Calgary vs Austin / 17th Ave vs South Congress

Great cities have signature streets that capture the imagination of tourists from around the world.  Austin's signature street is South Congress in Calgary it is still up for grabs. This blog compares Calgary's 17th Avenue with Austin's South Congress as a tourist attraction. 

 

Calgary's 17th Avenue 10 blocks south of downtown is a quirky mix of restaurants, cafes and shops. 

To some, the 17th Ave SW shopping and dining corridor (2nd to 14th St. SW) is still Uptown 17, while to others it is the Red Mile and yet others (specifically the 17th Avenue BRZ), it is RED (Retail Entertainment District).  For many Calgarians, the heyday of 17th Avenue was during the 2004 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup playoff run when tens of thousands of Calgarians took over the street after every game.  The impromptu street festivals captured national and international media attention, creating an image of Calgary as a fun city. 

Austin's South Congress Avenue looking north to downtown is a major highway. 

But after the Flames lost in the Stanley Cup finals, 17th Avenue has never really been able to capitalize on the opportunity of becoming one of the great urban streets of  North America. Melrose Sports Bar, the epicenter of the Red Mile, closed in January 2014 after 23 years of operation.  It has recently opened with much fanfare as Trolley 5 Restaurant & Brewery. 

Today, 17th Avenue struggles with its branding.  Is it a restaurant row? Absolutely. It is home to Pigeon Hole, #1 in enRoute Magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants (2015) and Model Milk #2 (2012). It has also become a very popular destination for pizza lovers with restaurants like Una and Cibo.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has a vibrant cafe culture. 

Is it a shopping street? Indeed. Some long-standing destination retailers include Rubiayat, gravitypope (love the new space), Reid’s Stationary and Purr, as well as two of Calgary’s best optical boutiques - Eye Candy and Brass Monocle.   Newer additions include West Elm, Modern Duke, Structube, Steelng Home and Kit and Ace.

17th Avenue's gravitypope shop is dazzling. 

Both 17th Ave and South Congress have fun candy stores....this is 17th Ave's!

Both streets have quirky retail shops...this is one of the Rubiayat's many display cabinets with unique curiosities, home decor and collectables. 

Entertainment a key element for tourists

Is it an entertainment district? In my opinion, a resounding, “No!”  There are no cinemas, no theatres and no performing arts centres. The only live music venue of any renown is the Ship & Anchor Pub.  

When I think of “entertainment,” I think of more than shopping, drinking and dining, I also think of sidewalks full of people, buskers, lots of street vendors and food trucks. This is exactly what we experienced along South Congress Avenue in Austin earlier this year with its Stampede-like atmosphere on weekends as well as Thursday and Friday evenings, despite there being nothing special happening.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has vibrant patio culture. 

Physically, South Congress Ave and 17th Ave are very similar. Both area about a 10-minute walk from downtown. Both are a mix of retail and restaurants about 10 blocks long with lots of patios. However, this is where the similarities end.

Shortly after I got back from Austin, I made a point of visiting 17th Avenue on a nice spring Saturday to check out the action. Yes, there were people on the sidewalk but it was hardly the lively impromptu street festival atmosphere experienced on South Congress.

South Congress Avenue's sidewalks on Saturday afternoon have a festival-like atmosphere.

South Congress has numerous outdoor live music spots that open out to the sidewalk. 

South Congress' corners are animated on Saturday afternoon. On the opposite corner is a lively food truck hub. 

We loved this busker on South Congress who would create a poem on the spot based on the subject of your choice.  We had him create a poem about thrifting...we loved it. 

17th Avenue's Tomkins Park on Saturday afternoon is too often devoid of any vitality. 

Creating Vitality

Firstly, there is a greater sense of spontaneity about South Congress, with buskers performing day and night.  What would be surface parking lots in Calgary were Food Truck lots in Austin. There is even an artisan market on a parking lot one night a week. And the patios are more animated, several offering live outdoor music.  

Speaking of music, the biggest difference between the two streets is that South Congress has several live music venues (indoor and outdoor) that add an additional element of entertainment. Live music is everywhere in Austin, including the airport lobby. Branding the city as the “Live Music Capital of the World” is very appropriate.

The Continental Club one of Austin's iconic live music venues is located on South Congress. 

A third difference is there are few financial institutions on South Congress, while 17th Avenue seems to have one on every corner.  Banks on corners are urban vitality killers – they do nothing to add to the street vitality. I realize they are prepared to pay the high rent for the corner visibility so landlords are quick to lease to them. Perhaps we need a bylaw that prevents (or limits) banks from leasing corners on pedestrian-oriented streets as part of Calgary’s new Main Streets program.  

Too many of 17th Avenue's corners are taken up by financial institutions which create no sidewalk vitality.

ATB Financial, 17th  Ave Calgary

Who needs density?

Something else struck me as unusual on South Congress – there were no highrise condos anywhere nearby.  No mid-rise condos either for that matter.

We are lead to believe by urban planners that density is the key to creating 18/7 urban vitality, yet South Congress is thriving without any significant infill projects.

17th Avenue on the other hand has numerous highrise and midrise infill condos completed over the past few years with more to come. It has also seen numerous new and renovated retail spaces open up, attracting new retailers like West Elm and Best Buy.  It will be interesting to see what impact Embassy BOSA’s new 34-storey Royal tower (223 upscale condos) with an Urban Fare grocery store at street level and second floor Canadian Tire when it opens in 2018.  

FYI: I was hoping for a cinema complex as part of the Royal development.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has several highrise condo towers, while Austin's South Congress has none. 

Streetscape Improvements

What I also found interesting is that South Congress has no significant streetscape improvements or beautification initiatives.  There were no street banners, no fancy benches and few bike racks.  The sidewalks were adequate but nothing special and it certainly isn’t a tree-lined boulevard.  In fact, it is an old fashioned, much maligned six-lane highway.  Yet, at the same time, it remains a vibrant pedestrian street. 

Neither is there a park or plaza space on South Congress for people to gather or events to take place. It has nothing to match 17th Ave’s Tomkins Park and certainly nothing like 17th Ave’s high-tech public washroom installed in the park in 2008 that attracts over 40,000 “visitors” a year.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is currently receiving a major upgrade - new sidewalks, buried power lines, new LED streetlights, more trees and crosswalks.  While these changes will enhance the 17th Avenue experience I am not convinced they will add significantly to its vitality.  What is really needed is more entertainment – music, theatre, comedy club and cinema venues. 

Last Word

Whatever you call it - Uptown 17, Red Mile or RED – Calgary’s 17th Avenue has many of the ingredients needed to become one of North America’s BoBo (bohemian and bourgeois) streets. It has the “rich and famous” living near by in Mount Royal and the “young and restless” living in the Beltline.  It has a good mix of retail and restaurants too. But what it lacks is the 18/7 street animation and entertainment venues to become a tourist attraction like South Congress in Austin.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "17th Avenue Needs An Entertainment Scene" on September 24, 2016

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Calgary's International Avenue Follows Jane Jacob's Advice

Jane Jacobs, the 1960s guru of urban renewal, once said, “gradual change is better than cataclysmic development.” International Avenue certainly seems to be heeding this sage advice. 

The ten blocks of 17th Avenue SW between 4th Street and 14th St SW currently branded as RED (Retail Entertainment District), is one of Canada’s top pedestrian streets and well known to Calgarians. 

But further east on 17th Avenue, specifically the blocks between 26th and 61st Street SE (aka International Avenue) flies under the radar for Calgarians and tourists.  It is one of Canada’s hidden urban gems. Soon that may all change as International Avenue (IA) is about to undergo a mega makeover – a $96 million transformation to be exact. Starting this September, construction will begin to make 17th Avenue SE a “complete street” i.e. it will accommodate cars, dedicated bus lanes for Bus Rapid Transit, transit stations, bike lanes, new wide sidewalks all graced with hundreds of trees.  

  International Avenue is great example of messy urbanism with its multiple sidewalks, angle parking and mash-up of shops and services. 

International Avenue is great example of messy urbanism with its multiple sidewalks, angle parking and mash-up of shops and services. 

Urban Boulevard: A Game Changer

Alison Karim-McSwiney, International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone’s (BRZ) Executive Director since its inception in 1992, started working on this transformation in 2004. Collaborating with faculty and students at the University of Calgary’s School of Environmental Design, a 21st century vision for 17th Avenue SE was created, long before BRT, bike lanes and walkability became hot topics in our city. 

The vision to create a vibrant urban boulevard to accommodate all modes of transportation and foster a diversity of uses – retail, restaurant, culture, office and condos and even live/work spaces - was very ambitious for the modest communities of Forest Lawn, Albert Park and Radisson Heights that are its neighbours.

While it has taken over 10 years to refine the dream and secure the funding and approvals, land use changes are now in place allowing for several mixed-use developments along 17th Avenue SE, which could result in 13,000 new residents and 9,000 new jobs over the next 25 years. 

Chris Jennings, of Stantec Calgary who facilitated the design of new International Avenue told me,  “I love the ideas and vision that have been put forward for this project.  Not all of them can be accomplished during this project, some of them are ideas that will occur on lands not on city property and some of the ideas will need delivered as future development occurs – but man, it is going to be something special in 10 to 15 years.”

Link: City of Calgary 17th Avenue S.E. BRT Project

 A conceptual drawing of what International Avenue could look like in the future.

A conceptual drawing of what International Avenue could look like in the future.

Foodie Haven

IA has all of the ingredients for a funky food-oriented urban village. Currently, of the 425 businesses, over 30% are food and restaurant-related.   Since the late ‘90s, International Avenue has been home to the “Around The World In 35 blocks” event that allows participants to sample the eclectic flavours of IA from September to June. 

Did you know that IA is home to an Uzbekistan restaurant called Begim? Have you even heard of Uzbekistan cuisine?  In his Calgary Herald review, John Gilchrist described Uzbek cuisine as “fairly mild with some hot chillies and spices such as dill, cumin and coriander. Kebabs come in beef, chicken, lamb and lyulya (ground beef). There is no pork or alcohol at Begim as the Madjanovs (owners) are Muslim and all of their meats are halal.” 

Gilchrist once told me, ““On this strip, you find food cultures as close as they come to their native lands.  It lives up to its name ‘International Avenue’ with great restaurants like Mimo (Portuguese), Fassil (Ethiopian), Pho Binh Minh (Vietnamese) and many other favourites of mine.”

Love this example of how a modest house has been turned into a restaurant, not just any restaurant but an Uzbek restaurant. 

Arts & Cultural Hub

One of Karim-McSwiney’s 15 goals (yes, the website ambitiously lists 15) is to transform IA into an “arts and culture” hub. In 2013, IA became home to its own arts incubator called “artBox”, a multi-purpose art space located in the old Mill’s Painting Building (1807 – 42nd St SE) with studios and performance space for local artists. Almost anything goes at artBox, from Aboriginal to African art, from concerts to exhibitions.  It has quickly become a meeting place for artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and as well as patrons of the arts.

So successful, it spawned “Emerge Market,” a retail pop-up shop in a shipping container on the front lawn of artBox.  Its goal is to assist young artisans and entrepreneurs to set up shop to test their products before taking the major step of opening up a permanent shop.  How smart is that?

The BRZ’s website lists six venues in IA that have live music weekdays and weekends. Who knew?

Angela Dione and Angel Guerra Co-founders of Market Collective (a collective of Calgary artisans established in 2011) were at a transitional point in the collective’s evolution when the International BRZ found them space in a former car dealership showroom for their pop-up Christmas Market in 2012.  Market Collective has since gone on to become just one of 17th Avenue’s incubator success stories.

Art box is an old retail paint store that is now a multi-purpose art space.  It has been so successful that a pop-up sea container has been added to allow artisans to showcase their work. 

Gentrification Free Zone

While places like Kensington, Mission, Bridgeland and Inglewood are quickly becoming gentrified, i.e. places where only the rich can afford to live, eat, shop and play, one of Karim-McSwiney’s goals is to foster development without significant increases in rent for retail and restaurant spaces, thus helping ensure the local mom and pop shops don’t have to close their doors or move elsewhere.

She and her Board realize one of the keys to IA’s future is to retain its established small unique destination with its local shopkeepers and restaurateurs. Illchmann’s Sausage Shop and Gunther’s Fine Bakery have both called IA home for 45 years and La Tiendona Market for 21 years.  It would be a shame to lose these icons as part of any revitalization, which is what happens all too often.

I love the fact that there are no upscale urban design guidelines for International Avenues facades.  Love the colour, playfulness and grassroots approach. 

  There are also several great neon signs along International Avenue. Love that this one has a phone number not a website address - how retro is that?

There are also several great neon signs along International Avenue. Love that this one has a phone number not a website address - how retro is that?

Last Word

For more information on events and new developments on International Avenue go to their website. Link: International Avenue BRZ 

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Hamilton's Art Crawl is indeed super!

For the past 20+ years art galleries across North America have been creating annual art walks, First (or Last or Second) Thursday (or Friday) events as a means of encouraging the public to come out and experience the local visual art scene.  I have experienced dozens of them across North America, but nothing had prepared me for what I would experience on Friday May 13.

May 13, 2016 was a lucky day for me - I got to experience Hamilton’s Art Crawl and event that takes place the second Friday of every month along James Street North (JSN).  I have visited JSN for several years, watching it evolve from a street stuck in the ‘40s and’50s to a quirky street of quirky, cool street of eclectic galleries, restaurants and boutiques, void of the usual revitalization gentrification. 

It is indeed a crawl along the James Street South's sidewalks during Art Crawl. 

James Street North's Art Crawl Maker's Market is located in front yard of Christ's Church Cathedral.  I was surprised that there was a service going on during the Art Crawl.  

Jane Jacobs would love James Street North with all of its tiny shops offering a diversity of things to see and do. 

No Gentrification 

There is no Starbucks, no Tim Hortons, no Shoppers Drug Mart, no boutique hotel or new condos. Instead, the former “Little Portugal” is being repopulated by new “mom and pop” businesses.

The tipping point for JSN’s comeback was in 2005 or 2006 (nobody is quite sure the exact date), when a couple of the new art galleries that had opened up decided to stay open late on the second Friday of every month.  The experiment was popular and it has just built from there.

Facebook: James Street South Art Crawl

Hamilton Jewellers has been on James Street South for over 70 years.

Colourful storefronts and street adornment create a funky hip pedestrian experience along James Street North. 

Morgenstern's department store is a walk back in time to the '40s and '50s. 

Mulberry's Coffeehouse is JSS's signature cafe and patio. 

Ghost town to Extravaganza

Earlier that day, my Mom and I wandered JSN, which was pretty much deserted, but as we left late in the afternoon, we could saw people starting to arrive with tables and artwork.  My Mom said, “Oh, I forgot. Tonight is Art Crawl.”  Lucky my Mom lives just a few blocks away so later that evening (9 pm to be exact), I headed down to check it out. 

As soon as I crossed Main Street (two blocks away) I heard the urban buzz of people chattering and street music. Quickly, I was engulfed in one of the best sidewalk ballets I have experienced anywhere.  I estimate 15,000+ people were wandering up and down the sidewalks, checking out the street vendors, going in and out of shops and stopping to listen to some of the busker music and dancing. It was like I was back on the streets of Mexico City. There was a fun festival spirit that isn’t usually associated with art walks which usually attracts the reserved, wine-sipping sophisticates.

I couldn’t believe how the sleepy street had been transformed from an afternoon ghost town to evening extravaganza.

This fun chair created a fun urban playground during Art Crawl. 

One of the many art galleries along James Street South. 

Art Crawl offers a wonderful diversity of art. 

The art ranges from contemporary to decorative. 

SuperCrawl 

In September, JSN is closed to traffic for the annual SuperCrawl which attracts over 100,000 people to a weekend festival of visual art and music that is a smash-up of local and international artists.

The transformation of JSS from Little Portugal to a hip arts district has not gone unnoticed. It has captured the attention of New York City-based Projects For Public Spaces (founded in 1975 by William Whyte, author of the seminal public spaces book “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”) as one of best examples of how artists and art can transform a neglected space into something special. 

These ladies just had to dance to the music. 

The proud owner of a new painting just had to have his picture taken with his new acquisition. 

Last Word

If you are in the Hamilton area on a second Friday, I strongly encourage you to take in JSN Art Crawl.  And if you are into the visual arts, music and fun festivals, mark your calendar to be in Hamilton September 9 to 11, 2016. 

Indeed, Hamilton is more than Tim Hortons and the Ti-cats!

Street art adds another dimension to JSS's reputation as one of Canada's best art districts. 

Austin is more fun than weird!

While Austin’s moniker is “Keep Austin Weird,” I have not found anything about this city that I would call weird. On the other hand, I have found lots of fun things, which in my mind is even better as “Fun” appeals to more people than “Weird.”  

One of the first things we encountered as we headed out on the sidewalks was a neon sign “Wiggy’s Beer Wine” and thought “That’s Fun!”  Then we came upon a giant gorilla on the next block, which was an obvious “Kodak Moment.” And from there it was some fun fruit sculptures on the top of a parkade. This was all within the first 30 minutes.

One of Brenda’s observations about Austin is that it is a bit like Vegas with lots of neon signs everywhere.  While Austin’s neon signs are not big, bold and flashy like Vegas, they are fun and charming. And yes there are everywhere even in the ‘burbs. Neon is always fun.

For the first few days it seemed like it was just one fun thing after another. Here are our baker’s dozen “Austin is Fun” postcards.  

Established in 1973, the Wiggly Beer Wine neon sign marks the entrance to a tiny liquor store at the gateway to downtown along 6th Street West. 

Every city needs a good local fried chicken spot, Austin has many. Fresa's is take out only and is just a block from the Hope Outdoor Gallery, making it a popular spot with the picnickers. 

I told you Austin had more than one fried chicken spot.  This sign has is the most literal reference to Vegas. 

The name says it all - WAHOO!

Found this on a bottom shelf at HalfPrice Books at 5555 N Lamar.  Now that funny!

Found Lucy on the roof of a shop along South Congress. Lucy is fun and the play on the Beatles song is also fun. 

I have not clue what these are doing on the roof of parkade. This you could call "weird." 

Another fun name and sign of a business along South Congress in Austin. 

Every city has painted utility boxes these days, but Austin's have a fun twist.  Found these in the Clarksville community where we are staying in an apartment Airbnb. Love the cartoon narrative.  

Even the thrift stores get into Austin'd spirit of fun.  This is just one of dozens of chandeliers in the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store on South Congress. 

How fun is a bowling ball fence? 

This was the best thrift store we found in Austin. Very good product, lovely displays and good prices.  What is with the roof-top artworks? 

Airstream trailers are everywhere in Austin. You can find them in backyards and front yards on Airbnb. You can find them downtown selling custom designed boots. You can find them selling Big. Fat. Donuts! I even found one at a construction site office. 

West Austin Park pool looks lovely in winter but it only open in summer.

Last Word

We did find one weird thing about Austin and it is that  the lovely neighbourhood pool in the West Austin Park near our Airbnb (aka Austin home) is only open for two or three months in the summer.  What is weird is there is beautiful clean water in the pool year-round and it is +30 in March why wouldn't it be open now.  We asked locals and they also thought it was weird. 

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