|Trust a land developer to introduce reality into an afternoon of urban glad-handing and congratulations.
After a series of speakers expounding on the merits of a comprehensive new plan to guide the creation of a truly urban neighbourhood in the Beltline unveiled at a press conference on May 15 developer George Schluessel started talking about parking requirements.
Schluessel was also expressing his support of the Beltline Initiative, but he inadvertently reminded the room that plenty of logistical problems need to be overcome before the area can meet the vision set out in the plan.
Called the Beltline Initiative, the plan brings together, for the first time, the Connaught and Victoria Park community associations with the three Business Revitalization Zones in the area: Uptown 17, Victoria Crossing and 4th Street. Together, they have laid the foundations for turning the area immediately south of downtown into the city's first truly urban neighbourhood.
The plan encourages redevelopment to increase the area's population and create a pedestrian-friendly community on par with the world's other great inner-city neighbourhoods as an alterative to suburban life. In a way, it sees the vitality of areas like 17th Avenue and 4th Street spreading west to 14th Street, north to 10th Avenue and all the way east to Victoria Park.
But putting together an attractive 73-page report is different than transforming a neighbourhood housing construction alone, which would double the area's population to 40,000, will cost an estimated $2.5 billion.
Despite those sobering figures, Rob Taylor, the president of the Connaught Community Association and the man largely responsible for the Beltline Initiative, could barely contain his excitement. He says there are no doubts in his mind the report won't simply gather dust.
"I've been president of the Connaught Community Association before. We've tried this kind of thing before and it never worked," he says. "Everyone is behind this now. All the BRZs, the communities
if all these people can come together with the city and private enterprise, with the development industry
we are going to make this happen."
The very presence of the Beltline Initiative report may have overcome one of the biggest obstacles facing the area's redevelopment in the past city hall. The organizations involved launched the report themselves partly, they say, because they got tired of waiting for city hall to come around to their way of thinking.
And by doing so, they may have spurred city hall into action. A major part of the report comes out of the recently completed Connaught/West Victoria Special Study, led by city urban planner Don Schultz. The Calgary Planning Commission's recent approval of a blueprint planning document for the Beltline may signal that city hall is finally willing to divert some of its planning resources away from the suburbs.
Area Ald. Madeleine King says she's as excited by the Beltline Initiative as anyone she, along with Ald. Druh Farrell, are often seen as the voices of urbanism on city council but seemed a little annoyed by suggestions that the report was produced in spite of city hall rather than in conjunction with it.
"We may have been slower at city hall than they would have liked, but the Beltline is really a small percentage of the city. Ninety per cent of the growth of the city is in the suburbs," King says. "But downtown planning is exciting and I think (the Beltline Initiative) is very important."
King also says city council can make an important show of support in June when it votes on the Blueprint for the Beltline, which is an important first step for the entire initiative.
But talk of increased densities and building heights has lead to community battles in the past most recently on 4th Street, with the demolition of buildings housing Paros restaurant and Burger Inn to make way for a multi-storey development.
Jennifer Rempel of the 4th Street Business Revitalization Zone says her group's participation in the Beltline Initiative doesn't include area's south of 17th Avenue she is hoping the initiative will boost areas further north and create a vibrant pedestrian link between downtown and the Elbow River so she isn't expecting such battles.
"Mission and Cliff Bungalow are pretty tight communities," Rempel says. "They are very different communities (from the Beltline communities). We respect that."
Tiro Clarke, the president of the Mission/Cliff Bungalow Community Association, says he wouldnt want the urbanization of the Beltline Initiative for his community, but he isn't worried about its effects on his neighbourhood.
"You can't have two-storey buildings and high density. That's something for Connaught," Clarke says. "We're looking to architecturally innovative solutions (to increase our density). We have our own redevelopment plan and we're separate and distinct from the Beltline."
Even with council's support for the Beltline Initiative, everyone involved acknowledges that the road to creating a vibrant urban neighbourhood in a city known as a suburban utopia will be a long one. Even the seemingly simplest planning regulations like parking requirements, as Schluessel pointed out, and building height restrictions can make or break deals. The report itself tries to temper lofty expectations.
"Community revitalization takes more time than contemporary expectations usually permit," the Beltline Initiative says. "All too often our impatience leads us in search of a single all-encompassing solution
. Community revitalization can take a generation to be truly successful."
If successful, however, the report may lay the foundation for a more livable city. It directly addresses many of the problems of Calgary's suburban sprawl growth model that urbanists have worried about for years. Development in the East Village has been scuttled for the time being, and a west-end downtown revitalization is far behind the Beltline's natural head start, so the area seems primed for the change.
"There is a groundswell of urbanism in Calgary," says Taylor. "In my view
Calgary is in position now where (the Beltline) can become a truly great urban centre."
Aspects of the Beltline Initiative
· Encouraging denser residential construction and mixed-use developments.
· Improving pedestrian access and creating a community centred around walking.
· Ensuring a variety of housing options.
· Addressing social problems like prostitution and homelessness through affordable housing, increased policing and strategic environmental design.
· Relaxing building height restrictions.
· Reducing parking requirements for new developments, but increasing public parking in some areas.
· Restoring boulevards and making street improvements.
· Burying overhead electric wiring.
· Paving and improving laneways.
· Improving park space and restoring area trees.
· Eliminating one-way streets.
· Maintaining heritage buildings and improving their use.
Source: Beltline Initiative. For more information visit the Beltline communities Web site: www.Beltline.ca.