Calgarians will soon be subjected to constant construction in one of its oldest neighborhoods, Victoria Park. Civic politicians and planners are generally ecstatic about the changes, however, there are many critics who aren’t as optimistic.
Over the past four years city councillor Evan Woolley has been in charge of his ward which included Victoria Park on the northern edge of the Calgary Stampede grounds. However, October’s civic election shifted boundaries and Woolley was re-elected in a revised Ward 8 which no longer includes the Victoria Park community, but he remains a big supporter of the redevelopment of the downtown neighbourhood.
“Over the next number of years there will be over $150-million in infrastructure developments in Victoria Park,” says Woolley
Woolley explains that East Village, which is adjacent to Victoria Park, has already seen some great results from its ongoing redevelopment.
“East Village has been a massive success. If you go down there on the weekend and if you remember what East Village was like a decade ago it has come a long way,” comments Woolley.
The list of building projects in Victoria Park includes expansions to the convention centre, potentially a new arena to replace the Saddledome and rebuilding a new neighbourhood in East Victoria Park.
David Low is the executive director at the Victoria Park Business Improvement Area, which is a not-for-profit agency governed by a volunteer board of directors. This organization has worked with the Stampede board and the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation on developing the plans for Victoria Park.
When asked if he thinks Victoria Park will look similar to East Village, Low explained that the number of options available for Victoria Park actually exceeds the housing-only option that East Village had. “Under the land use bylaws the list of things you can technically do in East Village is a lot smaller than the list of things you can do in Vic Park,” comments Low.
He goes on to explain that East Village got started with a blank slate and a master plan, but Victoria Park has 120 years of buildings already present. The Victoria Park redevelopment is expected to have two broad components. The redevelopment of some of the existing residential buildings and the construction of new ones will be the first step. The second large element is the development of an entertainment business on and around the Stampede grounds.
“We have the challenge and opportunity of being the second oldest community in Calgary which is probably the most complicated land use district,” says Low. “If you were to ask me I would say we would be more akin to some neighbourhoods in New York, where they have very extreme mixed use and very high density.”
Plans to revitalize the neighbourhood date all the way back to 1997. In 2013, the Victoria Park improvement board started a policy document that detailed the planning goals and policies of the future redevelopment.
“Old buildings will be fixed and then wherever we have a fairly high inventory of vacant and underutilized places will be prime for high density commercial or residential development,” explains Low. “Almost all of downtown has been built out so there's not a lot of opportunities left. There are opportunities throughout the Beltline but the highest concentration is in Vic Park at this point in time.”
The improvement board doesn’t have a lot of control over types of housing in Victoria Park, but they will be advocating for more family type homes rather than ones geared towards single couples.
“It’s challenging because in Alberta you can’t force a developer to build a certain type of house so it is literally a 100 per cent market driven thing,” says Low. “What you can do though, is help shift and change the policies around the land use bylaw.”
This means that if a developer wants to build something in Victoria Park there will be parameters on what they are able to build. Low explains that because of the high density, it’s expected to see high-rise and mid-rise apartments. Low says that the Victoria Park improvement board is also excited to see the Stampede’s plans around their youth campus and potential entertainment area.
Warren Connell, the CEO of the Calgary Stampede, explains that the Stampede festival will continue to grow and become more relevant to the community. The Stampede board wants the site to become more intensified and more of a gathering place 365 days a year, and not just during the annual Calgary Stampede each July.
“The master plan is really focused on us building out a youth campus, which hosts not just our programs like the young Canadians and Stampede band and so on, but also the Calgary Arts Academy,” says Connell.
They will also be doubling the BMO Centre’s exhibition space, putting it under 1-million square feet. “I think it is important to know that the BMO Centre basically changes economic diversity, and the BMO centre will actually put Calgary up into the tier one convention market which will attract conventions from all over the world,” says Connell.
Low explains that there is an incredible opportunity to reconfigure and maximize space and create a genuine community and entertainment hub asset.
“Right now we're a fly over city. I mean that's just sort of the reality of our current infrastructure here,” says Low. “What they need to do moving forward with those calculations is ask if we invest 150-million dollars in Vic Park, what are we going to get in return in terms of future development. So if we put in an arena, for example, how many different hotels are we going to get? How many different retail things are we going to get? You’re planting the seeds now and hoping you are going to get more income in the future, which is what they did in Edmonton.”
Low explains local businesses that have grown up with the arena being there would still like to have the stadium in the neighborhood. Overall the improvement board prefers to have what makes the most sense. “To have a coherent master plan and integrated stadium entertainment facility that is close to mass transit and other amenities makes a lot more sense than having a park somewhere where there are no existing amenities, no mass transit and no other supporting or complementary uses,” says Low.
Beverly Sandalack, the associate dean of landscape and planning at the University of Calgary co-wrote a book with Andrei Nicolai called The Calgary Project: Urban Form/ Urban Life which examined Calgary’s history and urban design. She explains that Victoria Park was once a vibrant working class filled with houses and businesses.
“This urban renewal idea happened in the late 1960’s and it was this idea that anything that was old just got torn down,” says Sandalack. “Calgary did a lot of that and so East Village was torn down, Victoria Park was mostly torn down, and the housing that was on the Stampede grounds back then was torn down too.”
Sandalack thinks that it’s going to be hard making Victoria Park a vibrant community again. She explains that high-rise condos like the Guardian and Arriva do not get residents walking on the streets. “For one high-rise tower you could probably build six or seven mid-rise apartment buildings and have the same number of people, but you'd have more people on the street and you'd be filling out the blocks more,” she says. “So to me that kind of development model would be so much better.”
Sandalack believes that Victoria Park will become an entertainment and cultural district. “It's hard to convince people that it's going to be better because it takes so long once you tear everything down,” she says. “It's going to take a long time.”
However if the city continues to invest in more public realms like they did in East Village it will help bring more people in the community. Sandalack puts an importance on having a mix of uses. “If you're walking along and you get cold you can duck into a store, you can go and have coffee or something like that,” she explains. “But there's no way people are going to walk around the neighbourhood if it's surface parking lots and high-rises they can't get into.”
“Calgary's got a really good economy and so eventually it'll get redeveloped,” says Sandalack. “So it should happen in a way that is more mixed use and mixed height and mixed populations. Then, it'll be much more successful and resilient.”
Sandalack explains that Victoria Park is a special place and that she’s curious what will happen. “You know it's got the river, the railway, it is right between East Village and the Stampede grounds and the Beltline,” she says. “So that little pocket ultimately should be developed into something really good.”
There are some unresolved issues in the Victoria Park and Stampede area, including whether or not the Saddledome is to be replaced. Calgary Flames president Ken King has said the Flames are no longer interested in negotiating with the city over a new arena, while the city’s re-elected mayor, Naheed Nenshi, says city council is ready to talk whenever the Flames are. The arena issue aside, the Victoria Park improvement board is excited for what the future holds for Victoria Park.
“Despite what everyone is saying in the media and despite what the Flames are saying I believe we will see a world class entertainment district,” Low says. “I think that is going to be a game changer and seriously put us on par with all the top tier North American cities.”
- By Natalie Valleau