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.  

 

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The Rise and Fall of the Grocery Store!

Recently, I wrote that Calgary’s greater downtown communities are being well served by the numerous existing supermarket chains and specialty grocers.  However, several readers questioned me about the need/opportunity for boutique urban grocery stores given the numerous condos popping up everywhere around the downtown.

Their comments haunted me for a few weeks until recently, when west driving along 20th Avenue NW from 10th to 19th street (where there is a mid-century corner store every few blocks).  I was reminded how Calgary’s inner city communities, when first developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, all had “mom and pop” mini, grocery stores every few blocks. 

The mid-century corner store was critical to the walkability of those communities (back then it was one car per family).  It was not large, in fact no larger than neighbouring houses at about 1,000 square feet. Some were two storeys; others had an attached home to create the equivalent of today’s live/work space. The stores were usually located on major community access roads (like 20th Ave NW) that were enroute to other places, making them very convenient.

It had no surface parking lot, nor a requirement for assigned street parking - neighbours just accepted cars would pull up, get what they needed and drive off.  There were no concerns about children’s safety, even though they regularly played on the street. It was a place where kids as young as six years old could be sent to pick up a loaf of bread, a jug of milk and even occasionally allowed to spend the change on a treat from the penny candy selection.

It was also a time when people didn’t demand organic foods, exotic fruits from their favourite boutique orchard in Okanagan, farm-to-table vegetables or artisan breads.. It was a time of instant coffee and canned vegetables. People didn’t drive across the city to get their favourite coffee beans or find that specialty spice for an ethnic-inspired dish.

It was all about basic foods bought at convenient locations.  The “mom and pop” corner store, evolved into chain convenience stores like 7-Elevens and Mac’s, in the ‘60s, which served a similar purpose but weren’t located every few blocks. 

Jimmy's A&A Deli is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 13th St NW. 

Browns's Grocery is located at 20th Ave and 11th St. NW.

Weeds Cafe is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 18th St. NW.  I expect it was a grocery store when first built. 

21st Century Corner/Convenience Store

Might bringing back the convenience store be something developers and city planners in Calgary should be looking at - both for established communities and new suburbs?   Would creating a land use that would allow a small corner store every few blocks along access roads in new communities make sense? Would people support them?

Perhaps the MBA yuppie types laid off in the oil patch might consider using their entrepreneurial skills to create the 21st century convenience store. Two good case studies for a model new convenience store can be found in Bridgeland, where both Lukes Drug Mart and Bridgeland Market, though very different, seem to be thriving. 

Lukes Drug Mart is very interesting model. Family-run since 1951 and today under Gareth Lukes’ leadership, it is more than just a drugstore - it is also a coffee bar (serving Four Barrel coffee from San Francisco), grocery store (basement) and hipster store (with numerous niche brands of specialty retail and dry goods).  In this tiny store, you can buy groceries, have a prescription filled, access to Canada Post office and shop for unique items like Rifle Paper cards, Vance Family Soy Candles or Mast Brothers Chocolate.

Did you know that Lukes was named one of the Top 11 new record stores in Canada by Aux (a Canadian specialty TV channel and website) in 2013?  Yes, Lukes carries vinyl too!

Bridgeland Market at the east end of First Avenue NE is a second example of a 21st century corner grocery store. Compared to Lukes, it is a more traditional mid-century corner grocery store but with a modern twist. They pride themselves on having some of the “rarest, freshest and most ethically created products in the community.”  You can complete their “Product Request” form online if there is something you think they should bring in and  sign up for Marketgrams for updates on when they’re cooking up something fresh.

Along with artisan breads of all kinds, you will find croissants and “Made by Markus” treats like macaroons.  Combine that with other offerings like Santa Cruz Lemonade and Green Cuisine tofu and you see how convenience food has morphed into today’s increased demand for organic comfort food.

However, like Lukes and even the mid 20th century corner store, Bridgeland Market is family-owned and operated. As they say, “we’re just a bunch of locals.”

Both Lukes and Bridgeland Market are small spaces - less than 2,000 square feet (the size of today’s typical Calgary home) and certainly not to be confused with new urban grocery stores like Urban Fare at 30,000 square feet, (coming soon to Lower Mount Royal), a Shoppers Drug Mart at the base of a condo building (15,000 square feet) or a destination supermarket (50,000+ square feet).

Lukes Drug Mart is located on 1st Ave at 4th St. NE

Bridgeland Market is located on 1st Ave and 10th St NE.

Bridgeland Market's provides great local grocery shopping.

Bring back the milkman?

All this thinking had me also wondering if the next evolution of grocery shopping isn’t the “bricks and mortar” local grocery store at all, but rather home delivery.  With the rise of online shopping, one can’t help but think the next step in the evolution of grocery stores will be to bring back the 21st century equivalent of the ‘50s bread man and milk man.

Instead of creating mega supermarkets or micro-grocery stores, everyone may well have a “Shopping List” App that links to a giant warehouse that will deliver your groceries and dry goods at your convenience. For those living in downtown condos, that would mean one less reason for owning a car.  And for everyone, it would free up a lot of time for extracurricular activities.

In fact, online grocery services already exist in Calgary. One is called Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery (or Spud for short) focusing on organic food. Sunterra also has an online grocery ordering and delivery service, as does Walmart. 

Home milk delivery was common place until the late '60s in Calgary.

Last Word

Hmmm….could it be that in the future, at least some of those monolithic Walmart and Costco sites will become mixed-use condo villages? Never say never!

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SETON's Gateway Surprise

A few weeks back I found a pinkish orange, very cool, very contemporary art/architectural photo from SETON on Twitter.  Since then I have been trying to track down more information about the image from Brookfield Residential.  Turns out it isn’t public art, or a building but SETON’s Gateway feature. 

It is part of an ambitious urban design plan that includes this Gateway feature and several significant architectural and/or art elements at strategic corners and locations throughout the community.   Over the next few years - as SETON buildings start to be completed - four more art/architectural objects will be unveiled; with many more to follow as SETON is completed.

SETON Gateway at twilight.

The Gateway

So intrigued by SETON’s Gateway structure, I took the 74-kilometer round trip (took me 30 minutes to get back to West Hillhurst at 3 pm on a Wednesday) from my home to check it out in person. And I am glad I did.  You can’t miss it.  It is a three-storey, bright white structure with human-sized white letters spelling the word “SETON” at the entrance to the community exiting off Deerfoot Trail at Seton/Cranston exit.

My immediate reaction - this is very similar to the “MEMORIAL” letters at Poppy Plaza along Memorial Drive at the gateway to downtown from Kensington. However, the SETON Gateway is much more contemporary and cheerful.  There is a playfulness in the forest of leaning white pillars and the three pick-up stick-like poles that reach out through a skylight in the pure white canopy.  From a different perspective it reminds me of a mid-century modern gas station, while at the same time it is more futuristic, with the canopy panels looking a bit like the fuselage of the Challenger spacecraft.  I love the ambiguity.

Standing inside the structure, you are immediately drawn to the circular opening in the roof with its two triangular slits on opposite sides (later realized this is the SETON logo).  You can’t help but look skyward and contemplate the universe.  A wonderful play of light creates shadows on the ground and a shimmering mirage on the roof.

I am told the piece really comes alive at night when its sophisticated lighting system allows for an endless number of light shows - from fireworks at New Year’s (and other times of celebration) to a Northern Lights program that has dancing blue, green and purple hues that is used in the winter.   The lighting system is capable of producing any colour within the lighting spectrum.

SETON Gateway daytime.

SETON letters create a fun Kodak moment.

SETON letters create a fun Kodak moment.

Design Team

The SETON Gateway is a collaborative project designed by:

  • Brookfield Residential – Project Sponsor
  • Gibbs Gage – Architect
  • DBK Engineering – Electrical Engineer
  • Mike Walker Consulting Ltd. - Lighting Programmer
  • 818 Studios – Landscape Architect
  • MMM – LEED
  • MMP – Structural Engineer
  • Jubilee Engineering – Civil Engineer
  • Elan – General Contractor

It was not created as part of a public art program, but rather as part of a comprehensive urban design strategy with both art and architecture design elements where they are appropriate and where they can add value to the overall sense of place for the community.  It is not design for design’s sake.

The goal was for the SETON Gateway to be seen from far away as far away as Deerfoot Trail, yet be part of an overall community wayfinding system, one that is distinct but synergistic with the South Health Campus, as well as be inviting to all (pedestrians, cyclists and drivers), be urban and be memorable.  A tall task for sure.

The SETON Gateway forrest with patio on left side.

This is definitely not your typical suburban new community entrance with a big rock with the community’s name stenciled onto it, some trees and shrubs and maybe a water feature. This is a high-tech, high-design that is both puzzling and provoking. It begs questions like; Why is it here? What is it? Does it have a function? It would easily fit into the urban design sensibility of the Beltline, Downtown or East Village.

It’s its clean, contemporary, big, bold and yes beautiful.  Some might see it a cross between the Peace Bridge and the Big White Trees on Stephen Avenue.

The SETON Gateway is testament to Brookfield Residential’s commitment to fostering a unique urban sense of place for SETON, through contemporary urban design elements strategically placed along the community’s streets, parks and entrances to buildings and retail centres.  They are committed to creating North America’s best new 21st century master-planned mixed-use community in Calgary.

White sentinels serve as way finding, night lights and add to the urban design element in the middle of the storm water swale. 

SETON skylight.

Last Word

Though too early to judge the success of the SETON Gateway project, they have gotten off on the right foot.

If I had to draw parallels to other Calgary projects, it has some of the architectural and lighting elements of TELUS Spark combined with the artistic sensibility of Chinook Arc (Beltline’s Barb Scott Park) and the LED lighting of the Langevin Bridge, 7th Avenue LRT stations and Calgary Tower.  I should add Brookfield has received no government funding for the SETON Gateway.

I am told that to date, Brookfield has had nothing but positive comments and I personally have heard nothing negative either.  One of the tests of a good urban sense of place is that there are surprises – and the SETON Gateway is a pleasant surprise.  I can’t wait to see some of the other surprises they have planned.

See For Yourself!

If you want to see the SETON Gateway for yourself, just take Deerfoot to the Seton/Cranston  turn off.  Head east to the South Health Campus and it will be right there.  There is lots of free parking in the retail centre immediately to the west.  Plan to spend an hour or so exploring the Gateway and the South Health Campus, maybe even meet up for a coffee or lunch.  I am planning a trip back in the evening to see the light show. 

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