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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Are Chinatowns still relevant in the 21st century?

Across North America, Chinatowns are struggling to be relevant to not only their modern Chinese community, but also to the community-at-large.

Calgary's Chinatown lives in the shadows of the mega office towers of its central business district. 

In 2012, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a three-year Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy. More than a decade in the making, the plan focused on economic revitalization by encouraging new residential development that would attract younger people of all backgrounds, to ensure Chinatown is increasingly relevant to a more multi-cultural Vancouver.

Fast-forward to 2016. A controversial proposal for a new 13-storey condo in Chinatown may or may not get approved after being re-designed for the third time. The building with 127 market condos, 25 affordable seniors’ homes and street level shops would seem to be an ideal revitalization project. However, many people from the Chinatown community feel the building is too high and big for their community (note my Herald column inaccurately reported this project had been approved).

In Calgary, a recent application for a Land Use change to increase the density of a surface parking lot across the street from Sun Life Towers (three 28-storey office towers) to allow for a tower up to 27 stories resulted in an immediate “Save our Chinatown” from some of the Chinatown community. They felt the change in land use would allow buildings that are too high and dense to fit with the traditional image of Chinatown as a rabbit’s warren of small buildings and narrow alleys.

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot surrounded by large office and residential buildings.  It sits empty on weekends and evenings. 

Wrong Focus?

What was missing from the protesters (both in Calgary and Vancouver) was what the new development would likely bring to their Chinatown. 

They should be asking questions like:

  • Does the design of the proposed buildings have the potential to enhance Chinatown’s retail and restaurant offerings?
  • Does it create lots of small spaces for new restaurants and retail at street level, or perhaps a larger space for a modern Asian-focused grocery and/or fashion store?
  • Will the condo unit sizes and designs attract young professionals and young families to the community - Chinese and non-Chinese?
  • Does the site support a building of this size?
  • Can the towers be set back from the sidewalk to make it pedestrian-friendly?
  • How does the building act as a link to the downtown office core?
  • Could the new development be a catalyst for revitalization?

Examples of older residential buildings that lack the amenities and design qualities to attract young professionals and empty nesters or the commercial spaces for modern retailers.

Generational Differences

Dai and Yang, both in their early 30s, who arrived in Calgary from Mainland China six and three years ago respectively, frequent Chinatown restaurants a couple of times a week, but never shop in Chinatown.  “Everything is for old people,” chuckles Dai. They both would love to see new more modern restaurants, shops and a movie theatre added to Chinatown. 

They also point out when Chinatowns were created 100+ years ago, China was a poor country and the people immigrating to Canada were poor, couldn’t speak any English and had no education.  They needed a Chinatown in every city to survive in the new world.

Today, Chinese immigrants are middle-class, professionals, speak English and have a global sensibility. They can easily buy a house and fit into any Calgary community.

They acknowledge Calgary’s Chinatown should continue to serve the needs of the Calgary’s elderly Chinese community (currently 60% of Calgary’s Chinatown population is over 65 years of age), but it also should be an attractive urban living community for young, educated Chinese and non Chinese also.

In fact, in our conversation, the idea of Calgary’s Chinatown evolving into more of an Asiatown appealed to them, as there is much overlap with Japan and Korea.  Dia and Yang suggested, “if Chinatown wants to appeal to young Asian professional it will need to attract international Asian retailers like Meters/bonwe, Uniqlo, E.Land, Muji, Suning, Huawei and restaurants like 85Cafe Yoshinoya and HaiDi Lao Hot Pot.”

Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with   Apple  ’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with Apple’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Perfect Site

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot in the middle of the block from Centre St to 1st Street, from 2nd to 3rd Avenues SW; this means there is no loss of “mom and pop” shops.  Rather, the development has the potential to add much needed modern retail and restaurant space that Dai and Yang suggest on the lower floors, with residential above.

The site is already surrounded by residential buildings 15-storeys high to the east and west and office towers 28-storeys to the north, so the addition of three towers in the 20 to 27-storey range is not without precedent.   The site would also support a +15 bridge to Sun Life Plaza, meaning that anyone living there could walk to work downtown without a car, coat or umbrella!

It would be a perfect “live, work, play” block for young professionals and empty nesters – Chinese and non-Chinese.

Many blame the lack of parking in Chinatown for its decline yet there are over 600 heated underground parking spots just a block away that are available in the evening and weekend. 

Catch 22

Calgary’s Chinatown can’t attract modern retailers and restaurants until it has larger, modern buildings for them to locate in, as well as a younger population who will support them.  At the same time, Chinatown can’t attract young professionals (Chinese and otherwise) until it has modern condos (with amenities), as well as modern restaurants and retail.

Ironic

Calgary’s Hon Family has owned the site for decades. So it isn’t as if an outsider has come into the community looking to make a quick buck.  The Hon Family, long time homebuilders in Calgary, has only recently entered the high-rise development business with the handsome twin Guardian condos in Victoria Park, next to Stampede Park.  The high-rise division is being managed by the millennial generation of Hons, i.e. the exact demographic who should be the target market for their new Chinatown development.

Dragon City Mall in Calgary's chinatown is a ghost town every time I visit.  The streets of Chinatown are devoid of people other than at lunchtime on weekdays and dim sum time on weekends.

chinatown, calgary

Chinese Decentralization

Harry Hiller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary thinks Chinatowns in cities across North America are losing their role as residential, retail and restaurant centers as the Chinese population decentralizes to multiple suburban locations.

However he thinks there might still be a role for Chinatowns as a central gathering place for family and community celebrations. He points out to the increasing popularity of the Vancouver’s Spring Festival Parade in celebration of the Lunar New Year that attracts 100,000 spectators.

Similarly, John Gilchrist, CBC Calgary Eyeopener restaurant reviewer thinks, “Over the past couple of decades, as Calgary grew, new Chinese restaurants opened in many suburbs, drawing attention away from the classic Chinatown restaurants. But since the flood of 2013, Chinatown has seen an influx of new owners, many of whom brought investment and new culinary ideas from China. So Chinatown looks fresher and has more to offer these days.”

Last Word

Calgary’s Chinatown is definitely not going to survive as a seniors’ ghetto.

Now is the perfect time to begin reinventing our Chinatown into a 21st century Asiatown that will add a new dimension to our downtown and reflect the new global world we all share.

The unintended consequences of City Council’s delay of their decision on the land-use amendment until December 2016, to allow for more community engagement could be to further divide Calgary’s already fragmented Chinatown community.  What is needed is decisive decision making by Council, landowners and businessmen that will allow Chinatown to evolve into a thriving 21st century urban village.

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