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? 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Calgary's University District vs Vancouver's Wesbrook Village

It is difficult for most to envision what a new community will look like when it is in the early stages of construction. Sure, there may be computer renderings and “fly-by” videos but it is still hard to visualize what the community will look like when upon arriving at the on-site sales centre, you only see dirt, diggers, signage and perhaps a few buildings and roads under construction.  

This is what the northwest corner of University District looked like in October 2015, with Market Mall in the background.

This is what the northwest corner of University District looked like in October 2015, with Market Mall in the background.

Today some of University District’s Main Street buildings are starting to take shape.

Today some of University District’s Main Street buildings are starting to take shape.

Computer rendering of University District’s future Main Street.

Computer rendering of University District’s future Main Street.

Impressed

Take Calgary’s new University District development (north of Alberta Children’s Hospital) for example. While a few new condo buildings, a dog park and playground park are completed, it still looks a bit random, like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered everywhere.

So, when I was in Vancouver recently, I checked out the University of British Columbia Land Trust’s Wesbrook Village, as it was the model for the University of Calgary’s West Campus Development Trust’s University District. 

I was very impressed with how much has been accomplished at Wesbrook Village over the past 10 years. It already looks like an established community, thanks in part to Vancouver’s great climate for growing trees and shrubs.  With lush landscaping everywhere and six small urban parks strategically positioned so all residents enjoy park side living.  

Wesbrook Village truly is a garden city.

Wesbrook Village truly is a garden city.

The streetscapes of Wesbrook Village are outstanding.

The streetscapes of Wesbrook Village are outstanding.

How cool is this?

How cool is this?

Front yard? Back yard?

Front yard? Back yard?

Wesbrook is a child-friendly community.

Wesbrook is a child-friendly community.

New Community Planning

The plan for Wesbrook Village was approved in 2005, then revised in 2011 and again in 2016. While there is still lots of construction happening, you can see not only how the community is coming together, but also the similarities and difference with Calgary’s University District.  

University District’s plan was approved in 2016, but it too has moved quickly with construction of residential, commercial, parks and public spaces. It is a much larger development 184 acres compared to Wesbrook’s 25.7 acres as it includes 40-acres of parks, ponds and public spaces. However, Wesbrook located next to the 1,850-acre Pacific Spirit Park with its 54 kilometres of walking/hiking trails, means it has less need for parks and pathways.

When completed, Wesbrook Village will be home to about 12,500 people. Today, the current population is about 6,000 people, a number that’s increasing by about 700 people/year.  When fully built out, University District will have 7,000 homes, creating a new community of about 14,000 people.  Currently, about 400 people call University District home. 

When it comes to residential development, both communities are similar in that all the buildings are multi-family - townhomes and low rise (4 to 6 storeys) with a few towers (7 to 20 storeys).  In Calgary, the best comparison might be The Bridges in Bridgeland with its mix of low and mid-rise housing.  

Urban Amenities 

Wesbrook has about 35 businesses - 9 food, 8 retail and 18 services (banks medical and professional offices) - totalling about 126,000 square feet, built around a small town square plan. No additional commercial development is currently planned. 

University District’s masterplan calls for 300,000 square feet of retail on a nine-block main street that will be developed in four phases.  Already signed up is an interesting mix of commercial amenities – Analog Coffee, OEB Breakfast Co., Orangetheory, Press’d Sandwich Shop, UC Noodles and BBQ, University District Dental, YYC Cycle, Blaze Pizza, Copper Branch, Freshii, Curious Hair Skin Body, Scotiabank, and Denim & Smith Barbershops, along with the Alt Hotel. Wesbrook has no plans for a hotel.  

University District’s “big win” is its signing of Cineplex VIP Theatres, to be part of phase 2 of the retail plan, slated to break ground later in 2019. (“VIP” means adults only, as you can enjoy food and drinks (alcohol) delivered to you in your upscale recliner seats.)  

But perhaps the most obvious similarity between Wesbrook Village and University District is that they share the same anchor i.e. Save-On-Foods grocery store.  In Wesbrook’s case, Save-On-Foods anchors a town centre plan that includes a major community center, as well as shops, a high school and playing fields.  

At University District, Save-On-Food will anchor the nine-block main street (think Kensington Village’s 10thStreet and Kensington Road combined). However, rather than being a stand-alone building, University District’s Save-On-Foods store will be incorporated into a low rise residential building with 288 rental homes above. 

I was very impressed by Wesbrook’s University Hill Secondary School where students could be seen wandering the village adding much-needed daytime animation.  With a designated site for a future elementary school when needed, Westbrook is a complete community.   

Surprise, surprise - University District also has provision for a school site if and when the Calgary Board of Education deems one is necessary.   

Wesbrook town square has a European look.

Wesbrook town square has a European look.

Wesbrook Save On Food is a hybrid between a suburban and urban design.

Wesbrook Save On Food is a hybrid between a suburban and urban design.

One of Wesbrooks shopping streets.

One of Wesbrooks shopping streets.

Wesbrook Community Centre

Wesbrook Community Centre


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Wesbrook School

Wesbrook School

Last Word 

Upon returning back to Calgary, I decided to drop by University District again to see what has been happening.  I was impressed – I counted seven buildings at various stages of construction. While it is still hard to envision how everything will eventually fit together, a lot has been accomplished in just three years. 2020 will be a big year - the opening of the Save-On-Foods building will mark the beginning of University District’s main street. 

The only disappointment I had was finding Wesbrook Village has a new condo development called “IVY on the Park”, almost the same name as Brookfield’s “The Ivy” at University District. I couldn’t help but wonder “Who copied who and why?”

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University District streetscape is still in its infancy.

University District streetscape is still in its infancy.

University District’s first park.

University District’s first park.

Was Calgary TOO focused on making the new Central Library an iconic building?

Imagine being all excited about seeing the new Central Library but then you see a sandwich board that says “Elevator access for visitors using wheelchairs or with mobility challenges use the east side of the Library off 4th St SE,” (in other words, the back door). That is EXACTLY what happens to Calgarians with mobility challenges upon arrival at Calgary’s new Central Library.  

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary as part of their online “Calgary At A Crossroads” feature. This blog is a much more in-depth look at the user-friendliness of Calgary’s new Central Library.

Anyone who needs an elevator to get to the 2nd floor entrance of the new Central Library must use the back door.

Anyone who needs an elevator to get to the 2nd floor entrance of the new Central Library must use the back door.

The new library is spectacular inside and has been very popular with Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds. It is more like a community centre than a library - which is a good thing.

The new library is spectacular inside and has been very popular with Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds. It is more like a community centre than a library - which is a good thing.

Sacrilegious

It is probably sacrilegious to say perhaps the Central Library building team was TOO focused on creating a new iconic building. And perhaps some City Council members and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (a wholly owned subsidiary of the City Calgary that manages the implementation of the City’s Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan which includes East Village) are trying TOO hard to make East Village Calgary’s ‘poster community’ for Calgary quest to become an international design city.  

Yes, the library has received rave reviews internationally. But that is what you expect when hiring a “starchitect” firm like Snohetta.  Architectural Digest says it is one of the most “futuristic” new libraries in the world while Azure magazine calls it “one of the best Civic Landmark built in 2018.”  But did these out-of-town reviewers look beyond the design? Did they consider how the building functions for different users – mobility challenges, families with young children and seniors? 

As one Calgarian said to me, “at $1,000 per square foot, it should be spectacular looking and functional too!”  FYI: Cost was $245 million and the building is 240,000 square feet. 

The new Calgary Central Library glows at night.

The new Calgary Central Library glows at night.

The interior atrium and staircase is awesome.

The interior atrium and staircase is awesome.

The reading room is both futuristic and traditional.

The reading room is both futuristic and traditional.

I thought the facade of Calgary’s new library was unique until I learned of the York Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University which opened in 2016 looks very similar to Calgary’s new Central Library. I assumed it was designed by Snohetta, but in fact it was designed by ZAS architects + Interiors and Arup Engineering. I wonder who copied who?

I thought the facade of Calgary’s new library was unique until I learned of the York Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence at York University which opened in 2016 looks very similar to Calgary’s new Central Library. I assumed it was designed by Snohetta, but in fact it was designed by ZAS architects + Interiors and Arup Engineering. I wonder who copied who?

Not Everybody Loves The New Library

Several Calgarians have shared with me concerns about the building’s functionality. Some were willing to let me use their name; others were not, (especially the architects as their professional ethics says they don’t criticize the work of other architects.) I also expect they also don’t want to jeopardize potential contracts with the City of Calgary or Canada Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC). 

Architect and mother of a young toddler, Erin Joslin in her email says, “The central core is an awe-inspiring space worthy of all the accolades being given in terms of aesthetics. An initial visit is a total architectural experience, where you want to meander and experience everything it has to offer. Where the new Library falls short is when you have a purpose and its meandering circulation around the central staircase becomes a huge hinderance.”   She also has concerns about how the stair railings throughout the building lacked lower bars for children, even in the children’s area. 

After touring the building on another visit with Debbie Brekke, professional interior designer and mother of an adult son who is in a wheelchair, says thought “both the interior and exterior design of the entire building forces those in wheelchairs to take the long route.” The landing areas by the elevators on the upper floors are also very tight and don’t accommodate a couple of parents with strollers and a wheelchair user trying to get on or off the elevator.” 

And one local architect, who I toured the building with became downright angered, by the sandwich boards directing those who needed an elevator to go to the back of the building. Given the future is transit-oriented, he was shocked more consideration wasn’t given to the connectivity between the library and the City Hall LRT station to the west. He told me, “Universal accessibility is one of the top five priorities for architects designing a building today. 

How could this have been missed?”  The access to the building’s front entrance is embarrassing and should never happened the 21st century! 

Definitely Not Wheelchair-Friendly

Let’s take a roll on a wheelchair from the City Hall side of the LRT Station and see what it is like. 

First, you have to negotiate the LRT station ramp with trees in the middle to get to the corner of 3rd St SE corner. Then, cross 3rdSt SE to the east side where there is limited access to the sidewalk ramp because a traffic signal post sits almost in the middle of it. 

Next, you have to negotiate the difficult-to-open LRT gates, traverse over the LRT rails then negotiate more LRT gates before you get to the sidewalk from where you can roll your way along a cold, grey concrete wall for three quarters of a block to a small elevator lobby. 

Once there, take the elevator to the second floor (aka entrance level), then go back outside to the plaza to get to the front door. 

I am exhausted just writing this. 

To be fair, a 125m long ramp (the length of a CFL football field) is at the main entrance. It is used by many parents with strollers and some wheelchair patrons.  But if you need an elevator, your only option is to go around the block to the back door.

This is what everyone who gets off the City Hall LRT station is faced with on their way to the library.

This is what everyone who gets off the City Hall LRT station is faced with on their way to the library.

On the other side of 3rd St SE. the small ramp area is made even worse with a sandwich board, concrete half-wall and street signal post.

On the other side of 3rd St SE. the small ramp area is made even worse with a sandwich board, concrete half-wall and street signal post.

These gate are very awkward for anyone in a wheelchair or walker to try to open.

These gate are very awkward for anyone in a wheelchair or walker to try to open.

Once across the LRT tracks you are greeted be a large blank concrete wall.

Once across the LRT tracks you are greeted be a large blank concrete wall.

Then a bank of concrete stairs….

Then a bank of concrete stairs….

Finally you make it to the doors to the lobby where the elevator takes you up one floor to the main entrance plaza.

Finally you make it to the doors to the lobby where the elevator takes you up one floor to the main entrance plaza.

Yes, some use the ramp to get to the second floor entrance doors, rather than going all the way around the building to the back door.

Yes, some use the ramp to get to the second floor entrance doors, rather than going all the way around the building to the back door.

Inside also has issues…

Once inside the lobby those with mobility challenges are again confronted with stairs. Note signage directs those in wheelchairs to go the long way around to get to the books and services.

Once inside the lobby those with mobility challenges are again confronted with stairs. Note signage directs those in wheelchairs to go the long way around to get to the books and services.

Even once you are inside, the elevator access to the upper floors is tight for those in walkers, wheelchairs and strollers.

Even once you are inside, the elevator access to the upper floors is tight for those in walkers, wheelchairs and strollers.

The interior ramp for those in wheelchairs or with strollers located on the perimeter of the building, is also very restrictive.

The interior ramp for those in wheelchairs or with strollers located on the perimeter of the building, is also very restrictive.

A simple solution not taken

Ironically, an elevator (it is for access to the theatre space from inside) exists inside the building just a few meters away from the stairs leading to the main entrance from 3rd Street SW (which is where most of the people enter the library). It is used to access the theatre from inside the building. Why couldn’t a handicapped entrance have been integrated into the façade of the building here?

When I pointed this out to Brekke, she quickly observed there is also adequate room for a street handicap drop off spot at this point which would further enhance the building’s accessibility (rather than having to take the convoluted route to the back of the building to drop someone off.)   

I met with Kate Thompson, Vice President of Development, at the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (who was responsible for managing the design and building of the library) at the library to discuss the accessibility and other issues. She indicated having the theater elevator also be the main entrance for those with mobility issues was discussed but rejected by the library as they didn’t like the idea of having two access points to the library. She did say a retrofit could be done in the future and the City is looking at how it can improve access from the LRT station. 

I couldn’t help but share my architect colleague’s sentiments that “universal accessibility is a must for any public building today.”  

But let’s move on…

There are exit doors (window area) from the theatre on 3rd St SE that could be adapted to allow those who need an elevator to use the one located just a few meters inside. There is also room on the street here to have a drop off zone for those who need one.

There are exit doors (window area) from the theatre on 3rd St SE that could be adapted to allow those who need an elevator to use the one located just a few meters inside. There is also room on the street here to have a drop off zone for those who need one.

Where’s the +15? 

Several people have asked me why there is no +15 bridge to the Municipal Building and its huge parkade. Yes, there is a crosswalk with lights linking the building with the library but it means more stairs.  “Having a +15 to access the parkade would also help address the mobility-challenged issue” said Brekke.

Richard Parker, former City of Calgary Planning Director was shocked when he took his grandchildren to the library on a Sunday shortly after it opened to find out, after parking in the parkade, that the Municipal building is closed on weekends meaning they had to walk around the block to get to the library.  Parker isn’t alone. I heard similar comments from many others how stupid it was this winter not to be able to walk through the Municipal Building to the get to the library

Thompson noted a +15 connection had been discussed and could happen in the future. She added a new $80 million, 500-stall parkade on 9th Ave SE across the street from the Library is currently under construction; however, there will be no +15 bridge.  

FYI: In fact, East Village’s master plan has no + 15 bridges, so don’t expect to see one soon. 

There is an entrance to the Municipal Building on 3rd St SE that is at almost exactly the same height as the Library’s main entrance. A +15 link to allow for easy access between the two buildings and easier access to the Olympic Plaza Arts District and downtown would enhance the public friendliness of both buildings.

There is an entrance to the Municipal Building on 3rd St SE that is at almost exactly the same height as the Library’s main entrance. A +15 link to allow for easy access between the two buildings and easier access to the Olympic Plaza Arts District and downtown would enhance the public friendliness of both buildings.

East Village’s next signature building is an $80M state-of-the-art 500 stall parkade that will incorporate a floor and a half of office space. Some questioned the logic of adding new office space to the a downtown that already has a surplus of 10 million square feet. The parkade was heralded by others for its futuristic designed that allows it to be easily converted to other uses when it is no longer needed for parking. FYI: the cost of a normal 500 stall above-ground parkade would be in the neighbourhood of $20M.

East Village’s next signature building is an $80M state-of-the-art 500 stall parkade that will incorporate a floor and a half of office space. Some questioned the logic of adding new office space to the a downtown that already has a surplus of 10 million square feet. The parkade was heralded by others for its futuristic designed that allows it to be easily converted to other uses when it is no longer needed for parking. FYI: the cost of a normal 500 stall above-ground parkade would be in the neighbourhood of $20M.

Street Level Entrance: A Must

Personally, I think all public building entrances should be at street level, not only for universal accessibility, but to create the most welcoming pedestrian experience for everyone.  

Thompson, assured me they tried very hard to create a grand street entrance but just couldn’t make it work. The site’s huge hole in the middle - where the LRT trains emerge from the tunnel - meant the building had to be built 18 feet above the street over top of the tracks.  CMLC confirmed building over the LRT tracks added $20 million dollars to the cost. 

Because of the additional costs and limitations associated with building over the tracks and no ability to have underground parking, Thompson said the site wasn’t viable for private development, nor did it work as a park or plaza.  If nothing was built on the site, she and her colleagues were concerned the site was destined to be a haven for undesirable activity.  

This made me begin to wonder if this was the best site for a major public library. 

The LRT tunnel divides the library site into two narrow strips of land on either side. They were once a small park and surface parking lot.

The LRT tunnel divides the library site into two narrow strips of land on either side. They were once a small park and surface parking lot.

This is the 3rd St SE entrance (aka front door) to the new Central Library. Not only is it inaccessible for those who need an elevator it is not very inviting to anyone with its many stairs and the often dark forbidding plateau at the top.

This is the 3rd St SE entrance (aka front door) to the new Central Library. Not only is it inaccessible for those who need an elevator it is not very inviting to anyone with its many stairs and the often dark forbidding plateau at the top.

The 3rd St SE entrance from the south side is more inviting with the Chris Moeller’s two million dollar bobbing bird-like sculptures (a third bird is located at the back door). But the entrance is still very dark even in the winter when the sun is low in the sky.

The 3rd St SE entrance from the south side is more inviting with the Chris Moeller’s two million dollar bobbing bird-like sculptures (a third bird is located at the back door). But the entrance is still very dark even in the winter when the sun is low in the sky.

No better than Municipal Building

I think Thompson was offended when I said “I feel the Library turns its back on East Village, in the same way the Municipal Building does.”  

For years, urban designers have publicly lambasted the designers of the Municipal Building (aka Blue Monster) because not only did it cut off downtown from East Village, but its east side is pedestrian-unfriendly. 

CMLC’s website has a photo of the Municipal Building and new Library side by side that clearly shows the size and shape of the two buildings are amazingly similar with their concrete base and pointed “nose.” There are more similarities between these two buildings than people realize.

CMLC’s website has a photo of the Municipal Building and new Library side by side that clearly shows the size and shape of the two buildings are amazingly similar with their concrete base and pointed “nose.” There are more similarities between these two buildings than people realize.

Too many stairs

Yes, the new Library has a fun bobbing alien sculpture to greet you at the back door (aka 4th Street SE entrance), but only after you walk by the long blank concrete wall and confronted by poorly designed concrete stairs, not unlike the Municipal Building’s east side (aka back door) entrance.  

Having personally entered the new library several times by the back door (aka the east entrance), I have witnessed on several occasions someone saying “these stairs are dangerous.” Why?

Because the concrete stairs are next to concrete seating areas that look just like stairs, but a bit higher.  It is easy to inadvertently sway into the seating area and before you know it - you stumble. On one occasion, I did see a young women stumble and fall. Fortunately, she wasn’t seriously hurt. 

In my opinion, the east façade of the new library is not much better than the Municipal Building’s when it comes to being pedestrian friendly.

Screen Shot 2019-05-31 at 9.10.14 PM.png
3rd Street SE backdoor entrance to the Municipal Building has been criticized for being very pedestrian unfriendly because of its stairs and dark entrance.

3rd Street SE backdoor entrance to the Municipal Building has been criticized for being very pedestrian unfriendly because of its stairs and dark entrance.

This is the entrance to the library from 9th Ave SE which will link to the new parkade across the street.

This is the entrance to the library from 9th Ave SE which will link to the new parkade across the street.

Front Door Not Great

As for the front entrance (aka 3rd St SE), it isn’t much better with its 32 steps.  On one visit, I found an older lady huffing and puffing as she struggled to climb the stairs bouncing a small piece of luggage, stair by stair. She was most appreciative of my offered to help. Too bad she couldn’t use the elevator just a few meters away.  I doubt this is an isolated case. 

The stairs as the back door are too narrow to allow a group of people to go up and down them at the same time.

The stairs as the back door are too narrow to allow a group of people to go up and down them at the same time.

Even inside the library the lobby stairs are dangerous with no railing on the edge between the stairs and the seating. The railings should also have lower railings for children to hang onto.

Even inside the library the lobby stairs are dangerous with no railing on the edge between the stairs and the seating. The railings should also have lower railings for children to hang onto.

Last Word

While some might see these flaws as petty, for me the new Central library is hostile to pedestrians (abled bodied and mobility-challenged) and does little to help connect East Village with downtown. 

I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Calgary should have simply renovated the old central library (maybe with an addition) as Edmonton with their mid-century central library for $84 million), rather than spending $245 million for a new iconic building on a difficult site.  

The old site would have allowed for a better link to the street, LRT station and bus stops, as well as better linkages to downtown and East Village. And, we could have saved a whack of cash for other uses (and we sure have a lot of those.)  

Edmonton’s renovated Central Library which sits on a prominent site in Churchill Square, will join the Art Gallery of Alberta and their City Hall as signature architectural gems.

Edmonton’s renovated Central Library which sits on a prominent site in Churchill Square, will join the Art Gallery of Alberta and their City Hall as signature architectural gems.

Could the old W.R. Castell Library have been renovated and perhaps expanded to create a fun, funky new library that would anchor the north-east corner of Olympic Plaza? I was told, that option was looked at, but the City officials didn’t want to close the library for a couple of years of renovations.

Could the old W.R. Castell Library have been renovated and perhaps expanded to create a fun, funky new library that would anchor the north-east corner of Olympic Plaza? I was told, that option was looked at, but the City officials didn’t want to close the library for a couple of years of renovations.

Don’t get me wrong  

I love the playful façade, the warmth of the wood and the uplifting feeling of the interior staircase and skylight.  

But I hate climbing the stairs to get in and out.  And I feel sorry for those with mobility issues who have to take the long convoluted route to get inside.  

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

Calgary’s Audacious New Library

Fairy Tale Postcards from University of British Columbia’s Library

Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library - Look but don’t touch!

 

 

 

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

Calgary vs Vancouver: Affordability & Livability

After recently spending a month living in the middle of Vancouver’s City Centre, exploring its different communities and checking out its condo market, I kept asking myself – how can millennials afford to live there?

And, for that matter how can empty nesters retire there? 

Calgary’s has numerous chill spots like Cold Garden a craft brewery in Inglewood that makes its City Centre a very attractive place to live, work and play.

Calgary’s has numerous chill spots like Cold Garden a craft brewery in Inglewood that makes its City Centre a very attractive place to live, work and play.

Dude Chilling Park is just one of many parks and public spaces that makes Vancouver’s City Centre one of the best places in North America for urban living.

Dude Chilling Park is just one of many parks and public spaces that makes Vancouver’s City Centre one of the best places in North America for urban living.

Affordability

The cost of a used condo in Vancouver is about $1,000/square foot. Translated, this means a modest 750 square foot condo is going to cost you $750,000. If you want a new 1,300 square foot condo be prepared to pay $2,000/square foot or $2,600,000.  That is more than twice the cost of a similar condo in Calgary.  

While you expect to pay a premium to live in downtown Vancouver because of its climate and amenities like Stanley Park, beaches and sea wall, that’s still a pretty stiff price to pay.  

I came away feeling Calgary’s City Centre communities while not on par with Vancouver’s in the way of amenities are not that far behind in their evolution as urban villages and all of them have significant upside potential.  

In chatting with several people in Vancouver and Calgary over the past few months I have often heard Calgary’s City Centre being called a “hidden gem” when it comes to urban living with potential to get even better.  

Let’s compare Calgary’s urban communities with Vancouver’s. 

Food trucks help to animate public spaces throughout Vancouver’s City Centre.

Food trucks help to animate public spaces throughout Vancouver’s City Centre.

Calgary’s City Centre has an amazing patio scene.

Calgary’s City Centre has an amazing patio scene.

Calgary also has a great pedestrian mall that is part of a National Historic District.

Calgary also has a great pedestrian mall that is part of a National Historic District.

The stairs in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery is a popular place to chill and catch some sun.

The stairs in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery is a popular place to chill and catch some sun.

Calgary also has some pretty cool places to sit.

Calgary also has some pretty cool places to sit.

Vancouver’s City Centre has numerous high streets offering upscale and fun places to shop.

Vancouver’s City Centre has numerous high streets offering upscale and fun places to shop.

Calgary has its fair share of quirky places to shop, including NERD a shop in Inglewood that specializes in fashion and accessories for roller skating.

Calgary has its fair share of quirky places to shop, including NERD a shop in Inglewood that specializes in fashion and accessories for roller skating.

Vancouver’s City Centre has dozens of funky residential developments.

Vancouver’s City Centre has dozens of funky residential developments.

It doesn’t get much cooler than the front entrance to Pixel condo in Calgary’s Kensington Village.

It doesn’t get much cooler than the front entrance to Pixel condo in Calgary’s Kensington Village.

Unless it might be the Colours condo in Calgary’s hipster Beltline community.

Unless it might be the Colours condo in Calgary’s hipster Beltline community.

Vancouver has is fair share of fun strange red sculptures.

Vancouver has is fair share of fun strange red sculptures.

Calgary Peace Bridge is one of North America’s signature pedestrian bridges.

Calgary Peace Bridge is one of North America’s signature pedestrian bridges.

Vancouver Art Gallery has funky exhibitions.

Vancouver Art Gallery has funky exhibitions.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has fun exhibitions also.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has fun exhibitions also.

Calgary’s City Centre has tons of things to see and do.

Calgary’s City Centre has tons of things to see and do.

Vancouver House is that city’s newest weird and wacky architecture.

Vancouver House is that city’s newest weird and wacky architecture.

Calgary has its fair share of weird and wacky architecture and public art.

Calgary has its fair share of weird and wacky architecture and public art.

Beltline vs West End 

In many ways, Calgary’s Beltline is the equivalent of Vancouver’s West End, with its tree-lined streets populated by a mix of old single family homes, scattered amongst small mid-century apartments and new mega highrise towers. The Beltline’s 17thAve is akin to Robson Street but with less shopping and more patios.  Tenth and 11th Aves are the equivalent to Davie St and Beltline’s 1st, 4th, 8th, 11th and 14th Street pedestrian corridors are Vancouver’s Denman St.  The Beltline’s Lougheed House and Beaulieu Gardens is much nicer than the West End’s Roedde House Museum and grounds.  

Calgary’s Memorial Park is very similar to the West End’s Nelson Park in scale but Memorial Park is home to a historic library that includes a very cool musical instrument lending program.  But the Beltline can’t match the West End’s amazing Mole Hill community housing block that includes the preservation of several century homes and a quaint garden pathway.  Both communities are home to their city’s respective LGBTQ communities. 

Where Vancouver’s West End really shines is in its easy access to parks and pathways along English Bay and Stanley Park. While Calgary’s Beltliners are land locked with no direct access to a major park or the Bow and Elbow Rivers. 

Link: Beltline Embraces Density

It is hard to beat Vancouver’s English Bay as an urban playground.

It is hard to beat Vancouver’s English Bay as an urban playground.

Vancouver’s West End streets not only have lovely tree canopies, but also enchanting front yards that gives it a very residential sense of place.

Vancouver’s West End streets not only have lovely tree canopies, but also enchanting front yards that gives it a very residential sense of place.

Vancouver’s West End is a mix of modern and traditional architecture.

Vancouver’s West End is a mix of modern and traditional architecture.

Calgary’s Beltline also funky modern architecture like Mark on 10th, which also has a roof top with hot tub, BBQ, kitchen and lounge for residents to mix and mingle. And yes we have food truck too.

Calgary’s Beltline also funky modern architecture like Mark on 10th, which also has a roof top with hot tub, BBQ, kitchen and lounge for residents to mix and mingle. And yes we have food truck too.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is lined with sidewalk patios that make for great people watching.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is lined with sidewalk patios that make for great people watching.

17th Avenue also has a diverse independent cafe culture.

17th Avenue also has a diverse independent cafe culture.

Jim Deva Plaza is a fun place for people of all ages to hang out along Davie Street.

Jim Deva Plaza is a fun place for people of all ages to hang out along Davie Street.

The Beltline’s equivalent would be Tomkins Park.

The Beltline’s equivalent would be Tomkins Park.

Vancouver’s West End has funky bike racks.

Vancouver’s West End has funky bike racks.

Calgary’s Beltline also has funky bike racks.

Calgary’s Beltline also has funky bike racks.

The Beltine has several pedestrian oriented main streets with pubs, patios, shops and restaurants.

The Beltine has several pedestrian oriented main streets with pubs, patios, shops and restaurants.

While the Beltline may not have as many grocery stores at the West End it has two major grocery stores as well as several specialty grocers like Community Natural Foods.

While the Beltline may not have as many grocery stores at the West End it has two major grocery stores as well as several specialty grocers like Community Natural Foods.

East Village vs Yaletown 

 East Village and the proposed new alliance with Victoria Park and Stampede Park could well become Calgary’s equivalent to Vancouver’s Yaletown. Give it time.  Yaletown had a head start, its transformation into a funky place to live began in the early ‘90s. East Village’s mega makeover started about 15 years later.  

The master plans are surprisingly similar, build highrise residential development next to an iconic new library, along with some major sports and entertainment facilities and a multi-use pathway along the water and people will want to live there. 

Link: East Village a billion dollar work of art!

Vancouver’s signature central library in Yaletown.

Vancouver’s signature central library in Yaletown.

Calgary’s signature new central library in East Village

Calgary’s signature new central library in East Village

The ARC a new residential building in Yaletown has fun hole in the middle.

The ARC a new residential building in Yaletown has fun hole in the middle.

Calgary’s National Music Centre is the gateway between East Village and Victoria/Stampede Park.

Calgary’s National Music Centre is the gateway between East Village and Victoria/Stampede Park.

Calgary’s East Village has nothing to match Granville Street with its mix of bars, clubs, shops, hotels and offices.

Calgary’s East Village has nothing to match Granville Street with its mix of bars, clubs, shops, hotels and offices.

Yaletown’s pedestrian pathway is lined with residential buildings.

Yaletown’s pedestrian pathway is lined with residential buildings.

Calgary’s RiverWalk in East Village is a popular chill place.

Calgary’s RiverWalk in East Village is a popular chill place.

There are several parks located along Yaletown’s pathway.

There are several parks located along Yaletown’s pathway.

East Village Plaza is a poplar meeting place and the gateway to St. Patrick Island.

East Village Plaza is a poplar meeting place and the gateway to St. Patrick Island.

St. Patrick’s Island’s pebble beach is located next to East Village.

St. Patrick’s Island’s pebble beach is located next to East Village.

East Village’s skyline is changing rapidly with new residential towers being added every year..

East Village’s skyline is changing rapidly with new residential towers being added every year..

East Village’s Fort Calgary is a popular outdoor concert venue in the summer.

East Village’s Fort Calgary is a popular outdoor concert venue in the summer.

Eau Claire / Downtown West vs Coal Harbour

Eau Claire and Downtown West combined are Calgary’s equivalent to Coal Harbour with their modern high-rise residential towers lined up along the water’s edge.  In this case, the master plans differ.  Coal Harbour is home to Vancouver’s mega convention centre and cruise ship terminal making it a tourist hub, whereas Calgary’s Eau Claire/Downtown West is more focused on recreational amenities for residents including the Bow River pathway, Prince’s Island Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Eau Claire Y.  

Eau Claire and Downtown West have tremendous potential, especially if you add in West Village which could become a funky innovation campus for start-ups businesses, perhaps even the next Amazon, Google or Apple if we play our cards right. 

Link: Downtown West a quiet evolution

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour is a boater’s paradise.

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour is a boater’s paradise.

Calgary’s Eau Claire shoreline.

Calgary’s Eau Claire shoreline.

Calgary’s Downtown West shoreline.

Calgary’s Downtown West shoreline.

Coal Harbour’s waterfront pathway

Coal Harbour’s waterfront pathway

The new West Eau Claire Park pebble beach is the perfect sunset watching spot with the Peace Bridge on the horizon.

The new West Eau Claire Park pebble beach is the perfect sunset watching spot with the Peace Bridge on the horizon.

River surfing on the Bow River is popular at the Louise Bridge in Eau Claire

River surfing on the Bow River is popular at the Louise Bridge in Eau Claire

Calgary’s old science centre planetarium in West Downtown is currently being converted into a public art gallery.

Calgary’s old science centre planetarium in West Downtown is currently being converted into a public art gallery.

Calgary’s West Village has huge potential to become a vibrant urban village on the Bow River.

Calgary’s West Village has huge potential to become a vibrant urban village on the Bow River.

Shaw Millennium Park, combined with the new civic art gallery will become the heart of vibrant urban community in the near future. Photo credit: Canadian Society of Landscape Architects

Shaw Millennium Park, combined with the new civic art gallery will become the heart of vibrant urban community in the near future. Photo credit: Canadian Society of Landscape Architects

Across the Water 

Hillhurst, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Crescent Heights being across water from downtown have many parallels to Vancouver’s Kitsilano and False Creek. “No way” you say! 

From an urban living perspective Calgary’s northsiders have two islands playgrounds. St. Patrick’s Island (which officially belongs to Bridgeland Riverside, not East Village) and St. George’s Island aka Calgary Zoo offer locals an urban playground for families that is hard to beat.  

Granville Island is the urban playground for those living in Kits and False Creek, however, Granville Island is more a tourist attraction than an amenity for residents. You can find fresh food at better prices in lots of places and without the crowds, than Granville’s Farmers’ Market. While Kitsilano’s 4th Street and West Broadway are its two pedestrian streets, Calgary’s north shore communities have 10th St and Kensington Road as their traditional main streets, with budding new main streets along Edmonton Trail, Centre Street and 8th Street.

While Calgary’s north shore communities don’t have the beaches of Kitsilano, they do have some lovely parks with stunning view of the mountains and the downtown skyline. 

Link: Calgary’s NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here

Calgary can’t match the Kitsilano beach.

Calgary can’t match the Kitsilano beach.

Calgarians like to dress up when then go fishing on the weekend.

Calgarians like to dress up when then go fishing on the weekend.

Kitsilano’s Main Street is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

Kitsilano’s Main Street is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

Kits is home to both a Whole Foods Market and Safeway grocery store.

Kits is home to both a Whole Foods Market and Safeway grocery store.

Kits is home to numerous great restaurants. We had a great lunch at Jam Cafe, where there is almost always a line-up.

Kits is home to numerous great restaurants. We had a great lunch at Jam Cafe, where there is almost always a line-up.

Kitsilano has several fun murals.

Kitsilano has several fun murals.

Vancouver’s City Centre is also home to Granville Island with its Public Market.

Vancouver’s City Centre is also home to Granville Island with its Public Market.

Vancouver’s False Creek residents enjoy easy access to the waterfront and Granville Island.

Vancouver’s False Creek residents enjoy easy access to the waterfront and Granville Island.

Calgary’s Crescent Height stairs not only offer a great workout but spectacular views of downtown and the Rocky Mountains..

Calgary’s Crescent Height stairs not only offer a great workout but spectacular views of downtown and the Rocky Mountains..

Tobogganing is popular with families in Bridgeland.

Tobogganing is popular with families in Bridgeland.

In Calgary’s City Centre there are street festivals pretty much ever weekend from May to September like this one outside Bridgland’s iconic Lukes Drug Mart a funky cafe, record store, grocery store, drugstore and post office.

In Calgary’s City Centre there are street festivals pretty much ever weekend from May to September like this one outside Bridgland’s iconic Lukes Drug Mart a funky cafe, record store, grocery store, drugstore and post office.

Bridgeland/Riverside has a tool lending library - how cool is that?

Bridgeland/Riverside has a tool lending library - how cool is that?

Coming soon to Bridgeland is the mixed-use Dominon project which will include a co-work space, as well as retail and restaurant.

Coming soon to Bridgeland is the mixed-use Dominon project which will include a co-work space, as well as retail and restaurant.

Calgary’s Kensington Village has two Main Street - 10th St and Kensington Road.

Calgary’s Kensington Village has two Main Street - 10th St and Kensington Road.

Kensington Village is home to the iconic Plaza theatre.

Kensington Village is home to the iconic Plaza theatre.

Kensington Village has numerous great restaurants with sidewalk summer patios.

Kensington Village has numerous great restaurants with sidewalk summer patios.

Kensington also has the fun Container Bar.

Kensington also has the fun Container Bar.

The Bow to Bluff along the LRT tracks in Sunnyside is now fully funded and will create a fun urban gathering space for all ages.

The Bow to Bluff along the LRT tracks in Sunnyside is now fully funded and will create a fun urban gathering space for all ages.

Funky new condos are popping up everywhere in and around Kensington Village.

Funky new condos are popping up everywhere in and around Kensington Village.

Mission vs South Granville

Mission/Erlton and 4th St SW is Calgary’s equivalent to Vancouver’s South Granville.  Both have a main street with upscale shops, galleries and restaurants, mixed in with some mid-rise residential development.  

Mission/Erlton residents have the added bonus of the Elbow River in their backyard and easy access to Stampede Park and Repsol Sports Centre.  

South Granville has more in the way of shops and galleries, as well as the historic Stanley Theatre for its residents to enjoy. 

Link: Mission is marvellous

The Stanley Theatre anchors South Granville street.

The Stanley Theatre anchors South Granville street.

South Granville has numerous mid-century apartments.

South Granville has numerous mid-century apartments.

The side street next to South Granville have lots of smaller apartments, very similar to those found in Calgary’s Mission and Cliff Bungalow.

The side street next to South Granville have lots of smaller apartments, very similar to those found in Calgary’s Mission and Cliff Bungalow.

Meinhardt has been been a Western Canadian culinary destination since it opened in 1996.

Meinhardt has been been a Western Canadian culinary destination since it opened in 1996.

Calgary’s summer festival season kicks off each year with the Lilac Festival along 4th Street in Mission.

Calgary’s summer festival season kicks off each year with the Lilac Festival along 4th Street in Mission.

River rafting along the Elbow River through Mission is popular in the summer.

River rafting along the Elbow River through Mission is popular in the summer.

Mission’s 4th Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops.

Mission’s 4th Street is lined with restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops.

Historic Districts

Inglewood / Ramsay with its historic main street has many of the attributes of Vancouver’s Gastown, without the hordes of tourist, that make living there a nightmare in the summer.  The 2010 completion of the historic Woodward department store site redevelopment was the catalyst for Gastown’s revitalization. It includes a mix of uses from affordable and market housing to SFU School for Contemporary Arts, from the National Film Board office to a grocery and drug store.  

Inglewood’s revitalization was the result of Main Street Program in the ‘90s that focused on the façade restoration of the historic buildings along 9thAvenue to create a mixed-use pedestrian street. More recently new commercial buildings like the Atlantic Avenue Arts Block and West Canadian Digital Imaging building become workplace anchors for its main street.   

As well, several recent condo developments, co-work spaces and numerous craft breweries have made Inglewood/Ramsay a very attractive place to live, work and play.   

Inglewood’s Calgary Brewery site and Ramsay’s Dominion Bridge site and the coming Green Line all have the potential to make Inglewood/Ramsay a model for 21stcentury urban living.

While Calgary’s Chinatown is much smaller than Vancouver’s, it benefits from not having the spillover of undesirable activities from East Hastings. 

Link: Inglewood Calgary’s most unique community

Vancouver’s Gastown is very popular with tourists.

Vancouver’s Gastown is very popular with tourists.

Gastown is becoming increasingly popular as a place to live with the redevelopment of the old Woodwards department store.

Gastown is becoming increasingly popular as a place to live with the redevelopment of the old Woodwards department store.

Gastown streets are not only filled with pedestrians but cars also.

Gastown streets are not only filled with pedestrians but cars also.

Inglewood is getting a mega makeover with several new mixed-use condo buildings along its main street.

Inglewood is getting a mega makeover with several new mixed-use condo buildings along its main street.

Inglewood is home to Canada’s Knifewear’s flagship store as well as numerous other independent shops, restaurants, pubs and shops.

Inglewood is home to Canada’s Knifewear’s flagship store as well as numerous other independent shops, restaurants, pubs and shops.

Inglewood is home to Recordland one of Canada’s biggest and best used record stores.

Inglewood is home to Recordland one of Canada’s biggest and best used record stores.

Inglewood is home to Calgary’s live music scene.

Inglewood is home to Calgary’s live music scene.

Inglewood’s Harvie Passage is fun for hikers, kayakers and bikers.

Inglewood’s Harvie Passage is fun for hikers, kayakers and bikers.

Gotta love public art that you can climb on like this one at Inglewood’s Harvie Passage

Gotta love public art that you can climb on like this one at Inglewood’s Harvie Passage

In My Opinion

As a place to live, Calgary’s City Centre offers as much to its residents in the way of festivals, entertainment, culture, restaurants, bars, shops, parks and pathways as does Vancouver’s. 

What Calgary is missing are the amazing array of urban grocery stores - big and small - that Vancouver offers. However, this is gradually being addressed with the opening of Urban Fare in the Beltline this year and City Market in East Village next year.

What really makes Calgary’s City Center MOST attractive as a place to live is its affordability not only compared to Vancouver, but also Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto.

Now is the perfect time for Calgary to attract more young techies from across North America (who can live anywhere) to establish their live/work lifestyles and grow their businesses here. 

What is needed is a clever marketing campaign that captures the imagination of young entrepreneurs re: why Calgary is perhaps the most affordable and livable urban playground in North America. 

Theodore is Calgary’s newest City Centre condo with homes starting at $290,000.

Theodore is Calgary’s newest City Centre condo with homes starting at $290,000.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos section on May 18, 2019.