Will development of the East Village finally succeed?

The corner of 5th Street and 8th Avenue S.E. sits on the eastern edge of Calgary’s core, deep within the East Village. There, underneath a brown-brick tower, you’ll find pharmacist Abdul Kanji’s Corner Drugstore, serving a village that has been devoid of amenities and neglected by the City for nearly five decades. Without him, the seniors living in the subsidized residences above his shop would have to hike all the way to Inglewood or the Beltline to get their prescriptions filled.   

It was a black hole for business when he moved there in 1987, and it’s yet to change despite repeated redevelopment proposals. “I’ve been here for almost 25 years, and it seems like there’s been new plans every two years, but nothing has happened,” says Kanji. 

A flat landscape of empty parking lots and wire fences can be seen out the window of his ground-level shop, giving Kanji an enviable view of the Calgary Tower. But if the City is finally able to execute its redevelopment plans this time around, he won’t have that open view of downtown much longer.

How the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has developed the East Village

The City has sought to spark development in the East Village for years, finally moving on the Rivers District Community Revitalization Plan of 2007 that created the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) and charged the group with administering the redevelopment of the area. Five years later, CMLC has just put the finishing touches on a $108-million infrastructure upgrade, including a refurbishment of the streets, sidewalks and lighting, as well as the necessary raising of the whole 49-acre village above the flood plain of the Bow and the Elbow rivers. 

“You used to walk eight steps up into the Simmons Building,” says Susan Veres, vice president of marketing and communications at CMLC, referring to the 1912-vintage former bedding factory that now houses CMLC’s offices. “Now it’s at street level. That’s how much the land had to be lifted.”

Developers were waiting years for the City to upgrade the infrastructure and now they seem to be jumping on the opportunity to build. The East Village has been confirmed as the site of one of the most-anticipated architectural undertakings in the city’s history, with the Cantos Music Foundation’s $132-million National Music Centre breaking ground this summer. The South Campus expansion of Bow Valley College is already underway and it will be completed as soon as next January, while condo developers Embassy Bosa Inc. and Fram + Slokker started selling suites for their $650-million towers last March and are planning to start building this summer as well.

Even the infrastructure has been built to impress. The $70-million 4th Street underpass, completed in November 2011, opens up a much-needed southern passageway to the Stampede Grounds and Victoria Park, but, more than that, there’s an artistic quality to the sapphire LED lighting and stainless steel railings that adorn the spacious sidewalks. This detailed attention to design is best reflected in the redevelopment of the RiverWalk on the south bank of the Bow River. A wide granite promenade complete with reclining chairs, two cedar-planked observation decks and the revamped Simmons Building all blend together to make this one of the best pedestrianized areas in the city, even though there’s nothing to walk to in the area yet. 

In March 2010, Enmax opened its $31.8-million, state-of-the-art Downtown District Energy Centre on 9th Avenue, just next door to the new 4th Street underpass. It’s a European-style, centrally located boiler system that will keep the future 1.4 million square feet of condominium space toasty, with capacity to heat 8.6 million square feet more, if necessary. Like the underpass and the RiverWalk, its form is as appealing as its function. Never mind the utilitarian, cinder block monstrosities of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the new Energy Centre’s gleaming glass façade is refreshingly transparent and attractive. 

CMLC is also selling off the remaining half of the land it owns in the village to retail developers — now that the residential half has been purchased — including its own current headquarters, the Simmons Building.

City finds public financing model for East Village development

What’s surprising is that all of this is happening now, only four years removed from a global economic collapse in 2008 and in the midst of a prolonged recovery. After all, even when the going was good and oil prices soared, the East Village floundered. In the absence of provincial or federal grants, the City never could scrape together enough cash to fix the infrastructure, and the meagre tax base in the neighbourhood couldn’t come close to paying for the necessary infrastructure improvements, nor did developers want to foot the bill. 

The City looked to the U.S. for a model of public financing that would raise the necessary funds without having to blow the entire public treasury on a tiny strip of downtown. 

Calgary became the first Canadian city to implement Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a financing tool used to improve blighted areas in Chicago and New York. With TIFs, council estimates the future tax revenues a community might make if it were redeveloped and borrows the money it needs to fix the infrastructure against that number. Once the infrastructure is built, it’s hoped that developers will be drawn to the area like flies to honey, allowing the City to pay off the infrastructure debt with tax revenues collected from new development. New taxpayers move in, the tax base increases and the value of the land jumps so the City can charge a higher tax rate. 

In the case of the East Village, the City of Calgary created a TIF called the Community Revitalization Levy (CRL), then used it to borrow $240 million to found and fund CMLC. The first thing CMLC did was hire reputed architecture firm Broadway Malyan to draw up a master plan worthy of any global city. Then it began buying up land to ensure the execution of that plan. Any developer is allowed to buy the land from CMLC, but it only sells parcels of land to developers that will follow the master plan, so as to ensure the East Village will be a quality, pedestrian-oriented community. 

Now, all it needs is people to fill the condominiums and storefronts that are about to cover the marvellous view out of the windows at Kanji’s Corner Drugstore. Today, the East Village is home to around 2,437 people, but CMLC hopes to see the area’s population grow by almost five fold in the next few years, pushing to 11,500. 

Learning from the Eau Claire development mistakes

Any downtown development is surrounded by swirling hype and optimism, but success isn’t inevitable. Developers approached Eau Claire, similar to East Village in its state of disrepair before its redevelopment in the 1990s, with a similar optimism. Unfortunately, it has become a shining example of how redevelopment plans can fail. 

Located several blocks north of the 3rd Street C-Train station, Eau Claire is nestled in the curved bow of Prince’s Island, between Chinatown in the east and the Louise Bridge in the west. Nearby, Prince’s Island has become the perfect urban setting for the Calgary Folk Music Festival and Carifest, among other summer festivals, because of its central location, shady old-growth trees and proximity to the cool waters of the Bow. 

With a dedicated pedestrian population already established and thousands of offices within walking distance, Eau Claire would seem to be an ideal location to establish a walkable community. Yet, despite efforts in the early 1990s to redevelop it into a version of Vancouver’s Granville Island, the area languishes. There are plenty of handsome condo developments in the area, but commercial space wasn’t developed on the ground floor of the towers, because it was designed to funnel shoppers to the central Eau Claire Market. 

The rapidly aging Eau Claire Market, with its bright yellow, red and blue exterior, wavy walls and teal trim, is not even 20 years old and is already in need of a makeover. It’s encircled by Barclay Parade S.W., a stretch of pseudo-pedestrianized road once proudly clogged with cabs, which is now a street lined with empty husks of failed chain restaurants (who knew a popular Hard Rock Café once stood a stone’s throw from the market?) and barren plazas. Sure, the condos are sold, and the downtown Calgary YMCA attracts the fitness crowd, but as a neighbourhood it fails. Residents might be able to walk to work, but they still have to climb into their cars to get groceries or shop, and if neither of those amenities are good enough for locals, they aren’t going to draw crowds from Calgary’s other quadrants, either. 

Days before opening in August 1993, the $43-million Eau Claire Market was hyped as a catalyst for downtown residential development and activity. The locally owned boutique shopping and indoor farmer’s market, which boasted local vendors selling everything from fresh fish to hand-cut steaks and locally grown potatoes, were supposed to draw in suburban and urban dwellers alike. 

“It was going to be the jewel of downtown Calgary,” says Calvin Buss, president of Buss Marketing, which helped sell some of the condos in Eau Claire in the early 1990s. “It was meant to draw Calgarians down into a walkable, pedestrian-orientated environment, but it was just a mess from the word go.”

The importance of planning and timing to a development

Bev Sandalack, professor of planning and urban design at the University of Calgary, believes the development was ill-timed and the planning missed the mark. “The market went in in advance of the residential population around it, which was really needed to support it,” she says. “And it didn’t have a street presence, so it kind of functioned like a suburban neighbourhood.”

Downtown rents were too high for vendors struggling with slim profit margins and there just weren’t enough people living in Eau Claire to keep the indoor market going. To make matters worse, suburbanites weren’t convinced that the market was significantly better than their local shopping centre or farmer’s market, nor was it worth fighting downtown traffic, especially since parking was inadequate. The long walk to the nearest C-Train station didn’t help, either.

Today, Eau Claire Market stands as an ugly reminder of downtown development gone wrong; an example of the suburban model not fitting in a downtown setting. Buss thinks that the ad-hoc nature of property ownership dashed any success Eau Claire could have in becoming a true walkable community, because there was no unified planning document to govern what was built. The neighbourhood was broken up into several different pieces of real estate that were all owned and developed by different companies. This is typical; it’s an anomaly to have one landowner control a whole 40- or 50-acre chunk of the downtown core, but, if you do, the planning can take into account the big picture and the end result is better. 

“[With the East Village,] CMLC was able to master-plan the entire community and then sell individual pieces to developers, who have to fit the master plan,” says Buss, who’s now managing sales for Fram + Slokker in the East Village.

The plan has inspired confidence in planners and developers who believe the area will be a success. “I believe the East Village might actually work this time,” says Sandalack, citing the
RiverWalk and the well-lit streetscapes as signs of a long-term commitment from city council.

When the City turned its back on the East Village

Let’s face it, it’s always been the nicest piece of real estate downtown. That’s why the North West Mounted Police chose the site to build their fort back in 1875. It’s just been mistreated for the last 50 years. Even if the failed urban renewal of the 1960s and ’70s is put aside, City Hall’s true sin was committed in 1985, when it literally turned its back on the village. That’s when the Ralph Klein-led council completed the staircase-shaped Calgary Municipal Building, a structure that prompted visiting Toronto Alderman Dorothy Thomas to label Calgary architect Christopher Ballyn’s competition-winning design a “monstrosity.” No descriptors could be truer for the residents of the East Village, who now faced the back end of the City’s shiny new centre and were permanently cut off from the Stephen Avenue pedestrian corridor. This icy architectural rejection further isolated a neighbourhood that had already been in decline for decades. 

Long stigmatized by Calgarians as declining and dangerous, the East Village was abandoned to the care of patrons in local run-down bars including The Cecil Hotel, The King Edward Hotel and the St. Louis Hotel, all of which were eventually shut down in the early oughts (and will be renovated as part of the redevelopment plan). Left to die by the City, the village was embraced by the down and out. 

In September 2001, The Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, which has operated in the area since 1961, and The Salvation Army Centre of Hope opened on the western edge of the village, squeezing the cold blue glass of the municipal building between them. They each brought much-needed beds to the growing homeless population who had adopted the community over the years, but the massive 107,000-square-foot Drop-In Centre hasn’t helped lift the stigma surrounding the neighbourhood, despite its attractive brick exterior and six-storey heritage design. 

What the East Village development needs to succeed

In order for the East Village to rise from the rubble, CMLC is going to have to convince Calgarians that the rich and the poor can live in sync; the condo buyers will need to feel safe and the low-income guests at the Drop-in will need to know they’re not going to be pushed out by the newcomers.

Eau Claire developers faced a similar stigma in its early years, and despite it’s other troubles, this aspect of the neighbourhood was overcome with ease.

“When I started with Eau Claire in 1990, 3rd Avenue was hooker alley,” says Buss. “It really was the worst part of downtown Calgary. Now, it’s full of respectable riverfront addresses.” 

If Eau Claire proves anything, it’s that decayed downtown neighbourhoods can be turned into affluent areas, but there is always collateral damage as the less-fortunate local population is squeezed out.

It’s easy to push out the marginalized with expensive high-rise towers — and the more prominent police presence that comes with them — like in Eau Claire, but CMLC is trying to do development differently, by partnering with the Drop-In Centre and the Salvation Army to give their guests the opportunity to contribute to the community. This, coupled with the “eyes on the street” urban-planning guru Jane Jacobs always lauded as keeping busy pedestrian corridors safe, should be enough to erase the gloomy memories of the area in a city not known for its tendency to dwell on the past.

The future looks bright for the East Village

After 26 years of the cold shoulder, City Hall is finally showing the village that it cares, and as a result, everything else seems to be following suit. The National Music Centre, the new central library and the redevelopment of St. Patrick’s Island, paired with the RiverWalk and transit connections will ensure pedestrian traffic that Eau Claire could only dream of. Condominiums will be firmly in place by the time commercial and retail spaces are ready to open, so there should be enough local support to keep businesses from going belly-up. 

And, instead of aiming for only the high-end of the market, like Eau Claire developers, a 550-square-foot, one-bedroom condo in Fram + Slokker’s First starts at $235,000, making the price point a premium, but not completely out of the range of the average homebuyer who’s willing to squeeze into the space. That said, if you have the money to spend and you’re looking for a little more space, 1,771-square-foot townhomes can be bought in the Embassy Bosa Evolution condo complex for $699,000.

The East Village has more than bricks and mortar going for it, though; it seems to have captured the imaginations of city planners, developers and everyday Calgarians. 

Even after almost 25 years of failed plans and broken promises, Kanji feels optimistic about the future of the community. “Now, with this infrastructure in place, I have faith things will happen,” he says.

In a city that is still missing a 24-hour downtown pedestrian mall, there seems to be a  bottomless optimism that this torn piece of urban fabric can be repaired, and that we’ll finally do it right this time.

Once the proud birthplace of the city, the East Village, virtually untouched by commercial development for decades, is ready to rise again.

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