Mean Streets, Main Streets, Pretty Streets

Over the past few months the City of Calgary’s Main Street team has hosted dozens of workshops in various communities around the city asking Calgarians what they think about creating a new Main Street in their community.  The facilitated workshops are well organized with not only information panels, but also nine tables where community members work with a City Planner to document everyone’s ideas into three categories – issues, opportunities and outcomes.

I participated in two workshops (Kensington Road and Montgomery) and the passion and pride Calgarians have for their community is outstanding.  I especially loved working with the three young guns (30 somethings, young Dads, newcomers to Montgomery, professionals, cyclists) from Montgomery where we were exploring ways to transform both Bowness Road and the Trans Canada Highway into Main Streets.

Be careful what you wish for?

One of the problems with public engagement can be raising the public’s expectations that any idea they have, no matter how unrealistic, is going to happen. One of the common denominators at both workshops was the idea their current “main street” was a “mean street” with traffic, poor lighting, tired business facades, few trees and patios.

Everyone agreed that it would be nice to have a boulevard or promenade like streetscapes with new traffic signals, cross walks, street lamps, banners, benches, sidewalks, trees, flowers and bike lanes.  I expect all the workshops identified this as an issue, opportunity or outcome.

Great idea, but who is going to pay for this?  It could easily cost $5 million dollars to upgrade a few blocks (eg. traffic signals cost $300,000, cross walks $80,000. At $5 million for 24 Main Streets the City could be on the hook for a $120 million dollar streetscape program.

Mean Streets

Kensington Road sidewalk next to school yard fence is a "mean street." 

On the south side of Kensington Road is dominated by a crazy quilt of fences and unkept backyards of single family homes.   

Pretty streets don't attract people

While everyone loves the idea of pretty streets, they don’t necessarily attract people. Look at East Village, for the past several years it has had some of the prettiest streets in North America - banners, hanging flower baskets, ornamental street lighting, new roads and sidewalks – but it is still like a ghost town.  Why? Because there is nothing to see and do yet!  This will all change when the condos, hotel, museum, retail and restaurants open.

16th Avenue NW has an diversity of shops and restaurants, as well as an upgraded streetscape with new lighting, median etc. but it has yet to attract any significant pedestrian traffic. 

16th Avenue NW has an diversity of shops and restaurants, as well as an upgraded streetscape with new lighting, median etc. but it has yet to attract any significant pedestrian traffic. 

 

Perhaps a better example is 16th Ave (aka Trans Canada Highway), it was prettified several years ago, but so far it hasn’t attracted any major new development and there are not a lot of pedestrians along the north-side sidewalks even with improved sidewalks, decorative lighting and median.  There are a variety of shops, some very bohemian (comics, used books, records and audio equipment).  However the six lanes of traffic and no street parking, make for a poor pedestrian experience. 

Why do Calgarians love wandering Kensington, Inglewood, 4th Street or 17th Avenue? Because they have a diversity of things to see and do – cafes, boutiques, restaurants, galleries, pubs, live music venues, patios and cinemas – not because of their pretty streetscapes.

Peters' Drive-In is a Calgary mid-century icon and is a good example of 16th Avenue NW's car centric DNA.

New Identities

Both Montgomery and Kensington Road groups talked about creating an identity for their Main Street.  A loud cheer went out when someone said “Bowness Road stops in Bowness!” The Montgomery Young Guns, thought Bowness Road in Montgomery should be renamed Montgomery Boulevard and look like a boulevard. 

The West Hillhursters were clear that Kensington Road should NOT be an extension of Kensington.  So perhaps a new name is needed to kick start a new identity. How about Grand Trunk Village (West Hillhurst use to be called Grand Trunk) which would encompass both 19th St SW and Kensington Road, from 18th to 20th Street.

Bowness Road in Montgomery has already begun its transformation into a 21st century Main Street with the addition of new building with retail at street level and condos above.  Residents would like to rebrand the street create a stronger community identity. 

The addition of small pocket parks and town squares as community meeting places are also desired by many residents. 

Recruitment

One of the things we talked about is how can we recruit new retailers to locate on the proposed new main streets, especially a couple of good neighbourhood pubs – for the Montgomery Young Guns that was top of mind.  The wish list for Kensington Road included a pub, but the butcher, baker, candlestick maker and even a small grocery store.

While these would all be nice to have, it is not very realistic to expect retailers to locate in fringe commercial districts just because the residents think it is good idea. It takes thousands of customers a week for a local retailer to survive, and the economics of “pioneering” into a new area can be very risky. 

The discussion also wasn’t realistic when people talked about creating Main Streets that are 5+ blocks long.  Most good neighbourhood pedestrian streets are just one or two blocks long – Britannia would be a good example.  Better to have two good blocks than four or five blocks that have half the space empty. 

Kensington Road has an eclectic mix of merchants this block has yoga studio, small grocery store, gas station and restaurant. Around the corner is medical building and dentist. 

While everyone would love to get a building of this quality from both a design and tenant mix, the Atlantic Avenue Art Block is not likely to be repeated again soon in Calgary.  It should be noted that transformation of Inglewood from a rundown hookers' stroll, with pawn shops and second hand stores into Canada's Best Neighbourhood has taken over 30 years and is still only in the middle of its transformation. 

Too focused on the 3 Rs

Most of the workshop discussion focused on new retail, restaurants and residential development, but in reality a good main street is just as much about office development. The traditional Main Street was where all of the local business took place; unfortunately much of that business today takes place online.

Pedestrian oriented street level medical and financial offices add sidewalk traffic on weekdays when the residents are at work. Upper floors can make good office space for small professional firms like accountants, engineers, fitness clubs and lawyers.

Condo on the opposite block to school on the same day provides a pleasant pedestrian experience. 

Marda Loop is an example of a contemporary pedestrian streets with retail shops at street level and condos above.  They bring new residents and retailers to help revitalize the community with many of the shops open 7 days a week and into the evening.

Communities should also be encouraging more office developments in and around their main streets to provide a more diversified client base for the cafes, restaurants and shops. 

Landowners are the key

In Montgomery one of the issues was the ugly facade of the businesses along Bowness Road.  The city has separate meeting set up with the landowners to discuss ways to encourage them to upgrade their buildings or to redevelop.  Many cities like Edmonton and Hamilton have incentives for landowners and business owners to make improvements.

In Calgary, many of the landowners are not very motivated to sell as they face huge capital gains taxes. They also aren’t interested in improvements as they are making a good rate of return without having to invest any money into their buildings or business.  It should also be noted the older, tired buildings provide more affordable rents for local “mom and pop” businesses to survive.

Many of the main street being studied have fragmented ownership like these apartments along Kensington Road, making it difficult to assemble sufficient land for a new mixed-use development. 

Connectivity

In both workshops connectivity was an issue and an opportunity.  In Montgomery, there needs to be better pedestrian connectivity between Bowness Road (aka Montgomery Boulevard), Safeway Mall, the Motel district on the Trans Canada Highway, Shouldice Park and the River.

In West Hillhurst (aka Grand Trunk) it was surprising to see how close the SunAlta LRT Station if only there was a direct pedestrian link over Memorial Drive and the Bow River. Retail connectivity was also an issue with a few shops clustered on 19th Street SW, some on Kensington Road between 18th and 21st Street and others further west at the intersection of Crowchild Trail, Kensington Road and Memorial Drive.

Nothing over Four Floors

It was interesting density was not an issue in either workshop I attended, people understood that density was critical to creating a more diverse community with more amenities.  However it was clear at the Kensington Road workshop, that nobody wanted anything over four floors.  It was also clear they didn’t just want cookie cutter condo blocks, but quality architecture and materials.

Length matters

In chatting with some of my colleagues with Main Street redevelopment experience, one of the issues facing the Calgary project is that it was originally conceived as a Corridor program.   As a result, all of the study areas are 6+ blocks long, which is not the right scale for a traditional Main Street.  As one colleague said, “the core or signature stretch of Robson Street in Vancouver is 3-blocks, in Calgary’s Inglewood it is only 2-blocks.”  Perhaps the first step in Calgary’s Main Street program would be to focus on just a 2 or 3-block area where there already is some pedestrian-oriented commercial development.

Roberta Brandes Gratz (urban critic, author of The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way) suggested one of the best ways to promote urban revitalization is to strengthen what already exists before building new. 

Last Word

As one Main Street expert said to me “communities need a bit of a reality check on the investment required to kick start residential and retail interest. East Village, Kensington, Mission, 17th Avenue and Inglewood to some extent benefit from being next door to the downtown and/or the river. Creating neighbourhood Main Streets takes time and relatively small moves that build like a snowball.”

While the City and communities have ambitious ideas I hope they will be able to link vision with reality. The development of 24 new Mains Streets is very ambitious going to take time. It is the landowners who hold all the cards for Main Street development.  The focus should be on them, not the community.

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's Condo section on Saturday May 16, 2015. 

Readers's Comments:

BL wrote: 

The first issue for me in creating Main Streets is on-street parking , usually but not always combined with two-way single lane traffic. This may seem like a typical engineer's approach to a planning/architectural/environment problem but if you stop and look at what separates a good urban street from a "mean" street you might notice this to be true. 

The east end of Kensington between 10th and 14th, arguably the busiest section for traffic, has on-street parking which facilitates successful retail business; but the portion of Kensington west of 14th has no on-street parking but also very little traffic. It would cost the city very little to introduce on-street parking along most of this stretch.

The second issue is to determine what is the principal use of the street. Is it a shopping street or is it a through way? No amount of effort will ever turn the TransCanada Highway into a pleasant place to spend time strolling or shopping. So why not accept that TCH through Montgomery is a through way, and focus our "Main Street" efforts exclusively on Bowness Road.

Further isn't it time to stop using 16th Avenue as the TransCanada Highway? One has only to look at a broader map of Alberta to see that the TCH detours north just east of Strathmore; a political move made over fifty years ago to appease the business interests in Strathmore at the time of the TCH construction. It would be a simple move to direct TCH traffic along the Highway 22 alignment through the southern part of Calgary diverting north at either Bragg Creek or the soon to be built(??) southwest ring road.

One of the oft-ignored principles of urban planning is that the right kind of car traffic is a good and a necessary component of creating successful main streets. Did the attendees at these Main Street planning meetings include transportation engineers?

CO wrote: 

Good blog....a couple of other barriers to developing Main Streets in Calgary include:

  • Calgary's Land Use Bylaw essentially sterilize pubs from being near residential and restaurants too small to be viable
  • Planners fight surface parking or loading facilities: both essential for retail to survive in suburbs
  • Planners assume all retail is boutique or mom and pop and actively fight larger stores that act as anchors 

 If you like this blog, you might like:

Montgomery: Calgary's newest urban village.

Beautiful Downtown Bowness

Flaneuring the TransCanada Highway 

Mount Pleasant & Calgary's other 4th Street