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All Canadian design team announced for new Olympic Plaza

An all-Canadian design team of award-winning, internationally-recognized firms gh3, CCxA, and Belleville Placemaking were announced on Nov. 9, marking the next phase of work on the new Olympic Plaza.

The firms were selected from among 25 applicants to work on the re-development of one of Calgary’s most well-used public spaces, following a competitive RFP process led by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC).

The project, which is being undertaken in collaboration with the re-development of Arts Commons, has a budget of $40 million to design and prepare the site for further construction.

“What really stood out with this team was their collaboration, and each of their respective members made the team better,” said Kate Thompson, CEO of CMLC.

“When you’re looking at what can we do with the Olympic Plaza, we knew it wasn’t just about the physical space. It was really about how we’re going to activate the space. So that’s been a really big guiding principle for us about what can we do, and that team really responded with a placemaking and expertise and activating spaces in a really unique way.”

gh3 was selected to lead the urban design and architecture portion of the Olympic Plaza re-development and was the firm behind the iconic and nationally awarded Borden Park Pavilion in Edmonton.

Montreal-based CCxA will be designing the landscape architecture for the project, and have been recognized for their work on projects like Sugar Beach in Toronto, which garnered the firm a global design award.

Belleville Placemaking will be focusing on placemaking for the new Olympic Plaza. Their firm has been lauded for the successful placemaking work that was done at Bryant Park and on The High Line in New York.

“This design team is right at the start of the design right now, and looking at all of the opportunities all of the history and the embedded meaning of this place for Calgarians,” said Thompson.

“The challenge that the design team is looking at right now is how do you bring all of that latent history and pull it together with a modern design that is going to be adaptable to the future.”

Thompson said the goal for the design stage was to develop a design that would lead to adaptable space for multiple uses and users.

“You really want the final product to be adaptable, so that if you need to bring in a big concert you have all the infrastructure there so it’s not an expensive or arduous task to convert it. So, that’s that’s part of the thinking,” she said.

“Then also the edges of this plaza become as important as the plaza itself. So, what kind of retail is around it? What’s within walking distance and how you think of the project holistically in our downtown?”

Details on the time frame for construction and final construction costs for the new Olympic Plaza will be released after the design work is completed.

City of Calgary Director of Downtown Strategy Thom Mahler, left, Arts Commons President and CEO Alex Sarian, CMLC President and CEO Kate Thompson, gh3 Prinicpal Pat Hanson, and Wad 7 Councillor Terry Wong at Olympic Plaza on Thursday, November 9, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Many proposals and excitement over project

The number of proposals was a lot for a project of the scale of the re-development of Olympic Plaza. It was also an appropriate number given the importance and prominence of the project, Thompson said.

“This is a really big project and it’s got a lot of profile, and it’s right in the heart of a growing city,” she said.

She said that the project would be a challenge, given its proximity to the LRT, Stephen Avenue, and the new Arts Common theatre building project.

Arts Commons CEO Alex Sarian, who was part of the selection committee for the design firms, said that the guiding principles for the project were to create a space that is accessible, open, inclusive, and safe—all while maintaining or increasing the number of outdoor events that are held in Olympic Plaza.

“We have many arts organizations that want to be able to design very specific cultural engagement opportunities. So, what does it look like to have an orchestra, or a dance company, or a theatre company that want to be able to do really amazing things here, but also recognizes that this needs to be a place of gathering and a destination for Calgarians, all day every day,” Sarian said.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, not just for Arts Commons and the community we represent, but I think for Calgary to define and be a beacon of hope for what arts and culture can become across Canada.”

He said that the possibility of opportunities that come from having a newly designed space, that allows for all of the activities Calgarians already love and them more, would be the missing piece of the current Arts Common puzzle.

“There’s so much we can do from a design-building perspective. There’s so much we can do from a programming perspective,” Sarian said.

“I think what it does is this outdoor space doesn’t become an extension of Arts Commons. This outdoor space actually allows Arts Commons to be an extension of the city. That’s what I think we’re so excited about exploring together as a design team.”

Boundaries of the new Olympic Plaza. COURTESY CMLC

Reflecting the history of Olympic Plaza

Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong said that it was essential to get the new Olympic Plaza right—to bring people into the space from their offices and apartments, and from across Calgary—to enjoy the space.

“The question then becomes, what is it from a replacement perspective is important for them. It’s about history and heritage, and also about the future. It’s about the inclusiveness of our population: seniors to our youth,” Wong said.

He said that his hope was that the transformation would continue the sense of pride in Olympic Plaza, stretching back to when the Olympic medals were handed out there in (19)88.”

Pat Hanson, Principal of gh3, representing the design team said that they would be very respectful of the history of Olympic Plaza, as they would be with any site they work with.

“We really look to leverage that in whatever way we can to develop public spaces that have a bit more meaning.”