Winnipeg vs Calgary: The Forks vs East Village

Then it hit me; The Forks isn’t an urban village it is a tourist district. 

Recently I was in Winnipeg for a wedding and had some time to wander their mega urban redevelopment The Forks, which is aptly named as it is located where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet in the middle of their City Centre.

As I wandered around at noon hour on a nice Friday in early October I wondered; “Where are the condos? Where are the office buildings? Where are the people running along the river?” 

I couldn’t help but reflect on how the location next to two rivers and just east of downtown was very similar to Calgary’s East Village and yet so different.

The Esplanade Riel Bridge connects The Forks to the community of St. Boniface across the Red River.  It has a restaurant in the middle that offers spectacular views of downtown, the river and the Human Rights Museum. 

East Village's pathways along the Bow River in St. Patrick's Island Park with the George King bridge in the background.

East Village's pathways along the Bow River in St. Patrick's Island Park with the George King bridge in the background.

Similarities

Both sites were meeting places for First Nations peoples long before the pioneer settlers arrived. 

Both sites are about the same size - The Forks is 63 acres (doesn’t include Shaw baseball park) and East Village is 49 acres (doesn’t include Fort Calgary Park).

Both sites were once industrial sites, with The Forks being an old CN rail yard next to their Union Station, while East Village being more of a light industrial area with a rail line running along its southern edge.

Both sites struggled in the middle of the 20th century to find new uses.  CN Rail moved their yards to the suburbs in 1966 leaving the site vacant.  East Village buildings were torn down in the ‘60s to create ugly overflow surface parking lots for downtown.

Both sites lack good connectivity to downtown and neighbouring communities due to rivers and railway tracks.

Winnipeg's Union Station and railway sheds separate The Forks from downtown. 

Today, both sites are managed by a CEO who reports to a government appointed Board of Directors.  The Forks CEO, Paul Jordan reports to The Forks North Portage Partnership Board which was established by the Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments.  East Village President and CEO, Michael Brown reports to Calgary Municipal Land Corporation Board appointed by City of Calgary. 

Both sites have a major new museum, Human Rights Museum at the Forks and National Music Centre in East Village.  Both of which are only national museums located outside of Ottawa.  The Forks also has a Children’s Museum, Children’s Theatre and skatepark, while East Village has a mega new library and the family oriented St. Patrick’s Island Park.  And each has popular pedestrian pathways, plazas along the river’s edge and an iconic pedestrian bridge over the river. 

Both The Forks and East Village have very active programming to attract people to the site.  The Forks attracts over 4 million visitors to the site and is the City and Province’s number one tourist attraction.

The uniquely shaped Human Rights Museum dominates The Forks. In the foreground is a multi-purpose plaza that can serve as a skatepark, busker/performance space or casual sitting area. 

East Village's National Music Centre

East Village's National Music Centre

The Fork's river landing and pathway along the Assiniboine River just before it flows into the Red River. 

The Fork's river landing and pathway along the Assiniboine River just before it flows into the Red River. 

East Village's Riverwalk with the Langevin bridge, 4th, 5th and LRT flyovers in the background. 

East Village's Riverwalk with the Langevin bridge, 4th, 5th and LRT flyovers in the background. 

The Market at The Forks is part food court (main floor), part retail space (second floor). 

East Village: The Simmons building has an upscale restaurant, cafe and bakery. 

East Village: The Simmons building has an upscale restaurant, cafe and bakery. 

Winnipeg's Children's Museum is one of several cultural facilities located at The Forks. 

Computer rendering of the Caglary's new Central Library looking west from East Village.

Computer rendering of the Caglary's new Central Library looking west from East Village.

Differences

The Forks North Portage Partnership purchased all of the land from CN Rail for $66 million, whereas the City of Calgary owned about 50% of the East Village lands at one point. 

Aerial view of The Forks

Aerial view of The Forks

The Forks has no master plan governing how all of its land will be developed eventually, but rather is governed more organically adapting to new opportunities and needs as they arise.  The first thing CMLC did was create a comprehensive master plan with a detailed 3D video to help everyone understand the vision of the new East Village as a 21st century urban village.

The Forks is actively working with developers to convert 12 acres of surface parking lots next to the railway tracks and Union Station into Railside. The vision calls for $500 million to be invested by large and small developers to build 20+ buildings no taller than six storeys with retail at street level and offices and condos above and $50 million in public spaces. (Railside will be more like Calgary’s University District than East Village in that the land will be leased not owned, as The Forks partnership wants to retain ownership of the land).

New condos and the East Village sales centre. 

New condos and the East Village sales centre. 

East Village’s development was funded by a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) that was used to upgrade infrastructure and help build new public amenities like St. Patrick’s Island Park, National Music Museum and new Central Library.  The $357 million CRL has resulted in $2.4 billion in private sector development and is expected to generate $725 million in new tax revenues by 2027, which will more than pay back the $357 million levy. 

The Forks is a unique government led partnership with the return on investment (ROI) being shared by the three parties - City receives new property tax revenue, Province provincial sales tax paid on site and Federal Government getting all GST revenues. 

Like East Village, two of the most popular reason for visiting The Forks are Canada Day festivities and summer concerts.  What is very interesting is the Forks has been very successful in creating winter attractions – skating on the river and the Winter Park are listed as the third and fourth most popular activities in a 2015 Survey and not far behind summer concerts the second most popular activity, festivals being number one.   

East Village hosts an ambitious year-round program of events.

Winnipeg's ice skating trails

Winnipeg's ice skating trails

Winnipeg’s Winter Wonderland

The Fork’s “Warming Huts” is a stroke of genius.  Since 2009, an international competition has been organized inviting designers to submit proposals for shelters to be installed along the river skating rink so people can stop, chat and warm up.  The program has captured international attention including the New York Times with the Travel Section headline “In Winnipeg, a Skating Rink That Doubles as a Sculpture Park.”

It has also captured the imagination of starchitect Frank Gehry who designed an igloo made of clear blocks of ice in 2012.

Winnipeg Ice Hut

Last Word

East Village is an intriguing example of private public collaboration based on an ambitious vision, master plan and implementation with a 20-year return on investment and build out.   It reflects Calgary’s corporate culture and the love of the mega projects.

After 30 years, The Forks is just now completing the return on investment for the three levels of government and is still decades away from complete build out.  It reflects Winnipeg’s government culture and love of grass roots development.

Paul Jordan and his Board of Directors are happy with The Forks’ slower redevelopment timeline as it allows for organic growth and the ability to respond to community needs over time rather than being locked into a fixed master plan.

I guess you could say there is “more than one way to skin a cat.”

If you like this blog, you will enjoy:

Winnipeg vs Calgary: Urban Hot Spots (Part 1) 

Winnipeg vs Calgary: Urban Hot Spots (Part 2) 

Winnipeg's Old World Charm

 

 

Buffalo vs Calgary / Boom vs Bust Cities

Every city has its heyday! Both Buffalo and Calgary have seen their fair share of good times and bad times. Everyday Tourist dissects these two very different cities. 

Strange looks appeared when I told people “we are going to Buffalo!” Even the USA border guard gave us a second look when we said we were spending three days and two nights in the Queen City. 

While many still have the impression of Buffalo as a city in decline, I had read lots of great things about the NEW Buffalo and wanted to check it out. 

Buffalo City planner Chris Hawley’s blog on “Beer-Oriented Development” first caught my attention, but the tipping point for my decision to go was learning their Canalside outdoor skating rink will attract over one million skaters this winter.

This I had to see!

Ice skating at Canalsie (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Buffalo 101

Buffalo, founded in 1801, quickly grew to become the dominant city of the eastern Great Lakes.  It became a major headquarters city for the grain, steel and automobile industries because of its strategic location on the Erie Canal and railway between the Midwest and the Atlantic coast. It became one of the wealthiest cities in North America. 

Three major factors resulted in the decline of the City’s economy by 1950s.  One was the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a new and the second was the emergence of trucking transportation as an alternative to rail. Thirdly, suburban living became popular, which meant many people and businesses moved to the suburbs and with them, significant tax dollars. But today after 60 years of decline, Buffalo is definitely on the upswing. I thought it might be interesting to do a Calgary/Buffalo comparison.

Urban Design 

Every city has its heyday - Buffalo’s was from 1880 to 1950.  As a result, it has a wonderful legacy of late 19th and early 20th century architecture and urban design matched only by New York City and Chicago. 

Buffalo’s strong economy resulted in several iconic early 20th century architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson and Fredrick Law Olmstead designing signature buildings and parks.  

Buffalo’s city hall designed by John J. Wade is a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture that is still used today, with the 28th floor’s observatory offering a spectacular view of the city’s radial street pattern.

Buffalo City Hall (photo credit: Nancy Vargo) 

Buffalo The Beautiful 

Calgary’s early 20th century booms didn’t produce anything on the scale of Buffalo’s great architecture and parks. And, Calgary’s heyday started in the mid 20th century, only recently resulting in signature buildings by internationally renowned architects like Sir Norman Foster (Bow office tower), Santiago Calatrava (Peace Bridge), Bjarke Ingles (TELUS Sky) and acclaimed artist, Jaume Plensa (Wonderland).  St. Patrick’s Island Park has the potential to become a classic example of early 21st century thinking on urban park design.

The “City Beautiful” movement was popular in North America in the early 20th century with its principles of creating new urban communities that were more park-like with lots of trees, green spaces, non-grid streets and beautiful roundabouts. And while, Mount Royal is the best example of a “City Beautiful” community in Calgary, Buffalo has an entire “City Beautiful” District.

Richardson Olmsted complex, Buffalo (photo credit: Ed Healy) 

Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Aerial photo of downtown Buffalo, with Canalside and First Niagara Arena in the background

Downtown Calgary Skyline looking over Stampede Park and Scotiabank Saddledome arena

WOW Factor 

We were fortunate to stay at the Inn Buffalo on Lafayette Street, the home of industrialist H.H. Hewitt in the middle of this district.  The Inn Buffalo includes a library, music room, dining room, drawing room and lower level “Admiral Room” in addition to 9 suites on the second and third floors. 

It is a “preservation in progress” which allows guests to see the layers of history of the 115-year old home - from the gold leaf Persian-inspired ceiling to the silk damask wall coverings.

Walk for blocks in any direction and it is one “WOW” after another.  You could easily spend a day exploring the boulevard streets called “parkways” designed by Olmstead (designer of New York City’s Central Park) and an extension of his iconic Delaware Park.

We must go back in the summer! 

The front porch of Inn Buffalo was inviting even in early January.  The entire mansion was a walk back in time. 

Unicity vs. Fragmented City 

Today, the City of Buffalo has a population of 260,000 but its metro population of 1,135,000. The metro area comprises 6 cities, 37 towns and 21 villages, each independently governed with a separate tax base.

The current City of Buffalo is roughly equivalent in size and population to Calgary in 1961 when Fairview, Westgate and Wildwood were new communities, Bowness was an independent town and Forest Lawn and Midapore where newly annexed.

Unlike most North American cities, Calgary’s urban growth was through a series of annexations resulting in contiguous growth into one mega central city (with 90% of metro population) with only a few small edge cities and towns (i.e. Airdrie, Cochrane, Okatoks and Strathmore).

One of Calgary’s biggest economic advantages over almost every other major city in North America is its unicity government, meaning one major police, fire and emergency, transit, parks and recreation departments. Imagine having 60+ City/Town Councils each competing with each other for developments and each having their own City departments, which is Buffalo’s reality.

The Arts

Buffalo’s downtown theatre district boasts 10 theatre spaces including the iconic 4,000-seat Shea’s Performing Arts Centre, built in 1926 and 20 professional companies. Buffalo has a rich jazz history with the “Coloured Musicians Club” being the equivalent of Calgary’s King Eddy Hotel and its connection to the blues.

When it comes to the visual arts, Buffalo’s Albright Knox Museum (AKM) houses not only one of the best collections of abstract expressionism and pop art in North America, but also a representative collection of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Constructivism art.  AKM’s galleries are a “who’s who” of modern artists – Monet to Motherwell.

Albright Knox Art Gallery is a gem both for its architecture and collection. 

They arguably have the world’s best museum/art gallery front desk receptionist. Gretchen, clearly very proud of the museum and its collection, was friendly and full of insights, like how Seymour Knox was an early adopter of modern 20th century art, noting many of the iconic artworks were added to the collection within a year of being created. She also pointed out AKM has a great bistro.

In addition, Buffalo has the shiny zinc and cast stone clad Burchfield Penny Art Centre (across the street from the AKM) on the campus of Buffalo State College which is devoted to local artists while down the road is the Buffalo History Museum. An Architecture Museum is slated to open later this year at the renovated Richardson Olmstead complex (a magnificent 140-year old Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane) just a few blocks away.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Art Commons, Contemporary Calgary, Fort Calgary and new National Music Centre don’t quite match up to Buffalo’s Museum district’s art, artifacts and architecture.

Buffalo's Theatre District becomes very vibrant when Shea Theatre is hosting a major event.

Shopping

Buffalo's Market Arcade Building, 1892

Buffalo has little downtown shopping - all the department stores have closed and they never did build an indoor shopping mall like Calgary’s TD Square and Eaton’s Centre (now The Core).  But they do have three vibrant pedestrian streets – Allentown, Elmwood and Hertel Street would be on par with Calgary’s Inglewood, Kensington Village and 17th Avenue.

While Calgary has Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall as its historic downtown street, Buffalo has the Market Arcade Building. Built in 1892, it is a stunning example of early 20th century architecture with its elaborate terra cotta ornamentation and Corinthian columns.  Calgary’s equivalent is the historic Hudson Bay building with its colonnade on Stephen Avenue.

Calgary's The Core shopping centre, renovated in 2010 boasts a 656 foot long point-supported glass skylight that is the longest in the world. 

Urban Renewal 

Buffalo’s Habor Centre, Canalside and Riverworks redevelopments sites are noteworthy (Calgary Flames might want to look at Buffalo as a model for its Calgary NEXT project in West Village). 

Collectively, this waterfront redevelopment includes a new NHL arena, two new hotels, waterfront parks and pathways and the huge winter ice rink (size of 3 NHL rinks and morphs into paddle boat feature in the summer) as well as four other ice rinks for everything from curling lessons to a college hockey tournaments. Plans for a Children’s Museum are currently being finalized.

The area has many similarities to Calgary’s West Village as it lies in the shadow of the elevated Peace Bridge and major highways at the entrance to downtown.

Canalside Carnival...looks a lot like Calgary's East Village and potentially West Village (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Healthy Food Trucks?

On downtown Buffalo’s east side Larkinville, once home to the Larkin Soap Company’s (the Amazon of the early 20th Century) and many other major warehouse buildings (some 600,000 square feet) has undergone a mega-makeover thanks in large part to the passion of the Zemsky family who formed the Larkin Development Group (LDG) to buy, renovate and lease historical buildings.   Today, over 2,000 people work in buildings redeveloped by LDG.

The Zemsky family also created Larkin Square, a modest public space that they actively program mostly from April to October. Their signature event “Food Truck Tuesdays,” routinely attracts over 7,000 people and 30 food trucks not only from Buffalo, but as far away as Rochester.

Opened in 2013, Larkin Square programming attracted over 130,000 people last summer.  Backstory: I was told the success of the Food Truck and other programming was free parking, liquor licence that allows people to wander the square with their drinks and the corporate sponsorship of First Niagara and Independent Health. And, as a result of Independent Health’s participation, all of the food trucks must provide a “certified healthy” menu option.

Larkin Square's Food Truck Tuesdays (photo credit: Rhea Anna) 

Tower Power 

When it comes to residential redevelopment Buffalo has nothing to match Calgary’s urban tower boom that turns five or six surface parking lots into vertical residential communities every year.  In fact I didn’t see one new condo tower. However over the past 15 years, 58 properties have been renovated to create 880 residential units the equivalent of about 4 condo towers.

And I certainly couldn’t leave before seeing for myself Buffalo’s “Beer Oriented Development” (a tongue-in-cheek analogy to the transit-oriented-development so commonly talked about by urban planners). It all began with Community Beer Works, a craft brewery which opened in 2012 in an area full of abandoned industrial spaces.

Today, the area has a name “Upper Rock” and a growing cluster of hip businesses - Resurgence Brewing Co., two galleries and this summer, an upscale restaurant.  Area homes, which could be had for a little as “one dollar” (no lie!) just a few years ago, now have value and are now being renovated and valued sold at prices over $100,000. 

Today, the City and its urban pioneers are now turning their attention to the redevelopment of their Belt Line, a 15-mile continuous rail loop circling its city centre with its 12 million square feet of largely vacant or underutilized industrial space prime for mixed-use redevelopments.

Buffalo's cement grain elevators have been turned into a unique screen for a nightly light show, that can be viewed from shore or by kayak. (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Wall of condos and apartments in the west end of Downtown Calgary. 

Last Word 

There seems to be an incredible sense of community pride in Buffalo. Everyone we met oozed a passion and excitement for their neighbourhood revitalization.

Today, Calgary struggles with some of the same challenges that faced Buffalo 60 years ago with major economic changes wrecking havoc with our prosperity.

If your travels take you anywhere near Buffalo, it is definitely worth checking out.  

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Calgary vs Denver: A Tale Of Two Thriving Downtowns

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The Next Step: Linking East Village & Stampede Park

The recent announcement that Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) and Calgary Stampede have signed a memorandum of understanding to work together is very exciting from an east side City Centre urban revitalization perspective.   

Stampede Park entrance on 4th St SE, aka Olympic Way.  

Stampede Backstory

Since the mid ‘90s the Calgary Stampede has been working hard to implement an ambitious master plan that would to transform Stampede Park into a mixed-use, vibrant year-round gathering place for Calgarians AND a “must see” tourists destination. 

Calgary Stampede Master Plan showing the new Agricultural Building, Youth Campus and several new buildings along 4th Street SE will need to be significantly revised to integrate new develops like Green Line LRT, BMO expansion and Saddledome changes. 

To date, some progress has been made to fulfil the vision - the BMO Centre, Agrium Western Event Centre and ENMAX Park (opening June 2016). Plans for the creation of a Youth Campus that will include a new home for the Young Canadians, as well as the addition of Calgary Arts Academy School to the Park are just now coming together with construction set to begin this year.

However, The biggest disappointment has to be the failed attempt to transform Olympic Way (aka 4th St SE from 10th Ave to the Saddledome) into Stampede Trail with shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, saloons etc. It was a good idea, but perhaps 20 years premature as the Trail needs too be surrounded by a mix of other uses to make it work.

Attendance at the ten day Calgary Stampede plateaued in the ‘90s, largely because there are only so many people the site can accommodate in a day and still offer a quality experience.   At about 120,000 per day, the Calgary Stampede attracts three times as many people per day as Disneyland.  There is a relationship between the size of a venue and attendance and Stampede’s sweet spot is about 100,000 people. 

Stampede Park growth is challenged because it is hemmed in by Macleod Trail on the west, Cemetery Hill to the south, Scotchman’s Hill to the east and CPR tracks to the north, making expansion of the site impossible.

As such, the Stampede has wisely turned its focused over the past 20 years to becoming more of a year-round events centre.  For example, the number of events at the BMO Centre has increased from 191 in 1994 to 550 in 2015.  It has also become home to many major annual events like the Calgary Expo, which attracts over 100,000+ Calgarians each year, making it one of Calgary’s largest annual events.

The Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo (AKA: Calgary Expo) is a four-day pop-culture convention held each spring  at Stampede Park. Attendees can shop hundreds of vendors and exhibitors, check out panels and workshops, meet their favourite stars and creators, and celebrate what makes them geeky with thousands of other fans in cosplay.  Calgary Expo takes place April 26th to May 1st 2016.

At its March 15th, 2016 annual general meeting, Stampede CEO Warren Connell announced the organization is working on plans to significantly expand the BMO Centre as the next phase in the evolution of Stampede Park.

Stampede Park is at a tipping point. A mega-makeover is needed to allow better utilization of the land, existing and new LRT stations as well as links to new developments in East Village.

Stampede Grandstand is full for Rodeo, Chuckwagon races and Grandstand show during Stampede. 

Stampede's Macleod Trail entrance is now being crowed by condo development which is creating new opportunities for Stampede to become a year-round sports, entertainment and educational district. 

East Village mega-makeover!

At the same time as Stampede Park has struggled to realize its vision, East Village, under the guidance of CMLC, has undergone a multi-billion dollar makeover with Riverwalk, St. Patrick Island redevelopment, George C. King pedestrian bridge, National Music Centre, Central Library, new hotel, Simmons Building restoration and several new condos.

While, time will tell if the vision of East Village as vibrant urban village is realized, it sure off to an incredible start.  Since 2007, CMLC has invested $357 million into East Village infrastructure and development, which has attracted $2.4 billion of development taxable development – new condos, hotel and retail.

However, one of the keys to East Village’s ultimate success will be to ensure 4th St SE becomes a vibrant pedestrian zone. It takes more than just two anchors (library and museum) to make a great pedestrian street.  It takes a diversity of things to see and do - daytime, evening and weekends - for locals and tourists alike.

It is in the best interest of both CMLC and Stampede to work together to make 4th St SE a great street that connects the two communities.  The fact that they have agreed to work together bodes well for the success of both visions.

The new National Music Centre will become a grand entrance to East Village for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers exiting Stampede Park along 4th St. SE. 

Opportunity Knocks?

It would appear now is the perfect time to make something special happen on 4th St SE given the following major developments and decisions:

  1. National Music Centre (aka Studio Bell) opens this year on 9th Ave at 4th St SE.
  2. Green Line will have a LRT station at 4th St and 10th Ave SE.
  3. RioCan and Embassy BOSA are getting ready to start construction of their shopping/condo complex just off of 4th St. SE.
  4. New residents are now moving into the Guardian’s twin condo towers on 3rd Street between 10th and 11th Ave. SE, as well as into several East Village condos.
  5. New Central Library currently under construction opens in 2018.
  6. Stampede’s Youth Campus construction begins this year.
  7. ENMAX Park, Deane House and Hunt House (Fort Calgary Park) reopen this spring.
  8. The Calgary Flames have announced plans to leave the Scotiabank Saddledome for greener pastures in West Village.  If they stay or go, the Saddledome will be a key site in the future of 4th St SE.
  9. Stampede is ready to expand the BMO Centre, one of the busiest trade centres in Canada with an occupancy rate of 72% (the average occupancy in Canada is 55%).

Perhaps, given Calgary TELUS Convention Centre is looking for a new site and new building, it is the time to bite the bullet and create a major convention and trade centre at Stampede Park. It is the logical next step to transform Stampede Park into a vibrant 21st century Sports Entertainment, Education District that compliments what is happening in East Village.  

Another idea now surfacing for Stampede Park redevelopment is to allow vehicular traffic on 17th Avenue to pass through Stampede Park and then along 4th St SE to East Village.  

Wouldn’t it be great if the Stampede Park’s guardhouses were removed it became a place where Calgarians and tourists could freely walk, bike and drive through. What a great way to link the City Centre communities of East Village, Erlton, Victoria Park, Stampede Park, Beltline and Mission.

What is needed is a 4th St SE master plan that creates more opportunities for human scale developments (under six stories) with pedestrian-oriented sidewalk shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs.  The key will be lots of smaller and shorter buildings (think Kensington, Inglewood, Mission and 17th Avenue SW) that don’t dwarf the pedestrians.

The 4th St. SE underpass presents a major challenge for linking Stampede Park and East Village. 

Stampede Park uses every possible space on site for the ten days of Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. Over the past 20 years, Calgary's downtown, East Village and Beltline communities have been expanding closer and closer to Stampede Park making it much more a part of the City Centre. 

Last Word

I hope CMLC and Calgary Stampede  (with the cooperation of the City Council and Calgary Convention Centre) can work together to capitalize on the full potential of East Village,  Beltline and Stampede Park in creating a unique sense of place for locals and tourists, on the east side of Calgary’s City Centre.

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Calgary's CBD is unique!

Recently I did a piece for CBCNews Crossroads about Calgary’s downtown being an office ghetto.  The two criticisms I received from several urban planners were: 1) what I was really talking about was not Calgary’s downtown, but its “central business district” (CBD) and 2) all CBDs are office ghettos and therefore ghost towns after office hours. 

CBD is an urban planning term that refers to the place near the centre of a city that is predominantly a place to conduct business. To confuse things, some cities like Toronto, called it the Financial District, as it is where the major national banks have their headquarters.

Calgary's CBD includes several blogs of early 20th century buildings that have been declared a National Historic District as well as several other historical buildings. 

Calgary’s CBD (Downtown Commercial Core, is City of Calgary’s official name for it) is defined as the area from 9th St SW to 1st St SE (behind Municipal Building) and from 9th Ave SW to the 4th Ave SW.  It is about 1.3 km by .6 km in size and excludes Eau Claire, Chinatown or East Village.  For most Calgarians, I expect this is also their definition of downtown give or take a few blocks.

Read: Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

All CBDs are ghost towns?

The critics were quick to point out, “in Toronto, the Bay and King Street area is dead outside of office hours; the same is true for the blocks around Manhattan’s Wall Street.”

I agree with their observation CBD’s are typically ghost towns outside of office hours, because they basically have nothing else but offices towers. 

However, Calgary’s CBD is different.  While it is 80% office buildings it also includes major shopping, entertainment, cultural, historic and residential elements, on a scale that most other major city CBDs don’t include.

For example, Toronto’s CBD, at about 2 square kilometers, though about the same size as Calgary’s, doesn’t include Toronto Eaton Centre, The Bay, their theatre and entertainment districts. Their major tourist destinations, Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum and CN Tower are also not in their CBD.  The same could be said for Vancouver or Seattle, their tourist are not hanging out in their CBD.

Calgary's CBD has over 3 million square feet of retail space, twice that of Chinook Mall.  The Core shopping mall links the historic Hudson's Bay department store with a flagship Holt Renfew store.  It is connected to 9 office towers and to Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall and the 7th Avenue transit corridor.  It is also connect to a major indoor public garden.  It is one of the most dense and mixed-use three-blocks in North America. 

Calgary's CBC has two pedestrian oriented streets with wide sidewalks, planters, banners and other enhancements. 

Why Calgary's CBD is different?

In Calgary, our CBD includes the city’s largest concentration of retail shopping. At 3.6 million square feet it is more than twice Chinook Centre’s. It includes the flagship Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew department stores, as well as the-uber cool The Core shopping center with the mammoth glass ceiling.

Calgary’s CBD also includes two major tourist attractions the Glenbow Museum and Calgary Towers, as well as our Convention Centre. While the historic districts in Toronto and Vancouver are outside of their CBD, Calgary’s Stephen Avenue (a designated National Historic District) and a major restaurant row sits at centre ice in our CBD.

Calgary is also unique in that eight performing art spaces with over 4,000 seats and an art house cinema are located in our CBD.  It is also home to two significant public spaces (Devonian Gardens and Olympic Plaza), over 100 public artworks and two enhanced pedestrian-oriented streets (Stephen Avenue and Barclay Mall). 

Our CBD is home to some of Calgary’s best restaurants, albeit many of them have “expense account” prices, making them more for special occasions only.  It also includes major nightclubs like Flames Central and smaller music venues the Palomino Room or Wine-Ohs.

And, it I home to major festivals like Calgary International Children’s Festival and High Performance Rodeo, as well as the Stampede Parade and Stampede’s Rope Square.  

Indeed, Calgary’s CBD is unique in North America offering a greater diversity and great concentration of things to see and do for tourists and locals than a typical CBD.

Read: Calgary's Downtown Power Hour

Calgary's CBD comes alive at noon hour in the summer when workers and tourist love to stroll Stephen Avenue Walk aka 8th Avenue. 

Calgary's 7th Avenue LRT station at Holt Renfew, opens to a lovely park that is popular with workers at noon hour.

Stephen Avenue is a major restaurant row, that is lined with patios from May to September. 

Calgary Telus Convention Centre is located in Calgary CBD.

Olympic Plaza is another public space located in Calgary's CBD. The red brick building is part of the Arts Commons complex that includes that entire block.  it includes four theatre spaces and one concert hall.  On the next block is the Glenbow Museum and the Telus Convention Centre with Hyatt and Marriott hotels. 

Thousands of people live in our CBD

Our CBD also has a significant residential population of 9,000 residents. In fact it is one of Calgary’s largest residential communities ranking 52 out of our 250+ communities in population. It is also includes 10 major hotels with over 3,000 rooms.

In comparison, Toronto CBD’s residential population is only 2,239 (Toronto Financial District Business Improvement Area).

Read: Calgary new downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification

One of several residential buildings in Calgary's CBD. 

Facing Reality 

Our CBD is our downtown in the minds of most Calgarians.  And it is generally perceived as a place to work - not live or play.

Calgary’s CDB downtown has not captured the imagination of Calgarians as a place to play, dine, shop, be entertained, wander, linger or hang out except on special occasions. Neither, has it captured the imagination of Calgarians as a “must see” place for visiting family and friends except for special events.  

Nor has it captured the imagination of tourists as a weekend urban playground – music, festival, events, food, pubs, clubs, gallery/museum browsing, shopping, theatre etc.

9th Avenue is a typical Calgary CBD street with office buildings lining the street allowing little to no light to the sidewalk creating an unfriendly pedestrian environment. 

Another example of a street in Calgary's CBD that is just a wall of glass from office buildings. 

Last Word

In theory, Calgary’s CDB/downtown has many of the ingredients urban planners say you need to have for a vibrant urban place – shopping, public spaces, pedestrian- oriented streets, museums, art galleries, iconic architecture, public art, cafés, restaurants and festivals. 

Despite the tremendous efforts (think billions of dollars) by the City of Calgary, the private sector and the Calgary Downtown Association to create a CBD that is attractive to office workers during the weekday and tourists and Calgarians citywide in evenings and weekends, it is still a ghost town after office hours.

Unfortunately, office buildings are urban vitality exterminators and they trump everything else.

Full Disclosure: I was the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association from 1995 to 2006.