Cre­ative ap­proach vi­tal for down­town

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Sonny Tomic first ar­rived in Cal­gary in 2003 from Hamil­ton, Ont. — my home­town — and was im­pressed by the ur­ban devel­op­ment ac­tiv­ity tak­ing place here com­pared to Steel­town.

This was much the same im­pres­sion I had in 1981 when I first vis­ited Cal­gary.

Af­ter a short stint in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emi­rates from 2008 to 2011, he re­turned to take on the chal­leng­ing role as the Cen­tre City man­ager of plan­ning for city hall.

Cen­tre City is the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s name for an area that in­cludes Cal­gary’s core — ev­ery­thing from East Vil­lage and Stam­pede Park to Eau Claire and Chi­na­town and the West End. I thought it would be good to touch base with him to get his per­spec­tive on what has hap­pened in Cal­gary dur­ing the past 10 years.

How does Cal­gary com­pare to Abu Dhabi? And what can we ex­pect to see hap­pen over the next 10 years?

It quickly be­came clear Tomic’s true pas­sion is for the “pub­lic realm” — in other words, how streets, side­walks, plazas, parks and other pub­lic spa­ces work to­gether to make ur­ban liv­ing at­trac­tive.

He oozed en­thu­si­asm.

Cal­gary 2003

to 2013

In Tomic’s view, our Cen­tre City has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past 10 years, es­pe­cially when it comes to our sense of ur­ban de­sign.

He points to the Peace Bridge, River Walk and the 4th Street Un­der­pass as ex­am­ples of good ur­ban de­sign that would eas­ily stand up to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards.

He also noted our new ar­chi­tec­ture. The Bow, Eight Av­enue Place and Jamieson of­fice tow­ers com­pare well with what he has seen in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Tomic also cites the re­design of 7th Av­enue, the Core shop­ping cen­tre and Devo­nian Gar­dens Tomic as ev­i­dence the city has kicked up its ur­ban de­sign a notch or two.

Cal­gary is now see­ing good mixed-use projects such as Key­note — with its of­fice tower, two condo tow­ers and Sunterra Mar­ket at street level — and the com­ple­tion of Me­mo­rial Park with its foun­tains, restau­rant and seat­ing ar­eas. Such projects should in­spire good ur­ban de­sign.

The city’s new com­mit­ment to pub­lic art has re­sulted in numer­ous new art­works that en­hance the pub­lic realm.

This is partly due to the re­quire­ment that all of the city’s cap­i­tal projects have one per cent of their bud­get set aside for pub­lic art.

The city’s bonus den­sity pro­gram also en­cour­ages de­vel­op­ers to set aside por­tions of their projects for pub­lic art in re­turn for ex­tra den­sity.

Even condo de­vel­op­ers are adding sig­na­ture art­works to their projects, says Tomic. For ex­am­ple, Mark on 10th will have Al­berta’s first largescale com­mis­sion by Cana­dian artist/ nov­el­ist Dou­glas Cou­p­land.

Cal­gary vs. Abu Dhabi

Upon ar­riv­ing in Abu Dhabi, Tomic was im­me­di­ately struck by the many sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two cities.

Both con­tain slightly more than one mil­lion peo­ple. Both are ma­jor cor­po­rate head­quar­ters for en­ergy com­pa­nies.

Both have ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, with Abu Dhabi in a hot desert cli­mate and Cal­gary in a cold tem­per­ate cli­mate.

Both have a sim­i­lar scale of build­ings, with most of the new of­fice tow­ers in the 50- to 60-floor range. Both are also grap­pling with growth and their in­creas­ing role on the world stage, says Tomic.

How­ever, there are tremen­dous dif­fer­ences be­tween the two cities, too — the big­gest be­ing Abu Dhabi is not a democ­racy.

Tomic quickly learned “how slow and costly democ­racy is.” He es­ti­mated that things hap­pen 2.7 times faster in Abu Dhabi than in Cal­gary.

There is no pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion; things get done based on the vi­sion of the Crown Prince.

“Abu Dhabi is the Hol­ly­wood of ar­chi­tects,” he says.

While Cal­gary talks about be­ing a ma­jor cul­tural cen­ter, our new cul­tural projects — new Cen­tral Li­brary, Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre, new/ren­o­vated Glen­bow Mu­seum, Civic Art Gallery and ren­o­va­tions to the Ep­cor Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre — move for­ward at a “snail­like” pace and have minute bud­gets, says Tomic.

Abu Dhabi is cur­rently work­ing on a $27-bil­lion US Grand Cul­tural Vi­sion, which is equiv­a­lent in price to about 20 Bow Tow­ers.

The vi­sion calls for an out­post of the world­fa­mous Lou­vre Musuem in Paris de­signed by French Jean Nou­vel, which is set to open in 2015.

An­other project in the works is the Na­tional Mu­seum by worl­drenowned Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Norman Fos­ter that is to be com­pleted in 2016 (al­ready com­pleted is the UAE Pavil­ion, which is also by Fos­ter).

Join­ing its coun­ter­parts in Spain and New York, a Guggen­heim Mu­seum by Cana­dian-U.S. ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry is to open in 2017, while a Mar­itime Mu­seum by Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Tadao Ando and a Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre by IraqiBri­tish ar­chi­tect Zaha Ha­did are both in the de­sign phase.

While we talk about trans­form­ing the Stam­pede grounds into a ma­jor 21st-cen­tury, year-round en­ter­tain­ment cen­tre with a new arena, Abu Dhabi has built Fer­rari World, which was de­signed by Benoy Ar­chi­tects. It’s the largest in­door amuse­ment park in the world.

It is all part of the multi-bil­lion­dol­lar Yas Is­land project, which is de­signed to trans­form Abu Dhabi into an in­ter­na­tional tourist des­ti­na­tion.

C MFor other Richard White col­umns, visit our web­site un­der the head­ing: ‘More News and Views.’

In to­day’s world of city build­ing, it is all about multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ments, not multi-mil­lion-dol­lar ones.

Tomic and I talked about the im­por­tance of trav­el­ling and see­ing what is hap­pen­ing else­where to fully ap­pre­ci­ate how small Cal­gary is in the big pic­ture.

Cal­gary 2013 to 2023

When asked what Cal­gar­i­ans could ex­pect to hap­pen in our City Cen­tre dur­ing the next 10 years, Tomic couldn’t hold back his ex­cite­ment.

“The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween 2003 and 2013 is there is now tremen­dous sup­port from coun­cil, ad­min­is­tra­tion, the pri­vate sec­tor and the pub­lic for en­hanced ur­ban de­sign and pub­lic realm,” he says. “That didn’t ex­ist in 2003.”

He spoke of how the con­struc­tion of the Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre and new Cen­tral Li­brary in East Vil­lage will make the re­ju­ve­nated area a true ur­ban vil­lage, of­fer­ing a di­ver­sity of things to see and do.

He pointed out how good ur­ban devel­op­ment is more than just con­dos and of­fice build­ings. He is work­ing on how to change the lobby of the Mu­nic­i­pal Build­ing to con­nect the Down­town por­tion of City Cen­tre with East Vil­lage — and how the new Hil­ton Ho­tel will add an­other di­men- sion to East Vil­lage.

Tomic was also ex­cited about de­vel­op­ing a Civic District Plan, which he hopes will be a cat­a­lyst for the evo­lu­tion of the Olympic Plaza Cul­tural District into a more vi­brant pub­lic space.

He loves Ep­cor Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre’s plans for re­de­vel­op­ment, which in­volve Bing Tom Ar­chi­tects of Van­cou­ver. He also ex­pressed his in­tent to use his in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions to con­tinue to in­vite de­sign­ers from around the world to add spec­ta­cle to our pub­lic realm.

Tomic was im­pressed with the con­tri­bu­tion in­ter­na­tional de­sign­ers have made over the past five years by The Bow and Eight Av­enue Place build­ings, along with the Peace and St. Pa­trick’s Is­land bridges, and pub­lic art such as The Bow’s Won­der­land wire sculp­ture by Span­ish artist Jaume Plensa.

He feels strongly it is im­por­tant to en­cour­age a mix of lo­cal, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional de­sign­ers.

He is pleased with plans to link the Belt­line with the Down­town of­fice core via ren­o­vated un­der­passes fea­tur­ing pub­lic art. Tomic is con­fi­dent that plans for the First Street Un­der­pass by Marc Boutin, one of Cal­gary’s in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed ar­chi­tects, will set a new bench­mark for fu­ture un­der­passes.

Tomic re­minded me of the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of First Street. As the only street in Cal­gary that links the Bow River and the El­bow River, it is the only road in the 1914 Maw­son Plan that was built.

Hired by the city, Bri­tish land­scape ar­chi­tect and town plan­ner Thomas Maw­son came up with a never-im­ple­mented vi­sion of a neo­clas­si­cal city re­sem­bling those of the great cities of Europe. His plan in­cluded cen­tral parks, boat­ing bays and grand civic plazas. But its enor­mous cost and the on­set of the First World War scut­tled the project.

First Street in­cludes a won­der­ful col­lec­tion of sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal build­ings, such as St. Mary’s Cathe­dral, The Bay, The Fair­mont Pal­liser Ho­tel, Al­berta Ho­tel, Grain Ex­change Build­ing, Bank of Mon­treal and Grand The­atre.

“When I stand at the cor­ner of 9th Av­enue and First Street, I feel like I am in Paris,” says Tomic.

He also gave me a heads up that big de­vel­op­ments are in the works for many of the park­ing lots in Eau Claire. He is also work­ing on guide­lines to al­low larger for­mat re­tail­ers to move into the Cen­tre City.

I asked if we could see a Tar­get, Cana­dian Tire, WalMart and/or Costco in the next 10 years. He he just winked.

Tomic also spoke of the trans­for­ma­tion of 7th Av­enue dur­ing the next decade, with Brook­field’s re­de­vel­op­ment of the old Her­ald build­ing block as just the be­gin­ning.

The cur­rent li­brary site will also get re­de­vel­oped, as will First Cana­dian Place across from the Core/Devo­nian Gar­dens. Also look for plans for a new build­ing on the west end of Cen­tury Gar­dens.

Tomic is work­ing on pre­lim­i­nary plans to al­low for more signs and colour along 7th Av­enue; the new LRT sta­tions have al­ready used neon colour to make the sta­tions more at­trac­tive at night. I’d love to see it be­come a Neon District.

While at Trepanier Baer Gallery look­ing at Fred Her­zog’s pho­to­graphs of Van­cou­ver’s streets in the ’50s and ’60s, it re­cently struck me that part of the charm of the down­town streets was the clut­ter and colour of all the signs.

If we want peo­ple to visit or stay down­town, we are go­ing to have to an­i­mate the streets. We are go­ing have to get rid of the banks and cor­po­rate lob­bies at street level and re­place them with fun en­ter­tain­ment ac­tiv­i­ties.

Last word

I couldn’t re­sist ask­ing Tomic the fol­low­ing ques­tion: “Why doesn’t the Cen­tre City Plan in­clude the com­mu­ni­ties on the north side of the Bow River?”

He didn’t have an an­swer. In­ter­est­ingly, I asked this ques­tion to former Cen­tre City man­ager Brent Toderain in 2007 when the bound­aries for the area were first be­ing drawn up. He didn’t have an an­swer, ei­ther.

If this were Paris, then West Hill­hurst, Hill­hurst, Sun­ny­side, Rosedale, Cres­cent Heights and Bridge­land/River­side would all be Left Bank com­mu­ni­ties or ar­rondisse­ments and very much part of Cen­tre City.

If we are look­ing at cre­at­ing a vi­brant Cen­tre City, the first thing we have to do look at is ex­pand­ing its bound­aries to in­clude all of the com­mu­ni­ties within walking dis­tance of the down­town core.

Kens­ing­ton, SAIT Polytech­nic, Al­berta Col­lege of De­sign and Art, Cen­tre Street and Ed­mon­ton Trail are each im­por­tant el­e­ments of our Cen­tre City — or at least they should be.

Pho­tos, Cal­gary Her­ald/files

An artist’s view of the $135-mil­lion Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre as seen at night within Cal­gary.

The 1914 Maw­son Plan, above, would have seen Cal­gary re­mod­elled into some­thing like a Euro­pean cap­i­tal such as Paris.

The Peace Bridge is among sev­eral projects re­mak­ing Cal­gary.

The his­toric Grand The­atre on First Street S.W. The road is the only one im­ple­mented from the plan, says colum­nist Richard White.

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