NIMBYism gone wild?

Seems like we can’t do anything these days without a group of citizens shouting “not in my backyard.” There seems to always be a loud minority who can’t accept that Calgary’s urban landscape has always been evolving and will have to continue to evolve if we want to be a viable and vibrant city for everyone. Let’s stop the madness.

School Yard Bullies

In Scenic Acres, you can’t build a school on a site that had always been intended to be used for a school because some neighbours thought is was going to be a park forever. 

In Varsity, 30 residents launched a lawsuit against the Calgary Board of Education to prevent the relocation of the Christine Meikle School for 120 special needs students on land that has been designated as a school site since 1971.

Back story: Since 1957, the Christine Meikle School has successfully operated in Bridgeland with some students even giving back to the community, through its volunteer program.  The new site near the Alberta Children’s Hospital means not only a better school to meet the needs of today’s students, but importantly allows as access to special therapy these students often need.

Who are these “schoolyard bullies?” Calgary is lucky nobody lived in Varsity in the mid ’60s when the University of Calgary was being proposed. Can you imagine the stink they would have raised at the thought of building a university for 30,000+ students next to them?

We may never have gotten a university! 

School yard bullies vandalizing sign announcing new school illustrates just how childish some adults can be sometimes. Living in a city means sharing space with others. 

Living on the Edge

And then three’s Edgemont where some residents feel you can’t build a skatepark in a park because there are houses nearby.  What’s next - maybe we shouldn’t modernize and expand playgrounds in parks because there are houses nearby? Don’t we WANT skateparks built where there are homes close by so the community kids can walk to the park and play unsupervised?

Sure skateboarding is noisy, but so are lawnmowers, kids jumping on backyard trampolines and dog yapping at all times of the day – perhaps we should ban these also.

While there are 500 people on the petition against the skatepark, there can’t be more than a dozen homes that are actually within earshot of the proposed skatepark.  Interesting that in this case the Community Association is onside, but not the immediate neighbours – truly a “not in my back yard” issue. 

Skateboarding is one of the most popular activities of young Calgarians. The City has mobile skate parks around the city in the summer but what about the other three seasons.  When we have a winter like this one, the kids would be using the park year-round.

Live on the edge; let the kids play!

As you can see there are no houses in immediate proximity to the skatepark site. The closest are those across a busy street and then they are set back by large setback.  

Evolve or Die

In Bridgeland, some community members don’t want the 1921 Bridgeland School, which has been sold to developers to be turned into lofts surrounded by townhouses.  Personally, I think converting old school sites into mixed residential sites (lofts, townhouses, low-rise condos) is a great idea.  It will attract new people to the community something needed continue Bridgeland’s wonderful revitalization.  The townhouses will be ideal for young families, who can’t afford the million dollar new infills, yet want to live closer to the city’s downtown.  This project is more about diversifying the communities housing stock than density.

The protesters are probably the same people who complain that we can’t close inner-city schools because of declining enrollment, yet they won’t let the community evolve to attract young families.  You can’t have it both ways.

Communities must evolve or they die!

The proposal takes two surface parking lots and turns them into town homes, isn't that a good thing? Adds new tax revenues so the City can reinvest in established communities. 

Cougar Attack 

And then there’s the “Save The Slopes” residents group (mostly Cougar Ridge) up in arms over the Trinity Hills project east of Canada Olympic Park along the Paskapoo Slopes.  If you check out the proposed redevelopment, you’ll find out the land is privately owned and people have be using it as recreational space ONLY because the owner has allowed them to do so.

I drive by the site almost daily in the summer and most times never see anyone there.  The proposal has 69 hectares of the upper slopes (the most sensitive land) becoming a true park with public access to proper trails for biking and walking that will preserve the slopes.

The proposed village with hotel, retail, restaurants and residential is very synergistic to all of the year-round activities happening at Canada Olympic Park. Seems to me this one is a win-win!

Thank God there was no Cougar Ridge community in the early ‘80s when the city was making its bid for the 1988 Olympics.  Can you imagine how they would have attacked the idea of building Canada Olympic Park on the Paskapoo Slopes? We can’t preserve everything!

We would never have gotten the Olympic games, which put Calgary on the international map.

The Outline Plan clearly illustrates how the sensitive upper slopes will remain as green space with all of the development along the bottom with links to Canada Olympic Park. 

Six Month Limit

Too often it is the developer who gets pummeled by the community for proposing new developments with new uses and higher density.  But in reality, increased density and diversity of uses in established communities has been mandated by City Council, based on extensive research showing that a more compact city is more cost effective to manage.

Recently attending the City’s Open House for the proposed new Currie Barracks development, I was surprised to learn that since September 2013, 39,050 flyers have been distributed to surrounding community residents, and 230 hours of community engagement and four previous open houses had taken place.  And still people who weren’t happy. Obviously no matter how much community engagement you have you can never may everyone happy.

While I am all for public engagement, Council needs to realize they can’t please everyone no matter how long we take. The City needs to place a six-month limit on a well-planned public engagement process, integrating community ideas that are feasible based on accepted urban design principles, economic realities and the overall City’s Master Plan. Random personal opinion of what is appropriate should not make for endless debate.

Last Word

There are many different public(s) living in Calgary. Given that, it’s to be expected that people’s wants, needs and wishes are diametrically opposed.  Community consultation is currently costing the City and the development community millions of dollars each year in unnecessary unproductive, endless engagement.  This cost results in higher taxes and higher housing costs. I’m guessing, few if any of us want that.

Let’s stop the madness now!

If you like this blog, you might like: 

 West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild?

Make Multifamily a permitted use! 

Reform Calgary's Development Appeal Board 

Dublin vs Calgary / Apples vs Oranges

Dublin is a city steeped in history, dating back over 1,000 years when the Vikings first settled the area in 841 AD. However, while there are many buildings or ruins dating back to the Middle Ages, such as Dublin Castle founded in 1204 AD, most historical buildings are from the 18th century Georgian period and later. In the 18th century, for a short period of time, Dublin was the second largest city of the British Empire and fifth largest in Europe with a population of 130,000.  Today, Dublin has a population of 527,612 with an urban population of 1,110,627, which is very similar to Calgary’s. But that is where the similarity ends.

By comparison, while First Nation peoples have visited the Calgary area for centuries, it was just a little over 100 years when a permanent settlement was established. And, it is only the in past decade or so that Calgary has really become a global city. 

In 2012, while Dublin was ranked (based on global connectivity in the areas of accounting, advertising, banking, finance and law) as an “Alpha–“ city (Alpha++ being the highest ranking), Calgary is rated a “Beta-“city (Beta being the second highest ranking).

Anyone who visits Dublin can’t help but see that this city definitely puts the PLAY into the axiom “live, work, play.” The sidewalks, shops, restaurants and especially the pubs are full of locals.

Anyone visiting Calgary on the other hand, would think we are a bunch of workaholics as with our downtown sidewalks are empty except at lunch hour.  Calgary’s urban streets are dominated by the hoarding of the construction sites not people.

Pub Culture vs Café Culture

One of the biggest differences between Dublin and Calgary is that Dubliners hang at pubs while Calgarians love their cafes.  Dublin’s pub culture is one where people of all ages hang out, chat, listen to local musicians or watch sports – pubs are like a community living rooms. Hurling is my new favourite sport - an action-packed game that combines elements of lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, soccer and football. There is hunching over the laptop while nursing a vegan soy peanut butter latte all day in Dublin!

There is literally a pub on every block, even in residential areas.  What is also great about pubs is that they don’t close at 9 pm like most cafes.  In fact, that is about the time things are just getting started with live music.  One of our most memorable experiences was listening to a Saturday jam session of string players from our front row bar seats in a little pub on the edge of a plaza in Smithville district with people from 5 to 85.  

There is a neighbourhood pub on almost every block and they have live music everyday of the week. 

Pedestrian Malls

Dublin has not one, but two pedestrian malls (one on each side of the river), both being magnets for locals and tourists looking to shop or people watch.  These streets are filled with one of the quintessential sounds of Dublin - the clickity clack of luggage wheels being pulled along their streets (the other quintessential sound is that metal Guiness kegs clanging as they are rolled down the sidewalk to a pub).  And it was not just one or two people; often dozens of suitcase-dragging tourists could be found along the Dublin malls.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone pulling luggage down Stephen Avenue. 

Dublin had some of the best buskers I have ever seen. 

On the south side of the Liffey River is the Grafton Street Mall that links St. Stephen’s Green with Trinity College and is home to an eclectic mix of local, national and international shops.  On the north side of the river is the Henry Street Mall, dominated by department stores.  Both malls had literally thousands of people on them any time of the day. 

The fact that no tall office towers surround Dublin’s pedestrian malls could well be the key to their pedestrian vitality. 

Indeed, most of the people are in downtown Dublin to play. Those who are there to work are serving those who are playing.

It was very common to see tourist dragging their suitcases down the street.  This photo was taken at about 3 pm on a Wednesday. 

Parks / Public Spaces / Rivers

Though Dublin’s two urban parks - St. Stephen’s and Merrion Square are very nice, they are no match for Calgary’s Prince’s Island, Memorial Park, Shaw Millennium Park, Fort Calgary, Riley Park and the new St. Patrick’s Island.

Similarly, Dublin’s canal-like River Liffey, River Dodder, Royal Canal and Grand Canal, can’t compete with the natural beauty of the tree-lined shores and glacier water of the Bow and Elbow Rivers with their active pedestrian and cycling pathways.

Dublin's rivers and canals were very attractive as you moved away from the City Centre. This is at high tide, at low tide they can be more like mud pits.

Phoenix Park, at the northwest edge of Dublin’s city centre is a huge 1,762 acre park (for reference, Nose Hill is 2,780 acres) that includes the residence of the President of Ireland, the Victorian People’s Flower Garden, Dublin Zoo and a herd of free-roaming Fallow deer.  Calgary’s equivalent would be the combination of the Calgary Zoo, TELUS Spark, Tom Campbell’s Hill Natural Park, Pearce Estate Park, Inglewood Wildlands Park and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary on the eastern edge of our City Centre.


Ha'penny Bridge was probably the busiest pedestrian bridge I have ever seen. It functioned well to connect to pedestrian areas on either side of the river. It was experiential. 

I was most impressed with the 16 bridges that span the River Liffey along a 4 km stretch of Dublin’s City Centre.  I loved that many of the bridges were named after key figures from Dublin’s rich history– James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, and O’Connell.  

The most popular bridge was the white cast iron Ha’penny pedestrian bridge, built in 1816 to replace the ferry service. Having had various names over the years, its current one reflects the ha’penny toll charged for first 103 years.

Today, over 30,000 people cross the bridge each day.  Perhaps in a century or two, Calgary’s Peace and St. Patrick’s Island pedestrian bridges will have the same traffic.

Calatrava has designed two bridges in Dublin. This is the Samuel Beckett Bridge, the other is the Jams Joyce Bridge further upstream. The bridge cost 60 million Euros or about $86 million Canadian.

Character Districts

The sidewalks of the International Financial District were mostly void of people. 

Dublin’s city centre is comprised of several character districts, each easily worth a half-day of exploration.  Although the International Financial Services Centre is a 12–block area of mostly new office buildings with a striking contemporary Convention Centre and new arena, it pales in comparison to Calgary’s 40-block downtown office core when it comes to daytime vitality. At night, both are relatively quiet, sterile places.

Calgary has nothing to match Dublin’s Viking/Medieval Area and Cathedral District with its St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle and the Chester Beatty Library Galleries.

Temple Bar (originally St. Andrews Parish and a suburb of the medieval area back in about 1300AD) is home to hundreds of bars and ten of thousands of nightly party people (including many “stag parties” and “hen nights”) and spectators. The closest Calgary comes to having something like the Temple Bar nightlife was in the ‘80s when 11th Avenue SW was known as Electric Avenue.

This Trinity College sign says "Keep Off." Seems strange to have a piece of public art out in the open like this and not encourage people to have a closer look. 

Trinity College is considered by many to be the heart of Dublin with its famous Book of Kells (an illuminated manuscript Gospel Book in Latin, created in 800AD). And though Calgary’s downtown Bow Valley College is no match for Trinity College, the SAIT campus is.  While SAIT can’t match Trinity College’s centuries of history, SAIT’s Heritage Hall, which opened in 1916, is as monumental as anything I saw on the Trinity College campus.  This along with SAIT’s striking uber-contemporary Trades and Technology Complex, the Art Smith Aero Centre, Brawn Fieldhouse and parking garage and the spectacular view of downtown and Bow River Valley makes SAIT a more inspiring campus than Trinity College.     

The Liberties, Dublin’s charming working class neighbourhood noted for its antique/vintage shops and street market, is no match for Calgary’s Inglewood community with its diversity of art galleries, shops, restaurants and music venues.

The Smithfield Plaza with its grocery store, hotel, condos and Jamieson Brewery was empty most of the time.  We did see a guy with walking a horse one day, but that was the most animation.   

In addition, Dublin has nothing to match Calgary’s ambitious East Village urban renewal project.  The closest comparison would be Smithfield with the renowned Jamieson Distillery as its anchor.  It has a few new condos and a hotel, but most of the retail at street level is vacant, except for an urban grocery store. It would be great if East Village could attract a cinema complex like the funky Light House Cinema with its eclectic mix of arthouse and Hollywood movies, as well as special events.  

Dublin’s trendy shopping streets like Camden, Rathmaines and Capel with their vibrancy day and night beat out Calgary’s 17th Avenue, 4th and 10th Streets and Kensington Road.

Last Word

Comparing Calgary and Dublin is like comparing apple and oranges. Dublin flourished hundreds of years before Calgary, meaning it had to adapt to a completely different history of innovations in technology, revisions in urban planning theory, as well as economic and political changes.  Like apples and oranges, I like both Dublin and Calgary. 

For comparison images of Calgary's urban culture check out these blogs:

Calgary: North America's Newest Cafe City?

Calgary's got its mojo working?

Calgary's NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Calgary's Rail Trail 

By Richard White, March 1 2015

Richard White has written urban development and urban living for over 20 years. He is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. Email  follow @everydaytourist 

This blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "Let's Compare Calgary and Dublin" on February 28, 2015.

Most fun you can have with your shoes on?

Today I did something that I have never done before - I had a professional shoeshine.  A shame really, that in the 20+ years I worked downtown, I never stopped to have a shoeshine at one various stations around the downtown.   Today (February 24) was different. Having gotten an unexpected lift downtown (instead of walking) from my neighbour (who was shoveling the snow off my back patio), so I ended up being about an hour early for my coffee meeting.

I thought I’d wander Calgary’s a-mazing +15 system and see what I could find to amuse myself.  Within the first minute, I happened upon a shoeshine station at Western Canadian Place office tower beckoning me.  On the spur of the moment I decided, “Yes, I should have a shoeshine.” Indeed, my shoes were looking pretty ratty after months of walking in snow and slush along city streets and in dog parks, never once (I am embarrassed to say) having been polished.  One of the ten commandments of an everyday tourist is “thou shalt try new things.”

Enrique and his throne-like chairs.

Though the sign said “Jeronimo’s Shoe Shine,” I quickly found out “Jeronimo” leases the station to Enrique, my shoe shiner from San Salvador who moved to Canada in 2002.  Carefully rolling up my pant leg and untying my shoe laces he got right at it - first cleaning the shoes, then polishing, them before buffing with a brush and then a final cloth buffing. When they were done, fourteen minutes later, I could almost seem my face in them.

As Enrique and I were chatting, Rick jumped up into the chair beside me and gave me a quizzical look as I was taking photos and asking strange questions.  Explaining I was a blogger, we soon got chatting. Turns out Rick gets his shoes shined every 2 or 3 days, as he rotates through several pairs and has been doing this for over 30 years. Not only might Rick have the best shined shoes in downtown, but he says his shoes last longer because they are shined regularly.

I learned the average shoeshine takes 10 to 15 minutes and the cost is $6 (for shoes) and $8 (for boots).  Enrique, on a good day, polishes 15 pairs of footwear from walk ups, as well as 5 pairs that are dropped off (with his record being 12 pairs dropped off in one day). There are seven shoeshine stations strategically located along the 20 km of downtown’s +15 walkway.


Banker's Hall shoeshine station also on the +15 level. 

I immediately had a strange feeling (in a nice way), as I walked away.  My feet and shoes did feel different, kind of like the feeling one gets after a hair cut.  Isn’t there a saying “the shoes make the man?”  Even while walking home (5 km) in the snow three hours later, I kept looking down at my nicely polished shoes and feeling good.  

As I wandered home, I recalled our 10-day stay many years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico. One of my lasting images is that of a quiet plaza where a dozen or so shoeshine stations positioned around the periphery.  There were always one or two people getting their shoes shined.  It seemed so civilized.

By Richard White, February 26, 2015  



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Everyday Tourist goes to gaol

One of the most moving experiences we had in 2015 (perhaps in the last few years) was our tour of the Kilmainham Gaol (KG) in Dublin, Ireland.  Not big fans of guided tours, we decided to take the tour, as it was the only way to get inside. We were glad we did. Our tour guide made the experience so “moving,” sharing real life stories of the hardships and heroics associated with the Gaol.

At the end of the tour, we even both thought she was going to break down into tears when we were standing in the desolate “stone-breakers” yard, the site where several political leaders were executed.  Afterwards, when we asked her if she had any personal association with the events or people in the Gaol she said “No” but she, like most Dubliners, have a deep respect for their history and those who suffered for their beloved Ireland.

Kilmainham Gaol 101

KG opened in 1796 as a one of the most modern prisons in Ireland, yet the conditions were inhumane by today’s standards - no glass on the windows, no lighting, no heat; it was a cold, dark and damp place.  In the early years it was filled with prisoners detained for begging, stealing, assault, prostitution and drunkenness. 

The gaol doors have centuries of grime encrusted on them to create a rich patina. 

During the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1850, many women and children were charged with begging and stealing food and placed in jail.  Our tour guide told one story about a mother who stole a single loaf of bread for her starving children was thrown in the dungeon-like cells with a half a dozen drunks and murders who reeked of their own body fluids.

We were surprised to learn that women made up a significant portion of the population until 1881 when it became an all male prison. Persons convicted of violent crimes were routinely hanged in front of the gaol for everyone to see.  The last women to be hanged were in 1821.

In 1862, the spectacular east wing (large open space, high ceiling with huge skylight and grand staircase) was added based on the Victorian belief that the quality of prison architecture was crucial to the reform of the inmates.   The prison philosophy became one of silence and separation. Communication between prisoners was forbidden with most of their time spent alone in their cell so they could read the Bible, contemplate and repent their crimes.

In 1958, after years of neglect (prison was decommissioned in 1924) the KG Restortion Society was formed to preserve the Gaol as a monument to Irish Nationalism.  After years of clean up, the eventually turned it over to the state and it has become a major tourist attraction. 

Looking in the peep hole you see the open window which was too high for the prisoners to see out of and let in a only minimal amount of light. 

Political Prisoners

The hallways have a strange haunting glow that magnifies the decaying walls. 

The story of KG really begins with its link to Ireland’s violent political history of rebellions, guerilla warfare, imprisonment, hangings and executions in the mid 1800s. 

Following the failure of the Young Irelanders (inspired by the spirit of revolution in Europe) in 1848 and the Fenians in 1867 (a secret, oath-bound group sworn to overthrow British rule), the Gaol was cleared of common prisoners and security strengthened to accommodate political figures.

In 1881, the governing Irish Parliament Party rejected the British government land act and Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Party and his MPs were imprisoned from October 1881 to May 1882.

Four days after Parnell’s release, two senior officials of the British government were assassinated by members of the group called “The Invincibles,” an offshoot of the Fenians. Five members of the group were hanged at the gaol in 1883 for their role in the assassinations.  

The prison closed in 1910, only to be reopened in 1916 to house hundreds of men and women who participated in the Irish Republic’s Easter uprising.  Between May 3 and 12, 1916 fourteen men were executed by firing squad in the stone-breakers’ yard.  It was while standing in this yard, hearing this story that our tour guide’s voice cracked and many of us were moved close to tears.

When the War of Independence broke out in 1919, KG was used to hold captured Republican Army members, four of which were executed in the same yard.  The War of Independence differed from other rebellions with the introduction of guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army, British forces and Dail (a radical republican party who won a landslide victory in the 1918 general election but refused to take their seats in the British Parliament). This war ended with a truce in July 1921.

However, the truce didn’t last long as tensions eventually erupted in a Civil War from 1922 to 1924.  From February to September 1923 during the Civil War over 300 girls and women between 12 and 70 were housed in KG.  The War ended in 1924 and its last prisoner, Eamon de Valera was released – he later became President of Ireland.

As a mid-20th century Canadian, who has never fought in a war, never fired a gun, never had to physically fight for anything, it is hard to understand the intense passion and pain that was endured over centuries by the people of Ireland as they fought for their independence.

In the museum area there are lots of artifacts, but the most touching were the letters which tell very intimate stories. This one is about Joseph Plunkett who married his wife the night before his execution. 

The cross marks the spot where the prisoners stood in the stone breakers yard waiting to be executed by gun fire. 

Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Boise, Idaho

One of the highlights of our 2014 travels was the discovery of Boise, Idaho with its vibrant downtown and university campus.  We loved the markets, auctions, restaurants and the neighbouring Snake River wine district.  One of the pleasant surprises of our visit was the Old Idaho State Penitentiary (OISP), which started as a single cell house in 1872.

Like KG, the stories and the conditions the prisoners of OISP endured are almost unbelievable. It housed over 13,000 inmates, including 215 were women from 1872 to 1973. One of the most famous inmates was Lyda Southard (aka Lady Bluebeard) who killed several husbands to collect the insurance money.

The penitentiary closed in 1973 after riots in 1971 and 1973 to protest the horrible living conditions.

The penitentiary is like a campus with 18 distinctive buildings surrounded by a 17 foot sandstone wall that was quarried by the convict from the ridges of the nearby hills (today they are wonderful walking trails).   While the men were kept busy with the construction of new buildings, maintenance and/or agricultural activities (including growing the best watermelons in the state) the women were engaged in repairing clothing, taking classes and reading the bible.

While Boise was part of the Wild West of the 1800s, the violence and hardship seemed pale in comparison to what the Irish suffered to gain their Independence.

The Idaho State Penitentiary seem charming in comparison to Kilmainham Gaol. 

The sand stone wall, guard house and walkway.  

The women cells were in a separate building. While the conditions were minimal there was some colour and lots of light. 

Last Word

We are not big history buffs and gaols are not usually on our list of must see places, but sometimes you have to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone.  Both were pleasant surprises.  One of the ten commandments of an everyday tourist is “Thou shalt never over research or over plan your trip.” 

By Richard White, February 25, 2015.  

Richard White has written urban development and urban living for over 20 years. He is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architecture. Email  follow @everydaytourist 

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The ugliest pedestrian bridge in the world?

The Ponte Vecchio is a stone three-arch pedestrian bridge over the Arno River in Florence, Italy. A bridge at this location dates back to Roman times, first appearing in documentation in 996AD, with bridges being destroyed in floods of 1117AD and 1333AD.  The current bridge, built in 1345AD and was spared destruction by the Germans in World War II, allegedly by an expressed order of Hitler.  And, more recently, it miraculously survived the massive flood of 1966.

Close up view of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. 

Ponte Vecchio from a little further back with reflection in Arno River.

Ponte Vecchio with garden-like river bank and on the right you can see the tourists lined up to enjoy the view of the river, buildings and bridge.

Tourist Trap

If you've seen one vendor shop window you have seen them all.

The bridge has always hosted shops and merchants (butchers, fishmongers, tanners etc.) but by 1442AD it was monopolized by butchers and the bridge stank from centuries of industrial waste. So in 1593, the Medici Grand Dukes, in an effort to enhance the prestige of the bridge prohibited butchers from selling there and decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers could have their shops on the bridge – a tradition that continues today.

To say the bridge is teeming with tourists is an understatement.  It is also, in my mind an understatement to say the place is a tacky tourist attraction with hucksters selling everything from bad art to kitschy trinkets (not much different than panhandling) in front of the permanent shops on the edge of the bridge.

This was early morning when the hucksters had not set up yet and the throngs of tourists had not arrived - still a popular place.

The bridge’s exterior design is also tacky with its ramshackled collage of protruding house-like shops in need of a good coat of paint.  It is an awkward mix of stone, stucco and wood (shutters). While some might see it as quaint, it doesn’t have the wonderful decoration, ornamentation and quality craftsmanship of the historic stone buildings and sculptures that dominate Florence’s urban design. It looks like a tired stucco bridge from the 1960s.The shops along the bridge could also use some tender loving care.  One usually associates goldsmith and jewelry with upscale shops and elegant presentations, not flea market stalls.

Above these shops is the Vasari Corridor, a walkway that runs over the shops and houses built by the Duke of Florence in the 16th century so he could commute between his two residences (Uffizi and Pitti Palace) without having to mix with the public.

Everything about the bridge didn’t fit with our design sensibilities.  We avoided it as much as we could (and with other bridges nearby, it was easy to do).

Pedestrian bridges should be designed to offer great vistas of the river and the city. 

This is one of my postcard images of Florence. 

Last Word

My immediate thought was “this is the world’s ugliest pedestrian bridge”.  I even tweeted that out.  Immediately I got people retweeting me that they liked it.

And, since coming back, several people have asked “Did you like the Ponte Vecchio Bridge?”  When I said, “I hated it!” they were shocked.  I guess if you are into history and can overlook/see past the tacky jewelry shops and the obnoxious souvenir sellers (who place their product on the ground so you almost trip over them), it could be an attractive place. We just avoided it!

In reading others’ blog post it seemed the bridge is a popular, romantic river evening stroll. Could the Everyday Tourist be wrong!

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Calgary: 1% for public art is a pittance!

Editor's Note: This blog was commissioned by the Calgary Herald and published as a guest editorial on Saturday, February 21st in response to City of Calgary Councillor Peter Demong's pending motion to suspend the City's spending on public art for 2015.) Photos and photos and reader's comments have been added to create a more engaging read. 

Downtown Calgary has hundred's of public artworks scattered throughout the streets, parks, plazas, lobbies and +15 elevated walkway. It is a huge art park! 

Reader's Comments: 

BL writes: With respect to public art. I am a great lover of art and a believer that art enhances life. The city's public art policy fails because it is arbitrary and because it is poorly implemented.

There are many great examples of public art in Calgary and around the world; so the debate should not be about the value of art, rather the debate should be about how to encourage and implement a public art policy which enhances our built environment instead of causing people to say WTF is that!? 

To date, most of the art projects funded by the city's policy have been of questionable quality. There are those who believe that art is of value for the simple fact that it incites a reaction, but let's face it, a piece of crap is still just a piece of crap even if you call it art.

We should be asking why the public art funded by many private donors and companies, is usually successful, while the "art" commissioned by the city often turns out to be so poor.

My simple answer to that question is that artists working for private benefactors are likely more motivated to ensure that they please those benefactors; while artists working for a public committee made up of volunteers and bureaucrats, none of whom have any "skin in the game" are less likely to produce a high quality result.

The whole selection process is also questionable since the private benefactor can use whatever sourcing manner he may wish, including very simply sole-sourcing the artist based solely on his merit; while the public process of judging and evaluation may even ensure that the very best artist may not be selected, and might even be discouraged to participate.

Like many good public policies, the concept may be sound but the devil is in the details.

Blog: Calgary: 1% for public art is a pittance!

Let the debate begin yet AGAIN? Is public art a luxury? Does it add any real value to the everyday lives of everyday Calgarians?

Before the current same old Council debate on public art goes any further, somebody on Council should say, “let’s stop the micro managing and act like Board of Directors and not like a working committee!”  Can you imagine the Board of Directors of an major oil company saying to their senior staff,’” I think we should start the cost cutting with the art acquisition budget!”

If Council really wants to save - or delay public art spending - in 2015, it would be wiser to look strategically at the City’s $22 billion dollar capital and operating budget for the 2015 to 2018 period.  It should really be asking Administration to provide them with a couple of scenarios that would result in say a 3% and 6% savings in 2015.

What would make even more sense would be to ask Administration to determine how they can better manage its capital projects to bring them in on budget. It is not unusual for the City’s capital projects to be tens of millions of dollars over budget. That is a luxury we can’t afford going forward.

Any budget cuts for 2015 should be strategic, not a “knee-jerk” decisions.  At this point we don’t even know how much money will be saved - Demong estimates $2 to $4 million, a pittance in multi-billion dollar budget. As some of my corporate board member friends like to say, “that is just a rounding out error.”

Value of Public art

One of the things I love about the City’s “1% for Public Art Policy” (1% of the budget for all capital projects up to $50 million must be set aside for public art and .5% for projects over $50 million) is that it places public art in our suburban parks, LRT stations, recreation centres and yes even bridges. 

For some young Calgarians, it will be their first encounter with “real” art. It will be an opportunity for the child to say, “What’s that?” and for parents or grandparents to begin a discussion that could go on for years. Priceless.

Sure, I could go on and say things like public art is important for creating a sense of place, celebrating local history, adding character and charm, creating community pride or heaven forbid, “beauty.”

This little guy seems to be quite intrigued by the ghost-like figure made up of letters from different languages by Jaume Plensa. 

Importance of a Creative Culture

It is not easy to quantitatively measure the value of public art. In 2010, Calgary Economic Development’s 76-page profile of our City’s Creative Industries provides some facts and figures that relate to the significance of creative individuals in our city.

Did you know?

  • 67,000 Calgarians or 8% of the workforce work in creative industries, everything from artists to architects, from website developers to CEOs.
  • Calgary ranks 3rd of Canada’s major cities for attracting cultural migrants. Yes, people move to Calgary for reasons other than to work in the oil patch!
  • There are 19,000 creative establishments in Calgary – everything from artists’ studios to recording studios, from major architectural firms to private art galleries.
  • 7,000 students graduate each year from a creative industry program at one of Calgary’s post-secondary schools.
  • Cultural tourism is one of the fastest growing and lucrative segments of the North American travel industry.  
  • In the profile, Calgary Economic Development also recognizes the importance of fostering a creative (out-of-the-box thinking) culture as a critical to generating new ideas.  Great cities are incubators for new ideas!

While it is hard to say any one public artwork is critical to fostering a creative and critical thinking city, collectively, they make our city an attractive place to work for the creative class, as well as others.

Families love interacting with this public art piece in Vancouver's English Bay. 

Last Word

Over the past 30 years, I have sat on several selection committees for public art. Without exception the community representatives shared with the other jurors how excited the community is to be getting public art.

Brookfield Residential has already created a major piece of public art for its new community of SETON. Why? Because Brookfield gets it, recognizing the value of public art as one of the pillars of a great community.

The 1% for Public Art Policy, initiated in 2003, is just over 10 years old – a very short time in city building.  Calgary has over 200 communities; I don’t think we should stop creating public art until there are several pieces in each of these communities. 1% is a pittance to invest in making a good city GREAT!

By Richard White, February 21, 2015

Chicago's Millennium Park has become a mega tourist attraction mainly because of two fun interactive public artworks. 

Chicago's Millennium Park has become a mega tourist attraction mainly because of two fun interactive public artworks. 

Calgary: Preservation vs Prosperity Predicament

Though never been a big history buff, after spending almost two months in Europe, I now have a much better appreciation of the importance of preserving historical buildings and sites. They are critical to telling a city’s story and creating a unique sense of place.

Calgary is often criticized for focusing too much on the prosperity of the present and future at the expense of the preservation of the past.  For many (including me) our philosophy is “we are creating Calgary’s history today.”  But cities really are built over decades and centuries, not years. To me, Calgary is just a young teenager striving to find its own identity, its own personality.

Now with my new European adventure enlightenment, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see what buildings we have lost over the past 100 years that we might like to have today.

The Mawson Plan presented to City Council in 1914 would have dramatically changed the look of Calgary with its river centric vs railway centric orientation.  Calgary would have truly become "Paris on the prairies."  More information

Hull Opera House (606, Centre Street South)

Imagine it is the early 1890s. Calgary rancher, entrepreneur and philanthropist William Roper just commissioned a 1,000-seat opera house be built at 606 Centre St. South (known as McTavish Street until 1904) by architects Child and Wilson at a cost of $10,000.  One of Calgary’s first major sandstone and brick buildings, it hosted opera, theatre, school concerts, and community dances.  It is hard to believe a frontier city with a population of only 4,000 people could support such a large opera house.  But it did, for 13 years anyway.

In 1906, it was renovated to accommodate street level retail, residential on the upper floors and renamed the Albion Block. Then in 1960s, George Crystal bought the building and demolished it to create parking for his adjacent York Hotel.  The York Hotel was demolished to make way for the Bow office tower, (its façade brickwork is now safely numbered and stored so it can be integrated into a new building on the corner of Centre Street and 7th Avenue SW sometime in the future). So, we lost one icon and gained another in the Bow Tower.  If we still had the Hull Opera House, it would have made a great public market, along the same lines as the Centro Market in Florence, Italy.

Hull Opera House


CPR Train Station (115 – 9th Avenue SE)

Yes, Calgary had a downtown train station, but I have been told it wasn’t anything as grand as say Grand Central Station or Penn Station in New York City. It wasn’t even as grand as Winnipeg’s train stations given that in the late 19th century, it was Winnipeg that was going to be capital of the prairies and the rival to Chicago.  It was a time of Winnipeg’s heyday – it boasted the most millionaires per capita in North America.  Calgary on the otherhand was still a frontier town with a population 4,000 people.  My, my, how times have changed! 

Calgary’s CPR station was demolished in 1966, making way for the Palliser Square and Calgary Tower (then called the Husky Tower) as part of a Calgary’s first modern urban renewal project that included the Convention Centre, Marriott Hotel (the Four Seasons Hotel) and the Glenbow. 

I now think our historic train station would have made a great modern art gallery like the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. 

Central (James Short) School (Centre Street South between 4th and 5th Ave)

James Short School was Calgary’s first large three-story square sandstone school. It proudly opened as Central School in 1905 and was noted for its impressive cupola above the entrance.  When, by the late ‘60s, the school-age population in downtown wasn’t sufficient to keep the school open, all but the cupola (now located on the NW corner of Centre Street South and 5th Ave) was demolished to make way for redevelopment.

Today, James Short (a pioneer teacher, principal of the school and later a School Board Member, he was also the lawyer for the Anti-Chinese League) is best known as a park and parkade. If it were still around today, what a great boutique hotel it would make.

Southam (Calgary Herald) Building (130 7th Avenue SW)

The Southam Building was touted as the “finest home of any newspaper in Canada” when it opened its dors in 1913.  It was well known for its terracotta gargoyles (made by Doulton Lambeth of England) that adorned the roofline and depicted various newpaper trades.

Built in 1913, this magnificent Gothic structure was occupied by the Calgary Herald until 1932, when the paper needed more space. In the 1940s, the building was sold to Greyhound who used it for 30+ years as a bus depot, gutting the main floor to allow for the buses to drive through. Eventually demolished in 1972, it made way for the Len Werry Building. All of the gargolyes were rescued when the building was demolished in 1972 and some can now be found on the second floor of the north building of the Telus Convention Centre.

Today, it would have a phenomenal character office building integrated into the new Brookfield Place glass tower currently under construction. The contrast of the old and the new would have been spectacular. 

Burns Residence (501, 13 Avenue S.W.)

Patrick Burns, a rancher, businessman and one of the “Big Four” who founded the Calgary Stampede, built his grand mansion with ornate sandstone carvings in 1901.  Designed by the famous Victoria, BC architect Francis M. Rattenbury, the mansion and English garden rivaled the still-standing 1891 Lougheed House and garden two blocks west on 13th Avenue.  It is hard to imagine that 13th Avenue SW was Calgary’s millionaires’ row a 100 years ago.  The Burns mansion was demolished in 1956, replaced by the Colonel Belcher Hospital, which in turn got demolished to build the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre, which opened in 2008.

The Burns Manor restaurant and lounge would have a nice ring to it, a bigger version of Rouge (in the Cross House) in Inglewood.

Stephen Avenue East

Calgary historian Harry Sanders would like to have back the entire east end of 8th Avenue all the way to 4th Street SE. It was all demolished in the ‘70s and ‘80s clearing the way for the Municipal Building, Olympic Plaza and the Epcor Centre (Calgary’s second attempt at modern urban renewal).  Sanders imagines a lively pedestrian street full of small shops, cafes and restaurants all the way from Holt Renfrew (the façade of the current Holt Renfrew building is that of Calgary’s old Eaton’s department store) to East Village. 

Indeed, downtown Calgary lacks a grand boulevard or wide prairie Main Street that typical of most major cities.  For all of its charm and character, Stephen Avenue still lacks a WOW factor (expect perhaps at lunch hour in the summer).

Stephen Avenue early 20th century.

Stephen Avenue early 20th century.

Stephen Avenue middle of the 20th Century.

Preservation of the past

While some may lament the loss of some of Calgary’s sense of the past, in many ways we have done a better job of preserving our history than most people think.   Most of the buildings along Inglewood’s Atlantic Avenue, (Calgary’s first Main Street) have been preserved. 

As well, Stephen Avenue’s 100 and 200 west blocks are designated National Historic District.  And, while the Fort Calgary was not preserved, there is a major effort today to preserve the spirit of the place and two of the original buildings.  We also have a wonderful collection of buildings from our Sandstone period including the Memorial Park Library and McDougal School. 

Lougheed House and gardens

Grain Exchange Building recalls Calgary's beginnings as an agricultural centre.

Calgary architect Jack Long's modernist Science Centre predates Frank Gehry's famous modernist Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa Spain by 30 years. 

It is ironic that Calgary's old Science Centre could become a contemporary art museum by 2020. 

McDougall School built in 1907 has been preserved and converted into the southern headquarters for the Premier of Alberta.  


Last Word

That being said, it would still be nice to have a few more historical buildings with their different façade materials and architectural styles to have more visual variety in our downtown.  In the words of poet William Cowper “Variety’s the spice of life, that gives it all its flavour”  (The Task, 1785)

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary: History Capital of Canada  

Historic Downtown Calgary Postcards 

Calgary: Military Museums

NYC's High Line vs YYC's +15 Walkway

By Richard White, February 18, 2015 (This blog was commissioned by Source Media for Condo Living Magazine.)

In the January 15, 2015 edition of Metro Calgary, columnist Mike Morrison lamented that when he was recently in New York City (NYC) no one had heard of Calgary. I too have lamented at the lack of awareness of Calgary when visiting other cities, but then my friends at Tourism Calgary are also quick to remind me of some facts - Calgary was ranked #17 on the New York Times “52 Places to Go” and Alberta #9 on the UK’s Guardian “Holiday Hotspots” in 2014.   Another fact - in 2014 Calgary was added to the Ultimate Sports City shortlist the de facto benchmark of top sport cities around the world.  Now, Calgary has joined Vancouver as the only two Canadian cities on the list.  

Perhaps we are being a bit too hard on ourselves.  Perhaps we are being too impatient. As the Guardian said, “Calgary has gone from cowboy town to cosmopolitan cool.” YES! People are starting to notice!

High Line vs. +15

Morrison, like many others who have visited NYC recently are “gaga” over the city’s new iconic High Line project, an abandoned railway track converted into an elevated linear park with a great urban vibe. 

People of all ages enjoy strolling along the High Line a linear park that provides a unique perspective on the streets and sidewalks of NYC. (Photo credit: Lelia Olfert)

Evidence of the old elevated railway is evident in this photo.  Note the streets are not packed with people or traffic. (photo credit Leila Olfert).

The narrow park offers lots of resting spots for people watching or to study the urban design of a city. 

I like to remind people Calgary created its High Line in 1970, over 40 years before NYC. While some like to criticize the +15 system (60 bridges connect over 100 buildings to create a 20 km elevated walkway) for sucking the life out of the streets, I say it is the one really unique urban element our downtown has and it should be something we embraced not apologize for.

Why is it everybody raves about Montreal’s underground system, but not our 20km walkway? Both are full of cafes, shops and restaurants, but the +15 also offers more - public art, a mega indoor garden and amazing urban vistas.  Harold Hanen, the +15 visionary, saw it as a logical adaptation to our long cold winter. 

The +15 system could become a great tourist attraction if we would stop “bashing” it and start promoting its unique views of our every-changing downtown.  It could become our postcard like the canals of Venice or the alleys of Melbourne – it is all about how you look at it.


One of 60 glass bridges that are 15 feet off the ground connect buildings at the second floor over a 50-block area of the downtown core. 

One of 60 glass bridges that are 15 feet off the ground connect buildings at the second floor over a 50-block area of the downtown core. 

Along the walkway pedestrians find numerous quiet places to sit like this winter garden with a living wall, infinity ponds and bamboo plantings. 

There is even a formal 2.5 acre garden which is a popular meeting place.  It even includes an indoor playground for families. 

The +15 system connects to The Core shopping centre at the second, third and fourth floors. 

Each bridge offers a unique experience; this on connecting the Municipal Building to Arts Commons is like walking into a stain glassed window.  Kids love exploring the +15 with the huge windows onto the "Tall City" as my 3-year old nephew called it. 

This +15 connected to a 600+ stall parkade, offers pedestrians beautiful sunshine 12-months of the year, along with a parade of cows.  Unlike Montreal's underground and Toronto's PATH, Calgary's +15 offers downtown workers and visitor a chance to see what is happening outside.  

Just one of the many public art experiences along the 20-km +15 walkway. 


Stephen Avenue Walk pulses with new blood at noon hour. 

Morrison shuddered to think what Calgary would look like without visionaries like Councilor Druh Farrell (Peace Bridge, Memorial Drive, East Village and new Library), Andrew Mosker (National Music Centre) and the people at Canada Municipal Land Corporation (East Village, St. Patrick’s Island and Riverwalk).  

He laments that too many people are standing in the way of these visionaries and questions all of the petty squabbling about bike lanes, transit and disabled schools.  I choose to focus on what we have accomplished to attract what he calls “new blood.”   

For example, Myrna Dube, Calgary Parks Foundation’s President & CEO, was visionary for the new Rotary/Mattamy Greenway, a 138 km pathway that will circle the city connecting over 100 suburban communities (over 300,000 people, 25% of the city’s population). It is easily the equivalent of NYC’s High Line, just more suburban in nature.

What about the visionaries for Stephen Avenue walk or Calgary's amazing parks and city-wide pathway system (now the largest in the world). 

Or perhaps the visionaries at Brookfield Residential who are creating a new urban village that will be very attractive to the  "young blood" working the medical field at SETON.  

Attracting new blood

This leads to Morrison’s question, “Has anyone moved here because of it is super car-friendly or because of its endless suburbs?” and his opinion is “probably not.” In fact, one of Calgary advantages over Vancouver and Toronto (there are many) is that newcomers can buy a large family house for hundreds of thousands of dollars less and be just 30-minute car commute from work. Remember - not everyone can - or wants to - walk, cycle or take transit to work.

And, though it might be a tough pill to swallow for urban missionaries not everyone wants to live in dense high-rise communities like Manhattan. People are surprised when I tell them that on a per capita basis, Calgary has as many people living within 4 km of its downtown - 7% of the metro population.

But not to worry urban evangelists, Calgary has one of the most aggressive urbanization programs of any city in the world with a population under two million - Bridges, Currie Barracks, East Village, Greenwich, Inglewood Brewery, Quarry Park, SETON, Westbrook Station, West Campus and West District.   Collectively, they will provide urban homes for approximately 100,000 people and work places for 60,000+ in diverse, dense, vibrant urban neighbourhoods.

All of this is in addition to Calgary’s existing urban districts – Beltline, Eau Claire, Downtown West, Mission, Kensington and Inglewood, the latter of which was named Canada’s greatest neighbourhood by the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2014 (with Kensington being a finalist).

Great cities provide a diversity of communities for people to choose from.

I would argue the Calgary region has a nice mix of urban, established, master planned suburban communities, acreages and small towns for a city its size.

We must be doing something right as Calgary is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 livable cities in the world - NYC is not in the top 10.  In 2014, the Economist had Calgary tied for 5th only 1 point out of first place as of the world’s “most livable” cities.

Main Street, West Campus by West Campus Development Trust, it just one of many new urban villages planned for Calgary in the next few years.   West Village will be attractive to the "young blood" working at the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children's Hospital. 

Last Word

Obviously, what makes a city attractive is different for different people, and different at different times in their life. No city can be all things to all people. Calgary still in its formative (teenage) years, so yes, we still have a lot of growing up to do.

But, we should also be proud of what we have accomplished! 

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Calgary: The City of Parks & Pathways

Calgary deserves more respect from international planners

Calgary's got its mojo working

Calgary: GABEster capital of North America 

Calgary's Park Avenue ???

“Darling I love you, but give me Park Avenue” was one of the lines in the theme song of the popular late ‘60s TV show, Green Acres.  Park Avenue is well known as the street where Manhattan’s rich and famous live. While Calgary doesn’t yet have an uber-luxury street like Park Avenue - or for that matter even a luxury condo neighbourhood like Chicago’s Gold Coast - it soon may have one.

New York City's Park Avenue. 

Mission’s Millionaire Row

26th Avenue in Mission is home to several luxury condo buildings.

Over the past few decades, the three-block stretch of 26th Avenue east of 4th Street SW in Mission has gradually become home for many of Calgary’s rich and famous.  One of Calgary’s first luxury condos was Roxboro House built in 1977.  Though there was not a lot of condo construction in the ‘80s and ’90, early in the 21st century (in 2000 to be exact), saw the opening of 56 luxury homes in the 16-storey The Grandview on the east side of 2nd street on 26th Ave SW.

Since then, Calgary’s condo culture has evolved significantly, with more and more baby boomers becoming empty nesters and wanting the all the comforts and freedom condo living offers up.

Mission has become the preferred place for many of those who live in the mansions of Roxboro, Elbow Park and Mount Royal to retire. Seizing the moment, 26th Avenue River Investments Inc. working with DIALOG architects, conceived The River, a 15-storey condo building with townhomes along the street.  The resulting 38 homes are huge from 3,000 to 5,000+ square feet; this is a vertical mansion. 

The River became notorious in 2012 with its record-breaking sale of a penthouse (5,626 sf with 2,950 sf of outdoor space) for almost $9.5 million.  It also broke with 26th Avenue tradition with its more contemporary glass and sandstone-coloured façade and an interlocking rectangular design that sets it apart from the brick facades of the older condos.  The River’s townhomes form a long linear cube-like streetscape with two hard edge rectangles, one being glass and the other, stone, which forms the tower above. The design is very contemporary in a conservative and timeless way.

What also sets The River apart from the older condos is that it is on the south side of 26th Avenue backing right onto the Elbow River.  Complete with a self-serve wash bay where you wash Lassie’s muddy paws after a walk in the park or along the river.  The River is expected to be move-in ready by mid 2015.

The proposed new XII condo is both futuristic and chic. 

The new kid on 26th Avenue is The XII, designed by Calgary’s own Sturgess Architecture.  There is nothing conservative about this condo with its fully automated parking system (drop your car off at ground level and it parks itself) and its Pac-Man/Transformer-like design.  There is a two-storey white façade base at street level, with the white façade continuing up the back of the building to a stark protruding white two-floor penthouse condo that mimics the base.  Inserted inside the white mouth-like vertical element is an 11-floor dark grey/black façade tower with large white protruding balconies. There is a peculiar dissonance in the juxtaposition of the dark and white elements.  The XII is like nothing seen in Calgary before and will definitely add to Calgary’s growing reputation as North America’s newest design city. 

The River offer a more traditional design on the banks of the Elbow River. 

Riverfront Avenue

Like Mission’s 26th Avenue, Riverfront Avenue in Eau Claire is also vying to be the “Park Avenue” of Calgary.   The all-brick Eau Claire Estates (built in 1981)was designed by world-renowned highrise architectural firms Skidmore, Ownings and Merill (founded in 1936, it is one of the largest and most influential design firms in the world, one of their signature buildings the worlds’ tallest building, the Burji in Dubai). Eau Claire Estates’ design, well ahead of its time has 10 connected towers (the tallest being 25 floors), with no more than two homes per floor and all situated around a beautifully landscaped central courtyard.  With 14 elevators, there is no waiting to get home and enjoy the sun setting over the downtown skyline and majestic Rocky Mountains for its residents.

The Princeton offers luxury urban living on the Bow River but just minutes from Stephen Avenue Walk and the Olympic Plaza Cultural District. 

Eau Claire Estates sat alone on the Bow River until the ‘90s when Prince’s Island Estates and the Princeton joined it along with the Eau Claire Y and Eau Claire Market. In the past few years, development along Riverfront Avenue has increased dramatically with Vancouver’s Anthem Properties’ Waterfront project on the old Greyhound Bus Barns site east of Eau Claire Market. With 1,000 condos in three highrise towers, as well the low-rise condo/townhomes along the pathway, this is Calgary’s largest condo project to date.

However, the big new luxury condo news for Riverfront Avenue (technically it is on 1st Avenue) was made in June of 2014 when Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Inc. announced they had engaged prominent Canadian architects Arthur Erickson and Peter Busby (both of Vancouver) to design 185 luxury suites just west of the Princeton, across from the Peace Bridge.  Though The Concord’s list of amenities is huge, the one that caught my attention was the golf simulator (though I expect the four seasons park, which will include a pond for skating in the winter, will attract most people).

The two-building design, with each tower cascading down in height from 1st Avenue to the river, has  the two towers facing away from each other in a V-shape to create maximum privacy.  The design and juxtaposition will also create large patios and spectacular views of the river valley and the private park.  In many ways, it is a modern version of the ‘80s Eau Claire Estates.

The 2007 Princeton meets the early '80s Eau Claire Estates. 

YYC’s Central Park

Park Point will become the signature contemporary building in Calgary's Beltline community. (image courtesy of Qualex Landmark)

Park Avenue’s name is derived from the fact that it offers spectacular views of the iconic New York City’s Central Park. Calgary’s Central Park (aka Memorial Park) located in the Beltline between 2nd and 4th ST SW and 12 and 13th Ave SW pales in comparison, but it is too surrounded by intriguing upscale new residential towers. The Park at the corner of 13th Avenue and 2nd street is glass tower that cascades downward from south to north, giving the top floor penthouses spectacular views of both Central Park and Haultain Park, as well as Calgary’s dynamic downtown skyline and huge patios. 

The newest kid on the park is Qualex-Landmark’s Park Point (corner of 12 Ave and 2nd St. SW) designed by Tony Wai and his team at IBI in Vancouver. It has a very striking black and white façade design that segments the 34-story tower into five, black grid-blocks (the largest box is at the top, making the tower look top heavy) that look like an upside-down sound bar from an old stereo receiver or rock concert soundboard. 

The façade design is also reminiscent of the sculptural, wedding cake highrise towers popular in Chicago and New York City in the early 20th century, except it is upside down. 

It expect it will become the Beltline’s signature building.

The beautiful Memorial Park could eventually be surrounded by luxury condos like Park Point and The Park. (image courtesy of Qualex Landmark)

Last Word

While Calgary cannot match New York or Chicago for luxury, highrise, urban condo living today, it is certainly making great strides to get there.

 If you like this blog, you might like:

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary!

YYC walkabout: Mission et al!

Beautifying The Beltline

Inglewood Drum Circle

The number of different tribes there are in our city never ceases to amaze me.  Over the years I have been able to experience only a fraction of them. When I was with the Muttart Art Gallery in the ‘80s it was the bingo and casino tribes that we depended on so much for program funding. While I never became a big bingo/casino player, I respected their culture.

Everyone is  welcomed by these two tribe members. 

Ten years ago I discovered the yoga community and this time I did participate, and it did change my life (but that’s another story). Suffice to say, The Bodhi Tree is one of my happy places. 

Earlier this year I had a chance to check out the paint ball fanatics with my teenage nephew; that was a real eye opener.  I also attended the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and developed a better appreciation for the blues culture of the Mississippi Delta. 

This past week, a friend introduced me to Judy Atkinson’s Circles of Rhythm that happens every Friday night at the Inglewood Community Centre at 7pm.  My 87-year-old buddy and I arrived early and already the tribe members were beating their drums.

 The sound was immediately intoxicating! 

There are lots of drums for everyone. 

Drum Circle 101

There is no experience necessary and drums are provided – not just one drum type but several. There are hundreds of them, which is a good thing as there can be anywhere from 100 to 200+ participants on any given night.

Everyone, young and old, is very attentive to the rhythms of the tribe. 

Cost is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors (60+) and $5 for kids, and with your first admission you get a “get in for free card” for your next visit. No reservations needed: just drop by if the mood strikes you. They even have free drinks and cookies; how could I not love this place?

You are welcomed as you walk in by two drummers who drum over your head and body like some baptismal ceremony.  As Judy likes to say, “It is like going to church and a night out on the town at the same time.”

The evening starts with some basic drumming, and even though I have a hard time keeping a beat, it seems easy to just join in and somehow it all works.  Then a young guy, a facilitator jumps into the middle and starts prancing around and encouraging you to try different rhythms – think orchestra leader meets shaman meets Katy Perry.  He is both funny and friendly.

After 45 minutes of continual drumming, many of the participants have reached a tranquil hypnotic state that is infectious. In addition to the drumming, there are didgeridoo players, as well as some tribal chanting and screaming - it is all very primordial.  

The shaman leads the tribe with different rhythms until everyone is almost in a trance. 

Some love to dance.

It is time for cookies!  

Yoga meets drum circle!  The vibration you feel as someone drums and hums over your body is both spiritual and surreal.

The second half involves people taking turns lying on the floor (15 at a time) under a huge drum, while others drum on top of them.  A smaller group lies on the wooden stage, while someone drums over their body like they are driving out the evil spirits, but I am sure that isn’t the case.   It is like something I imagine took place in Africa, the “Outback” of Australia or perhaps even the Blackfoot Nation in the Calgary area 100 years ago. 

Our evening closed with many of the participants grabbing a frame drum and marching around the edge of the circular Inglewood Community Centre, like something from a wedding party.  Finally everyone stands around in a circle, holds hands and quickly says one thing they are grateful for. 

Other receive a more personal drum healing experience. 

Top 10 things heard at the Circles of Rhythm:

#10 The people watching was incredible.

#9   Love the cookies, but where’s the milk?

#8   Don’t these people ever stop smiling?

#7   The pulse drums are like holding your heart in your hand.

#6   It was the most fun I could have with my boots on!

#5   Who is that medicine man?

#4    Is it the ‘60s again or am I just hallucinating?

#3   I have blisters on my fingers.

#2   Can Inglewood get any cooler?

#1   And, Yes, we do all march to the beat of a different drummer.


The drum march.

Last Word

If you are looking for a fun way to chill on a Friday night, this would be perfect for anyone, young or old, families, singles or couples.  It could be my new happy place!

Calgary's City Council must stop micro managing!

Sometimes I just shake my head, wondering what are they thinking?  Why is City Council spending so much time debating and making decision on things that obviously should never even come to Council in the first place?

I was reminded of this, this past Monday when two of the agenda items were perfect examples of things that should never come to Council. First was the ongoing decision by Council to make the decision to approve every secondary suite application in Calgary.  In this case, Council should approve policy for Secondary Suites in Calgary and then trust administration implement it – end of debate.  Worse case scenario let the Ward Councilor make the decision and others just rubber-stamp their decision.

The second was the debate on community and street names proposed for the Brookfield Residential’s new Livingston community.  In this case Council has approved policy and clear guidelines for Community and street names. Why are they debating the names of streets?

I think the naming of communities and streets is critical as part of celebrating Calgary’s history and fostering a sense of place.  Yes I think in the past we have made some poor choices, but there is no point lamenting over names like Coral Springs, Tuscany or Royal Oak - we need to move on.  We already have a “Community and Street Naming” policy and it is Council’s responsibility to review the policy if it is not working – end of discussion.

Calgary's City Council can't continue to govern the city like it did 30 or 40 years ago. 

Waste of everybody’s time

It is not only a waste of Council’s time, but also staff time as dozens of senior staff have to hang around the Council meeting waiting for their agenda item to come forward.  There is also the time it takes for other staff to gather and compile all of the information for Council meetings for the agenda items they shouldn’t be discussing in the first place. It would be enlightening after every Council (and Committee meeting for that matter) to add up the amount of staff time that has been invested vs. the value added.

Backstory: As I was writing this blog it turns out someone has estimated it costs $10,000 for every Council meeting that goes past per meeting in just over time.  It is probably the same cost for Planning Commission and other meetings that drag on.

Council Members vs. Corporate Board Members

This type of behaviour would never survive in the private world.  Can you imagine Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors having to deal with every customer or staff complaint in person or Suncor’s Board of Directors deciding on the naming of wells or who gets which corner office in the Suncor Centre?

Calgary’s sheer growth over the past 10 years should dictate Council has to be a governance Board and not a working committee.  The City’s current 2015 to 2018 plan calls for $22 billion in capital and operating expenses compared to the $10.2 billion in the 2005 to 2008 plan. 

Council has no time to get bogged down in minutiae of the implementation of policy at the expense of larger issues. As stewards of a multi-billion business Council members should be focused on setting direction, goals and policy, not day-to-day detail. 

Delegation Opportunities

One suggestion I have heard for Council to better manage the City is to create more City owned corporations like ENMAX.  For example, Water & Sewer Services could become a utility company with its own Board of Directors instead of being a department of the City.  Similarly, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has done a good job of developing the City’s land in East Village; perhaps it should be responsible for developing all City owned land. Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the City perhaps its mandate could be expanded to include the work being done by the Calgary Housing Company.   

Perhaps the City should be hiring a Governance Advisor rather than an Integrity Commissioner, who could help them manage their Board and Committee meetings more effectively.  Remember the old adage, “time is money.”  While almost all of the Councilors complain they are too busy, one has to wonder: Are they busy doing the right things?

Last Word

Council is often challenging others to do things differently, but in many ways it is still governing the City as if it was the ‘70s.  Today, Calgary is a complex corporation with over 12,000 employees and an annual budget of over $4 billion.  It needs to start managing its affairs as if was a corporation and not a working committee.


Before I posted this blog I shared it with 10 key informants asking for their input to make sure my comments were constructive and appropriate.  Collectively these individuals had over 125 years of experience in senior positions with the City and over 150 years of corporate experience. They all encouraged me to post the blog, saying change is needed immediately. 

By Richard White, February 11, 2015

Downtown YYC: Paint it black

I have never been a big fan of black and white (B&W) photography, perhaps because I am more of a futurist than a historian. For most, B&W photos are associated with old photographs, so it is not surprising that when we see a black and white photo it looks historic.  Contrastingly, colour photography is associated with new technology, we are surrounded by vivid images everywhere we look, particularly with our high resolution computer and TV screens. 

I am not a professional photographer, but over the years I have received lots of complements about the photography that accompanies the Everyday Tourist blogs.  However, I also love to experiment, so I thought it might be fun to play with B&W photos of one of my favourite places to flaneur – downtown Calgary. 


 I was surprised at how the B&W images immediately changed the sense of place buildings, corners and streets that I am very familiar with.  It was like unearthing a whole new world.  The images were more dramatic, more sinister and more surreal. The skies in particular became more ominous. The narrative seemed to be stronger. My imagination was immediately engaged.

I couldn’t believe how the light changed the entire compositions.  The lines and shapes became more compelling.  Overall the photographs become more like drawings or etchings, rather than paintings or silk-screens or my previous photography. 

As I continued to experiment with darker and lighter images, I was hooked.  Not only did I discover a new technique for visualizing urban spaces and places, but I also developed a new appreciation for the charm of my downtown.

I hope you enjoy the results of my experimentation. As always, comments are welcomed. 

The Bow Tower takes on a whole new appearance looking up from the +15 bridge. 

Love this playground of sunlight on Stephen Avenue Walk at noon hour as it bounces off the glass of the buildings and surface of the prehistoric or futuristic sculptures. 

The +15 bridges create some surreal sensations that one would never see in everyday colour images. 

The +15 bridges create some surreal sensations that one would never see in everyday colour images. 

Some how the design of this trestle bridge seems enhanced in black and white. 

Some how the design of this trestle bridge seems enhanced in black and white. 

It is hard to believe this is 7th Avenue at noon hour. There is a raw beauty to 7th Avenue that I have never seen before.

It is hard to believe this is 7th Avenue at noon hour. There is a raw beauty to 7th Avenue that I have never seen before.

The juxtaposition of the Bow Tower in the pillars of the historic Public Building was barely visible in the colour images. In b&w the texture and pattern in the columns is revealed. 

The juxtaposition of the Bow Tower in the pillars of the historic Public Building was barely visible in the colour images. In b&w the texture and pattern in the columns is revealed. 

This reflection in the Hudson's Bay window of the Brookfield Place construction was only mediocre in colour but in b&w it became haunting. 

This reflection in the Hudson's Bay window of the Brookfield Place construction was only mediocre in colour but in b&w it became haunting. 

I love the narrative in this image. 

I love the narrative in this image. 

Parking Ramp
Bow Plaza

Calgary's Brutalist Gem vs Gehry & Libeskind

I found this postcard of Calgary's Centennial Planetarium and was immediately struck by how similar it looked to some of the computer generated, multi-plane, cubist architecture of today - specifically starchitects, Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. 

I have always loved the juxtaposition of shapes that comprise Calgary architect Jack Long's Planetarium, but I have never been big fan of concrete as a facade material. Too me concrete seems lifeless as it doesn't interact with Calgary's wonderful sunshine like glass does.  However, the '60s were the hey days for "brutalism" architecture ("beton brut"with means raw concrete in french) internationally - so everyone was doing it.  Brutalism in many was responsible for creating the negative perception of downtowns and urban spaces as "concrete jungles." 

Long is quoted as saying, "the design merged from the ideas of earth forms - sloping walls relate to river chasms, the freer forms were influenced by Le Corbusier and some of the work of Erich Medelsohn."  To me it has the angularity of the rock formations one sees in the tectonics of the Rockies with its fold-and-thrust belts. 

At the time it must have been a very modern futuristic design for a city that was struggling to define its urban sense of place locally, nationally and internationally. 

Calgary's Centennial Planetarium preceded the '80s Deconstructivsim architecture movement by twenty years. 

Calgary's Centennial Planetarium preceded the '80s Deconstructivsim architecture movement by twenty years. 

Conceptual drawing of the Centennial Planetarium 

Conceptual drawing of the Centennial Planetarium 

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

The Guggenheim Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art designed by Canadian/American architect Frank Gehry is one of the most popular modern buildings in the world.  Built in 1997, (30 years after Long's Planetarium), it signalled a quantum change in architectural design as architects began to experiment with using computers to generate weird, wild and wacky shaped buildings. 

The curves of the building have an organic feel to them and there is a randomness that results in an ever changing image as the different surfaces catch and absorb the light at different times of the day and with changes in the weather. The museum is considered by many to be a masterpiece of 20th century architecture and foreshadowed what was to come in the first decade of the  21st century.  

The Guggenheim was responsible for the revitalization of the city of Bilbao, attracting millions of visitors to the city and creating the term "architectural tourism." Many cities have tried to imitate the success of Gehry, Guggenheim and Bilbao. Few have succeeded.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

For example the design of the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton Alberta shares many the characteristics of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum. Unfortunately the Randall Stout design has not become a major tourist attraction. It hasn't captured the imagination of Albertans.  

The lesson to be learned here is "innovation" is better than "imitation" when it comes to urban revitalization. Every city is different - politicians, planners and public need to understand and capitalize on their city's unique sense of place.

Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

Jack Long: Missed Opportunity

It is interesting to speculate how Calgary might be different today if Jack Long, who died in 2001 had become an internationally celebrated architect in 1967 for his innovative Planetarium design. Imagine if Long had been commissioned to design the Petro Canada Tower, now the Suncor Energy Centre, instead of WZMH Architects from Toronto, designers of the CN Tower. I am sure Calgary's downtown would be a different place if Long had designed the TD Square complex, Scotia Tower, Municipal Building or Performing Arts Centre. 

Would Calgary have become the Bilboa of North America?  

Calgary would certainly have developed a more unique urban sense of place, rather than looking like any number of modern cities North American cities. Even today Calgary is still trying to import, rather than foster its sense of place with most of our major design projects going to a "Who's who" of international architects and artists  - Calatrava, Foster, Plensa, Ingels and Snohetta.

Calgary's Municipal Building, designed by Toronto's WZMH Architects.

Daniel Libeskind vs Jack Long

The other famous international architect Long's Planetarium anticipates is Daniel Libeskind who has created controversial, eye-catching museums and art galleries around the world.  In describing the inspiration for his addition to the Denver Art Museum, Libeskind referenced the folds and faults of the nearby Rocky Mountains and the shapes of the crystals formations in the rock.

Libeskind's Denver Art Museum

Libeskind's addition to the historic Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada 

Libeskind's addition to the historic Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada 

Long's Planetarium Revisited 

Today, Long's Centennial Planetarium sits empty, while plans to transform it into a modern art museum are finalized.  Over the years the building has evolved with new spaces and colour being added as the building's use evolved more into a Science Centre and children's museum. 

In 2017, Canada will be celebrating its 150th birthday, wouldn't it be appropriate if Calgary's legacy project was the opening of the new Calgary Art Museum in the old Centennial Planetarium? 

By Richard White, February 10, 2015

Centennial Planetarium as seen from the Bow River pathway. 

Centennial Planetarium as seen from the Bow River pathway. 

Centennial Planetarium as seen from Shaw Millennium Park. 

Centennial Planetarium as seen from Shaw Millennium Park. 

Next to the Centennial Planetarium is Shaw Millennium Park, one of the world's largest skateparks. The design of the Park with its concrete jumps, bowls and other forms is very synergistic to Long's brutalist design. In the background is the concrete West LRT bridge which enters and exits the downtown at the Planetarium, making it a dramatic gateway. 

Next to the Centennial Planetarium is Shaw Millennium Park, one of the world's largest skateparks. The design of the Park with its concrete jumps, bowls and other forms is very synergistic to Long's brutalist design. In the background is the concrete West LRT bridge which enters and exits the downtown at the Planetarium, making it a dramatic gateway. 

DREAM: Calgary's best kept public art secret?

Recently I have been spending a lot of time flaneuring downtown Calgary’s +15 (the world’s longest, glass-enclosed, elevated walkway 15 feet off the street that connects over 100 office, shopping, hotel, convention and cultural centres via 60 bridges).  Why? Because it is a great place for winter flaneuring in a winter city like Calgary. 

One of the things I love about the +15 is how there it can be “hustle and bustle” in some places and yet, just a few feet away there is a tranquil garden oasis. In the evenings and on weekends it is like a ghost town, which can be fun too.

Another thing I love is the unique perspective the +15 bridges give as you walk above the downtown street life below – way more interesting than Montreal and Toronto’s underground pathways. I always discover something new each time I explore. 

One of my discoveries last week was Derek Besant’s artwork on the window of the +15 over 8th Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets SW. I really didn’t know much about the piece so I thought I’d email him and see what he could tell me.

The response, “Man…  that is one of my best-kept secrets and one of my favourite public art integrations…. anywhere.”  


The title of the piece is DAYDREAM and it was installed in 1996, so unfortunately, like a lot of public art it has perhaps been forgotten as downtown office workers rush by to get their caffeine fix or to sign off on the next big deal.

It consists of 24 white images on the windows of the bridge each accompanied by a short sentence or statements. One side contains “thoughts about a woman” while the opposite side’s are “thoughts about a man.”   Because of the transparency and reflections of the glass you have to look carefully to read the text and see the sketch-like images against the backdrop of the street life below and the architecture that surrounds them.

The cryptic images and text make them intriguing and open to many interpretations.  The text could easily be the thoughts of those people who cross the bridge at any time of the day. They are open-ended statements about the male/female relationship.  It creates a voyeuristic sense of place, which somehow seems appropriate as you spy on the world from the unique perspective of the +15 bridge.

For those who take the time to notice and think about the images and text, it is like walking through a poem, maybe eavesdropping on a private conversation, or reading somebody’s diary. However you experience or interpret it, Besant has transformed Fred Valentine’s +15 Bridge (Valentine is one of Calgary’s most distinguished architects, with his signature work being the stainless steel, razor edge-like Nexen tower a few blocks west on 8th Avenue) into a uniquely Calgary experience.

About Besant

Homage, 6.6 meter high, Mount Royal University campus, 1989

Besant is a Calgary-based artist who exhibits his work internationally.  He is a graduate of the University of Calgary and was the Head of Alberta College of Art and Design’s Drawing Program from 1977 to 1993.  He has several other public art works in Calgary including Skywalk (pedestrian bridge mural) over Mcleod Trail at Anderson Station, two pieces on the campus of Mount Royal University and along downtown's 7th Avenue LRT corridor. Learn more.  

Artist’s Reflections: Notes from Besant’s email

“I love the fact Calgary’s downtown contains within itself a secret network of walkways that links 100s of different buildings. I remember well wandering as far as I could throughout the downtown core before selecting Fred Valentine’s spacious architectural envelope for this work.

I worked with engineers to design a special safety vacuum system that would enable us to work on-site during business hours, even with all the pedestrian traffic and exhale the sandblast debris into containers located in the adjacent parking lot.  

But what was truly brilliant about the experience was the moment when the Engineered Plastics technician and I were part way done the windows and a woman came up to me (not knowing I was the artist) and remarked that the window we were working on was “his” window.  

She was referring to an image of a half-closed window sandblasted onto the surface of the real window, but it also framed an office window just adjacent to the +15 in the opposite building.  The text said, “HE WORKS IN THAT BUILDING OVER THERE."  I took "HE" was the guy she was returning from lunch with.  

And if that was not wild enough, it was the next line she uttered that really meant the artwork held some portent.  She stated, "yes, that’s him, but it is the first window I really wonder about” and then she walked off.

I kind of scratched my head and then wandered back to the first window we’d worked on.  It held an image of a half-empty (or half-full) glass of water and the text under it read “DOES HE LOVE ME?”  

I love it when the sunlight catches the images and text and in such a way that their shadows are cast across the floor space adding another dimension to the public experience of the work. There is a playful public interaction between the light, image, text, street, architecture and human beings that makes this a very special piece for me.

I’ve tested the equation by loitering as if waiting to meet someone in that corridor above the city traffic, but really watching what happens as people walk by. While most people are either totally lost in thought, or on their phones, it is amazing how many people do stop to read the text, ponder the image, often looking up to see if anyone is watching them.

Over the past decade, I have studied the implications of text / image as identity in different ways.  I love embedding the art with a participatory equation.  I’ve done similar projects that are evolutions of this in Hungary, Russia, China, and London UK.  My next one will be for Scotland as a feature for the 2015 Edinburgh International Art Festival.”

Last Word

As a result of the City of Calgary’s “bonus density program” that allows office developers to buy more floors for their development in return for public art, Downtown Calgary now boasts hundreds of artworks - on the streets, in the lobbies, plazas, parks and +15 system. I love getting lost in (the nooks and crannies looking at the art and architecture. Sometimes just for 30 minutes between meetings and sometimes all day.

Calgarians (both those who work downtown and those who don’t) should get out and explore the unique art, architecture and artifacts of our downtown +15 walkway.

By Richard White, February 8, 2015

Architect Fred Valentine's +15 Bridge over 8th Avenue SW, just one of 60 bridges in downtown Calgary that collectively create a 20 km walkway. 

Enhancing Established Community Development: Remove Bureaucracy

This is the last of a three-part look at how the City of Calgary can better work with developers and the community to accommodate 80,000 new homes to be built in established neighbourhoods by 2039. The first suggestion was to make multifamily development a “permitted” use on land already zoned (approved) for multifamily, as opposed to the current policy of making all multifamily buildings a “discretionary” use and therefore subject to endless debate.  The second was to reform the City’s Subdivision and Development Appeal Board allowing the appeal process to be more effective for everyone i.e. a better balance between the needs of individuals and better balance the needs of individuals and the city-at-large.

This blog looks at a third suggestion – remove redundant or ambiguous bureaucracy and policy to enhance the development approval process in existing communities.

Addicted to policies

In talking to various developers over the past few months, one developer stated, “we should eliminate all of the City’s Area Redevelopment Plans (ARP) and let the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) govern all of our development decisions.”  I initially thought this was a crazy idea, but the more I think about it, it may have some merit.

More housing in established neighbourhoods also brings more shops and amenities within walking distance.

The more plans, policies, bylaws, guidelines and rules you have governing development, the more ambiguity you have as every word and statement is open to interpretation and debate. A simple word like “should vs. will” can hold up a new development for weeks, maybe months.

I heard another person say, “The City of Calgary is addicted to policy!”  Currently, there are four layers of City policy governing a new development the Municipal Development Plan, Land-Use Bylaws, Zoning and Area Redevelopment Plans, which is then magnified when each is interpreted sometimes slightly and sometime grossly different by the Council members, administration, communities and developers.

What is an ARP?

The City’s website states, “The purpose an Area Redevelopment Plan is to provide a policy framework to guide the long-term redevelopment of a specific area of the city (usually two or more communities). The Plan provides clear policy direction for key aspects such as the vision, scale, urban form and character for redevelopment.  The Plan is future-oriented and depicts how the Plan area is to be developed over an extended time period. No specific time frame is applied to the Plan although the majority of the proposed development is expected within a 25 to 30 years.”

Shaganappi Area Redevelopment Plan outlining the density and type of development for every block. 

One of the biggest issues with Area Redevelopment Plans (ARPs) is that many of the established communities’ ARPs are out of date with current city planning thinking. So when a new development is proposed, though it may fit well with the City’s overarching growth management principles it doesn’t fit with the specifics of the existing ARP for that community.   This can result in one of two things; either a long debate to justify why the proposed development makes sense given current economic and planning reasoning or the development is put on hold while the ARP is revised.  In both cases, it means the development is delayed for months, even years, which leads to more expensive housing in established communities.

Case in point - The first proposal of the St. Johns condo on 10th Street NW triggered the need for a revision of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside ARP and ultimately a five-year delay before construction could begin.  Changes in the ARP resulted in density than the original plan, which resulted in significant increases in the price of the condos of tens of thousands of dollars as the purchase of the land was based on being able to build more units.  It also increased the cost, as construction costs were much higher in 2011 than they would have been in 2006 when the project was first proposed.


The benefits of making these three changes (making multi-family homes a permitted use on land zoned for multi-family, reform of SDAB and cutting the bureaucracy associated with inner city residential development approvals) for the homebuyer would be more affordable and more varied housing (duplexes, townhomes, small condo complexes) in established neighbourhoods, rather than just large single-family homes, old small bungalows and tired walk up apartment blocks.

New infill housing projects mean more families moving back to established communities which the revitalizes it. 

The benefits to the City would be to achieve its goal of accommodating more of Calgary’s growth in established communities, rather than building new communities with their costly new infrastructure, transit, schools, parks, libraries and recreation centres needs.  It should be noted that significant growth in established neighbourhoods will also result in the need to increase the capacity of outdate infrastructure and City facilities.

With a more streamlined approval process, the City would spend less time and money approving projects that already fit within the City’s growth management strategies, allowing for more time to be spent on innovative projects, which require relaxations and variances from approved policy. 

One of the biggest barriers to established community development is the costs associated with the length of time and expense of redesigns that will be needed to get approval.

One of the biggest debates for any infill multifamily project in established communities is how does it impact the back alley neighbours. 

One of the biggest debates for any infill multifamily project in established communities is how does it impact the back alley neighbours. 

An interesting sidebar - the Municipal Government Act, (which gives the City the authority to govern the planning of the city) states that if the City does not render a decision on a sub-division or development permit application within 40 days, it is deemed to be a refusal.  This would mean any applicant who doesn’t get a decision from the City in 40 days could appeal the “deemed refusal decision” at SDAB and get a decision without having to go through the complex City and community review process.  I am not suggesting this as a strategy to expedite inner-city development, but it is an option.

In Calgary, rarely is a decision rendered in 40 days.  Four to six months is more the norm for a simple, inner-city infill house application and six plus months for anything more complex.   The net result is supply can’t meet demand and when that happen the cost of inner city homes increases and that encourages new community development at the edge of the city where housing is more affordable.

Last Word

Calgary’s motto should be “working together to make a great city better!” I truly hope developers, politicians, planners, urban designers and the public can work together in the future to streamline the approval and appeal process for projects in established neighbourhoods to the benefit of everyone. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Enhancing Established Community Development: Multifamily

Enhancing Established Community Development: SDAB

The Suburbs move to City Centre in Calgary 

80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs

Arriva: Missed Opportunities

When conceived back in the early ‘00s, by John Torode and the late Peter Burgener of Calgary’s ZeidlerBKDI architects, the Arriva condo project was truly a pioneer project.

Located in the heart of Calgary’s historic Victoria Park community; it would become, three statuesque contemporary sister condo towers, one 34 floors and two 42 floors amongst a sea of warehouses, surface parking lots and dilapidated tiny cottage homes. 

It was envisioned as the catalyst for the renaissance of a down-on-its-luck community.  The vision to transform an entire block into an urban oasis was ambitious, including the integration of the historic sandstone Victoria Park School and the creation of a million dollar public artwork.

When first built Arriva was all by itself in a sea of red brick warehouses and parking lots.

When first built Arriva was all by itself in a sea of red brick warehouses and parking lots.


Unique Design

The podium of the condo included a two-floor commercial base that extended to the sidewalk, with pedestrian-oriented shops at street level to make it pedestrian friendly. The three condo towers were to be set back from the street so as not to create a 34 and two 42-floor walls from sidewalk to sky that would dwarf pedestrians creating an intimidating pedestrian environment.  Though the podium tower design had been very popular for decades in Vancouver; this was a first for Calgary.

Its design was unique in many other ways as well.  The combination of red brick and stone at the street level mirrored the façade materials of the sandstone school and brick warehouses created a nice sense of continuity.  The tower was tall and slender, unlike Calgary’s preponderance of stubby towers (both office and condos).  The blue and green façade colour of the tower, gives it a marine or beach-like appearance, something one might expect in Dubai or South Beach in Miami.

In fact, having been to Dubai in 2006, my first impression of Arriva was that it could easily compete with that city’s ultra contemporary architecture, especially the rooftop. Again, unlike most of Calgary’s flat-topped towers, Arriva’s rooftop was an intriguing work of art, combining a horizontal wedge element with a vertical leaf or tip of a feather-like segment. 


I recall someone telling me the rooftop was inspired by the feather headdresses of the Plains Indians - perhaps it was Burgener.  Others have told me it reminds them of the little hats women used to wear in the early to mid 20th century.  Regardless, it makes the tower unique.



For me, the slender shape, the colour and the rooftop design combine to evoke a feminine sensibility to Arriva, in contrast to most of the other broader and brawnier Beltline towers which are more masculine in nature.

The rounded balconies give Arriva a softer shape compared to the angular hard-edge of most condos in Calgary's Beltline community.

Missed Opportunity 

Unfortunately, after the first tower was completed and fully occupied, the second tower went into receivership in 2009 as a result of the world financial crisis now Arriva’s two sister towers will never get built.

Instead, two cool rectangular white towers on the western edge of the block called The Guardian will surround it; perhaps they will be Arriva’s big brothers.

It is also a shame that Micah Lexier’s Half K sculpture will never get built. Part of the Arriva master plan, was a playful 500-meter long metal pipe-like form that looked like someone took a pencil and scribbled a continuous curvilinear line from ground level on 11th to 12th Avenues, up over the top of the Victoria Park School.  It would have been a very cool addition to the block and to Calgary’s growing collection of public art.


Conceptual image of Lexier's Half K sculpture. 

Last Word

Arriva will go down in history as both an ambitious and innovative pioneer condo project and a missed opportunity.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary: Name & Placemaking Challenge 

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary


A hidden architectural gem in Tuscany, Italy 




Enhancing Established Community Development: SDAB Reform

As discussed last week, one of the City of Calgary’s current Municipal Development Plan goals is to encourage future growth via redevelopment within in established neighbourhoods. With Calgary’s population expected to grow by 363,000 people by 2039, the City has set a goal of 33% of new growth should be in existing neighbourhoods (i.e. 192,000 more people or about 80,000 new homes).  The other 67% would be new housing development at the edge of the City, like Brookfield Residential’s SETON (southeast) and Livingston (northern).

The new established community growth will come in various forms from new master planned urban villages like West Campus, West District and Currie Barracks to the redevelopment of golf courses like Harvest Hills and Shawnee Slopes, to new infills single and duplex homes and smaller condo projects in communities from Sandstone to Altadore. 

Older homes making way for new homes is healthy for established communities. Communities need to evolve is they are going to attract families.

Older homes making way for new homes is healthy for established communities. Communities need to evolve is they are going to attract families.

As stated last week, the difficulty in diversifying the housing stock of inner city communities is getting City approval for multi-family projects large and small. Why? Because, there is always a few individuals who don’t want the increased density and are prepared to fight any new development all the way to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.   I will try not to bore you with all of the details of the role of the quasi-judicial Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB) made up of members of the public appointed by Council.  

SDAB 101

The City of Calgary’s web site saysThe SDAB makes decisions in an impartial manner and applies the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness, which includes but is not limited to: the right to a public hearing; a duty to be fair; the right for all affected parties to be heard; the right to an adjournment if the SDAB determines it is merited; and the right to legal counsel.”

The SDAB has begun holding procedural hearings prior to the actual hearing date. The purpose, as I understand, is for the appellant and the applicant to put on the table their respective positions so that at the hearing, everyone can be prepared to speak to each other’s arguments. This is a good step if it eliminates lengthy adjournments. However, it does not preclude at the actual hearing of ‘hangers on’ (people who might be affected by a project but didn’t bother to appeal or respond to any prior circulation) from coming out of the woodwork and presenting information that is uniformed and/or not relevant at the actual hearing.

For example, a neighbour appealed a project on the basis of a desire for a parking relaxation. At the prehearing, both sides presented their arguments and then went away to prepare for the actual hearing. Then at the hearing, other individuals (who did not file an appeal) turned up and were allowed to speak and brought up new issues that were not even contemplated by the original appeal. The SDAB even allowed comments from a neighbour who lived almost a full block away from the site. The net result: the developer had to make several last minute changes, which in turn was passed on to the new homeowners.

I even heard about one person who appealed a project on Elbow Drive on the basis it would negatively impact his drive to work.  Seriously! We need to streamline SDAB’s procedures to be fair to the developer and the community while keeping in mind citywide benefits.

I understand that a 50+ page SDAB decision is not uncommon and there has even been a case of a single-family home appeal that resulted in a 125-page decision.   Appeals are no longer between citizens and developers but both sides are bringing their lawyers into the debate. I have heard it referred to as “lawyering-up!”

Brookfield Residential's Altadore 36 is a good example of how 6 older single family homes can be transformed into 62 townhouse and penthouse flat homes, while retaining an attractive streetscape. 

Brookfield Residential's Altadore 36 is a good example of how 6 older single family homes can be transformed into 62 townhouse and penthouse flat homes, while retaining an attractive streetscape. 

Need for Reform

While there has been some reform of the subdivision and development appeal process over the past few years, there is room clearly for more improvement.

There may be some hope in sight! City Council has appointed all the members of the current SDAB for only one year – common sign change is on the horizon. Some members have been on the Board for over 10 years, which is not right, there should be maximum of six years.

In March 2012, Councillor Farrell attempted to initiate a motion to find efficiencies in the appeal process with respect to:

Back lane housing over the garage is becoming more popular in communities like West Hillhurst.

Back lane housing over the garage is becoming more popular in communities like West Hillhurst.

  • Hearing process and timelines
  • Validity of an appeal
  • Appeal fee and structure
  • Feasibility of a fee refund for successful applicant

 Unfortunately, an internal review resulted in only a few minor changes. What I believe is needed is an external review, identifying the “best practices” for subdivision and development appeals in other municipalities. 

 I also think Council needs to better communicate to members of the SDAB the City’s goals and objects with respect to development. SDAB must make decisions, which are consistent with the goals of the City’s current Municipal Development Plan.

Last Word

Reforming SDAB’s structure and systems to allow an effective appeal process for both the developer and the public is a win-win situation the City could complete in in 2015.  Now, that would look good on their year-end report card.

By Richard White, January 31, 2015 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on January 31, 2015 with the title "Development Appeals Need Reform." 

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Altadore: An opportunity to create a model 21st Century inner city community.

While most of Calgary’s established communities within a 10 km radius of downtown have been enjoying a renaissance with new infill residential developments, the one I find the most interesting is Altadore. As a result of several house/ dog sitting gigs over the past few years, I have wandered the parks, streets and alleys of Altadore developing a greater appreciation for the community’s diversity. 

I love the little niche ‘50s shopping centres with their “mom and pop” businesses along 16th Street with names like Moon Convenience.  Bell’s Café, is a popular meeting place for retirees, as well as the “young and restless.” My Favorite Ice Cream Shoppe corner has been a destination for my family for 20+ years - now it has a great neighbourhood pub and spa.

Though I miss Casablanca Video, there are still lots of bohemian shops like Inner Sleeve record store and the Mexican grocery store. There is considerable more diversity of shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs, health, fitness and other services in Altadore than first meets the eye.

The Mexican Food store adds some charm and colour to Altadore's night life.

The Mexican Food store adds some charm and colour to Altadore's night life.

Family Fun For Everyone (including canines)

River Park is an oasis for humans and canines alike. I am always amazed at the hundreds of people (of all ages) and dogs who use this park seven days a week, no matter what the weather.  I would bet this is one of the most well used parks in the city.   Sandy Beach is another hidden oasis in a city blessed with over 5,200 parks.

 It also has a diversity of schools - private schools like Rundle College Elementary School and Master’s Academy & College (K to Grade 12), four public high schools – three public ones (Central Memorial, Career and Technology Centre, Alternative High School) and one Catholic (Bishop Carroll High School), as well as one special public school (Emily Follensbee School for children with multiple complex learning needs). Altadore is also home to the Flames Community Arenas, the Military Museums and several churches.  

The huge playing field area occupied by two elementary schools could be a wonderful opportunity to create a new inner-city model for mixed-use that includes schools as a key anchor tenant.

The huge playing field area occupied by two elementary schools could be a wonderful opportunity to create a new inner-city model for mixed-use that includes schools as a key anchor tenant.

People are out walking their dogs and meeting neighbours 365 days of the year at River Front Park. 

People are out walking their dogs and meeting neighbours 365 days of the year at River Front Park. 

16th St. SW: A New Main Street?

The Altadore Shopping Centre is well located next to future condo and town home sites along 16th Street SW.

The Altadore Shopping Centre is well located next to future condo and town home sites along 16th Street SW.

While the City of Calgary identified 24 opportunities to create or enhance main street development across the city as part of their Main Street Program, there are many good sites not on the list.  For example, 16th St SW is a hidden gem with its two mini retail blocks, a multi-school campus, a church, Kiwanis Park and the lucky #13 bus route to downtown.  

The 14 blocks of 16th Street SW (from 50th Ave to 34th Ave) have the potential to be a bit of a community hub by being a more diverse, pedestrian oriented street with more low rise apartments, condos and office buildings, mixed with retail, cafés, restaurants and offices for personal and medical services.   Three existing vacant redevelopment sites could add to the mix of housing and commercial uses.

The huge school campus could be a great mixed-use redevelopment site. Do we really need two playgrounds side-by-side and duplicate playing fields – what a waste of space!  Can’t we share? If we want to be innovative, this would be a great site to integrate schools with community gyms, seniors housing for Altadorians who want to retire in their community and perhaps starter condos for GenXers who have grown up in Altadore or perhaps the new teachers at the schools.  We have to start thinking how we can diversify our established communities to accommodate more activities.

One of two Brookfield Residential sites in Altadore.  This one at 48th Street next to the Altadore Shopping Centre and the #13 bus stop to downtown is perfect for a boutique condo.

One of two Brookfield Residential sites in Altadore.  This one at 48th Street next to the Altadore Shopping Centre and the #13 bus stop to downtown is perfect for a boutique condo.

This vintage strip mall on the east side of 16th Street could be redeveloped as retail/residential or retail/office. 

This vintage strip mall on the east side of 16th Street could be redeveloped as retail/residential or retail/office. 

I recently learned Brookfield Residential (one of North America’s largest home builders, headquartered in Calgary) has acquired a couple of properties along 16th Street for innovative residential development. “Altadore 36” will replace 6-single family homes with 34 townhomes and 28 penthouse flats at the corner of 16th Street and 36th Avenue SW. While it sounds like a lot of density, the building is only three-floors high, not much higher than the many mega, multi-million dollar single-family mansions already in the community.

Altadore 36 streetscape. (Bryan Versteeg Studios) 

Altadore 36 streetscape. (Bryan Versteeg Studios) 

Architect Jesse Hindle (who lives in the community) has created two L-shaped buildings that interlock to allow for townhomes on both the street and interior courtyard.  From the street, the flat-roofed, clean edge, Frank Lloyd Wright-like design is synergistic with many of the community’s new contemporary single-family homes. The exterior is a timeless sandstone brick that recalls Calgary’s history as the Sandstone City. Perhaps the best news is prices will begin at $300,000 for the flats, which means young professionals can afford to live in this popular community where new single-family homes start at one million.  It will be interesting to see what Brookfield has planned for their other site at 48th Ave and 16th Street SW.  Together, they will add some much needed diversity to housing options in the community.

Computer rendering of interior courtyard of Altadore 36.(Photo credit: Bryan Versteeg Studios)

Need more offices

 To be a model 21st century urban community, Altadore needs more commercial development - small office buildings integrated along 16th Street, as well as 33rd and 34th Avenues.

Future site of The Odeon retail/office development on 33rd Avenue.

Future site of The Odeon retail/office development on 33rd Avenue.

Ronmor’s, The Odeon, (northeast corner of 33rd Ave and 20th St.) with Blush Lane Organic Grocers on the main floor and three floors of office space is exactly what Marda Loop needs. It complements Ronmor’s Shopper’s Drug Mart condos complex across the street.  Perhaps in another five years one of the other corners of will be developed - both are ripe for redevelopment.

The Odeon will add another dimension to the evolution of 33rd Avenue as a vibrant Main Street for the Marda Loop community. 

The Odeon will add another dimension to the evolution of 33rd Avenue as a vibrant Main Street for the Marda Loop community. 

I love the charm of the shops and offices in old and new houses along the north side of 34th Avenue SW. The houses on the east half of the block are ready for redevelopment. I hope whomever the developer is they will continue creating spaces for boutique retailers and offices in buildings with house-like design.

The conversion of homes into small businesses is a great way to add charm and diversity into older communities as a gradual transition. 

The conversion of homes into small businesses is a great way to add charm and diversity into older communities as a gradual transition. 

Last Word

The redevelopment of established communities is critical if Calgary is going to achieve its goal of 80,000 new homes in established communities by 2040. However, creating attractive vibrant communities is more than just building four to six-storey condos with retail, cafes and restaurants at street level.  It is not just about upgrading the parks, playgrounds, sidewalks and street furniture. It is also about adding workplaces on strategic sites for small businesses like health, fitness and financial.

A little residential here, a little retail there with some office integrated here and there is exactly what will transform Altadore into a model 21st century community.

By Richard White, January 28, 2015

Where is Altadore?  

Altadore’s eastern boundary is the Elbow River and 14th Street SW, with the western boundary being Crowchild Trail.  It extends north to south from 33rd to 50th Avenues. It includes the very successful Garrison Woods redevelopment (formerly Calgary Canadian Forces base) by Canada Lands Corporation – worthy of its own future blog. 

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Don't be too quick to judge

What's with the names - Arts Commons & Contemporary Calgary?

Is it just me, or does Calgary now have the most ambiguous names in North America (maybe the world) for its performing arts centre (Arts Commons) and public art galleries (Contemporary Calgary)?  Call me “old school” but isn’t there something to be said for naming public buildings in a public-friendly manner?

Recently, the EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts changed its name to Arts Commons.  I expect the change was precipitated by the fact EPCOR’s naming sponsorship had expired so they had to drop the EPCOR name.  But surely they could have come up with a better name, something less vague and misleading.

The new name and logo for the old EPCOR Performing Arts Centre has no link to the City or to the building's architecture. 

One colleague said, “It sounds like a bohemian artists’ co-operative of studios and galleries,maybe even a small performance hall with rehearsal spaces.” Another said “Arts Commons” sounds like a little park or street corner in Eau Claire or maybe on Prince’s Island; maybe a new public space in East Village.  Yet another said the name was meaningless to her, and “certainly doesn’t change my experience of going to the Jack Singer concert hall or one of the theatre spaces.”  An artist I spoke with said it reminded him of the old Art Central that was recently torn down to make way for the new TELUS Sky tower.

It certainly doesn’t convey an image of being one of North America’s major performing arts centre with five performance spaces, with a total of over 3,200 seats in one of North America’s fastest growing cities.  

When the new name was announced last December, Johann Zietsmann, President and CEO of the new Arts Commons said, “This new name reflects the momentum the centre has been gaining over the last few years, and best communicates where we want to be as part of Calgary’s cultural landscape.” Henry Sykes, Chair of the Arts Commons Board of Directors explained, “It is about increasing awareness and creating a better experience for both our resident companies and our patrons. It is about being welcoming and open to all.”

Sorry gentlemen, I don’t buy it.  How does a name like Arts Commons make the Centre more welcoming, more open, a better experience for performers, increase public awareness or enhance the facility’s position within Calgary’s cultural landscape?  I hope the new name was properly tested with the Calgary public before it was chosen. Maybe I am just a grumpy old man and the new name works resonates with the younger demographics.  However, I haven’t had a single person - young or old - tell me they like the name over the past month.

Here’s an idea…..why not just revert to the Calgary Performing Arts Centre (or CPAC for short)?  It is simple, descriptive and easy to remember and no need for an explanation – all important criteria for good naming.  It says exactly what it is and what city it is located in.  Certainly one of the purposes of a major civic performing arts centre is to help build the City’s brand/image as a place of culture.  Arts Commons could be in Red Deer or Iqaluit for that matter – it says nothing about “place.” 

Call me stupid, but applying the tried-and-true KISS principle to the naming of arts buildings is always a good idea.

The Performing Art Centre is located on the south side of  Olympic Plaza. The red brick building contains two theatre spaces, the green roof building on the far left an office building and the old eight storey Federal Public Building was renovated to includes offices on top of the  Jack Singer Concert Hall on the ground level. It is part of an arts district with the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Telus Convention Centre on the next block. 

What’s with Contemporary Calgary?

I find it hard to believe anyone thinks the name “Contemporary Calgary” is a good name for a public art organization with two gallery spaces and soon a third.  Sure, I can understand that with the merger of the Art Gallery of Calgary and the old Triangle Gallery (whoops, I mean MOCA i.e. Museum of Contemporary Art) that they would want to avoid any reference to previous names.

For many years the triangular space on the plaza of the Municipal Building was called the Triangle Gallery. In 2011, it was changed to MOCA - Museum of Contemporary Art, before merging with Art Gallery of Calgary and Institute of Modern & Contemporary Art (IMCA) to create Contemporary Calgary. 

I can also understand they wouldn’t want to make any reference to the Institute for Contemporary and Modern Art (IMCA). It was formed many, many years ago but was never able to build a major public gallery in Calgary focusing on contemporary art.  Obviously, they were looking for a fresh start. I totally get it.

“Contemporary Calgary” could easily be confused with a modern furniture store, or maybe a tony fashion boutique. One colleague, who shall remain nameless, as he is key figure in Calgary’s visual arts scene, thought it might be a good name for a consignment clothing store.  Just to add to the confusion, the former Art Gallery of Calgary space on Stephen Avenue is called C and the old Triangle Art Gallery space C2. Yikes!

I bet to the vast majority of the public and many culture vultures, the name Contemporary Calgary conveys nothing about being a visual arts organization or about being a public, not-for-profit organization. In fact, it sounds more like a private enterprise.  One person I emailed to ask what he thought sheepishly emailed me back to say she had to look it up!

Again, I think something simple like Calgary Art Museums or Calgary Contemporary Art Museums would have worked just fine.  The term “museum” works well to convey the idea of a public building that displays artifacts.  And “contemporary art” says that this is not a place full of historic paintings, drawings and sculptures.

The 1967 Centennial Planetarium and Science Centre building is currently empty while Contemporary Calgary determines how best to convert it into a public art gallery/museum space and then raise the money for renovations and operating costs.

Last Word

I realize my sample size is small, but as Malcolm Gladwell divulged in his book “Blink,” at a certain point in your life, you have accumulated enough knowledge and experience in certain areas that you know in the “blink of an eye” if something is right or wrong after which you spend hours, days or months justifying your observation or decision.  After 35 years of being involved in Calgary’s cultural landscape, I know these two new names are meaningless to most Calgarians and tourists, as well as national and international cultural leaders.

In the near future, both Arts Commons and Contemporary Calgary are going to go to the public and corporate community, with multi-million dollar capital campaigns. Arts Commons has ambitious plans to upgrade their ‘80s building into a 21st state-of-the-art facility. Contemporary Calgary has plans to convert the 1967 Centennial Planetarium building into a modern art gallery.

I believe both groups would be better served if they had simple names that reflect their purpose.  As one CFO said to me, “if I got a call from Contemporary Calgary, I would immediately think they were going to try and sell me new office furniture.”

The best way to communicate is by being clear and concise, not convoluted and confounding.

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Enhancing Established Community Development: Multifamily

If the City of Calgary is serious about wanting more Calgarians to live in established neighbourhoods there are three initiatives (perhaps they could be New Year resolutions) Council could undertake in 2015 that would benefit the City, homebuyers and developers.

  1. Make Multifamily Development a permitted use
  2. Subdivision and Development Appeal Board reform
  3. Remove bureaucracy

Over the next three weeks, we will look at each one of these initiatives beginning with “making multi-family development a permitted use.” 

The Problem

I know of a recent case where the City Planner thought it would be a good idea to ask the developer to create homes that face both the street and back alley. The developer agreed and proceeded to create a design that would accommodate both street and laneway homes. The Community Association was on side with the design when it was presented to them. But a couple of neighbours didn’t want to share the back alley with the new homes, so they appealed the decision - and won. 

Parkdale boutique infill condo project is not much taller than some of the new single-family, mega mansions in the community.

Parkdale boutique infill condo project is not much taller than some of the new single-family, mega mansions in the community.

Now, after more than a year of debate, it is back to the drawing board for the developer. The net result is the new project will have more expensive homes, as the developer needs to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the first design and community engagement. This is an example of just one of the lost opportunities to build more affordable homes in established communities in a timely manner as allowed by the existing zoning rules.   And, I know this isn’t an isolate example.

Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is a comprehensive document that will guide Calgary’s growth over the next 40 or more years.  One of its stated goals is to encourage 33% of future housing growth to be accommodated within the city’s developed area (established or existing communities); this means 80,000 new housing units, or approximately 2,000 new condo and townhomes per year.

The Plan recognizes that as Calgary evolves and society changes so does Calgarians’ housing wants and needs. Fifty years ago single-family homes dominated every new community in Calgary - Lakeview, University Heights or Acadia. But this changed starting about 2010 with the increased demand for multi-family housing mostly by young professionals, empty nesters and affordable first homes for young families.

In fact from 2003 to 2013, 74% of all new housing units in Calgary were multi-family condos and apartments or row housing, however, 90% were in new suburbs.  The dilemma is that in established communities there is always a vocal minority who has difficulty accepting multi-family housing in their neighbourhood.  This makes building new multi-family buildings in established communities, difficult and expensive.

Row or Townhomes in Currie Barracks create an attractive streetscape with their diversity of facades and hidden density - no side yards. 

Row or Townhomes in Currie Barracks create an attractive streetscape with their diversity of facades and hidden density - no side yards. 

Permitted vs. Discretionary Uses

The City of Calgary’s Land Use Bylaw zones all land in the city for specific uses e.g. Commercial, Residential or Industrial. The Bylaw even goes further to specify what types of buildings can be built on residential land e.g. single-family, town-homes or multi-family.  It even dictates what size of multi-family building can be built - how many units, how high and how many parking stalls are needed, just to name a few of the requirements. 

While the City has several multi-family, land-use categories, that define what size of multi-family building you can create on a specific piece of land, it is still at the City’s discretion if they will let a developer build a multi-family building on the land they have purchase at a cost that reflects the approved multi-family zoning i.e. the more density the land is zoned for the higher the land cost.  However, with discretionary use, it means the developer first has to buy the land, design the project and then present their plan to City, community and neighbouring landowners to and then they must wait to see if the City will allow them to build their project even if it meets all of the City’s approved conditions for development.  This is a very time consuming and costly way to foster multi-family development in established communities.

University City is an attractive (some don't like the bright colours, I do) and affordable phased multi-family project adjacent to the Brentwood LRT Station. It transform a parking lot into a village and adds to the diversity of housing in the community. The City wants and needs to capitalize on its investment in LRT with projects like these at every LRT station.

University City is an attractive (some don't like the bright colours, I do) and affordable phased multi-family project adjacent to the Brentwood LRT Station. It transform a parking lot into a village and adds to the diversity of housing in the communityThe City wants and needs to capitalize on its investment in LRT with projects like these at every LRT station.

The Solution

Make multi-family developments a “permitted” use on land zoned for multi-family development - not discretionary.  If the proposed development meets all the approved standards (which have already been debated when the Land Use Zoning was approved by City Council) for the site (e.g. parking, height, landscaping, density and setback), it gets approved without debate.  If a proposed development meets the existing rules as approved by the City and community, shouldn’t the project simply get approved without debate? If not, what was the point of creating the rules in the first place? If the proposal requires relaxation from the approved requirements only then should the project is open for debate and approval at the City’s discretion.

As it is, today all new multi-family projects are discretionary use, which means planners and the community get to comment on everything from the aesthetics of the roofline and window placements, to door colour and tree planting.  When I was on Calgary Planning Commission, I remember reading a community association’s letter saying, “we would like each unit to have granite countertops.”

As one might expect, debating the merits of a development can take months, even years, to get approval with so many different knowledge bases and aesthetic sensibilities.  There is no perfect development for everyone. Everyone might like the proposal except for a small component (and in fact it is often a different component for each person who is opposed to the development) and you end up with a refusal.

Or you get approval from the City, but one or more individuals appeal the project to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board, which can then delay the project for several months, which will be the subject of next week’s column.

Savoy condos, with main floor retail, on Kensington Road in West Hillhurst are located within walking distance to downtown and SAIT and have excellent bus connections to University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre complex and downtown. Increasing the density of people living along Kensington Road could be the catalyst for its transformation into a Main Street. 

Savoy condos, with main floor retail, on Kensington Road in West Hillhurst are located within walking distance to downtown and SAIT and have excellent bus connections to University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre complex and downtown. Increasing the density of people living along Kensington Road could be the catalyst for its transformation into a Main Street. 

Last Word

I am told Edmonton developers and planners get a chuckle when told “multi-family developments are a “discretionary use” in Calgary, even when they are on land zoned for multi-family buildings.   This alone should be the catalyst for a change in Calgary’s Land-Use Bylaw in 2015. 

Richard White, January 25, 2015 (this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on January 24, 2015 with the title "A call to streamline the approval process."

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