Eau Claire: Still a work in progress 

Recently, Harvard Developments Inc. announced yet another delay in their planned mega redevelopment of the forlorn Eau Claire Market site they bought in 2004. Though unfortunate, it’s understandable given the current economic reality of Calgary.  

In fact, the current plan may never happen as Eau Claire has struggled to adapt to changing economics and urban design thinking. 

Harvard Development Inc. has ambitious plans for the development of the Eau Claire Market site in downtown Calgary.

Harvard Development Inc. has ambitious plans for the development of the Eau Claire Market site in downtown Calgary.

Today Eau Claire is a ribbon of residential development with the Bow River and Prince’s Island on one side and the downtown office towers on the other.

Today Eau Claire is a ribbon of residential development with the Bow River and Prince’s Island on one side and the downtown office towers on the other.

Eau Claire Market vs Granville Island Market

Eau Claire Market opened to much fanfare in 1993 as part of an urban renewal scheme for to create an urban village next to Prince’s Island. Unfortunately, the Market didn’t thrive as hoped and has waiting to be redeveloped for almost 15 years now.  

While most people think the original concept for Eau Claire Market was based on the success of Vancouver’s Granville Island, nothing could be further from the truth.  Granville Island’s success was the result of its being a huge mixed-use development, not just a farmers’ market and a few shops.  

I recently toured Granville Island for a day and was amazed by the critical mass of things to see and do. It includes over 100 small shops, boutiques and art galleries, 75 food outlets in addition to the farmers’ market, 10 restaurants and 12 theatre/entertainment venues.  It is also the hub for a number of water adventures (including the fun False Creek Sea Ferries) and small businesses.  Originally, it was home of the Emily Carr School of Art, which recently moved to a spectacular new campus, leaving the old school now being redeveloped.  

Calgary Eau Claire Market was an early attempt at creating an entertainment retail hub by combining some food kiosks, boutiques, theme restaurants, a brand name nightclub (Hard Rock Café) and a small cinema complex (including Calgary’s first IMAX.)  However, it lacked the critical mass and the unique Calgary sense of place needed to become a tourist attraction. 

 And thought it was popular with locals for a few years, once the “lust of the new” wore off, locals moved on to Chinook (which was revitalized in the late ‘90s) and other malls for their retail therapy. 

Eau Claire Market is a small two storey building with a dozen so food, restaurant, coffee and retail vendors on the main floor.. The second floor has a cinema complex and offices.

Eau Claire Market is a small two storey building with a dozen so food, restaurant, coffee and retail vendors on the main floor.. The second floor has a cinema complex and offices.

Granville Island is more more than just a public market.

Granville Island is more more than just a public market.

The Public Market on Granville Island is just one of dozens of tourist attractions on the site.

The Public Market on Granville Island is just one of dozens of tourist attractions on the site.

Granville Island includes other markets, performance spaces, art galleries etc. It is a village.

Granville Island includes other markets, performance spaces, art galleries etc. It is a village.

Eau Claire vs East Village 

In fact, Eau Claire has perhaps more in common with Calgary’s East Village than Granville Island.  Many new Calgarians don’t realize Eau Claire in the ‘80s was much like East Village with its huge surface parking lots and lots of undesirable activities.

The City’s Eau Claire revitalization plan revolved around enticing private developers to build an urban village at the base of Barclay Mall, the new pedestrian link to the downtown core next to the lagoon and the new Eau Claire YMCA. The plan called for residential towers, mixed with a new hotel, office towers and a retail, restaurant and cinema complex.   

That is not very different from East Village’s masterplan with River Walk, St. Patrick Island redevelopment, new library, new museum and the new Fifth & 3rd grocery store/retail complex slated to open in 2020. 

Somehow East Village gets all the media attention and accolades.

Eau Claire has lots of public spaces, but there are not as well integrated and programmed as East Village’s.

Eau Claire has lots of public spaces, but there are not as well integrated and programmed as East Village’s.

Eau Claire’s wading pool is the gateway to Prince’s Island.

Eau Claire’s wading pool is the gateway to Prince’s Island.

East Village’s St. Patrick’s Island's pebble beach is popular with families as there are lots of weekend programs in the summer.

East Village’s St. Patrick’s Island's pebble beach is popular with families as there are lots of weekend programs in the summer.

East Village’s RiverWalk is an upscale multi-use pathway with high-end materials and furnishings like these lounge chairs.

East Village’s RiverWalk is an upscale multi-use pathway with high-end materials and furnishings like these lounge chairs.

East Village’s summer pop-up container park converts a surface parking lot into a funky people place thanks to CMLC. Eau Claire residents would love to see their parking lots programmed like this.

East Village’s summer pop-up container park converts a surface parking lot into a funky people place thanks to CMLC. Eau Claire residents would love to see their parking lots programmed like this.

Eau Claire would love to have a community garden like East Village’s.

Eau Claire would love to have a community garden like East Village’s.

Eau Claire’s Revitalization History

Eau Claire’s revitalization began in 1981 with the completion of Eau Claire 500 condo complex.  Designed by Chicago’s famous SOM architects who have designed signature buildings around the world for the past 40 years. The building reflects urban thinking of the time, i.e. luxury residential communities should be behind a wall to protect resident’s privacy.

Big mistake by today’s urban design aesthetics and urban living dynamics. 

Unfortunately, Trudeau Sr’s National Energy Program hit in 1982 and downtown went into a decline.  Sound familiar? 

Then in 1986 the first phase of Barclay Mall opened linking downtown to Eau Claire. But by 1988, optimism began to return to Eau Claire with the opening of both the new Y, the Canterra office Tower, Shaw Court and the completion of Barclay Mall.  More development followed and by 1992, the Chinese Cultural Centre has opened, followed by Eau Claire Market in 1993 and Sheraton Suites Hotel, River Run and Prince’s Island Estates condos by 1995. 

The early 21stCentury has seen a building boom in Eau Claire with the completion of the two- tower Princeton condo project with its low rise townhomes, as well as the massive Waterfront development (on the old Bus Barns site) east of Eau Claire Market added another 1,000 homes.  And, the luxury Concord condo is nearing completion.  

Several more office towers were added including Ernst Young Tower (2000), Livingston Place (2007), Centennial Place East and West (2010), City Centre (2016) and Eau Claire Tower (2017).  

The City has also made significant improvements to Eau Claire’s public realm including improvements to Prince’s Island and Bow River Pathway (1999), the $22M Peace Bridge (2012) and the $11M West Eau Claire Park (2018). 

And yet, Eau Claire Market has struggled. 

River Run townhouse condos opened in 1995 as part of the ‘90s attempt to convert Eau Claire into a mixed-use urban village.

River Run townhouse condos opened in 1995 as part of the ‘90s attempt to convert Eau Claire into a mixed-use urban village.

Princeton (left, opened in early ‘00s)) and Eau Claire 500 (right, opened in 1981) was the beginning of the redevelopment of Calgary’s Eau Claire community from small cottage homes into an urban village. The redevelopment is still not complete almost 40 years later. There are still large surface parking lots dominating the landscape.

Princeton (left, opened in early ‘00s)) and Eau Claire 500 (right, opened in 1981) was the beginning of the redevelopment of Calgary’s Eau Claire community from small cottage homes into an urban village. The redevelopment is still not complete almost 40 years later. There are still large surface parking lots dominating the landscape.

New Eau Claire office towers from the ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s.

New Eau Claire office towers from the ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s.

Over the past 30 years the City of Calgary has made significant improvements to Eau Claire’s public realm including the Peace Bridge and expansion of the Bow River promenade.

Over the past 30 years the City of Calgary has made significant improvements to Eau Claire’s public realm including the Peace Bridge and expansion of the Bow River promenade.

The City has also made significant improvements to Prince’s Island to accommodate festivals like the Calgary International Folk Festival.

The City has also made significant improvements to Prince’s Island to accommodate festivals like the Calgary International Folk Festival.

The new West Eau Claire Park includes a pebble beach that has become a poplar place sit people watch.

The new West Eau Claire Park includes a pebble beach that has become a poplar place sit people watch.

Future of Eau Claire Market?

Harvard Development’s ambitious Eau Claire Market redevelopment master plan announced in 2013 called for the creation of about 800,000 sf office space (think two 30-storey office buildings), 800,000 sf of residential space (8,000 units at 1,000 square feet per unit), 600,000 square feet of retail (three times the existing Eau Claire Market) and 200,000 sf hotel (think Alt Hotel in East Village). 

Though probably the right plan in 2013 if it had been executed immediately, it is likely not the right plan for the 2020s given what is happening in East Village and proposed for Victoria Park.  Both of those projects benefit from the Community Revitalization Levy that has - and will -pump hundreds of millions of tax dollars into those communities to make them attractive places to live, work and play. 

As well, several residential developments under construction or approved for Beltline, Bridgeland and elsewhere in Eau Claire that probably make more economic sense than the massive Eau Claire Market site redevelopment. 

So, it is really no surprise Harvard has delayed its plans given there is a glut of office and residential space available in Calgary’s City Centre. Several new hotels have also opened – Alt Hotel and Hilton Garden Inn (both in East Village) and the Beltline’s new Marriott Residence Inn.  PBA Land and Development has plans for The Dorian, a 27-storey 300 room hotel and Calgary Municipal Land Development is actively courting a new hotel as part of the BMO Centre expansion.  

If that isn’t bad enough, retail is struggling throughout the entire City Center from 17th Avenue SW to Kensington. 

Now is simply just not the time for a mega new mixed use development in the downtown and it is likely to be 10+ years before anything major new development will be built downtown.

In a recent column about the success of the Avenida Food Hall, I suggested Eau Claire Market’s best bet might be to convert itself back to a “Food Hall” as times have changed - there are more neighbouring condos and office buildings today than there were in the ‘90s to support a food hall complex, and Calgarians have become more food savvy and love the farm to table concept.

On Saturday, April 13 the City of Calgary hosted a drop-in session at Eau Claire Market seeking public input on how to redesign Eau Claire to “create great public spaces that will make it a great place to live, work, play and shop and help attract long-term growth and development.” The City’s words, not mine. 

Joyce Tang, Program Manager at the City of Calgary told me the public wanted “a greater emphasis on event programming and patio spaces in Eau Claire Plaza. People wanted to see spaces for markets and events, along with areas for recreation along the Prince’s Island lagoon.” 

Indeed, they want what East Village has.  They don’t just want pretty public spaces, but someone to program them like Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) does for the East Village space.  CMLC has a team of three full-time staff managing events year-round - everything from free days at the National Music Centre to food truck festivals, from concerts to outdoor yoga. 

One of the unintended consequences creating first class public spaces in East Village and the aggressive programing of those spaces is that all City Centre communities – Beltline, Bridgeland/Riverside, Hillhurst and Inglewood now want the same quality spaces and programing.  Unfortunately, they don’t have the benefit of a CMLC and a Community Revitalization Levy to make that happen. 

Eau Claire has numerous public spaces to sit and enjoy Prince’s Island Park, especially downtown workers at lunch..

Eau Claire has numerous public spaces to sit and enjoy Prince’s Island Park, especially downtown workers at lunch..

The Prince’s Island lagoon has skating in the winter weather permitting.

The Prince’s Island lagoon has skating in the winter weather permitting.

Prince’s Island park is an urban oasis.

Prince’s Island park is an urban oasis.

Eau Claire is home to one of Calgary’s best restaurants - River Cafe.

Eau Claire is home to one of Calgary’s best restaurants - River Cafe.

Eau Claire has several cafes and restaurants scattered throughout the community, but it lacks a Main Street or a town square.

Eau Claire has several cafes and restaurants scattered throughout the community, but it lacks a Main Street or a town square.

Lesson Learned?

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from Eau Claire’s revitalization is that it takes a long time to revitalize a community - several decades in fact. Mistakes will be made and false starts will happen due to economic, political and social shifts that can’t be anticipated.  

Urban revitalization is not a science. 

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

Eau Claire Market’s Mega Makeover Revisited

Avenida Village: Food Hall Madness

East Village Envy

East Village A Masterpiece In the Making