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DIALOG’s Jim Anderson opens up shop in San Francisco

The chair of the architecture and design firm sees a need for transit development throughout the U.S.

Feb 22, 2017

by Michael Ganley

Jim Anderson
Photo Ryan Girard

Alberta Venture: One of DIALOG’s projects – the new terminal at Calgary International Airport – has been getting glowing reviews (except from WestJet, which has complained about long walks between gates). Can you summarize the project in one sentence?
Jim Anderson:
The new terminal is stunning, it shows Calgary and Alberta really well, and it’s fantastic in the way that it’s been done in terms of the sustainability of the design. It also makes Calgary a regional hub. The whole point was to create regional connectivity so Calgary becomes the hub for travellers from around the world, whether it be Asia or elsewhere. With clearance to the U.S., it can really act like Chicago or Atlanta does as a destination in North America for people to come and hub through.

AV: That was more than one sentence, but OK. The big news for DIALOG is the opening of an office in San Francisco, your first in the U.S. Why do this, and why now?
There are all kinds of reasons for us to be in the U.S. We’ve established ourselves well in Canada, growing from Alberta [the firm started in Calgary in 1960] to Toronto to Vancouver. We have a lot of talent and experience under our belt. The world is coming to our backyard for every project, so why don’t we go play in theirs? And it gives us an opportunity to learn from that experience as well and bring that knowledge home.

We’ve been talking about this for about a year and looking at it seriously for the last eight months to broaden our markets and find other places we can do great work. We’ve settled on San Francisco because it’s a gateway city to the U.S., so it’s a way to be in the U.S. market, not just the San Francisco market. At the same time, it’s a wonderful city and it aligns with a lot of our values. It has a very purpose-driven culture. People there are serious about making a difference with what they do.

We’ll start out slow. We see building the San Francisco studio as building a little microcosm of DIALOG. It will be a handful of people that represent the diverse characteristics of our firm. We’ll have design talent. We’ll have technical depth. It’s important for us to start out with all of that. Being an integrated firm is one of the values of our firm so we want that diverse set of skills around the table right from the get-go.

AV: Will you populate the office with some of your 600 current employees?
It will be a balance of people from our current studios and hiring people locally. There’s an important aspect to being local: Each of our four studios has their own culture.

AV: Do you see it as an opportunity for growth?
I don’t know if growth is the right word. Our goal isn’t to get bigger, it’s to get better.
We do have a mantra that we want to be as big as we need to be to do the scale of projects we want to do and to compete with the other people who do those projects. But we also want to be as small as we possibly can be to preserve that small firm culture that we feel is important.

AV: Did the recent U.S. election cause you any pause?
The calculation didn’t change. This is a long-term commitment for us. We’ve been thinking about it irrespective of political concerns. Canada and the U.S. are sharing some of the infrastructure deficits and the need to develop some of the things that we
feel we have expertise in.

AV: You have said DIALOG has something to offer the U.S. market in terms of your firm’s experience with mass transit.
We’ve worked in Calgary with their system. In Edmonton we did a few stations going back 10 years. We’ve done some stations on the Canada Line in Vancouver and we’re doing some stations on the Eglinton cross-town line in Toronto, so we’ve been involved in the urban transportation systems of all of our cities.

We led the sustainable urban integration team for the Valley Line LRT in Edmonton. It’s a fancy way of saying, “Everything matters. Design everything so that it integrates into its neighbourhood and its surroundings, whether that’s the station or the landscape leading up to it, the sidewalk, the streetlamps, all those things that frankly take building an LRT system to building a city, building a community.”

There’s a need for transit development throughout the U.S., so that’s something we can take lots of places. We had a large delegation at a conference in San Francisco called Rail-Volution presenting some of the work we’ve been doing and showing that
off to the world.

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