Proofing the Future: 9th Avenue Parkade + Innovation Centre, Calgary, Alberta

A new Calgary parkade is designed for conversion to other uses, envisaging a future where innovations in transportation will vastly reduce the need for conventional parking.

The parkade sits across from Calgary’s new central library (by Snøhetta with DIALOG) and adjacent the burgeoning East Village district.

PROJECT 9th Avenue Parkade + Innovation Centre, Calgary, Alberta

ARCHITECTS 5468796 Architecture in collaboration with Kasian Architecture, Interior Design and Planning

TEXT Trevor Boddy

PHOTOS James Brittain

On the long list of architectural virtues, “future proofing” is a particularly tricky one to pull off. Most fundamentally, which future is to be proofed? Is future proofing a mere hedging of bets, or one of the few ways to guarantee success in a constantly changing world? What is to be done when we lack certainty about the future? Because of climate change, the hypotheticals multiplied by hypotheses that are inevitable components of future proofing will become ever more important, particularly in large public constructions.

Calgary’s near-downtown East Village is home to Canada’s largest and most intriguing investigation of future proofing to date. Designed by the collaborative team of 5468796 Architecture and Kasian Architecture, Interior Design and Planning, this huge above-grade parking garage with room for 509 cars is conceived for a time—thought not-too-distant—when there will be diminished need (or no need at all) for its trays of automobile storage. This is a major public building with its own transformation built into every detail, a bulbous chrysalis containing the DNA of a lyrical butterfly that all hope will one day flutter out over the good green world.

Located in the heart of Calgary’s entertainment district, the new 509-car parkade serves immediate needs, but is also designed for conversion to residential and commercial uses as car use lessens in the future.

The short-term reasons for the $80-million Parkade and Platform Innovation Centre were real and urgent. The site along 9th Avenue S.E. is close to the major concert hall, theatres and galleries of Arts Commons, Calgary’s equivalent to Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles. It is just down the block from Snøhetta and DIALOG’s acclaimed Central Library (which has no parking at all), and nearby the museum of music, performance spaces and nightclubs of Allied Works and Kasian’s National Music Centre (also with no parking). The new residents and businesses of the East Village neighbourhood face parking mayhem when multiple events coincide, despite this entire zone and even individual buildings like the library being bisected by a LRT line.

The Parkade complex is the last facility that will ever be constructed by the Calgary Parking Authority. This quasi-civic agency had powers to collect fees from developers of downtown towers to construct more efficient and better located shared garages. When oil prices tanked in 2014, it was quickly evident that the city faced a serious glut of office space, which has only gotten worse since—meaning much reduced revenues to the Parking Authority. As a result, the Authority was wound down in 2021, with much of its remaining funds (which they were contractually bound to use to build parking and mobility facilities) dedicated to the Parkade site. The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), a successful agency that catalyzes private development with public investments throughout the East Village, was charged with overseeing the project.

Site Plan

A few years back, CMLC had worked with Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic of the leading-edge Winnipeg firm 5468796 on a modest pavilion-like shed for an East Village community garden. Impressed with the team’s dynamism and creative flair, demonstrated through their ingenious design on a limited budget, CMLC engaged them again for the Parkade project, adding the ballast of Kasian’s production and construction oversight expertise as architects of record. CMLC President and CEO Kate Thompson states that from the very beginning, “design excellence was one of our key goals—it was never to be a conventional garage, nor to look like one.” This is the largest building ever constructed by 5468796, and the trust these Winnipeggers received from the CMLC hearkens back to another, more generous era for Canadian architects under 50—when Erickson and Massey got to design SFU after solely crafting wooden houses, when Douglas Cardinal designed a university for Grande Prairie after a church, when Granville Island was Hotson Bakker’s first project, and when John Andrews was entrusted with a huge swath of Toronto rail-lands after a string of academic buildings.

An LRT running underneath the site required several stories of clear space above; as a result, the designers hoisted the midsection of the project atop trusses and ramped up through its first two storeys.

Hurme and Radulovic found a way to accommodate the garage that also left valuable sites for the CMLC to sell for development at either end of the parkade when the boom returns, as it surely will. This is future proofing of a financial sort—no surprise given Hurme’s experience as Chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. However, that ideal placement was crossed by a curving underground LRT alignment, one that required several storeys of overhead clear span above it: what Thompson describes as “a complicated piece of land.” This necessitated huge trusses at mid-project, and a ramp up through the first two storeys. Those two floors are allocated to CMLC’s development partner, the Platform Innovation Centre, which is an incubator for start-ups and workshops—an investment in fostering a Calgary economy beyond oil and gas. With a site strategy and program set, the future proofing ambition now needed to pass from good intentions to the crafting of building details that would ensure long-term flexibility.

Vertical pipes are splayed to create a shroud-like canopy wrapping the building that lifts at the entrance to the Innovation Centre.

Polyvalent Details

Achieving future proofing meant that 5468796 and Kasian had to consider many key building details according to two different criteria—as an efficient parking structure, as well as for partial or complete conversion to housing, offices or light industrial workshops. Design is difficult enough for large public buildings, but simultaneously achieving both initial and end-goal functionality required the kind of creative thinking that is 5468796’s hallmark.

Most architects recognize the huge concentration of embodied energy in concrete structures, and aim to adaptively reuse them when possible, but parking garages aren’t readily converted to other uses. The biggest impediment to the reuse of parking garages is their sloping floors, with spiral ramps being particularly difficult to adapt, and very expensive to demolish. In addition, the large floorplates of parking structures mean a lot of area far from perimeters and potential windows—making them hard to convert into inhabited spaces, such as offices or housing.

A long atrium at the centre of the building helps to break up the floorplate, providing access to natural light for future workplaces and residences that will replace the parking stalls.

5468796 and Kasian’s solution for this is to run an open-to-above atrium along almost the whole length of the site. This creates shallow flanking floor plates only 40 feet wide, with the additional benefit of increased penetration of daylighting into parking areas. The bright, open sense of the Parkade makes it an unusually pleasant place to park, whether you’re driving a Pontiac or a Porsche.

Early sketches and diagrams showed that the block-long project would allow for parking floors with two-way traffic winding all the way to the top on slopes of only 1%-2%, without internal ramps. Hurme and Radulovic determined that office and workshop uses to come could readily tolerate slopes of this order. Any future housing would require new wood-framed floors, which could be designed for flatness. The only ramp in this huge parkade runs from its entrance at 9th Avenue and 3rd Street S.E., up through the Innovation Centre floors to the first parking level. From this point on up, there is one continuous, gently sloping spiral circuit, with the heroic open atrium at its centre. This breakthrough idea so pleased Radolovic he nicknamed the project “the Cathedral of Cars,” and designed a logo for the complex based on a stylized “figure 8, the infinity symbol set upright,” derived from its overall floor plan. He then evolved an original font from these shapes, that has now been installed in wayfinding signage of his design.

Adding to future convertibility, floor-to-floor heights are higher than in most garages, allowing for amenity as living or working spaces. Recognizing that the shear walls typical of mid-rise concrete structures can limit flexibility, Radulovic explains that the Parkade instead “distributes lateral forces to wider columns, eliminating cross-bracing or shear walls that would impede convertibility.” Structural bearing capacity, elevators, stairwells and stand-pipes were sized to accommodate future light industrial, residential and commercial occupancies, minimizing the scope of work required in future. Bringing polyvalency down to the detail level, the parkade guard rails can be directly reused as future residential or commercial balcony rails, without further adaptation. “We believe in multi-functional uses that could serve across typologies,” says Radulovic. The design is such that conversion can start on any parking floor, and in any sequence top to bottom.

The continuous circuit is the reason that both ends of the Parkade are rounded, making the overall plan “pill-shaped,” in the words of the designers. The rounded ends have a radius sufficient to accommodate pie-shaped residential units—perhaps akin to the cylindrical disc of apartments on stilts in 5468796’s 62M project in Winnipeg (see CA, Nov 2018). Flexibility and inter-changeability are features of their Bloc 10 housing and many other projects, and the extensive diagrams of conversion options show their intellectual finesse in applying lessons from small projects to this, their largest. The rounded ends and super-scale of the project give it the appearance of an ocean liner, gleaming in the sharp Alberta sun.

On the exterior, the Parkade is ringed by aluminum pipes, hung vertically. At ground level, the pipes angle upwards around the car entrance at 3rd Street S.E., and form a shallower sine wave around the pedestrian entrance to the Innovation Centre. A surprisingly dynamic streetscape for passing cars and pedestrians results, the verticality and variation of the suspended tubes providing scale and continuity. True to their future proofing ethos, these sets of aluminum pipes (which the designers poetically name “the guard shroud”) can be readily recycled when uses of the building begin to change.

Concrete balls on the ground and mirrored spheres overhead help to direct motorists, while also doubling as public art.

Even more mysterious shiny objects are found inside. Mirrored half spheres, attached to the soffits of parking ceilings in their curving sections, qualified as public art, but also have the practical function of serving as warning mirrors for cars approaching round the corner (yet more polyvalency in details). Even more eccentric are knee-high precast concrete spheres anchored to the ground floor, which serve as traffic bollards. When I visited the site on a summer weekend, the landscape of spheres were welcome playscape elements for the skate-boarders and pick-up basketball players gathered there. Lively, diverse and light-filled, the Parkade feels like no other garage I have seen; 5468796 are Canada’s reigning champions of whimsy driven by practicality.

Similarly shiny is the 5468796-designed interior fit-up for the Innovation Centre, with its ingenious use of standard scaffold elements to form pitch theatres, stairs, meeting areas, amphitheatres and so on. The new technology firms, consultancies and fabricators who will use these spaces will have enormous flexibility to adapt them to their needs using this simple kit of parts. Radulovic compares the underlying ethos to the adaptable factory model of Carmen Corneil and Jeffrey Stinson’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University, rather than the over-determined elegance of NADAAA and Adamson Associates’ John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at One Spadina.

e interior of the Innovation Centre is furnished with meeting areas and amphitheatres made from scaffolding, allowing for reconfiguration as needed by the start-ups using the space.

The Price of Convertability

The designers opine that the Parkade needs to “last fifty years as a parkade, and another fifty after conversion.” Creating this flexibility with shallow floor plates, the inclusion of an atrium, high floor-to-floor heights, avoidance of perimeter beams and so on required a premium on building structure of about 25 percent, Radulovic says. As is the case for much new architectural thinking, there was pushback when it was revealed the Parkade would have some of the most expensive price-per-stall costs of any Calgary parking garage. That popular press critique is not really fair, as the Parkade has the programmatic complication of the Innovation Centre, the structural implications of the cross-site underground LRT line, and the commitment to easy conversion to multiple new uses.

Future proofing requires architects to be smart, flexible and unburdened by convention and ‘lookism.’ The Parkade demonstrates that it takes double the design energy and a bit more initial investment, but this should pay off with many times the flexibility to emerging needs. Few doubt that because buildings endure for decades or even centuries, architects have special duties to serve both current masters and long-term needs. As the era of sustainability fades into a more pro-active period of resilience, the ideas, diagrams and built experiments of the Parkade will be tested over the years to come. “We choose not to wear Green on our sleeves,” says Radulovic of this long-term approach, “but instead look for something new and practical.” It will take a long time to evaluate the practicality and value of the Parkade, but the richness of its ideas will make the wait worthwhile—and one day, we’ll have proof.

University of Calgary graduate Trevor Boddy FRAIC has just published the lead essay “Enclaves of Invention: Inside the Architecture of D’Arcy Jones” in a new book from Dalhousie Architectural Press.

CLIENT Calgary Municipal Land Corporation + Calgary Parking Authority | ARCHITECT TEAM 5468796—Emeil Alvarez, Pablo Batista, Ken Borton, Jordy Craddock, Eric Decumutan, Donna Evans, Ben Greenwood, Johanna Hurme, Jeff Kachkan, Stas Klaz, Lindsey Koepke, Kelsey McMahon, Colin Neufeld, Sasa Radulovic, Amanda Reis, Matthew Trendota, Shannon Wiebe. Kasian—Katherine Robinson, Joanne Sparkes, Tesfa Mulat, Fredrick Voo, Bart Otwinowski, Melody Zaleschuk | STRUCTURAL Entuitive | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Smith + Andersen | LANDSCAPE Scatliff Miller Murray | CIVIL Aplin Martin | SHROUD Heavy Industries | ACCESSIBILITY Level Playing Field | AREA 26,500 m2 Parkade + 4,650 m2 Innovation Centre | BUDGET $80 M | COMPLETION Winter 2022