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The rise and long, depressing fall of Calgary’s Eau Claire Market

Two weeks ago, as the HBO’s made-in-Alberta The Last of Us had locals gleefully playing weekly rounds of “Hey! I recognize that set location,” a clever Twitter user combined photo editing with a wicked Calgary inside joke.

The tweet marvelled at how set designers made Calgary “look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.” Attached were images of the show’s main characters wandering through Eau Claire Market, the downtown shopping centre that has lumbered along — zombie-like, some will say — for nearly 30 years.

Days after that bit of Calgary gallows humour, Eau Claire Market’s demise was written into its saga. The concrete edifice by the Bow will be vacated next year and torn down so the city can build a Green Line LRT underground station.

Sure, some Calgarians will miss the cinema, or that Thai stand in the food court, or have fond memories of the market’s more bustling early days.

But its demise was long overdue, including in the eyes of site owner Harvard Developments, which has been planning to wipe it out and build anew since at least 2006.

It’s quite the cautionary tale, the rise and long drawn-out fall of Eau Claire Market. It’s a project launched with so much optimism in the 1980s — Calgary’s Granville Island! — opened in the early ’90s, and the cause of civic hand-wringing pretty much ever since.

the rise and long depressing fall of calgarys eau claire market
The site first began shedding customers, and then retail tenants followed suit. The upper level thinned out first, and then the ground floor. (ADL Electric)

The reasons it perennially struggled are many.

But there’s a moral at the centre of this drama.

Hoping to plunk down another city’s really cool element into Calgary is the prelude to a disaster.

Eau boy, Eau boy

The dream began in 1984. Calgary’s economy was in the dumps, and the massive bus barns in Eau Claire had just closed in favour of transit garages farther from the core.

There was opportunity for this large swath of prime land, in between the corporate downtown and Prince’s Island Park.

Civic leaders looked at those big vacant buildings and thought one thing: market. The revival of public markets and farmers’ markets — or “festival markets,” in the era’s lingo — was sweeping North America.

In 1983, Edmonton had refashioned its bus barn off Whyte Avenue into a farmer’s market that thrives to this day. But then, even more so than now, Calgarians were none too keen to draw inspiration from what Alberta’s other city was doing.

What got Calgary boosters’ attention were the former industrial brick buildings along False Creek in Vancouver. Granville Island was redeveloped in 1979 into a cluster of restaurants, cultural and retail facilities, anchored by a fresh food market.

It was gorgeous. It was popular. Calgary wanted one, too.

The city’s mayor at the time, Ralph Klein, travelled to Vancouver for inspiration. He launched a task force, helmed by Ray Clark, an alderman.

They cautioned the public not to expect a replica of Granville Island, but a market with its own Calgary variation.

But the mimicry idea was quickly embedded in the public mind, galvanized by endless newspaper stories and proponents’ musings. And initially, developers intended to refurbish the aging bus barns as a grand market, as in Vancouver, Edmonton or San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square.

To view this rendering from the Calgary Herald in 1986 is to weep for the Eau Claire Market that could have been:

A newspaper clipping that features a rendering of an Eau Claire market that uses the former transit garages.
Initial developers’ plans for an Eau Claire market incorporated the abandoned bus barns. Alas, this concept displayed in a 1986 Calgary Herald rendering was not meant to be. (Calgary Herald)

Why didn’t that get built? Part of the problem, Clark recalled in an interview last week, was the discovery of the site’s oil contamination from its decades as a transit garage.

“That meant the only way they could do it was tear down the buildings,” Clark said. “It changed the project dramatically.”

Further delays and woes came in bundles. Ownership bounced from financier to financier. City hall haggled over its rent and proceed-sharing conditions. Construction hiccups. 

A $20-million price tag became $43 million.

A market? A mall? Not a Market Mall, surely

The bus barns came down in 1988, replaced five years later with the two storeys and 170,000 square feet of shiny concrete with yellow trim Calgarians know today.

The movieplex wasn’t completed yet, but the fishmonger, fruit stalls, clothing boutiques and Cajun Charles restaurant were all excited to finally welcome Calgarians and tourists alike.

Visitors came, for a while. They discovered something that wasn’t quite a public market, and wasn’t quite a new shopping mall.

“If you must compare it to Vancouver, it’s more like modern Lonsdale Quay in North (Vancouver),”  one food vendor told the Herald shortly after its opening. To which most Calgarians would say: uh, what?

An artist's conception of the future Green Line LRT station at Eau Claire shows an aerial view of a red train pulling out of an underground station with a treed park above and heading toward the Bow River.
The city’s vision for an underground LRT station in Eau Claire, before the Green Line tracks emerge to cross the Bow River. (City of Calgary)

Even the developers acknowledged shortly afterwards that Calgary lacked the downtown population base and proximity to produce and seafood for downtown Vancouver’s gem to be recreated here.

But there were so many other telling flaws. It opened at the north edge of downtown, in what was then Eau Claire’s field of parking lots and vacant areas, next to a Greyhound barn — in hopes it would be a catalyst for those spots to fill in with condos and office towers. (They arrived, but too late to matter.)

This was also during a long period where downtown Calgary wasn’t an inviting destination for suburbanites; crime was a big concern, and a noted prostitute’s stroll was on the market’s doorstep. And though the site was owned by Calgary Transit and will soon become an LRT stop, it had dismal transit access compared to other malls, five downtown blocks from the C-Train.

Design was a problem too, and not just the 90s-era concrete parody of Granville Island’s brick charm. Its face to the rest of downtown was a surface parking lot and the building’s long windowless concrete slab; its main entrance was on the northern side, but its view from the river pathways was blocked by new townhomes and an iron fence.

By 1998, the market was underwater — its debt exceeded its value. It was sold that year, and then again, and then scooped up for $28 million by Regina-based Harvard Development.

the rise and long depressing fall of calgarys eau claire market 3
Artist rendering of the latest plans for several towers on the site of the doomed Eau Claire Market. Site owner Harvard Development will return to the drafting board with another version that accommodates an underground LRT station. (Artist rendering/Harvard Developments Inc.)

That company emerged with plans to raze the market in 2006 for some condo towers and open-air retail. Then came another recession, and then another set of redevelopment plans, then another recession.

This has meant that Eau Claire Market has been in limbo for most of its existence, tenants never able to settle in for the long term, unsure exactly when the wrecking ball would arrive. That triggers a spiral of limited marketing for a doomed product, and chronic storefront vacancies.

Another iteration of Harvard’s retail and condo plan will emerge to accommodate the LRT line,  the company’s Rosanne Hill Blaisdell told the Calgary Eyeopener.

She didn’t compare the company’s vision for Eau Claire to anything in any other city. For the project’s future, that’s likely a good thing.

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