Bridgeland, a community cursed by apathy, myopic meddling and bad deals
Originally published at OpenFile Calgary, Sept. 5, 2012
by Zoey Duncan
“You know, putting in a couple of new condos and a Starbucks doesn’t make your neighbourhood.”
Yousef Traya loves his neighbourhood, but he’s damn frustrated. Bridgeland-Riverside, once an enclave of Italian culture in the city, has struggled to establish an identity since the General Hospital was demolished in 1998. Its enviable inner-city location, its lengthy history, plus the promise of dense, mixed-use development have put a tremendous amount of pressure on the neighbourhood to become the ‘Next Big Thing’ in Calgary.
Since 1981, Traya’s family has run the small, trendy grocery store in Bridgeland. He’s watched the working-class neighbourhood stutter step through changes over the years. The frustrating thing for Traya is not just all this pressure to live up to expectations, but the fact nobody is stepping up to take responsibility and make it happen.
“You can’t just say because we live in Bridgeland, the inner city, close to downtown, that it should happen,” he says. “I hear this cliche every time, ‘We should be Inglewood.’ ‘We should be Ramsay.’ ‘We should be Kensington.'”
Those communities, he says, “take great pride and ownership.” Bridgeland, he laments, isn’t there yet.
Welcome to the neighbourhood
He cites Bowness residents and their “I [heart] Bowness” campaign—created in sticker form by the owners of Bow Cycle and embraced by the community—as a model Bridgeland should mimic. He jokes that, unlike Inglewood, Bridgeland is on the uncool side of the CP Rail tracks. As a kid he used to dread going to Victoria Park, an inner-city community whose dilapidated, but historic, homes have since been razed and where a young, condo-dwelling population has begun to move in.
While those neighbourhoods grow into places highly touted by real estate agents and travel brochures, Bridgeland putters along—with one foot inching toward the future, the other firmly planted in the past.
These days, Bridgeland’s population lives in a mix of low-income housing, apartment blocks, single-family homes and a new crop of infills. For Traya, Bridgeland is like a small town where his parents could support a family of six by working hard running the neighbourhood grocery store and ice cream shop, survive through recessions and the devastating hospital demolition (which turned the place into a ghost town, he says) and yet still succeed.
But for those not born and raised there, it’s a bit harder to feel the Bridgeland love. Pam Hyde moved out of the neighbourhood three years ago in favour of another inner-city ‘hood with the amenities she, a single person in her mid-20s, was looking for.
“It wasn’t the sort of place where it was like, ‘Oh, it’s Thursday night, I just want to go for a stroll through the neighbourhood and see what I can see on a busy street,” she says. “It doesn’t have that atmosphere like Mission, or [Uptown] 17th or Kensington, Marda Loop.” Beyond that, it lacked bike lanes and the closest full-scale grocery stores were downtown or north of 16th Avenue.
Bridgeland’s main street, First Avenue N.E., may, one day, become the sort of stroll that entices locals to wander and spend money on evenings and weekends. But for now, it’s just not there. There are wide stretches of residences between the mish mash of older shops near Edmonton Trail and the newer businesses in the retail-residential mix between Seventh Street and 9A Street N.E. These newer shops could, in theory, serve a dense population of condo dwellers and draw people to the neighbourhood.
But a liquor store, Starbucks and yarn shop can’t be expected to revitalize a whole neighbourhood. The Heartland Café, a neighbourhood favourite since it moved in in 2005, closed this August, with a manager blaming the lack of promised densification and development as one reason for their closure.
“It is more destination oriented,” says Mark Stout, director of planning for the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association, of the businesses surrounding the Heartland Café. “It’s a lot of services also and things that don’t mix with just walking around and spending money.”
Business has improved since the city agreed to try out free parking in the area, thanks in large part to the protests of area business owner Jason Zaran.
“We’ve become known as a bit of a parking crusader,” says Zaran, owner of the Main Dish, an anchor tenant just off of First Avenue. He said he’s benefitted not just from switch to free parking—previously the ParkPlus meters discouraged potential customers—but also because the neighbourhood respected him for “fighting for the little guy.”
Area Ald. Gian-Carlo Carra previously told OpenFile that forcing customers to pay for parking in Bridgeland could have been the “final knock-out blow” for the community.
Stout, of the community association, sees Bridgeland as a great community, but one with clear struggles.
“There’s such diversity in Bridgeland, I think that gives it strength,” he says. It has a fair amount of “cool”, and its central location in the city “couldn’t get any better,” he says.
Social agencies work throughout the neighbourhood, so well integrated that most people wouldn’t notice they are operating, says Stout. But it’s not all helping hands and social safety nets, either. Stout points to an “eyesore” of a social housing complex on Memorial Drive and 7A Street N.E.as a lesson in how not to integrate low-income citizens into a neighbourhood.
“People want to be acknowledged for what they are, but they don’t want to be grouped like that, rounded up and held next to the eight-lane urban arterial there and off in the corner of Bridgeland,” he says. “People associate that whole corner with welfare and issues. That’s not cool at all. That just brings everybody down.”
The neighbourhood’s proximity to downtown also means it is closer to a population of down and out Calgarians.
“We’ve got to do things differently as a city to actually deliver those type of environments people are aspiring towards.” — Ward 9 Ald. Gian-Carlo Carra
The Cecil Hotel, a seedy joint with a reputation as a haven for drugs, violence and prostitution across the river from Bridgeland, closed in December 2008. That, along with an increased police presence in the core, inevitably pushed criminal activity over the Langevin Bridge and into Bridgeland.
A January 2009 Calgary Herald article described “vagrants from downtown’s east side” crossing the river and bringing with them drunk and disorderly behaviour, drug dealing and the sex trade.
The president of the community association at the time, Lori Losowy, told the Herald just how bad it was from her perspective:
“People are feeling unsafe—men are afraid to walk to work, in an inner-city community where they want to walk. People are afraid to take their kids outside, and women are afraid to ride the LRT alone, going in groups instead.”
With gentrification of the formerly disreputable East Village well underway, including the four-kilometre RiverWalk pathway lined with security cameras, the area is no longer one to avoid.
Additionally, the Drop-In Centre and its homeless clients remain part of the reality of Calgary, and of Bridgeland. It’s something Bridgeland residents can embrace in a way, says Stout.
“When we walk downtown, we walk by the Drop-in Centre there, we’re exposed daily to the highs and lows of what it means to live in Calgary for different people. I think that’s a really good thing overall. To witness that and be part of that.”
‘A canary in the coal mine’
While Bridgeland can be lifted up or pulled down by those around it, it also has its own trouble built right in. Growth in Bridgeland is stunted by old rules and building regulations introduced by a past city council and community association in an attempt to keep the neighbourhood like it used to be. That romanticized, Pleasantville vision ultimately paralyzed the community.
“Whoever was in charge of the community back in the day and whoever was the planner at the city pursued this regime of sort of crystallizing in place the neighbourhood that was without appropriate understanding of what the neighbourhood could or should become,” he says.
A prime example of this myopic meddling would be the former City Bakery. It is zoned as—and only as—a bakery. No other retail or commercial opportunity can move in unless city council votes to rezone it. The same deal applies to Peppino Gourmet Foods, an Italian grocer who wants to sell sandwiches in Bridgeland, as they do at their Kensington location. But since the land is zoned as either a grocery store or a butcher, sandwiches are, oddly, not an option.
The slow process of rezoning is a barrier to business owners, Carra says, and therefore to the whole community.
“The Heartland Café [closure] is just another indication, almost a canary in the coal mine kind of situation, where if we want to build the kind of city that we’re talking about, that people are choosing to spend huge tax dollars to live in inner city neighbourhoods, we’ve got to do things differently as a city to actually deliver those type of environments people are aspiring towards.”
Some of the challenges facing Bridgeland are the same as those facing every other inner-city neighbourhood in Calgary, says Carra.
“We have an entire development regime that is designed to put cul-de-sacs on farmers’ fields,” he says. “It’s designed to put franchised fry pits on off-ramps. It’s not designed to take existing inner-city neighbourhoods and intensify them in a way that makes sense for the residents and that makes sense for the businesses that serve those residents.”
That’s where The Bridges comes in.
Bridges left unbuilt
The Bridges development was supposed to be the crown jewel of transit-oriented development back when it was proposed around the turn of the millennium. Its precursor, the Bow Valley Centre Concept Plan [PDF], won a pair of urban design awards in 2001 and the 2003 redevelopment plan won another two awards in 2005. The city spent nearly $30 million on infrastructure, amenities like the community association and land acquisition to prepare for the development. But now, more than a decade after the ball began to roll, only the first of three planned phases—the mixed commercial-retail-residential Phase 1, along First Avenue N.E.—is complete.
An attainable-affordable housing block called McPherson Place could be ready for residents to move in later this year. Inhouse Attainable Housing Society won the opportunity to build there when the city put out a request for affordable housing proposals in exchange for free land, in 2008. But other developers in Phase 2 have no plans to even break ground, despite a looming development deadline
The city awarded the land for Phase 2 of the Bridges in 2006, based on a variety of criteria provided by builders. The builder’s financial capability, experience and their proposed project were considered along with the price offered for the former General Hospital Land. Apex Ltd. ($3.6 million), Assured Developments ($4.2 million) and Sandlewood Developments ($3.3 million) were awarded the land in March 2006.
All the developers signed contracts promising to break ground by 2009 and to be finished their projects by 2011. Each planned unique versions of environmentally responsible, urban-chic, mid-rise condo towers. They all look identical today. That is, they’re all nothing more than overgrown, brambly fields on the edge of Murdoch Park.
Back in 2009, in the midst of a global financial crisis that even oil-rich Calgary couldn’t dodge, developers begged the city for the timeline to be lifted. The city obliged, and granted a five-year extension, to 2014.
“They should never have given them that,” says Jason Zaran of the Main Dish. “That hurt.”
Zaran had hoped, by opening his business in Phase 1, to capitalize on the promised influx of up to 2,500 people into the Bridges by the completion of Phase 3. He’s been able to make his business work, for now, but he’s well aware that stability could vanish at any moment.
But he’s frustrated with the city’s seemingly laissez-faire management approach to the Bridges; that the optimistic vision of a new hub of neighbourhood life has been left to stagnate as only bits and pieces of promised development actually happen.
“It’s kind of like moving all your furniture one year and you’re going to redecorate your house,” Zaran says. “You do some painting and you do some things, but you never buy new furniture and you move all your old shit back in.”
For Mark Stout of the community association, the odds are against that new furniture showing up in time for the 2014 deadline.
“It doesn’t sound like anything is settled or definite in Phase 2 and things are less so in Phase 3,” he says.
The city says lots in Phase 3 could go on sale next spring, but they’re wary about putting lots on the market while Phase 2 is so rigidly stalled.
If Apex, Assured and Sandlewood continue to leave their land fallow until the deadline passes, the city can buy it back at 80 percent of the original cost. Mike Bucci of Vancouver-based Bucci developments tried to buy land from Apex, but ran into a bureaucratic wall.
“The city just flat-out refused,” he says. “They said they would not allow [Apex] to transfer that land to us.”
Bucci says there is so much condo development happening in the inner city right now that the high-density projects planned for the Bridges Phase 2 no longer make economic sense.
“It’s like a tidal wave that’s swamping the market,” Bucci says. “There’s too much competition for too few buyers.”
Though it’s a disadvantage for him, the developer says he understands the city wants to control land sales to stop landowners from sitting on undeveloped land only to sell it a few years later.
“[The policy] just doesn’t recognize the fact that the current developers aren’t trying to make a profit, they’re just trying to get out. We are trying to restart development, but the policy isn’t bending to reflect that,” Bucci says. “The policy is simple: you cannot transfer this land. We sold it to you to build, you shall build it.”
Joel Armitage, director of land servicing and housing for the city is well aware of the lack of action from Phase 2 developers.
“It is [frustrating] for us, definitely because we’re anxious to see this next phase go and then Phase 3,” he says. “It’s a little detracting when you drive by there and you see the vacant sites and you see the sites boarded up. We really want to see that development happen.”
Armitage says the city’s whole reason for being a landowner is to make sure land is developed as quickly as possible in a way that benefits citizens and provides the city with tax revenue, too. That’s clearly not happening now with the Bridges, and the city has, supposedly, learned from that, yet it is on course to simply watch Phase 2 developers wait out the 2014 deadline.
The city has since adjusted how it ranks its proposals for this kind of development. Armitage says they’re “constantly tweaking” their requests for proposals and they’re still not sure how they’ll approach proposals for Phase 3.
“Is it just throwing it on the market?” wonders Armitage. “Is it more emphasis on timelines?”
Will an influx of people—someday—into whatever is built at the Bridges finally push Bridgeland into becoming the Next Big Thing? Yousef Traya says it will come down to the people who live there.
“If it’s not an Inglewood, if it’s not a Ramsay, then do something about it,” he says. “But don’t expect it to be like that. Create your own energy, forge your own identity.”