Devonian Gardens reopens in Calgary after four years and $37 million

Four long years and a massive renovation later, Devonian Gardens is springing back to life.

Crowds had a first look at the $37-million redevelopment on Wednesday afternoon.

Touted as one of the largest indoor parks in North America, Devonian Gardens in downtown Calgary’s TD Square covers about one hectare — about the size of two football fields.

The tropical oasis, originally completed in 1977, was badly in need of upgrades, officials say. Like shag carpet and macrame, the look was a little dated.

“One of the words I hear from the old garden is that it was tired,” said city parks planning manager Kyle Ripley. “It was designed as a 1970s garden, more like an exterior park.

“What we see now is more contemporary — a new space with a lot more life, and the design is a lot more timeless.”

Most importantly, the city now has a viable plan to help pay the bills for the tropical attraction.

A restaurant leasehold will go directly to offset costs of the gardens.

And to continue generating revenue, the glassed-in gardens have spaces to be rented out for private and corporate parties.

“We’ve redesigned the space to accommodate the kind of events people wanted to have down here, whether it’s weddings, Christmas parties, corporate events, piano recitals,” said Anne Charlton, the city’s parks director.

“You have a very flexible space that is truly one of the largest public parks in North America.”

The airy redesign includes contemporary landscaping, waterfalls, exotic plants and palm trees, a horseshoe shape and a wide-open entryway into the Core shopping centre.

The popular koi are back after being held in a local aquarium during the renovations. The fish, close to 60 centimetres long and decades old, are now swimming in three ponds. New schools of the orange fish are only the size of a pinky finger.

“I’m really impressed,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “It feels so open and the light is magnificent. To turn it into a beautiful, vibrant public space downtown, that’s pretty special.”

Hundreds of visitors strolled under the palm trees and beside the gushing waterfalls on Wednesday.

Calgary senior Edna Ripley was excited for the reopening of the gardens, where she exhibited landscape paintings during Calgary Community Painters shows and receptions in the past.

“I truly missed it, I always came here when I went shopping. It’s so lush and tropical,” she said.

“You almost feel like you’re outdoors. It seems much more spacious.”

A children’s play park sits near the food court.

“We’ve been waiting for four years for our kids to be able to play here,” said dad Ken Lowe. “This is one of our most enjoyable places to come. It truly is an oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle.”

Besides being a tourist attraction, the gardens has served as a favourite lunchtime meeting spot for downtown shoppers and office workers for over 30 years.

Ald. Druh Farrell, who used to enjoy lunch with her mother on a favourite bench once a week, says the massive renovation almost didn’t happen.

“We were on the verge as a council to turning back the keys to Devonian Gardens,” she said, crediting general manager Erika Hargesheimer for pursuing funding.

The city closed the doors to Devonian Gardens in 2008 and embarked on what would eventually become a $37-million renovation project. Originally budgeted for $23 million for the first construction phase, trees and planting pushed it an extra $14 million further.

There are 550 trees of 18 different species in the botanical gardens.

The majority of palm trees came from Florida, where they were acclimatized specifically for the Devonian Gardens. Several others came from Hawaii via California.

Crews with a crane elevated 40 large trees and about 170 smaller trees to the fourth floor of TD Square.

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