Calgary’s much beloved, but more recently “crumbling” Olympic Plaza, will be getting a complete overhaul in conjunction with the redevelopment of Arts Commons and Stephen Avenue.
Arts Commons CEO Alex Sarian, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation CEO Kate Thompson, City of Calgary Director for Downtown Strategy Thom Mahler, and Mayor Jyoti Gondek were on hand on June 6 to make the announcement that changes—funded changes—would be coming soon to the plaza.
“We’ve been talking about Olympic Plaza since 2003, for a transformation of this space… and so this is long overdue for the city to do this,” said Mahler.
“The lifecycle is at a stage where it’s starting to crumble, and now’s the opportunity with the leadership that we have with Arts Commons and our arts community in general, and with CMLC, to really dig into this to provide a space that’s going to last another 30 to 50 years.”
The Olympic Plaza Transformation project has been allocated $40 million, which will cover the project initiation, design team procurement, and design development.
Additional funding will be required for the construction.
16 years in the making
Olympic Plaza has been slated for redevelopment since 2007 but had not received either funding or a design plan for redevelopment since that time.
The project is going ahead as a joint agreement between Arts Commons, CMLC, and the City of Calgary. CMLC had already been working with Arts Commons on the creation of the new Arts Commons performance space building, and the renovation of the main Arts Common space.
“Both [CMLC and Arts Commons] were already hard at work together on the Arts Commons transformation projects, and are absolutely the right team to design deliver and steward the transformation of Olympic Plaza,” said Mayor Gondek.
Thompson said that the addition of the Olympic Plaza project to the ongoing work at Arts Commons and on Stephen Avenue would lead to efficiencies in the work being completed.
“You can imagine the efficiencies that you can have in doing all three projects, having oversight of all three projects under CMLC, and the coordination and making sure that if there are any efficiencies on the construction side or the delivery of the process side we can find them together,” she said.
Construction would be phased, with a more exact timeline to when that would begin or end to follow the selection of a design for the plaza.
The City of Calgary has budgeted $108 million between 2023 and 2026 for downtown revitalization, including work at Olympic Plaza and on Stephen Avenue.
That investment, said Mayor Gondek, was part of an overall $425 million investment in the city’s downtown strategy that has paid off in both private investment into Calgary and in attracting global attention to the city.
History and future combined in design, said CMLC
Thompson said that there would be no limitations put on the design of a renovated Olympic Plaza space, aside from financial ones.
“You try not to limit the possibilities, but you make sure that everyone understands the baseline of how that has worked. So how the Plaza has worked in the past, and some aspirations for the future,” Thompson said.
“Now the best design teams and the best project teams push you beyond where you think you should go, and so that’s what I’m excited by. We won’t be limiting and say you can’t do this, we will be giving a foundation of ‘here’s what you were aspiring to.'”
She said that they would be actively looking at what the community wants in terms of amenities and opportunities for use of the site, including using the City of Calgary’s engagement documents from 2016, and their own engagement work done with community members in 2021.
“One of the best parts of the Olympic Plaza is how beloved it is, and how much memory there is stored in Calgarians about the space,” Thompson said.
“In terms of the historic references to the Olympics, to the medal ceremonies, all of that will start to inform the approach to the design of the space and how we use this space going forward.”
She said that the design team that would be picked by RFP in the near future would take into consideration aspects of the plaza like the bricks.
Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong said that the redevelopment of Olympic Plaza would also allow for a wider historical recognition of the city at the site, including that as the home of Calgary’s second Chinatown before it was forced to move next to the Bow River in the early 20th century.
“Calgary is a must-visit destination, Calgary is a great place for experiences, and I often say we want to make Calgary our Disneyland,” he said.
“We need to make these transformations happen, and I think the other part of the equation is we also take back the historical heritage context here.”
A new space would continue to allow for events of all types
Thompson said that the newly renovated Olympic Plaza would continue to be a venue for innovative events.
“The whole point of this is to bring people together, and innovation will form a basis of that. And I think that’s partly why Arts Commons will be leading the programming of the space and understanding how you draw people in,” she said.
“I think the design basis really should be about facilitating all the great ideas. Any of the buildings, capital buildings the city has built or CMHC has built, they’re not just of its time. They have to be beyond its time and make sure that they anticipate what could come next.”
Sarian said that many of the innovative events that the plaza has seen over the past year, like the Red Bull and Squach, have come not because of the condition the plaza is in.
“These innovative programs happen in spite of the conditions that the plaza is in as opposed to because of them,” he said.
Sarian said that when completed, the transformation of Arts Commons and Olympic Plaza would turn the area from being one of Western Canada’s largest arts spaces into one of the biggest nationally.
He said that throughout the construction of Arts Commons there would always be performance spaces open and available. However, events and programs will be paused at the end of 2024 to allow for construction.
“If my three years in Calgary have taught me anything, is that we thrive on limitations,” he said.
“If you look at the way the arts community has thrived in Calgary during the pandemic, and I don’t say that lightly because it has been a hard time, but when you look at the way in which Calgary arts organizations have pivoted, have reinvented, have found ways of connecting with audiences, I’m excited to see what might happen.”
He said they would not be sitting back and waiting to see what would happen though. Arts Commons, said Sarian, would be actively engaging with groups to find them spaces.
“One of the great things about the staggering of this project is that at no point will arts Commons be decommissioned. So as we’re expanding our current facility will remain active,” he said.
“Now with the inclusion of Olympic Plaza we will still have opportunities to engage with Calgarians in new and innovative ways. So while we’re working on this massive project, at no point will Calgarians cease having a relationship with Arts Commons or with the arts communities we represent.”