Calgary planning: Mistakes and missed opportunities – Part 3

City of Calgary overhead view of the skyline - Dec. 31, 2018. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

There are some mistakes made in every city in North America that came of age in the middle of the 20th century. Things like segregated land-use and zoning (i.e. building residential here and industrial there), the design of suburban communities and abandoning transit in favour of auto-oriented development.  

Over the past several months I have had conversations with Art Froese (Planning Director 1983 to 1988), Bob Holmes (Planning Commissioner, 1988 to 2001), Richard Parker (City planner from 1974 to 2003, Director of Planning from 1988 to 2003) and Barry Lester (private sector engineer in Calgary since 1978), as well as several other architects, engineers, planners and developers who have played a role in shaping our City. 

Urban renewal in Calgary

Calgary first failed attempt at urban renewal of downtown’s east-side took place in the ‘60s. 

It was the heyday of Brutalism architecture (think concrete) of which the YWCA, Bow Valley College, the Public School Board and Workers Compensation buildings are all good examples.  It was also when the W.R. Castell Library was built. 

The vision was to revitalize the area with government buildings, but what it did instead was create a government ghetto with no street animation evenings and weekends as everyone had gone home.

RELATED: Mistakes and missed opportunities: Part 2 – U of C / Foothills Medical Centre

MMO: Part 1 – Calgary’s downtown-centric build

Today all of those buildings have been abandoned with the exception of Bow Valley College, which has expanded and become part of today’s East Village’s revitalization.  

The second attempt at urban renewal

In the late 60s early 70s, a second attempt at urban renewal happened around Centre Street and downtown’s 8 and 9 Avenues. It was a time of optimism with the building of Calgary Tower, Palliser Square (office, retail, cinemas and train station), the Glenbow, the convention centre, Four Seasons Hotel and Palliser Parkade, all getting built.  It was also when 8 Avenue was converted to Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall. In 1977, TD Square opened encompassing two office buildings Home and Dome Tower (the two dominant oil companies at the time), an indoor shopping center and the innovative Devonian Gardens. 

While there was some initial optimism, Stephen Avenue struggled as a pedestrian mall (as did many pedestrian malls created across North America in the 70s, as they were the flavor of the decade). The VIA Rail station also closed and the Palliser Square retail failed. 

Again, the expected revitalization didn’t happen. But we’re not quitters.

Another downtown revitalization

In the ‘80s and ‘90s we took another crack at downtown revitalization.  We built Olympic Plaza, the Municipal Building, the Performing Arts Centre (now Arts Commons), expanded the convention centre and added another hotel (Hyatt Hotel).

We also added vehicle traffic at night on Stephen Ave and initiated a façade restoration program that resulted in all of the historical buildings along Stephen Avenue getting a facelift. And Bankers Hall also got built.

By the end of the ‘90s and into the ‘00s, the area thrived along with our economy. Stephen Avenue became a popular patio and restaurant spot in the summer. The Performing Art Centre did well for a while, but it, the Glenbow and Olympic Plaza never became the anchors for a vibrant arts district.  Today, all three need mega-makeovers but the City is focusing its attention on creating an entertainment district in Victoria Park/Stampede Park.  

Holmes thinks that when it comes to urban renewal projects, the issue is “poor implementation rather than mistakes.”  He questions the wisdom of “the City now focusing on the development of a new culture entertainment at Stampede/Victoria Park.

He asked, “What happens to the plans upgrading the Glenbow and Arts Common? Are these complementary or competing developments with existing City facilities? Can the Calgary community support both?” 

One of things that was missing from all of above urban renewal plans was residential development.  Paul Maas, a planner at the City of Calgary in the 90s was a huge advocated for the need for more housing in the downtown core and its surrounding communities based on lessons learned from other cities as part of his PhD research. 

The missing piece: Residential development in the renewals

The building of the Eau Claire Y, Eau Claire Market and Eau Claire Sheraton in the early ‘90s was yet another attempt at urban renewal, but this time it did included residential development.  While the Market failed, the Y and hotel were a huge success.

Gradually, new condo projects were completed – Prince’s Island Estates, Princeton and Waterfront (over 1,000 new condos over a 10 year period), as well as new office towers – Millennium Tower, Eau Claire and City Centre. 

The City has invested millions in upgrading Prince’s Island, the Peace Bridge and pathway improvements including the new West Eau Claire Park, which has keep the urban renewal process alive. 

Today a new hotel has approval for construction and QuadReal has a massive six residential towers (1,100 homes), a 350-room hotel and more retail planned to replace the huge surface parking lot.  And Harvard, the new owners of Eau Claire Market site, have ambitious plans for 2,100 residential units, 650,000 square feet of office and 420,000 square feet of retail and entertainment, a supermarket and two more hotels. 

In reality, it will take Eau Claire another 20+ years to be fully built out and that assumes there’s an economic recovery.

Parker says, “One of the lessons learned from Eau Claire’s urban renewal is urban redevelopment doesn’t happen overnight – it takes decades. And one has to expect there will be failures, economic booms and busts and market changes – so be prepared to rethink your vision and be patient.”

East Village – Time will tell

Calgary’s newest urban renewal project East Village looks very promising. But only time will tell if it will foster a sustainable urban vitality. 

Will the National Music Center struggle for funding in 15 years like the Glenbow does today? Will the new Library be old and tired 50 years from now, like the W.R. Castell Library? The big difference in the East Village urban renewal vision and masterplan is that significant residential development and public space improvements was part of the first phase.  It also benefited from the urban living renaissance that is happening across North America.  

Downtown living is trendy today, that wasn’t the case even 20 years ago.

For the first time in over 50 years, some North Americans wanted to live the City Centre, not just in the suburbs.  Today, the communities around Calgary’s downtown are some of the fastest growing in the City.

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