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Committee approves blend of Arts Commons, Olympic Plaza and Stephen Avenue projects

Councillors also approved a reallocation of funds to help with Glenbow Reimagined budget overage.

The city’s director of downtown strategy said they want to merge some core downtown projects together to create the largest continuous art space in the country.

A plan delivered to the city’s Executive Committee on Thursday that showed the blending of the Arts Commons Transformation, Olympic Plaza redevelopment and the adjacent Stephen Avenue upgrade, received unanimous support from councillors.

It will now need final approval at an upcoming meeting of Calgary city council.

Thom Mahler, the director of Calgary’s downtown strategy, said that approval would mean a significant advancement in the city’s downtown revitalization.

“When we talked about the loss of vibrancy in our core due to the reduction in office workers, we said we would make up that vibrancy by transforming public spaces, to supporting diversity of users and uses,” Mahler told councillors.  

“We also said that arts and culture would be a major contributor to attract more Calgarians downtown, and more tourism to our city. Well, this report pulls together a number of threads that we and our partners are working on, that will begin to transform the subject area into a major destination for public gathering, and arts and cultural experiences that will complement and reinforce our major investments in the BMO expansion, Event Center and a Culture and Entertainment District.”

Previously, the plan was to undertake a separate rehabilitation of the Olympic Plaza area, improving wayfinding and the public realm.

The Arts Common Transformation is being shepherded by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC). The specific action being recommended would add Olympic Plaza’s redevelopment and the adjacent portion of Stephen Avenue, to the purview of CMLC.

“Today, we are recommending that the Arts Commons, Olympic Plaza and Steven Avenue Projects be bundled together under one banner and form a landmark project that will create the largest contiguous art space in Canada,” Mahler said.

Equitable access to arts and culture

Alex Sarian, President and CEO of Arts Commons, said one of the mandates they’re hoping to achieve with their expansion is equitable access to arts and culture.

“One of the things we are trying to do as an arts and cultural organization, and as a civic partner, is to extend that stewardship into the public realm so that Calgarians can engage with us, regardless of quadrant, regardless of neighbourhood, regardless of household income, and really having this outdoor space become a center of gravity for arts and culture in the downtown, where folks can enjoy this basic human right with little to no barriers,” he said.

Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong, whose ward covers most of the downtown area, said there have been a lot of conversations over the past 20 months around these three projects. He said he appreciated comments from other councillors about it not just being a box, but rather all of the connecting things in between these locations.

“I think we want to say to all Calgarians, as well as the province, that if we’re going to make Calgary that must-visit destination and a great experience… this type of investment, this type of development is crucial,” he said.

Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp the goal with the plan is to start building destinations in the downtown.

“You really want to add more vibrancy in that area and you want to make it very welcoming to not just Calgarians that live here across the city, but those visiting so that’s important,” she said.

“It becomes kind of a little heart right in front of City Hall.”

Glenbow budget overage

The recommendations also included a reallocation of City of Calgary Cultural Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding.

It would see $12 million set aside for Calgary Opera and Fort Calgary projects diverted to the Glenbow Reimagined project, which is now coming in over budget. The Glenbow has asked for $18.5 million extra. It’s unclear at this point where the other $6.5 million would come from.

“The project’s initial budget of $115 million was developed from estimates that no longer align with the current economic realities in the post-pandemic environment,” a city report read.

Further, it said that costs for materials, labour, hazardous materials, art conservation have boosted the budget.

“The project requires additional funding to support the completion of the current and future phases of the museum’s redevelopment,” the report read.

Overall, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said bringing together the Arts Commons, Olympic Plaza and Stephen Avenue projects could help timelines and budgets. She said it’s a more efficient way to go.

“When you’re doing each thing individually, it’s not connected, teams aren’t connected. So, this is an amazing approach to making sure this whole area gets brought up from the ground in a way that things connect with each other, she said.

“There are economies of scale that can be achieved when you’re working on things at the same time.”