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CMLC marks 15-years of transformation in Calgary’s East Village

Sitting down in early November, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation CEO Kate Thompson reflected on the history of CMLC, and the transformation that her organization has ushered in.

Thompson outlined CMLC’s successes in turning a politically fraught and often times undesirable part of the city into a magnet for international attention.

“When I started in 2012, we were a company of 10 individuals, and in 2022, we’re 35 individuals working to deliver the mission behind the overall rivers district,” she said.

“I’d say what’s been interesting and successful about what CMLC has done, and we’re continuing to work on, is it’s been really important that this hasn’t become a land banking exercise.”

Go back 20, 40, or even 80 years in Calgary’s history, and it wouldn’t have been apparent to many that Calgary’s East Village would be the centre of over $3 billion in real-estate investment, and the site of thousands of new homes.

Yet the area that was once described as “skid row” by the city’s chief medical officer in 1941, has once again returned to the vibrancy and community that it originally exhibited around the turn of the century.

The St. Louis and King Eddie hotels have been given new life. The RiverWalk pathway has been transformed into one of the most vibrant and active locations for Calgarians to congregate. And, the East Village is now home to internationally recognized and locally beloved architectural masterpieces like the new Central Library and the National Music Centre.

All that from the 2007 creation of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation as an arms length city-owned corporation to oversee and implement the Rivers District Master Plan.

“It has been since our beginning our priority to build differently, to attract not only residents but developers, and do things in a way that is significant.”

“If you’re going to build something, why not make it significant and someplace that people want to come to?”

Calgary’s East Village from 2007 to 2021

Drag scroll bar left and right to reveal maps from before the creation of CMLC, to the most recent City of Calgary aerial map of the East Village.

Map source: City of Calgary, ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

East Village wasn’t a sure thing

Druh Farrell, who served as councillor for Ward 7 from 2001 to 2021, pointed to the New Central Library as a metaphor for the East Village, called it very “difficult place to fit.”

“But it was that challenge that made us stretch further and and strive for excellence. I am very proud of that place,” Farrell said.

The original plans for the East Village were among the reasons why she ran for office, said Farrell, describing them as an an unachievable and strange plan.

“The city had entered an agreement to sell the city’s ownership of the East Village—they owned most of the properties—at a very low price with no mechanism, no financial mechanism to actually build it.”

“So it was a it was a very strange plan that had been approved by Council, and included a number of canals, and towers that were going to go right up against the river.”

That original plan was withdrawn by council after 2001.

“It took a huge amount of effort to be taken seriously, and for council to agree to look at this area,” Farrell said.

“So it was it was a baptism of fire as a new counsellor, but ultimately, it was worth it. I have no doubt that if we had continued with the previous agreement, that area would continue to languish, even today.”

David Wallach, President of Barclay Street Real Estate and founder of the Triumph REIF, described the East Village transformation as a blessing.

“I emigrated to Calgary 24 years ago, and East Village was a place that you didn’t go to after dark, and you didn’t go during the day, because there was nothing to do there,” he said.

“It’s a blessing that the city made the decision to take this jewel that we have between Inglewood and City Hall, on the river, and make it a strong, prominent neighbourhood.

“First of all it was a political decision, but then they realized this is how to do it right and help, but don’t stand in the way.”

From millions to billions

Prior to the formation of CMLC, total assessed property values in the East Village was $223 million (2005). In the year that CMLC was formed, 2007, that assessed value grew to $328 million. And by 2021, the peak of assessments for residential and non-residential properties, that had ballooned to $1.71 billion.

Over that time, assessed residential properties went from 483 in 2005, to 2,858 in 2022.

During 2008 through 2012, that assessed value remained relatively flat following the 2008 financial crisis. But real increases began in 2012 following the ground breaking of the first major residential building in the district, and the completion of much of the infrastructure for future growth.

And that growth, said Thompson, is only picking up, despite current looming fears of a return to recession and continued issues with inflation, supply chains, and labour shortages.

"I am actually seeing more interest from developers than I have seen in the last three years," she said.

"I think they're responding to the fundamentals that are here. We're in a great position right near downtown right near two rivers, and the investment has been made."

That investment, said Thompson, of $400 million by CMLC, has resulted in over $3 billion in private investment into the district.

And next door, there is an additional $600 million in Victoria Park as a result of overall transformation work being done throughout the east end.

Today BOSA is working on the Arris building, located along 4 Street SE. And CMLC recently announced that the final river front plots will be developed by Alston Development and Minto Communities.

"It's a time of a lot of growth at CMLC, and also time of reflection of what we've done since 2007, when we began," Thompson said.

Doing things differently

Setting the CMLC method for the East Village apart from earlier re-development plans, is the extra set of requirements that the organization places onto developers.

"When we were created in 2007, the idea was redevelop an area that has not been redeveloped and do everything we can to remove barriers," Thompson said.

"And one thing that has been on all of our minds since the beginning is how we could have sold all the land, and just had it be done the year we started, but that wouldn't have been a success. That wouldn't have turned the district around and really created a place where people would gather.

"So we've been careful in terms of how we've sold land."

Thompson described the process as requiring an approved development permit first, before the land sale can take place.

"A approved development permit before we actually transact on the land incents developers to build something that we can create tax off of, and reinvest into the district," she said.

Among the first major developers for the area was Vancouver-based BOSA, which created the Evolution building along Riverfront Avenue. That project, designed by architect James Cheng, began construction in 2012 and kicked off the boom of high-design high-rises that would follow.

That transformation, said Wallach, was not always an easy one. He described the condition of real estate after the 2008 market meltdown as a city with holes in the ground, and before that in the 1980s, a city with ugly buildings.

"If you remember how many holes we had in the ground because of the financial crash, and people weren't able to do the work they committed to," he said.

"And if you look at downtown Calgary in the 80s, what we're what we're building here was rectangles to put as many engineers on a floor as possible—boring, very boring construction, very boring buildings."

Farrell recalled when celebrated Danish architect Jan Gehl visited Calgary, the response to being asked what he thought of the city was that it was vandal proof.

"That was a knife to the heart. You don't fall in love with a city that looks vandal proof. It reflects how a city perceives its own citizens, and whether they're worthy of beautiful spaces, and, and humane spaces," she said.

What Thompson, Farrell, and Wallach agree on is that it took the initial interest from developers outside of Calgary to see what the East Village could be, rather than what it had been seen as.

"Sometimes you have to bring someone from the outside that has done it, knows how to do it, and can set the tone," said Wallach.

Building something beautiful

With a few laughs, Thompson said she's biased about the quality of architecture that the East Village has drawn.

"I think there's been a misnomer with architecture that it has to be really, really expensive to be great architecture, and I think our development partners, and even the work that we're able to oversee, have dispelled some of that," she said.

"Even more so, I'd say that more people are aware of good design and appreciative of it even from Instagram, or backdrops, to whatever daily life people are living. People are asking for things to not be standard, to be elevated, and provide a little bit of whimsy or a little bit of delight."

Among the highlights for CMLC is the St. Patrick's Island renovation, Thompson said, which completely transformed 31 acres of inner-city river space.

"Most people never get to work on a project of that scale or significance," she said.

Another is the RiverWalk, which opened up the north end of the village to the public to examine the entire area's potential.

But throughout the East Village's transformation, CMLC has created roadways and plazas, dog parks and storm ponds, and undertaken more than a few transformative projects that have kept turn of the century buildings alive for future generations. And that includes the purely aesthetic as well, with public art all along the RiverWalk, throughout the plazas, and in the very landscape design of the village itself.

"One thing I think the team does really well is look at all of the opportunities, whether it's a garden shed at the community garden, to a dog park, to a Central Library—how are we going to be really proud on opening day of that facility? What's going to make it different, and what's going to make it something that people are going to come and want to see."

And what CMLC has ushered in, as a consequence of often times challenging plots and difficult design constraints, is a growing hub of internationally-recognized, architecturally-significant buildings from internationally recognized architects like Snøhetta, DIALOG, and Allied Works Architects.

An example of that focus was in the proposal for Platform Calgary (9 Avenue SE), which Thompson said contained a requirement for design excellence.

"We said design excellence was important, which has not been said very often about an RFP for parkade," she said.

"And it was just because... it was beside the library, it's by the National Music Center, and it's really interesting to me to hear now the parkade in itself provides its own layer to that conversation."

"The best designers and the best teams always look at challenges and opportunities as actually motivators to creating great design and great solutions versus detractors," she said.

The Calgary Public Library Central Library on Saturday, September 17, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

A perfect metaphor

On that difficulty, Farrell called the new Central Library the perfect metaphor for the East Village as a whole.

"That site was an incredibly problematic site. It was a barrier between East Village and a municipal building, it has a tunnel under it, and it was had all sorts of problems associated with it," she said.

"But because of those problems, it forced the designers for the library to challenge the norm and build this remarkable building. I don't think it would have been as creative if it would have been an easier site, and that's what East Village is, to me."

"It was a it was a very difficult place to fit, but it was that challenge that made us stretch further and and strive for excellence. So I am very proud of that place and I think it has a bright future."

During the summer, Wallach held his son's wedding in the East Village, inviting guests from across the nation and internationally to the area.

"They all loved that area. They stayed there at the hotels, they walked to the restaurant, they walked along the river, and they really appreciated and admired the new construction and the architecture," he said.

"Sometimes, you know, we don't appreciate what we have and you need an outsider to tell you 'oh, it's very nice.'"

Such is that external interest that Wallach said that at the property in the East Village that Barclay Street owns, there will be in the near future a concept from food and hospitality that is right from Los Angeles.

"So we see that there is demand to go there. There's demand, both from people that want to live there, and from retailers that appreciate that... the whole area is kind of busy with people, you can't even find parking sometimes," he said.

"That's probably the best indicator that we're doing something right."

He said that the work that CMLC has done so far has been "fabulous," and that he hopes the city will continue to grow the area.

"We're doing such a good job that stopping would be a big mistake. We have to continue the way it is. I know there are two or three more buildings coming in, in the next few years, and I can tell you from my brokerage Barclay Street Real Estate, from our retail guys, there's a huge demand to be in that area by retailers."

Construction lights beam down onto downtown, while the fog lends a monochromatic hue to the lights and buildings in the East Village on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The great experiment

Farrell summed up the success of the East Village, the burgeoning community, and the interest by investors by saying that the entire area has now flipped the focus of the east end of downtown.

"The municipal building literally turned its back on the village, and now, there's as much happening if not more behind the municipal building than there is in front of it. With the East Village, none of it happened by accident. It was intentional," she said.

"But there's no question the East Village just changed Calgarians' perception of their city, but also outsiders, visitor's perception of Calgary. RiverWalk, to St. Patrick's Island, and the library and National Music Center, something magical happened, but it didn't happen by accident."

For Thompson's part, she called CMLC in general the great experiment.

"It really was that - to see what what could we do with this area and how can we guide it," she said.

"I think there's an opportunity for us to look at what other value we could provide to city council, and where we would be best suited to take our skill set."

As for the future of CMLC, she said that would be up to council and what they can do with the skill sets that the organization has developed over the past 15 years.

"It's an amazing group of people here at CMLC. We've got a combination of engineers, marketing, finance, architects, people, and urban planners that really look at cities differently, and I think the city did a really interesting and great thing in 2007 to create this company and create this organization to be strategic thinkers and a special vehicle for them to do things differently," Thompson said.

"Where we go is up to city council and what they can do with our skill set, and I think there's a lot we can do."