Creative approach vital for downtown
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.
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.
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.
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.