Massive urban facelift project brings changes, excitement to Calgary
They're building it and they're coming.
The six-year-old mandate to revitalize Calgary's Rivers District, starting with the East Village-the 49 acres between Fort Calgary and the downtown core-has successfully broken ground after nearly four decades of failed attempts at breathing new life into the veritable birthplace of Cowtown.
Since incorporating in 2007, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), an arms-length subsidiary of the City of Calgary, has envisioned East Village as the area with the greatest need for redevelopment in the city.
The sell factor is the area's proximity to Fort Calgary-a preserved green space with rich historical relevance, says Clare Nolan, senior manager, marketing communications, with the CMLC.
"It celebrates what East Village was," she notes.
Or, perhaps more aptly, what East Village could have been if the political construction cards were played right. East Village has endured its fair share of starts and stops when it comes to community and commercial renewal. With no successful restoration and resurgence until recently, the area had been virtually relegated to a ghost terrain of vacant lots and abandoned buildings littered among the city's neglected residents.
In 2009, CMLC unveiled a master plan for the mixed-use revitalization of all 49 acres of East Village prepared by London-based architectural and design firm Broadway Malyan Limited. The project's success rests in creating a community that not only services new residents, but also is a gathering place for all Calgarians-with the Bow River being the ultimate urban experience connector.
"There are a lot of people in Calgary that are looking for an urban, vibrant downtown living experience-and there are a lot of people that leave Calgary to get it," Nolan points out.
They're "urban explorers," remarks Calgary Ward 7 Alderman Druh Farrell.
Architectural renderings from among the multitude of designers and developers showcase the projects both underway and those that have yet to break ground, from the $245-million central Calgary Public Library to the $130-million, 160,000-square-foot edifice straddling 4th Street SE-that by 2015 is slated to become the National Music Centre-with endless concert space, recording studios, and bars and restaurants, including the King Edward Hotel.
In 2012, a massive bridge-and-island infrastructure project began at a combined cost of $45 million. In February, the arches of St. Patrick's Bridge started taking shape, with the bridge's completion slated for the end of the year. It will provide pedestrian passage to St. Patrick's Island, a 31-acre park space that is currently under redevelopment to turn the under-utilized park space into a recreational destination for all Calgarians to enjoy.
Another hit with Calgarians is the RiverWalk Project, which will provide a pedestrian connection along a four-kilometre pathway running from Centre Street to Lindsay Park along both the Bow and Elbow rivers. It combines multi-use pathways for separate pedestrian and cycling purposes and showcases RiverWalk Plaza (housed behind the restored Simmons Mattress building).
CMLC has invested $180 million into its infrastructure projects through a funding strategy called the Community Revitalization Levy. It allows the city to borrow up to $283 million to cover upgrading initiatives such as flood protection and the installation of new sewer and water pipes.
To create a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly community, you first need to employ urban design elements-or what CMLC calls "streetscape" enhancements-to repair infrastructure. This remediation started at the inception of CMLC's East Village land development. It's not yet complete, with some streets still under construction.
Changes to date include the creation of wider sidewalks, installation of brick cobblestone roads to replace broken sidewalks, low-level lampposts, benches, bike racks, and big-belly garbage cans with solar-powered trash compactors and recycling units.
Not only were sidewalks widened, but in some flood-plain areas the level of the street had to be raised by as much as four feet, says Nolan, on account of the bordering Bow River. It's a flood-proofing measure to protect future development sites-the building costs of which are covered by developers including Embassy-Bosa of Vancouver and FRAM+Slokker residential developers of Mississauga, Ont. These two groups bought the land upon which they are building the residential units from CMLC.
Such mixed-use, mid-rise, multi-family, vertical development projects have moved forward over the past year. Both groups will provide housing for upwards of 1,500 new owners. Fram+Slokker's 196-unit condo complex, called FIRST, broke ground in March, while Phase 1 of Embassy-Bosa's Evolution project started construction last October. They are 18 and 21 storeys, respectively, both with about 70 per cent of the units sold on first phase.
Residential projects have amenities such as fitness rooms, social lounges, gym and yoga rooms, and barbecue nooks.
"The fact there are going to be multi-use [services], coffee shops, supermarkets, nearby transit, the RiverWalk and jogging path-that's just as important as what's inside the suite," says Fred Serrafero, vice-president, development and construction of FRAM Building Group.
It's the types of infrastructure initiatives listed that emphasize the pedestrian-first and foremost-and that are "forever changing the face of East Village," says Michael Brown, president and chief executive officer, CMLC.
"CMLC has been advancing our master plan vision for this downtown community since 2007, and while there remains a lot of work to do, we are very proud of the community that is unfolding," he adds.
Says Toronto native Megan Robinson, who lives in neighbouring Victoria Park: "I think it will be the place that I go when I'm not at work or at home. It allows me to use my car less. I can jump on the C-Train or I can ride my bike on the pathway. It's just so people-friendly, and to know that I'm a walk away from all these things makes me happy. It's honestly the best-developed waterfront I've ever seen."
When the new inhabitants start to arrive, Nolan points out, all the amenities and conveniences will be firmly in place for pedestrian-friendly traffic. She says there are a lot of people that would happily deal without their daily downtown commute in favour of walking to work. Some of them might even opt to work pretty much where they tuck in at night.
Serrafero says his group is exploring adding workspace to the 50,000 square feet of retail space he has to fill at the base of one of his residential developments.
"We found that there was some really good synergy when there was some office component in a mixed-use centre," he says, attributing this to a heightened hustle-bustle factor that erupts when suddenly there are people to fill in those portions of the day that are normally dormant.
The project also calls for integrating the new with the existing, says Nolan, citing the current large and senior population living in East Village that factored into the CMLC's urban plan.
"We realized that we already had an existing population, and we needed to ensure that the new residents could integrate and mix well. So there's been a lot of effort in improving the public realm for the residents-new and old."
Serrafero adds that both he and CMLC share a vision that will appeal to different demographics of age and socio-economic backgrounds. "I think [that diversity] creates a more exciting and vibrant neighborhood," he explains.
WET BLANKETS IN THE PARK
To be sure, the East Village project has seen those same developmental decriers who equate the efforts to new avenues for crime over camaraderie. They liken the east to the low-income, low-grade, crime-addled areas of generally unpleasant ambiance and activity.
Says Nolan: "The east side of the city is often concentrated as industrial use-because of the way the wind blows. If it's something that kind of smells, they put it on the east side," she quips, pointing to the fact these are the areas where industrial use might have typically first started in a given city-which jibes with the fact that East Village is considered a brownfield site for past developmental activity.
Farrell concurs the land is a "wonderful opportunity for brownfield reclamation"-certainly no different from its infrastructure improvement counterparts in other urban centres.
"This is not a problem that's unique to Calgary-it's inherent everywhere," Farrell says.
Naysayers notwithstanding, like with Calgary's controversial Peace Bridge before it, the skeptics of East Village are starting to come around, Farrell says.
"Initially, there was a significant amount of cynicism that East Village could never succeed; there were too many problems associated with it," notes Farrell, conversely adding that lately she's heard from few that are offhanded over the outcome.
"It's proven itself. We saw the natural gift that this piece of land had being at the confluence of the two rivers. We saw the potential. All you need to do is go down and look at it, what's being planned. There's no question that the first investors in East Village came from outside the city because they didn't see the issues as insurmountable-they saw the potential."
Judging from the fact the vertical projects have sold 70 per cent of their units thus far, it would seem East Village will in fact surpass its previous futile and stillborn development and this time around bear witness to a full-scale birth and renewa