Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Canadian counterpart

I've heard a lot of people asking me to run through some comparisons of OKC and Calgary, so here they be. To sum it up, I don't think OKC and Calgary are "twins." I think OKC's "twin" is Edmonton, not Calgary (Calgary's US "twin" is def Denver)..but nobody knows where on Earth Edmonton is (case in point) and most everyone knows Calgary. I think OKC and Calgary share a lot in common though.. and I'll also discuss Edmonton in this post.

First, what is Calgary? Calgary is Canada's 5th major metro, after Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver (Hongcouver), and Ottawa, with 1,182,446 people. Being the oil capital of the north has made it the fastest-growing Canadian metro as well, and politically, by far the most conservative city. Perhaps even highly conservative by US standards.

Some local assets include the University of Calgary, with 30,000 students, an LRT system known as the C-train (which is completely fare free in the center city), as well as a complex of public facilities known as the Calgary Stampede--compare to Dallas Fair Park (landmark buildings, proximity to downtown). The Stampede is vestigial of Calgary's Wild West boom town heritage, where even today, you'll still see some real cowboys and country music diehards around. The Calgary Stampede itself is a 10-day event in July billed as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" -- basically the world's largest rodeo, now in its 97th year. In 1988 Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics (Vancouver this year), for which the Saddledome was built. Today the Saddledome is still the home of the wildly popular Calgary Flames (NHL). Despite some complaints about its aging, to me the Saddledome is a "great" building and it should never be torn down. Calgary is also known as a very outdoorsy place, attracting people for many of the same reasons as people flock to Denver. Close proximity to ski resorts as well as the breathtaking Banff National Park, and its location directly in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, has sort of made it the official jumping point for the Rockies.

The Calgary skyline is absolutely massive. Basically what you have is a wide area along the south bank of the Bow River that has just became a dumping grounds for almost all of the high rises in the city. What began in the 70s as a mess eventually turned itself around and today Downtown Calgary is one of the best oil downtowns (Dallas, Houston, OKC, Tulsa, Denver, Calgary, etc). there are. Still dominated by corporate monstrosities like most all oil downtowns, downtown boasts an incredibly vibrant street life complete with pedestrian malls, 400 total retailers, lots of mixed-use, beautifully restored historic buildings, and more. Viewed from a distance the skyline is a bit overwhelming, stretching for 3 miles, rising to as high as 700 feet in the middle. The reason it's a fairly low-hanging skyline is that most towers built in the 80s and 90s for some reason were done as twin towers, so as to not obstruct the view of the Rockies from the hideous Calgary Tower, although that has never been a rule, and after completion Norman Foster's new tower, The Bow, will be 810 feet (tallest in Western Canada).

The south half of the downtown area, across the train tracks from the CBD, is known as the Beltline (for how it geographically straddles the edge of downtown)--this area is largely an immigrant neighborhood that has recently exploded with new high rise development. Imagine standing in a parking lot along the edge and seeing over a dozen high rise condos going up in a wide area. That's the Beltline. The condos are all required to be mixed-use for the most part, and the streets of the Beltline are bustling with shiny new retail development, renovated historic brick buildings, and really active street life. A lot of people are jaded about all of the development because eventually it will hit the immigrant population like a brick wall..they'll have to find a different part of the city as rent keeps rising and rising on the older crappier apartments. The Beltline also has a few smaller areas akin to Bricktown or MidTown, but mainly in the form of street corridors. 17th Avenue (usually referred to as Uptown), still technically in the Beltline area, is by far the coolest and most popular of these strips. Uptown 17th Avenue alone has over 500 businesses along it. Think of M Street in DC, but bigger!

The way Downtown Calgary has just grown and grown is incredible. No US city has really done this in my opinion. DT Calgary is basically a whole little world all in its own, kind of like how Manhattan is an island surrounded by water. DT Calgary is an island surrounded by suburbia that may as well be water if you live downtown.

Calgary 1969

Calgary 2010

Calgary 2012

The 2010, while being a great shot, actually cuts off about another mile (the west end of the core) of mid rise apartment buildings. Here is a great photo showing how downtown trails off towards the west (which taken from the north is to the right in this pic). The 2012 shot shows some towers that most likely won't become reality, but it is a valuable perspective because it takes the least impressive skyline angle (which happens to be the most impressive angle of all of the proposed scrapers) and shows how it can change if Calgary continues its current growth trajectory in the short term.

So, enough about all of that. How did Calgary get so much skyscraper growth? Tough to say because there are a lot of answers that sort of just came together. Being in Canada, where downtowns are typically dominated by residential high rises (that are usually ugly), helps to some extent by giving it a more urban expectation than U.S. cities. The economy is growing a lot, thanks to oil finds in northern Alberta and along the Montana/North Dakota/Saskatchewan borders. Calgary's population is projected to have increased 25% in the 2000s.

I think an even more major contributory factor however is that there are regulations and limits on sprawl. There has always existed a sort of boundary line that you don't develop beyond, but that boundary keeps being pushed further and further out. Also residential additions are built to where the single family homes barely have a yard and suburbanites are packed in like sardines in a can. This has limited sprawl a lot, and also, made it less desirable I think..I mean honestly, might as well live in a downtown apartment. Right? How could OKC attain this kind of urban growth? Simple. Grow the economy some more, and proactively limit sprawl. OKC still controls new home construction (for now), so if OKC revamped the permitting process for sprawling additions (right now city codes literally hamper urban infill but make sprawl almost "too easy" -- why not make it the other way around?) or placed outright restrictions, boundaries, and moratoriums on sprawl. The city could do that. It already does in some areas, like in the Lake Draper watershed, as well as the proposed site of the West Elm Creek Reservoir.

I personally suggest the weaker govt route however of just reworking the city codes (as opposed to the stronger govt role of moratoriums) to make urban infill almost "too easy" and slightly hamper mass suburban additions. Right now a developer can get an entire plat approved for a hundred homes at once and then build em all before even lining up prospective buyers. In downtown it's nearly impossible to get lending for 20 condo units, and (thankfully) it has to be approved by design review committees, and city codes don't let developers get too creative with things like lofts. In fact, I've been told by one developer that he didn't think city codes really understand lofts at all. In any instance though, I believe that the city is actionable here because we are talking about a vital issue of wellbeing to the city. Surely Calgary is doing something right to have been ranked the World's Cleanest City, by Mercer.

Outside of downtown, Calgary begins to more closely resemble OKC. Generally speaking, South Calgary is high-income, full of beautiful neighborhoods, great landscapes (hills/trees/creeks), lots of cool areas, very similar to the south sides of KC or Tulsa I've always thought. MacLeod Trail extends all the way south from downtown, kind of like the Northwest Expressway, lined with tons of businesses, including some mixed-use stuff beginning to creep into its corridor.

North Calgary is very middle of the road, some parts are hilly (some not), some parts closer to downtown are pretty ghetto. Some parts of the "ghetto" area have been redeveloped..these areas, such as Bridgeland for example, provide OKC with great examples for redeveloping rundown parts of its inner city. The Bridges is a LEED-certified project owned by the City of Calgary itself with about 1,500 residential units, designed to spur private development in close-in parts of the north side. North Calgary also contains the U of C, which is surrounded by nothing but the most dismal suburbia imaginable. Forget about walkable, although luckily the C-train serves the main campus.

East Calgary is real blue collar, kind of redneck, and pretty poor. Houses in here aren't rundown, it's just more like something you might see in Del City..the typical vernacular architecture that aspires to be nicer than it really is, like the houses with the average 2-car garage that says "I'm a nice house, really.." attached to a small house that looks retarded with such a big garage. If you've ever driven through Del City or the rough areas of Midwest City, you know what I'm talking about.

So what do the two cities have in common? Well, N. Calgary sort of = S. OKC, N. OKC sort of = S. Calgary (except Calgary is nicer in both instances). They share oil, a flair for sports, western heritage, conservative politics, middle tier size, relatively low costs, and beyond that, not a whole lot more. Calgary has found that "world-class factor" that OKC is still aspiring thing that helped Calgary find it was hosting major events, such as the yearly Calgary Stampede, or the 88 Olympics. A city that OKC shares more in common with...


Edmonton is, in every way, a less exciting version of Calgary. It's about 4 hours to the north, meaning, if you think Calgary's winters are brutal..Edmonton is much worse. Edmonton also has a lot of oil business, but it's not a corporate hub like Calgary is. The main thing putting Edmonton on the map is government. The University of Alberta is probably one of the top 2 research schools in Canada, and Edmonton is the home of the National Institute of Nanotechnology and a hub for research. The government of Alberta also anchors Edmonton.

When you consider all of the government stuff that Edmonton has, that Calgary doesn't have (and is paying for), and the fact that Edmonton is very, very close (only slightly less) in population to Calgary--it's incredible how different the two cities are. Edmonton is nonetheless a very interesting place, especially for comparing to OKC.

Several sports connections: One thing I just found out, a few seconds ago, is that Edmonton used to have a AAA team that played in the Pacific Coast League, along with the Oklahoma City Redhawks. The team, formerly the Edmonton Capitals, relocated to Austin in 2004 and became the Round Rock Express that play in the Dell Diamond. Edmonton is also the home of the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL, who play in the craptacular Rexall Place arena--the Oilers are putting their AHL farm team affiliate in OKC (that I did know). Also Edmonton is home to the Edmonton Indy (the only major race course with a skyline backdrop), a major course on the Indy circuit, as well as the Castrol Raceway which is a sprint car track. The relevance? Just proves that the near-Arctic metropolis of Edmonton isn't that far removed from the hick world of the Southern U.S. after all.

Also, government has had a more active role in downtown Edmonton than Calgary. Several MAPS-esque projects, including a bastion of museums, most notably the brilliant Art Gallery of Alberta, and the Winspear Centre fill in here. It's especially hard not to love the avant garde Art Gallery--which opens tomorrow in fact, Jan 18th. Edmonton also features more interesting mid-century architecture, something OKC is blessed with. Around the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Edmonton was the more dominant city in Alberta. Great mid-century examples include the Royal Alberta Museum, the Edmonton City Hall, and in my opinion their LRT system (being facetious there).

Downtown Edmonton sucks. It's functional, it's busy..but beyond that, it leaves little to the imagination. Here you have a great example of what happens when beautiful historic buildings are wiped out and replaced with brutalist and modernist high-rises that cast dispersions on the street level. It's just too much ugly. DT Ed resembles exactly what DT OKC would be like had urban renewal gone through exactly as planned. I'm not sure how else to put it. They saved a few key historic sites, such as the Hotel MacDonald and Alberta Provincial Legislature, and laid waste to everything else. It does have one cool historic area that was saved called Strathcona..but it wasn't saved like Bricktown was because it was on nobody's radar. Strathcona is full of some really awesome late 1800s architecture, and colorful rows of buildings that have always been well cared for. So that takes away some of the preservation appeal of Bricktown in my opinion.

Another random similarity: Edmonton is famous for a huge F4 tornado that hit it in the 90s I think.

The most remarkable thing about Edmonton..the West Edmonton Mall. You can't mention Edmonton without talking about this monstrosity of a mall, which was the world's largest shopping mall for over 20 years..until 2004. It is still North America's largest shopping mall, with over 800 stores..3.8 million sf, and an indoor water park, NHL regulation sized ice rink, roller coaster rides, its own Chinatown, and more. It is the 8th Wonder of the World.

Overall, I think that neither city really fit the bill entirely for OKC. When I say that OKC is more like Edmonton, which is just a less exciting version of Calgary, I don't mean to downgrade OKC--just that it clearly hasn't arrived on the level that Calgary is on. Even one of the biggest OKC boosters such as myself can take one look at Calgary and say, "Wow, are you sure OKC is slightly bigger in population?" But I don't just take one look at it. I live in it for most of the year. I see a version of OKC that has done everything right, and is at least 20 years ahead of OKC. And when I say "less exciting" -- clearly I don't think OKC is as boring as I think Edmonton is. I have never even been to Edmonton, just heard a lot about it and all. And what I've heard has been very biased from Calgarians, but from what I've seen in actually looking into it, they're not far off.

OKC amazingly possesses enough of its original self to turn itself into a city unlike any other in the world, let alone the U.S. or even the Southern U.S. The areas we can still work with, like Bricktown, MidTown, and ALL of the other cool areas--this is what it's about. It's about having unique neighborhoods, that's how you grow "sense of place." Sense of place is truly beginning to take hold in OKC, so we're on the right track. If OKC can get its sprawl under control and focus on building up unique neighborhoods, we'll be going somewhere. I know a lot of us lament the astounding number of grand buildings we lost, and it's true, we lost most of our historic downtown. But "historic downtown" was so much that we still have a lot left, including a few key remnants that can let us rebuild the grand, unique city that once existed and seamlessly blend the old with the tres moderne. People will still be impressed with OKC's historic preservation if we don't shed any more great buildings, and enough opportunities for infill already exist without having to tear anything down. Downtown transit and increased momentum will give OKC a downtown boom to work with that could allow downtown to replace any of the growth OKC would lose to Edmond or any other suburbs by hampering sprawl.

Now we must set out to create a unique, one-of-a-kind city.. with an eye to many of our peer cities, especially those elsewhere in the south like Ft Worth and Nashville, but also to Canadian cities. Canadian cities hold an advantage over U.S. cities in terms of cleanliness and quality of living. If QOL is what MAPS is all about, then we should take a look at a few other cities that place the emphasis that we do on QOL. Do Dallas or Kansas City or Nashville emphasize QOL? Probably not. Canadian cities do. Call it social urbanism, call it liberalism (give me a break), call it city planning, whatever you call it.. you can't call it ineffective, especially considering that there isn't a single Canadian MSA that is losing population.


Anonymous said...

Great Post!

I totally agree that Calgary is a lot like Denver. When I visited there 5 years ago, it reminded me of Denver. OKC could learn a lot from the Canadian cities. I don't feel like our city leaders are that open minded to look outside the borders of the US for inspiration. I feel that we can learn from every city. Every city has areas that work and areas that don't. I don't see the city having growth boundaries, but hopefully changing zoning to encourage infill will happen. The dense downtown highrises must have great street life. OKC's dense downtown encourages streetlife, if only we can bring the more of the buildings back to life. Park Harvey is the best example the city has so far of encouraging office to apartment conversion. Does Calgary have some conversions that are good examples of what to do? Hopefully downtown OKC can have a tenth the growth of highrises that Calgary has in the next 5 to 10 years.

I appreciate how Calgary has embraced its Western Heritage. OKC could learn a lot from this.

I personally feel that Stockyard City and Film Row are the most unique areas of OKC that if developed properly could be tourist attractions. If the city could have festivals in these areas with emphasis on cowboys for Stockyard City and maybe a film festival for Film Row could spur more investment in the area. The unique historic nature of the areas will bring people back year after year. If Paseo can do it, so can Film Row and Stockyard City. Film Row just needs a restauran or two.

I also feel that Midtown is the most ripe for future residential development being sandwiched between OU and St. Anthony's. Hopefully the streetcars can connect the two to bring the growth.


kent said...

great commentary and support for your viewpoint. Lots in it for people to digest and understand. Keep up the great posts. I always look forward to what you are going to view and study next.

Anonymous said...

I am flabbergasted at what an incorrect article this was, in regards to Edmonton.

First, Edmonton is 3 hours north, not 4. If you think 3 hours is going to make a huge difference in weather, you're wrong. In fact, Calgary is windier than Edmonton, meaning the wind chills in the winter are much worse in the south.

Second, the Edmonton Capitals are still in Edmonton. They never relocated, the Edmonton Trappers did.

Third, the f4 Tornado hit in the 80s not the 90s.

Fourth, you say Edmonton is boring. After you list North America's largest mall, Old Strathcona, the Indy, the Art Gallery, the museum etc. You really made your point there.

Lastly, if you're going to say something about a city, get off your ass and visit it. Listening to what Calgarians say is completely irrelevant. They're jealous that Calgary isn't the capital, they are jealous of our shopping and of our better performing sports teams. You should also try to get your facts right.

This was a terrible read.