A half-decade and $150-million after it launched an ambitious plan to rejuvenate the ugly eastern stretches of its downtown, Calgary sits on the cusp of an urban construction boom that planners hope will change the face of the sprawling Prairie city.
This weekend, hundreds of people walked through the newly opened doors of a $2.4-million "experience" centre designed to woo buyers to the civic amenities and condominiums that will soon sprout from the largely derelict spaces of Calgary's rough-hewn East Village.
By Sunday, roughly a third of the units had gone in Fuse and FIRST, the first two towers to conduct pre-sales for some 400 new units. They are the beginning. Over the course of the next 13 years, the city expects construction of 3,900 new condominium units. They will house some 11,000 people in a 20-hectare development of some of the city's choicest land, wedged between two rivers, the Calgary Stampede grounds and historic Fort Calgary.
It's not just a chance to do what few municipalities can: carefully plan a huge section of real estate that's walking distance from city hall. It is, instead, a chance at reinventing a city that has spent years letting its suburbs seize away the vibrancy of its downtown. Amid fast-paced growth, Calgary has for decades simply built outward to keep up. Now it's trying to build inward, reflecting the struggles of many cities around the world.
"It's a new chapter for Calgary – it's redefining the shape of the downtown core, the way we perceive living in downtown Calgary," said Susan Veres, a spokeswoman for Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC).
"It's unlike anything else, really, in Canada."
CMLC, a subsidiary of the city, was created in 2007, with the difficult challenge of kick-starting "Calgary's urban renewal." The logic was simple: plan major improvements, then fund them by borrowing against the future increases in tax revenue those changes will bring.
So far, it has spent $150-million to buy up land, upgrade roads and sidewalks, and draw up a master plan that calls for 30 per cent of the land to be turned into commercial and cultural structures. That includes 400,000 square feet of retail, a national music centre, a new central public library, a river-walk and public squares.
The remainder will become condos and townhouses. Two outside developers, Vancouver-based Embassy Bosa Inc. and Toronto's FRAM + Slokker, have plans for some $650-million in investments.
It is the first time FRAM – which has worked on major Ontario projects such as the Port Credit Village and Don Mills Centre – has built in Calgary. "It was just an incredible piece that you looked at it and, from an outside eye, said 'wow, this is a fantastic opportunity,'" said Elio Ciccotelli, FRAM's general manager for Calgary.
Bosa, meanwhile, sees shades of a West Coast landmark in the making.
"It's going to be just like the revival of Yaletown in Vancouver," said Bosa president Nat Bosa. He scoffs at the notion that Calgary, a city where the young flee to distant suburbs to buy houses, won't bite.
"Suburban sprawl is coming to an end in many places," he said. "People today want to be closer to the action."
That's not to say Calgary has become anything like Vancouver. In 2010 alone, the city built nearly 6,000 single-family homes, nearly double the entire new-unit count planned for East Village over more than a decade. An analysis by the city last year makes clear the staggering extent of flight from the downtown core: fully 99 per cent of Calgary's population growth in the past five years has happened in new suburbs.
Previous attempts at rejuvenating downtown have also failed. But John Lewis, a Calgary urban planner, said the city is doing a lot right with East Village, including the major investment in the public infrastructure that will draw people to the area.
"Calgary has a real chance to make it desirable" for investors and for future residents, he said.
But it must overcome deep stigmas attached to an area still widely considered "the wrong side of the tracks," Mr. Lewis said. "That's probably the biggest challenge, in my view, because that's the cloud that hangs over everything."