Road Trip: Postcards From Alberta's Badlands & Ghost Towns

This summer we decided to explore some of the off-the-beaten path places in southern Alberta. Our first adventure was to Drumheller (where we haven’t been for decades) and to some of the small town “main streets” along the way, as well as the Badlands.  

This road trip strengthen our resolve to think outside the “city.”

Public Art?

Public Art?

More public art?

More public art?

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

HOPE….found this book sculpture at the Salvation Army in Drumheller.

Everybody loves a train ride!

Everybody loves a train ride!

First Stop: Irricana (population 1,216) 

Its name is a contraction of the words “irrigation canals” which are found in the area.  Settlement dates back to 1909 and it was incorporated as a village on June 9, 1911, by which time it had a post office, hotel and general store operated by the Irricana Trading Company.  Today, though the store’s building is still standing, is abandoned and much of the Main Street consists of vacant lots making it look like a ghost-town. While there are some attempts to add some colour and charm with murals, it seems a bit futile.  

However, just outside of town on the highway #9, sits a fun installation of farm equipment mounted high up on posts promoting, Pioneer Acres, where I am told you will find a dozen buildings filled with unique exhibits and artifacts from the early prairie pioneers.  Too bad those buildings weren’t located in the town along Main Street. 

Link:Pioneer Acres https://www.pioneeracres.ab.ca

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

The Irricana Hotel a reminder of the community’s once bustling Main Street. Today “Old Smoky” stands guard. The plaque says the horse was fabricated by Kevan Leycraft and donated by Melvin Brown to commemorate his residence in Irricana since 1952. He passed away in 1997.

Main Street Irricana.

Main Street Irricana.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

One of several large paintings attached to the sides buildings in downtown Irricana to add some colour and charm. These were done by artists Leona Fraser in 2009.

Second Stop:  Beiseker (population 819) 

Lying in a belt of rich black soil, Beiseker was developed as an agricultural service centre. It was founded by the Calgary Colonization Company, whose purpose was to promote settlement by demonstrating the grain-growing potential of the area. The village is named after Thomas Beiseker, a partner and vice president of the company. The surrounding area became known as "World Wheat King Capital" because of its ability to grow wheat. Today, a  small park at the end of main street tells the history of the town. It even has a tiny sod house that you can explore. 

The village began to grow in 1910 when the branch line of the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. The Grand Trunk Pacific line - now owned by Canadian National Railway - was constructed in 1912 to the east of the central business district

With the construction and intersection of Highways 9, 72 and 806 being at the northeast edge of the village, Beiseker came to have a very favourable location in terms of road and rail access. Almost equidistant from Calgary and Drumheller, Beiseker began to emerge as a local service and trade centre for the surrounding rural agricultural area. 

Beiseker currently serves as a centre for local agricultural services including fertilizer, seed cleaning, and soil testing. There is a local UFA outlet, and a Canadian Malting Co. grain elevator serving farmers in the area. Local industries serve the oil patch.  

It is also home to the Canadian office of Lampson International, a large international company specializing in construction cranes and a biomedical incinerator which handles medical waste from hospitals in Alberta, Canada and internationally.  

Not unlike Irricana, wandering Beisker’s main street on a Saturday morning was akin to walking in a ghost town -  nobody on the streets, lots of the main street buildings are gone and those that remain look like they are struggling to survive.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

Old and new, train station becomes City offices.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

It is hard to imagine that people actually lived year round in these tiny homes. Put the new “Tiny Homes” trend into perspective.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

If you wander around the residential streets your will find these fun gnome fire hydrants. We have seen these before in small Alberta towns. Not sure if this is an Alberta thing, prairie thing or small towns everywhere. They sure are fun.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

We decided to have a coffee and pastry at Arcada Cafe….great cinnamon buns…and we almost missed the fact they have a vintage arcade room in the back. A must see for anyone into old arcade games.

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the graphics on the old games….

Love the fun factor…

Love the fun factor…

Third Stop: Horseshoe Canyon Park 

 While not the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon sits just off Hwy 9, 17 km west of Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands. It is an eye-popping sight. Stand at the edge of this huge U-shaped canyon and try to imagine what it was like when the dinosaurs roamed a lush sub-tropical habitat some 70 million years ago. Today, marked trails guide your wandering down into the canyon to get a closer look at the different soils, rock formations and plants. There are even helicopter rides available on-site.  The park is free and there is lots of free parking. 

Horseshoe Canyon

Horseshoe Canyon

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Fourth Stop: Drumheller (population 7,982)

When we first moved to Alberta in the early ‘80s, Drumheller was best known as the home of the Drumheller Institution (aka prison). Opened in 1967 as a medium security facility, a minimum security facility was added in 1997. Today, it has a capacity of 704 (582 medium security and 122 minimum security). The Institution provides a stable economic and employment base for Drumheller and surrounding area. 

In the late 1980s, Drumheller became famous as a center for dinosaur tourism and research with the opening of the Tyrell Museum in 1985 (it subsequently received “Royal” status in 1990.  Located 6 km northwest from Drumheller, the museum is situated in the middle of the fossil-bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formationand holds 130,000 fossil specimens from the Alberta badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Devil's Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site.  In the first year it attracted over 500,000 visitors from over 100 countries. Today, it averages about 350,000 visitors annually. 

We opted to skip the museum (a new exhibition had just opened and it was a zoo) to flaneur downtown Drumheller. To our pleasant surprise, the downtown has several charming shops, restaurants - even a Saturday farmers’ market.  What impressed us most is how the city has capitalized on the dinosaur theme with fun creatures at every downtown corner making for great photo ops. We encounter several families exploring the downtown taking photos of the kids with the dinosaurs.

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Love these fun cartoonish characters waiting for you to sit beside them. Perhaps cities take their public art programs too seriously. People just want to have fun….perhaps big cities take their public art too seriously?

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Downtown Drumheller has an eclectic collection of shops to explore.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

Treasure hunters will enjoy Drumheller’s downtown art galleries and antique stores.

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Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

Couldn’t resist one more postcard of the fun benches. I preferred these to the World’s largest dinosaur (86 ft high and 151 feet long) that is located a few blocks from downtown.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

There are dinosaurs everywhere you look in Dumheller.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

Drumheller has preserved a sense of past in its downtown.

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

How clever? All of the streets have not only old names but new dinosaur names. How fun!

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

Just outside of Drumheller on the way to Wayne is Asterroid a must stop for those who like ice cream. No road trip is complete with out an ice cream cone.

 Fifth Stop: Wayne (population 40)

Wayne, located 10 km southeast of Drumheller was once a thriving coal mining town whose population is estimated to have reached a high of 10,000 in 1932. The last mine closed in 1957 and today it is home to about 40 diehard souls. Half the fun of visiting Wayne is navigating a winding road with 11 (no word of a lie)  one-lane bridges along a moon-like landscape to get there. 

In its heyday, Wayne had a school, hospital, hotel, theatre and several stores along its main street.  Today, all that remains is the Rosedeer Hotel which surprisingly still operates as a hotel and its Last Chance Saloon, now a popular watering hole for touring motorcycle groups.  The hotel has only 6 rooms, each with a different theme – Titanic, Golf, Harley, Miners, Honeymoon and Music Room.  

The Saloon often has live music and hosts the annual WayneStock music festival (this year’s festival is from August 30 to Sept 2, 2019).  While we were there the Maybellines were playing the afternoon set – it was magical. 

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Sixth Stop: East Coulee (population 148) 

We “passed” on stopping at the Hoodoos Park just east of Drumheller and proceeded directly to East Coulee and the Atlas Coal mine (a national historic site) site 16 km east of Drumheller. Once home to about 3,000 residents, its heyday was between 1920s and 1950s when, like Wayne, the coal mines were excavating hundreds of thousands of tons of coal.  Today, the old school has been converted into a museum which also hosts an annual spring music festival “SpringFest.”  Unfortunately we arrived just after 5 pm too late to get into the museum. 

The streets of East Coulee are lined with huge trees, giving it an oasis-like feeling compared to the barren surrounding landscape. The tiny miners’ homes are a reminder of how early pioneers lived in modest small homes, each probably housed six or more people.

Nothing is left of its main street except one large building that has been converted into a studio for the manufacturing of dinosaur-related items for museums, movie studios, parades and theme parks.  There is also a small gift shop with a lovely garden.  

Just across the river from East Coulee is The Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site that operated from 1936 to 1979. It is the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and is home to the country's last standing wooden coal tipple. In fact, it’s  the largest still standing in North America. Designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1989, it achieved  National Historic Site of Canada status in 2002. 

Various guided tour options exist. You can take a train ride through the site, walk up the tipple or tour the 210 foot underground conveyor tunnel. The facilities are open to visitors from May to Thanksgiving weekend. 

With not enough time to do a tour (we arrived 20 minutes before closing) we instead walked up the dead end road west of the parking lot where we had heard there was an art installation.  Sure enough, at the end of the road, stood dozens of five foot tall tree limbs with alien head-like nobs stuck in the ground with rock piles at their base to help them stay standing. Many of the limbs had various small trinkets hanging or sitting on them, creating a somber, graveyard sense of place.  There is no markings or signs indicating who did them, why there are there, which only adds to the mystique. 

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

You can hardly see the homes for the trees and shrubs in East Coulee. It is like time has passed this community by.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

We were shocked to find a gift shop in East Coulee.

All aboard….

All aboard….

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

Railway bridge from Atlas Coal mine to East Coulee and beyond.

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Atlas Coal mine site

Atlas Coal mine site

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

There is lots of mine artifacts next to the parking lot with information panels.

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Loved this coal dust sand box….

Loved this coal dust sand box….

Public Art?

Public Art?

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Seventh Stop: Rosebud (population 87) 

It was founded in the 1885 by James Wishart, while following the Gleichen Trail with his family on their way to Montana. Arriving in the dark, they awoke the next  morning to discover the river valley covered by wild roses- Alberta’s official flower. Wishart then reportedly said, "Here's the promised land; we go no further." 

The beauty of the valley has attracted many people throughout the years, from nature lovers to artists. Notable Canadian artists A. Y. Jackson and H. G. Glyde, members of the Group of Seven, spent the summer of 1944 painting in the area. 

 Over the years, farming and coal mining have been the primary industries. In 1972, the Severn Creek School was shut down as part of an Alberta-wide education consolidating process, forcing local children to be bussed to Standard and Drumheller.  This resulted in the closure of  many local businesses and the hamlet population dropping to under a dozen people. 

But at Easter 1973, a group of young adults from Calgary brought about 40 teenagers out and camped in the then empty mercantile building. This pilot event initially evolved into a summer camp funded by a grant from the Alberta government and then later, Rosebud Camp of the Arts supported by Crescent Heights Baptist Church in Calgary. 

In 1977, a high school was founded using the old buildings of the town as classrooms and emphasizing practical visual, music and the performing arts in its curriculum. In the 1980s, Rosebud School of the Arts began to operate theatre, which eventually developed into Rosebud Theatre and the school shifted its emphasis to post-secondary education. 

Today, Rosebud Theatre runs as a fully professional company that offers programming year round and is a tourist attraction drawing patrons largely from Calgary and Drumheller.  It has a few shops, an art gallery and an excellent museum along its two main streets.  There were probably a dozen people wandering the streets while we were there. There are even an inn and bed & breakfast accommodations for those not wanting to drive home after the theatre. 

While tourism might save Rosebud, it can’t save every small town and village in Alberta. 

Link: Rosebud Theatre 

Link: The Hamlet of Rosebud 

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The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The old hotel is now the offices for the Rosebud Theatre.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

The Rosebud Museum/Library has an extensive collection of early 20th century artifacts documenting the life of the early prairie settlers. Admission is FREE.

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In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

In the Library…the tag reads “Tailored by Suzanne est. 1952. Dress donated by Minnie Neufeld (Ziegler). Worn during the time Minnie waitressed for the Carolina a well-known restaurant in downtown Calgary. Off duty standards for dress and behaviour were very strict. No gum chewing, spitting or swearing in public.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

While wandering the streets we found this house with an elaborate model railway in the front yard. The house next door was in the process of being remodelled to sell model railway pieces.

Lesson Learned

On our way home, we chatted about how this road trip was a good reminder of how Alberta and the prairies have evolved over thousands of years from roaming dinosaurs, to nomadic indigenous people, to agricultural and resource pioneers (first coal, then oil and gas), to today’s corporate farming and resource development.  

It is good for us city folks to get out and explore the real towns and villages (not just the tourist attractions and tourist towns - aka Banff and Canmore) to get a better perspective of the world we share.  While much of the media attention these days is about the urbanization of Canada and decline of rural living, there are still a significant number of people living in rural Alberta communities - 656,048 according to 2016 Census of Canada.

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

Flaneuring Fun In Maple Creek

Delacour: Ghost Town or Golf Town

Meeting Creek: Ghost Town Could Be Art Town

Calgary Stampede 2019: Have We Lost That Luvn Feeling Revisited

In 2015, I wrote a blog about how fewer and fewer of Calgary’s downtown merchants and landlords are embracing the Stampede spirit by decorating their windows, lobby and street fronts.

I concluded the blog with “Has Calgary become too big for it britches to celebrate what is truly one of North America’s oldest, largest and most unique festivals? Where is that community spirit?

Link: Stampede 2015: Have we lost that luvn feeling?

Only a few of the 100+ Calgary downtown office buildings have their entrances decorated to celebrate Stampede this year. It use to part of the Stampede tradition to create fun (and yes tacky for some) windows.

Only a few of the 100+ Calgary downtown office buildings have their entrances decorated to celebrate Stampede this year. It use to part of the Stampede tradition to create fun (and yes tacky for some) windows.

Stampede 2019

This week I was downtown and I have to say the situation has gotten worse over the past four years. Few of the retail windows along Stephen Avenue or in the Core shopping Centre had any reference to Stampede.

Even major hotels seemed to lack any sense of Stampede spirit from the street. You could easily walk, cycle or drive by and not know Stampede was happening.

If it wasn’t for the restaurants along Stephen Avenue you wouldn’t even know it was Stampede time, and even some of them had minimal decorations.

Don't believe me! Here are a few photos to prove my point.

The Cactus Club Cafe’s Stephen Avenue location makes no reference to the Stampede from the street.

The Cactus Club Cafe’s Stephen Avenue location makes no reference to the Stampede from the street.

The Westin hotel also seems to have forgotten it is Stampede time.

The Westin hotel also seems to have forgotten it is Stampede time.

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Retailers on Stephen Avenue make no attempt to join in the Stampede fun.

Retailers on Stephen Avenue make no attempt to join in the Stampede fun.

While Simons did have a chuckwagon outside their Stephen Avenue entrance, they made no reference to the Stampede with their windows along the +15 system or on 7th Avenue.

While Simons did have a chuckwagon outside their Stephen Avenue entrance, they made no reference to the Stampede with their windows along the +15 system or on 7th Avenue.

Perhaps the worst offender was Earls who while extending their hours for Stampede used “YEEHAW!” instead of the official Stampede cry of “YAHOO!” on their sandwich board. REALLY! This isn’t Earls first rodeo!

Perhaps the worst offender was Earls who while extending their hours for Stampede used “YEEHAW!” instead of the official Stampede cry of “YAHOO!” on their sandwich board. REALLY! This isn’t Earls first rodeo!

Kudos To Some

Harry Rosen’s entrance definitely made an upscale Stampede statement.

Harry Rosen’s entrance definitely made an upscale Stampede statement.

As did the window of Supreme Men’s Wear on Barclay Mall.

As did the window of Supreme Men’s Wear on Barclay Mall.

It use to be that most of the office buildings had murals like this painted on their windows, today very few do.

It use to be that most of the office buildings had murals like this painted on their windows, today very few do.

Last Word

In a recent blog i stated “While not everyone appreciates what the Calgary Stampede does for the City locally, nationally and internationally, in my opinion, every city needs a mega festival like the Caglary Stampede that annually celebrates its unique history and sense of place.”

I know downtown has fallen are hard times but surely the merchants and landlords could afford to decorate for Stampede and put on a good show for all the tourist in town and for those Caglarians who only come downtown for Stampede.

Calgary’s needs to get its mojo back as an urban playground. And, it has to start with downtown businesses and property owners embracing the Stampede as Calgary’s “shout out” to the world that we are alive and kicking.

I am really beginning to wondering if the Calgary Stampede will still be around in 2112 to celebrate its bicentennial.

Link: Stampede 2015: Have we lost that luvn feeling?

If you like thing blog you will like these links:

Stampede Park 2025

Flaneuring Calgary Stampede Poster Parade

Stampede Park: Art Gallery & Museum

Calgary: Needs to foster more "Transit Oriented Communities"

One of the things I was most impressed with during my month long visit to Vancouver was the amazing Transit Oriented Development (TOD) that has happened in that city over the past 15 years.  I couldn’t help but think the future of urban living in North American cities is linked to creating vibrant, dense communities next to LRT stations. 

Followed by, why isn’t Calgary fast tracking TOD development next to existing LRT Stations, rather than expanding LRT to the north and SE edges of the city. And why hasn’t anything happened at Westbrook Station which open in December 2012?

So I decide to ask David Couroux (City of Calgary’s TOD planner), Joe Starkman (a developer with TOD experience) and Gary Andrishak (a planner with 25+ years of TOD planning experience across North America, who lives in Vancouver) why Calgary isn’t a leader when it comes to TOD development?

The answers were very insightful and informative….

FYI: A shorter version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary as part of their feature “Caglary At A Crossroads.” It didn’t include Andrishak’s thoughts on why he has stopped using the term “TOD.” And, the photos are all different.

Calgary’s Chinook LRT Station is in the bottom right hand corner and Chinook (shopping) Centre is in the top left corner. (sorry couldn’t figure out how to mark them using the new Google Earth). The land use around the Chinook LRT Station is dominated by surface parking lots, which is the poorest use of the land.

Calgary’s Chinook LRT Station is in the bottom right hand corner and Chinook (shopping) Centre is in the top left corner. (sorry couldn’t figure out how to mark them using the new Google Earth). The land use around the Chinook LRT Station is dominated by surface parking lots, which is the poorest use of the land.

Google Earth image of Calgary’s Anderson LRT Station (see red mark, not sure why it worked on this one) surrounded by surface parking lots and major roads. There is poor pedestrian connectivity to the Southcentre shopping mall, Fish Creek Library and surrounding neighbourhoods. .

Google Earth image of Calgary’s Anderson LRT Station (see red mark, not sure why it worked on this one) surrounded by surface parking lots and major roads. There is poor pedestrian connectivity to the Southcentre shopping mall, Fish Creek Library and surrounding neighbourhoods. .

Vancouver’s Metrotown not only includes the SkyTrain station and the mega MetroTown Mall, but numerous high-rise condos, office buildings, public library and several park spaces. There is very little surface parking.

Vancouver’s Metrotown not only includes the SkyTrain station and the mega MetroTown Mall, but numerous high-rise condos, office buildings, public library and several park spaces. There is very little surface parking.

What is TOD?

Transit oriented development (TOD) is commonly defined as high-density, mixed-use development within a 15 minute walk of a transit station. TOD provides a range of benefits including increased transit ridership, reduced regional congestion and pollution, and healthier, more walkable neighborhoods. TOD neighborhoods have a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, as well as a mix of commercial amenities – grocers, restaurants, cafes, shops, fitness studios and professional services.  

Every TOD needs to be a mixture of uses and a mix of housing types.

Every TOD needs to be a mixture of uses and a mix of housing types.

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Calgary lags behind

I was gobsmacked by the numerous high-rise residential towers next to the Metrotown SkyTrain station and Metrotown Mall in Burnaby.  I couldn’t help but wonder why there hasn’t been major residential development next to Calgary’s Chinook and Anderson LRT stations as they have much the same conditions as Metrotown i.e. both have major malls and major road nearby. The Metrotown SkyTrain didn’t open until 1985, while Chinook and Anderson opened in 1981.  

The more I rode Vancouver’s Skytrain train the more impressed I was with how almost every station is surrounded not only by mid and high-rise residential, but with grocery stores and other amenities to create an urban village.  

By clustering a large share of the region’s population and employment growth and new major public spaces, community facilities and cultural amenities in locations well-served by public transit Vancouver has become a being a leader in the development of walkable, transit oriented communities throughout the region not just in the City Centre.  Metro Vancouver currently has nine major town centres and 18 smaller ones, each with its own LRT station. 

Recently the Daily Hive an online Vancouver newspaper published a list of 21 mega transit-oriented developments in the works for the lower Main Land. These are not just one or two towers next to an LRT station but entire new communities like Calgary’s East village, University District and Currie.  Some of the plans are so big they include four separate LRT Stations. 

While Calgary has its share of 21st century TOD happening – Bridgeland, East Village, Brentwood and Dalhousie, we are lagging behind cities like Vancouver and Portland who both opened their LRT after us.  

Upon arriving home, I contacted several planners and developers to try to understand why Calgary hasn’t seen more TOD development.  I was especially curious why TOD along the South Leg - Chinook, Anderson, Stampede Park, Manchester (39th Street) hasn’t happened given they are all surrounded by underutilized land perfect for mixed-use TOD development 

Link: 21 Major Developments Plan Near SkyTrain Stations

Metrotown Station lets you off across the street from the Metrotown Mall, three office towers and numerous residential buildings.

Metrotown Station lets you off across the street from the Metrotown Mall, three office towers and numerous residential buildings.

The Metrotown Station is very inviting at ground level.

The Metrotown Station is very inviting at ground level.

Metrotown office towers.

Metrotown office towers.

Metroopolis shopping centre has mostly underground parking.

Metroopolis shopping centre has mostly underground parking.

Metropolis entrance by car.

Metropolis entrance by car.

Metrotown has sky bridges over busy streets.

Metrotown has sky bridges over busy streets.

Here’s what I learned…

I first met with David Couroux, the City of Calgary’s TOD Planner, and he informed me the biggest barrier to TOD development in Calgary is funding for the infrastructure needed to undertake TOD development – everything from upgrading water and sewer, to the need for better sidewalks, parks and integrating bus services with trains i.e. a transit hub.  

He said with a smile, “creating policy and plans is cheap, it is the implementation that is expensive.”   

Indeed, the City often gets bog down in creating endless policy and plans that often act as a barrier to development vs an incentive.  And, while many think infill projects in established communities are free to the City i.e. no need for more roads, water, sewer, parks, police and emergency services, that is not true as all of the infrastructure is old and won’t support more development. 

That being said, Couroux noted Calgary has seen significant new TOD development in East Village, Bridgeland, Brentwood and Dalhousie and Stampede Station over the past 15 years. 

He pointed out in 2009 the City approved the Hillhurst Sunnyside ARP Transit Oriented Development and almost immediately mid-rise developments began to happen – St. John’s on Tenth, Ven, Pixel, Lido and Kensington with the new Memorial Drive and Annex condos currently under construction and Theodore being marketed.  

Couroux thinks The Bridges is perhaps the best example of TOD in Calgary. It has proceeded slowly but steadily and there are only 2 or 3 parcels of land left to develop. It features all the characteristics of TOD one would expect, higher density, mixed-use development, a pedestrian focus to the mobility network, parks, mains street and upgraded public realm.   

Anderson station remains an unrealized opportunity, as do other south-line station areas like Heritage and Southland. The requirement to maintain park and ride spaces adds significant cost to the redevelopment of these site for TOD because it would need to be accommodated by an expensive underground parkade. 

Couroux is optimistic that redevelopment around stations like Brentwood and Dalhousie and get long-awaited projects at stations like Anderson and Heritage will get off the ground in the near future.

Link: TOD Bridgeland

The Bridgeland LRT Station sits in the middle of Memorial Drive making it difficult to integrate it into the community. Many of Calgary’s LRT Stations are in the middle of busy roads, resulting in lots of stairs to climb to bridges over the road and long walks before you get into the community.

The Bridgeland LRT Station sits in the middle of Memorial Drive making it difficult to integrate it into the community. Many of Calgary’s LRT Stations are in the middle of busy roads, resulting in lots of stairs to climb to bridges over the road and long walks before you get into the community.

Another view of the Bridgeland LRT Station illustrating how isolated the station is from the community with major road on either side.

Another view of the Bridgeland LRT Station illustrating how isolated the station is from the community with major road on either side.

The Crowfoot Station which opened in 2009 sits in the middle of Crowchild Trail freeway. It is going to be impossible and expensive to integrate this station into the community. Perhaps in the future we will built a new community over-top of the roads at LRT stations?

The Crowfoot Station which opened in 2009 sits in the middle of Crowchild Trail freeway. It is going to be impossible and expensive to integrate this station into the community. Perhaps in the future we will built a new community over-top of the roads at LRT stations?

By contrast Calgary’s Sunnyside Station is integrated into the community with grocery store next to it, shops just a block away and homes right next to it. This is the ideal way to design TOD redevelopment into an existing community. Even the station design has a home-like look to it.

By contrast Calgary’s Sunnyside Station is integrated into the community with grocery store next to it, shops just a block away and homes right next to it. This is the ideal way to design TOD redevelopment into an existing community. Even the station design has a home-like look to it.

Developer frustrations…

Joe Starkman, President of Knightsbridge Homes, expressed in a telephone chat his frustration with the City’s focus on creating plans and policy vs implementation.  Starkman who is responsible for the playful yellow, red and green condo towers at the Brentwood station, says he wouldn’t do TOD again. Why? Because it takes too long to get approvals - it took four years and one million dollars to get University Village approved.  He said he wouldn’t go to the City for a “rezoning” today as it is too costly and there is too much uncertainty if you will get approval.  

He pointed out Westbrook Station’s “Request For Proposals” was 400 pages making it too arduous to review and understand.  In his opinion, the red tape at City Hall is getting worse not better. 

He is frustrated by the City’s double talk i.e. they say they want more density near transit corridors, but when a developer comes to them with a proposal instead of being fast tracked it, it gets bogged down in endless reviews and community engagement.  He noted “it is often City Roads and Water engineers who are barrier to TOD development, not the planners.”  

Other developers have shared similar experiences with me over the years.

Google Earth image of University City condos next to Brentwood Mall and Coop grocery store with Brentwood LRT station in the bottom left hand corner.

Google Earth image of University City condos next to Brentwood Mall and Coop grocery store with Brentwood LRT station in the bottom left hand corner.

TOD Planner says….

I then contacted Gary Andrishak, Director, IBI Group in Vancouver, who has over 30 years of experience in TOD planning in North America to get his insights into Calgary’s TOD history and future.  Given has been involved in the development of many of Calgary’s TOD plans (including the new Green Line) so he knows Calgary’s situation well.  

Andrishak was indeed insightful and forthright in his comments.  He said upfront comparing Calgary is Vancouver is unfair as “Vancouver is as good as it gets when it comes to TOD development in North America and it is a very different city than Calgary.”  He quickly added “a city that can sprawl will sprawl, “which is Calgary’s problem as there are no barriers to sprawl like the ocean or mountains in Vancouver.  

One of the biggest failures in Calgary is Council hasn’t linked transportation and land use planning, i.e. all of the land along transit corridors and near LRT stations has be zoned for mixed-use, multi-family development to stream line TOD development.

He also suggested that early on the City treated rapid public transit as a utility rather than the “glue that can hold a city together. Calgary lost a generation of TOD over cities like Portland, who saw the synergies of building density adjacent to transit back it he ‘90s.”

Some of the other barriers to good TOD development in Calgary include the fact that too much TOD development is still negotiated between the Councillors and the developers, shutting out the planners, which leads to complications later. 

He also noted most of Calgary’s TOD developments are not well designed when it comes to the mix of uses and the incorporation of mid-rise buildings.  Andrishak thinks Calgary has a tendency “to go too big, too quickly.”  He said in Vancouver developers understand the importance of investing in quality useable public realm that creates a more attractive walkable pedestrian experience; that is not the case for most developments in Calgary. 

With respect to the South Leg of the LRT, Andrishak thinks the decision to use the CPR right-of-way has resulted in making TOD development difficult as people simply don’t want to live next to heavy rail lines due to noise and safety concerns.  

Similarly, the decision to run the NW leg in the middle of Crowchild Trail is also a barrier as you need to be able to build right up to the station to have good TOD development.  Building LRT in next to or in the middle of a freeway just doesn’t work in Andrishak’s experience. 

The New Westminster SkyTrain station is right next to heavy train tracks, like the south leg of Calgary’s LRT but they have managed to still create urban village next to the tracks.

The New Westminster SkyTrain station is right next to heavy train tracks, like the south leg of Calgary’s LRT but they have managed to still create urban village next to the tracks.

The train tracks separate the downtown from the river’s edge requiring several pedestrian bridges.

The train tracks separate the downtown from the river’s edge requiring several pedestrian bridges.

The SkyTrain station is integrated into a huge parking lot and high-rise development with a grocery store as the anchor.

The SkyTrain station is integrated into a huge parking lot and high-rise development with a grocery store as the anchor.

There is a lovely linear park between the tracks and river creating a mixed-use recreational destination. TOD must include creating public spaces where people can meet, relax and play.

There is a lovely linear park between the tracks and river creating a mixed-use recreational destination. TOD must include creating public spaces where people can meet, relax and play.

Transit Oriented Communities 

In fact, Andrishak has stopped using the term Transit Oriented Development and instead says we should be focused on “Transit Oriented Communities,” as transit is just one element of a creating good communities, which should be the ultimate goal.  

He thinks there are three keys to successful TOC development are: 

  • Public/Private collaboration

  • First/Last Mile connectivity

  • Real Community Engagement in the planning process 

Good public/private collaboration includes respecting each other’s needs, willingness to negotiate trade-offs, understanding with density comes amenities and a willingness to work together.  

In the urban planner world “First/Last mile connectivity” refers to the fact that most important part of the transit experience happens as you get on and off the bus/train - be that driving to the station/bus stop and finding a place to park or walking/cycling to the station/bus stop and waiting for the transit.  It refers to what everyday amenities are available within walking distance of transit so you don’t have to make extra stops.   

Andrishak thinks “real community engagement” happens when you combine EQUALLY the best insights of planning professionals, with best practices from committed local knowledge.”   

Finally, as Andrisak noted, “the car – no, make that the pick-up truck - is still king in Calgary,” adding “Calgary has one foot in the city and one in the country; there is still lots of room to grow.  You can still see the downtown from the edge of the city, so people think What’s the problem.” 

I wonder when Calgary will be able to wean itself off of its addiction to suburban “park and ride” lots and convert those parking lots into mixed-use town centres, rather than being so downtown centric.  

Calgary’s Sunalta Station is perhaps the most similar to Vancouver’s Skytrain as it has an elevated station next to railway tracks and major roads.

Calgary’s Sunalta Station is perhaps the most similar to Vancouver’s Skytrain as it has an elevated station next to railway tracks and major roads.

This is not a pedestrian friendly place.

This is not a pedestrian friendly place.

This is the ramp network on the north side of the Sunalta station to get to the, old Bus station and the future West Village community.

This is the ramp network on the north side of the Sunalta station to get to the, old Bus station and the future West Village community.

 Calgarians love their single family homes

Not only do Calgarians love their cars and pick-ups but they also love home ownership and living in single family homes.   

One of the key factors driving the incredible demand for new condos in Vancouver is the high cost of single family homes. "Single family homes, generally speaking, are beyond the reach of most households that don't already have very significant savings or a home of their own," said University of British Columbia economist Tom Davidoff in a September 2018 CTV Vancouver digital post based on a Zoocasa blog (Canadian real estate blog). 

A 2018 survey by Mustel Group for Sotheby’s International Realty Canada found 78% of Metro Vancouver’s young families reported they would like to own a single-family home, however, only 46 percent actually bought a detached house, with 27 percent buying a townhome and 27 percent a condo. The survey also found that 55% of those who don’t own a single family home today have given up any plans to do so.  

The same study found “the preference for single family home ownership (91%) is higher in Calgary than in any other metropolitan area in Canada. In addition, the rate of single family home ownership is significantly higher than any other city at 74% as the price of home ownership is more accessible in Calgary than other major cities. 

Link: https://mustelgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-Modern-Family-Home-Ownership-Trends-Mustel_Sothebys-International-Realty-Canada.pdf 

The fact Calgary has the highest home ownership of any major city in Canada and the most affordable single family home prices means our market for TOD development which is exclusively mid to high-rise multi-family residential is smaller than any city in Canada. 

 Something to think about?

After all of these discussions, I couldn’t help but wonder would it be better for the city, province and federal governments to fund infill projects at LRT stations in major cities vs constructing new LRT lines.  

Rather than taking the LRT out to the edges of Calgary i.e. Green Line, which will just encourage more developments in places like Airdrie, Cochrane and Okotoks and more new edge community development in Calgary, wouldn’t it be better if we invested in the infrastructure needed to create more housing where we already have LRT and bus service? 

FYI: Calgary actually has a long history of TOD development dating back to the early 20th Century. For more information on this check out these links:

LInk: How Calgary’s Historic Street Car Network Shaped Our Inner-city

Link: Calgary’s Great TOD Neighbourhoods

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

Eveyday Tourist Transit Tales

Love it: On It Regional Transit

Calgary Transit: The Good & The Ugly

 

 

 

 

 

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

Window Licking Fun In Vancouver

Those of you who are regular readers of the Everyday Tourist blogs will know I love taking photos of urban street life in storefront windows. For me, it is the best format for “street photography” as I can be incognito.

I use the term “window licking” because it sounds a bit weird and fun at the same time. The term is from the French words for window shopping, which when translated literally into English is “window licking.”

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Window Licking History

“The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw an evolution in shopping spurred by a faster turnover of manufactured "fashionable" goods and an increase in department stores selling them. These shops pioneered new techniques of window display. Rather than piling their stock up - as had been common in markets and bazaars - they sold goods in mannered and self-conscious window displays, intended to sell nonessential goods.”

Link: Window Displays


There was a time when department stores would have full-time window dressers who like curators at a public art galleries, would research and carefully plan seasonal window displays to capture the pubilic’s imagination. To “wow” them to come into the store. This is still the case in fashion centres like New York, Paris, London and Milan, but not so much in places like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg or Hamilton.

Selfridges in London has perhaps the most iconic storefront windows. Harry Selfridge the founder of one of the world’s signature department stores was adamant when designing his store in 1909 that it must have large windows facing the street. He even brought with him a widow dresser from the American department store Marshall Field’s which was noted for their window displays. Many of the early episodes of the TV show Mr. Selfridge focus on the importance of the windows as a means of attracting people into the store and the important role of the “window dresser” as part of the stores branding.

Today the use of street windows as a key marketing and sales tool has been forgotten by most retailers. As a result most “Main Street” experiences aren’t as much fun as they use to be.

Great cities are often defined by their great shopping or “High” streets. Places where the sidewalks are animated with people coming and going. Places, where the windows are carefully curated with art gallery-like exhibitions of objects. They can make a street become a tourist attraction.

Link: Video Selfridges Christmas window

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Vancouver Window Licking

I was pleasantly surprised to find the art of window dressing still very much alive in Vancouver, especially in the high end fashion shops along and near Alberni Street.

Link: Retailers Continue to descend on Vancouver’s Luxury Zone.

However, it wasn’t only Alberni Street. I found fun windows wherever I went from Strathcona to South Granville. Sure many of them were in upscale shops, but some of the more unique ones were in off the beaten path places like the BC Stamp Works. I found great windows in local grocery stores, as well as the Army & Navy store in New West.

Here are some of my favourite Vancouver windows….

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Last Word

In my opinion, cities today are placing too much attention (and money) on the design of the streetscape as a means of attracting people to their shopping streets. If landlords and retailer want to attract more people to visit their shops they would be far better off hiring a professional window dresser to create fun, funky and quirky windows on a regular basis - at least quarterly if not monthly.

If you like this blog you will like:

Window Licking in Paris

Window Licking in Chicago

Window Licking in Florence

Uniquely Calgary Shopping Experiences

If you are visiting Calgary, perhaps new to Calgary or just want to get out of your shopping rut, here are some Everyday Tourist recommendations for uniquely Calgary shopping experiences.  

Even if you don’t like to shop, or don’t need to buy a souvenir each of these shops are interesting for their design, artifacts or the community that they are located in.

Alberta Boot, #50 - 50th Ave SE

Perhaps the quintessential Calgary shopping experience would be to buy a pair of locally made cowboy boots from Alberta Boots.  Clem Gerwing moved from the family farm in Saskatchewan to Calgary in 1963 and purchased a wholesale footwear company. For several years he sold Quebec, Mexican and American made boots.  Not happy with the quality, he decided the world’s best boots should be made in Calgary and so Alberta Boots was born in 1978.  The Gerwing family has since made boots for the likes of Will and Kate (yes, THAT Will and Kate), Tom Selleck, Brad Pitt, Kevin Costner, Owen Wilson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Fred Couples, Jerome Iginla, Gordie Howe, Paul Brandt, Keifer Sutherland and many other big names. 

Their huge store and factory in Calgary’s up and coming Manchester district is definitely worth a visit.  And a surprise – they don’t just make cowboy boots now!

Link: Alberta Boot

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Aquila Books, 826 - 16th Avenue NW

 Who would think the little building with the blue awning on the TransCanada Highway (aka 16th Ave N) is home to one of North America’s best antiquarian bookstores?  Aquila specializes in books dealing with polar expeditions, Western Canadiana, mountaineering and the Canadian Pacific Railway. As much a museum as a bookstore, it is filled with antique maps, prints, photos, letters, postcards, scientific instruments and even an Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling.  It is well worth the visit if you love history and/or books.

Link: Aquila Books

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Circa Glass, 1226A - 9th Ave SE

If you like eye candy, you will love Circa.  Owner and curator Brian Imeson has created a one-of-a-kind gallery in Canada that showcases mid-century modern art glass from around the world. A visit to Circa is an educational experience, as Imeson is more than willing to spend time sharing his vast knowledge of European art glass. 

A souvenir from Circa is something you will enjoy for a lifetime. 

Link: Circa Glass

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Crown Surplus, 1005 - 11st St SE

You could easily walk by the Crown Surplus site thinking it is just a junk shop filled with old army surplus equipment - not that there is anything wrong with that. Established in 1953 originally as R&S Surplus, Crown Surplus has a long history of selling decommissioned army equipment. But inside there is so much more. It is a military treasure hunters dream with stuff hanging from the ceiling and stuffed into every corner, but you can also find great outdoor clothing and equipment deals. 

Link: Crown Surplus 

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espy, 1009 9th Ave SE

Located in the timeless Atlantic Avenue Arts Block, espy is an affordable fashion boutique for women and men.  The staff pride themselves on being able to find their clients – no matter their size or age - the perfect pair of jeans. They specialize in the difficult, by carrying sizes from 00 to plus 16 for women and special sizes for men with long arms and long legs. 

Could there be a better souvenir of Calgary than a perfect fitting pair of blue jeans? And yes, they’re more than just jeans.

Link: espy

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Gravity Pope, 1126 - 17th Ave SE

Gravity Pope is a must visit for anyone interested in fashion and interior design.  The open multi-level floor plate with its 70s psychedelic design is simply dazzling with mirrors everywhere reflecting the light and objects to create a magical mystery tour.   A commissioned colorful art installation by artist Kristi Malakoff embellishes the visual feast.  And then there are 200 footwear brands displayed on pedestals like works of art.  

It is like an art installation that you might see at a major contemporary art gallery in London or New York – but this is one where you can take a “piece” home.

Link: Gravity Pope

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Heritage Poster & Music, 1316 - 11th Ave SW

Here you will find not only vintage vinyl, but new and out-of-print music, rare concert tour and gig posters, photos, movie posters and just about anything “music.” Holger Petersen of Stony Plain Records says, “Heritage Music has the best collection of Blues, Folk, Roots and Jazz records in Canada.” I don’t argue that.

Link: Heritage Posters

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Kent of Inglewood, 1319 - 9th Ave SE

Need a good axe? How about an old fashioned straight razor? You can get these and lots more at Kent of Inglewood man’s man store. Check out the Kent of Inglewood Boar Bristle Beard brush or their badger hair shaving brush.  There is also a barber on site where you can get a shave and a hair-cut, while others are exploring the shops of Inglewood.  

And yes, they have an entire wall of axes…. warning don’t try to shave with them.  And yes, they do offer shave classes.

Link:  Kent of Inglewood

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Knifewear, 1316 - 9th Ave SE

Across the street, along Inglewood’s main street you will find Knifewear’s museum-like flagship store that opened in 2008.  Owner Kevin Kent, (he also owns Kent of Inglewood), first fell in love with Japanese knives while working a sous-chef for the legendary chef Fergus Henderson at St. John’s restaurant in London, England.  Upon returning to Calgary in 2007, he began selling knives to Calgary chefs out of his backpack on his bike.  Today, he visits Japan a couple of times a year to learn more about the ancient art of knife-making and meet directly with the blacksmiths.  His staff are both enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. The dynamic mural on the wall is worth the visit alone.   

A Japanese knife will surely impress friends at your next dinner party. 

Link: Knifewear

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Livingstone & Cavell Extraordinary Toys, 1124 Kensington Rd NW

If you are a grandparent or love retro things, you will love Livingstone & Cavell. It is full of nostalgia-based toys, everything from shiny pedal cars to pick-up sticks, from toy soldiers to classic board games and wind-up tin toys. Livingstone & Cavell invites everyone to play again. Wind up a tin robot, twitch a marble with your thumb, play a few bars of “Happy Birthday” on a toy piano, and share your memories with friendly staff.  

Take home something educational for the grandkids and something fun for yourself. 

Link:  Livingstone & Cavell

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Map Town, 400 - 5 Avenue SW

When you're in the heart of downtown Calgary, there's a hidden gem that has been compared to the world's largest map store - Stanford's in London, England. Established in 1989, Map Town is Canada's largest map store offering 90,000 world, travel, country, topographic, landowner, provincial, nautical and aeronautical maps, as well as travel guides, traditional and solar globes, digital data for your GPS and novelty items. Map Town has delivered maps to over 99% of the postal and zip codes in Canada and the USA.  

There most unique map is an authentic Captain John Palliser's exploration of Western Canada in 1867. If it is still available it is yours for $28,000. Popular souvenirs include World Wall maps, and local hiking maps of the Canadian Rockies. It is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Link: MapTown.com

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Recordland 1208 - 9th Ave SE

Opened in 1979, Recordland boasts an inventory of over one million obscure, classic and new records, making its Canada’s largest record store. Visit on a weekday and you can browse to your heart’s content. Visit on a weekend and you will be rubbing elbows with Calgary’s many audiophiles as the place is packed with floor-to-ceiling shelves that are only about three feet apart. Look up to see and records decorating the ceiling.  

Link: Recordland

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Reid’s The Stationary Store, 710 - 17th Ave SW

Reid’s has been a fixture on 17th Avenue for over 25 years.  A party store in the front and stationary store in the back, it is a FUN place to explore. Jam-packed with balloons and piñatas and gag gifts, as well as designer items from Alessi and Riedel, and a huge selection of cards and specialty paper.  Serious pen collectors won’t want to miss their large selection of designer writing utensils from Mont Blanc to Faber-Castell, from Lamy to Cross.  

If you can’t find a souvenir here, you aren’t really trying.

Link: Reid’s 

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Rubaiyat, 722 17th Ave SW

Rubaiyat, established in 1973 has been one of the retail anchors on Calgary’s 17thAvenue main street, since it opened at its current location in 1980. The store is unique as it combines a hand-blown glass gallery with upscale jewellery, as well as home décor accessories and furniture (indoor and outdoor).  At any given time, there are works by over 800 artisans.  It even has its own Stained Glass Studio at 1913 - 10thAve SW - definitely worth a visit for off-the-beaten path shoppers.  

If you can’t find a souvenir here, you really don’t want a souvenir.  

Link: Rubaiyat

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Smithbilt Hats, 1015 - 11th St SE 

No visit to Calgary is complete without a visit to the Smithbilt Hats new store, museum and factory in Inglewood.  Founded in 1919, Smithbilt is the maker of the famous Calgary “white cowboy hats” that have been presented to visiting dignitaries as the City’s symbol of hospitality and friendship since the 1940s.  Today the store offers a range of hats and other western fashion accessories. You can even custom cowboy hat made for you. The shop is full of hat-making artifacts and if you are lucky you might even see in progress hat-making. 

Link: Smithbilt Hats

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The Chocolate Lab 202D Centre St. SE, 

This tiny off-the-beaten-path shop in Chinatown offers chocolates that are ALMOST “to0 pretty to eat.” They are works of art.  Several of The Chocolate Lab’s bonbons – Orange Dreamsicle, the L.L. Dean and the Lychee Rose have won awards at the International Chocolate Awards.  If you go to The Lab, be sure to leave some time to explore the surrounding quaint Chinatown. 

Link: Chocolate Lab

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World of Whiskey, 333 - 5th Ave SW, (+15 level, west of Petroleum Club) 

Explore over 850 different varieties of whisky at Calgary Co-op’s World of Whiskey store, one of the first whiskey-only stores in North America.  Here you will find rare vintages from Scotland, Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, India and France, including a 50-year old single malt Glenfiddich going for the price of a well-equipped car.  

No smoking jacket required. 

Link: World of Whiskey

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Last Word

Obviously, there are many other retailers I could have included in this list. If you are looking to further explore Calgary’s unique shopping scene, I would suggest you explore these five districts. 

  • Inglewood: Along 9thAvenue SE

  • Beltline: 17thAvenue SW

  • Kensington: 10thSt NW and Kensington Road

  • Design District: 11thAve SW

  • Downtown Hudson’s’ Bay to Holt Renfrew (+15 level and above)

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

Restaurants That Define Calgary’s Sense of Place

19 Reason’s Not To Visit Calgary in 2019

Calgary: History Capital of Canada

 

Vancouver: The Barbershop Capital of Canada?

In every Canadian city I visit, I seem to discover it is the “capital city” of something. Halifax was the Capital City of Blade Signs. Saskatoon was the Capital City of Public Art. Lacombe: The Mural Capital of Canada.

After a month of flaneuring the streets of Vancouver I think it might be “The Barbershop Capital of Canada.”

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Barbershop are back

Yes I know barbershops are making a comeback in cities across North America, but I am thinking Vancouver is way ahead of the curve. I haven’t done exhaustive research but based on my observations and recent visits to many Canada cities I am prepared to go out on a limb and declare it the “Barbershop Capital of Canada.”

Wherever we went in Vancouver, it seemed there were barbershops on every other block, be it downtown, Main Street, Yaletown, Denman or Kits. Some we the old traditional barbers with the barber pole and others were more modern. Some had sandwich boards with fun graphics and sayings that made me smile.

Link: History of Barber Pole

In doing a bit of research, I discovered not only that barbershops are back across North America, but that landlords love them as they are not impacted by online shopping as retailers are. This didn’t surprise me as one of the things I notice in Vancouver is that a lot of their ground floor retail seems to be hair and nails salons, as well as barbershops. There was one block where I counted 6 hair salons and one nail salon in a row - the merchant at the end of the block was a a Psychic Reader. Strange but true!

Link: Barbershops Art Back

Here are some photos of the various character barbershops I discovered while flaneuring the streets of Vancouver. I have included a couple of Google Maps to illustrate just how many barbershop there are in Vancouver’s trendy areas.

I hope you will enjoy. There is even a bit of a surprise at the end.

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All of these barber shops are within a five minute walk of where we were staying at the corner of Nelson and Burrand in downtown.

All of these barber shops are within a five minute walk of where we were staying at the corner of Nelson and Burrand in downtown.

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In Kitsilano these barbershops show up on google maps.

In Kitsilano these barbershops show up on google maps.

Everyday Tourist Reader Comment: One of my patients came in with a fresh haircut, looked like he had been to someone that knew what they were doing, so I asked him where he gets his haircut. He told me about Majidian Barbers, which he travelled across the city to go to, and that he and his buddies call Oran, the barber, "Scissorhands" because he cuts like the wind and barely talks. Since I was in need of a good barber and Majidian is around the corner from our place, I gave him a go and he did not disappoint! Thought I might lose an ear but I didn't, and I came out with a great cut!  Tony

Everyday Tourist Reader Comment: One of my patients came in with a fresh haircut, looked like he had been to someone that knew what they were doing, so I asked him where he gets his haircut. He told me about Majidian Barbers, which he travelled across the city to go to, and that he and his buddies call Oran, the barber, "Scissorhands" because he cuts like the wind and barely talks. Since I was in need of a good barber and Majidian is around the corner from our place, I gave him a go and he did not disappoint! Thought I might lose an ear but I didn't, and I came out with a great cut!

Tony

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Move west in downtown nearer to Stanley Park and Coal Harbour and here are the barbershops that populate Google Maps.

Move west in downtown nearer to Stanley Park and Coal Harbour and here are the barbershops that populate Google Maps.

Last Word

Everest Barbers which was just around the corner from where we were staying at Nelson and Burrard actually offers a membership. Not just one membership, but a Gold or Silver Membership.

The Gold Membership gets you unlimited haircuts and style, unlimited beard shaping and line-up, back next shave with shaving cream, hot towel after your haircut, complimentary beverage, use of an fragrance in the cologne bar and 10% discount on all product. Cost? $93/month, $270/3 months, $522/6 months or $950/year. That is like the cost of gym membership or yoga studio!

The poster says $18.25 per haircut, which means you are getting your hair cut 5 times a month. I barely get 5 hair cuts per year. There is obviously something happening in Vancouver when it comes to men’s grooming that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

One has to wonder if barbershops could be the future anchors of main streets? I know our little two-block 19th St NW Main Street in West Hillhurst has two barbershops.

PS

I was so impressed by Vancouver’s barbershops culture I decided to get a haircut before heading home. But rather than going to one of the professional barbershop I thought it would be interesting to get a haircut from a student at Vancouver Community College. To my surprise I was the female student’s first male haircut, but the instructor was great at supervising the cut. She did a few touch-ups and all was good.

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