Downtown Calgary puts the PARK in PARKades

Calgary’s downtown has the dubious reputation as having some of the most expensive parking in the world! And there are several good reason for that. The most obvious is the city limits the supply of parking while the demand for parking by the 150,000+ downtown workers is very high (at least it was until recently).  But there are other reasons, like the fact Calgary has a greater percentage of underground parking than most cities. 

Above Ground vs. Underground?

That is not the case for other cities like Austin where almost all of their downtown parking is in above grade parkades that occupy the bottom 3 to 6 floors of their office, hotels and condos towers.  The further down you have to dig the more expensive the cost of underground parking.  It is my understanding that on overage an above ground parking stall costs about $20,000, while and underground stall averages out to about $60,000. 

In addition, the underground parking has to be heated which is not the case for above ground parking so they are more expensive to operate.  

Entrance to the underground parkade at James Short Park on a Saturday morning. 

Parkades as parks

The other big difference in Calgary downtown parking is that five of the parkades have parks above them – James Short Park, Civic Parkade, McDougall Centre, Harley Hotchkiss Gardens and York Hotel Plaza.  There is also a six park/parkade in the Beltline under the Haultain School Park that serves the Union Square condominium. 

Designing a parkade with a park on top increases the complexity of the design, engineering and materials, which in turn increases the cost of the project.  As each project is unique the cost can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

James Short Parkade (880 stalls)

James Short Parkade built is located on the block between 4th and 5th Avenues on the west side of Centre Street.  It is the site of the James Short School, which was originally 1905 Central School – the cupola from the school can be found at the NW corner of Centre Street and 5th Ave NW.  The school was torn down in 1969, but the cupola was saved and moved to Prince’s Island. 

Backstory: The cupola was designed to have a clock but it never had a clock while it was part of the school. It wasn’t until the park and parkade was developed in 1995 that the clock mechanism from the Burns Block demolished in the early ‘60s was incorporated into the cupola as part of the new park.

This passive two-acre park is used mostly as a place to sit, with some of the neighbouring Chinese community using it for Tai Chi exercise.  Above the park is Calgary’s only curved +15 that links Suncor Place with SunLife Plaza.

James Short Park is a quiet oasis in a sea of office towers. It is a peaceful place to sit, relax and chat. 

The James Short School copula sit at the southeast entrance to James Short Park. 

Old photo of Central Schools which later became James Short School and now is a park and parkade. 

McDougall Centre Parkade (658 stalls)

The historic McDougall school (has been restored and converted in the Premier of Alberta and the Calgary Caucus’ headquarters.  It is probably most famous for hosting the annual Premiers Stampede Pancake breakfast.  It opened 1908 as the Calgary Normal School, a teacher training facility. It became the McDougall (named for Methodist missionary John McDougall) elementary school in 1922 and continued in that role until 1981. The provincial government purchased the building, demolished the additions and reopened it as Government House South (now McDougall Centre) in 1987.

As part of the renovation design for the McDougall Center an underground parkade, with a lovely park above was created. There are two lovely tree-lined promenades that meet at the front doorway.  The back of the school has a cascading waterfall and pond under a canopy of large evergreens that is a popular place to sit at lunch.  And, when there is no water in the pond it makes for a great skate park. 

One of two lovely tree canopied sidewalks at McDougall Centre Park. 

McDougall Centre parkade is under the entire block of the 100+ year old sandstone school. 

On the west side of the Centre is a larger water feature which becomes a skate park when there is no water in the fountain and nobody is looking. 

City Hall Parkade (640 stalls)

The City Hall Parkade is located underneath the Municipal Building affectionately know by some as the Blue Monster. It is a popular evening parking spot for those attending an event at the Performing Arts Centre (opps Art Commons).

Few Calgarians, realize there is park on top of the parkade on the northeast corner of 9th Avenue and Macleod Trail.  It is not a ground level but at the +15 level so it is not visible to those driving or walking by.  It is a bit of a hidden oasis for City of Calgary employees and those in the know.  It is also home most years to Calgary’s first tree to leaf out as there is a microclimate created by its southwest orientation and the heat trap created by the dark brown brick Edwards Place apartments and the Municipal building’s dark blue glass. 

City Hall Parkade is invisible from Macleod Trail.  It is also sadly closed after hours and on weekends. The City of Calgary should be a leader in keeping downtown public spaces open on the weekends.   

City Hall Parkade Park offers good views of downtown architecture and it a quiet place to chat. 

Harley Hotchkiss Gardens (770 stalls)

The 1.5 acre Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is locate above the Alberta Court of Appeal (Court House #2) parkade that encompass the entire block from 6th to 7th Avenues and 4th and 5th Street SW.  The stately sandstone building has severed many different purposes including the Glenbow Museum from 1964 to 1977. 

At ground level is the old Court House, a futuristic LRT station with a connection to Holt Renfew, a water feature and the grassland gardens that is home to the Joe Fafard’s eight stampeding horses titled “Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do” On the north side of the Court House building is Joanne Schachtel’s artwork/bench titled “Buffalo Trail;” this piece was in the park before the parkade was created and the judges demanded it be incorporate into the new park. When the judges talk, everyone listens.

Hotchkiss Gardens located in the middle of downtown Calgary. 

Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular lunch spot. 

Joanne Schachtel’s artwork/bench titled “Buffalo Trail" is meant to double as a bench for people to sit on.  Unfortunately it is often in the shadow of the Courthouse building, which makes it less popular as a place to sit.  

Haultain School Park

The Haultain School Park is a hidden gem in Calgary’s park system.  It includes the 1894 Haultain School (now home to Parks Foundation of Calgary) was Calgary’s first school. The park also includes tennis courts, a playing field and a busy children’s playground. 

When the twin Union Square condos (on 1st Street at 13th Ave SW) were proposed the developer worked a deal with the city to gain access rights build a parkade underneath the eastern half of the park for residents.  The money was used to upgrade the park for the entire community’s use.  The current residents pay a fee to the city each year for leasing the land rights.

Temporary Public Spaces

In addition to these permanent parks, there are two other parkades that have attractive public spaces at ground level.  There is a lovely plaza on the northwest corner of 7th Ave and 2nd St SW that is has been waiting since 1982 for the second tower of the First Canada Centre to be built. Each year the plaza is decorated with lovely grasses and flowers that make for a lovely outdoor lunch spot.

More recently, the site of the York Hotel, 7th Ave and Centre St. S, which was suppose to have a small office building as part of The Bow tower development has been converted into a temporary plaza.  Designed by Sturgess Architect, the plaza is constructed primarily of wood, to look like a huge deck, with benches and planters for trees and grasses designed specifically for the plaza and manufactured local.  All of the materials are recyclable. 

It could easily be another 25+ years before we see an office building on either site, in the meantime downtown Calgary has two public space to enjoy. 

A view of the First Canada Centre plaza from the +15 bridge over 7th Avenue.  In the summer, there are lots of planting creating a cheerful and colourful place to sit in the sun at noon hour. 

The flower boxes are actually support beams for the unbuilt office tower, they create wonderful private spaces to to sit and read or have a chat with a friend or colleague. 

York Hotel Plaza is a perfect spot to see tow of Calgary's iconic pieces of architecture and art - The Bow Tower and Wonderland sculpture. 

Like Poppy Plaza, it looks very inviting to skateboards, too bad it couldn't accommodate them as it would create some animation of the space, every time I pass by there is never anyone there. 

The York Hotel plaza fence decorative elements were inspired by the designs on the Art Deco York Hotel. 

Detail of York Hotel's decorative elements. (photo credit: Canadian Architectural Archives) 

Last Word

So the when it comes to creating public space in downtown Calgary, we can thank the City, the developers and designers who have sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes creatively put the PARK in Calgary PARKades.

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Calgary is at a crossroads – do we want more or do we want better public spaces?

It seems everyone I talk to these days, wants another park or an upgrade in their community.  I was surprised recently when Calgary Herald columnist and fiscal conservative Mike Milke in his March 19th column recommended the City of Calgary use the $86 million surplus from 2015 as seed money to create a major park along the Bow River west of Shaw Millennium Park in future new downtown community called West Village.

Do we need more parks?

The west end of downtown already has Shaw Millennium Park, as well as Pumphouse Park and the Bow River Pathway that goes all the way to Edworthy Park.  Along the way you pass through the 40-acre Lawrey Gardens and Douglas Fir Trail. 

One could also question if there really is a need for more parks anywhere in Calgary, the American National Recreation and Parks Association recommend that a city should have 10 acres of parks for every 1,000 people.  At present, Calgary has 5,200 parks totalling 25,000 acres, which for a population of 1,200,000, means we have 20 acres/1,000 citizens or twice the recommended amount (City of Calgary website).

When it comes to parks, more is not always better. In fact, less could be more - fewer parks mean more money to spend on maintenance and renovation of existing parks, making them healthier, more beautiful and more attractive.  Fewer parks mean more money for equipment in the parks, better pathways and more plantings.  Fewer parks mean more people using the same parks, which would increasing social interaction with neighbours and help make our parks safer. 

Sure there are some communities that have more and some less park space, but there is hardly a shortage of parks in our city.

Lawrey Gardens along the south shore of the Bow River between Crowhchild Trail and Edworthy Park. 

Calgary boast one of the largest urban pathways networks in the world. 

Edworthy Park is just one of over 5,000 parks in Calgary. 

Do we need more plazas?

I am also not a big fan of creating plazas next to busy streets.  The City of Calgary invested $31.5 million for Poppy Plaza at the busy corner of Memorial Drive and 10th Street NW.  Yet, I rarely see anyone in the plaza despite having passed it hundreds of times.  Surely, there was a better way we can pay our respects to those who have served our country than an empty plaza. 

We already have Memorial Drive, Memorial Park and the second largest military museum in Canada. For $31.5 million we could have built two schools (Cranston elementary school cost $15.6M) with a military name and mural.

The new East Victoria Park, on the east side of Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th Avenues SE, looks more like a plaza than a park (to me).  It looks nice and there is an area designated as a possible event space, but I really wonder if anyone will want to linger, watch or listen in the park given the traffic noise of three major roads. I hope I am wrong.

Did we need to spend $1.85 million to create a new plaza for a public artwork in the community of Parkdale where 34A St. meets the Bow River? When I sit on the benches the artwork actually blocks my view of the river vista and doesn’t allow me to make eye contact with others in the plaza. I am not convinced the artwork enhances the space or the river experience.

Poppy Plaza has amazing views of the downtown skyline, the Bow River and the Louise Bridge, but few people stop and linger, it is mostly a just a walk by plaza. 

This new plaza in Victoria Park, next to the busy Macleod Trail has limited use whenever I have visited. The most use I have seen is by skateboarders who probably shouldn't even be there, but you can't blame them for using it as it looks like a great skatepark. 

This is entrance to Parkdale Plaza for pedestrians looking west.  

Outflow is the title of the concrete artwork by Brian Tolle which is an inverted replica of Mount PeeChee, the third highest peak in the Fairholme Range just north of Canmore in the Bow River watershed.  It is linked to the storm water sewer that empties into the Bow River at this site via an outfall, so when the water travels through the sculpture It is suppose to serve as a reminder of the origins of the Bow River and how it has shaped our city. 

Unfortunately, most of the time there is no water so it looks like a strange and intriguing concrete vessel that seems to capture peoples' interest for a quick glance and then move on.  My biggest objection is that it blocks my view of the river.  This photo is taken sitting on one of the benches and you can't look up the Bow River to downtown. In my opinion the piece is too intrusive on what was a lovely spot to enjoy the river. 

To me this is a much more appealing and intimate way to enjoy the Bow River. 

Do we need more promenades?

While recently in Austin, Texas (population 1,000,000) and wandering its extensive Colorado River pathway system, I was impressed by not only how busy it was, but that it was a simple (no separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians), dirt pathway that follows the contours of the shore. 

It was a very different experience to Calgary’s formal, hard-surfaces promenades with separate lanes for pedestrians and cyclist in some places.  It was a free for all and yet is seems to work even though it is as busy or busier than our promenades, riverwalks and pathways.

What about the $5 million 13th Ave SW Heritage Greenway? If you haven’t heard about it, or seen it, you are not alone.  The idea was to link the 13th Avenue heritage sites (Haultain School, Memorial Park, Lougheed House and Calgary Collegiate) from Macleod Trail to 9th Street SW with a wide sidewalk lined with trees, grasses and street furniture to create a “complete street” that would accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and personal motorized vehicles.  It looks pretty, but I haven’t noticed any increased in pedestrian traffic and don’t expect any.  Now we have bike lanes on 11th Avenue SW I wouldn’t expect many cyclist to use it.  

I am all for beautifying our city, but lets do it where people will see it, use it and enjoy it.

13th Avenue Greenway creates a promenade-like experience with wide sidewalk, trees and grasses in Calgary's Beltline community. 

13th Avenue Greenway at Barb Scott Park.  It looks lovely, but is hardly ever used. 

Austin's river pathway is mostly just a dirt path, with no separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians making it much more natural. It is heavily used by people of all ages and all forms of transportation. 

Last Word

I am not alone in thinking that perhaps more parks, plazas, promenades and public art are not the best way to enhance community vitality. Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961),” which has become the bible for many urban planners and community activists wrote, “parks, plazas, promenades, pedestrian malls should not automatically be considered a good thing. Most downtowns have too many.”

Jacobs also wrote, “Human beings are what interest us most; it is the richness of human variation that give vitality and color to the urban setting…people watching is the best urban activity. People attract people.”

I’m with Jacobs on this one.  If we want to create more community vitality, we need fewer parks, playgrounds, plazas, promenades and public art. 

We need to make better use of what we already have - make them places where people want to linger and meet their neighbours.  

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