The master-planned vision for Calgary’s East Village revitalization, launched in the mid-2000s, is becoming a living, breathing reality, now more than ever.
Alain Dupere has lived in East Village since 2011. He’s watching the transformation happen one day at a time, observing the changes while he walks to and from work. Dupere, who is also president of the East Village Neighbourhood Association, says that although the area is still under construction, its vibrancy is increasing as more buildings become move-in ready and amenities continue to pop up.
“It’s a great place to live and to visit. Anyone can use the amenities in our neighbourhood,” he said. “It’s becoming a destination for the greater Calgary (area) and beyond, and that’s a nice thing.”
Some might believe that the excitement around this developing community, and the desire to live and work there, are new phenomena. But according to Harry Sanders, Calgary’s former historian laureate, it’s not far off from the activities of the space over a century ago, when non-indigenous people first arrived in the area often referred to as the “birthplace of Calgary.”
A HISTORIC GATHERING PLACE
The arrival of European settlers in the late 1800s was, of course, not the beginning of the culturally robust community we call East Village today. For more than 12,000 years prior to European contact, the confluence of the Elbow and Bow rivers was a traditionally important gathering place for various indigenous peoples.
After the North-West Mounted Police established Fort Calgary in 1875, an adjacent settlement began to develop in present-day Inglewood. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) arrived in 1883, and in 1884, it subdivided the Townsite of Calgary on its own property into what is now downtown, Chinatown, Eau Claire and East Village.
Over the next two decades, the East Village grew rapidly. “It was a mixed-use area. There were the homes of working-class people, as well as business owners, managers and professionals,” said Sanders.
As time progressed into the mid-1900s, so did the people, and their homes and activities, including the evolving industries, commercial businesses, services and institutions. However, progression comes in different forms. For many reasons, by 1941, the City’s medical health officer deemed the neighbourhood a “skid row.”
“It was a mixed-use area. There were the homes of working-class people, as well as business owners, managers and professionals.” – Harry Sanders, local historian
“When Calgary was a comparatively new settlement,” W.H. Hill said at the time, “many of its homes were hastily and flimsily built.” He judged the remaining ones in this district and beyond to be “sorry sights” and wished them demolished.
Butcher shops, corner stores, hotels and mechanics employed many locals, but the district also became home to bootleggers and brothels. The community with so much potential eventually became a largely forgotten space, one many were afraid to venture into anymore. Between 1955 and 1965, its population dropped by more than 30 per cent.
The recent revitalization of the East Village was not the City’s first attempt. That was the Urban Renewal Project in the 1960s, which named the area Churchill Square.
“There was a cost-sharing arrangement between the City, the province and the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, along with big plans for functionally distinct zones – government services, institutional, residential and commercial,” said Sanders.
“Some of these manifestations came through and are still visible today, including two former school board office buildings, Bow Valley College, the former central library and the old police headquarters. But, for whatever reasons, the federal funding was withdrawn in 1969, so the project wasn’t completed.”
Another attempt to revitalize the area came in 1970, with the introduction of boutique shopping and the East Village moniker we know today, but it did little to change the area’s reputation. Finally, in 2005, the community was set to be rebranded as part of a broader area known as the Rivers District, which also encompassed the Stampede grounds and east Victoria Park. After the previous attempts at initiating change, this time things would be different.
REBUILDING AND RECONNECTING
In the mid-2000s, a group of municipal politicians, including Mayor Dave Bronconnier, recognized the importance and potential of the area. At the time, despite its location at the confluence of the two rivers and the beauty of its natural surroundings, the decades-long downfall of the community had continued.
“It wasn’t naturally attracting private development with all these social concerns,” said Jessa Morrison, senior manager of brand marketing with the Calgary Municipal Land Corp. (CMLC). “Utility upgrades were needed and not having effective connectors to the rest of the city was an issue.”
The redevelopment would be a massive project that would require raising the floodplain, upgrading the sewer system and constructing new streets, sidewalks and pathways to bring the neighbourhood to a functioning level. To attract private development, the infrastructure portion of the project required major investment.
“We’re seeing a kind of innovative and creative class, momentum-building people, who are attracted to this kind of community.” – Jessa Morrison, Calgary Municipal Land Corp.
“From a City level, putting a funding mechanism in place with a dedicated organization able to steward investment and development would kickstart the process,” said Morrison. “So, CMLC was born in 2007, with the City of Calgary as our sole shareholder. The organization operates as an independent, for-profit development organization. This allows us to be nimble, move and make decisions quickly.”
To transform the area into a space that could showcase its riches and the best of Calgary, CMLC conducted extensive planning. The small team of 20 worked with Broadway Malyan – an award-winning architecture, urbanism and design firm from the U.K. – to create a vision for the area, encapsulated in the East Village master plan.
“We had either beautiful heritage buildings that needed some TLC to be restored into great places, or empty parking lots and old buildings that basically needed to be demolished,” said Morrison. “That gave us a 49-acre clean slate to work with.”
The master plan included the framework for creating a vibrant, mixed-use urban village from the brownfield development. “Our differentiator is our master plan of amenities and our holistic approach to what people living here would need,” said Morrison. “This was anticipated prior to putting one shovel into the ground.”
The major piece of infrastructure for the project was the necessary connectors into other neighbourhoods and the commercial core. This included building a bridge to connect with Bridgeland and the Memorial Drive pathway system. In addition, the Elbow River traverse was constructed to bring pedestrians and cyclists in and to connect the area with Inglewood. The team also built the Fourth Street S.E. underpass to connect East Village to east Victoria Park.
The land strategy program for East Village saw nearly all its available land sold to private developers – an impressive feat given the apathy with which these companies once regarded the area.
“We are working to support these developers to act and enable development as quickly as possible, while ensuring they can be successful,” said Morrison.
The East Village Experience & Sales Centre opened in 2012. The storytelling space includes a model of the neighbourhood vision and connects residents, and visitors, with the people making that vision a reality.
The centre showcases the way the developers of East Village work collaboratively. The revitalization’s original investors have sales centres on either side of the building – Bosa Development constructed the Evolution towers, called Fuse and Pulse, while FRAM + Slokker developed FIRST and Verve.
“We at FRAM + Slokker are proud of what we have accomplished together with CMLC and Bosa here in East Village,” said Deb Pedersen, director of sales for the company. “In a way, we feel we have combined our Toronto and U.S. experience and Bosa’s West Coast experience with CMLC’s local presence to accomplish the best of both worlds. Calgary should be proud of this world class redevelopment, I know we are.”
The community’s most recent condo project launch was N3 by Knightsbridge Homes. The car-free condo development with no parking sold out in months. “This brought a whole new offering and a more affordable entry point for people to move into the neighbourhood,” said Morrison.
In light of current market conditions, there are no condo launches in the pipeline just yet, but there are a limited number of new condos available in Verve.
“Although there aren’t any new project launches happening at this time, there’s always the resale market,” said Morrison. “Those who want to live in East Village should know there are still ways to attain that besides purchasing a new condo.”
CMLC hopes to see an opening for new construction in the next 12-18 months.
“With new investments announced for east Victoria Park and the future culture and entertainment district, it should really bode well for East Village to be the complementary residential community to that active entertainment space just south of us,” said Morrison.
A THRIVING COMMUNITY ONCE AGAIN
The beauty of living in East Village today includes two major components: the necessary conveniences to make downtown living practical and the cultural aspect of living in a community where there’s always something happening.
Morrison says the holistic-lifestyle piece of their design is really starting to show, and Dupere agrees.
“CMLC has done a great job with the master planning of this community, including the outdoor spaces and the walkability,” he said. “Everything planned into the area has been well thought out. People want to be in an area with lots of activity, where you can walk and go have a glass of wine without getting into your car.”
Among the amenities Dupere and his neighbours take advantage of are coffee shops, dry cleaners and bakeries. He added that the King Eddy – a restaurant, bar and music venue within the restored King Edward Hotel – is a great place to head for happy hour to get to know the neighbours.
One of the central pieces the neighbourhood still lacks is a grocery store. “Once we have that, I think we’ll pretty much have it all here,” said Dupere.
Slated to open in early 2020, a Loblaws City Market will be housed in 5th & Third – an urban, mixed-use retail space that will also include a Shoppers Drug Mart and other amenities.
Then there’s village retail. “These are the smaller, more boutique and curated offerings that are local in nature,” said Morrison.
The podiums of the condo buildings, and the village’s heritage buildings – including the Simmons Building – offer an eclectic range of spaces for all ages that move beyond the practicality of everyday necessities and create the character and fabric of the community.
While there are no commercial towers in the community master plan, commercial tenants are moving into some of the heritage buildings.
“We’re seeing a kind of innovative and creative class, momentum-building people, who are attracted to this kind of community,” said Morrison. “They have new ideas around how business can look and be conducted.”
THE FABRIC OF DOWNTOWN
East Village was redesigned to be an environment where people live, work and play. Some of the biggest attractions for residents and visitors have been the new Central Library and Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.
“The number of visitors we’re seeing to the library is unprecedented,” said Morrison. “We’re really proud to have them in our community.”
Studio Bell has also been a great fit. “That little corner on the southwest side of East Village is getting to be a pretty cool space that will be adjacent to the future cultural and entertainment district,” said Morrison.
Other draws to the community include abundant green space, stunning architecture and educational offerings.
The University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design will be the first tenants at the old central library location. CMLC will activate and manage this space, including its lab, workshop and gallery space. Morrison said Bow Valley College, with its diverse programs and accessibility for new Canadians, is also an important piece of the neighbourhood.
With the East Village’s revitalization well underway, CMLC isn’t content to rest on its laurels. Perhaps, this community redevelopment success story will be the catalyst for something much bigger.
“We can change the whole face of downtown and connect further into new opportunities in neighbourhoods east of Deerfoot Trail that have all these hidden gems,” said Morrison. “Also, to approach problems differently and build new, exciting communities that are sustainable and serve the future.
“Let’s not lose sight of the mavericks who built our city in the first place. Let’s be inspired by that and create great communities in the meantime.”