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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.)

  • Thank you for this article and thank you for a balanced viewpoint on the subject. It’s great to have a resource, like this article, to help explain to others the political situtation the city was in regarding the Provincial Funding.

    That being said, I truly like this bridge and I’m happy with the outcome. It’s going to be a great addition to the urban fabric for years to come.

    Cheers,

  • Thank you for this article and thank you for a balanced viewpoint on the subject. It’s great to have a resource, like this article, to help explain to others the political situtation the city was in regarding the Provincial Funding.

    That being said, I truly like this bridge and I’m happy with the outcome. It’s going to be a great addition to the urban fabric for years to come.

    Cheers,

  • DJ Kelly

    I should point out that my comments about the MSI funding are a bit of an oversimplification. We could have built other bridges but we could not have, for example, hired more staff for Calgary Transit. It’s too complicated for me to explain here, with my limited knowledge of the agreement. An alderman our MLA would need to chime in to give you the exact specifications of the “strings” attached in this case.

  • DJ Kelly

    I should point out that my comments about the MSI funding are a bit of an oversimplification. We could have built other bridges but we could not have, for example, hired more staff for Calgary Transit. It’s too complicated for me to explain here, with my limited knowledge of the agreement. An alderman our MLA would need to chime in to give you the exact specifications of the “strings” attached in this case.

  • Excellent Post DJ. I really like the new look of the site also…pretty sharp!

    Shane

  • Another comment about the design… Just looking at the bridge, yeah, it is pretty cool. However, looking at the bridge in the setting it’s going to be in, it is really out of place. Such a design would be better suited to a downtown +15, with a bunch of art around it. It looks terrible in a park setting, sticks out like a sore thumb.

  • Another comment about the design… Just looking at the bridge, yeah, it is pretty cool. However, looking at the bridge in the setting it’s going to be in, it is really out of place. Such a design would be better suited to a downtown +15, with a bunch of art around it. It looks terrible in a park setting, sticks out like a sore thumb.

  • Naheed

    You missed two–

    1. the process. Why a sole-sourced contract, why no competition, why the huge rush on this item?

    2. the need. To this day, I remain unconvinced that we actually need a fourth pedestrian crossing in a 1.5 km (or so) span. I am fully on board with the Bridgeland/East Village bridge, since there is only one (quite horrible) alternative crossing. But I’ve never understood the Sunnyside one.

  • Naheed

    You missed two–

    1. the process. Why a sole-sourced contract, why no competition, why the huge rush on this item?

    2. the need. To this day, I remain unconvinced that we actually need a fourth pedestrian crossing in a 1.5 km (or so) span. I am fully on board with the Bridgeland/East Village bridge, since there is only one (quite horrible) alternative crossing. But I’ve never understood the Sunnyside one.

  • Peter Rishaug

    This is an welcome addition to the city’s infrastructure. Just because it doesn’t carry cars doesn’t mean it’s any less important to move people.

    I do like the 6 meter width…a very significant change from most existing bridges which are quite narrow.

    Did anyone ever consider the great advantage of this bridge for the Calgary Police Service / … Read MoreBylaw / EMS to move more effiiciently and quickly across to the north side of the river? In water emergencies, minutes save lives…some food for thought….

    The cost of a “city standard” or “basic bridge” is actually around $22 million to cover this specific span of the Bow RIver while respecting the “no piers” and “lower height rules” for the heilpad. Therefore, the bridge comes in at $24.5 million and that means it cost only 10% more to build something of international quality and of great cultural significance for Calgary. I say the 10% surcharge is well worth it…especailly if it comes out of MSI funding that has provincail strings pidgeon-holing the money for bridge buidling and not readily transferrable to other infrastrture types.

    I would however criticize the method of selection for the designer. Surely we could have circulated the RFP to local architects and held a design competition. Oh well… Now that that point is “water under the bridge” (Ahem…sorry had to say it…), let’s get on with buidling it.

  • Peter Rishaug

    This is an welcome addition to the city’s infrastructure. Just because it doesn’t carry cars doesn’t mean it’s any less important to move people.

    I do like the 6 meter width…a very significant change from most existing bridges which are quite narrow.

    Did anyone ever consider the great advantage of this bridge for the Calgary Police Service / … Read MoreBylaw / EMS to move more effiiciently and quickly across to the north side of the river? In water emergencies, minutes save lives…some food for thought….

    The cost of a “city standard” or “basic bridge” is actually around $22 million to cover this specific span of the Bow RIver while respecting the “no piers” and “lower height rules” for the heilpad. Therefore, the bridge comes in at $24.5 million and that means it cost only 10% more to build something of international quality and of great cultural significance for Calgary. I say the 10% surcharge is well worth it…especailly if it comes out of MSI funding that has provincail strings pidgeon-holing the money for bridge buidling and not readily transferrable to other infrastrture types.

    I would however criticize the method of selection for the designer. Surely we could have circulated the RFP to local architects and held a design competition. Oh well… Now that that point is “water under the bridge” (Ahem…sorry had to say it…), let’s get on with buidling it.

  • Bob McInnis

    Spending money just b/c it is offered is poor stewardship and really poor negotiating. I am with Naheed, I am not convinced any bridge was needed.
    The design makes it an even more ‘elite’ expense. I have heard the argument that many people (especially progressives) will get to walk/ride across the Bow but if you don’t live in Hillhurst, Sunnyside or Crescent Heights, it serves little purpose. I live in another gentrified community (Inglewood) and can’t see my using it much but friends in Falconridge, Forest Lawn, and Cedarbrae may only see it as a monument.
    Throwing out the word iconic doesn’t make the bridge any less ugly. See this article of another iconic symbol http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/090718/koddities/us_odd_wienermobile_wreck
    I wouldn’t want the Oscar Meyer mobile or the Eiffel Tower stretched across the Bow River either.

  • Bob McInnis

    Spending money just b/c it is offered is poor stewardship and really poor negotiating. I am with Naheed, I am not convinced any bridge was needed.
    The design makes it an even more ‘elite’ expense. I have heard the argument that many people (especially progressives) will get to walk/ride across the Bow but if you don’t live in Hillhurst, Sunnyside or Crescent Heights, it serves little purpose. I live in another gentrified community (Inglewood) and can’t see my using it much but friends in Falconridge, Forest Lawn, and Cedarbrae may only see it as a monument.
    Throwing out the word iconic doesn’t make the bridge any less ugly. See this article of another iconic symbol http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/capress/090718/koddities/us_odd_wienermobile_wreck
    I wouldn’t want the Oscar Meyer mobile or the Eiffel Tower stretched across the Bow River either.

  • The most original description of the bridge I’ve seen so far is by the Twitterer at BC Business magazine, who said it “looks like a wet heart stent”

    Personally, I like it, and it is growing on me. Seeing the architect’s Q&A in the Herald today shows how thoughtful the design really is.
    It will really be an experience to traverse the river on this span, the kind of experience you relish and will go out of your way for, not try to avoid like you do with the current pedestrian bridge under the LRT line. And finally, a dedicated bike lane on a Calgary bridge…. we need more!

  • The most original description of the bridge I’ve seen so far is by the Twitterer at BC Business magazine, who said it “looks like a wet heart stent”

    Personally, I like it, and it is growing on me. Seeing the architect’s Q&A in the Herald today shows how thoughtful the design really is.
    It will really be an experience to traverse the river on this span, the kind of experience you relish and will go out of your way for, not try to avoid like you do with the current pedestrian bridge under the LRT line. And finally, a dedicated bike lane on a Calgary bridge…. we need more!

  • R B B

    The article states in the pros “The city is one of the most creative places in Canada” I guess not creative enough to hire a local firm!!

  • R B B

    The article states in the pros “The city is one of the most creative places in Canada” I guess not creative enough to hire a local firm!!

  • Government of Alberta

    DJ, various municipalities are using Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding for a very wide variety of capital and operating projects – it comes in both flavours.

    Municipalities determine how to spend the money, within very general guidelines. You can see them here:
    http://www.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/wp_municipal_sustainability_initiative.cfm

    Cheers,

    – David Sands, for the Government of Alberta

  • Government of Alberta

    DJ, various municipalities are using Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding for a very wide variety of capital and operating projects – it comes in both flavours.

    Municipalities determine how to spend the money, within very general guidelines. You can see them here:
    http://www.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/wp_municipal_sustainability_initiative.cfm

    Cheers,

    – David Sands, for the Government of Alberta

  • Will

    I do think this bridge is needed and support it’s construction. My primary commute is through biking in the downtown core and I love how this bridge was designed with that in mind. Although there are bridges in the downtown area, the current bridge may save 1 km off of another route. My lifestyle means in general I don’t need a lot of expensive interchanges and whatnot to be mobile and I do pay taxes. 1 km may not sound like a lot to a motorist, but when you are walking it can add up to another 20 minutes. Would it be okay if someone lived in Country Hills had to take a detour to Balzac before coming back to Calgary?

    Pedestrians have issues with connectivity, whereas motorists have issues with congestion. I’d like city administration give as much thought to neighbourhood connectivity as they do to alleviating traffic congestion!

    Thanks for sharing your view.

  • Will

    I do think this bridge is needed and support it’s construction. My primary commute is through biking in the downtown core and I love how this bridge was designed with that in mind. Although there are bridges in the downtown area, the current bridge may save 1 km off of another route. My lifestyle means in general I don’t need a lot of expensive interchanges and whatnot to be mobile and I do pay taxes. 1 km may not sound like a lot to a motorist, but when you are walking it can add up to another 20 minutes. Would it be okay if someone lived in Country Hills had to take a detour to Balzac before coming back to Calgary?

    Pedestrians have issues with connectivity, whereas motorists have issues with congestion. I’d like city administration give as much thought to neighbourhood connectivity as they do to alleviating traffic congestion!

    Thanks for sharing your view.

  • ANNIE

    WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY..

  • ANNIE

    WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY..

  • Excellent Post DJ. I really like the new look of the site also…pretty sharp!

    Shane

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