Paul Battistella has lived in inner-city Calgary his whole life and was brought up in the building industry. He’s played a vital role in the development of the city of Calgary, not just of Battistella buildings but much more.

Faith had the chance to sit down with him to bend his ear about the city, East Village, and why the Battistella Brothers chose to build two buildings there.


As an inner-city developer, what changes in YYC have you noticed since you started building?

The significant changes started from when I first started until around 2013. That was kind of the growth in development in the inner-city area. When I first started, we were one of the bigger developers in Calgary, but as things progressed, we became one of the smallest. Even though we were growing, it was in influx from firms from Toronto, Vancouver and other places that were arriving in here in response to the market opportunities that Calgary was offering and that lead to the whole wave of different development. I think it just kind of improved the quality of the units and the number of them that, in turn, increases the vitality of the city. I think more people are living here, so you get more vibrant areas then we had before.


So, the changes that you’ve seen have been positive?

Yes, it’s about growth. Y’know, we’re still not to the level of some of these aspirational cities such as Vancouver or Portland, but we’ve made some significant progress. We’re still a suburban city, we’re still a car-oriented city, and I believe that will be generational before that converts, but I’ve seen an improvement, and that’s the most significant change that I’ve noticed.


How has East Village changed since you build ORANGE LOFTS?

Well, the first time we got involved in ORANGE LOFTS, there was a plan with the City and a group of private developers to redevelop the whole area, including running a canal right up 5th st from the river. They had a whole little mini Venice water feature that they wanted to build and more, and then suddenly, that entire plan (while we went ahead and built our building) collapsed; it just vanished. The whole deal with the City and the developers fell apart and basically sat in hiatus for almost a decade.

Then they re-established everything, and they did all of the infrastructure work and the improvements through CMLC. They raised all the roads; they improved the sidewalks. They were able to complete all of the development they needed to, to make that area what it is. And that’s what’s acted at the catalyst. Now you’ve got the library, you’ve got a bunch of new buildings, you’ve got the grocery store coming. Y’know everyone can argue that it could have been carried out more efficiently, but it did accomplish what it set out to do. To have all of those amenities and infrastructure in place, it actually has a chance and a footing to become a real urban neighbourhood. I’m not sure it’s there yet, I still think we need more development there; we need more residential and commercial, but it’s significantly better from the day we went in.

My son was born in 2003, and that’s the year ORANGE LOFTS was completed, so we’re here 17 years later, and we’re just finally now at, what I think, is the start of a good urban neighbourhood. But that’s how long it’s been. From the start to the point we’re at now where, hey, we’ve got a good foundation to make this vibrant place happen. It’s still got a ways to go, and it’s crazy that it’s been 17 years to get to this point, it’s a long, long time.


So, how come you built two buildings in East Village?

Firstly, we were looking for affordable lands that had compelling upsides, and we’d heard about what the city was planning. We’d found both the lots (ORANGE LOFTS and INK), and we bought them both at the same time. So we built ORANGE LOFTS, then the whole partnerships with the developers and the city crumbled and faded, so we didn’t bother going onto the next project because you know what, there was no great story to sell there. Nothing’s happening; it’s just going back to being this desolate neighbourhood. So we left that site and moved onto 1st street where we built CHOCOLATE and COLOURS. Then we moved into Kensington, and then during that time frame, the city invested all that money and work in East Village, and everything came to fruition, so we were like hey! We have that site there; let’s go back! So that’s what ended up happening.


Did you know, at the time, that ORANGE LOFTS would be as iconic as it is?

No, I think at the time. You know, it’s typical of what we do. Great ideas are typically borrowed from somewhere else. So we borrowed this idea right out of Vancouver. Kind of a cooler, light, industrial area that had a bunch of these artist lofts/studio buildings and it was actually my mum that found it. She went out, she discovered it. She loved to stay in Vancouver, so she walked the city and the neighbourhoods. She’d look at all the developments, and she found her inspiration, then she found the architect, and she brought us out there to see it, and we said yeah, we could do this in Calgary because it’s just so unique. So that was the instigator that made us build that unique building. That’s probably, what allowed it to keep its value, even when the other development work cratered because it was so unique. There’s nothing else like it in the city, and that’s what made it be able to stand its ground. The values didn’t fall off, even when everything else failed in that neighbourhood. It held it’s own because there was nothing else like it.


What changes would you like to see for inner-city Calgary?

I’d like to see a time when there are as much consideration and investment in growing urban communities as there is in growing suburban communities. We pay for road infrastructure; we pay for interchanges and more. Hundreds of millions of dollars of money from taxpayers who are in these established area communities flow outwards to help facilitate that development on the periphery of the city.

To me, and I have biased, but I don’t find that’s the greatest way to live a life. Because to live a life out there, you need to be in your car all the time. You’re continually driving; you’re driving to go to a grocery store, you’re driving to go to school, you’re driving to go to recreation facilities, to entertainment. There’s nothing you can do, living in those communities that doesn’t require you to get inside your car and drive. And I’d like life to be so you don’t need to have a car, and if we can get closer to that, I’m not saying it has to be one or the other, but if we can get to that place where we can truly live without a car, then you get a more interesting and dynamic city.

Any major, large city in the world or the coolest city that you want to visit, you can live in those cities without a car, and you know it when you arrive. You can feel it. There’s an energy, you experience it when you walk down the street, and we don’t have much of that here. We have pockets of it here and there, but we don’t have a concentration of it, and really, you need a car to visit these pockets. Whereas if you’re in cities such as London or New York or even in smaller cities like Portland, you can live in the Pearl district; it’s high density, it’s industrial, it’s got jobs, and you can walk to the downtown core. It’s connected. And it’s that connection between these pockets that I feel we’re missing.