Calgary at a Crossroads

This story was originally published March 1.

It's kind of just accepted now. The Eau Claire Market failed. It failed to accomplish what it was supposed to do — create a vibrant neighbourhood hub.

Now, neighbourhoods don't just happen. Well, not here in Calgary anyway. They're planned.

A lot of thought went into the original market. It was going to be the jewel in Calgary's crown ... what with being on the banks of the Bow River, just off Prince's Island park, on the path system, and in the heart of the city.

And then it all went wrong.

The associate dean of the University of Calgary's faculty of environmental design, Bev Sandalack, says some of the reasons are historical stigma, and design.

The core of the core

Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Co.

Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Co., 1886 (Glenbow Museum)

Eau Claire became a 'place' around 1886, when a lumber company set up sawmills on the river. It was a company that had transplanted itself from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

The area also became home to one of the first power plants in the city, lighting up Calgary's early streets. So, the neighbourhood was dominated by unsightly shacks and mills. Not exactly a 'must visit' garden spot.

Until one man had a vision.

In 1912 the famed English town planner Thomas Hayton Mawson came to Calgary and delivered a speech extolling the virtues of our bustling prairie city.

Thomas Hayton Mawson

Well known English town planner Thomas Hayton Mawson has a vision with a price tag. (

Folks liked so much what he had to say about how great our city could be that in 1913, they hired him to whip up a grand design for a Calgary of a million souls. At the centre of it was a vision of Eau Claire, as the heart of the city. Wide avenues, majestic buildings, the height of European sophistication.

Calgarians took one look at the price tag for this world-class vision — and balked. Instead, we built bus barns.

Calgary bus barns, 1985

Calgary bus barns, 1985. (Glenbow Museum)

By the 1960s, the Eau Claire area was deemed to be in need of "urban renewal." That's city planner code for, 'Wow. Ugly. We've gotta fix this.' So the barns were knocked down.

"That whole area was razed. People were relocated to other parts of the city and it really took on a kind of blight so it was decades that it sat there with surface parking and really run-down, shabby areas," says Sandalack.

The empty lots and the streets next to them gained a reputation for prostitution. And desolation. For most Calgarians, Eau Claire was a place to avoid.

Another 'fix' was in order.

Festival market failure

It was the early 1990s. And the 'festival market' concept gained traction.

The market would have produce sold from the tailgates of farmers' pick-ups on weekends. It was supposed to be a Granville Island-style place. Or harken back to the days of the Calgary Public Market (Yes. We actually had one once. Until it burned to the ground in 1954.)

Calgary Public Market, 1922

Calgary had a covered public market until it burned to the ground in 1954. (Glenbow Museum)

Eau Claire was going to spark a wave of re-development for downtown Calgary. It was going to bring people and businesses to a long-neglected section of the core. It was going to be cool.

The $43-million market opened to fanfare in the summer of 1993. At first, it was the kind of 'hip and trendy' it was supposed to be. But then, the complaints began.

'It was sterile.' 'It wasn't a destination.' 'Vitality was actually kinda dull.' Calgarians voted on Eau Claire with their feet. And stayed away in droves. The fresh food stands began to dwindle. Stores moved out. A constant rotation of businesses and 'for lease' signs followed.

Eau Claire Market, Calgary

Even as the neighbourhood became much more desirable — the Riverwalk, the fancy condos — the Eau Claire market building itself has just never lived up to expectations. (Google Maps)

Today a number of businesses and the movie theatre remain but ...

Even as the neighbourhood became much more desirable — the Riverwalk, the fancy condos — the Eau Claire market building itself has just never lived up to expectations.

Sandalack says the physical design worked against itself.

"It kind of faces the wrong direction and it doesn't make that connection with the downtown through Barclay Mall. You really have to walk around the building to even get a sense that there is that market space," she said.

Eau Claire Market, Calgary

The lack of a Plus 15 connection cut off Eau Claire from downtown office workers. (Google Maps)

Also, the plaza spills out of the north side of the building and doesn't integrate well with the indoor space. It's covered in shadows cast by the market. And because there's a road running through it, the area where children play in the splash pool and playground feels cut off from the building.

"Eau Claire market failed because it was ahead of its time," says Richard White, who writes about Calgary's urban design. "It was on the leading edge of urban entertainment retail and mega-cineplex complexes in the early '90s. (But) it did not have the critical mass of 500,000 square feet of space needed to be an entertainment destination."

White also says the lack of a Plus 15 connection cut off Eau Claire from downtown office workers.

Then there's what's inside the market.

Lacked focus

Before he was mayor, Naheed Nenshi was a retail consultant.

He recalls sending a letter to the then-owners of the market, offering his ideas of what was wrong with Eau Claire.

He says the market just never solidified itself in the public's mind as a 'must visit' destination, primarily because it lacked focus.

Eau Claire Market, Calgary

Naheed Nenshi, a former retail consultant, says the market just never solidified itself in the public's mind as a 'must visit' destination, primarily because it lacked focus. (ADL Electric)

"They could have had for example clear focus as a super high-end fashion destination which at that time we didn't really have in Calgary," says Nenshi.

"They could have had clear focus as a neighbourhood mall — think North Hill Mall — where you've got your neighbourhood services, your pharmacy, your grocery store, your dry-cleaner, your chiropractor and so on or they could have gone for something really deep in a farmers' market/Granville Island kind of way where it's fruits and produce year-round ... they're really none of those things," said Nenshi.

Cue the latest plan.

The way forward

Out with the old design (at the business end of a bulldozer), and in with the new.

Harvard Developments Inc. wants to renew Eau Claire by building five towers with retail podiums and a new market.

It's already had a tentative plan approved by city council, and will be coming back with a more detailed proposal in the next few months.

Eau Claire Market future plans

(Artist rendering/Harvard Developments Inc.)

Four of the buildings would be residential (townhouses, condos and rental units) and one would be an office building — or potentially a hotel/office building.

Harvard wants to more than double Eau Claire's existing population.

Jeff Till, the architect designing the new Eau Claire vision for Harvard, recently told city council that having more people living in the area will ensure there's a built-in population for a grocery store and other services during evening hours and weekends.

During the day, the office workers will help support the restaurants, cafes and other businesses.

Till wants to link the new site with downtown towers through a Plus 15 connection, and a link to the proposed Green Line C-Train station on Second Street S.W.

His plan also takes on some of the problems with the previous Eau Claire site.

Eau Claire Market revisioned

(Artist rendering/Harvard Developments Inc.)

"Today, the Eau Claire Market turns its back on the plaza. There's a roadway between pedestrians and the plaza. This design embraces the plaza with permeability to allow people to flow directly between the plaza and the retail and restaurants of the new development, without any roadway in between," said Till.

Major redesigns of neighbourhoods can work. They can build new communities. Think about the land at the old military base which was turned into the Garrison Woods neighbourhood.

Eau Claire Market revisioned

(Artist rendering/Harvard Developments Inc.)

Harvard hopes to put shovel into soil at Eau Claire by the end of this year. The latest effort in a 130 year attempt to make best use of prime Calgary real estate.

"We think that in the future, people will be saying things on the street like "meet me at Eau Claire" or "I live at Eau Claire", really changing the way the public and the whole city feels about Eau Claire" said Till.

Eau Claire map

Eau Claire is really at the core of Calgary's core. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.