Calgary's Rail Trail Stroll

By Richard White, December 3, 2013

Do you consider yourself to be a bit of an “urban explorer?”  Its literal meaning is “the exploring of off-limit urban places, often associated with abandoned sites and buildings or underground water and sewer systems.” 

Other terms for these activities are “urban spelunking,” “urban caving” and “building hacking.” While I and urbanists have often used the term, I don't think we have used it correctly.   

I think the term “urban pioneers” would be more appropriate…especially in Calgary given our long history of pioneering!  To me, urban pioneers are people who are willing to live, work or play in gritty urban places, fix them up and transform them into funky, friendly neighbourhoods that eventually get discovered by the masses.

Where would an urban pioneer hang out in Calgary?

Some place with urban grit and Calgary chic. Would it be East Village, Inglewood, Bridgeland, Bowness, Forest Lawn or perhaps Manchester?  My vote goes to 10th Avenue SW or what I like to call the “Rail Trail.”   

This is a Christmas window along 10th Avenue from a few years back.  There are lots of hidden gems along the rail trail if you keep your eyes open. 

Wrong side of the tracks?

For the past 100 years, 10th Ave has been the wrong side of the tracks. For many Calgarians, the area conjures up a picture of ugly parkades and empty gravel parking lots.  It is definitely not pedestrian friendly - no designer sidewalks or street furniture and no colourful banners or hanging baskets. 

Having recently become a big fan of Mikey’s Juke Joint (the new King Eddy) at 18th Street and 10th Avenue SW., I have slowly discovered the quirky charm of the area on the south side of the CPR rail tracks.

Mikey’s is tucked onto a corner in the underbelly of the Bow Trail/Crowchild Trail spaghetti over/under passes as well as the West LRT sky train.  The locale is the epitome of the urban landscape – freight trains go by regularly and lots of warehouses, empty lots and chain-link fences. This is where John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac or J.D Salinger would hang out if they were alive and living in Calgary today. 

If you are thinking you’d like to try some urban strolling in Cowtown, here is my suggested tour of the 10th Avenue Rail Trail.  You could do it in an hour or you could take a half day, have lunch, a drink or take in a blues jam session. 

One of the many ugly surface parking lots on the north side of 10th Avenue facing the CPR tracks. The Centennial Parkade is the building on the other side of the two fences and the tracks. 

Prairie Oysters & Beer

I’d suggest starting your stroll at 2nd Street SW with an early lunch or a beer at Bottlescrew Bill’s Pub.  They offer a unique Calgary experience - “Around the world in 80 beers!” While most pubs come and go, Bottlescrew Bill’s and the sister restaurant Buzzards have been around since 1980.

In June 2011, the Globe and Mail writer Robin Estrock listed “devour prairie oysters” at Buzzards Restaurant as #5 of “The 15 things to see and do in Canada before you die!”

Heading west, the next block has a north/south dichotomy with the north side being one of the many nasty surface parking lots and the backside of the Royal Canadian Pacific Railway shed. You would never know this is home to one of the best collections of heritage railway cars in the world. 

On the south-side is a collection of historic brick warehouse buildings that originally served the CPR freight trains and today house some noteworthy retailers (e.g. Roche Bobois one of the world’s most exclusive international contemporary furniture stores).  I wonder if 100 years ago they ever thought these buildings would one day be used to sell $15,000 sofas?

The next block offers up the same dichotomy with brick warehouses on one side and the City Center Parkade (CCCP - adding one more C would be fitting as this structure looks like a concrete bunker from Russia) on the other.  Did I say there are no hanging baskets on 10th Avenue?  I take that back as there are baskets at this parkade. 

This block also has the flagship CRAFT brew pub, with 100 beers on tap -  it has become an instant hot spot for the young and restless after work crowd.  The National is another larger playground for Calgary's GABEsters, with it Bourbon room and 8-lane 10-pin bowling alley. Who says Calgarians don’t stay downtown after work?

At the southwest corner of 4th Street is the shinny new Centre10 office tower that has risen out of the ashes of two failed condo developments on the site. A sister office complex is planned for the north side of 10th Avenue.

The alley between 10th and 11th Avenues is home the entrance to Metro Vino one of Calgary's oldest wine stores.  

Loft Living

At 5th Street, you’ll encounter the historic red brick Hudson Lofts; this was the first of the early ‘90s loft conversions in Calgary and the beginning of the renaissance in downtown living.  There are plans for more condos, hotel and another office building in this area over the next few years - the surface parking lots are quickly disappearing.

The next stop is the Uptown Bottle Depot, a “must do” stop for every urban explorer/pioneer.  If you want a truly unique Calgary experience, return your empties here; urban grit at its grittiness.

However, just across the street is the old Alberta Boot block, plans were recently announced for a new 360 Residence Inn by Marriott.  Lamb Development Corp. plans to build a 30 story, 230 unit condo building to the west of the Depot. 

Another just block west is the Commonwealth Bar & Stage, Montauk Sofa and Speed Theory (bike shop).  You are now on the edge of the Design District. 

Hudson Loft is one of many brick warehouse buildings along 10th Avenue a few of which have become loft condos.  

Centre Ice

Centre ice for the “Rail Trail” is 10th and 8th Street. It’s home to several retailers and restaurants including Mountain Equipment Co-op, Trepanier Baer Gallery, The Social Page, Bonterra Trattoria (best patio in the city), Bumpy’s Café, Café Mauro, Edo Sushi, Holly Grill, Decadent Desserts and The Ferocious Grape. 

The old West Canadian Graphics (WCG) building on the southwest corner will soon be the funky Mark on 10th condo by Qualex-Landmark.   Next to this site is the carcass of the Astoria condo (remember the plans for the $10,000,000 penthouse condo). This fenced off abandoned construction site would be a great place for true “urban explorers.”  

The eventual development of the WCG and Astoria sites will result in over 500 people living near centre ice.

Strolling further west, you pass by Vistek Camera store and quickly arrive at the Midtown Co-op grocery store block.  For those interested in what it might be like to live in the Rail Trail area, stop in at the Qualex Landmark condo sales centre on the northside of the Co-op block and find out about their latest project. Next door is Interior Living furniture store to help you furnish your new condo and Tri-Yoga a popular spot for young, hip and flexible.

The Mountain Equipment cooperative store (MEC) is the anchor retailer on 10th Avenue and was the catalyst for making 10th and 8th Centre ice. 

Street Ballet

Crossing 11th Street you will pass by some “no-name” office buildings and industrial buildings before you arrive at Community Natural Foods at 12th Street.  This has to be one of the liveliest places in the entire Centre City.

Not being part of Calgary’s granola gang, I am always surprised at the animation - an urban ballet of pedestrians, bikes and cars trying to get in and out of the too small parking lot.  The Korean Village restaurant in the strip mall next door is a hidden gem, I am told by a colleague who once lived Korea (could be a place to stop for lunch).

Those with a good imagination can envision how the next block would have changed if the proposed Lausanne and Montreau (two 50 storeys high-rises) condos had been built across from the Lighting Centre.  

This is a close up of the murals of LP records on the back side of Heritage Music store (museum) that can be seen from 10th Avenue. 

Rolling Stones meets Big Bang Theory

Some recent road changes mean you no longer have to go to 11th Ave to cross 14th street - pedestrians, bikes and cars. However, I’d suggest you do go to 11th to checkout Heritage Music - it’s the wooden shack with the Rolling Stones’ Tongue record mural on the backside.  Inside is a mind-boggling collection of vintage vinyl, Hollywood memorabilia, as well as CDs – well worth exploring.

At the northwest corner of 10th Ave and 14th St is All Season Rental Adventures.  Who knew that you can rent ATVs, snowmobiles, motorcycles, scooters and even toboggans in Downtown Calgary?

Keep wandering past the Sunalta Community Association Building all the way to 18th Street and check out Sentry Box, Calgary’s premier fantasy, science fiction and military literature and gaming superstore (13,000 square feet).  It’s home to Calgary’s Dungeon and Dragon crowd and is where the Big Bang Theory boys would hang out if the TV show was based in Calgary. Along the way you will find a huge Western Veterinary Centre, one of the largest in Canada, as well as two surprising religion centres. 

Across the street is Mikey’s Juke Joint.  If you are strolling on a Saturday, try to arrive  about 3ish so you can experience the Saturday afternoon blues jam hosted by saxophonist and owner Mike Clark. 

Sleeping on the Rail Trail

The Calgary Mattress  Makers  at 19th St. is more of an old world arts and craft studio than a factory. Owner Dean Halstead encouraging people to walk-in and chat with him about your sleep needs.  He and his team then create a hand-tied, chemical free mattress custom made just for you and your partner with each side custom made to meet your individual needs.  After a day on the Rail Trail you may want to lie down for bit. 

Call me crazy - but in a few years, the “10th Ave Rail Trail” could well become Calgary’s hippest, coolest, hottest, funniest, liveliest neighbourhood!

 

The Sentry Box is a hangout for hipsters, GABEsters and families.  

Camera Buffs

The Rail Trail offers some unique views of some of Calgary’s modern glitzy architecture – Bankers’ Hall, 8th Avenue Place, Husky Oil Tower and Nexen Tower. It also offers some gritty views of urban industrial, warehouse and transportation design.

 Bring your camera!

This is an image of the Calgary Tower that I happened upon when flaneuring 10th Avenue several years ago. 

Found these beauties on the side of the Gulf Canada Square Parkade. 

Found these eyes staring at me as I headed into Mikey's just a few days ago.

The futuristic Sunalta station is a camera buff's paradise. You could spend an entire day they taking photos of the architecture inside and out as the light changes during the day.

The Rail Trail is full of surprises like this Kingdom Hall for Jehovah's Witness and not too far away is a Buddhist Centre.