Group Think Or Good Urban Planning?

Visually it is eerie how similar Austin’s 2nd Street District and Calgary’s East Village look.

On a recent trip to Austin I was amazed at how similar their 2nd Street District’s recipe for urban renewal is to Calgary’s one for East Village.   The 20-block includes numerous high-rise condos, mixed with a few mid-rise, and dashes of - a new library, city hall and signature pedestrian/cycling bridge over Lady Bird Lake (aka long narrow reservoir on the Colorado River).

While Calgary’s East Village has an old Simons Mattress building as its signature historic building on the river, Austin’s 2nd Street has the historic Art Deco Seaholm Power Plant, currently being transformed into a mixed-use building with condos, offices retail. 

Austin's downtown skyline is dominated by condo towers.

City of Austin Power Plant that is being repurposed as part of the mega makeover of their downtown next to Lady Bird Lake. 

The Simmons Limited warehouse building has been transformed into multi-tenant restaurant, cafe and bakery on RiverWalk next to the Bow River. 

Austin’s 2nd Street District, like East Village, is still a work in progress. But it is perhaps a five year head start as it already has two grocery stores (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and boasts 50+ upscale places to sip, savour and shop – East Village has three.

From a housing perspective, 2nd St. District has several completed high-rise condos including The Austonian a 56-storey currently the tallest building in Austin. There are also several condos under construction including The Independent, a funky chunky tower, that surpass The Austonian by 2-feet.

Calgary’s current tallest building The Bow, office tower, is 58-storeys.  And though technically in East Village, in reality it faces southwest into the downtown central business district and turns its back on East Village.

The major difference is that Calgary’s East Village has direct access to the Bow River, while Austin’s 2nd Street District is cut off from the Lady Bird Lake by a major highway (Cesar Chavez Street).  However, Austin’s 2nd Street District has much better connectivity to it’s neighbouring districts than Calgary’s East Village which is cut off from its neighbouring districts by the Municipal Building and CPR railway tracks.

Austin's 2nd Street District is cut off from the waterfront by a major highway. 

Road connecting Austin's 2nd Street District to major road along the river similar to Calgary's Memorial Drive. 

Calgary's East Village condos this summer. Residents are now moving in and new mixed-use projects are commencing construction. 

Calgarians have direct access to the Bow river from East Village.  

Fostering Urban Vitality

Interestingly the streets of Austin’s 2nd Street District were devoid of urban vitality weekdays and weekends despite thousands of residents. It was only around the James D. Pfluger pedestrian bridge and the reservoir pathway that we experienced Austin’s urban vibe. 

Like Calgary, the pathways along Lady Bird Lake were packed with people of all ages - running, walking and cycling.  I dare say they are used even more than Calgary’s. Austin’s pathways are literally just a wide “bare ground” path that weaves its way naturally along the heavily treed shoreline. There is no separation for different users.  This is very different from Calgary’s expensive, highly designed, hard-surfaced Eau Claire and East Village pathways.

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

James D. Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge doesn't feel like a bridge, more like a promenade. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

Austin's river pathway near 2nd Street District on the weekend.  

Lady Bird Lake is very animated with canoes, kayaks, fishing boasts and other water craft creating a colourful and animated sense of place. 

St. Patrick's Island in East Village is quickly becoming a popular hang-out spot for families in Calgary. 

Calgarians love to stroll along the Bow River near downtown. 

St. Patrick's pathway along the Bow River in Calgary's East Village also offers passive places to sit, think and reflect.

Too soon to judge

One can’t help but wonder if there is a real urban planner group think when it comes to creating early 21st century urban villages as they all seem to have the same formula – lots of high-end, high-rise condos for young professionals and empty nesters with a smattering of grocery stores, retail and restaurants at ground level and anchored by major public spaces and one or two mega public buildings.  

Rendering of Austin's new public library located in the 2nd Street District. The library is under construction.

Rendering of Calgary's new public library in East Village, which is also under construction. 

Austin's 2nd Street retail streetscape. 

East Villages street retail is just starting to take shape. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

Billion Dollar Experiments

I am reminded of some of the lessons of Jane Jacobs community vitality activist and author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities that has become the bible for many urban planning. She warned, “beware of planners and urban development plans that try to encourage orderly city planning.”

I hope these billion-dollar experiments in city building in both Calgary and Austin work as planned. Only time will tell.  Calgary’s East Village experiment is looking good now, but it won’t be until 2040 that we will really know if the East Village master plan has resulted in an attractive, sustainable, vibrant urban community.

Calgary's East Village emerging skyline from St. Patrick's Island. 

Austin's downtown condo skyline at night.

Last Word

The time to judge the success of any new master planned community, urban or suburban, is about 10 to 15 years after it has been completed.

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine. 

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Are downtowns relevant in the 21st century city?

Everyday Tourist Note:

I recently asked Harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary in an email if he would comment on the importance of a vibrant downtown from his urban sociological perspective. His comments may surprise you ….they surprised me.

I have taken his email and with his permission formatted it as a thought provoking blog on the future of downtowns, not only in Calgary but for many cities.

Downtown Calgary Skyline (photo credit: Tourism Calgary).

Downtown & Consumption

The notion of a downtown as the central core of a city is a somewhat outdated concept because many activities - formerly occurring only in the core - now take place in many locations throughout the city. 

Historically, the central core of cities had three functions: trade, worship (e.g. cathedrals) and governance. It was not a place to live. 

Industrialization altered this pattern somewhat primarily because factories and warehouses were built in the city center adjacent to transportation networks such as railroads and waterways.

In the summer at noon hour, Stephen Avenue comes alive with downtown workers and a few tourists. 

Post-industrialization transformed the central core of cities yet again as employment shifted from factories (blue collar jobs) to offices (so-called white collar jobs) in high-rise towers.  This process contributed to another transformation in which consumption through entertainment, shopping, museums, galleries, and dining have become economic engines for downtowns.

These leisure activities (beyond the 9 to 5 pm working hours) opened up the possibility for a very different downtown core, one that is less about workers and more about urban living and playing.

This creates a vibrancy of a different type downtown. But this concept has not caught on in Calgary yet? Why not?

7th Avenue Transit corridor station

Stephen Avenue is a inhospitable place in the winter when it cold and windy.

Barclay Mall or 3rd Street SW, downtown's other pedestrian-oriented street linking Stephen Avenue with the Bow River.

Is downtown still relevant?

17th Avenue sidewalks are full of pedestrians even in February.  Calgary wasted a great opportunity to capital on the Red Mile brand as a tourist attraction. 

The problem for Calgary is the city is still young, suburban and dominated by child-rearing families. In addition there is little incentive for families to come downtown after office hours and most downtown workers just want to "escape" it.

It needs to be recognized contemporary cities are now multi-nucleated, meaning that there are many nodes for shopping, dining, entertainment and professional services away from the downtown core.  Suburban malls or pedestrian streets like 10th Street NW, 17th Avenue SW, 33rd Avenue SW or even strip malls minimize the need for people to go downtown. In fact, many suburbanites never need to visit the central core for any reason at all.

Downtown is less relevant to more Calgarians than ever before.

In fact many want to avoid or "escape" downtown.

 

Calgary Next would add two major event facilities to our downtown, with the potential to host major events as well as sports teams. 

Calgary Next would add two major event facilities to our downtown, with the potential to host major events as well as sports teams. 

Downtown as a tourist attraction?

This is where the current proposal for CalgaryNEXT needs to be evaluated.  The idea of building new arenas, stadiums, ballparks and convention centres is currently in vogue in many cities across North America because it provides anchors and a site for both residential and consumptive activity.  

Edmonton's Ice District and Winnipeg's downtown SHED (sports, hospitality, entertainment district) is meant to play a role in rejuvenating the downtown. Certainly, sport facilities (BC Place and Rogers Arena), convention facilities, and cultural activities have played a major role in making Vancouver an attractive place to live and play even superseding downtown’s role as an employment center.

But there is another important point to be made.  Great cities always support downtown tourism (e.g. New York or San Francisco) where people (suburbanites or visitors from other places) come to the downtown core for the weekend, stay in hotels, go shopping and dining, and take in cultural or sport events.  

I discovered hotels in San Francisco are busier on the weekends than they are during the week as people come from everywhere to enjoy the options in the downtown core.  If you look at cities with vibrant downtowns, they are almost always tourist hot spots.

Unfortunately, Calgary lacks the 5+ million population within a 2 or 3-hour drive that cities like San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto or Montreal have.  Some argue you need this population base to support an urban playground on weekends.  If just 2% of the people decide to head downtown on any given weekend that is 100,000 people. That's about the population of Calgary’s weekday downtown core workforce!

Downtown Calgary boast many great parks and pathways for recreational activities that are slowing attracting more people to want to live downtown.

Our downtown must become a place “to play”

I was at an event with Ken King recently and told him I believe many people do not understand the potential of the CalgaryNEXT proposal to create a hub of activity synergistic with other consumption activities in the central core along the LRT line.

Alternative sites for CalgaryNEXT (McMahon Stadium site or site adjacent to the Deerfoot) do not acknowledge how the proposed project could contribute to a more vibrant central core. 

Yes the proposed West Village site is complex, but in many ways it is also ideal with its proximity to LRT, major roads, downtown and the river.

Urban development is always complex.

The Core, downtown shopping centre is one of the largest and most attractive indoor shopping centres in Canada, but it has not capture the imagination of suburban Calgarians to come down and shop on weekends. Tourists on the street outside often don't even know it exists. 

Other than Stephen Avenue, the streets in the downtown core have nothing for pedestrians to see or do.  It is a ghetto of office buildings for office workers. 

9th Avenue, downtown Calgary

Macleod Trail, downtown Calgary

Last Word

Much of the current debate about CalgaryNEXT could be improved by greater public awareness and discussion about the role our downtown core should play in the future of the city.  From my perspective, our downtown must become more than just a place to work, which is the current reality. The sooner the better!

Dr. Harry Hiller, Faculty Professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Calgary.

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