Christmas Shopping: The Thrill Is Gone?

I posted this blog last winter and after a recent day of exploring downtown Calgary inside and out it looks to me like some of the windows haven't been changed since last year. Shame on those retailers and restaurants who complain about lack of business, but do nothing to entice people to come downtown and shop.  I can't believe some of the dark forbidding windows on some of the restaurants. Who wants to go into a black hole. 

As many Everyday Tourist followers know, I love taking photographs of the wonderful collages created by the reflection of buildings, street life and window displays while flaneuring shopping streets. Recently, I was flaneuring along Stephen Avenue Walk (Calgary’s downtown pedestrian mall and home to two department stores, three indoor shopping malls and dozens of shops and restaurants) thinking that given it is Holiday Season, I would find some great reflections.  Boy, was I wrong!

Other than a few of Holt Renfrew’s street windows and the thousands of cascading mini lights from Bankers Hall's  skylight, I was hard pressed to find any Christmas/Holiday decorations.  Many of the windows didn’t look much different than any other time of the year.  I’d bet money some of them haven’t changed in over a year.

Bankers Hall's cascading lights has become an exciting and enchanting downtown tradition, that creates a unique sense of place for both shoppers and office workers. Unfortunately none of the other downtown shopping and office complexes have been as innovative and imaginative. 

Missed Opportunities

Riley & McCormick Western Wear and Lammle’s Western Wear & Tack both have flagship retail stores on Stephen Avenue. What a great opportunity for them to do something fun and unique with their large windows for the holidays based on a western wear fashion Christmas.  Arnold Churgin Shoes, Winners, Sports Chek (Canada’s largest retailer of sporting goods in Canada and a Calgary company) and Out There (high end outdoor clothing retailer) also have flagship stores on the Walk, but you wouldn’t know it by their “bah humbug” windows. 

It is surprising that Arnold Churgin Shoes on Stephen Avenue doesn't have spectacular windows not only at Christmas, but year-round.  

Winners has never capitalized on the potential of its large Stephen Avenue windows as a sales and marketing tool.   

Indigo Books' huge window on Stephen Avenue is hardly what you would expect from a major retailer during the holiday season. 

Stephen Avenue needs more than just holiday lights to make it an attractive place to shop. 

The Independents 

Thank goodness some of the smaller independent stores got into the Christmas Spirit along Stephen Avenue. 

Coppeneur Chocolatier has the yummiest windows on the block. This store is now closed

Fluevog Shoes got into the Christmas spirit. 

The Department Stores 

I am thinking this suggestive party cracker themed window by Holt Renfrew turned some heads?

Inside Holt Renfrew is much more conservative with its decorations inside the store. 

I always thought the purpose of a flagship stores was partly to build the company’s brand. There was no sense of animation or excitement to invite you to go in, or portray that this would be an interesting, fun place to do some Christmas shopping in any of these stores. 

Hudson's Bay flagship store’s windows along Stephen Avenue are nothing short of pathetic. Along Stephen Avenue they announce a new development coming soon if you look in the window it looks like nothing is happening.  The main entrance windows on 1st Street SW just off the Walk has a tired looking generic perfume banners having absolutely nothing to do the holidays. Even when you walk into the store, there’s no sense of celebration, no sense that this is a special place to shop.  

The entrance to Hudson's Bay's historic downtown store makes no reference to the Holiday Season. The window looks the same a year later.

It doesn't get any better inside the store. 

Then there’s Flames Central (aka Allen/Palace Theatre) a major event centre. I don’t think they’ve changed their windows since they opened, which must be at least 10 years ago.

Even when you go inside the shopping malls (Bankers Hall, The Core and Scotia Centre) most of the retailers have ignored the power of exciting and enchanting windows, to make the tens of thousands of pedestrians who pass by the windows every day – stop, look and potentially come in to shop.

Brass Monocle in The Core shopping centre is known for its imaginative windows, yet there is no attempt to make them festive for the Holiday Season.  

Guess' window features their dresses but nothing says, "This is Christmas..." 

Bah Humbug!

Downtown Christmas shopping used to be a tradition, not only in Calgary, but in cities across North America.  Department stores like The Bay and Eaton’s would have wonderful Christmas windows with animated Christmas or winter scenes that attracted families from across the city to come downtown to shop.

In most major cities, the annual downtown Santa Claus Parade attracted tens of thousands of spectators/shoppers from across the city and was the traditional kick off of the holiday season. Today only few major cities have a parade and with a few exceptions the downtown department stores (those that still exist) don’t even bother with a Santa’s Village. 

Kudos to the Calgary Downtown Association for organizing weekends with Santa at Devonian Gardens and Olympic Plaza, as well as for their lighting up Stephen Avenue at night, but without the help of retailers (indoors and out) creating fun, festive windows and shops, it is pretty much pointless.

Kensington Village

My route into downtown takes me through Kensington Village and one of the first retail windows I encountered was Purr. I was expecting more from this funky fashion retailer in the way of a seasonal window display. 

Walking the streets of Kensington Village the celebration of the holiday season is a bit better.  Kudos to Battisella Developments for their Christmas tree and to the Business Revitalization Zone for banners, Christmas hanging decorations and weekend activities (roaming Santa, Elves and horse drawn wagon rides. 

However, the windows of the majority of the retailers, restaurants and cafes still are pretty much devoid of any sense of the holiday season.   

Fortunately as I wandered further into the Village I found more windows like this one - The Rocket T-shirts - that had fun, funky and festive windows

Last Word

No wonder more and more people are shopping online; the thrill of shopping in person is gone. I'd love to hear from readers what it is like in the suburban malls and Calgary's other shopping streets - 9th Ave, in Inglewood, 17th Ave. in Beltline or 4th Street in Mission.  

Too bad it is only in places like Chicago and New York that the “thrill of the Christmas holiday season lives on.”

This is just one of several trees I found decorated next to the sidewalk that made my walk home more pleasant.

On my way home, I noticed several homeowners had decorating their street trees with Christmas ornaments. This got me thinking wouldn’t it be great if the merchants along Calgary’s pedestrian streets did the same to the trees in front of their stores. It would add some fun and festivity to what can be a pretty drab pedestrian experience in our winter season.  

 

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Macy's Holiday Windows on State Street: A Chicago Tradition

Stampede 2015: Have we lost that luv'n feeling?

Window licking in Chicago

 

 

 

 

Calgary: A Few Hidden Gems

Every city has their hidden gems - cafes, bookstores, pubs or shops - tucked away off the beaten path, that even some locals aren’t aware of.  Here are five Calgary hidden gems for locals and tourists who like to explore off the beaten path. 

Aquila Books, 826, 16th Avenue NW

Who would think the little building with the blue awning on the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Ave N) is home to one of North America’s - if not the world’s - great antiquarian bookstores?  Aquila specializes in books dealing with Polar Expeditions, Western Canadiana, Mountaineering and the Canadian Pacific Railway. As much a museum as a bookstore with antique maps, prints, photos, letters, postcards and scientific instruments, it even has an Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling.

Recently, owner Cameron Treleaven published Mount Everest’s 60th Anniversary book of George Lowe's letters written to his sister while climbing Everest in 1953. The book is signed by Jan Morris, Huw Lewis-Jones and Peter Hillary and includes a cutting of Lowe's sleeping bag used during the expedition, making this an extraordinary addition to any book collection.

Note the Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling - very cool!

More info: Flaneuring The Trans Canada Highway

Café Rosso, 803 - 24th Ave SE

Every city needs a signature café. In Calgary Café Rosso in Ramsay’s industrial district is one of ours.  Yes, they have other locations but this is the original Rosso with its own Probat L12 roaster, Marzzoco machine and Anfim grinder. They arguably serve up the city’s best espressos and lattes. It is also a great bakery for those craving a muffin, banana bread, scone or a tangy sandwich.

Located in the 1927 Riverside Iron Works complex whose roots were as a small machine repair shop, which grew into a major steel manufacturer. Today, the site is home to many funky businesses including Ladacor Ltd., a sea container construction company and F&D Scene Changes fabricators of public art, parade floats, theme park structures, theatre and film set designs. Ramsay, one of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods, is a great place to explore on foot.

Everyone loves Caffe Rosso in Ramsay!

More Info: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District

Heritage Music, 1502 - 11th Ave SW

For music collectors, Heritage Music is THE place to be. Before going inside be sure to check out the wall of records on the north side of the building with remnants of the iconic Rolling Stones’ Tongue.

And don’t let the 1927 quonset-style former service station building fool you. Inside you will find not only vintage vinyl, but new and out-of-print music, rare concert tour and gig posters, photos, movie posters and just about anything “music” you can think of. Holger Petersen of Stony Plain Records says, “Heritage Music has the best collection of Blues, Folk, Roots and Jazz records in Canada.”

More info: Calgary's Rail Trail Stroll

Heritage Music's fun, funky and quirky street art facade.

Louche Milieu,3401- Spruce Dr. SW

Midcentury modern maniacs will adore this little shop authentically located in the mid-century Spruce Cliff Shopping Centre. “Louche” is a French term for decadent, flashy, sketchy, dubious, shady and disreputable and “milieu” means an environment or setting, but there is nothing shady or decadent about Louche Milieu.  Full of well curated treasures it’s a “must visit.” Plan around its limited hours, Friday and Saturday 12:30 to 6 pm or call to make an appointment 403-835-1669.

Next to Louche Milieu is Little Monday Café, which serves up tasty homemade muffins and cookies with a full range of caffeine drinks.  It is very popular with young families as evidenced by the chalkboard artwork.

More info: Spruce Cliff Shopping Centre Revitalization

Lots of hidden gems here.

Crescent Heights Steps

Memorial Drive at 2rd St. SW parking lot.

For those looking for a uniquely Calgary workout, try climbing the McHugh Bluff stairs. Not only will you get a great workout, but you will be rewarded with an amazing view of Downtown skyline, mountains and river valley from the top. 

With 167 steps divided into 11 flights, most people find once is enough. But there is fun challenge on the net, based on 10 laps starting at the bottom and finishing at the top.

<17        minutes = Olympian

17 – 20 minutes = Professional, top amateur

20 – 24 minutes = Very athletic

24 – 28 minutes = Athletic

28 – 35 minutes = Average

35 – 37 minutes = Somewhat out of shape

>37        minutes = Out of shape 

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the company of one or more Calgary Stampeders, Flames or a Canadian Olympic athletes working out. Bring your phone or camera as you are definitely going to want to take pictures.

  Lets make this challenging and carry my bike up the stairs also.

Lets make this challenging and carry my bike up the stairs also.

Last Word

Calgary is full of hidden urban gems...happy exploring.  Love to hear from both locals and tourist what are your favourite!

PS...no I have not taken up the Crescent Heights Stair Challenge.

 

 

Seattle vs Calgary: Capturing the urban tourists' imagination?

For years now friends and colleagues have been telling me “You have to go to Seattle. You will love it!” In May, we did visit Seattle (we have been there before but it was 12 years ago) and yes we did love it, but I couldn’t help but wonder why people love Seattle so much when Calgary has as much urban culture to offer.

Seattle, like Calgary, is a corporate city - Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks are all headquartered there.  However their downtown doesn’t feel as “corporate” with downtown blocks having a good mix of hotel, residential and office buildings, with some street level retail and restaurants thrown in.  In fact, on Seattle’s downtown neighbourhood map, they refer to it as the downtown retail core.  In contrast, Calgary has 40-blocks filled with two, three and sometimes four office towers per block and no street retail except for Stephen Avenue.

Downtown as a tourist attraction

Perhaps the biggest difference is Seattle’s downtown is perceived as a major tourist destination. Great tourist cities have iconic attractions.  In Seattle, hands down, the icon is Pike Public Market.  But Seattle also has converted their 74-acre, 1962 World’s Fair site into a year-round attractions district, clustering the Experience Music Project, Chihuly Gardens, Science Centre, Children’s Museum, Space Needle, IMAX and Key Arena into an area called Seattle Centre. Calgary’s equivalent would be Stampede Park - if we added the Calgary Tower, TELUS Spark and the new National Music Centre.

To visualize what the Calgary Flames are proposing for West Village, Seattle would be a good place to visit given its side-by-side baseball and football stadiums at the south end of downtown along the water’s edge, next to the LRT and Amtrak tracks.  We explored the area a couple of times (when there were no games going on) and it was like a ghost town. I hope the Flames do better.

From an urban design (architecture, public art and public spaces) perspective, Seattle and Calgary are similar, both having early 20th century historical buildings districts (Pioneer Square vs. Stephen Avenue) as well as many shinny late 20th and early 21st century towers.  Seattle’s free Olympic Sculpture Park along their waterfront includes a who’s who of international public art, while Calgary’s entire downtown is a sculpture park with over 100 artworks. 

The Seattle Art Museum (known as SAM), like Calgary’s Glenbow, is both an art and history museum.  We lucked out on the day we went - SAM is free on the second Thursday of the month. The place was packed – making me wonder why the Glenbow doesn’t offer one day free per month like most museums and galleries in major cities. 

Seattle, with its huge convention centre, makes Calgary’s look very minor league.  I loved that the public areas have hundreds of artworks that are free for all to explore.

Loved the psychedelic reflection of the Seattle Needle in the facade of the futuristic Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project building.

Seattle Convention Centre has a galleria over the road connecting the large exhibition spaces and meeting rooms.  Inside there are hundreds of artworks that create a free public art gallery.  A similar galleria was proposed for Stephen Avenue in Calgary connecting Bankers Hall and TD Square but never got built. 

The Seattle Central Library is an iconic architectural gem that is popular with both locals and tourists.  Hopefully Calgary's new Central Library will have the same popularity. 

Like Calgary Seattle has public art everywhere.  This piece that using water from the roof of the building caught my attention. In addition, Seattle has a massive Art Park with a "who's who" of public art artists. 

Hotel Fun

The hotel culture in Seattle seems very different from Calgary’s, focusing much more on the leisure tourist vs. the corporate traveler.  In “sleeping around” downtown Seattle, we discovered a delightful commonality - a vibrant “Happy Hour scene.” The historic Mayflower Park Hotel (famous for their martinis) offers guests free appies in their intimate Oliver’s lounge. The hipster Hotel Max offered free local craft beer in their lobby/living room (as well as great art and several large picture windows for catching the city’s “sidewalk ballet”). The playful Hotel Monaco offered a wine tasting with very liberal pours.  Seattle could well be the Happy Hour capital of North America, with 600+ happy hour listings in “The Sauce “magazine.

Mayflower Park Hotel is full of historic charm and character.  It is perfectly located for shoppers just a block away from Nordstrom and Macy's. 

Hotel Monaco had the most colourful hotel rooms we have ever stayed in.  The yoga mat was a nice touch.  

Every room at the Hotel Max had a door with a large photograph on the door by a local artists.  On our floor all of the doors had photos of Seattle musicians.  Very cool!

Like Calgary, Downtown Seattle lacks a real Main Street for shoppers.  From a tourist shopping perspective, I was surprised at not only how fragmented their retail is, but also that Nordstrom’s flagship store wasn’t more grand and upscale. Calgary’s The Core shopping center surpasses anything Seattle has to offer shoppers and Holt Renfrew is grander than anything in Seattle.

Urban Living

Urban living is exploding in Seattle - 58 residential projects will add 10,000+ residential units in their City Centre over the next few years. In comparison, Calgary has 7,194 units approved or under construction in its City Centre. Like Calgary, trendy urban communities surround Seattle’s downtown core. 

Dozens of highrise condos dot Seattle's urban landscape.  Seattle's monorail provides a futuristic perspective of the city for tourists, as does Calgary's 20 km +15 elevated walkway. 

Cafe Culture 

Belltown is Seattle’s Beltline with lots of new highrise condos, trendy restaurants and its link to the Seattle Centre (1962 World’s Fair site) i.e. their Stampede Park. 

Capitol Hill and First Hill communities are separated from Seattle’s downtown core by the I-15 interstate. Capitol Hill is the city’s hipster district with several new low to mid-rise condos and restaurants opening weekly.  It is home to Starbucks’ mega new Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and several other local roasteries. Calgary’s equivalent would be Mission/Cliff Bungalow with its 4th Street restaurant row or Kensington with its abundance of coffeehouses and roasteries.

This Coke machine appeared mysteriously over 15 years ago, outside of the Broadway Locksmith near the corner of John and Broadway in the trendy Capitol Hill district.  Nobody knows who it belongs to, where the money goes or who restocks it.  It seems pretty popular as two people stop to buy a beverage while I was taking photos. 

The Denny Triangle is an extension of the downtown core, much like Eau Claire is in Calgary with a mix of office and condos. Amazon purchased three blocks in the district to create its highrise campus, which will be analogous to Eau Claire’s campus-like collection of dark blue glass oil patch towers - Devon and Centennial towers soon-to-be joined by Calgary City Centre and Eau Claire towers.

South Lake Union, Seattle’s newest urban community, anchored by a Whole Foods store is quickly becoming surrounded by condos, restaurants and shops.  Bridgeland would be Calgary’s equivalent.

Whole Food patio in South Lake district creates a wonderful street buzz. 

Urban Living Test Drive 

For anyone thinking of moving to one of Calgary urban communities and wondering what urban living is all about I’d recommend a trip to Seattle and staying in a couple of different hotels. Our penthouse (12th floor) suite at the Mayflower was equipped with two bathrooms, a lovely living room area with city and sea views and Macy’s and Nordstrom across the street.  If you like old world charm, this is your spot.

If you want some fun new home décor ideas, check into Hotel Max or Hotel Monaco.  At Max, each room door features a full, door-size local photographer’s work. Walk the hallways and enjoy the free photography exhibition. Our room had original art, as well as a record player with local musicians’ records. How cool is that?

Hotel Monaco is like living in an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein 60s Pop Art artwork with its use of bright colours and bold patterns. It is amazing how big 500 square feet can look and feel when the city lies outside your front door.

Seattle is know for its coffee, what surprised us were the scrumptious biscuits and jam that on many menus. Yum! Yum! 

Last Word

Creating a vibrant city centre is more than just making it a place to “live” (new condos) and “work” (new office towers).” It is about creating a fun urban playground – shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes, concerts, pubs, festivals, theatre, parks, public art and architecture. Calgary’s city centre has much to offer urban tourists as Seattle, Portland or Denver, but for some reason it hasn’t captured the attention of urban tourists. 

It is certainly not from a lack of trying by Tourism Calgary!

Click on links below for Calgary blogs that connect to statements made in this blog about Seattle vs Calgary: 

Beltline: North America's best hipster neighbourhood?

Kensington: One of North America's Healthiest districts

NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Ramsay: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District

Port Angeles: A 24 hr quickie?

On a recent trip we were trying to figure the most interesting way to get from Seattle to Victoria.  The easy way would be to just jump on the Victoria Clipper, which takes you from downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria.  However, our good friend Pam Scott at Red Lion Hotels suggested we take the bus to Port Angeles and experience the historic Black Ball Ferry from downtown Port Angeles to Victoria.  We decided to check it out and we are glad we did. 

The trip is a bit more convoluted as you have to get to the Greyhound Bus Station in Seattle, catch a mini-bus for a scenic drive to Port Angeles and then catch the Black Bull ferry to Victoria.  

As we did more research we realized that Port Angeles would make for a great over night stay so we contacted Pam to see if there was any room at the Inn. Sure enough she got us a room, but it wasn’t easy as the hotel was hosting a Transgender Conference, which made for an even more interesting experience. The fun never stops.

If you are in Seattle or Victoria and are looking for a fun day trip or perhaps an overnight quickie, Port Angeles should be on you list. 

Here is quick photo essay of the fun things to see and do in PA without a car and without leaving town. 

Port Angeles' Main Street has lots of little shops for those who want to shop and window lick, especially if you like antiquing or people watching from places like the Next Door gastropub patio. 

Great towns have fun surprises.  We loved this huge rubber ducky that was in the Safeway Parking lot. 

We couldn't pass up Port Angeles' Goodwill store where we found this "Twist Board" made by Donco Products Corporation in Lakeview Oregon and Innisfail, Alberta.  I had to have it! Thought it would be a good exercise while watching the Flames on TV this winter!  Brenda also found a few gems at this well stocked thrift store. 

Jasmine Bistro meal

After a quick walkabout to find a place to eat we settled on the Jasmine Bistro and we were glad we did.  The staff were extremely friendly and helpful. The food was as good as it looks.  We loved the names of the dishes e.g. Crowd Pleaser and Seducer.  The menu is extensive, something for everyone. 

Swain's General store was a walk back in time with lots of fun things from upscale outdoor fashions to hardware, housewares and hunting goods - something for everyone.  The wall of fishing lures was mesmerizing for a non-fisherman like me.  

Next door Gastro Pub

Lunch was at Next Door gastropub. We could have stayed there all afternoon.  We immediately struck up a conversation with a young couple at the bar who had just moved to the area and were loving it.  The beer menu is extensive so a tasting board is the best way to go.  The ale battered Albacore fish & chips were probably the best I have ever had. Brenda ordered a second helping of the citrus slaw and I had a second order of the homemade potato chips.  A ten out of 10. 

Port Angeles has perhaps the most amazing art park that we have ever experienced.  It is a delightful 1 to 2 hour discovery experience for people of all ages and backgrounds.  It is about a 20-minute walk from downtown.   More information at: World's Best Art Park

There are many lovely gardens in the spring if you wander into the residential areas, which makes for a lovely stroll on the way to and from the art park.

A short walk from downtown is the blackbird coffee house, definitely worth the walk. Good coffee and treats - I had the pecan tart.  We found the blackbird on our way to the art park.  A perfect spot to stop after exploring the art park or the residential gardens in the neighbourhood. Also a great place to mingle with locals. 

Downtown Port Angeles has several murals and lots of sculptures that make for a fun artwalk. This mural is of the 1946 Black Ball Line's Art Deco ferry, the Kalakala, which was the first to employ commercial marine shipboard radar on its Bainbridge to Seattle route. 

The Ferry Terminal in Port Angeles is a mini-museum with lots of photos and information about the interesting history of the Black Ball Ferry Line.

You should definitely get off the beaten path to find some of the fun local retailers not on Main Street.  Red Goose Shoes is like a shoe museum, with lots of artifacts and a fun children's area.  It is also a walk back in time.

Where to stay?

If you want to stay overnight the Red Lion Hotel is our pick.  It is right on the water, close to the ferry terminal and two blocks from downtown.  It is a perfect spot for your 24hr quickie in Port Angeles. They even have bikes for you to explore the waterfront or cycle around town. 

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.&nbsp;

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



 

 

Nanton's Bomber Command Museum

We have probably driven by the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta well over 50 times since moving to southern Alberta in 1981. We have visited Nanton many times to wander its quaint Main Street with its many antique stores and café.  I have even played golf there a couple of times. But we have never ventured into the museum, until recently that is. 

With my mom visiting from Hamilton, we were looking for fun and new things to do. Nanton came up as a great day trip.  Backstory: Last summer, it was Calgary’s Military Museums, which I had passed by thousands of times on Crowchild Trail SW but had never visited until my Mom came in August. We decided to check out the Museum and WOW what a great surprise. Though not a big history or military buff, Museum blew us away.  Learn more: Everyday Tourist visits Calgary Military Museums.

While the day was ugly (weather-wise), our trip to Nanton was great.  The Bomber Command Museum of Canada exceeded our expectations. While it doesn’t look like much from the outside (its just a big metal warehouse building - no $100+ million architectural icon here), but once inside, the volunteer-run museum is most attractive.

Admission is by donation, which I think is great; this way visitors can give based on the value they received.  I have always thought that this is the best way for a museum or art gallery to really judge the value they are giving their visitors, as well as remove any barriers to visiting for those who aren’t sure it worth the cost and for families who just don’t have the money to spend on museum visits.

At the entrance to the Museum, sit several display cases packed with artifacts and wonderful facts and stories about them.  What makes the museum authentic and special is that most of the artifacts are from the people of southern Alberta; these items are truly part of the area’s history and culture.

The well-stocked Museum gift shop had the usual shirts, hats and knickknacks, as well as some great books and some fun fashions, including cute bomber jackets for kids. 

Canada Kid
Nanton display case
Story of a tire
Lancaster Tire evokes memories
Lady Pilots

 The Hanger

After exploring the entrance area, you enter the main exhibition space, which is a humungous hanger space full of airplanes.  My camera was soon overheated and its battery drained, as I couldn’t stop taking pictures.  It was a real feast for the eyes. 

One of the main attractions is a preserved Avro Lancaster bomber, which doesn’t fly but they do start-up the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines every once in awhile.  You can also check out the RAF Bomber Command aircraft including a Bristol Blenheim Mk IV. 

In addition there are many intriguing artifacts and displays  - from engines to bicycles to local stories about those who flew in the various wars. As a former visual art curator, I was very intrigued by the Nose Art i.e. the art painted on the nose of the aircraft.  I love the erotic, playboy, comic book-like art works.  It was obvious these were lonely, frustrated young males.

There was sadness about it all, as the museum tells the stories of how 10,659 young Canadian men lost their lives flying bombers. I will let these postcards from the museum share some of the stories and hopefully entice you to visit.

The Hanger
Hanger 2
restoration work
  There is an entire room devoted to engines.

There is an entire room devoted to engines.

Cheetah IX
Cheetah info

Nose Art 

Nose art info
Willie The Wolf From The West
IMG_8184.jpg
Notorious Nan
Seven Dwarfs

 

Nanton at a glance

While in Nanton, there are many fun things to see and do.  Dressing Up, the not-for-profit thrift store on Main Street is an opportunity to find your own historical artifact or treasure.  There are several antique/vintage/retro stores, which are fun to explore. Brenda’s find this trip was an early 1900s vial of French perfume talc - still with it contents, for $1.  Tres chic; tres vintage!

Nanton is also home to the Ultimate Trains and Big Sky Garden Railway, which we have been told is great family fun.  It is an outdoor large-scale model trains in a garden setting that is open from May 1st to Thanksgiving long weekend.  Sounds like another road trip in the making. Big Sky Garden Railway 

The Main Street Café is our go-to spot for lunch – good home food.  This time we each had a bowl of tangy hamburger soup, I had a sandwich loaded with chicken, bacon and lettuce, we shared a slice of homemade Boston Cream pie and we all had one of their gooey cinnamon buns (cream cheese added to order at no extra cost) - all for $29. The Cafe is definitely a walk back in time, as Glenn Andrews one of the owners came over and asked us how our meal was.  We said how wonderful the Hamburger soup was and then got chatting about soups and he gave us a taste and history lesson on the new "soup of the day" Mulligatawny (the popular Hamburger soup had run out).  Nicely rested we headed out to explore the shops. 

  Soup and sandwich at Main Street Cafe

Soup and sandwich at Main Street Cafe

  A collection of Fireman Helmets waiting for the right collector.

A collection of Fireman Helmets waiting for the right collector.

 You ne ver know what artifacts you will discover in Nanton.

You never know what artifacts you will discover in Nanton.

 Last Word

One of the great things about being an “everyday tourist” is that you are always open to and looking for fun new things to do - be that checking out a new community in the city you live in or taking a road trip to a small town nearby.

 Why is the tendency to always wait for visiting family and friend to explore our own city?

 If you like this blog, you might like:

NYC's High Line vs YYC's +15 Walkway

By Richard White, February 18, 2015 (This blog was commissioned by Source Media for Condo Living Magazine.)

In the January 15, 2015 edition of Metro Calgary, columnist Mike Morrison lamented that when he was recently in New York City (NYC) no one had heard of Calgary. I too have lamented at the lack of awareness of Calgary when visiting other cities, but then my friends at Tourism Calgary are also quick to remind me of some facts - Calgary was ranked #17 on the New York Times “52 Places to Go” and Alberta #9 on the UK’s Guardian “Holiday Hotspots” in 2014.   Another fact - in 2014 Calgary was added to the Ultimate Sports City shortlist the de facto benchmark of top sport cities around the world.  Now, Calgary has joined Vancouver as the only two Canadian cities on the list.  

Perhaps we are being a bit too hard on ourselves.  Perhaps we are being too impatient. As the Guardian said, “Calgary has gone from cowboy town to cosmopolitan cool.” YES! People are starting to notice!

High Line vs. +15

Morrison, like many others who have visited NYC recently are “gaga” over the city’s new iconic High Line project, an abandoned railway track converted into an elevated linear park with a great urban vibe. 

People of all ages enjoy strolling along the High Line a linear park that provides a unique perspective on the streets and sidewalks of NYC. (Photo credit: Lelia Olfert)

Evidence of the old elevated railway is evident in this photo.  Note the streets are not packed with people or traffic. (photo credit Leila Olfert).

The narrow park offers lots of resting spots for people watching or to study the urban design of a city. 

I like to remind people Calgary created its High Line in 1970, over 40 years before NYC. While some like to criticize the +15 system (60 bridges connect over 100 buildings to create a 20 km elevated walkway) for sucking the life out of the streets, I say it is the one really unique urban element our downtown has and it should be something we embraced not apologize for.

Why is it everybody raves about Montreal’s underground system, but not our 20km walkway? Both are full of cafes, shops and restaurants, but the +15 also offers more - public art, a mega indoor garden and amazing urban vistas.  Harold Hanen, the +15 visionary, saw it as a logical adaptation to our long cold winter. 

The +15 system could become a great tourist attraction if we would stop “bashing” it and start promoting its unique views of our every-changing downtown.  It could become our postcard like the canals of Venice or the alleys of Melbourne – it is all about how you look at it.

 

  One of 60 glass bridges that are 15 feet off the ground connect buildings at the second floor over a 50-block area of the downtown core.&nbsp;

One of 60 glass bridges that are 15 feet off the ground connect buildings at the second floor over a 50-block area of the downtown core. 

Along the walkway pedestrians find numerous quiet places to sit like this winter garden with a living wall, infinity ponds and bamboo plantings. 

There is even a formal 2.5 acre garden which is a popular meeting place.  It even includes an indoor playground for families. 

The +15 system connects to The Core shopping centre at the second, third and fourth floors. 

Each bridge offers a unique experience; this on connecting the Municipal Building to Arts Commons is like walking into a stain glassed window.  Kids love exploring the +15 with the huge windows onto the "Tall City" as my 3-year old nephew called it. 

This +15 connected to a 600+ stall parkade, offers pedestrians beautiful sunshine 12-months of the year, along with a parade of cows.  Unlike Montreal's underground and Toronto's PATH, Calgary's +15 offers downtown workers and visitor a chance to see what is happening outside.  

Just one of the many public art experiences along the 20-km +15 walkway. 

Visionaries

Stephen Avenue Walk pulses with new blood at noon hour. 

Morrison shuddered to think what Calgary would look like without visionaries like Councilor Druh Farrell (Peace Bridge, Memorial Drive, East Village and new Library), Andrew Mosker (National Music Centre) and the people at Canada Municipal Land Corporation (East Village, St. Patrick’s Island and Riverwalk).  

He laments that too many people are standing in the way of these visionaries and questions all of the petty squabbling about bike lanes, transit and disabled schools.  I choose to focus on what we have accomplished to attract what he calls “new blood.”   

For example, Myrna Dube, Calgary Parks Foundation’s President & CEO, was visionary for the new Rotary/Mattamy Greenway, a 138 km pathway that will circle the city connecting over 100 suburban communities (over 300,000 people, 25% of the city’s population). It is easily the equivalent of NYC’s High Line, just more suburban in nature.

What about the visionaries for Stephen Avenue walk or Calgary's amazing parks and city-wide pathway system (now the largest in the world). 

Or perhaps the visionaries at Brookfield Residential who are creating a new urban village that will be very attractive to the  "young blood" working the medical field at SETON.  

Attracting new blood

This leads to Morrison’s question, “Has anyone moved here because of it is super car-friendly or because of its endless suburbs?” and his opinion is “probably not.” In fact, one of Calgary advantages over Vancouver and Toronto (there are many) is that newcomers can buy a large family house for hundreds of thousands of dollars less and be just 30-minute car commute from work. Remember - not everyone can - or wants to - walk, cycle or take transit to work.

And, though it might be a tough pill to swallow for urban missionaries not everyone wants to live in dense high-rise communities like Manhattan. People are surprised when I tell them that on a per capita basis, Calgary has as many people living within 4 km of its downtown - 7% of the metro population.

But not to worry urban evangelists, Calgary has one of the most aggressive urbanization programs of any city in the world with a population under two million - Bridges, Currie Barracks, East Village, Greenwich, Inglewood Brewery, Quarry Park, SETON, Westbrook Station, West Campus and West District.   Collectively, they will provide urban homes for approximately 100,000 people and work places for 60,000+ in diverse, dense, vibrant urban neighbourhoods.

All of this is in addition to Calgary’s existing urban districts – Beltline, Eau Claire, Downtown West, Mission, Kensington and Inglewood, the latter of which was named Canada’s greatest neighbourhood by the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2014 (with Kensington being a finalist).

Great cities provide a diversity of communities for people to choose from.

I would argue the Calgary region has a nice mix of urban, established, master planned suburban communities, acreages and small towns for a city its size.

We must be doing something right as Calgary is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 livable cities in the world - NYC is not in the top 10.  In 2014, the Economist had Calgary tied for 5th only 1 point out of first place as of the world’s “most livable” cities.

Main Street, West Campus by West Campus Development Trust, it just one of many new urban villages planned for Calgary in the next few years.   West Village will be attractive to the "young blood" working at the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children's Hospital. 

Last Word

Obviously, what makes a city attractive is different for different people, and different at different times in their life. No city can be all things to all people. Calgary still in its formative (teenage) years, so yes, we still have a lot of growing up to do.

But, we should also be proud of what we have accomplished! 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Calgary: The City of Parks & Pathways

Calgary deserves more respect from international planners

Calgary's got its mojo working

Calgary: GABEster capital of North America