Register Tuesday | December 5 | 2023

Calgary's Conundrum

Will the East Village's Innovative Make-over Hurt the City's Poor?

You can see it from atop the Calgary Tower, the sixties-era monument to corporate kitsch that adds a bit of pluck to Calgary's modern skyline. There, over to the east, behind the Romanesque dollhouse that is City Hall, is the East Village: a snowy set of parking lots dotted by a handful of buildings, set against a backdrop of massive brown brick apartment towers. Bordered on two sides by rivers and on the other two by train tracks, this seeming no man's land has suddenly become the most vital part of Calgary.

View of downtown Calgary from the East Village CPR tracks.

Western Canada's booming business capital is often denigrated as either a hick town or a soulless, cultureless void-misconceptions that are no doubt fed by the city's monotonous sprawl and its penchant for tawdry Western gimmicks. But in reality Calgary is a young, vibrant city, fuelled by a maverick energy and an abundance of wealth. In the 1970s, Pierre Berton dismissed it as a cultural wasteland, but it's now finally coming of age, with a burgeoning arts scene and expanding educational institutions. Even if the bulk of the city is comprised of faceless suburbs, Calgary's core exudes an easy charm. New residential developments are springing up all over, drawing thousands of newcomers into the city centre. The East Village, with its riverside location between downtown and the timber-walled fort from which Calgary sprung, promises to be the most vital of those developments.

Neglected for decades, the East Village is now the subject of a detailed and ambitious development plan that would transform it into a high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood with some 10,000 residents-a giant leap forward for low-density, car-oriented Calgary. The new East Village would consist of a variety of different housing types and encourage innovative architecture. It would be pedestrian-oriented, with strong public transit links revolving around a central commercial square, through which the already existing light rail train would pass. The plan's guidelines for street design read like a passage from Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities: streets are places for people to walk; streets need to be visually interesting; streets should be well-defined and enclosed like a room. "The new plan really looks to the street level in a more urban way," says Druh Farrell, the area's alderman and an ardent supporter of the redevelopment. "I can see this as being one of the key areas of the city."

In an innovative move, the plan allows for mews houses, the small dwellings that line back alleys in cities such as London. It also looks to Vancouver's style of high-rise development, which places slender residential towers on retail or townhouse podiums to minimize wind and shadows. What is most interesting, however, is the way the East Village would be developed. Using a system known as tax incremental financing (TIF), the city would freeze property values in the area, invest heavily in the neighbourhood's infrastructure and then make back the money invested through taxes collected on increased property values. TIF has been used extensively in the United States-it was especially successful in revitalizing Chicago neighbourhoods in the 1990s-but has not yet crossed over to Canada. In the East Village's case, the city is already committed to funding several large infrastructure projects, such as soil decontamination and the raising of utilities by several feet (the area lies in a flood plain), so TIF seems a natural option. "We shouldn't develop individual parcels of land," says Farrell, "but we should prepare them for development."

The East Village Area Redevelopment Plan envisions a high-density and pedestrian-oriented urban environment.

This all sounds great, but there's one very big catch: Calgary's economic prosperity has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in poverty and homelessness. In the past two years alone, Calgary's homeless population has shot up by nearly 50 percent. Many of the homeless are working poor, whose low-paying jobs aren't enough to provide food or shelter. At the centre of it all is the East Village, home to the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre and to the Salvation Army Centre of Hope, two large and recently built facilities that provide food, shelter and support for the poor and homeless. Farrell insists that these social institutions will be a vital part of any redeveloped East Village. With new residents of varying lifestyles and income levels, she says, "what we will see is a healthier balance. The institutions will stay but will now be part of a neighbourhood."

Dermot Baldwin, the executive director of the Drop-In Centre, doesn't buy it. "It's a blatant lie," he says bluntly. "[The city has] an agenda. It's not so much just the East Village plan, it's what they do to us in the process of implementing it. Basically, they're singling out one segment of the population: the poor and the homeless." He says the plan would do away with the centre's parking lot and reroute an important street, cutting off access to a significant portion of the centre. It would also impose a nightly occupancy cap of 2,000, despite Calgary's rising rate of homelessness. "The assumption is that we aren't a valid part of society," fumes Baldwin. "That's not a good philosophy. All they've done is beat us up and insult us publicly."

He has a point: Calgary-and Alberta as a whole, for that matter-does not have a good track record when it comes to poverty. During the 1990s the government slashed funding to social services. And at $5.90 an hour, the province's minimum wage is the lowest in the country . Despite a reputation for generosity, Calgarians can be woefully ignorant of their city's problems. For instance, the Globe and Mail recently reported that 71 percent of people in Calgary think that the city's number one problem is drivers talking on cell phones. "[Calgarians] feel entitled to a good life, but they also feel entitled to look down their noses at people who can't afford it," says Baldwin. Nothing, he says, can justify people starving in Canada's wealthiest city.

Recently built luxury lofts sidle up to seventies-era social housing. In 2002, two condo developments went up in the East Village, one of mediocre quality.

Still, the redevelopment plan states very clearly that housing will be available to "meet the needs of different age groups, family structures, income groups and lifestyles." Farrell notes that a social action plan for the area will soon be drafted. "The East Village is representative of social issues in Calgary," she says. "We need to address those issues as a whole, but we can't do it alone. We need help from the provincial and federal governments." While the East Village plan seems solid, comprehensive and well thought-out, its implementation will be a test of political will and leadership. If the East Village is ever to become a balanced and sustainable neighbourhood, Calgary must first acknowledge and accept its social problems and then, crucially, support the institutions that deal with them.

For decades, the East Village has languished, a symbol of Calgary's suburban focus. Its redevelopment into a dynamic, high-density neighbourhood would be an important sign of the city's coming of age, a willingness to sidestep the easy temptation of endless sprawl. But Calgary should also resist the urge to ignore its mounting social problems. The East Village should not just be a model of a good urban neighbourhood; it should also be a model for how a city can accept and deal with poverty and homelessness. That would be a giant leap forward.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.