Plans portray the new East Village as a humanly-scaled cultural hub full of shops, art spaces and high-density housing.
After numerous failed attempts at revitalizing the decrepit East Village, the city has rolled out an ambitious master plan to transform the riverside area into a lively urban village packed with restaurants, art spaces and high-density housing — a plan being cheered by some and condemned by others.
Construction on the project has been underway for over a year. At the same time, a U.K.-based planning company has been drawing up a master plan that will guide the project. The plan parallels designs seen in cities like Hamburg, Düsseldorf, London and New York, says Phil Bonds, director of urban design for Broadway Malyan.
“The plan provides Calgary with basically a completely different skyline and typology,” he says, noting that Calgary is currently known for its high-rise downtown and low-rise stretch of suburbia. “What it doesn’t have — as other successful cities do, certainly in Europe and in many places in the States like Portland and so on — is this sort of mid-rise, standard, classic urban block.”
The plan’s summary is thin on details, but portrays the redevelopment as a trendy pedestrian-friendly “architectural bridge” between the towers of downtown and the open space of Fort Calgary on the banks of the Bow and Elbow rivers. “We really do have a focus on mid-rise, human-scaled development as opposed to a forest of towers and podiums everywhere,” says Chris Ollenberger, CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), the city-owned company tasked with redeveloping the area.
Planners envision the new East Village as a cultural hub that will include the new Cantos National Music Centre in the revitalized King Eddy hotel, and possibly a new cinema and other art spaces. “The focus, definitely, is on turning it into a neighbourhood where you could walk to the grocery store, walk to the café, walk home or walk to work and it’s all within easy reach,” says Ollenberger.
For many who have witnessed years of crime and neglect in the neighbourhood, the plan is long overdue. The area has languished for decades, physically cut off from the rest of downtown by city hall, and past plans to revitalize the area have fallen through. For residents and businesses, this plan is already different, as construction is well under way. “They need to get more residents in the area,” says Jason Wong, manager of the Hostelling International hostel in the East Village. “More people in this neighbourhood, more businesses — I think that would help a lot.… I think [the plan] will work.”
But one neighbour who’s responsible for housing many of the East Village’s current residents isn’t impressed. The Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre is surrounded by construction, and shelter boss Dermot Baldwin says the city is trying to squeeze out the shelter and bully homeless people into leaving the area. The plan’s 31-page summary makes no mention of homeless people. “They’ve ghettoized us and they’re gentrifying the downtown at our expense,” says Baldwin.
The Drop-In Centre is taking CMLC to court September 30, seeking an injunction so it can get better road access to its facility. “All we’ve got is a little poorly marked gravel laneway that’s not wide enough for two vehicles,” says Baldwin. He says the permanent roadway being proposed is worse than the temporary gravel one. “We’re saying, ‘Widen the roadway and give us a little bit of safety and give us a cul-de-sac where vehicles can turn around once they get here.’ They’re saying ‘No.’”
Another East Village shelter, the Salvation Army Centre of Hope, has a more positive view of the plan. “The East Village needs to be redeveloped,” says John Rook, the shelter’s CEO of community services. He’s also concerned about the effects of gentrification — it “usually drives folks like the ones we serve out” — but is hopeful that low-income housing can be interspersed into the new development. “We’d love to be a part of that.”
Ollenberger says both the Drop-In Centre and the Salvation Army Centre will be included in the new development. He points out that many social agencies are moving away from the “warehouse model” towards a “decentralization model” whereby services are scattered throughout the city. “It’s integrated into the community in a much lower scale, a much more acceptable level, so you don’t have these ghettoizations of congregated uses,” says Ollenberger.
The area’s alderman, Druh Farrell, also sees existing shelters fitting into the new development, so long as other social agencies keep out. “If we don’t add more social services into East Village, then I think we can transcend the existing problems,” says Farrell. “It’s a matter of creating some balance in population.”
Local architect Jeremy Sturgess says he likes what he’s seeing in the East Village so far — even though it’s drawn up by a U.K. company. “We could have done it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to have somebody else do it, as long as whoever’s doing it is doing something brilliant,” says Sturgess. “I like to think that long term if that keeps happening, there’s more work for us.”
Key points of the East Village master plan:
- “A compact, self-sustained community of residents”
- Built for “urban explorers — the passionate, thrill-seeking, environmentally conscious of Calgary”
- “A cluster of mixed-use activity, with music venues, shops, bars/lounges, a cinema and nearby specialty retail outlets”
- Includes an “informal pedestrian connector” that angles through the community, linking downtown with a new bridge that goes to Memorial Drive
- “Will be designed first for people and will also accommodate cars.”