Plan­ner walks the talk

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - New Condos - RICHARD WHITE

Afew months back, I par­tic­i­pated in a walk­ing tour of Cal­gary’s in­ner-city Belt­line area.

I was joined by mem­bers of the Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment In­sti­tute’s Ur­ban Den­si­fi­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, as well as two Cen­tre City plan­ners from the City of Cal­gary. It was en­light­en­ing to get their in­sid­ers’ look at the suc­cesses, fail­ures and frus­tra­tions of the fi­nanc­ing, plan­ning, ap­proval and mar­ket­ing of con­dos projects in the area dur­ing the past 10 years.

Lo­cated im­me­di­ately south of down­town and named for a for­mer street­car route, the Belt­line in­cludes some of Cal­gary’s old­est com­mu­ni­ties, such as Con­naught and Vic­to­ria Park.

Dur­ing the tour, I got the dirt, so to speak, from both sides — the city and the condo in­dus­try.

The best line I heard that day came from new City of Cal­gary plan­ner Joe Mueller, who jok­ingly said: “Plan­ners want to solve the world’s prob­lems; the prob­lem is, it’s only plan­ners who have a prob­lem with the world the way it is!”

I im­me­di­ately thought; “Did I hear that right?”

I asked him to re­peat what he just said and yes, I heard him right. I took an im­me­di­ately lik­ing to this guy and wanted to get to know him bet­ter. A few calls and emails later, I set up a meet­ing with him to get his thoughts on ur­ban plan­ning and Cal­gary.

I am al­ways keen to hear what new­bies — Mueller has only been with the City of Cal­gary since July — think of the city,

Such peo­ple of­ten see it with fresh eyes and an un­tainted per­spec­tive. If I wait too long, I risk them hav­ing be­come ei­ther cyn­ics or cheer­lead­ers.

I warned Mueller I was go­ing to pum­mel him with tough ques­tions like “What do you like best and least about Cal­gary? What sur­prised you about Cal­gary when you first ar­rived?”

But in the end, we just had an en­gag­ing chat about his back­ground in ur­ban plan­ning, his phi­los­o­phy and his ob­ser­va­tions about ur­ban plan­ning projects lo­cally and glob­ally.

Mueller was born in Ger­many, but grew up in Mis­sis­sauga. He re­turned to Ger­many to at­tend uni­ver­sity be­cause he was cu­ri­ous about what it would be like to live in Europe.

Fol­low­ing that, he joined Al­bert Speer and Part­ner, one of the largest and most renowned ur­ban plan­ning firms in the world.

From 2001 to 2008, he worked in Ger­many, Nige­ria, Mon­tene­gro, Egypt, Jor­dan and Saudi Ara­bia, work­ing on ev­ery­thing from growth strat­egy plans and water­front re­de­vel­op­ment to his­tor­i­cal precinct plans and trans­porta­tion in­te­gra­tion strate­gies.

Given Mueller’s role as a mem­ber of the City of Cal­gary’s Cen­tre City team, I was pleased he and his wife had de­cided to live in Rosedale close to down­town.

Though not ex­actly in the Cen­tre City area as de­fined by city of­fi­cials (from the Bow River to 17th Av­enue and from 14th Street S.W. to the El­bow River, in­clud­ing Stam­pede Park), Rosedale is cer­tainly an in­ner-city area by my def­i­ni­tion (and I think many oth­ers).

I would de­fine such ar­eas as all of the com­mu­ni­ties within 30 to 45 minute walk­ing dis­tance of the down­town core, or within about a five-kilo­me­tre ra­dius.

Call it a quirk of mine, but I have a hard time with in­di­vid­u­als who preach every­one should live in the in­ner city — while they, them­selves, live in the sub­urbs and drive down­town to work ev­ery day.

Mueller gets even more ku­dos from me as he walks or takes tran­sit to work ev­ery day. He is lit­er­ally walk­ing the talk.

I asked about his choice of Rosedale and was sur­prised at his re­sponse.

“We were tired of liv­ing in the con­fin­ing con­di­tions of high-den­sity down­town,” he said. “We’re at a phase in life where we wanted a lit­tle house and lit­tle yard — more per­sonal space.”

In Europe, his wife lived in Brus­sels while he lived in Frankfurt. One of them spent ev­ery week­end on a high-speed train.

“Af­ter over 20 years in Euro­pean apart­ments, we love the north side’s quiet, tree-lined streets and ac­cess to down­town and Kens­ing­ton,” he said.

“It is a quan­tum leap in hous­ing from what most peo­ple have in Europe. It is hu­man na­ture to want your own oa­sis.”

I was sur­prised to learn that in Europe, he had to walk five min­utes from his apart­ment to get to where he parked his car. Now he keeps his car in his own garage just be­hind his house.

Be­fore com­ing to Cal­gary, he had been warned “you will hate it there; Cal­gary has no ur­ban form — the tran­sit sys­tem sucks.”

So he was sur­prised to find a tran­sit sys­tem here that is “on par or bet­ter than many cities our size; it is clean, with good con­nec­tions be­tween the buses and trains.” He re­minded me that only very large cities have fre­quent tran­sit ser­vice in evenings and on week­ends.

He was also pleased to find Cal­gary has an ur­ban form that is evolv­ing nicely in Eau Claire and down­town, as well as along 17th Av­enue and in the De­sign District (along 10th and 11th Av­enues).

But he was most im­pressed with the nu­mer­ous pub­lic spa­ces, parks and open places that are avail­able to peo­ple liv­ing in our city.

Al­though his big­gest sur­prise was to find East Vil­lage ly­ing bar­ren, he sees huge po­ten­tial there.

The Cal­gary Muncipal Land Corp. is cur­rently un­der­tak­ing a mas­sive re­de­vel­op­ment of East Vil­lage, in­clud­ing up­grad­ing its streets and rais­ing the land above the flood plain.

In terms of ur­ban sprawl, yes, Cal­gary has plenty of it — but over­all, Mueller says he doesn’t un­der­stand why peo­ple are so crit­i­cal of Cal­gary.

“It is a lot bet­ter than most cities in North Amer­ica or Europe,” he says. “There are many cities in the world that do not pro­vide any­thing near Cal­gary’s qual­ity of life.”

He was in­trigued and pleased to learn the city was pur­su­ing tran­sitori­ented de­vel­op­ment and had re­cently com­pleted its Cen­tre City Plan.

The plan aims to cre­ate a liv­able, thriv­ing and car­ing Cen­tre City area, which is ex­pected to grow by more than 40,000 res­i­dents and more than 60,000 new em­ploy­ees by 2035.

While chat­ting about my con­cern that Cal­gary’s down­town suf­fers as a re­sult of too much den­sity for a win­ter city, my ears re­ally perked up when he men­tioned some cities have a “sky­scraper mas­ter plan.”

Th­ese help en­sure that tall land­mark build­ings have the space they need around them so that their ar­chi­tec­ture can be show­cased prop­erly, as well as min­i­miz­ing the neg­a­tive im­pact of shad­ows.

Maybe we need to add this to the action list in Cal­gary’s Cen­tre City Plan.

Dur­ing our dis­cus­sion, Mueller con­tin­ued to fire off great one­lin­ers like: “Never plan any­thing you’re not will­ing to live in your- self ” and “a lot of things look good on pa­per, but they don’t work in re­al­ity. It is im­por­tant as a plan­ner that we see be­yond the pretty pic­tures.”

But the one that par­tic­u­larly res­onated with me was: “As a plan­ner, I like to go to the su­per­mar­ket and take a look around at the peo­ple there. Those are my cus­tomers, not my peers.” Wow, this guy has got it right! Mueller sees a height­ened aware­ness by North Amer­i­cans dur­ing the past 20 years of the ben­e­fits of liv­ing in in­ner cities.

He be­lieves we have be­come more dis­cern­ing about the qual­ity of hous­ing we want to live in.

Peo­ple want ur­ban vil­lages with a mix­ture of uses — such as res­i­den­tial, of­fice, health and recre­ational — along with plenty of “ameni­ties such as parks, path­ways and open spa­ces within easy walk­ing and cycling dis­tance,” he says.

“Please, no more sin­gle-use, ster­ile mega-hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. Peo­ple to­day want lots of ar­chi­tec­tural di­ver­sity and charm.”

While dis­cussing the evo­lu­tion of cities, Joe re­minded me that es­tab­lished Euro­pean cities evolved be­cause of cer­tain con­straints, such as mo­bil­ity, se­cu­rity, tech­nol­ogy and ter­rain.

They also grew slowly over many cen­turies.

“Young cities like Cal­gary — or Riyadh in Sau­dia Ara­bia, where I have worked — don’t have the same con­straints and are there­fore evolv­ing dif­fer­ently,” he says. “This is the 21st cen­tury.”

For him, ur­ban plan­ning is about bal­anc­ing the need for den­sity and space for peo­ple of all ages and back­grounds.

He hopes he can use 20 years of global knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence to bring new in­sights on how to cap­i­tal­ize on the op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate a thriv­ing and ap­peal­ing ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment in our Cen­tre City.

I look for­ward to the out­comes of Mueller’s in­flu­ence on the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Cal­gary’s new Cen­tre City Plan dur­ing the next few years.



Cour­tesy, Richard White

A con­do­minium tower un­der constructi­on within Cal­gary.

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