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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car2go tips for the savvy urban traveller

The savvy urban traveller today has more transportation options when s/he is travelling than ever before. It used to be the options were to walk, take transit, hail a cab or rent a car.  Now the list often includes things like car2go, Lyft, Uber and bike rentals.

A big walker, I usually just give myself enough time to walk as I often find hidden gems along the way.  And given most of my holidays are spent wandering the streets of the city centre, walking and public transit are my norm. However, I am finding more and more I want to travel beyond the city centre to find those hidden urban gems.

When researching Austin TX, I quickly discovered many of the music venues I wanted to go to and the thrift stores Brenda wanted to dissect were not easily walkable from our Clarksville neighbourhood Airbnb. 

Also quickly figuring out public transit in Austin wasn’t great and Brenda not being a bike rider, our options were quickly becoming more limited.  That was when I thought this holiday would be a good time to give car2go a try.  There had been many times in Calgary when I had passed one of their “funny little cars” and thought how quick and easy it would be to hop into one rather than walk the 50 minutes each way to a downtown meeting from our house.

So like all good travel writers, I contacted car2go, which just happens to have its head office in Austin, and asked if they would be willing give the Everyday Tourist some free minutes while we were in Austin in return for texting out about where we took our car2go.  There was no obligation (or pressure what so ever) to do a blog and write something nice about them. They were genuinely happy to simply have us tweet out how we used car2go.

They even offered – and I readily accepted an orientation in Calgary so we could hit the road “driving” when we arrived at the Austin airport.

Big Savings:

During our two-week Austin stay (Feb 25 to March 8, 2016), our car2go costs added up to $317.82 US for our 44 trips. Renting a small car would have cost us about $800 US, plus gas and parking.  The $500 savings paid for one of our airfares; that’s being savvy traveller.

Lessons Learned:

Yes, you can fit two good size pieces of luggage in the back of a car2go.  (Car2go currently has airport parking access in six of their 13 North American locations - Austin, TX; Columbus, OH; Vancouver, BC; Calgary, AB; Toronto, ON and Minneapolis, MN.)

I loved that I could reserve a car for 30 minutes on my phone and know exactly where it would be waiting for me. I even found I didn’t mind that 5 or 10-minute walk to my car as it felt I was getting some exercise – walk and ride vs. park and ride! And it sure was much nicer than walking to a nearby bus stop and waiting 5, 10 or 15 minutes. 

I loved the ability to park just about anywhere, as you need only a little space and the cars maneuver easily to park. (Caution: The parking rules are different in every city so be sure to review the parking information on their local website for the city you are visiting before you go.)

Only in Austin can it be 30 C and they still call it winter (we were there in late February and early March and it sure felt like summer). Brenda loved that the air conditioning was “instant on.”

car2go allowed us to check out off the beaten path places like Black's BBQ. Now that's a rib. 

But what we loved most is car2go gave us the freedom to quickly explore places in Austin we probably would never have done without using car2go. This can be particularly good on short vacations when time is limited. It also meant we could visit three, sometimes four, districts a day, jumping in and out of the car all day long as if we owned it.  Yes, we would get a car in the morning and often have the same car to drive home.  (Caution: You can’t assume that you own the same car for the day so be sure to take all your belongings with you at all times.)

We even used the navigation system at the beginning (we don’t have one in either of our cars) and it worked well (except we couldn’t figure out how to get it to talk to us) but by the third day we had the lay off the land, so didn’t need it.

It was great for grocery shopping as we could walk there and grab a car2go for about $4 and be back with our bags of food and adult refreshments in our Airbnb apartment in minutes.  

We also found by using car2go rather than walking 15 to 20 km a day, we were more rested and keen to check out Austin’s music venues at night.

One of the biggest surprises in Austin was that the residential streets (at least in our area), have poor or no sidewalks and lighting is minimal.  I mean the streets are pitch black (“bring a flashlight” black).  There is no way you want to walk home after dark. Car2go was the perfect way to check out Austin’s music venues, which often start with a Happy Hour at 6:30pm, then a headliner at 10pm and a nightcap band at midnight.

Sunday afternoon at Saxon's Pub was a definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We probably wouldn't have made it here if not for car2go.

Sunday afternoon at Saxon's Pub was a definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We probably wouldn't have made it here if not for car2go.

Last Word

Overall, car2go allowed us to make better use of our time and energy, and develop a better appreciation of all Austin has to offer. Using car2go and staying in an Airbnb, we really felt like we were locals for two weeks.

I can definitely see us using car2go in Calgary and when we are planning future trips. 

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Get "Off The Beaten Path" with these tips!