Recently I did a piece for CBCNews Crossroads about Calgary’s downtown being an office ghetto. The two criticisms I received from several urban planners were: 1) what I was really talking about was not Calgary’s downtown, but its “central business district” (CBD) and 2) all CBDs are office ghettos and therefore ghost towns after office hours.
CBD is an urban planning term that refers to the place near the centre of a city that is predominantly a place to conduct business. To confuse things, some cities like Toronto, called it the Financial District, as it is where the major national banks have their headquarters.
Calgary’s CBD (Downtown Commercial Core, is City of Calgary’s official name for it) is defined as the area from 9th St SW to 1st St SE (behind Municipal Building) and from 9th Ave SW to the 4th Ave SW. It is about 1.3 km by .6 km in size and excludes Eau Claire, Chinatown or East Village. For most Calgarians, I expect this is also their definition of downtown give or take a few blocks.
All CBDs are ghost towns?
The critics were quick to point out, “in Toronto, the Bay and King Street area is dead outside of office hours; the same is true for the blocks around Manhattan’s Wall Street.”
I agree with their observation CBD’s are typically ghost towns outside of office hours, because they basically have nothing else but offices towers.
However, Calgary’s CBD is different. While it is 80% office buildings it also includes major shopping, entertainment, cultural, historic and residential elements, on a scale that most other major city CBDs don’t include.
For example, Toronto’s CBD, at about 2 square kilometers, though about the same size as Calgary’s, doesn’t include Toronto Eaton Centre, The Bay, their theatre and entertainment districts. Their major tourist destinations, Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum and CN Tower are also not in their CBD. The same could be said for Vancouver or Seattle, their tourist are not hanging out in their CBD.
Why Calgary's CBD is different?
In Calgary, our CBD includes the city’s largest concentration of retail shopping. At 3.6 million square feet it is more than twice Chinook Centre’s. It includes the flagship Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew department stores, as well as the-uber cool The Core shopping center with the mammoth glass ceiling.
Calgary’s CBD also includes two major tourist attractions the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Towers, as well as our Convention Centre. While the historic districts in Toronto and Vancouver are outside of their CBD, Calgary’s Stephen Avenue (a designated National Historic District) and a major restaurant row sits at centre ice in our CBD.
Calgary is also unique in that eight performing art spaces with over 4,000 seats and an art house cinema are located in our CBD. It is also home to two significant public spaces (Devonian Gardens and Olympic Plaza), over 100 public artworks and two enhanced pedestrian-oriented streets (Stephen Avenue and Barclay Mall).
Our CBD is home to some of Calgary’s best restaurants, albeit many of them have “expense account” prices, making them more for special occasions only. It also includes major nightclubs like Flames Central and smaller music venues the Palomino Room or Wine-Ohs.
And, it I home to major festivals like Calgary International Children’s Festival and High Performance Rodeo, as well as the Stampede Parade and Stampede’s Rope Square.
Indeed, Calgary’s CBD is unique in North America offering a greater diversity and great concentration of things to see and do for tourists and locals than a typical CBD.
Thousands of people live in our CBD
Our CBD also has a significant residential population of 9,000 residents. In fact it is one of Calgary’s largest residential communities ranking 52 out of our 250+ communities in population. It is also includes 10 major hotels with over 3,000 rooms.
In comparison, Toronto CBD’s residential population is only 2,239 (Toronto Financial District Business Improvement Area).
Our CBD is our downtown in the minds of most Calgarians. And it is generally perceived as a place to work - not live or play.
Calgary’s CDB downtown has not captured the imagination of Calgarians as a place to play, dine, shop, be entertained, wander, linger or hang out except on special occasions. Neither, has it captured the imagination of Calgarians as a “must see” place for visiting family and friends except for special events.
Nor has it captured the imagination of tourists as a weekend urban playground – music, festival, events, food, pubs, clubs, gallery/museum browsing, shopping, theatre etc.
In theory, Calgary’s CDB/downtown has many of the ingredients urban planners say you need to have for a vibrant urban place – shopping, public spaces, pedestrian- oriented streets, museums, art galleries, iconic architecture, public art, cafés, restaurants and festivals.
Despite the tremendous efforts (think billions of dollars) by the City of Calgary, the private sector and the Calgary Downtown Association to create a CBD that is attractive to office workers during the weekday and tourists and Calgarians citywide in evenings and weekends, it is still a ghost town after office hours.
Unfortunately, office buildings are urban vitality exterminators and they trump everything else.
Full Disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association from 1995 to 2006.