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Calgary’s Peace Bridge turns 10 years old

Former city councillor Druh Farrell said Calgary’s Peace Bridge “was unabashedly beautiful.”

It’s also been called a “Calatravesty,” or “Farrell’s Folly,” or even “a bridge to nowhere.” (Doesn’t that last one sound familiar?)

Fourteen years ago, in a 7-6 vote split on city council, construction of the elegant, architecturally challenging, Santiago Calatrava-designed, red-and-white helix Peace Bridge was approved. Four years after that, with substantial cost escalations and construction delays, the bridge finally opened.

That day was March 24, 2012.  It’s hard to believe, but Calgary’s Peace Bridge is now 10 years old.

For all the consternation, the Peace Bridge has grown on many Calgarians. What turned into a $25 million (plus) lightning rod of controversy for several years, has become a veritable magnet for commuters and international visitors alike. 

It connected Sunnyside directly with Chinatown and the East Village – and back. The Peace Bridge provided a safe crossing where pedestrians and wheeled traffic were prioritized over cars.

It’s coming up on 10 million recorded pedestrian trips and has likely already surpassed three million cycling trips. (That’s from city data going back to 2014.)  So far in March, there have been more than 4,400 Google searches for ‘Peace Bridge Calgary.’ 

It’s a hotspot for wedding and grad photos, a gathering place for rallies and protests, a stage for music and performances, a place for quiet reflection – all while providing the utility one would expect from a major alternative transportation river crossing.

We looked back on the past 10 years after the construction and what the Peace Bridge signifies for tens of thousands of Calgarians and the city itself.

Opening day – March 24, 2012

Then-Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell said opening day for the Peace Bridge was a relief.

The Peace Bridge, for the four years prior, had become such a flashpoint of controversy. Farrell was a huge proponent of the project. She told LiveWire Calgary that she regularly fought misinformation around the deal.

“A six-million-dollar pedestrian bridge would not build you a bridge over the river, but that became the sort of misinformation that was certainly out there,” Farrell said.

“You couldn’t even get a pier with that kind of money.”

Opinions on the bridge, even in her Ward, were mixed, she said.  Everything from the colour to the cost was on people’s mind. The tab for the bridge had gone from a projected $18 million to $25 million.

The Peace Bridge even became a “convenient” election issue, Farrell said.

Former alderman Ric McIver, now the province’s Municipal Affairs minister, was a very vocal opponent of the Peace Bridge. McIver ran for mayor in 2010 and lost to Naheed Nenshi.

(Though, even in a 2009 Calgary Herald column, Nenshi questioned the need for the bridge when there were other bridges nearby.)

In a November 2009 article by CTV Calgary, McIver said if the bridge came in a penny over estimates, the city should walk away.

“Nothing would make the public happier than if we came to our senses and cancelled the bridge,” McIver told CTV.

We reached out to Minister McIver and his office respectfully declined an interview on how the bridge is viewed today.

Provincial infrastructure dollars paid for the Peace Bridge, yet the $25 million expense for the bridge still irked residents. Tony Seskus, who reported for the Calgary Herald at the time, wrote a 2010 pre-election story that captured residents’ frustration.

What made matters worse was the initial opening day was planned for Oct. 31, 2010. The bridge was nowhere near completion at that time.

‘A game changer’

A paragraph from a 2010 story by then-Calgary Herald city hall reporter Jason Markusoff foreshadowed what might lie ahead for the much-maligned span.

Many Calgarians and council members have seized on the designer footbridge as a lightning rod and symbol of city hall’s decadence and poor spending decisions. But others have sprung to the project’s defence, arguing it’s worth spending money on beautiful infrastructure that is built to last and encourages walking and cycling.”

Kate Stenson, who lived in the Hillhurst-Sunnyside area shortly after the bridge opened, said it made cycling and commuting so much easier.

“When I lived in Sunnyside, at the time, I cycled pretty much everywhere that I went and so it was a game-changer for me,” said Stenson, who is currently the executive director of the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association.

Calgarians gathered to rally for peace, and ending unprovoked Russian Federation aggression against Ukraine, at the Peace Bridge in Calgary on Thursday, February 24, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

She doesn’t remember it being a really big topic of conversation among area residents. It was a helpful piece of infrastructure that eliminated a longer commute into the downtown.

Plus, Stenson said, it was a big draw that they didn’t have to worry about competing vehicle traffic, nor the narrow pedestrian crossing under the train bridge.

“If I’m on my bike or on foot I’ll always prefer to be on something that a car isn’t also on,” she said.

Current Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong, who spent several years as the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area, said it provided a needed link into the downtown.

“We all recognized the value of having another pedestrian bridge crossing and the Peace Bridge subsequently delivered on that,” he said.

The Peace Bridge value proposition

Wong said after the function, the second question people asked was around the cost. It was $25 million, plus what he called “possession costs.”

That’s been a point of contention since the bridge opened.

The glass panels that let in the natural light, have cost hundreds of thousands to replace in the past decade. In an email, the city said they replace roughly two balustrade glass panels and one roof panel annually.  The balustrade panels cost $10,000 and the roof panels $14,000.

In the summer of 2020, the Peace Bridge was closed for four days to do $80,000 in planned maintenance work to replace expansion joints.

“Much like how Transit budgets for repairs to vandalized bus shelters, Roads budgets for needed repairs caused by vandalism on its assets,” the city email read.

“This includes vandalism to all 400 bridges, as well as underpasses, sound walls, streetlights etc.”

Wong said with all of this, the value of the bridge is a relative question.

“From an engineering perspective, it could have been done different and therefore cheaper. But, from a reputational perspective, it is an iconic bridge,” he said.

“You can take a look at the Eiffel Tower and people know where you are. With the Peace Bridge most people recognize that’s an iconic bridge in Calgary. So, I think the relative value of what we spent is in the eyes of the intended viewer.”

Stenson said, whenever she crosses the Peace Bridge, it’s always busy.

“It’s more than just a bridge,” she said.

“People go there as a destination place to take photos. I think it’s a meeting place as well. It’s more than just getting in and out of the downtown.”

She said any negative comments she’s heard are from people who just haven’t been there.

Turning point in how Calgary perceives itself

Farrell said since opening 10 years ago, the Peace Bridge has been a magnet for people.

Even with the cost, it’s an engineering masterpiece; a single span across a river without any midline supports.  Its unique design is eye-catching. People are drawn to it.

It’s one of the most photographed structures in Calgary. The bridge is recognized worldwide; Farrell said she’s seen photographs of it in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s got such appeal, Tourism Calgary campaigns around it.

“The unique design of the Peace Bridge makes it a stand-out feature in Calgary’s downtown landscape,” said Cindy Ady, President and CEO of Tourism Calgary.

“We use it in so much of our promotional materials because it has become one of our city’s most recognizable and iconic features. It’s a beautiful spot and a perfect example of some of the modern and attractive architecture we’re seeing in Calgary.”

But Farrell said its construction represented so much more than being just another Calgary infrastructure project.

“It was a turning point in how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive urban beauty and the fact that we deserve beauty in our city,” she said.

Calgary was just a boom-and-bust town, she said, where people worked hard, made their fortune and left. Farrell recalled a dinner party her brother was at where someone said, “tell your sister that if we want beauty we can go to Brussels or Paris. But in Calgary, we just need to work.”

“I think that was a common perception of Calgary.”

Laying the foundation for future architecture

Farrell said at the same time as the Peace Bridge, the St. Patrick’s Island Bridge was also decided upon. That bridge also cost $25 million.  There certainly hasn’t been the same uproar.

The Peace Bridge and its construction set the stage for more architectural feats in Calgary. It opened the door for more risk and more character.

St. Patrick’s Island Bridge opened in 2014. The National Music Centre opened in 2016. The world-renown Calgary Central Library opened in 2018.

It’s impossible to pre-calculate the returns on investments of this nature, Farrell said. It’s one of the toughest jobs as a politician.

“Probably one of the hardest things for a politician to do is make a decision where the benefits will not become evident for a number of years. You have to get beyond that,” she said.

And now, 10 years later, the Peace Bridge is accepted – and for many, beloved.

“I think Calgarians have grown to love it and most people aren’t even aware of the controversy,” Farrell said.  

“Certainly, people who are new to Calgary aren’t aware of the controversy and are surprised when they hear about it, because it’s such an accepted piece of infrastructure.”