The Calgary Herald recently reported “a proposal to radically transform Eau Claire — described by one councilor as the “jewel” of Calgary’s river valley — inched forward at City Hall on Monday with a unanimous first reading of the developer’s rezoning application.
The mixed-use pitch by Harvard Developments includes five towers, 1,000 residential units, and nearly 1.4 million square feet of office and retail space. However, the developer was seeking a land-use re-designation and bylaw amendments to allow for Plus+15 walkways (currently prohibited under the area redevelopment plan), additional office space, and permission to move the historic smokestack from 2nd Avenue and Barclay Parade to a more prominent spot in the plaza. Calgary’s Planning Commission recommended in August council refuse the proposed changes, citing concerns Harvard failed to ensure “a level of certainty … to mitigate the adverse impacts” on the community. However, council ultimately gave first reading to the bylaw, directing administration to make amendments to increase residential space, mitigate shadow impacts on the plaza, and explore integration with the future Green Line LRT. Council also opened the door to relocating the smokestack.
“Eau Claire has been under-performing for a long time and there have been a whole series of proposals to fix it to make it better,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “Really what we are stuck with is, ‘Are these compromises worth it in order to get the redevelopment that everyone wants at that site,’” Nenshi said. Eau Claire Market opened in 1993 and was billed as an urban retail and entertainment destination. By 2000, with visitor numbers down and sales drying up, many stores closed. “Currently, it’s very run down and it struggles to attract exciting activities,” said Maggie Schofield, executive director of the Downtown Association, who spoke in favour of the project.
“The market redevelopment is critical to the revitalization of the area to bring vitality to to the Eau Claire area, River Walk and Prince’s Island Park,” Schofield said. Harvard Development bought the building in 2004 for $28 million with a goal of reinventing the complex as an “urban village” with residential units, a hotel, office space and a larger movie theatre. The city sold the 2.95-hectare site to Harvard in 2007 for $13.5 million, below market value because the land was encumbered with a 75-year lease and sits on a flood plain. Redevelopment of Eau Claire stalled when the 2008 global recession hit. “We would have liked to have started (construction) last year,” Rosanne Hill Blaisdell, managing director for Harvard Developments, said Monday.
“We have commitments in place,” Blaisdell said. “We have been extending those commitments and our objective is that as soon as physically possible we would like to get the development permit in place, go for tender and get moving. “If that could be before the end of 2016 we would be thrilled.” The city has the option to repurchase the land, at market value, if it’s not redeveloped by the end of 2018. However, the city may not be able to recoup the estimated $110.5-million cost in a subsequent sale, officials warned council in an internal document obtained by the Herald.
Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell said Eau Claire has struggled to become a complete community over the past 20 years, with few services or amenities for its 1,700 residents. “It’s never been able to function as a complete neighbourhood,” Farrell said. “They started out with Eau Claire Market, but Eau Claire Market failed very, very quickly … because nobody lives there. “We have an opportunity to complete the most important site along our river,” she added. “We’ve always considered this the jewel of our river valley as far as development is concerned.”
The developer and Eau Claire Community Association recently hosted an open house and town hall about the project. Feedback showed most, 76 per cent, were impressed with the proposal. Eighty to 85 per cent support, respectively, relocating the smokestack and allowing Plus+15 walkways. Support dropped to 62 per cent for the office tower. “If Eau Claire is to be allowed to become a full-fledged vibrant inner-city community with an active population and not just a narrow strip of residential buildings it must be promoted as such,” said Jim Hughes, president of the Eau Claire Community Association. The Calgary Heritage Authority said moving the 27-metre red brick smokestack would severely diminish the legal protection of heritage assets. “Relocating the smokestack is akin to moving Yogi the Bear to a petting zoo,” said Scott Jolliffe, chairman of the heritage authority. “The institution of legal protection will become valueless if protection bylaws are rescinded to accommodate convenience and economic benefit.” He said the authority often works with developers to maximize financial opportunities on heritage-encumbered sites, though this “compromise does not include moving legally protected resources.”
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