Building Bridges

Since its 19th-century beginnings, Calgary’s historic inner city community of Bridgeland/Riverside has always been closely knit. After the city’s General Hospital was completed in 1910, the community quickly became the centre of Calgary’s Italian community. The area can be characterized by small, well-kept homes with large vegetable gardens, a thriving street of European grocery stores, bakeries, and some of the city’s best Italian restaurants. The recent decision by the Province of Alberta to close and subsequently demolish the huge and venerable hospital sent a shockwave through the community which sharply divided its residents and spawned the growth of such groups as “Friends of the General” which fought hard to keep the facility initially, then later to retain the land for a future hospital. Their assertion was that hospital beds were being lost to the suburbs at a time when the inner city was beginning to be repopulated. The entire city and particularly the generations of residents born at the General were deeply affected by the loss of this historic jumble of buildings and turned out in the thousands to watch its spectacular implosion in October 1998.

The City of Calgary obtained title to the lands in exchange for an alternative hospital site in the southern suburbs, and has since embarked on one of the most ambitious and innovative inner city redevelopment projects to be seen in Canada. The site is a total of 14.9 hectares within an established community and is a short walk to the downtown core. The site is also serviced by a light rapid transit route and is bordered by the riverbank park and pathway system. The challenges and opportunities associated with the site entail making the best use of its resources and its many assets to provide for much needed downtown housing within an established, low-density neighbourhood. With local businesses drastically affected by the hospital closure, a huge hole where the old hospital once stood, and indications that new development residential property values had begun to soar–the neighbourhood was on an emotional and economic roller coaster.

In this context, the City of Calgary Planning Department in partnership with Corporate Properties, the City’s Land Development entity, embarked on a carefully constructed process led by a persistent and visionary Ward Alderman, Bob Hawkesworth and Susan Palmer, the patient Lead Planner on the project. Although there was no pre-established vision for the project, it was clear to the planners and to Calgary City Council that a rare opportunity for development existed. They had a responsibility to ensure the best possible outcome for both the community and the city. Their decision was to act on that responsibility and to consistently support what was to come. Even before the implosion of the old hospital, a Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) was established, composed of community representatives, residents of the city at-large, volunteer professionals and City staff members. Dedicated to a process of public involvement, this committee was completely immersed for three years in all aspects of the development of the Concept Plan. As one of the volunteer professionals on this committee I was involved in what became a journey of discovery for the team and for the community as we debated with them through presentations, open houses, surveys, co-design charrettes and bus tours–issues of sustainability, appropriate density, housing types, compatibility of uses, affordable housing and public space. These components involved a diverse group of opinions and contributed to the city’s first step out of its conventional planning framework. The second step out was the introduction of a national competition for the conceptual planning of the site. This represented a large shift, considering that this was a city government that has regularly viewed design competitions as too expensive and too time-consuming. The planners stirred things up again with the decision to include the community’s existing parklands within the developable site area. The baseball and soccer facilities were actively used as was the adjacent hall as a social venue. The park functioned well, although its location on the edge of the community was somewhat removed from the heart of things. The decision to include these lands increased the competition scope to allow for ideas about reorganizing the entire area beyond the provision of a few blocks of new housing. In the end, the competition received 17 submissions from across Canada and the U.S. The submissions were shortlisted to three: Urban Forum Associates of Vancouver led by Lance Berelowitz with Landscape Architect Greg Smallenberg, IBI Group of Calgary led by Steven Shawcross with Peter Calthorpe, and Sturgess Architecture with Keith Orlesky of Cooper Robertson & Partners and Edmonton-based Carlyle + Associates Landscape Architects.

The community association and the PAC debated the shortlisted schemes at length, often ending up at odds with the planners and particularly the City engineers who responded more to the efficiency of the schemes (extent of cut and fill required, total area of asphalt and curb, etc.) than to their innovation or aesthetic qualities. The successful scheme by Sturgess Architecture was deceptively simple in merely moving the park to the hospital site and locating the highest density housing units to the former park site. The obvious emotional and diplomatic power of replacing the beloved hospital with a memorial park was undeniable. The scheme also reallocated portions of the park lands (the requirement was to replace the existing park with exactly the same amount of land) to a plaza on the commercial street and to a number of small squares or “pocket parks” around which various blocks of housing would focus. This stirred up more controversy, this time with the Parks Department who did not want to be responsible for any park space that they could not program. In the end, the argument for maintaining the integrity of the winning scheme prevailed. Sturgess Architecture worked hard with the community to convince them of the ideas engendered in their plan. According to Jeremy Sturgess “…the national competition gave them recognition, and their inclusion in the selection process and subsequent participation with the design team ensured that they could influence the result. A careful strategy of precedent imagery and rationale explained why greater density than expected was necessary to establish the kind of retail street they wanted. Further images showed that with care, the density could bolster their existing community and establish a great place to live.” Based on the Concept Plan, architectural guidelines were written and further criteria were established to incorporate components of sustainable design and affordable housing in the new development.

As the landowner of the entire site, the City of Calgary had complete control of how the development would occur. An initial suggestion that the entire site be handed over to a single developer had been strongly objected to by both the PAC and the community as not conducive to a naturally diverse development that would be created by a number of players. At the same time, the City of Calgary had just been badly burned on another large multi-block inner city site called the East Village when a massive development deal with a single group fell through amid much finger-pointing. The result for the Bridges was the introduction of a very careful, transparent and competitive process to release the lands to qualified Developer/Architect teams in three phases. The breakdown would include eight individual building sites in the first phase, three in the second, and five in the third. No team would be awarded more than two sites in a single phase. Strict sales criteria and a no-nonsense selection process were employed involving a Fairness Advisor, an Internal Procedures Advisor, and a Legal Advisor. During design development, each selected team was required to meet on more than one occasion with both the community (now learned in the ways of urban design)
and with a separate design review panel including the City Project Manager, the Architect of the guidelines and the Landscape Architect. At this point, 47 offers to purchase were received and five teams were chosen to build the first eight sites.

The results of this attenuated process are now breaking ground. The central park and street improvements have been completed and construction has begun on the buildings of the first phase, between First Avenue and the park. Included are three-storey mixed-use buildings along the commercial street, two-storey homes above shops, and larger six-storey buildings with condominium apartments above townhouses overlooking the newly planted park and city skyline. While the projects are generally quite understated in their architectural representation, all of these developments are pushing the design and development standards of inner city multi-family construction in Calgary to a new level that has not been seen in the city before.

The Olive, by Sturgess Architecture with developer Homes by Avi, is a reworking of ideas explored before in the firm’s Connaught Gardens (see CA, Jan.1994), a highly regarded townhouse project. Three-storey live/work condominiums combined with two-storey units above commercial spaces surround a central courtyard to provide a “neighbourhood within a neighbourhood” idea of living. All of the units have street entries that encourage a lively pedestrian environment.

The Acqua,+,Vento, designed for two of the sites by Busby + Associates Architects’ Calgary office, proposes a more simple articulation of brick, cedar, and cement board. However, the project takes on a more aggressive approach to the environmental objectives of the project, typical of both Busby and his client, Windmill Development Group of Victoria. Designed to attain LEED gold certification, a first for Canadian residential developments, the project’s sustainable design initiatives include an enhanced building envelope design, storm water collection, grey water recycling, dual flush toilets, photovoltaics, and on-site shower facilities for vehicle-free commuters. According to Robert Drew of Busby + Associates: “What makes our project truly unique is that our focus has been on providing healthy indoor environments for the residents, shop owners and other users of the buildings. This is achieved primarily through the careful selection of interior finishes that will not release toxins into the air, and through the use of heat recovery ventilators that ensure that tempered clean air is always available.”

On General Plaza, a compact square is intended to create a focus for the revitalized commercial area. Jenkins & Associates Architects and Townscape Properties are building the Piazza, an Art Deco-themed row of shops with housing above that is reminiscent of South Beach in Florida but which doesn’t respond to the scale of the existing commercial buildings along First Avenue. Other projects rounding out the Italian-themed menu of the first phase include Bella Citt and Bella Lusso by Hywell Jones Architect with Bucci Developments of Vancouver, and Pontefino by Gibbs Gage Architects with Sandlewood Developments of Calgary. These developments are all four- to six-storey blocks to be finished in brick and stucco. Nonetheless, these buildings bordering the park are of a more appropriate scale to the open space that they frame.

The central park, designed by Edmonton’s Doug Carlyle is now in place and is Calgary’s most overtly designed landscape. More than a soccer pitch, it is a vast green terrace set at the midpoint between the upper and lower elevations of the site with a spectacular view of downtown. Its edges are defined by formal landscaped promenades with a variety of arbours, allees of flowering trees, and seating areas. A new community centre, also designed by Sturgess Architecture, will eventually anchor one corner of the park without obscuring views, its club facilities being nestled into the sloping landscape to provide arbour-shaded rooftop terraces at street level. Elsewhere in the park, a tall memorial wall, built of bricks from the former hospital, and a ramped pedestrian access from the upper to lower levels already acts as both a landmark and a magnet for vandalism by those who still haven’t given up on getting the hospital back. In its new location more central to the entire neighbourhood and eventually framed by the new housing, this park will function marvellously as the ‘living room” of the restored community.

Needless to say, this exhaustive process has taken many years longer than anyone predicted. The community’s patience has worn thin, but with many of the battles now over, they can now begin to sit back and reap the benefits of being active participants in what was overall a thoughtful and respectful process. The emphasis given to the importance of good design–of the community, of the buildings, and of the landscape–was unprecedented in Calgary and will set new standards for inner city redevelopment. The scale of the project was also unprecedented as was the degree of interaction between all players–right down to the architects of the eight different land parcels meeting to discuss their respective schemes to ensure that the overall design and streetscape objectives were being achieved. How often does that happen? The initiative to include environmental criteria and affordable housing objectives was clearly progressive, and has been carried through. The burgeoning success of this venture–for the units are already selling briskly–will put to rest the City of Calgary’s doubts about the length and inclusiveness of the process. The development industry, previously so firmly entrenched in suburban models, has embraced these ideas with enthusiasm and learned to respond to inner city needs, context, and process. Developers and architects will take this knowledge forward to influence and improve their future work.

Sturgess believes that the most remarkable thing about the process was “…the level of trust engendered by the alderman and planner, and embodied by the community. A community who desperately missed their former hospital was convinced, by a delicate process of respect and participatory democracy, that something greater for the community could occur on the site.” This was a new process for this city, and a voyage of discovery for all involved, not just the community itself. There was tremendous commitment on all sides toward the creation of something of significance, resulting in the stubborn tenacity necessary to see it through, and this level of participation and patience is being rewarded. The City of Calgary has lived up to its responsibility and has grown through the process. The community of Bridgeland/Riverside, having lost a vital part of itself, will be revived with a new self-confidence and a new heart.