Since it was incorporated as a town in 1884, Calgary’s downtown east end has seen its share of colourful hotels come and go.
Locals speak fondly of the now-closed King Edward Hotel, the legendary “Home of the Blues,” or the shuttered St. Louis Hotel where Ralph Klein, former Calgary mayor and Alberta premier, often imbibed and ran successful election campaigns in the 1980s as he mingled with everyday folk in its beer parlour.
Others, such as the Atlantic Hotel, dubbed “Bucket of Blood” following a 1902 murder, have added to the checkered past of an area best known for its crime and homeless population – once labelled as skid row in 1940 by a medical officer of health.
But this seedy image may be relegated to the history books. In 2009, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation announced its plan to redevelop 49 acres of the downtown east end into a revitalized community called East Village.
This spring, the commission added a key component when U.S.-based Widewaters Group, a commercial real estate development firm, said it would build a 315-room, $75-million Hilton Hotels facility. Unlike any hotel in the east end’s existence, the 208,000-square-foot, 14-storey building is expected to open in 2014.
Ed Shagen, Widewaters’ director of development, was quickly sold on the area’s unique potential.
“What East Village has done is quite something,” he explains. “You just don’t see blank slates next to downtown cores in the scale that is presented here. In my travels I have not experienced something like this in a city that has such a strong economy and [presents an] opportunity like this.”
East Village is designed for mixed use and includes two condo towers to be built by Vancouver-based Embassy Bosa Inc. and Ontario-based FRAM+Slokker. A National Music Centre, park space on St. Patrick’s Island and a RiverWalk are also in development.
A new $70-million underpass has opened that makes Fourth Street S.E. a much needed north-south connector, linking East Village to, among other places, Stampede Park, home of the Calgary Stampede.
The Hilton Hotels location, on the corner of Fourth Street S.E. and Seventh Avenue S.E., is next door to the downtown core, and while East Village amenities are “a bonus,” Mr. Shagen says they’re not necessary for the hotel’s success.
“We don’t have to wait for East Village to develop,” he says. “The connectivity, it just jumped out at us that this is perfect. The new Fourth Street connector also helps.”
The hotel project is dual-branded. There will be a Hilton Homewood Suites (117 suites) and a Hilton Garden Inn (198 hotel rooms) under one roof. Each facility will have its own separate lobby and specialty branding, but the setup provides cost-sharing amenities such as a pool, gym and laundry.
Hilton Hotels does not have a downtown presence and the market is underserved, making the project a “no brainer,” says Mr. Shagen, who expects construction to begin in 2013 with the doors opening in 2014.
The timing fits well with other development, says Susan Veres, vice-president of marketing and communications for Calgary Municipal Land Corporation. (CMLC is the legal entity managing the infrastructure of East Village and leading a broader-based plan for urban renewal in Calgary communities.)
Ms. Veres says the first tenants of the condo towers are expected to move to their new homes by the third quarter of 2014. If the vision for East Village is fully realized, the community will include 11,000 new residents by 2025.
As well, the first phase of the National Music Centre, being built in the restored King Edward Hotel, should be open in 2014. “The Eddy” was closed in 2004 and had gained national acclaim in the early 1980s when it became the smoky home to headline artists such as B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, John Hammond and Otis Rush.
Heritage buildings such as the St. Louis Hotel and the Simmons Building (a bedding manufacturer) are being refurbished and present attractive, historic spaces for potential businesses, Ms. Veres says. CMLC says East Village will need to bring in grocery, general merchandise and home improvement businesses for residents.
Ms. Veres adds that since CMLC took on the project five years ago, it has worked to mitigate potential concerns. Bordered by the Bow River to the north, areas of East Village have been raised above the flood plain, Ms. Veres says, in some cases by up to three metres.
CMLC has also worked from “the very first day” with the Salvation Army and the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre, whose homeless clients will remain in the area.
Calgary historian Harry Sanders says East Village presents a potentially remarkable transformation for the area.
“It’s prime real estate,” Mr. Sanders says. “It is right next to the river and handy to downtown. They were going to do urban renewal in the 1960s but it wasn’t fully implemented.
“Since the earliest days there have been hopes for the east end to become something,” he adds. “If the current plan is implemented, it will be that. It will be something.”