

Quinpool is a walk back in time when inner city communities each had their own Main Street populated by “mom and pop” shops located in a hodge-podge of buildings. There is not designer furniture, street lights or public art. It is an authentic Main Street.

Old School  

Freeman’s Little New York restaurant and bar has been on Quinpool since 1956.  Open 24 hours, it remains a popular spot for those who want a late night pizza – to stay or go! A popular happy hour spot too, it is a great place to mix with locals.

Quinpool Road is home to perhaps Canada’s best shoe repair shop.  I am not kidding. Quinpool Shoe Repair has been operating in the same location since 1958.  I was immediately intrigued by the its blade sign that not only includes a shoe, but a skate too.  

Vintage skate sharpening machine at Quinpool Shoe Repair is very cool.

Vintage skate sharpening machine at Quinpool Shoe Repair is very cool.

Yes, inside sits an old skate sharpening machine that brought back memories of when I was a kid who used to drop off my skates at a house on the way to elementary school where an old guy (everyone is old when you are 7 or 8) sharpened them on a similar machine in his basement. I would pick them up on the way home.

Cost….30 cents I think!  But I digress.

Quinpool’s Shoe Repair shop is a walk back in time. Note the money on the cash register.

Quinpool’s Shoe Repair shop is a walk back in time. Note the money on the cash register.

Quinpool Shoe Repair often will do repairs while you wait.  While we were there, a lady brought in her shoes for a simple repair and was immediately asked, “Do you want to wait for them?”  

While the classic shoe repair shop aroma of leather and polish is in the air, this is no little “hole in the wall” shop.  Large, bright, clean and very well organized, including a six-foot long wall of shoe laces – there’s an immediate sense of pride of ownership and craftmanship when you walk in.

Quinpool’s Armore Tea Room, has been a Halifax landmark since 1958.  Its name harkens back to its early days. Today, it is best described as old fashioned diner serving all day breakfast (including homemade meatloaf, liver and onions) and great milkshakes. Open from 5 am to 8 pm daily, it remains old school with its “cash only” policy.

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Across the street from Armore is Canada’s first donair shop, “King of Donair” which opened there in 1973. In 2015, Halifax Regional Council proclaimed the donair the official food of Halifax.  

When I went in and said I was from Calgary, it was quickly pointed out that real donairs have only onions, tomatoes and a sweet and garlicky donair sauce, “none of that lettuce, pickles or cheese junk they add in Western Canada.”  You could tell the King is proud to have developed the original recipe.  

In addition to multiple locations in Halifax, King of Donair has expanded elsewhere in Eastern Canada, as well Western Canada - including Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie. 

Backstory: Original owner, Peter Gamoulakos created the original 'doner' (what he called it briefly) with lamb topped with tzatziki. But Haligonians did not take to it. So Gamoulakos being an astute businessman, changed the protein to beef, developed the sweet garlicky sauce (using Carnation evaporated milk no less), changed the name to “donair” and a legend was born. He sold the store many years later and King of Donair has changed hands a couple of times since. Despite a few people trying to take credit for the donair, it remains Gamoulakos' legacy. 

Further up the “Road” is Aerobic First in what at first glance looks like an old, rather non-descript house (because that is what it is). However, curiosity made me walk in to discover a place packed with shoes, skis, boots and other sports wear equipment. Their claim to fame - “our staff are among the best shoe and boot fitters in Canada” according to their website and I believe them. I tried a few pairs on, but resisted as I really don’t need anymore flaneuring shoes.  The staff were very friendly and let me browse without feeling awkward. Eventually I struck up a conversation with one of the staff, who turned out to be the owner, who told me they have been in business on Quinpool since 1980. 

I really wish I needed new flaneuring shoes.  

Old houses make great boutique stores, cafes and restaurants.

Old houses make great boutique stores, cafes and restaurants.

Cool New Merchants 

Intermingled with the old timers on Quinpool are the “new kids on the road,” the cool new merchants. 

Sarah and Tom,” a Korean pop culture store recently opened on Quinpool, a sure sign that young people are moving in.  At first, I mistook it for a cool kid toy store. It all started when Sarah Milberry from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia went to Korea to teach English, met her husband Tom Yun (aka Tom) and together they decided to bring a bit of Korean retail culture to Canada – they have stores in Toronto and now Halifax.  I love today’s global world these days and how it leads to creating cool streets where a Korean toy store meets a skateboard shop. 

As just across the street from Sarah and Tom sits another new kid on the road, Pro Skate home of Halifax’s skateboarding community. But rather than the typical bohemian looking skater shop, Pro Skate has a friendly upscale atmosphere that even includes a micro café at the front with a few seats looking out onto the street. Very cool.   

Halifax’s popular Morris East Restaurant + Wine Bar recently opened its third location in Quinpool Road’s The Keep, a mid-rise condo complex. While the restaurant has a full menu, whenever we walked by, it seemed more like a busy pizza parlour where the cool people hang out.  Every street needs a couple of good pizza places.  In fact, there probably should be a “Pizza Index” to measure street vitality i.e. the more pizza places, the more vitality.

Then there is the new home décor store, Zephyr Rug & Home that offers amazing rugs as well as contemporary Canadian, American and Italian furniture. With all the area’s new condos projects (recently opened, under construction and planned) in Halifax’s City Centre, Zephyr could be the catalyst for Quinpool to become a design district.  After all, Secord Gallery, one of the longest established art galleries and framing shops in Atlantic Canada dating back to 1979 is also on Quinpool. 

Looks like a children’s toy store to me….I was wrong!

Looks like a children’s toy store to me….I was wrong!

Eclectic Eats

 Quinpool has an amazing array of ethnic restaurants and grocery stores – Korean, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese and Chinese.  There is also a healthy independent café culture along the road with great names like Atomic Café, Heartwood Bakery and Café, Lucky Penny Coffee Co., Dilly Dally Coffee Café and Other Bean. And yes, a Starbucks and a Tim Horton’s too.  

Sweet Hereafter Cheesecakery’s décor is as rich and yummy as its cheesecakes (see photo).  Open noon to 10 pm, it is cool a spot for a sweet afternoon delight or a nightcap. They offer a different selection of cheesecakes that very everyday.  My choices when I was there were: maple pumpkin, autumn apple, apple pecan and banana bread. My pick - maple pumpkin – decadent and I was not disappointed! 

Sweet Hereafter Cheesecakery’s decor has a cheesecake richness.

Sweet Hereafter Cheesecakery’s decor has a cheesecake richness.

Quinpool is home to an array of ethnic restaurants.

Quinpool is home to an array of ethnic restaurants.

Even the Time Hortons seems to fit into the retro feel of Quinpool.

Even the Time Hortons seems to fit into the retro feel of Quinpool.

Anchors

Quinpool Road is unique in that while it is mostly small “mom and pop” shops, one block is dominated by large format stores - Canadian Tire, Atlantic Superstore and Nova Scotia Liquor Store. Fortunately, the stores have street entrances with all the surface parking in the back, offering the best of both worlds - walkable at the front, drivable at the back. I wish more developers and big box stores would do this as it makes for a much better streetscape. That being said, the facades of all three stores are due for an update - it could become a very funky block.  

The Atlantica Hotel Halifax, a 230-room four star hotel located at the east end of Quinpool Road adds another dimension to the mix. Every good street needs a hotel or two.

The Canadian Tire and its sister big box stores provide the everyday needs of locals living near Quinpool.

The Canadian Tire and its sister big box stores provide the everyday needs of locals living near Quinpool.

In addition to the Atlantic Superstore, Quinpool has several ethnic grocery stores and a major health food store.

In addition to the Atlantic Superstore, Quinpool has several ethnic grocery stores and a major health food store.

Mixed-use Madness  

While Quinpool Road is currently surrounded mostly by modest homes, this is going to change. Like most urban streets in vibrant cities across North America, Quinpool is on the cusp of a mega-makeover.  

Recently completed is The Keep, an 8-floor, 74 unit residential project with ground floor retail - Starbucks, upscale outdoor retailer, (The Trail Shop which moved from its original home on Quinpool that it had occupied since 1968) and Morris Eats.  (FYI: A “keep” is the innermost and strongest structure or central tower of a castle. The name is a “metaphor for the strength of the building and its central location in Halifax” says The Keep’s website.) 

After 80 years, the art deco Oxford theatre closed in 2017 and was sold to a developer - a sure sign that change is in the wind for Quinpool Road.  

Other projects in the planning stages include the controversial The Willow Tree, a 25-floor residential building with street retail and the Drexel, an 15-floor mixed-use development. At Quinpool and Robie, plans are currently being finalized for an 18-floor condo tower on the site of the former Cruikshank’s Funeral Home, as well as an 11 and 22-floor residential tower next to it.

The addition of these new mixed-use condos projects should benefit existing merchants as well as add new retailers, restauranteurs and entrepreneurs to the mix of existing shops.

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Last Word 

In 1960, Jane Jacobs, in her “The Death And Life of Great American Cities,” wrote the ideal mix for street vitality was to have “one third of the buildings new, one third old and one third middle aged.” 

While I realize streets must evolve, I hope it does so gradually so it doesn’t lose the charm of its older homes and buildings too quickly.  The cool mix of old and new, the chic and the shabby chic is an aesthetic worth keeping.   

If you like this blog, you will like:

Melrose: Phoenix’s emerging vintage district

Hamilton: James Street North a hidden gem

Vegas’ Crazy Container Park

New Condos Help Kensington Thrive!

With the addition of several new condos – Kensington by Bucci, Ezra by Birchwood and Lido by Battistella – Kensington Village now has 10,000 people living within walking distance, a number considered by many urban strategists to be the threshold needed for street retail, restaurants and cafes to thrive. 

Kennsington has a lively pedestrian animation year-round (especially when the sky is blue).

Kennsington has a lively pedestrian animation year-round (especially when the sky is blue).

Annie says…

Annie MacInnis has been the Executive Director of the Kensington Business Improvement Association (BIA) for the past 15 years. She recognizes the important role the new condos and their 1,000+ new residents have played not only in increasing the number of shoppers and diners, but also the new energy these newcomers have brought to the community.  She is looking forward to next wave of condos - Annex by Minto and Memorial Drive by Anthem Properties – that will add to the growing vibrancy. 

MacInnis has a long personal history with Kensington, living in the community when the LRT was first proposed in the early ‘80s and opposed by many in the neighbourhood.  

She laughs when she thinks about how today, the community’s LRT connection to the downtown and the University of Calgary is one of the community’s key attractions. 

One of the biggest changes she has noticed over the past 15 years is how the BIA and the Community Association are now working together to build a vibrant community. It wasn’t always the case.  

Fifteen years ago, the business district was in a decline, the public realm needed replacement, and the BIA and the community association were not working easily together.

 Another watershed moment happened in the ‘90s when the two anchors at each end of the village were established - Safeway renovating its store on the north end of 10thStreet NW and Shoppers Drug Mart opening its store at the west end of Kensington Road – together, meeting most residents’ everyday needs.  

Since the opening of Calgary’s first Starbucks in the mid ‘90s next to the independent café Higher Ground, not only have both survived, but together they’ve enhanced Kensington’s reputation as Calgary’s premier coffee house destination.

While The Plaza theatre has had its ups and downs, it is a key differentiator for the village and critical to it ongoing vibrancy. 

Ezra on Riley Park is now completed and is expanding Kensington’s urban living west towards 14th St. SW  .

Ezra on Riley Park is now completed and is expanding Kensington’s urban living west towards 14th St. SW.

Lido (foreground) and Pixel (behind) by Battistella Developments have transformed 10th Avenue into a more vibrant pedestrian street.

Lido (foreground) and Pixel (behind) by Battistella Developments have transformed 10th Avenue into a more vibrant pedestrian street.

Battistella has plans to create a new condo project on this site, while retaining some of the elements of the church.

Battistella has plans to create a new condo project on this site, while retaining some of the elements of the church.

Reinvesting Parking Revenues

In 2015/16, MacInnis worked with the City of Calgary to manage the six million dollar makeover of Kensington’s public realm – new sidewalks, street lighting, furniture and replacement of all the unhealthy trees. The results have exceeded her expectations and will enhance the street for existing and new businesses for decades.  

In fact, the Kensington BIA won two international awards in 2014 for the innovative funding of the public realm improvements – “Best in the West” Excellence Award for Downtown Leadership and Management at the BIABC/International Downtown Association Western Canada and Pacific Northwest US Conference, as well as a Merit Award for Downtown Leadership and Management at the International Downtown Association conference. What particularly made the project unique was the securing of $4.5 million from the City of Calgary’s surplus parking revenues which opened the door for negotiations between Calgary’s Business Improvement Districts (BIA) and the City for an ongoing parking revenue sharing program for public realm improvements.  

In 2016, the City of Calgary, in partnership with Calgary Parking Authority and the BIAs developed an annual Parking Surplus Reinvestment Program, making monies available to any BIA or community with paid street parking for public realm improvements.   

Summer patios are another way Kensington enhances the pedestrian experience.

Summer patios are another way Kensington enhances the pedestrian experience.

Pages Books’ enhances the sidewalk experience with its outdoor book displays.

Pages Books’ enhances the sidewalk experience with its outdoor book displays.

Kensington still has its small town charm even with all of the new condos.

Kensington still has its small town charm even with all of the new condos.

The More Art The Better

With the streetscape now upgraded, MacInnis is focusing her efforts on enhancing Kensington’s alleys and side yards. “More murals and more art” is her mantra today.  Building on the existing street art in the back alley along the east side of 10thStreet NW, she has several projects on the go.  Three alleys between buildings have been activated with murals and lighting - east side of Pulcinella, east side of Norfolk Housing Association, and east side of 10thSt by Charisma.  

She is also working on installing a 17-foot tall kinetic, wind sculpture that is also have an interactive seat for two at its base, as well as a bicycle that allows you to you to charge your phone as you pedal. 

MacInnis’ vision for Kensington is for it to be an “irresistible destination where people want to come because there is cool art and whimsical activations to charm and delight, as well as lots of interesting shops and places to eat and drink in between exploring all its nooks and crannies.”

The summer Container Bar is great use of a side alley.

The summer Container Bar is great use of a side alley.

The Oak Tree was way ahead of its time when it commissioned this mural many years ago.

The Oak Tree was way ahead of its time when it commissioned this mural many years ago.

The back alleys in Kensington have become outdoor art galleries for street artists.

The back alleys in Kensington have become outdoor art galleries for street artists.

Last Word

MacInnis is very optimistic about the future of Kensington. With several more condos in the works, the future of Kensington continues to look bright, as a fun place to live, eat, drink, play and shop in Calgary.  

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

Kensington: One of North America’s Healthiest Communities

A Sunday Walkabout In Kensington

Kensington Legion: The Taller The Better?

Chinatown Makeover: You can’t please everyone!

Does Chinatown get swallowed up as the downtown highrises (office and residential) creep northwards toward the Bow River.

Or, does it become a pedestrian oasis that celebrates Calgary’s 135-year old Chinese culture?

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Let the debate begin

Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Parking vs Towers

That is the question Calgary’s City Council will debate on Nov 12th, 2018 when they are asked to approve a Land Use change and Development Permit for a huge mixed-use development that includes two-28 storey residential towers, a 12-story hotel and street retail.   

There are at least two sides to the El Condor Land debate – “El Condor” referring to the company that owns the land in question. The site encompasses almost the entire block from 2nd Street to 1st Street SW and from 2nd Ave to 3rd Ave SW.  

Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

A bit of context…

Calgary’s Chinatown has been stagnant, some might argue even in decline - for the past decade or more. The 2013 Calgary Flood hit the business community hard. The cost of recovery was significant for the many “mom and pop” businesses and Calgary’s current downtown economy is not contributing to revitalization.

Additionally, many property owners and merchants, now in their 60 to 80s, are actively considering selling their property and businesses and retiring. 

Chinatown At A Glance

  • 49 retail shops

  • 46 restaurants

  • 10 grocery/butcher/seafood

  • 11 personal services

  • 16 medical/pharmacy/Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • 16 salons

  • 6  business services

  • 23 corporate offices

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Change is in the wind…

“Chinatown needs private investment and development plus a relaxation of municipal bylaws (esp. parking) to revitalize the commercial/retail sector of this community,” says Terry Wong, Executive Director of the Chinatown District Business Improvement Area (BIA). 

The BIA, now three years old, has been working diligently with the City, businesses, property owners and various community groups to create a shared vision and plan to help Calgary’s Chinatown thrive in the 21stcentury. The vision is to enhance Calgary’s Chinatown as an iconic and cultural placevalued locally and nationally for its heritage, vitality, streetscape and architecture.  The goal is to create a walkable, accessible and livable community, a thriving authentic small-business district, an intergenerational social and community hub, and a tourist destination. 

The mega mixed use development being presented to City Council for approval could be the catalyst to make this happen, or it could be the end of Calgary’s historic Chinatown.  It depends on who you are talking to. 

El Condor Land Development at a glance:

  • 524      residential units

  • 150      hotel rooms

  • 23        commercial units

  • 470      parking stalls

  • 466      bike stalls 

Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

The BIA says…

“The BIA and other Chinatown stakeholders have worked with the City to establish eight guiding principles for future Chinatown development and the planned establishment of a ‘Cultural Plan for Chinatown’ and a ‘Culturally-based Local Area Plan’ as directed by City Council in 2016. A ‘Made in Calgary’ Cultural Plan will define what should be the culturally distinct characteristics (i.e. social, economic, environmental) of Calgary’s Chinatown” says Wong. 

 He adds, “This would then lead to defining how this 9-square block community should be developed and revitalized through land development, the new or renovation buildings, transportation and pedestrian streetscape, recreation and public spaces.” 

“The BIA and Chinatown community are generally in favour of new development as a path to Chinatown renewal, but they want to be sure it is designed in a way that will benefit everyone – other property owners, business, residents, community and visitors who are there to shop, dine or be entertained,” states Wong.   

Currently Wong says the community is not in favour of the proposed development, however, they would be if three key amendments are made. 

Changes Needed 

First, there should be no entrances or exits for the underground parkade on 2ndAvenue. That’s in keeping with the vision for 2nd Avenue SW is that it will become their pedestrian oriented Main Street from 2nd St SW to Riverfront Avenue with the Chinese Cultural Centre in the middle.

This makes good sense given the Green Line will have an underground station at 2nd St and 2nd Ave SW, making the area ideal for a pedestrian oriented shopping and dining promenade linking Eau Claire to Chinatown and ultimately, to East Village. 

Second, they are concerned the current development permit has commercial space (retail/restaurants) only at street level and doesn’t allow for a major anchor tenant needed to make Chinatown a more attractive city-wide destination. If the new development is going to be the catalyst for the revitalization of the Chinatown, it will need to provide quality retail and restaurants space not only for today, but into the future. A two-floor commercial space (of higher) would allow for +15 connection to Sun Life Towers.

The current plan has no +15 connection to the Sun Life Towers across 3rdAvenue, which they feel is critical to the success of the development and will provide a much-needed link to tens of thousands of downtown office workers just a few blocks away.

 I must agree with this. One of the failures of Eau Claire Market was that it didn’t have a +15 link, in effect “isolating” the shops from the downtown workers during Calgary’s long winters. I also think having a +15 link to the downtown would be a huge differentiator for the residential towers, given there are very few residential towers in the City Centre with a +15 connection to downtown. Imagine not having to put a coat on in the winter to go to work every day; this would be a huge selling feature. 

Finally, the fourth concern of the BIA is that the hotel tower is in the wrong spot. The BIA supports a right-sized, quality hotel placed on 3rd Avenue and 1st Street SW where there is mid-point access to downtown, the Green Line LRT plus the existing 7th Avenue north-south and east-west LRT lines, the Chinese Cultural Centre, Chinatown retail, and the riverfront park and pathway system. This placement would also preserve 2nd Avenue as the pedestrian-oriented ‘linking promenade’ Main Street while allowing current multi-residential tenants the comfort of knowing roads and sidewalks are both comfortable and safe to walk on.

All reasonable requests you would think! 

It should be noted Wong is a former manager at The City of Calgary and fully understands land use, transportation, and community neighbourhoods. Additionally, having grown up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 60s and 70s, he is fully aware of Chinese community and retail culture and does not want to see the loss of Calgary’s culturally distinct Chinatown like has already happened in Vancouver.

Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Community Engagement Consultant says…

Lourdes Juan, an urban planner with strong ties to the Asian community (note Chinatown is more of an Asian town these days with the last three new restaurants being Korean) was hired by the developer in May 2018 to help work with all the stakeholders to understand their concerns and listen to their ideas and help the community understand how the proposed project links with the community’s vision while also meeting economic and urban design realities.  

The developer has spent $100,000 and the City over $400,000 in community engagement initiatives since the proposed Land Use change and project design was unveiled. Literally thousands of hours have been spent working with the stakeholders to explain the development and why it is designed in the manner it is.  Translators were at every meeting and all documents were translated into Chinese to make sure everyone understood what was being said and being proposed.

Juan told me that each of the above issues have been addressed with the community but unfortunately not everyone was prepared to accept the rationale for why the City and/or the developer wants the projects developed the way it is being proposed.

First, the City is not interested in additional parking at the site, as it is adjacent to the new underground 2ndSt LRT station for the Green Line and only four blocks from the 7thAvenue Transit corridor.  The focus of the development will be on transit-oriented development, not auto-oriented.  

The developer’s research indicates that second floor retail doesn’t work in Chinatown today, and that the proposed development doesn’t have a commercial podium at its base, like office buildings downtown.   Rather, the project is designed with a mid-block mews from 2nd to 3rd Ave SW that will allow pedestrians to wander 23 small independent shops and restaurants along the mews, rather than national franchised shops.  

They did indicate that provisions will be made for a potential +15 connection from Sun Life Plaza at a future date.  

The hotel location also makes sense when you understand how the mews works and other restrictions of the site that is too complicated to explain here.

It has been very frustrating from both the City and the Juan’s perspective as they have tried very hard to communicate how the project’s design (by Perkins + Will’s Calgary office) will benefit the community.  

It should be noted that Juan is a young, independent urban planner who is uniquely connected not only to Calgary’s Chinese community, but also Calgary at large. Despite working very hard to document and communicate how the proposed project fits with the community’s eight principles, she couldn’t get the BIA and some other community leaders to support the proposed project.

Next Step    

Now it is up to Council to make the final approval. Council can’t make any amendments to the project, they can only approve it or reject. If rejected, the developer would have to continue to modify the project to get community and Council support. If approved, the community could appeal this decision to the Development Appeal Board.

I do know Councillor Farrell’s and her Dale Calkins her Senior Policy & Planning Advisor have been working with the community, applicant, and City planners on this project for the past 3.5 years. And that it has been incredibly challenging, as everyone wants to ensure Chinatown is a vibrant, resilient, and complete community.

“They just disagree on what that exactly looks like and how to get there.”

The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

Last Word

I always say “no plan is perfect. You can’t please everyone.” And the old saying “there is more than one way to skin a cat” might apply here too.  

This is a huge development that will shape the future of Chinatown for decades, so yes, it is important to get it right. But right for whom!

While some in the community will lament the loss of their surface parking lot, the reality is the best thing that can happen for Chinatown is the parking lot gets developed. Surely, the addition of a 150-room hotel, 500+ new homes and 20+ new retail/restaurant spaces will add much needed vitality our struggling Chinatown.  And hopefully, spur on other property owners and shop keepers to up their game.  

That’s my opinion after chatting with both sides.  And it hasn’t changed from when I first wrote about this proposal back in July 2016 in my Calgary Herald column.

Link:What is the future of Calgary’s Chinatown”  

Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

2018: The Summer of Murals (Northern Hills Mural Project)  

While NHMP isn’t as catchy acronym as BUMP (the Beltline mural program I shared with you last week), it has more community buy-in than any public art / mural program Calgary has ever seen.  The idea for the mural came from Kim Walker an artist living in the community who saw the 850 meter six-foot high blank residential fence along several blocks of Country Hills Blvd as a blank canvas.  

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 1.58.02 PM.png

History of Calgary

Walker thought what if the fence, instead of being a barrier, brought the community together and became a source of community pride?  

Working with the City of Calgary and 40 individual homeowners who each owned part of the fence, she and another volunteer Laura Hack, were able to get everyone onside to create what would become Canada’s longest outdoor mural.  

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 1.58.24 PM.png

A Northern Hills Mural Project Committee was formed to manage the project and conduct extensive community engagement.

They obtained funding to allow them to hire an experienced artist to help create the design based on the theme “History of Calgary.”

Local artist, Mark Vazquez-Mackay was chosen from an open request for proposals, based on his painting expertise and teaching skills. Vazquez-Mackay’s role was to develop the mural design and paint a template (think huge colouring book) of the various icons and images identified by the community to trace Calgary’s history from the glaciers to the present in small sections along the along the 850 meter fence.  

Walker and Vazquez-Mackay then organized volunteer artists to oversee 150 foot sections the fence to help guide individuals and families in painting specific section based on their interests, to paint in the details of Vazquez-Mackay sketch.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 1.59.16 PM.png

The fence was painted in 3 days over the August long weekend as hundreds volunteer muralist mostly from the community, but with some help from Calgarians from other communities and even outside the Calgary.  

Most had little or no painting experience but that didn’t deter them.

And finally, with a little touch up by Vazquez-Mackay, Walker, Makenna Millot and Josh Chilton the mural was completed and unveiled on Sept 22, 2018 at a community celebration.  

Images range from Calgary’s first train to the 1886 fire, from Fort Calgary to the ’88 Olympics, from the Stanley Cup to the Grey Cup, from VIVO Centre to whiskey traders. 

The community raised a total of $63,000 in cash and in-kind donations in three months to pay to repair the fence (some boards were rotting) and to scrape and pressure wash the fence.  Then approximately 415 gallons of paint products (paint, three coats of UV protection and one coats of anti-graffiti protections) were used to ensure the mural stays looking fresh for at least the next eight years.

Everyone is invited to come and see the, bring visiting family and friends to learn about history of Calgary and or our city’s amazing community spirit.   

It truly was a community effort.

It truly was a community effort.

Last Word

Indeed, the summer of 2018 will be remembered as the “Summer of Murals,” not only for the Beltline and Northern Hills projects but for several other mural projects.  

The Downtown West community also initiated a mural program with two provocative pieces on the side of buildings (two more are in progress) and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation commissioned a mural for the 4th Street SE underpass linking East Village to Stampede Park.

It will be interesting to see how all of these murals age. Will they become valued community icons or will they just quietly fade away.  

If so, perhaps that is OK, public art doesn’t have to be permanent. 

While some public art has received a negative reaction from the public, all of the murals have been well received by their community. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here i.e. let the community initiate and manage the public art program.  

I truly hope the Beltline, Northern Hills and the Downtown West mural projects meet a better fate than previous attempts in Calgary to use murals and public art to create a sense of community.  

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

2018 Summer of Murals: Beltline

Vancouver: Mural Festival Fun & Fantasy

Doug Driediger: Public Art That Is Uplifting!

2018: The Summer of Murals (Beltline)

Do murals enhance neighbourhoods?   Do they foster community pride? Do they make people stop, look and ponder? 

Natalie Nehlawi’s playful mural is meant to “activate the imagination about a species vital to our ecosystem.”

Natalie Nehlawi’s playful mural is meant to “activate the imagination about a species vital to our ecosystem.”

Mikhail Miller and Rachel Ziriada’s playful mural reminds me of Matisse’s cut-out artworks.

Mikhail Miller and Rachel Ziriada’s playful mural reminds me of Matisse’s cut-out artworks.

Do we expect too much?

This summer two major mural projects were undertaken in Calgary - one in the Beltline, the other in Northern Hills (a coalition of four communities), both with the goal of enhancing their community.  The Beltline Urban Mural Program (BUMP) was the more traditional model where professional artists were selected to create murals on blank walls throughout the community. The Northern Hills Mural Project (NHMP) was more community-based with hundreds of community members, as well as others from across the City and beyond helping to paint an 850 meter fence along a section of Country Hills Blvd. 

Both were successful in generating lots of social media and community attention, but how long before the thrill of the new murals fade, just as the murals themselves will?  This is not the first time and won’t be the last where murals and public art have been used to try to enhance a neighbourhood. 

Do we expect too much from public art to transform ugly, boring urban spaces into something fun and attractive?

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Faith47’s BUMP mural

Faith47’s BUMP mural

Jill Stanton’s mural pays homage to Calgary’s upscale cowboy culture on the side of Gravity Pope one of the city’s best fashion boutiques.

Jill Stanton’s mural pays homage to Calgary’s upscale cowboy culture on the side of Gravity Pope one of the city’s best fashion boutiques.

BUMP

“Our vision is to use powerful, awe-inspiring, whimsical, thought-provoking and stunning art to create beautiful places, invoke dialogue, challenge ideas and foster connections,” says the BUMP website. Link: BUMP website

Those are lofty expectations for the 15 murals which range from the decorative to narrative, mysterious to indigenous and fantasy to illustrative.  There was even a BUMP Festival, Aug 30 to Sept 1stwith tours of the murals, artists talks and an alley party.  I participated in two of the tours which attracted about 100 people each and heard only positive comments about the murals and the project.   

One of the murals that stood out for me was Los Angeles, artist Faith47’s huge cougar with the words “Fortes et Liber” on the side.  Not sure I understand the context of the cougar which appears to be ready to pounce on an unsuspecting pedestrian, however, the Latin words for “strong and free” make some sense given Canada’s national anthem. The mural’s scale (10 storeys) and its monochromatic brownish wash gives it a dream-like quality that looks like it is already fading away.  

Montreal’s Kevin Ledo’s mural on the west side of the Calgary Parking Authority’s City Centre Parkade at 10thAve and 5thStreet SW was also well received.  This artwork, with its huge indigenous figure staring into the Beltline community has a look of contemplation. Only later, when I checked the website did I learn the title of this piece is “Sohkatisiwin” Cree for “Strength/Power.”

An interesting choice given Calgary is located in the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Nation, not the Cree and the artist is from Montreal. Nor did I realize the figure is a real person - Angela Gladue, an internationally recognized dancer in both aboriginal and hip hop genres.  Not sure how this all relates to the Beltline or Calgary.

Although, BUMP’s website has a complete list of the murals and info on the artists, I found most of the jargon-loaded text not very helpful in understanding the context of the work to the Beltline’s sense of place.

There is a printable map of the murals, which would make for a fun walkabout on a nice fall or winter afternoon.  

The funding for the murals came from the Beltline Community Investment Fund, City of Calgary Parking Revenue Reinvestment Program and mural sponsors - Battistella Developments and Hotel Arts. 

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Kevin Ledo mural on 4th St at 10th Ave SW

Kevin Ledo mural on 4th St at 10th Ave SW

Kalum Teke Dan’s mural in progress on the side of 17th Ave Framing. It is intended to “develop understanding and foster reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.”

Kalum Teke Dan’s mural in progress on the side of 17th Ave Framing. It is intended to “develop understanding and foster reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.”

Last Word

This is not the first time Calgary’s City Centre communities have tried to use public art to make them a more interesting place to live and visit. 

In the ‘90s, the Uptown 17thBusiness Revitalization Zone (BRZ) organized a series of murals created by well-known Calgary artists on the side of buildings to create an outdoor art gallery.  Unfortunately, after many years, they were removed as “mother nature” had gotten the better of them.

The 4th Street BRZ commissioned sculptures to be located along the street also in the 90s. While many of them are still there, I doubt anyone would say they have become valued community icons.  

I hope the BUMP murals will indeed become an attraction for more people to want to live and visit the Beltine. 

Below are some other murals in the Beltline….

In the relatively new Thompson Family Park there is a decorative mural with the words “The Readiness is All” embedded in it. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Hamlet debates the meaning of life….

In the relatively new Thompson Family Park there is a decorative mural with the words “The Readiness is All” embedded in it. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Hamlet debates the meaning of life….

Found this mural while on the BUMP tour in someone’s backyard. Interesting mix of nature and indigenous elements.

Found this mural while on the BUMP tour in someone’s backyard. Interesting mix of nature and indigenous elements.

I love the series of paintings along the fence of playground next to Connaught elementary school that speaks to issue of “belonging.” They have aged well, and are perfect message for the Beltline one of Calgary’s most diverse neighbourhoods, including many new Canadians.

I love the series of paintings along the fence of playground next to Connaught elementary school that speaks to issue of “belonging.” They have aged well, and are perfect message for the Beltline one of Calgary’s most diverse neighbourhoods, including many new Canadians.

Jan Morris: Saskatoon: The Wonder, HUB, POW City?

This blog is another excerpt from Jan Morris’ 1990s book “City to City,” subtitled, Canada through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day. The book is a series of essays commissioned by Toronto’s, Saturday Night Magazine. Link: Jan Morris

The title for Morris’ Saskatoon essay is “The happy surprise” and her first sentence is “Saskatoon struck me as Canada’s best surprise,” followed by “I expected the worst.” She said her 10-day visit taught her a lesson not to jump to conclusions.  Having recently visited Saskatoon I was surprised at how her observations rung true even today. 

I love urban surprises, we stumbled upon this street festival on a side street just off of 21st Ave.

I love urban surprises, we stumbled upon this street festival on a side street just off of 21st Ave.

Prosaic Names

Morris found Saskatoon in the early ‘90s to be “intellectually vivacious, physically it was invigorating, and aesthetically I thought it, in certain lights as least, in certain moods, very beautiful.”

She loved the name Saskatoon, loved enunciating it, but otherwise she thought Saskatoon and most Canadian cities have “too many prosaic imported names e.g. European saints names that have no reference to Canada or names inherited from Scottish estates or other European places.” She liked that Saskatoon is “allegedly derived from the Cree word for a local berry, misaskwatomin, it is as indigenous a name as one could wish for, besides being euphonious, exotic and slightly comical.” Overall, Saskatoon struck her as the “most thoroughly Canadian of Canadian cities” but doesn’t really say why.

She then lists Saskatoon’s various monikers over time – The Wonder City (in its youth), the Hub City (when the railway arrived), the Fastest Growing City on Earth (which it once claimed to be) and City of Bridges (it has seven). 

It is one city in Canada that “does not seem greatly interested in the affairs of the United States.”  

The University Bridge is Saskatoon’s iconic bridge. You would think it would have a more meaningful name.

The University Bridge is Saskatoon’s iconic bridge. You would think it would have a more meaningful name.

Tyranny   

Saskatoon reminded her of Aberdeen, Scotland given its role as the powerhouse of the Saskatchewan hinterland, sustaining the economy of hundreds of thousands of square miles (its own terrestrial ocean) not just for the wheat fields but for potash, uranium, and gold mines. 

Morris acknowledges “while there is a majestic beauty to Saskatoon’s lonely per-eminence, there are cruel oppressions, too.  As artists in particular have observed before me, that infinite horizon is a kind of tyranny – one feels that even trying to challenge it, in soaring art or architecture….would be no more than a senseless impertinence.”

She recognized 21stStreet at an “architectural gem” where you can see a fair cross section of local society, economically and socially. The street is home to the chateau-style Bessborough Hotel, the modernist Canadian National building, the Saskatoon Club and the old Eaton’s store that is now an Army & Navy store.  

“Saskatoon is a patchwork of rich and poor, rough and smooth. Its history has fluctuated from boom to bust and back again, and its social fabric is correspondingly interwoven.”

Bessborough Hotel, designed by Archibald and Schofield, opened in 1935 and was considered one of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

Bessborough Hotel, designed by Archibald and Schofield, opened in 1935 and was considered one of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

The streets of Saskatoon are quite playful today.

The streets of Saskatoon are quite playful today.

The old Hudson’s Bay Department store has become condos, but still retains its department store shape and the lovely mural.

The old Hudson’s Bay Department store has become condos, but still retains its department store shape and the lovely mural.

PhDs

“Nearly all the people, it seemed, rich or poor, scholar or scavenger, Scottish, Russian or Cree by origin, had something specifically Saskatonian in common. During my 10 days in this city, I experienced no single instance of unfriendliness – not a single annoyance.  Saskatoon claims to have more PhDs per capita than anywhere else in Canada, is full of lively theatre, and is a very hive of gifted writers.”  

Remai Modern’s contemporary exhibition and programming is provocative and challenging, perhaps too much for some.

Remai Modern’s contemporary exhibition and programming is provocative and challenging, perhaps too much for some.

 “Saskatoon also has a powerful instinct for communal duty, communal purpose. An almost intimate sense of fellowships seems to characterize the city.

Its public institutions are often named for still living local worthies and its University Bridge built by local engineers.

The Mendel Art Gallery is not only open 363 days of the year, twelve hours a day, but attracts an annual attendance almost as great as the entire population of the city (note the Mendel is now closed having been replaced by the controversial Remai Modern which is not open 363 days of the year or twelve hours a day.)  

If you build a new house, the city gives you two free trees. And everywhere there are commemorative plaques.”  

The University of Saskatchewan’s campus integrates the design of its new buildings with its old buildings to create an architectural harmony that is delightful.

The University of Saskatchewan’s campus integrates the design of its new buildings with its old buildings to create an architectural harmony that is delightful.

Found these two shelves of books in a thrift store…thought this said something about Saskatoon intellectualness.

Found these two shelves of books in a thrift store…thought this said something about Saskatoon intellectualness.

Loved these bike racks/tree grates that also tells the history of the Riversdale community in a fun way.

Loved these bike racks/tree grates that also tells the history of the Riversdale community in a fun way.

Restaurants

Morris was not big fan of Saskatoon’s restaurants saying “seldom have I eaten more depressingly” even though the city claimed to have more restaurants per capita than any other Canadian city. She thought the city was cosmopolitan, with its fertile ethnic melange and constant infusion of outsiders, but remarkably introspective.

Saskatoon’s restaurant scene has changed significantly since Morris’ visit with award winning chef Dale Mackay’s three signature restaurants - Ayden Kitchen & Bar, Little Grouse on the Prairie and Sticks & Stones. If you don’t believe me check out this link: 17 Bucket List Restaurants You Need To Try In Saskatoon.

The River

Bill Epp’s 1989 artwork title “Tribute to Youth” which Morris references reflects the Saskatoon’s sense of play and togetherness.

Bill Epp’s 1989 artwork title “Tribute to Youth” which Morris references reflects the Saskatoon’s sense of play and togetherness.

She notes, “Physically the place depends for all of its charm upon the river, and this Saskatoon has used magnificently. The seven bridges do give a noble flourish to Saskatoon, while its river banks have been fastidiously exploited as trail and parkland, unobtrusively equipped with the standard educational displays, and mercifully embellished, as far as I discovered, by only two pieces of sculpture – one depicting a gambolling group of Saskatonian adolescents, some of them upside down, the other depicting a Metis slumped on his horse.”  

Morris observes, “almost everything seems new in this mise en scene, and this is hardly surprising, because Saskatoon is one of the most sudden of all the world’s cities….The thirty-odd blocks of downtown are like the rings of a chopped tree…the solid red-brick emporiums of the early boom years, the years of the Wonder City.

Here is the glass and steel of the 1970s, when a spurt in several of Saskatoon’s industries made it POW City, meaning the city riding the boom in Potash, Oil and Wheat.  And in between these emblems of success are the symptoms of successive relapses, stores that never quite made it, building lots never quite built upon.”  

Later she laments about the removal of the rail yards and train station from the City Centre, “To this day the absence of the yards gives the city centre a sense of lacuna and deprives it of symbolism.”  

The South Saskatchewan River next to the downtown is a fun urban playground for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The South Saskatchewan River next to the downtown is a fun urban playground for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Splash park along the river.

Splash park along the river.

Kinsman Park is Saskatoon’s signature and historic downtown park is located just off the river. It has a lots of activities for families.

Kinsman Park is Saskatoon’s signature and historic downtown park is located just off the river. It has a lots of activities for families.

Verandering?

She also comments about the suburban development “thousands of houses built in the first half of the century create a ring around the city centre with hardly any two alike as they have been embellished with every kind of decorative caprice, equipped with all permutations of gabling, pillaring, shingling and verandering, ranging from mock Tudor to glimmering modernism.”

There are lots of tree-lined streets with lovely homes just south of the University. I loved this modest house with an art installation in the front yard. It is evidence of how Saskatoon has become less prairie pragmatic and more a funky, fun and quirky place to live.

There are lots of tree-lined streets with lovely homes just south of the University. I loved this modest house with an art installation in the front yard. It is evidence of how Saskatoon has become less prairie pragmatic and more a funky, fun and quirky place to live.

Pioneer vigour 

I was surprised when she commented that the boom of the 1970s that created the sprawling malls, industrial estates and housing developments is “where one still feels a sense of pioneering vigour.”  She adds, “If you really want a sensation of the frontier in Saskatoon, probably the best place of all to go is to the big industrial zone in the northern part of town, which looks as though it has just been off-loaded piecemeal from a container train and is remarkably like photographs of pioneer Saskatoon in the earliest days of Wonder City.” 

I love Morris’ sense of urban humour. “Saskatoon is short on bravado, and, in its social being as in its contemporary architecture, seems anxious not to shock, or even surprise…while all this does not make the city feel disappointed, exactly, it does make it feel a little resigned – like a woman in middle age who, contemplating her husband across the dinner table, realizes without rancour that life’s romantic possibilities have come and gone.” 

This conversion of an old egg plant in the downtown’s warehouse district is an example that Saskatoon is embracing contemporary urban redevelopment.

This conversion of an old egg plant in the downtown’s warehouse district is an example that Saskatoon is embracing contemporary urban redevelopment.

While this looks like NYC this is in fact downtown Saskatoon. How cool is this?

While this looks like NYC this is in fact downtown Saskatoon. How cool is this?

This is one of several robotic creatures found at the entrance to a scrap yard in Saskatoon’s industrial district.

This is one of several robotic creatures found at the entrance to a scrap yard in Saskatoon’s industrial district.

This is the scrap yard where you can hunt for buried treasures.

This is the scrap yard where you can hunt for buried treasures.

Prairie Sun Brewery can be found in Saskatoon’s industrial district next to the fun scrap yard.

Prairie Sun Brewery can be found in Saskatoon’s industrial district next to the fun scrap yard.

I found numerous examples of how small ordinary buildings had enhanced their facades and entrances with fun contemporary urban design elements.

I found numerous examples of how small ordinary buildings had enhanced their facades and entrances with fun contemporary urban design elements.

Heroic to banal

Near the end of the essay she summarizes her feeling about the city, “But then excitement is not what Saskatoon purveys. It is part of the civic genius – part of the Canadian genius, too – to reduce the heroic to the banal.” 

13-storey mural on the side of the First Nation’s Bank of Canada by artist Emmanuel Jarus is one of the best murals I have seen this year. It is well executed, the subject matter is appropriate for the site and it is monumental which is what murals should be. To me it is heroic!

13-storey mural on the side of the First Nation’s Bank of Canada by artist Emmanuel Jarus is one of the best murals I have seen this year. It is well executed, the subject matter is appropriate for the site and it is monumental which is what murals should be. To me it is heroic!

Last Word

I recently visited Saskatoon and found it was a great long weekend getaway, not sure how I would spend 10 days there.  I am happy to say the restaurant scene has improved, as it has in most Canadian cities since the ‘90s.  Saskatoon, like most North American cities, has caught the craft beer bug with the north industrial area providing some fun beer tasting spots. The City Centre is currently undergoing a slow renaissance with new shops, restaurants, bars, fitness studios and condos popping up everywhere. The river valley continues to be a popular public place for people of all ages with new publics spaces, trails and events.    

From an architectural perspective, the University of Saskatchewan has perhaps the best blend of old and new architecture in Canada. The new Remai Modern art gallery is a definite attempt to create a modern architectural statement with its cubist, container-like design.

The architecture and programming are diametrically opposed to what the Mendel Art Gallery used to offer.  Like it or not, it is a move away from the banal, the prosaic towards the “bravo” that Morris’ said was missing in Saskatoon’s sense of place.  

I agree with Morris that Saskatoon has a lot of commemorative plaques, statues and monuments. However, what impressed me most were the provocative murals and street art - some of the most thoughtful and appropriate images that I have seen anywhere. 

This detail of a mural on the side of the City Centre Church which serve at-risk children and youth, single mothers, and run food programs for the homeless. It too is monumental and has a strong social/political statement that reminded me of the great Mexican muralists.

This detail of a mural on the side of the City Centre Church which serve at-risk children and youth, single mothers, and run food programs for the homeless. It too is monumental and has a strong social/political statement that reminded me of the great Mexican muralists.

The entire mural from across the street.

The entire mural from across the street.

Brad Lamb: Big On Calgary's Beltline Beat 

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Brad Lamb, arguably Canada’s most active condo developer, in the comfy second floor lounge of his recently completed 6th and Tenth condo on in Calgary’s Beltline to get his insights into Calgary’s City Centre condo market. 

Lamb, a Toronto realtor and developer, has sold 29,000 condos for over $8.5 billion since 1988. He currently has 25 projects at various stages of development in Ontario.  His record in Alberta is not as impressive – cancelling two projects in Edmonton and one in Calgary (Orchard in Victoria Park).  Link: Lamb Development Corp.

Yet, Lamb is still very high on Alberta and especially Calgary.  

Brad Lamb’s 6th & Tenth condo is one of several new condo towers in Caglary’s hip Beltline district. 10th Avenue SW next to the CPR’s main line was once a warehouse district, today it is quickly becoming a trendy street with bars, restaurants, condos, a new hotel and even a very busy bottle depot.

Brad Lamb’s 6th & Tenth condo is one of several new condo towers in Caglary’s hip Beltline district. 10th Avenue SW next to the CPR’s main line was once a warehouse district, today it is quickly becoming a trendy street with bars, restaurants, condos, a new hotel and even a very busy bottle depot.

Like Toronto’s King West Neighbourhood 

When asked what he liked about Calgary’s City Centre, Lamb quickly answered, “I love the Manhattan-esque landscape with the two rivers creating an island in the middle of the city.  

 He also likes the young party scene and the excellent restaurants. “When I am thinking of developing in a new city or new community, I do is a walkabout to see if there are lots of hip people on the streets, in the restaurants and bars; these are my buyers.”

He loves the Beltline beat, “it reminds me of King West in Toronto in 2004.” FYI. King West is a trendy urban village in Toronto’s City Centre that is also nestled up against railway tracks. 

When asked what he didn’t like, he quipped “the bland pre-2008 office, residential and retail architecture. To me architecture is critical to creating an interesting place to live.” Ouch! He did say he likes The Bow, Telus Sky and Brookfield Place.  

Calgary’s Beltline is a funky mix of old and new architecture, with several urban parks and an increasing number of public artworks and murals. It has become a very popular place for millennials and empty nesters to live, work and play.

Calgary’s Beltline is a funky mix of old and new architecture, with several urban parks and an increasing number of public artworks and murals. It has become a very popular place for millennials and empty nesters to live, work and play.

Architecture & Urban Design

Lamb’s promotion of 6th and Tenth said it would be “unlike anything the city has seen before.” In looking at the finished building, I would say it is attractive but not outstanding.  It is unique in that it is set back from the sidewalk, allowing for small plaza with a water feature, seating and two big black horse sculptures. He hopes the plaza will become a popular Beltline meeting place. He is proud of the first-class commercial space on the main floor with its 25-foot high ceiling giving it a museum-like feel. He added that Lamb Corporation is retaining the space and looking for a high-end restaurant to locate there.

He was adamant “it won’t be a fast food or convenience store.” 

6th and Tenth’s mini plaza and water feature were designed to enhance the pedestrian experience and be a meeting place for those living in the area.

6th and Tenth’s mini plaza and water feature were designed to enhance the pedestrian experience and be a meeting place for those living in the area.

The plaza wraps around the tower and includes two large horse sculptures at the entrance off of 6th St. SW.

The plaza wraps around the tower and includes two large horse sculptures at the entrance off of 6th St. SW.

When I asked why he didn’t use local architects for his Calgary projects, he said he uses only two architectural firms, both in Toronto – Core Architects and The Design Agency.  As these two firms have been with him since the beginning, he enjoys a great working relationship with them that results in a better, faster and cheaper designs than if he worked with a different architect in each city. From his perspective, having a like-minded architect is critical to a successful project. He recognizes there are good architects in Calgary, but this being his first project in Calgary he didn’t want anything to go wrong. 

Backstory: The original design for 6thand Tenth was a brick building, but he couldn’t find anyone in Calgary to do that much brickwork cost effectively. Too bad, as brick has a timeless quality to it and would have respected the 10thAvenue’s historic brick warehouse past. It is interesting to note all of Calgary’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s condo towers were brick – Eau Claire 500, The Estate, Westmount Place, Riverstone and Roxboro House.

The Estate condo tower next to the Ranchman’s Club is one of several condos built in the late ‘70s early ‘80s with brick facades.

The Estate condo tower next to the Ranchman’s Club is one of several condos built in the late ‘70s early ‘80s with brick facades.

What about Orchard?

Then I asked the tough question “What happened with Orchard?” i.e.  the two-tower project with an urban orchard in the middle on 11thAvenue SE at the edge of the Stampede Grounds. Lamb was forthright saying “We had a great launch in November 2014 selling 50% of the units, but with the drop in oil prices shortly thereafter we didn’t sell many units after that. All the contracts had a clause stating we had to be in the ground by November 15, 2017 or the project would be cancelled and everyone gets their money back. It was a tough decision but we decided not to go ahead given Calgary’s current economic climate, on November 20th 2017, everyone got their money back. It was the prudent thing to do.” 

That being said, Lamb thinks Victoria Park and the plans Calgary Municipal Land Corporation is currently developing for the area are exciting. He added, “I hope the Mayor and Flames’ owners can find a way to work together to create an arena district. It is too good an opportunity to be missed.”

It would sure help his Orchard project become viable again. 

Lamb’s Orchard project consisted of two condo towers with a mini orchard in the middle along 12th Avenue SE.

Lamb’s Orchard project consisted of two condo towers with a mini orchard in the middle along 12th Avenue SE.

Calgary Municipal Land Corporation is currently working on a plan to redevelop Victoria Park one of Calgary oldest communities. The concept illustration above shows a new arena in pink, an expanded BMO Centre in middle left and a lots of new buildings between 12th Ave and the CPR railway tracks in yellow. It would be on a similar scale to the East Village mega makeover that won’t be completed until 2027 on the north side of the tracks.

Calgary Municipal Land Corporation is currently working on a plan to redevelop Victoria Park one of Calgary oldest communities. The concept illustration above shows a new arena in pink, an expanded BMO Centre in middle left and a lots of new buildings between 12th Ave and the CPR railway tracks in yellow. It would be on a similar scale to the East Village mega makeover that won’t be completed until 2027 on the north side of the tracks.

Last Word

Lamb was quick to say, “he plans on doing more Calgary projects once the condo market supply and demand situation improves.” It is obvious, he is pleased with how 6thand Tenth turned out and has not soured on the Calgary market. 

Reader Response:

JM…wrote to say that Lamb is not one of Canada’s biggest condo developers and in fact not even the biggest in Toronto. He sent this graphic:

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

Calgary’s 10th Ave Renaissance

Calgary’s Rail Trail

Beautifying The Beltline

 

 

Hamilton: SuperCrawl is Super Fun


Hamilton’s SuperCrawl has evolved over the past 10 years into one of Canada’s biggest and best music/street festivals.  It is a great success story. 

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Grass Roots

It all started when a group of fledgling art galleries along James Street North (aka Little Portugal) decided to host an Art Crawl the second Friday of every month. This was not a particularly novel idea - most cities across North America had such event in the ‘90s and ‘00s. In Hamilton’s case, it started as an experiment to attract more people to downtown’s new arts district.  However, soon new restaurants, cafes and boutiques were popping up along James Street North and wanted to join in the fun. 

Each month, the Art Crawl grew in popularity. 

Then in 2009, as an experiment, the James Street North merchants convinced the City to close the street for their September Art Crawl so they could add stages for music and create a real street festival - hence the name “SuperCrawl!” The first year attracted 3,000 visitors; today SuperCrawl is an annual 3-day festival the second weekend in September that attracts over 200,000 visitors from across southern Ontario and beyond (i.e. more than the Tiger-Cats attract all season). 

In many ways, SuperCrawl has put Hamilton on the art scene map!  

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SuperCrawl 2018

After attending a regular Art Crawl a few years back and being impressed, I added the Super Crawl to my list of things to see.  This was the year.    

In 2018, this eight-block festival, had two major stages (75+ music and theatre performances), hundreds of artists’/makers’ tents, 15 fashion shows, a block of food trucks, several art installations and a family fun zone.

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Music

The music program is very eclectic. This year’s program ranged from Broken Social Scene to Ian Thomas with the Hamilton All-Star Blues Band in the middle. Over the years, the festival has featured groups like Hamilton’s own Arkells (in 2014), to Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings (the late Jones being called the “female, James Brown” (in 2015). Other notables over the years - Sheepdog, Sam Roberts, Tanya Tagaq and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.   

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Found this grunge band playing in a dark back alley half a block off of James St N. Anything goes during SuperCrawl.

Found this grunge band playing in a dark back alley half a block off of James St N. Anything goes during SuperCrawl.

Fashion Shows 

One of the festival’s hidden gems is the fashion shows that showcase local designers.  I discovered this stage late on Saturday night. I loved the Cosplay Masquerade and was sorry to miss the Hamilton Vintage Community and The Thrifty Designer shows. Other interesting shows included Madjita: Indigenous Stories and Design and TroyBoy Drag Show.    

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Tents

I was surprised at the number of tents that filled up not only the street but every nook and cranny, creating a fun, flea market-like atmosphere.  From the usual artisans to people selling used records and books – there were treasures to be found.  

By day…

By day…

By night…

By night…

Food Trucks 

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In addition to the many restaurants along James St. North, there were 35+ food trucks.

The food trucks ranged from Hamilton’s famous Gorilla Cheese to one called The Flyin’ G’Nosh.  

I was intrigued by Buster’s Bloomin Onion Company’s truck with its huge multi-level trays each holding hundreds of whole peeled onions waiting to be battered, fried and served with Buster’s own chipotle mayo, peppercorn ranch dipping sauce or nacho cheese drizzle.  

I didn’t try them (I hate long lines) but given the long line-up, I bet they were good. 

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SuperCrawl also showcases how downtown Hamilton’s King William Street (one of the adjacent side streets) has evolved into a restaurant row with lovely patios.

In the evenings, it was like being on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue or perhaps in Montreal’s Plateau on a warm summer evening.  

And of course, there was candy floss (it wouldn’t be a street festival without it) and Tim Horton’s Coffee.  Kudos to Timmy’s for sponsoring the entire block that hosted the family fun activities.  

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Art Installations 

The art installations this year were a big disappointment.  I had seen photos of some of the past installations and was ready to be wowed.  Perhaps my expectation’s “bar” was set too high.  However, I was not alone in thinking the art installations looked junky - I overheard many people saying “this just looks like a pile of junk,” and in several cases, that literally is what they were. 

Robert Hengeveld's artist statement reads, “Howl, a perpetual coyote-and-bunny chase races along the bright green tracks of a custom-built rollercoaster. It is never quite clear which decoy is chasing the other. Both decoys fall well short of the reality they stand to represent, and yet the spectacle of their wild and persistent action seems to make up for their lack of living breath or the occasional blemish in the stab at authenticity. Situated beneath the looping track is a vibrant landscape formed through the heaping piles of shredded paper. Accents of purple, neon pink, and red pop like wild flowers in what becomes an over-romanticized semblance of nature. The abridged world it creates is fantastical despite the ever-present reality of its modest materiality.”

Robert Hengeveld's artist statement reads, “Howl, a perpetual coyote-and-bunny chase races along the bright green tracks of a custom-built rollercoaster. It is never quite clear which decoy is chasing the other. Both decoys fall well short of the reality they stand to represent, and yet the spectacle of their wild and persistent action seems to make up for their lack of living breath or the occasional blemish in the stab at authenticity. Situated beneath the looping track is a vibrant landscape formed through the heaping piles of shredded paper. Accents of purple, neon pink, and red pop like wild flowers in what becomes an over-romanticized semblance of nature. The abridged world it creates is fantastical despite the ever-present reality of its modest materiality.”

Most people I overheard talking about it saw it as a hodgepodge of junk thrown together, that seemed to have no focus.  There were a few laughs next to the roller coaster, not sure the artist’s message was received.

Most people I overheard talking about it saw it as a hodgepodge of junk thrown together, that seemed to have no focus. There were a few laughs next to the roller coaster, not sure the artist’s message was received.

Male-Dominated by Vanessa Crosby Ramsay. “ using 6,000 ft of hand-knit computer cable, this piece considers historical ‘women’s work’ and our continued under-representation in fields dominated by me in the present” says the information panel.

Male-Dominated by Vanessa Crosby Ramsay. “ using 6,000 ft of hand-knit computer cable, this piece considers historical ‘women’s work’ and our continued under-representation in fields dominated by me in the present” says the information panel.

Christopher McLeod's social art project EMERGENCY asks two simple yet complex questions of public participants: What’s the emergency? What can be done about it? Through the production of art as an instrument for change — a pillar beacon with a suggestion box-style cavity for gathering written submissions from the public — the project strives to be emblematic, participatory, and supportive.  Most people just ignored it…there were volunteers there sometimes to engage pedestrians to submit a ballot indicating “what is their emergency?”

Christopher McLeod's social art project EMERGENCY asks two simple yet complex questions of public participants: What’s the emergency? What can be done about it? Through the production of art as an instrument for change — a pillar beacon with a suggestion box-style cavity for gathering written submissions from the public — the project strives to be emblematic, participatory, and supportive.  Most people just ignored it…there were volunteers there sometimes to engage pedestrians to submit a ballot indicating “what is their emergency?”

Bystanders by Megan Press was assembly of three temporary fixed sculptures made out of everyday materials strapped together. “Bystanders entice audiences to contemplate the familiarity of their identity and configuration as substitutes for human form, architectural structures and discrete objects” says the artist’s statement.  They looked like a smash-up of random materials to me. Most of the time people just walked by and didn’t engage with the work. But did find this impromptu moment, not sure if the young women is responding to the art or to her friends.

Bystanders by Megan Press was assembly of three temporary fixed sculptures made out of everyday materials strapped together. “Bystanders entice audiences to contemplate the familiarity of their identity and configuration as substitutes for human form, architectural structures and discrete objects” says the artist’s statement. They looked like a smash-up of random materials to me. Most of the time people just walked by and didn’t engage with the work. But did find this impromptu moment, not sure if the young women is responding to the art or to her friends.

Members of    Flagship Gallery    (237 James St. N., Hamilton) offer a visual meditation the theme of "rest” in A Place of Rest. An outdoor installation of artwork created using church pews, dovetailed with an in-gallery exhibition, the piece invites visitors to pause and reflect. This piece seemed be the successful of the art installation as people did stop and where engaged by the piece.

Members of Flagship Gallery (237 James St. N., Hamilton) offer a visual meditation the theme of "rest” in A Place of Rest. An outdoor installation of artwork created using church pews, dovetailed with an in-gallery exhibition, the piece invites visitors to pause and reflect. This piece seemed be the successful of the art installation as people did stop and where engaged by the piece.

One of the more interesting art experiences was provided by Kelsey Knight who would chat with you and then create a custom poem for you.   I also enjoyed the installation below in one of the permanent art galleries along James St. North.

One of the more interesting art experiences was provided by Kelsey Knight who would chat with you and then create a custom poem for you. I also enjoyed the installation below in one of the permanent art galleries along James St. North.

Circus Orange 

For the past four years, SuperCrawl has showcased Circus Orange, a local performance group that combines acrobatics and pyrotechnics into a fun family evening event. Think Cirque du Soleil up close and personal.  I was able to stand by the fence next to the performers on both nights with great views of the behind the stage warm-up and set-up, as well as watching the performance ringside.  A “front row seat” for FREE!

“It is not every company that can say they have a forensic gun expert working alongside a clown. Or, dancers who are also licensed pyrotechnicians and actors who happily dangle 80 feet in the air from industrial cranes. It is this kind of diversity that is our greatest asset and truly represents the Circus Orange company culture.” (Circus Orange website)

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Urban Renewal Spark

SuperCrawl is a good example of how festivals can serve as the catalyst for change - helping transform a tired and forgotten street and neighbourhood, to a trendy, vibrant urban playground.  

And, while James St N still has a long way to go, there is evidence of revitalization. New condos are being built; new shops and restaurants are joining the traditional Portuguese ones that have been there for many years.

There is a new fully leased WilliamThomas luxury student residence that will add 350+ students to the neighbourhood.  This 21-storey, 169-unit residence is named after the 1850s WilliamThomas building that was on the site until it had to be demolished in 2010 as it was falling down.  The four-storey façade of the original building along James St N was saved and reconstructed as part of the new student tower to enhance the pedestrian-friendliness of street.  At present, it is looking for a couple of new retail or restaurant tenants.  

One of the reminders that James St N was once known as Little Portugal.

One of the reminders that James St N was once known as Little Portugal.

The restored Lister Block in the foreground with the WilliamThomas student residence in the background.

The restored Lister Block in the foreground with the WilliamThomas student residence in the background.

Last Word

If you are in the Hamilton area on the second Friday of any month, check out Art Crawl.  And if you love music/art festivals, I highly recommend you plan a weekend vacation in Hamilton and take in the entire festival.  And did I mention it is FREE!

While there you can also check out the Hamilton Art Gallery and the Cotton Factory two other fun art adventures.

There is lots of interesting architecture in downtown Hamilton, take some time to wander and you will be rewarded.

There is lots of interesting architecture in downtown Hamilton, take some time to wander and you will be rewarded.

Canada: A Country Of Prosaic Cities - Toronto!

I love flaneuring through the books in thrift stores and used bookstores to see if I might find a hidden gem.  That is exactly what happened recently at J.H. Gordon Books on King St. E in Hamilton, Ontario. 

Often, I find books I didn’t even know existed, like Jan Morris’ “City to City” which is subtitled “through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day.” I have a couple of Morris’ books in my collection but had never seen this one.   

A quick check found it was published in 1990 and the cities ranged from St John’s and Saskatoon to Yellowknife and Vancouver, as well as a few cities in between. I thought it would be interesting to see how an outsider saw Canada and our cities almost 30 years ago (a generation). Needless to say, I bought the book.  

This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

Jan Who?

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Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.   

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do.

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  Perhaps I am jealous?

By the end I was amazed at how many times she used the word “prosaic” to describe Canada, and our cities. However, that being said, she does make some very thought provoking observations.

Over the next few months I will share excerpts from her essays that were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.   

Toronto the capital of the Ice Kingdom  

Morris’ Toronto essay was written in 1984 when she visited the city for its sesquicentennial. She acknowledges the city has become more metropolitan now (i.e. 1990) more Americanized and more assertive as evidenced by….wait for it… “the increasing number of jay-walkers!” 

In her opinion, Toronto is one the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cites of the Western World.  Morris also notes she had never heard of the word “multiculturalism” or “heritage language” until she visited Toronto.  She writes “Far more than any other of the great migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite.”

She thought the word multiculturalism is to Toronto, what “ooh-la-la” is to Paris, “ciao” to Rome, “nyetto” Moscow and “hey you’re looking great” to Manhattan. 

But she also noted “Toronto was not all brotherly love and folklore, saying wherever she went she heard talk of internecine (destructive to both sides) rivalries, felt a darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism and that one could easily stumble into cafes in which plotters organized distant coups.”  

Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Hinterland 

One of the main themes of the essays is the role of the transcontinental train as Canada’s iconic experience, as evidenced by this paragraph:

“And best of all, early one morning I went down to Union Station to watch the transcontinental train come in out of the darkness from Vancouver. Ah, Canada! I knew exactly what to expect of this experience, but still it stirred me: the hiss and rumble of it, the engineers princely in their high cab, the travel-grimed gleam of the sleeper cars…the grey faces peering out of the sleeper windows, the proud exhaustion of it all, and the thick tumble of the disembarking passengers, a blur of boots and lumberjackets and hoods and bundled children, clattering down the steps to breakfast, grandma, and Toronto, out of the limitless and magnificent hinterland.”

Oh, how Toronto and Canada HAS changed. The transcontinental train is iconic no more, and Union Station is filled with day commuters, with briefcases, backpacks and coffee cups from edge cities, not people from the hinterland.

Hard to believe the west was still thought of a Canada’s hinterland in the mid ‘80s by outsiders.

Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Destination

I love the strange and insightful questions Morris asks of cities. In the case of Toronto, it was “What were the intentions of this city?” She then links this question to her observation of the “mural sculpture on the wall of the stock exchange ‘Workforce” by Robert Longo and she begins to contemplate its significance. The mural has eight figures, ranging from a stockbroker to what seems like a female miner, none of which look happy.” Whereupon she exclaims, “the pursuit of happiness, after all is not written into the Canadian constitution.”   She also notes, “Nor do they look exactly inspired by some visionary cause…. they are marching determinedly, but joyously, arm-in-arm, upon an undefined objective. Wealth? Fame? Security?”  Interesting contradiction here, as earlier she says they don’t look happy but later they are “joyously, arm-in-arm.”

Morris then poses the question, “Do cities have to have destinations?” And answers with “Perhaps not, but most of them do, if it is only a destination in the past, or in the ideal. Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city. It is not, like London, England obsessed with its own history. It is not an act of faith, like Moscow or Manhattan. It has none of Rio’s exuberant sense of young identity. It is neither brassily capitalist or rigidly public sector. It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are.”

Morris also perceived, “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past. In Sydney, in Melbourne, in Wellington, even in Capetown, not to mention the cities in India, where the imperial memorials remain inescapable, sometimes even dominant…

Nobody, could possibly mistake this for a British City now.” “There is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either….it is not a free-and-easy, damn Yankee sort of city – anything but,” she adds later.

Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Nuclear Attack

Morris observes that while government authority is strong and respected in Toronto you could hardly call it “Orwellian – it seems without malevolence; but at the same time nobody can possibly ignore it, for it seems to have a finger almost everywhere (she hates the Liquor Control Board stores).”

She notes how public art is not only the work of the artist, but has to be authorized and approved by several government bodies before it is installed, or how it is the government that sells you a bottle of scotch and how well-mannered we are addressing criminals in course as “sir.”   

She postulates that if a nuclear bomb was to go off nearby, Torontonians would wait for the lights to change before running for cover.

Later she notes “Only in Toronto, I think, will a streetcar stop to allow a pedestrian to cross – surely one of the most esoteric experiences of travel in the 1980s? (Hmmmm, in Calgary cars stop all the time to let pedestrians cross the street, I wonder what she would make of that) Only in Toronto are the subways so wholesome, the parks so mugger-less, the children so well behaved.” 

She also recognizes Toronto isn’t a “provincial city” describing it as a huge, rich, splendid city, a metropolitan in power, a money centre of universal importance.

“Toronto is Toronto and perhaps that is enough….it is a city clean, neat, and ordered, built to a human scale, unhurried and polite. It has all the prerequisites of your modern major city – your revolving restaurants, your Henry Moore (today, that might be a Santiago Calatrava Bridge or a Jaume Plensa sculpture or a Norman Foster or BIG building), your trees with electric lights in them, your gay bars, your outdoor elevators, your restaurants offering deep fried pears stuffed with ripe camembert on a bed of nutmeg-scented spinach.”

Yet, by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism. 

The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

Futuristic

She adds later “Everywhere has its galleria nowadays, Singapore to Houston, but none is quite so satisfying as Toronto’s Eaton Centre – just like one of the futuristic cities magazine artists like to depict in the 1930s.”

Morris says “Only the greatest of the world’s cities can outclass Toronto’s theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and newspapers, the variety of its restaurants, the number of its TV channels, the calibre of its visiting performers. Poets and artists are innumerable.” 

“What has not happened to Toronto is as remarkable as what has happened. It ought by all the odds to be a brilliant, brutal city, but it isn’t. Its downtown ought to be vulgar and spectacular, but is actually dignified, well proportioned, and indeed noble. Its sex-and-sin quarters, are hardly another Reeperbahn, and the punks and Boy Georges to be seen parading Yonge Street on a Saturday night are downright touching in their bravado, so scrupulously are they ignored.” 

Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Escape Tunnels

Morris is not a big fan of the city’s street life, “Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive. The Walkman might be made for it. It swarms with clubs, cliques, and cultural societies, but seems armour-plated against the individual. There are few cities in the world where one can feel, as one walks the streets or rides the subways, for better or for worse, so all alone.” 

She likes Toronto’s underground PATH walkway better than the streets saying “Among the innumerable conveniences of Toronto, which is an extremely convenient city, one of the most attractive is the system of tunnels which lies beneath the downtown streets, and which, with its wonderful bright-lit sequences of stores, cafes, malls and intersections, is almost a second city in itself. I loved to think of all the warmth and life down there, the passing crowds, the coffee smells, the Muzak, and the clink of cups, when the streets above were half-empty in the rain, or scoured by cold winds; and one of my great pleasures was to wander aimless through those comfortable labyrinths, lulled from one Golden Oldie to the next, surfacing now and then to find myself on an unknown street corner far from home, or all unexpectantly in the lobby of some tremendous bank.” 

She adds, “But after a time, I came to think of them as escape tunnels. It was not just that they were warm and dry; they had an intimacy to them, a brush of human empathy, a feeling absent from the greater city above our heads.” 

Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

No Joie de vivre

She later says, “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit – those interminable suburbs stretching away, the huge plane of the lake, those long grid roads which deprive the place of surprise or intricacy. Sometimes I think it must be the climate, numbing the nerve endings, or even the sheer empty vastness…Could it be the underpopulation; ought there be a couple of million more people in the city, to give it punch or jostle? Could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.” 

When Morris asked immigrants what they thought of Toronto they said the “people are cold…they just mind their own business and make the dollars…neighbours don’t smile and say hullo (sic), how’s things…nobody talks.” 

To this she adds her own observations “in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment…even the most naturally merry of the immigrants, the dancing Greeks, the witty Poles, the lyrical Hungarians seem to have forfeited their joie de vivre when they embrace the liberties of this town.”

In the end she concludes, “Your heart may not be singing, as you contemplate the presence around you Toronto the Good, but it should not be sinking either.

Cheer up! You have drawn the second prize, I would say, in the Lottario of Life.” 

Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Last Word

Toronto the “Capital of the Ice Kingdom” is Morris’ term, not mine. However, it would seem to capture her view of Canada and our cities as cold, conservative and controlled places with little merriment. Hence the prolific use of the word “prosaic.”

I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Toronto, but then most Canadians other than those living in the metro Toronto area seem to despise the city that thinks it is the “centre of the universe.”  I am probably even more anti-Toronto than most as growing up in Hamilton we hated “Hogtown!”  I was surprised on a recent visit to Hamilton how much the anti-Toronto sentiment still exists.  

While reading the essay I couldn’t help but wonder what she might think of Calgary with our indoor +15 walkway, our brutally cold winters, beautiful icy rivers and huge parks.  What would she think of Stephen Avenue, the Calgary Tower or our iconic recreation centres? I got a sense of what she might have thought in her essay on Edmonton, entitled “A Six-Day Week!” 

Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

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

City Travel: Canada vs USA

Canada: The Foundations of its future