RED: Calgary's Urban Playground

Richard White, July 3, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Neighbour). 

How can Calgary’s 17th Ave BRZ (Business Revitalization Zone) be the newest and oldest at the same time?  It is the newest in that it was rebranded in March 2013 as RED (Retail and Entertainment District), and the oldest as it was the first BRZ formed in 1984 when it was known as Uptown 17th.

Today, the 12 blocks of 17th Avenue between 2nd Street SW and 14th St SW is one of Canada’s best retail/restaurant streets.  It offers a healthy diversity of flaneuring fun with about 70 restaurants and bars (including some great patios), 70 fashion and gift shops as well as 17 salons and spas. 

17th Avenue became internationally famous in 2004 when it was dubbed “The Red Mile” during the Calgary Flames’ run at the Stanley Cup.  After every playoff game win or lose, 50,000 fans in their red Flames jerseys would gathered along 17th Avenue, creating an impromptu street party with a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere.

The RED mile during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Urban Playground

RED is the urban playground of the young and restless GABEsters (geologists, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers) of the Beltline and the rich and famous of Mount Royal and Scarboro. It is also home to one of Calgary’s newest trendy coffee shops (Analog Coffee) and one of its oldest (Café Beano).

This area is also popular with Calgary’s foodies who love to shop at Janice Beaton’s funky back alley cheese shop or meet up for a meal at her restaurant FARM. Brava Bistro is regularly on the top 10 restaurants in Calgary list. For those looking for something more informal, there is Tubby Dog.  Other foodie hot spots include Market, Cibo, Una, Ox & Angela, 80th & Ivy, Borgo and Menchies. And don’t forget Model Milk, was #2 on enRoute magazine’s list of the top 10 new restaurants in Canada, in 2012.

If you are looking for funky eyewear, Brass Monocle, Eye Candy, Eye on 17th and Sol Optix offer the latest international eyewear.  Other popular fashionista spots include Primitive Culture, Gravity Pope, Reid’s and Rubaiyat. 

The Ship & Anchor patio on 17th Avenue is animated even in the middle of March. 

Inside the Ship & Anchor is one of Calgary's most popular live music venues. 

RED’s Storied Past

Tomkins Park has an interesting history. Established in 1915 on land donated by Henry and Eleanor Tomkins on 17th Ave from 7th to 8th Street SW, it was originally approved as “Tomkins Square,” but eventually was developed as Tomkins Gardens and today is officially Tomkins Park.  Tomkins placed some interesting limitations on the park’s use, “for the discussion of political, religious, trade, or social questions, or lectures or addresses or any game or recreation of any kind whatsoever to be played by children or adults on any part of said lot.”

In 2008, 17th Avenue also gained some media attention as Tomkins Park became home to Calgary’s first automated public toilet – an Exeloo Galaxy.   Ranked #55 in Diana O’Meara’s book “Alberta Book of Musts: Places Every Albertan MUST See,” it is used about 40,000 times/year.

RED as a vibrant cafe scene. 

The sidewalk ballet on 17th Avenue SW.

Window licking fun is critical to being an urban playground.


One of Calgary’s architectural gems is the Devenish Apartments (908 – 17th Ave S.W.) built in 1911 designed by architect Alexander Pirie. To maximize the number of suites (57), the building originally had no bedrooms – a Murphy bed pulled down from the living room wall.  Amenities included the building’s sunrooms, steam laundry and odorless garbage incinerator.  In 1980, it was sold and renovated into the Devenish Design Centre.

RED’s other historical gem is the Anderson Apartments (804 - 18th Avenue S.W.), once home to Jann Arden and inspiration for her song “Living under June.” As well, her video “Insensitive” was filmed here. The Baroque, H-shaped building was designed by Roscoe B. Witten in 1913 to allow for the maximum number of windows for each of its luxury apartments.   The building boasted a marble rotunda, a grand stairway with 12-foot ceilings, as well as all-night elevator and telephone service.

Most of this information was sourced from Harry Sanders book “Historic Walks of Calgary.” This book is a great read and widely available in Calgary bookstores.

Devenish Design Centre