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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Urban Planning is not a science!

Recently, I have been criticized by several planners and urban lobbyists for saying; “urban planning is more an art than a science and vibrant streets, public spaces and communities happen more by chance than master plans.”  Ouch! 

My critics tell me current urban research on best practices around the world means planners today can develop plans that have a high probability of creating vibrant streets, spaces and new communities using accepted good urban design principles.

But I counter with the fact that for decades urban planners have been telling Calgarians they have the recipe for creating urban vitality. In the ‘60s, planners thought the idea of clustering a new hotel, museum, convention centre, observation tower, office and retail at Centre Street and 8th and 9th Avenues SW was just the ticket to revitalize the east end of downtown.  I trust they were using what they thought were the best urban design principles at that time. Today the blocks of 8th and 9th Avenue near Centre Street are still devoid of street life most of the time.

Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit corridor was recently enhanced with new stations and sidewalks, but it still lacks an urban vibe. 

This is the entrance to Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Glenbow Museum taken at Stampede time in 2015.

Marriott Hotel's 9th Ave entrance across from the Calgary Tower at Stampede 2015.

Let's Try Again

Then in the ‘70s, new planners (again presumably based on current best practices thought) transforming 8th Avenue into a pedestrian mall, 7th Avenue into a transit corridor and building a huge indoor shopping centre with a winter garden and two office towers above it would boost downtown vitality. 

Toronto was doing it - Eaton’s Centre, Vancouver was doing it - Pacific Centre, so Calgary should do it – hence TD Square. Later, we added our own mini Eaton’s Centre and more recently we combined the two renaming The Core.  Hamilton, Winnipeg and Edmonton also tried the downtown indoor mall experiment to create urban vitality with little success.

Eaton's Centre in Toronto is a major tourist attraction. 

The Core shopping mall in downtown Calgary is the city's fourth busiest mall. 

Two More Times

In the ‘80s, planners once again turned their attention to the east end of Stephen Avenue with a mega block development - the Performing Arts Centre (Arts Commons). Surely, building one of North America’s largest performing arts centres (five space and 3,200 seats) with a new civic plaza would be just the ticket to create some vibrant downtown nightlife.  

Then in the ‘90s, urban revitalization best practices indicated the key to adding urban vitality to a neighbourhood was to include a mix of uses.  The Eau Claire plan included a market, an IMAX, a (multi-screen cinema), restaurants, shops, the Eau Claire Y recreation centre, new condos, a new hotel, a promenade along the river and upgrades to Prince’s Island Park.

All of these ambitious plans were based on current urban planning best practices at the time yet all met with limited success in creating a vibrant and attractive urban sense of place for Calgarians over the long term.

Stephen Avenue Walk today.

Unfulfilled Promises

And it’s not just Calgary.  For decades, urban planners around the world have researching and creating new best practices theories for creating vibrant streets, public spaces and urban communities, but in most cases the promise of urban vitality is unfulfilled.

More than one planner has admitted to me that much of urban planning today is about undoing the bad planning of the past. Personally, I don’t think it is actually bad planning, but the fact that urban planning is more like an experiment, where you have a hypothesis and to test it you have to build something to see if it works.

And, like most experiments they fail (or don’t work out exactly as planned) more often than they succeed.

However, I wouldn’t get too depressed. Calgary’s isn’t as bad as some urban planners would have us think. 

Barclay Mall is an enhance pedestrian street linking Stephen Avenue to Eau Claire, Prince's Island and Bow River. 

In fact, Calgary is very healthy!

Every year the Calgary Foundation produces what they call Vital Signs. It is a report card on how Calgarians feel about their city as opposed to how urbanists feel about our city.

Each year the results indicate Calgary is very healthy city. For example the 2015 reports states:

  • 87% enjoy their quality of life in Calgary
  • 91% describe themselves as happy
  • 78% are happy with their job and satisfied with their work
  • 75% participate actively in their community of interest
  • 90% report they are surrounded by loving family/companions/friends
  • 83% rated their physical well-being as high
  • 86% rated their mental well-being as high
  • 77% rated Calgary as a vibrant, lively, appealing place to live

These are pretty positive numbers and tell me Calgarians overall are pretty happy with the quality of life Calgary affords them. What more can you ask for?

Olympic Plaza in winter attracts a few skaters. 

Last Word

 In 2012, Scientific America published Sarah Fecht's paper titled “Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?” The opening paragraph reads:

 “In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. ‘Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense’ she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.”

Cities are very complex organisms, with way too many variables to be a science. City building is an endless experiment in adapting to new realities – economic, technology, citizen demands and urban design thinking.  

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