Calgary should avoid Edmonton’s battleship lesson

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Two public buildings in Alberta have provided a break this month from the usual summertime news doldrums.

Calgary council appears hell bent on wrapping up a deal for a $550 million arena.  It is giving the populace a scant week to make its opinion known on the breakdown of who pays what percentage of the project destined to replace the Saddledome.

The current proposal is basically that the City of Calgary will chip in 50 per cent, while the Flames owners and a ticket tax will cover the balance.  There are, of course, many other details, including land swaps, naming rights, demolition of the existing Saddledome etc.

Council votes on the deal on July 29.

The trick, as sometimes happens with these deals, is that the actual final look of the arena is pretty tough to discern from the one artist rendering making the rounds.  The “event centre” isn’t even the focus of an overall depiction of its neighbourhood, with hundreds of tiny little Calgarians enjoying the streets scape leading up to a flat building with lots of glass.

Whether this will be a shining example of public architecture is unknown.

In Edmonton, meanwhile, it’s an almost finished building that has excited controversy.  The renovated Stanley Milner Library, which dominates the southern edge of the city centre’s Winston Churchill Square, has now risen from its hoardings to reveal its final shape.

And what a shape it is.  Critics on Twitter have compared it to a massive futuristic tank, an Imperial star cruiser, a battleship and a port authority building.  It is dramatic and many say it is dramatically ugly.

Edmonton is a city which often gets public buildings right — Edmonton’s newish downtown arena is quite beautiful.  The pyramid themed city hall is light and airy and the Art Gallery of Alberta is downright jaw dropping.  So the industrial siding clad monolithic library comes as a shock.

It looks little like the architectural drawings passed around before construction.  City fathers and  architects are saying it will look better when the lights are turned on inside and there is life coming in and out of the building.  Some of the planned design bells and whistles were trimmed to fit the budget, they say.  And wait til you see the inside – it’s going to be great.

Calgarians are naturally pointing out that their recently completed downtown library is winning architectural awards and is a spectacular addition to the downtown.

But Calgarians need to realize that if Edmonton can apparently slip up in the public architecture  arena, so can anyone.

Calgary council and taxpayers are currently fixated on parsing out the dollars and cents of their arena deal.  Does it compare to the deals achieved in other cities?  Will it have economic spinoff to justify the public expense?  Will it transform the old Stampede neighbourhood into a modern entertainment mecca?

And all those aspects of a new arena are deeply important.  But years down the road, the difference between a project being labelled a taxpayer boondoggle and visionary icon comes down to design.

Edmonton ripped itself up over the final decision on whether to get in bed with billionaire Darryl Katz on its new arena.  The deal was thrashed and trashed and vilified during public consultations and endless council debates.  Changes were made and refined and in the end the city got a building which fits snugly into a fast rising thicket of glass towers.

For an arena, Rogers Place is a fine urban design, with an open street front that feels human scale from close up despite its imposing profile from a distance.

While Edmonton’s downtown was awakening before the arena project, Katz’s grand plan for the full Ice District surrounding Rogers Place has galvanized a good chunk of the downtown core.

If Calgary council does plunge ahead with its arena plan, the citizenry should look north to Edmonton for a lesson or two.

Make sure the final design will justify the price tag.  Create a building that reflects the place Calgary holds as a world class city.  Build a building that will be a magnet not just for sports-lovers, but for urban design aficionados and visionary private-sector developers.

And once the city at large is happy with the design plan, beware of the urge to cut corners and alter designs in tight economic times.  Arenas stand for decades.

Because there’s not much you can do except Tweet your dismay about a less than perfect final result once the hoardings come down.

Photo Credit: City News Toronto

More from Kathy Kerr.     @kathkerr1

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