City ramps up East Village game plan

By Brent Constantin

The East Village, an area mostly associated with homelessness and prostitution, may soon be getting a long-awaited urban face lift.

The city outlined its East Village master plan, a bold new direction for the derelict Calgary neighbourhood Sept. 16. The plan includes higher-end, commercial and residential growth and improved infrastructure which the city hopes will create a new hub in the spirit of Stephen Avenue, Kensington and 17th Avenue within the next 10 to 15 years.

“Much of the area is characterized by urban blight, with crime and social concerns and inadequate infrastructure. Many attempts have been made over the past 30 years to revitalize this area, all without success,” wrote Mayor Dave Bronconnier. “With the support of all three orders of government, the [East Village] can once again be a thriving, safe and sustainable inner-city community.”

The East Village, a 120-acre area east of downtown, has been ignored by developers for decades and is known for homelessness, prostitution and drug abuse, despite its pristine location on the Bow River. Although the city has been attempting to revitalize the area for the better part of the last decade, the new project finally pulls together all of the concepts to create one specific vision.

“The completion of the master plan is a huge milestone in the East Village rejuvenation project and is a result of two-and-a-half years of hard work,” said Chris Ollenberger, president and CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation — an organization specifically formed by city council in 2007 to revitalize and redevelop the Rivers District.

“We have completed much of the infrastructure work necessary to prepare the East Village for development and with the visionary master plan in hand, we will be preparing for land sales and to partner with developers by January 2010.”

Although the plan was just released last week the area has already been the subject of major construction over the last few years.

Twelve blocks of the district are currently benefiting from ongoing improvement, with streets, sidewalks and lighting all receiving upgrades. Construction has also begun on a new underpass under 4th Street, providing a route connecting the Stampede grounds and the Saddledome to the bridge over the Bow River.

The current construction has upset some East Village residents, including the Calgary Drop-In Centre.

Earlier this month, Calgary’s largest homeless shelter put forward an injunction against the city over concerns construction barriers erected for East Village roadwork have had a serious effect on day-to-day operations. Transport has been a major concern, with volunteers unable to find access to the shelter, donations suffering and food transport vehicles having a difficult time delivering supplies for the approximately 3,500 meals served daily.

In 2006 the East Village had an estimated population of around 2,200, with more than 60 per cent of residents classified as low-income.

Almost 97 per cent of the housing in the area is used for renting, the highest percentage in the city.

CMLC and the city hope that by encouraging developers to invest in the area and reducing secluded areas — increasing the sense of security — the population will grow to 10,000 by 2020.

“Today, [the] East Village is home to very few buildings, but lots of very big ideas about how it can be a key part of downtown once more,” said Ollenberger. “It will have a ‘mixed use’ character, meaning that a single building can house both residences and businesses, which is key to creating life on the street day and night.”

The final plan features a pedestrian street cutting through the heart of the East Village to the Bow River, one of several ways in which the area’s waterfront will be featured along with a promenade with shops, boutique hotels and multi-family residences.

The entire project is estimated to initially cost taxpayers $200 million. The city is funding the work through a program called tax-increment financing, where the city will pay for the initial upgrades in the hope that they will entice developers, which will increase property values and enable the city to recoup costs without raising taxes.

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