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Loving or hating Calgary’s new bridge is not as easy as it sounds

By DJ Kelly July 29, 2009

A few months ago I wrote to ask Calgarians to wait until the design of the new Santiago Calatrava bridge was released before deciding if the $22 million price tag was worth it. The design was supposed to be released by the end of May, then the big day was scheduled for August 6, before yesterday’s surprise release of the images. A bumpy wait, but now that they are out Calgarians are able to have their full say. (Click here to view the design on CBC’s website where many are giving their comments.)

It appears as though price is no longer the only contentious part of this bridge however. In addition to releasing the artist renderings yesterday, the Mayor announced on Friday that the bridge is meant to honour the Canadian Armed Forces. Then this past Monday he emerged from a closed door Council meeting to announce the bridge will be named the “Peace Bridge”.

So by my count that now gives Calgarians four different things to complain about when discussing the bridge:

  1. The cost.
  2. The spin.
  3. The name.
  4. The design.

And so it begins. The newsrooms, the editorials, the twittersphere, and the blogs have all become sounding boards of confused fury. People are being lumped in as either “for” or “against” the bridge. But as you can see from the list above there must be nuances not being explored. So I break it all down thusly:

1. The cost.

Con: This bridge is costing more than any other pedestrian bridge in Calgary’s history. Given the current state of the economy, reasoning suggests the large amount of cash resources could have been better spent elsewhere, on something Calgary has a demand for. I have not seen any data suggesting that what Calgary really needs right now more than anything else is a pedestrian bridge just west of Prince’s Island.

Pro: You can’t build a bridge for much less than this. The rumour we could have done it for $2 million simply is not true. It is also important to note the City of Calgary is not paying for this bridge out of their property tax revenues. The money for the bridge is coming from the Provincial Government as part of the Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding. As such, there are a number of “strings” attached to the agreement that mean Council can’t do much with the money except build a bridge. (Remember the Bronconnier/Stelmach public battle of about a year ago? This is what that was about. Bronco wanted to be able to spend the money on other more pressing civic needs. He lost this part of the argument.) Because the money is unexpected and limited to only this use, it stands to reason that you might as well build a better bridge than you normally would have rather than giving the money back. (You’ll hear more from me in the future about provincial/municipal funding issues. It is this kind of messed up relationship that illustrates why we need a new deal for cities.)

2. The spin.

Con: The number one reason why Bronconnier is so happy to honour our troops with this bridge is to help deflect some of the public criticism over the other three items on this list. It’s hard to argue with this. Even though the Mayor says this was the plan all the way along, it is news to just about ever observer. Including many – if not the vast majority of – council members. It smacks of using our troops as a political shield. Just about the lowest tactic I can think of.

Pro: Bronconnier may be telling the truth – we don’t know for sure. And either way naming the bridge in honour of the Canadian Armed Forces is a great idea, given the bridge’s proximity to Memorial Drive and the re-vamp that is underway there – also in honour of our troops. Most everyone thinks this is a good plan; however we must be wary that accusing the Mayor of political gamesmanship does not mean the accuser things this is not a worthy group to honour in this manner.

3. The name.

Pro: “Peace Bridge” is an appropriate name given that the bridge will be in honour of our troops. Peace is what they stand for. The name is also symbolic of Calgary and Canada as well as the joining of two shores.

Con: It is such a good name we already thought of it 82 years ago when we named the Niagara bridge that joins Canada to the United States at Fort Erie/Buffalo. Don’t our troops deserve to be honoured in a manner not already reserved in Canada for a different group? Couldn’t we be just a little bit more creative in the name we chose to honour them? I’m sure they’d be much happier not having to share a name with a much more famous bridge. It seems like the least we could do.

4. The design.

Pro: Calgary needs more iconic and unique architecture. The city is one of the most creative places in Canada – and I would argue the entire world. However the city has been mostly built during “boom” cycles, meaning getting a building up as quickly as possible had to be the number one goal. This kind of accelerated program doesn’t allow much time for the design process to create new engineering marvels. When Santiago Calatrava was commissioned to design this bridge it was because he had a history of unique designs that people the world over talk about. This design is unlike any bridge Calgary has, and is unlike any bridge anywhere else in the world. It is uniquely Calgarian and has the potential to quickly become a local treasure.

(We’ve known for months the bridge wasn’t going to be a standard Caltrava-esque design because of the limitations created by having a helipad so close. So if you expected the high towers and cables give your head a shake and get over it.)

Con: As Don Braid said in his recent post: Parisians didn’t love the Eiffel Tower when it was first designed either. They felt it was ugly and inappropriate given the scale and design of the rest of their city. So far I have heard Calgary’s new bridge design referred to as a Chinese finger trap, a blunt, a futuristic tunnel, a candy stick, a ribbed condom, and a drinking straw. (The design has only been out for about 18 hours so I’m sure there will be more to come or some I’ve missed.) What do these descriptions all have in common? It makes it sound like people don’t like the design. But I’m not buying that. I think this is people simply trying to make sense of what it is they are looking at. And that’s a good thing. Just like with the Eiffel Tower, iconic architecture is rarely immediately embraced the way the status quo is. Hopefully once is all said and done they decide they do like it.

via @stephenpeasley
via @stephenpeasley

So there you have it. All the pro and con arguments summed up. If you think I missed anything please let me know. I hope this will be able to help us frame the argument for or against the bridge with a little more nuance.

Or at the very least get to the point of accepting it a little quicker. Because I think it’s pretty cool Calgary has something so different, finally. (Even though I think it is a lot to pay, but we had little choice on what to do with that money so I’m happy with our choice. I also think naming the bridge in honour of our troops is a great idea, even though the Mayor’s political spin was terribly executed and the resulting name was unoriginal. Hopefully you understand my nuanced opinion on the bridge a little better given everything that came above in this post. If not, at least I tried.)