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A heartfelt goodbye to Eau Claire Market and all it could have been

Standing deserted in the downtown core, right next to the Bow river, is a place of purgatory. 

It’s where businesses have shuttered, the movie theatre no longer screens films, and there are no people left to shop, talk or hang out. Every footstep through this vacant teal, red and yellow building echoes, as its walls await the long-expected impact of a wrecking ball.

After years of being on life support, the plug has finally been pulled on Eau Claire Market. 

It’s closing on May 31 to make room for the Green Line LRT. And as the mall enters its final days, Calgary is preparing for the loss of a notable landmark that never really lived up to what it promised to be.

An empty large building with tables and chairs in the middle of it. there are skylights and two people walking through the large open space.
Some say the indoor market had a unique draw when it first opened. (Ose Irete/CBC)

But even though it has existed for years in a state of semi-permanent unrealized potential following its bustling early days, the mall will surely be missed by sentimental Calgarians sad to see the end of an era.

James Jordan is one of those people. He’s a Calgary-based magician who used to busk at the once-lively Eau Claire Market. He says the mall did — at one point — have a unique draw, summoning enough people to Calgary’s downtown that he could mystify some folks and earn some cash.

“Everyone who was living here, and people from outside, in the suburbs, were coming down to the downtown core … and then experienced what it’s like to be downtown Calgary,” he told Anis Heydari, host of the local CBC podcast, This is Calgary. (This week’s episode of the hyper-local program dips its toe into the pool of hopes and dreams that once surrounded Eau Claire.)

“Which turned out to be not as cool as I thought it would.”

18:47The magic that wasn’t: goodbye to the 90s teal of Eau Claire Market

The Eau Claire Market is soon to be demolished, so it’s time to look back at what went right, what went wrong and what’s next for the downtown project that never really worked. Failure or not, Calgarians felt strongly about the now-dead mall and the magic it promised, so we talk to a literal magician about what it was like to perform there, and a former city councillor about what it’s like to finally say \”eau\” revoir.

Jordan says that, 30 years ago, the vibe was totally different.

“You’d walk into Eau Claire Market and you could get a balloon animal, you could get your face painted. You could see a magic trick, all while listening to a hammered dulcimer or a one-man band. You could get your name written on a grain of rice. You could go to an oxygen bar.”

“That was my big hit,” he said. “I kept going to the oxygen bar because I couldn’t stand the smell of fish and cheese that was everywhere because there was such a huge fish and cheese market in this mall.”

High heaupes, no claire direction

Tchotchkes and treats were all part of the appeal. Jordan says visitors got to do and see everything, all in one place.

an empty room behind a barred off cage-style fence.
Once home to various local businesses, Eau Claire Market now houses empty shops and shuttered spaces. (Ose Irete/CBC)

This sentiment is what Eau Claire Market’s foundation was made of, but its modus operandi never really resonated with residents the way the newspapers and city planners of the time thought it would.

Some say that’s where the trouble began.

“I think it started failing almost from the day that it opened,” Druh Farrell, former Calgary city councillor, told Heydari as the pair toured the empty mall.

“It didn’t really know what it wanted to be.”

Farrell was the councillor who oversaw Eau Claire’s ward for the majority of the market’s lifespan, representing Ward 7 from 2001 up until 2021.

A newspaper clipping that features a rendering of an Eau Claire market that uses the former transit garages.
Initial developers’ plans for the Eau Claire Market, published in a 1986 edition of the Calgary Herald, incorporated the abandoned bus barns. (Calgary Herald)

Why was Eau Claire always just a place to be, but never the place to be?

Before the mall existed, Calgary’s council wanted something new, yearning for something modelled after civic successes in other Canadian cities, like Edmonton and Vancouver — which had both turned old, vacant buildings into farmers’ markets, or “festival markets,” to use the trendy term of the times.

“It was sort of this chimera. A kind of a quasi farmers’ market, a food court, entertainment, activity, that sort of thing,” Farrell said.

“In the ’90s, city council of the day was talking about the need for a farmers’ market in the core, and they were admiring markets in Ottawa and certainly Vancouver, and other places in the world.”

Farrell says that the then-city council was lured into the “festival market” trend that gripped North America, and so Eau Claire was born. Plans to build the 170,000-square-foot Eau Claire Market were announced in the 1980s, and its plaza would pave over the historic bus barns that once stood where the mall is now.

a building is pictured from the outside front entrance. there are light posts in front. it is red and teal coloured metal with orange brick.
Eau Claire Market, pictured in May 2024. The market is scheduled to be closed for demolition on May 31. (Ose Irete/CBC)

The market officially opened its eclectic doors in 1993. But almost immediately, it struggled to find its footing in Calgary, and it’s been standing on its last legs ever since. 

Because of the creation of a new building, as opposed to repurposing the 1940s-era bus barns, Farrell says rent was too high for businesses and farmers. Plus, the downtown core lacked residential density in the early days of Eau Claire Market, meaning a lack of vibrancy in the downtown area after 6 p.m. and on weekends.

“It started becoming more of a glorified food court,” she said. 

“It was an interesting experiment that didn’t work out … It started failing because there just wasn’t the critical mass around it to keep it going.”

a woman with glasses smiles.
‘I think it started failing almost from the day that it opened,’ said former Ward 7 city councillor Druh Farrell. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

During Farrell’s 20-year tenure as city councillor, discussion around what to do with the market was pretty consistent. Even though demolition hasn’t always been the hope, the former politician says she mourned the loss of Eau Claire Market a long time ago. 

So, does she have any regrets?

“I think the sense of regret is that there was such promise for this place to be a hub for people, and a way to invigorate this part of the downtown, without maybe understanding what that actually looks like,” said Farrell.

a photo of an empty mall, businesses are shuttered, one person walks in the large open space.
Eau Claire Market plans to hold a farewell celebration on May 11. (Ose Irete/CBC)

“We knew this was coming for a very long time.”

Now, she’s eager for the future.

Calgary-famous liminal space

As the credits roll on the neglected retail centre, May 5 marked the last day of the movie theatre, closing nearly a month before the rest.

Scott Whetham, executive director of southern Alberta operations with Cineplex, told CBC Radio host Loren McGinnis that, for its loyal movie-loving patrons, the closure means something to the downtown cinephile community. 

two photos side by side show a man holding two decks of cards and then a magic trick where the cards are stuck to a cieling.
‘I’m finally getting the closure that I need from this building being shut down, so we can move on to what’s exciting about the future,’ said magician James Jordan. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

“It’ll be sad for the curtains to close,” said Whetham on the Calgary Eyeopener. “I think it will leave a gap for sure.”

The theatre had also built a long-standing relationship with the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF), which would hit Eau Claire every fall. Whetham says CIFF will be moving to Chinook Mall’s theatre, which he hopes will also attract a new crowd to the film festival.

a sign that reads "cinema 6." the opening to a movie theatre is covered by a large metal fence, the lights are off.
May 5 marked the last day of business for the movie theatre in Eau Claire Market. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Business aside, the place also has some sentimental value to Whetham personally. He reminisced about his first date with his now-wife at the Eau Claire theatre in 2008, so while he’s excited about new opportunities, he says he’ll always remember that experience.

In terms of how the forgotten Eau Claire Market will be remembered in the years to come, some believe you just had to be there.

“Maybe it’s a generational thing. I wonder if [people] will remember when it’s replaced with something more active,” said Farrell.

“Certainly when the LRT goes through — and it has to go through, it’s just the transportation of the future — this could be a major hub in it. It could be the jewel in the crown of Eau Claire and the downtown.”

The idea that new developments will be able to breathe life back into the area seems to be fuelling a sense of optimism that hasn’t been felt in decades. 

An artist's conception of the future Green Line LRT station at Eau Claire shows an aerial view of a red train pulling out of an underground station with a treed park above and heading toward the Bow River.
The City of Calgary is holding online engagement sessions about new renderings of the Green Line project through the downtown area. (City of Calgary)

Even though the fully transformed version of that space is still a few years out, Jordan the magician is ready to bid farewell to the illusion of what Eau Claire Market promised, but never became. 

He’s ready for the city to wave its magic wand and cast the Green Line spell, hopefully reviving the derelict Eau Claire plaza from the dead. 

“I’m finally getting the closure that I need from this building being shut down, so we can move on to what’s exciting about the future,” he said.

“I don’t want to be a busking street performer in my 60s, so I’m not personally excited for it, but I’m excited for the future generation of buskers — what could happen here. I really hope that it’s still got that sense of community that I had in the ’90s.”

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