The CORE of the Plus 15 in Calgary, Canada. (photo by the author)

Plus 15

Building an off-world colony a few feet above the street.


The science fiction staple of abandoning a less desirable place for another, more desirable one has been around almost since the beginning of science fiction itself. After all, who can deny the appeal of a fresh start in a brighter, better place? It’s often a cautionary tale, the result of not having entirely thought through the consequences of environmental neglect or outright abuse. Lacking the ability, or will, to put that right it’s just easier to start over again in low earth orbit or better yet, another planet either real or imagined. This notion of the future was truly brought to life in Ridley Scott’s original Bladerunner in 1982. The inhabitants of 2019 Los Angeles are forced to endure the nearly constant rain in a dark, hellish, toxic, crime-ridden place all the while being taunted by blimp-mounted billboards touting that a “new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” The people down below must constantly look up to a luminescent place and bright future they will never reach.

Harry Hanen, an urban planner who worked for the City of Calgary from 1966 to 1969 was in no way inspired by Bladerunner — it was still a dozen years in the future — but you have to think the idea of rebuilding the streetscrape in a better, more desirable place was drawn from science fiction of some form. If the city in which he was born in 1935 was just too cold or too snowy or too mucky-in-the-shoulder-seasons, why not build a better, brighter, sunnier one? No need to build that “new life” in orbit or on Mars or some other planet. Rather, build it just 15 feet above the dark, cold, snowy, mucky one you inhabit now. Thus was born the concept of the Plus 15. Starting in 1970, new developments in the downtown core of Calgary, Canada had to include some sort of elevated, covered and heated walkway to adjacent buildings. Hanen’s vision was the ordinary day-to-day life of a modern, cold climate downtown core could be conducted in shirt sleeves, year round, miserable weather be damned. Today, Calgary’s Plus 15 consists of 83 pedestrian bridges and 14 kilometres of walkways spanning an area a dozen city blocks wide, east and west, and nine city blocks north and south. Even before his death in 2000, the Plus 15 was likely exceeding Hanen’s original vision for what it would eventually become, let alone what it is today.

Ironically, the primary enduring value of the Plus 15 — during the five months of predictably cold winter weather here — is that downtown office workers can leave their Canada Goose jackets and Brooks Brothers pea coats conspicuously draped of over the back of their office chairs. They won’t need them where they’re going, which is the nondescript food court just a couple of heated walkways away.

I had been living in Calgary for 12 years when local filmmaker Gary Burns released his ascerbic classic Waydowntown in 2000. The premise of the movie was simple: a group of office workers bet a month’s salary for the one of their number who could go the longest without going outside a weird, interconnected, sterile live/work dystopia. It looks stunningly similar to Calgary’s Plus 15 and it’s no wonder. Being an independent film, and looking for ways to make it inexpensively, Burns simply set up his cameras and equipment in the Plus 15 and started shooting. I don’t believe Calgary was specifically mentioned but there is no mistaking it. In fact, Calgarians at the time made pretty good sport out of identifying landmarks they may have walked by every day in their own, real life version of the movie. Also familiar, at least for some, was the insidious, creeping claustrophobia portrayed by the characters in the film. In between being hilarious, there are moments where it cuts a little too close to the bone — too much like the real life experience of those who rarely ventured outside the system during their typical workday.

The only artistic license which Burns took with the Plus 15 was to imply there was a tight integration between where the characters worked and where they lived. In real life, the Plus 15 has little in the way of direct connections to residential complexes. Workers must therefore exit at night when they go home, and re-enter again the next morning. In winter, this ensures they are either underdressed for the cold outside or overdressed for the warmth inside. They must also be proficient at layering up or layering down on-the-fly as they pass through an airlock. Those who launch their SUVs from a heated garage on Earth and shuttle up to a heated, Plus 15-attached garage come closest to Burns’ characters who never encounter any real weather at all.

I can still recall Gary Burns being interviewed at the time about Waydowntown. The journalist was obviously from out of town and was clearly not familiar with the Plus 15. Burns was asked if the movie had been shot on some sort of set and what kind of imagination it took to dream up such a strange place. Burns quickly set him straight. The Plus 15 was cast as itself in the movie, and required no makeup or prosthetics to carry off the role. “That’s exactly the way it is,” he told the interviewer, “we didn’t have to weird it up at all.

As it evolved over the decades and gained momentum, the Plus 15 set about destroying all forms of life on the surface of its home planet. Like the plot of yet another science fiction movie, it’s as if the cinematic Plus 15 had become suddenly self aware, blinked rapidly in the low winter sun, and recognized the threat to its existence which lay just a few feet away. It then proceeded to rain death from above, not dramatically, but by slowly pinching off the forms of sustenance its perceived enemy required. The Plus 15 monster would not even have to finish off the wetwork itself. As life down there began to wither, it became progressively less desirable and eventually unbearable. That vicious cycle precipitated an even more hasty exodus for those who could afford a means of escape. In the final scene of the movie, in an ironic made-in-Hollywood twist, the Plus 15 realizes too late that it too depends on resources drawn from below. By hastening its demise, the Plus 15 also realizes — too late, of course — that it has succeeded only in destroying itself.

I would go see that movie.

At least I would if didn’t feel I was living some highly muted, metaphorical version of it every day. Any entrepreneur who wants to spend a dime on a new restaurant or a new store or a new dental practice or a new optometrist has to weigh two options: one is the certainty of customer traffic enabled by easy, shirt sleeved, lunchtime clientele. The other is the utter crapshoot of believing you’re so good at what you do that clientele will brave the icy wind standing at a red light waiting to cross the road to your establishment. Sadly, the response to that dilemma is all too often the safe, indoor choice. Another storefront closes, or a new one never opens, and another little slice of the streetscape dies. Almost entire city blocks in Calgary now lay moribund awaiting some bolt of lightening which will shock them back to life. The addition of bike lanes, however well-intentioned and well used as they are, have only accelerated the trend for the time being. When I see tourists walking through one of these dead zones, I’m ashamed to admit, I feel only embarrassment and a powerful urge to tell them how to get to Banff.

A pocket of brave, rebel resistance to the Plus 15 empire — or maybe just hubris in the face of an unapologetic bully — is the Eau Claire Public Market on the north side of the downtown core. It lies adjacent to Calgary’s beautiful and beloved Prince’s Island Park and the pristine, trout-laden Bow River. Partially as a result of simple geography, but maybe as an arrogant conscious choice, the airy public market did not originally connect to the Plus 15 system and remains a tantalizing few hundred metre dash from the closest entrance at the nearby Sheraton hotel. A recent visit to the Market leaves the impression of a truly great idea on life support and ready for a final, long shot attempt with the defibrillator. An odd assortment of retailers soldier on, the movie theatres offer reduced rates on shows late in their run, and the food court is dotted with customers grabbing a quick bite before they escape home. It’s the zombie apocalypse without the zombies.

The Eau Claire Public Market was packed in the early days. My wife and I visited every weekend and grew accustomed to the delightful, fresh-baked, smoky smell from the bagel place and attracted to the tony, well-healed, independent stores. They had made what seemed to be a sure bet in the new Calgary downtown landscape. But as the novelty wore off, one tony store was replaced by another slightly less tony one and then again by something one notch below that. Then, eventually, they closed altogether. Recently, we visited there but it was simply because the movie we wanted to see was not playing anywhere else. We were left with the overwhelming impression that the Market is simply marking time until its unavoidable date with the wrecking ball.

While it’s tempting to ask “what could possibly have gone wrong?” there really is no need, because everybody already knows. The snazzy new website for the redevelopment of the market area — in amongst the promise of 2.1 million square feet and a 1000 new condos — puts “+15 Connections” at the top off the list of desirable, proposed features. It further claims “the +15 system creates convenience and is integral to the success of a mixed-use development.”

The Plus 15 is at its most Biosphere 2 in a place simply called The CORE, a gigantic shopping mall which spans three city blocks in the heart of downtown Calgary. It’s anchored by the Hudson’s Bay Company department store to the east and the high end retailer Holt-Refrew to the west. Much of the three blocks is enclosed in a gracefully arched, wall-to-wall glass roof which rises above the four storeys of indoor space. It’s one of the few places in the Plus 15 where you don’t feel it’s closing in on you, and you can breathe. If that old science fiction idea of enclosing cities in hermetically sealed and climate controlled bubbles ever comes to pass, I think this is what it will feel like. Or perhaps on that interstellar, multi-generational journey to the next solar system which will require spaceships with self-sustaining environments — there is some element of that here, too.

It’s an impressive space, with a substantial portion of the retailers with soaring, two storey storefronts. However, The CORE suffers from the same pervasive, chronic, wasting disease of the rest of the Plus 15 system. Outside of a busy period spanning mid-morning to mid-afternoon there are simply not enough people for enough time to give the place solid retail sustainability. In what is a very ominous sign, the teams of experts from two top tier American retailers — Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue — decided to pass on The CORE when siting their first stores in Calgary. They chose instead Chinook Mall, with its 5,500 parking spots, located a few minutes south of the downtown core on the otherwise featureless Macleod Trail. What Nordies and Saks wanted were busy retail hours and lots of them. At Chinook that means 9-to-9 most days to which, with near certainty, the determined credit card crowd will happily drive and stay all day. This leaves The CORE picking up leftovers in the retail landscape and eternally searching for other good reasons for people to visit outside the core hours of The CORE.

One of those reasons could have been, and might yet be, the Devonian Gardens, located at the east end of the 4th level. It first opened in 1977 and did a pretty good job of recreating a tropical garden — a bit of tamed rainforest within easy reach of the snow shovel weary. At $9 million, it was pricey in its day, but was soon well regarded by visitors. There was a sense of relief that a little bit of the exotic outdoors had been brought indoors. There was also a pleasant, funky smell which I imagined, incorrectly I’m sure, was freshly released oxygen mixed with the natural life and death found in a rainforest. Never having seen a real rainforest this was uneducated guess at best.

The Gardens were such a well regarded feature of the Plus 15 system they warranted a $36 million, four year renovation starting in 2008. It opened to the public in 2012 with justifiable fanfare given the whole project seemed to have taken so long. We were all glad just to have it back. However, the one thing interstellar space travellers will not have to worry about — gravity — spoiled the party. Almost immediately, the pools and lush beds of the new Gardens began to leak, soaking the drywall, ceiling tiles and merchandise of the stores below. There was the usual talk of ‘teething problems’ and vaguely arrogant ‘we understand your concerns’ PR, but the problems persisted. After another four years, much of the new Devonian Gardens were closed in 2016 and remain that way today. Calgarians are left to wonder if their beloved bit of ersatz Amazon will ever return.

As a footnote and if nothing else, the fate of the Devonian Gardens should further compel us to preserve the real rainforest out there in the wild. I would hate to think at some point in the future the only one at our disposal will be in a giant terrarium with posted visiting hours.

Our jetpacked, carless, middle aged great-grandchildren may look back on us, a hundred years from now, as the generation who courageously stopped the growth and then began to disassemble the Plus 15 to help restore normal street life in Calgary. That is not even remotely possible. Perhaps in the early days, if buyers’ regret had kicked in quickly, the City might have re-evaluated its approach and embraced alternative strategies to making the weather at 51° north slightly more bearable. Harry Hanen successfully sued the City for wrongful dismissal after his departure. Perhaps he woke up in a cold sweat one night wondering what he hath wrought? Perhaps having arrived at that conclusion and relating it to his bosses at City Hall, they moved quickly to bury that inconvenient truth. It’s easy and fun to speculate.

Although details are sketchy, there is supposed to have been a building, immediately south of what was once the Alberta Pool building, which used waste heat to warm the sidewalks and keep them clear of snow and ice. It did so without the aid of sand or shoe-destroying salt, and it must have been a real novelty for pedestrians. It’s a clever idea for which the right time never came. Warm sidewalks removed the immediate slipping hazard without completely isolating walkers from the fact we really do live in a cold climate for a significant portion of the year. Modern Oalu, Finland and Reykjavik in Iceland, for example, have embraced the concept as part of their cold climate strategies. Closer to home, Montréal has embarked on an ambitious project along the same lines. However in Calgary the innovative Brown Building, as locals supposedly referred to it, is long gone marked only by a tidy but otherwise ordinary parking lot.

Maybe it’s not too late. I read recently of projects in Washington and Oregon to remove dams from trout streams and restore the river wild. The societies who built those dams might look at this development as unthinkable. Circumstances change and newly restored wild fish habitat prove that sometimes you can turn back the hands of time.

I think about a bold decision like that as I routinely walk countless additional blocks to remain inside the Plus 15 simply to avoid that agonizing 40 second wait on a windy street corner. On those long, unnecessary walks I think about Calgary without the Plus 15. What would have that been like? Would it have been a better or worse place? Would the 400,000 people who have moved here since I arrived have never come at all? For those who did come, would they embrace or reject our brilliant, brutal cold? Would they love or hate the place as a result?

However, those noble, high-minded thoughts are quickly crowded out by other, more prosaic ones. I think only of how unbearably cold and snowy it is here at this time of year. At least that’s the way it looks from in here.

©2018 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading! This essay is also available as an episode on the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author.