Calgary's 7th Ave. Transit Corridor: Better But Not Great

It all began innocently enough. A tweet by Sonny Tomic, an international urban planner and the former Manager of Calgary’s Centre City in which he said “Great street today – not 10 years ago,” with a photo of the 4th Street LRT Station at Hochkiss Gardens.  I responded, “this block is nice, but some blocks are not that great.”

This immediately started a flurry of emails about 7th Avenue’s transformation over the past 10 years and if 7th Avenue truly is a “great street.”  Even Jermey Sturgess, one of the urban designers for the new LRT stations along 7th Avenue contacted me wanting to know more about my thoughts on 7th Avenue, as he is part of the design team for the LRT’s Green Line. 

Sturgess and I recently did a walkabout so I could share my thoughts on how I thought 7th Avenue’s station and sidewalk design could be improved. 

The 4th Street LRT station (designed by Calgary's Sturgess Architecture) that empties onto the Hochkiss Gardens and historic Courthouse building is the highlight of Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor.  The rest of the corridor still leaves lots to be desired as a pedestrian friendly public space.  

7th Avenue History

Originally 7th Avenue was called McIntyre Avenue. It wasn’t until 1904 when the city dropped street names in favour of numbers that it became 7th Avenue.  In some ways, 7th Avenue has always played second fiddle to 8th Avenue as Calgary’s best urban streetscape.  The original City of Calgary trolley system used 8th Avenue not 7th Avenue and given this was before mass car ownership this meant almost everyone arrived downtown on 8th Avenue.

In the ‘70s, the situation changed. 7th Avenue became Calgary’s downtown’s transit corridor when part of 8th Avenue was converted to a pedestrian mall and rebranded as Stephen Avenue Mall. At the same time, new office shopping complexes like TD Square and Scotia Centre turned their backs on 7th Avenue having their front doors on 8th Avenue.  7th Avenue has struggled for the past 35+ years to find its mojo.

But if you look closely, you’ll see 7th Avenue is more than just a transit corridor.  It is home to Old City Hall, W.R. Castell Central Library, Olympic Plaza, Hudson’s Bay department store, Core Shopping Centre, Holt Renfrew, Devonian Gardens, Harley Hochkiss Gardens, Calgary Courthouse complex, Century Gardens and Shaw Millennium Park.

Indeed, 7th Avenue has all the makings of a great street and has had for many years with parks, plazas, shopping, churches, major office buildings etc.  It is also currently being radically transformed by three major new buildings, sure to become architectural icons – TelusSky, Brookfield Place and 707 Fifth. TelusSky is notable also as it will bring much needed residential development into the downtown office core. 

The Hochkiss Gardens with its trees, public art and lawn is a very attractive public space in the heart of downtown Calgary along the 7th Ave Transit Corridor. There is literally a park, plaza or garden every two blocks along the corridor.

Brookfield Place when completed will add a new plaza to 7th Avenue with a grand entrance unlike office tower built along 7th Ave in the '70s and '80s. 

707 Fifth Office Tower will also have an attractive entrance and plaza onto 7th Avenue when completed. 

Great streets are pedestrian friendly

To me, a great street is a place with lots of pedestrian-oriented buildings and activities i.e. inviting entrances, open seven days a week, daytime and evening with pedestrian-oriented activities (e.g. shopping, eating, browsing, entertainment, and recreational activities) at street level. 

Great streets are where people like to meet, gather and linger. This is not the case for 7th Ave for many reasons:

The City Hall/Municipal Building complex turns its back on 7th Avenue.  Yes, there is an entrance to the complex off of the LRT station but it is a secondary one that looks more like an afterthought.

The Convention Centre snubs 7th Avenue with no entrance at all from 7th Avenue, only emergency doors.

Olympic Plaza too discounts 7th Avenue with its large coniferous trees blocking transit riders’ view of the plaza activities. I am no tree expert but the lower branches could easily be trimmed so people could see into and out of the plaza along 7th Avenue? It would also be good for public safety.

The Hudson’s Bay store also gives the cold shoulder to 7th Avenue with its glorious colonnade along 8th Avenue and 1st Street SW but not extending around to 7th Avenue. As well, its larger display windows on 7th Avenue are poorly utilized and the sidewalk looks like a patchwork quilt of repairs.  

The side walk along 7th Avenue at the Hudson's Bay department store is an embarrassment. 

This is just one of several blocks and corners along 7th Avenue that are not public friendly.

Pride of Ownership?

Scotia Centre’s main floor food court entrance is several steps above street level effectively making it invisible from the 7th Avenue sidewalk. And its stairs are in very poor shape - no pride of ownership here.

Historically, TD Square followed suit, turning its back on 7th Avenue with the entrance being more office lobby-like than one opening onto a grand shopping complex.  The recent LRT Station improvements nicely integrates the station with building by creating sidewalk ramps at both ends that stretch from building edge to street, but the entrance is still more lobby-like than grand.

As for Holt Renfrew’s entrance off of 7th Avenue – well, it looks more like a dull hallway than a stately entrance to downtown’s upscale fashion department store.

7th Avenue lacks the cafes, restaurants and patios most often associated with great pedestrian streets. There are also no galleries, bookstores and shops fronting 7th Avenue that are would attract browsing pedestrians.  Most of the restaurants and cafes that do front onto 7th Avenue are closed evenings and weekends.  

One of the biggest obstacles for 7th Avenue is the fact that it is lined with tall office buildings that allow little if any of Calgary’s abundant sunlight any light to shine on the sidewalks, making it a very hostile pedestrian environment, especially in the winter.

Getting off and on the trains is a challenge as the numerous canopy pillars are in the way.  

If it isn't a pillar in the way it is a shelter, garbage can, signage or benches that make movement on the stations very difficult to navigate especially at rush hours. 

7th Avenue at Olympic Plaza is hidden from view by pedestrians and riders by lovely trees. This creates a very narrow sidewalk and safety issue (good public spaces have good sight lines so people can see into and out of the space). This streetscape would also improve with some colourful banners.  

Other Observations

What’s with the tacky baskets full of plastic flowers hanging at the LRT stations? I recently did a blog about banners being a better alternative than flowers and, though not a scientifically sound survey, everyone agreed the plastic flowers suck – including Councillor Farrell.

And speaking of banners, there are hundreds of banner poles along 7th Avenue - but most of them are empty. What a missed opportunity. They could be used not only to add colour to the street (especially in the winter), but also in conjunction with arts and event groups to promote and showcase upcoming art exhibitions, theatre shows and festivals.  

Also, though the new LRT stations are a big improvement, they are very “cluttered” with pillars, benches and ticket machines positioned in a manner that not only negatively impacts pedestrian movement but also exiting and boarding the train. 

And whose idea was it to locate huge public art pieces in the middle of the sidewalk at the entrances to the stations on the west and east end stations and a heat ball thingy in the middle of station?

The new design 7th Avenue is not pedestrian friendly as the sidewalk an obstacle course of garbage cans, artwork, trees, posts and fences.  

Putting a heat ball thingy in the middle of the sidewalk was just a dumb idea. 

7th Avenue looks great with lots of people and banners to add colour to the street. 

Last Word

As Calgary continues to work on the design of the new LRT Green Line, I hope the station and streetscape design team will learn from the clutter on 7th Avenue and create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. 

Kudos to Sturgess - he seemed to get it!  

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Does Calgary's City Centre have too many parks, plazas and promenades?

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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