The challenges (and science) of building community in Calgary's East Village
Bit by bit, the empty areas of the East Village get filled in
What do you get when you spend $357 million of city money on a neighbourhood and splash it with so much fanfare, you'd think we were building it on the moon?
You get Calgary's East Village.
It's a bit closer than the moon, but it's been the urban planning darling of our city for years.
The neighbourhood, at the east end of downtown, is now 10 years into a 20-year development project. The plan is to take what was once a rather derelict jumble of shops, bars, residences of various sorts, parking lots, and a C-Train track, and turn it into a dense, vibrant, urban neighbourhood.
That's no easy task.
The East Village is still in the process of becoming whatever it's supposed to become. The sort of place where Calgarians can live walking distance from downtown, work and the riverfront. And where, like all good communities, their daily needs are right on the doorstep: the local coffee shop, watering hole, grocery store, even a dentist.
That's the plan. Reality is always more complicated.
Like with any big project, there are critics. But a walk around the neighbourhood finds the vibe is mostly positive.
As resident Beatrice Aucoin puts it, the East Village is a community so tight-knit it feels like a small Cape Breton town, right in the heart of downtown Calgary.
Planning for the Public
The East Village was designed by people who plan urban neighbourhoods in metropolises around the world.
Francisco Alaniz Uribe, an assistant professor of urban design at the University of Calgary, says the community should be the new standard for urban design in this city.
The key, he says, is the "high-quality public realm."
It's long been known that human beings react positively to the right kind of public space. Think of the grand squares of Europe — places you find you just gravitate to. While Calgary may not look like the heart of Prague, we can still design our communities with parks, plazas, streets and sidewalks.
On a fall day, as Uribe walks around the East Village, he points out the area outside the Simmons building leading to the river. Not a big patch of ground but, he says, the river walk is a prime example of good design.
"People want to be there," he says. "And they're comfortable, they're safe and they have all the amenities that someone needs to be outside."
It's not just "oh, yeah, we need some green space here somewhere," Uribe says. It's the addition of inviting benches, landscaping and even a public washroom.
The river walk is often a busy place, full of walkers and cyclists. But step away from the water and deeper into the streets of the East Village, and things are more sporadic.
There are some public spaces ready and waiting — a community garden, a playground and a dog park. There are also a few plazas. These offer benches and chairs and have the potential to attract people who want to, say, eat their lunch outside, or just sit with a coffee and watch the city go by.
So far, so good.
But Uribe points out a design flaw. In order to get to the plazas and their welcoming chairs, you need to cross the street. There's no easy path to get there. And things like streets can act as unconscious psychological barriers.
And this is something you notice in the East Village — that while the periphery is built-up and humming, the inner core is still a bit empty. The community is a bit like a doughnut. For the neighbourhood to gain more traction, that will have to change.
Uribe says streets and sidewalks will become more active partly based on the kinds of shops and businesses that fill up the main floors of the residential towers.
But that's not happening as quickly as some would like.
Bit by bit, construction continues as the empty areas of the East Village get filled in. But it's uneven.
Douglas Gregory owns the Mari Bakeshop with his fiancee. The bakery and lunch spot is on the ground floor of what was one of the first giant new condo towers to open in the East Village. There are commercial spaces operating near Gregory's shop. But not all the spaces are full.
"I think the main key is that, at the moment, we are slow in developing businesses here to attract people," he says. "And that's kind of what you need; you need a wide variety of businesses to attract people."
The shop is busy during lunch time, and there are regulars who come frequently enough that Gregory knows them by name. But he says he needs more than just regulars to be a successful business.
The current population in the East Village sits at about a third of the final number expected. This is difficult for businesses that have moved into the area. They need a high population density, other shops to help create a sense of destination, and the bustle those things create to draw in people from other parts of the city.
Gregory says right now, that isn't happening.
But not so far away, back at the Simmons building, just off the river walk, Aviv Fried says his business gets customers from outside the neighbourhood. But the owner of Sidewalk Citizen knows this is likely because of the location — drawing all those people who are walking or cycling along the Bow River.
But Fried doesn't see much traffic from the street side — from within the East Village neighbourhood, itself.
He opened his shop where he did because he wants his business to be in a dense neighbourhood, where it can be a part of a local community. This, Fried says, is something that can be hard to find in Calgary. And so far, he's not seeing the neighbourhood he was expecting in the East Village.
"I'd like to see people walking down the street. That's, to me, the bigger thing, when you walk down the street. There's walking traffic. And that's still very rare here. A fairly dense neighbourhood should have a lot more walking traffic."
There are several reasons why there may not yet be the foot traffic in and around those east end towers — after all, the neighbourhood is still being built.
But Clare LePan says change is coming. She speaks for the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, which is developing the neighbourhood on behalf of the City of Calgary. LePan says they are getting to critical mass.
"I think the scales are shifting in East Village," she says.
"We've had a lot of years of heavy construction, with projects like the new central library opening soon, we're starting to sort of see that tipping away from a lot of those construction sites in the community, and really into more of these complete buildings and amenities we've been talking about for the past 10 years."
Two new condo towers opened in October, which will boost the population, and a hotel is expected to open by the end of this year. The library, which is at the opposite end of the neighbourhood from much of the retail, opened Nov. 1.
But towers, hotels and public architecture do not a community make.
A cozy neighbourhood
While more Calgarians are moving into the East Village, those who've already put down roots say it's already undeniably a neighbourhood.
Beatrice Aucoin and Brett Bergie moved into the community in the spring of 2017, with their 9-year-old son Samuel. They moved from Coach Hill, in the Calgary suburbs, to the East Village's N3 tower — that's the building made famous as the no-car condo.
With only 620 square feet of living space, they had to downsize — but say they love it.
Bergie says they try to make the neighbourhood an extension of their home. And so they bike along the river, visit the parks in the neighbourhood, and shop at the local businesses.
That's why Aucoin says it feels more like her hometown of Sydney, N.S., than anywhere she's ever lived.
"We know quite a few of our neighbours here by name, and they know us by name," she says. "And we know a lot of the owners and the regular employees of the businesses here, and I haven't felt anything like this since I lived in Sydney. East Village really captures some of that small town small urban centre cohesiveness."
But it's not entirely cohesive.
Some seniors, who were living in the East Village long before the new development was even a twinkle in an urban planner's eye, say they feel left out of the new version.
They say even the shops can be too expensive for the residents of the more established part of the community, some of whom live in low-income housing.
Joan Lapidus has lived in the East Village for 31 years. She says it's starting to feel like she lives "on the other side of the tracks" from the new development.
"We're the poor people on the side, it sounds like, where the people with money, they don't associate. They want to make this into a village where everybody is friends with each other and that, but I don't think that will ever happen. We're different income."
But others say they are glad to have things like coffee shops and hair salons within walking or scooting distance. Many are excited over the arrival of the much-anticipated grocery store, which won't happen for another year.
All this makes you think about just what a neighbourhood is, and what it needs to help foster a sense of collective identity and community. Thoughtfully designed public squares and fancy coffee shops on every corner only get you so far.
It also takes energy and interest from the people who live there.
Alain Dupere is president of the East Village Neighbourhood Association. He's lived there since 2011, and is working hard to make it a community everyone wants to live in. But he knows there is work to be done.
"There's still a bit of a rift because we have the new community to the north, and the old community to the south," says Dupere. "And in the middle we haven't had the development yet. But it's starting to come."
In a bid to get people to integrate better, Dupere said they recently held a Neighbour Day event.
"We had about 400 to 500 people that came out, and it was a beautiful mix of old and new, so we're seeing that integration happening ... it is going to be an even better community as we get more people in here, and people get to know their neighbours," says Dupere.
The word the people of the East Village use most frequently is "potential."
A work in progress
The many residents and business owners who came in during the early phases of the East Village say they know they're trailblazers in a grand urban experiment. They know there will be hiccups. But they seem willing to ride it out.
What exactly will they get for their trouble?
For starters, more neighbours: by the mid-2020s, the population is expected to reach 11,500 people. That's up a huge amount from the current 3,500. Those people will live in the condo and rental towers that are currently under construction — or are at least planned dots on a map.
That much-anticipated neighbourhood retail will start to fill out in the next year or two as well. By 2020, the community's shopping centre is supposed to be open: it will contain a grocery store, a drug store, and a liquor store.
And to fill out the community — both physically and socially — residents are waiting for a community centre. The timelines are still being sorted. The hope is that it will provide meeting spaces, a community kitchen and programming to attract everyone who lives in the East Village, regardless of income level or age.
So will all that add up to a vibrant, dense, urban village?
We'll find out in 2028.
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