Industry- The Business Park

The first part of this article can be read here

Land-Use Bylaw Map, taken from http://www.calgary.ca/PDA/pd/Pages/Calgary-Land-Use-bylaw-1P2007/Land-Use-bylaw-1P2007-maps.aspx . Meant to be used to look up the zoning in each lot of the city, the map also functions as section map of  Calgary.

The thing you always need to remember about Calgary is that it is one city. Though it is divided up into wards, and police precincts and communities, there are no equal, competing political offices like with most big cities. This was not by chance or circumstance- for many years The City of Calgary was intent on maintaining a non-metropolitan, unicity model to control development from a single central government. After World War II, the unicity model was combined with a suburban sprawl philosophy, leading the city to annex more land for both growth and control. This was evident in the treatment of Midnapore. Had Calgary not annexed the area, the city would have inevitably been hemmed in to the south by Fish Creek- besides the growth in lot sales and development in the hamlet after World War II, the Burns family had plans to develop their land holdings south of Fish Creek, where the community of Midnapore lies today. These plans were blocked in 1956 by the Calgary District Planning Commission, whose members decided such satellite communities were not in the area’s best interest. In 1961 Calgary annexed Midnapore, as well as Forest Lawn, as part of the largest land grab in the city’s history, adding on more than 70 square miles. With Montgomery and Bowness added in 1963 and 1964, respectively, Calgary’s total area was brought to 154 square miles before the end of the 1960s.

Front page of The Albertan (which later became The Calgary Sun) from August 15, 1959, discussing the proposed annexation of areas around Calgary. Courtesy of the Glenbow Archives.

Some of the annexed areas maintained a certain local character, Bowness most notably. But overall the annexations led to the prior history of the areas becoming more of a footnote than a lived experience. Take Midnapore- despite its long history, unlike the other communities annexed in the early 60s, it was also unincorporated and much smaller, with about 10% the population of Bowness or Forest Lawn. There are also very few buildings remaining from old Midnapore, and hardly any original residents or their descendants in the townsite. Midnapore is very much a part of Calgary. It is possible to think of “Metro Calgary” though, with Airdrie, Chestermere, Cochrane, Okotoks and the like as de facto suburbs, especially since the sprawl has brought them closer and the vast majority of their residents use these areas as bedroom communities. Regardless, Calgary is still one city, bordered by rural areas, not by other cities or town. But due to its massive size, our residents are always trying to come up with different ways of dividing the city up.

“Two sector shopping centres are provided for; the first is east of Millrise Boulevard and north of Shawnessy Boulevard SW, the second is west of Macleod Trail and north of 162 Avenue grid alignment. Two areas are designated for restricted light industrial use; one on the west side of Macleod Trail south of 146 Avenue SW; the other on the east side of Macleod Trail south of Sun Valley Boulevard S.E. Both are intending as high quality light industrial areas accommodating such uses as warehouses, offices, and retail stores”- from page 4 of the 1991 Revised Midnapore Phase 2 Area Structure Plan by Calgary City and Community Planning.

Some of the most popular ways used by Calgarians to divide up the city are: by quadrant, North-South or Urban- Suburban. But due to the complex topography here, along with the constant change and expansion, there is no simple, meaningful way to break up the city. However there is one division that I wanted to discuss that is often overlooked, that between the east and west parts of Calgary. The west part of the city is full of foothills, while the east part of the city, especially beyond the confluence of the creeks and rivers, is relatively flat. All other differences really stem from these: the east is better suited for industry, and contains all the major industrial parks, along with the airport and rail lines for transporting goods. The naturally more scenic west side of Calgary is better suited to residential, especially the luxurious kind. The model, like all other models, has its strengths and limitations, and this is evident when trying to apply it to The Deep South.

Map of Physical Features south of Fish Creek, from the 1974 Midnapore Policy Report

This far south, it’s all pretty flat outside the river valley, but there isn’t much in the way of industry. By the time these communities were developed the Suburban Modern ideas were in full swing, with different sections of the city being allotted for different purposes by city hall, specifically demarcating residential and industrial. This combined with more conscientious planning resulted in a fairly strong divide between where we live and where we work, especially when that work was dirty or dangerous. So even if the topography was suited for industrial uses, that was no longer considered compatible with residential development, and the recently opened Fish Creek Park. The Midnapore I Design brief suggested only light, non-polluting industry for the area. Interestingly though, an east-west divide is still evident in some respects. For example, the industrial zone of Millrise, east of Millrise Boulevard and once containing much of the original Midnapore townsite, was largely redesignated for residential. The only real industrial there is the Nissan dealership and storage yards. And further south, the shopping centres were largely located in the west, while all of the offices were located in the east in Midnapore and Sundance. Most fascinating about these offices though, is that they exist at all- many neighbourhoods in Calgary have large power centres in them, like Shawnessy; few have enormous business parks like Midnapore and Sundance. So what was the point of zoning the area as such and building this? It was simply the next step in Midnapore’s long industrial history.

Fluor building in Sundance Place Business Park. The new Fluor office was built in 2000 as the anchor of the park, which would see several more offices built on the site over the next decade.

It was inevitable that once the Midnapore area was part of Calgary officially, the local industry would change. The strong ties to agricultural that had sustained the area before development became less viable as the farmland moved further away with development and the conversion of agricultural land into Fish Creek Park. Many residents moved out of the area because of this. Those who remained, or more likely moved in, sought employment primarily in other parts of Calgary and it was the city’s goal to ensure they were able to do this effectively. They accomplished this in two ways: first by upgrading the roads, allowing more residents to travel elsewhere for work; and then by building a large, local employment centre. Road development is common throughout the city, but the fairly unique employment centre was needed because of The Deep South’s location in Calgary. According to the Midnapore 1 Design Brief, the offices of the employment centre were meant to be an impressive sight upon entering the city. But really it all comes back to comes back to that boon of The Deep South-traffic. The cut-off geography, with few ways out, combined with the pace of development historically moving a little faster than the infrastructure needed to support it, has resulted in endless traffic problems here; no doubt, the logistics of moving product in and out of Midnapore limited its industrial potential through the years. A simple way to mitigate these issues was to provide the area with a large number of amenities, hence the power centre in Shawnessy. More ambitious was the business park, which could not only provide potential employment to area residents, but also encourage those outside the area to access and leave it opposite the flow of typical rush hour traffic, reducing traffic on main roads like Macleod Trail in two ways. For residents, the business park also offered the possibility to live and work within a few blocks, no doubt enhancing the livability of the area. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough of us have taken advantage of the opportunity.

23 Sunpark Drive, a large 4-storey office building that formerly housed several engineering and oil & gas firms, it became increasingly vacant for several years. Much of it is now being redeveloped for more service-oriented uses, such as the Service Canada Passport office located on the bottom floor.

Walking around the Midnapore business park in the summer of 2014, I was surprised to see that every one of them had spaces for lease. The Sundance business park fell into similar misfortune- for example, most of the building at 23 Sunpark Drive was vacant by late 2014. Some of this was due to the initial shock from the plummeting price of oil, but I always wondered if it wasn’t also due to location. As much as I love the area, the office buildings here don’t really compare to the grandeur of the downtown skyscrapers, and we don’t have things like Chinatown, Stephen Ave, The Core, +15s etc. And with downtown commercial vacancies hovering above 20%, I’d hate to see what the vacancy rates are like down here. So where does that leave us? If the business parks have not lived up to their potential, if The Deep South has no distinct industry of its own, like it did for over a century, then what is it? Is it just another bedroom community in a city that is by and large made up of bedroom communities? Just another place to cram people into the Calgary machine? Let me be blunt: No.

“I must have felt, like my grandfather, that Alberta was a wonderful place, for I can still remember the heartbreak when we had to move away. I think I said “Goodbye” to every wire gate and fence post on the way to Calgary to catch the train to the East”- John Gordon, on leaving Midnapore ( pg 291)

“We have sold all the registered cattle and a portion of the farm, but still feel the Midnapore area is the best place to live”- Stanley Henker (pg 296)

“I’ll always remember Midnapore with a great deal of nostalgia, hard times and mostly good times.”- Bud Jardine (pg. 297)

“In 1974 a year after retiring we moved away from Midnapore and the advancing city, to Scandia, Alberta. Scandia is another friendly community similar to Midnapore which we were loathe to leave.” T.M. Swensen (pg. 315)

-Quotes from the book Sodbusting to Subdivision describing Midnapore, before it was developed. The area is much different than it was before 1977, but it is still very special.

Going back to the original questions posed in the first part of this article (‘what makes a place?’, ‘why do we live here?’ etc.) we must acknowledge how different the world is from when this community was initially inhabited and settled. Its climate and geography initially made it inhabitable, agriculture allowed for permanent settlements, manufacturing allowed it to thrive, proximity to Calgary allowed it to grow, and planning allowed it to boom. At every step, technology changed the nature of life in the area. Perhaps the most significant was mass transportation- as horses gave way to trains and then cars, it became less necessary to live and work in the same area; what was once essential became merely convenient, as was the case with the business parks. Once again, developments like telecommuting, cleaner manufacturing and even AI are changing the nature of where we live and work. So rather than asking ‘why does a place exist?’, ‘what is the industry there?’, and ‘how can people live there?’ the question increasingly becomes ‘where do people want to live?’ Naturally, everyone wants to live somewhere nice, and The Deep South is a very nice area to live.

Helicopter photo of Sundance and Midnapore, looking north, circa 1986. Photo is hanging in the Mid-Sun Community Centre, rumoured to be a gift from the developer to the Community Association. In the foreground is Lake Sundance, with Lake Midnapore behind it, followed by Lake Bonaventure and Lake Bonavista north of Fish Creek. Most of Calgary’s “Lake Communities” are in the Southeast.

The lake communities have often had their sustainability questioned, or been derided in books like Unbuilt Calgary for being frivolous or ostentatious, and only meant to increase property values. But that misses the point- they just make a place better. And when an area is great, residents are more attached to it. And though the man-made lakes in Midnapore, Sundance and beyond are pretty special, there was always something amazing about the area south of Fish Creek. Above I gave several accounts from the book Sodbusting to Subdivision of people who were loath to leave the Midnapore area. Many of those accounts were in response to the impending development in the late 1970s that forced them out, either because they did not like the changes that were afoot, or could not afford to live there any longer. Today I look at the changes in the area, and see a similar response: the large increase in secondary suite applications, multi-residential buildings and home businesses that would allow more people to be able to live here, and residents that often oppose these and want the area stay the same. Both sides are really making the same argument- the area is great, and we want to live here.

The high praise I give my neighbourhood is naturally biased- I wouldn’t write so much about it unless it meant a lot to me. But while I’ve heard many people be attached to their neighbourhoods, or give reasons for why they don’t want to leave, unlike in The Deep South, I’ve never heard so many say how they refuse to leave. Nor have I encountered so many who’ve left and only want to come back or have come back and have sworn to never leave again. And at various times I’ve heard people who lived all over describe Deep South neighbourhoods as ideal. For a few years, I think many area residents worried about the older neighbourhoods, as the kids grew up and moved out, hollowing out the schools and streets in the process. But then the area started to turn over, and new families moved in, because it has intrinsic appeal. And I’m sure that three quarters of the kids who moved out would love to move back. The Deep South has its flaws: the distance, the traffic, the suburban suffocation, the lack of places to hang out that aren’t bars. But it’s also clean and attractive, with friendly people and lots of shopping and services. It is a great place for a family, with plenty of options for schools and amazing amenities in parks, the lakes and Fish Creek. And it’s pretty safe, with lots of character and some great history. So I don’t worry about the area falling apart anytime soon; sometimes I worry about gentrification with the always ridiculous real estate prices, but that’s kind of the opposite concern. Mostly I just wonder what the future holds, because I think there’s still a lot of potential here.

The City of Calgary predicts high growth for the community of Midnapore over the next few decades. Meanwhile, the community has also been predicted as one of Canada’s Top 100 Investment Neighbourhoods.

Thinking back on what first really brought the Fish Creek area success, the Woollen Mill, it’s funny to think that it found its greatest success as the opposite- a mostly residential area with very limited industry, and virtually no primary industry or manufacturing left. And looking at all the vacancies at the business park, I have to wonder about whether it made sense to build it at all, or at least so extensively. With this in mind, I felt dismayed when I first heard that Watkins Machine Shop was going to be replaced with an office building. The initial development permit from 2014 has now expired, but it still remains a possibility. While the property owners are allowed to do this, I think it would be a shame, since the machine shop is one of the few buildings in the area constructed prior to annexation. As I noted above, the livelihood of an area is tied to the things that make it better, and one of the advantages of this area is its rich history, so I think it would be a shame to knock down more of it for another office that may or may not succeed.

The Sunpark Cafe located in the Sunpark Plaza medical centre is the rare restaurant and retailer actually integrated into the business park, rather than outside or at its periphery. They have some great Mediterranean food like baba ghanouj.

This isn’t to say that the business park was a total failure -less than 100% vacancy is not failure, especially with the economy how it’s been the past few years. Nor does it preclude the business park from becoming very successful. Personally, I would like to see it become more integrated with stores and restaurants, the way it is downtown or as is common Asia. The retail spaces are almost entirely in one part of the park in both Midnapore and Sundance which I think is unhealthy; thinking even bigger, maybe it was a mistake to have virtually all of the commercial on one side of Macleod and the business on the other. Greater distribution of retail and service spaces might make the area a lot livelier, especially at night when the business parks are inevitably empty- the increase of health and government services, as well as an indoor playground at 23 Sunpark is encouraging. But then again, the downtown core, with far better integration and more amenities, is also pretty much dead after 6PM. But I can’t help but think it would be worthwhile to try and make these areas more lively and more of a focal point of the community. There is still a great value in working and living in the same area, that could only be improved with more street-level interaction and full-time site usage. I’m happy to see so many home businesses in the area, for the same reason- diverse uses build neighbourhood cohesion.

Watkins Machine Shop along Shaw Road in 2017. In the background is the old Midnapore Hall, another neglected historic site in the area.

So I would prefer that the machine shop stayed, to be celebrated and preserved as a unique site. But if the area was redeveloped into the sort of community space I just envisioned for the business park, that could be preferable to a historic site that has largely been ignored and overlooked by everyone in the area. Mr. Watkins himself seemed surprised when I told him that I thought of it as historic. But then that’s the funny thing about so many old buildings; the builders of them rarely expected or wanted them to become historic, they were just trying to thrive in a particular place. It becomes silly to try and anticipate the future, or control how it’s going to turn out; I really doubt the early community founders expected it would turn out like this. Just like them though, we need to try and make this area the best we can with the resources at our disposal: the land, our initiative, the location, atmosphere and history, whatever it may be. It is this sort of work that makes for successful industry, and a successful community. This was key in the success of our community in the past, and will be just as valuable in the future.

1 thought on “Industry- The Business Park

  1. Interesting,
    Nice to see something of what has happened in the past. Just found this in a community
    Paper the other day.

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