Denver vs Calgary: A Tale of Two Thriving Downtowns!

Richard White, June 15, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, Saturday, June 14, 2014 titled "Downtown cores: Denver vs Calgary).

A recent visit to Denver reminded me of how similar yet different its downtown is to Calgary’s.  Downtown Denver is divided up into 10 districts encompassing an area of about 8 square kilometers. This would be the equivalent in Calgary of – Downtown Core, Downtown West, East Village, Beltline, Sunalta, Hillhurst, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Inglewood.

The Downtown Denver is thriving with twenty-six, new projects completed in 2013, totaling 2.2 million square feet (residential and commercial) and valued at $1.8 billion in private and public sector investment. Since 2008, 78 projects have been completed, are under construction or planned, totalling over 5 billion dollars. 

From January 2013 to May 2014, the total value of building permits for Calgary’s downtown was 1.2 billion dollars.  Since 2008, Downtown Calgary boasts 100+ projects completed, under construction or proposed since 2008, including over 7 million square feet of office space alone.  

Denver has a healthy mix of old and new architecture.

Calgary's downtown sense of place is dominated by office towers like The Bow, designed by Norman Foster. 

Denver vs Calgary at a glance

While Calgary’s central business district has twice as much office space and significantly better shopping (Denver has nothing to match our Hudson Bay department store, The Core or Holt Renfrew), Denver offers up more museums, a baseball park and a huge convention centre.

Both cities have two waterways that are lined with parks, pathways and condos - Denver has South Platte River and Cherry Creek, while Calgary has the Bow and Elbow Rivers.

While downtown Denver focuses on professional sports facilities, Calgary’s downtown forte is its recreational centers. Denver boasts its Elitch Gardens (a summer midway fairground and botanical garden) Calgary has Stampede Park and the Calgary Zoo.  Denver’s spanking new Union Station is the hub for an extensive regional transit system while Calgary’s 7th Avenue serves as its transit hub.

From a public space perspective, Denver has 152 acres of parks (Civic Centre Park, Confluence Park, Commons Park and Centennial Gardens), Calgary can go toe-to-toe with its 150 acres consisting of Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island, Memorial Park, Shaw Millennium Park, Fort Calgary Park, Eau Claire River Promenade and East Village River Walk.

From a contemporary architectural design perspective, Denver’s contemporary gems are the Denver Art Museum (architect, Daniel Libeskind) and Public Library (architect Michael Graves).  Calgary easily matches that with The Bow (architect, Norman Foster), the Peace Bridge (architect, Santiago Calatrava) and Eighth Avenue Place (architect Pickard Chilton) and Hotel Le Germain (architect, LEMAYMICHAUD).

Denver's uber contemporary Art Museum. Calgary lacks a major arts museum.  

Denver was one of the first North American cities to connect signature architecture and downtown library.  Calgary is a late adopter in the iconic contemporary architecture competition.

Jaume Plensa's "Wonderland" on the plaza of the Bow office tower in Calgary.

Larry Kirkland's sculpture titled "East West Source Point" sit on Denver's municipal plaza.

Denver's Millennium Bridge allows pedestrians to cross the railway tracks to get to the river. 

Calgary's Glenbow Museum is both a history and art museum.

Calgary's downtown library.

Eight Avenue Place is one of several new major office towers constructed in downtown Calgary over the past five years.

Calgary's Peace Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava is a popular place for pedestrians, joggers and cyclists to cross the Bow River. 

Denver's LRT map

Calgary's LRT Map

Tale of Two Malls

From an urban design perspective, both cities’ downtowns are dominated by their pedestrian malls, which serve as their urban backbone, linking their respective neighbourhoods, attractions and amenities.

The creation of downtown pedestrian malls was all the rage in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like bike lanes are today.  However, most have not succeeded in revitalizing their downtown as a shopping and dining destination, especially in large cities.  Most of the North American pedestrian malls have been abandoned, while others have added some car or transit traffic to them. Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk and Denver’s 16th Street Mall are two of the more successful large city pedestrian malls in North America.

Denver’s 16th Street Mall is 16 blocks running from their Civic Centre district through their Central Business District (CBD), LODO and terminating at Union Station and the South Platte River. Technically, the 16th Street Mall is no longer a “pedestrian mall” as it now has a free shuttle bus (the equivalent to Calgary’s free fare LRT zone) that runs back and forth every five minutes relegating pedestrians to the sidewalks.

While the 16th Street Mall links several districts, most of the major attractions are several blocks off the mall including the Library, Art Museum, Convention Centre, Performing Arts Centre, Children’s Museum and Aquarium.

While Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk (also not a true pedestrian mall as it has traffic on it at night) is only six blocks long, however it connects pedestrians to the front door of an amazing number of its downtown activities and attractions such as City Hall, Olympic Plaza, Performing Arts Centre, Glenbow Museum, Convention Centre, historic district, Devonian Gardens, Financial and Fashion districts. 

However, after visiting the 16th Street Mall, I think it might it be time to consider extending Stephen Avenue all the way to 11th Street SW making it 12-blocks long? In so doing, it would provide a pedestrian-friendly link from the thousands of new condos planned for downtown’s West End, as well as to Shaw Millennium Park and the potential new contemporary public art gallery (at the old Science Centre) to the downtown core and the downtown’s burgeoning east end. An expanded and redesigned Stephen Avenue could also accommodate cycling.

The days of restricting urban streets to just one mode of transportation are gone. Good urban design evolves with changes in urban living. Today, the focus for creating vibrant urban places is on creating good pedestrian, transit, cycling and vehicular access. 

Denver's 16th Street Mall 

!6th Street Mall at the LODO warehouse district 

Biscuit Block (currently being renovated) is one of many warehouse buildings along downtown Calgary's Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.  

Calgary's Stephen Avenue Walk is a very popular place at lunch hour. (photo credit: Jeff Trost)

Calgary's flagship Hudson Bay Store on Stephen Avenue.

The CORE shopping centre on Stephen Avenue. The massive skylight spans three city blocks, seamlessly linking  three office retail complexes, as well as the Devonian Gardens. The natural light emulates an outdoor promenade. The skylight is the world’s largest point-supported structural glass skylight.

Downtown Living

Denver has made significant residential development gains in over the past 15 years especially along the South Platte River and in LODO.  Currently, 66,000 residents live in their 10 downtown districts, with another 7,000 condo units under construction or planned.

A similar comparison of the ten communities surrounding Calgary’s downtown adds up to 65,000 residents. Recently Altus Group (Calgary Herald, May 15, 2014) estimated there are an amazing 12,447 residential units proposed, pre-construction and construction stage in our City Centre; this doesn’t include those communities north of the Bow River or east of the Elbow.  Most of Denver’s new condo developments are mid-rise (around 10 to 15 storeys) compared to Calgary’s multiple 20+ story condos).

Denver’s LODO (lower downtown) district is the equivalent of Calgary’s Beltline. Both are vibrant hipster and yuppie hangouts with diverse restaurants, pubs and clubs next to their respective central business districts.  Twenty years ago, LODO was just a vision - today it is a lively urban village. This argues well for Calgary’s East Village.

What downtown Calgary has that Denver lacks are the mixed condo/single-family residential villages next to its downtown - Hillhurst, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Inglewood. There is nothing in downtown Denver that matches the street life of Kensington, 17th Avenue or 9th Avenue SE in Inglewood.

One of Denver's highrise condos.

One of several mid-rise condos along Denver's downtown railway tracks. 

Denver's Cherry Creek pathway and condos.

Calgary's Bow River and the Eau Claire condos.

Calgary's Eau Claire Promenade is popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists year-round.

Calgary's First Street SW is one of several pedestrian zones on the edge of downtown.

Calgary's 17th Avenue is a popular retail and restaurant row just seven blocks from the central business district. 

Mixed-use development in downtown Calgary includes major office and condo towers with urban grocery store. 

Last Word

 Calgary’s greater downtown offers an amazing diversity of urban living options from highrise to midrise, from townhouse to single-family and from riverside to parkside.  Few cities in North America under two million people can match the diversity of urban living options Calgary has in its downtown neighbourhoods.

The fact Calgary can go toe-to-toe with Denver’s downtown is significant given metro Denver has not only three times the population, but a downtown considered by urban planners to be one of the healthiest in North America.  Calgarians (citizens, politicians, architects and developers) should be proud of the downtown we have created.

While there is always room for improvement and we can’t be the best at everything, what we have accomplished for a city of just over one million people is significant.  There’s no need to apologize to anyone.