First Street Underpass Transformation Finally Underway

Editor's Note:

This blog was written for the Hotel Arts newsletter in April 2013. Unfortunately the First Street Underpass didn't go forward as planned that summer due to the Great Flood of 2013.  Fortunately, the plan for transforming the underpass is currently underway.  

Given the pedestrian traffic that uses the CPR underpasses connecting the Beltline with the downtown core and their very poor conditions one has to wonder why they weren't given priority over Poppy Plaza, Memorial Drive decorations or the Peace Bridge. 

Plans are also underway to transform the 8th Street Underpass into a much more inviting place for pedestrians 24/7.  That blog will have to wait until another time. 

First Street Underpass Transformation 

Before Calgary became an oil and gas city, it was a railway town. In fact, not only does the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) main line still run right through the downtown, its head office is located downtown on 9th Avenue at 3rd Street, at least until its planned move to the Ogden Rail Yards in a few years.  The Steam Locomotive #29 sits, as a sentinel in front of the building on the plaza (fyi its steam whistle blows daily at noon). Placed there in 1996 when CPR moved its headquarters from Montreal to Calgary, it symbolizes a significant milestone in Calgary’s evolution as one of North America’s major corporate headquarter cities. Locomotive 29 also has the unique distinction of being the last CPR-operated, steam locomotive to close out the railway's steam era on November 6, 1960 - one day shy of the Company's 75th anniversary of driving the last spike.

It is the CPR that shaped Calgary’s downtown in the early 1880s, when it decided to locate the Calgary Train Station on the west side of the Elbow River. Why? Because, there was too much land speculation in the Inglewood area, so by placing the train station on the west side of the Elbow River, CPR could control the sale (profits) from all of the land around the new train station.

The CPR’s mainline (between 9th and 10th Avenues) meant building underground roads to link the warehouse district on the south with the commercial and residential districts on the north.  Yes, the land north of the tracks used to be mostly residential.  Nobody in their wildest imagination back then could have ever imagined Calgary’s downtown would become one of the densest in North America on par with Manhattan and Chicago.  

Interesting to see the First Street roadway being shared by a street car, tow horse driven carts and cyclist 100 years ago. 

Consequently, there are seven underpasses at 4th 2nd (Macleod Trail) and 1st Streets SE and 1st 4th 5th and 8th Streets SW. Of all the underpasses, the First Street SW underpass, built in 1908, is one of the oldest, busiest and dingiest. It is well known for the brownish liquid leaking from the tracks down the retaining walls to the sidewalk – looking like something from a bad horror movie.  The idea of building bright, clean and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks hadn’t even been thought of when this underpass was built.  Although there have been some attempts over the years to improve the lighting and hide the leaking  and staining of the retaining wall, the ugly patina soon returned.   

Then in November 2011, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (the arm of the city responsible for developing the land east of City Hall), unveiled its very sleek and shiny 4th Street SE Underpass.  Using 21st century thinking, they created a bright and open (an incline that allowed pedestrians and others to see from one side to the other) underpass, with subtle streetscape ornamentation and lampposts that directed light on the road and the sidewalk. 

4th Street SE Underpass (photo credit: JordanW.ca on Flickr)

It didn’t take long for the City to realize the need to make all underpasses linking the Beltline (south downtown) community with the downtown core more attractive.  Up next is the First Street SW Underpass, with construction slated to begin late this summer.

In the mid '90s, Calgary artist Luke Lakasewich created a large mural crafted out of steel to animate the underpass.

First Street SW itself is significant in two ways. It is the only street from the 1913 Mawson Plan for Calgary that was actually built. Thomas Mawson was an early 21st century urban planner, who not only created a master plan for the City of Calgary, but also the City of Regina, University of Saskatchewan and Vancouver’s Stanley Park. It is also the only street in Calgary that links the Elbow and Bow Rivers. For Hotel Arts’ guests, it is THE gateway to the downtown – to Stephen Avenue Walk, CORE shopping center, Calgary Telus Convention Centre, EPCOR Performing Arts Centre, Bow River Promenade and Prince’s Island.

Starting late summer and hopefully finished by Christmas (plans are to do most of the work off-site to minimize the need for closure of the underpass), the First Street underpass will be completely transformed into a pedestrian friendly corridor linking the south and north sides of downtown. The City of Calgary has awarded the project to Calgary’s Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative. The project is more complex than you might think, as the new design must balance function, purpose and aesthetic design. Boutin is a good choice - not only is he an award-winning architect, but as his former office was a block away he knows the space and its challenges first-hand.

He and his creative team have generated a clever design that will convert the underpass into a work of art.  Their design consists of using two layers of a thin perforated aluminum screen mounted on the retaining wall to hide the stained concrete and allow for new water channeling infrastructure.  One layer of the perforated aluminum screens are designed to reflect the new LED lighting such that it will create a mountain landscape mural on the west side retaining wall and prairie landscape on the east side wall.  The second aluminum screen will have perforations that create the word “DOWNTOWN” to pedestrians walking north and “BELTLINE” to those walking south.

Rendering of the new wall of light that will adorn the underpass as part of the 21st century transformation. 

Surrealist rendering of the underpass hints at the transformation intended to make the underpass cleaner, brighter and more welcoming. 

Above the roadway along the railway tracks, the existing billboard advertising will be removed and a huge aluminum frame lit in blue will be erected, creating a huge, picture frame-like rectangle that will transform the passing night trains or skyline into works of art.  Ultimately, the pedestrian experience will be like walking into a cool outdoor cocktail lounge, or maybe a surrealistic painting with trains overhead.  

Not only will the entire street be cleaner and brighter, but there also will be more people than ever using the underpass, morning, noon and night.  It will be become the preferred way to get to and from downtown by Beltliners and Hotel Arts guests.  Unfortunately, due to space constraints, there is no room for a designated bike lane, but cyclists can dismount and walk their bikes through this avant-guard corridor.

Could this new underpass is destined to become another downtown Calgary "postcard" like the Peace Bridge, Wonderland sculpture on the plaza of the Bow Tower or the Trees outside Bankers Hall?  

If you like this blog, you might like:

What is Calgary's iconic Image to the world? 

Poppy Plaza Review 

Olympic Plaza needs a mega makeover?  

The importance of the public realm