Don't be surprised if the West Village lies dormant for another 20 years

Monday, January 20, 2020   /   by Sergey Korostensky

Don't be surprised if the West Village lies dormant for another 20 years

With no new Flames arena to spark development, questions remain about future of proposed urban village

Remember CalgaryNext? The Calgary Flames' proposal for a mega arena/stadium was pitched as a catalyst to clean up and revitalize downtown's west side.

The idea was ultimately rejected, but questions remain about this neglected piece of the city.

Does West Village just lie fallow for 25-plus years, like East Village did?

Do we really need to transform West Village into an urban village when we have several half-finished urban villages already?

And who's going to pay to clean up all the creosote-contaminated soil?

As it stands, the city is indemnified from any cleanup costs as long as it doesn't develop the site, according to Marcia Andreychuk, a planner with the city's real estate and development services department.

She described the status of the contamination as one of "containment/maintenance" and said "there are no specific redevelopment plans nor funding within the current four-year business plan (or beyond) to commence detailed planning work" with respect to the site.

So, in a nutshell, there will be no cleanup and no development for the next four years.

But that doesn't mean nothing is happening in the West Village area, more broadly.

Now is the time to start identifying and experimenting with different kinds of activities that might make sense for the future West Village.

Things are already happening

Some change is already underway in the area.

The Calgary Planetarium, for instance, is being converted by Contemporary Calgary into a public art gallery. The first phase, the renovation of the former kids museum into a 7,000-square-foot gallery, will be unveiled this month.

Contemporary Calgary has signed a 25-year lease with the City of Calgary and will be further transforming the building as part of a $92-million renovation and expansion.

The now city-owned former Greyhound building has had four temporary licences of occupation, all for filming. Andreychuk said several more are coming over the next seven months.

Could the Greyhound building become a temporary creative hub for a diversity of art endeavours? It would be synergistic with Contemporary Calgary and the nearby Pumphouse Theatre's programing. Perhaps a new cSpace — something more gritty than glitzy?

Reid Henry, who managed the redevelopment of the King Edward School into cSpace, reminded me how the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation partnered with Calgary Arts Development to successfully convert the former Billingsgate Building in East Village into an arts hub (studio and rehearsal space) for a couple of years.

He thinks the old Greyhound building, with its proximity to an LRT station and skateboard park, would be very attractive to creative individuals. He also thought it might work as a city centre farmer's market or perhaps an all-ages music venue.

New residential development is also underway.

11th Street S.W. developments

Calgary-based developer Cidex is moving forward with an ambitious three-tower project that will add 750 residents to downtown's west side.

It was designed by NORR's Calgary and Dubai offices, with world-renowned architect Yahya Jan leading the team. The first tower is set to be completed in 2020 and construction on the second tower has begun.

Located at the northeast corner of Ninth Avenue and 11th Street S.W., it is technically located in Downtown West. With 90,000 square feet of commercial space (for a grocery store, restaurants and fitness studios), it will create an important link between Downtown West and West Village.

In January, Cidex will also unveil 66 new homes in the funky HAT @ 7th residential building, next to the Downtown West/Kerby LRT Station, half a block from 11th Street S.W.  

Speaking of the Kerby Centre (located at the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 11th Street S.W.), the board there has been considering a move to another location for years. With the downturn in the economy, however, they are re-evaluating their options. The Kerby Centre leases its building from the province, along with the parking lots across the street. 

Built in 1948 as the original Mount Royal College, the site is ripe for redevelopment, says Kerby board chair Richard Parker, who believes it would be ideal as a downtown campus for the Alberta University of the Arts, given its location next to Contemporary Calgary and the LRT station. 

So while the West Village redevelopment is technically on hold, there are at least a few projects happening or being considered in the vicinity.

Parker thinks the catalyst for any future development of West Village will be the transformation of 11th Street S.W. into a more pedestrian-friendly link to the LRT Free Fare Zone and the Bow River. 

West Village Area Redevelopment Plan 

In 2010, long before CalgaryNext, city council approved an ambitious plan to redevelop West Village.

It has much in common with East Village's master plan, with its focus on creating robust public spaces, a pleasant pedestrian experience, connections to neighbouring communities (Sunalta, Downtown West and West Hillhurst) and a riverwalk.

Like East Village, it is divided into precincts — Gateway (east), Promenade (centre) and Pumphouse (west) — each with its own, unique character.  

Jessica Karpat was a planner with the city from 2005 to 2011, when the area redevelopment plan (ARP) was being crafted.

She says time has taken its toll on the viability of the plan.

"Unfortunately, the ARP is already 10 years old and will likely never be used as originally conceived," she said. "It will need significant amendments, prior to any development."

She believes the city will "need to reconsider the development opportunities in West Village, as a whole."

Do we really need West Village redevelopment? 

In addition to East Village, Calgary has several other master-planned urban communities at various stages of development, including the Rivers District, Currie, University District, and Greenwich/Trinity Hills, just to name a few.

As well, numerous inner-city communities are undergoing revitalization.

But there is only so much demand for new urban living over the next 20 years, and the addition of another major, master-planned community would no doubt cannibalize development in other parts of the city.  

East Village won't be fully built out until 2027 and the Rivers District (a.k.a. Victoria Park and Stampede Park) likely won't be finished until the late 2030s. The others won't be finished until the late 2020s to mid-2030s, depending on how Calgary adapts to the economic realities of the 21st century. 

And it should be remembered that East Village lay fallow for about 40 years before it was finally redeveloped.

The 1964 Downtown Plan called for the redevelopment of the downtown's east side, including Churchill Park, the name for East Village at the time. However, it wasn't until the early 1970s that three affordable housing projects for seniors were built in East Village: Kings Tower, Murdoch Manor and the Golden Age Club.

Then there was nothing for another 20 years, until two homeless shelters were added to East Village: The Drop-In Centre (the largest homeless shelter in North America) and the Salvation Army's Centre of Hope for homeless men. 

In the late 1990s, ambitious plans were developed to revitalize East Village as part of Calgary's Expo 2005 bid. When that bid failed, Mayor Al Duerr and alderman Bev Longstaff championed a controversial private-sector plan to redevelop East Village with highrise residential development. When they both retired in 2001, the plan was dropped.  

After that, the new mayor, Dave Bronconnier, and council member Druh Farrell championed a different vision for East Village. They worked with city administration to develop ideas and plans for several years, and then, in 2007, worked with their council colleagues and the province to establish one of Canada's first community revitalization levies (CRL) — a planning tool that allows municipalities to borrow against future property tax revenues to help pay for infrastructure and spur new development in a specific area.

An arm's-length entity, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), was created to develop East Village.

The East Village Master Plan was approved in 2009 after significant community consultation. Luckily, 2009 was a time of economic prosperity and optimism for Calgary, and a renaissance in urban living across North America. 

All told, it took more than 40 years for the stars to align for the East Village redevelopment.

"I think many people forget how long it took for the right pieces to fall into place," said Chris Ollenberger, the founding president and CEO of CMLC.

While West Village has many of the same elements as East Village, Ollenberger is not sure the right conditions exist for a similar undertaking on that side of downtown.

"I don't think there is the political or fiscal will to create another CRL given the current economic climate, nor to address the creosote contamination and the current heavy use of Bow Trail for vehicle movement," he said.

"East Village didn't have these constraints, which must be resolved before West Village redevelopment can happen." 

Ollenberger added: "Some people may lament West Village isn't being as actively pursued as the Rivers District, but I think that is smart for our city. We need to let East Village and East Victoria Park play out. West Village will be there when we need it, and we will need it someday. But not today."

And about that name.…

So it shouldn't surprise anyone if West Village lies dormant for at least another 20 years.

Perhaps we can use that time to come up with a better name for the community. The West Village Area Redevelopment Plan states the name is "a working title until a study can determine the most appropriate title for this key urban area."

I have always liked the name "Mewata," as it pays homage to the community's history. Before Mewata Armoury was built in 1916, the area was already called Mewata Park (named by Rev. John McDougall in 1906).

Mewata is a Cree word meaning "to be happy," "pleasant place" or "be joyful." I'm not sure how the Blackfoot Nation would feel about the name, but who wouldn't want to live, work and play in a "happy, pleasant, joyful place?" 

Maybe by 2050, we will see Mewata Village realized.