Calgary envisions downtown district for 10,000

Calgary, Alberta, is moving forward on a plan to turn a bedraggled section of downtown into a predominantly residential “East Village” that will be home to 10,000 people. The City Council approved an Area Development Plan emphasizing ”high density, mixed use, and quality of public realm at the ground plane” in a 113-acre area east of City Hall, says Brent Toderian, program manager for Centre City Plans.

The eastern side of downtown “is the closest thing we have to blight,” Toderian says. The plan aims to remake a section of the Canadian city that lies between the Bow River and 9th Avenue South. The city cleared part of the area during the 1970s, but revitalization has progressed slowly, in part because the area sits in a floodplain. Ian Fawcett, manager of the Downtown/Inner City Planning Division, said it will cost about $70 million Canadian ($56 million US) to raise the land surface — by as much as 5.5 feet at its lowest points — and to install streets, pipes, trees, street furniture, and other infrastructure.

As of last year, the depressed neighborhood’s population consisted of 1,045 homeless people in shelters, 800 elderly people in three high-rises, and about 200 inhabitants of new condominium complexes constructed above the floodplain. “Because of the growth of the city, it’s become a fairly key area” for development, with the potential to attract many new residents, Fawcett says. New housing in a variety of forms will accommodate a range of income levels; at least 20 percent of the housing will be nonmarket units.

“We’ve come up with ways to treat density, from the podium and point tower of Vancouver [British Columbia] to the perimeter block approach of Battery Park City” in New York, Toderian says. Vancouver, where many tall downtown towers contain retail spaces or townhouse-like units at their base (see Dec. 2003 New Urban News), has become an influential model for cities in Canada and the western half of the US. Larry Beasley, a chief planner for Vancouver, has often been invited to consult in Calgary. “We’re crafting our urban design panel around their urban design panel,” Toderian says.

Toderian describes Calgary (population 934,000) as a city that is “young and rich and trying to learn quickly” the techniques that will accommodate a growing population and make appealing sidewalks, streets, squares, and river edges. The city wants to achieve an average density of 200 units per acre on residential land in East Village. To raise money for the improvements needed there and in the adjacent East Victoria Park neighborhood, the city approved one of the first tax-increment financing (TIF) districts in Canada this spring.

three key principles

The East Village plan declares its support for “three simple principles: 1) build to the sidewalk, 2) make the streetfront visually and physically permeable, and 3) put the parking behind, under, or above the building.” The city intends to place public transit within a five-minute walk of every point in the neighborhood. Retail will cluster mainly in the center of the neighborhood, around a multiuse central square that will contain a light-rail stop. “We have the highest ridership of any light-rail system in North America, with three extremely active lines” currently operating and plans for construction of two or three more, Toderian notes.

The city also envisions a smaller, less commercial square for children’s recreation and quieter use by neighborhood residents. The plan calls for a wide range of building types and a variety of lot sizes — some as narrow as 24.6 feet. To produce smaller blocks, the city hopes to build mews: “narrow, intimate streets that balance the access and service functions of a lane [alley] with active building frontages, accessory units, and a street space shared by cars and pedestrians.”

In some locations, the city will allow existing streets to be eliminated so that large development parcels can be assembled. However, privately owned public-access streets must run through the enlarged blocks to provide needed pedestrian connections. The plan also calls for “Calgary’s Urban Campus Initiative,” which would bring in a postsecondary institution and student housing and give the neighborhood a citywide draw. Rob Graham in Land Use Planning and Policy will lead implementation of the plan, including design guidelines. The city is considering sponsoring a design competition for land that is municipally owned — about half the total. “It would hopefully be the spark to get things going,” Fawcett says.

“Large-format stand-alone retail outlets should be lined along their perimeters with small-scale commercial modules,” the plan stipulates. In the Riverfront District, buildings of varied heights will stand a little more than 115 feet back from the Bow River and will be regulated so they will not cast shadows onto the riverbank.

One problem the plan seeks to overcome is the intrusion of the bulky, modernist City Hall on the progression down Eighth Avenue. u