Diversity Beats Density: Montreal vs Calgary

While Calgary’s downtown density looks similar to Montreal’s with hundreds of high, mid and low-rise buildings, the diversity of building uses is significantly different. In Montreal, especially near the St. Catherine Street, every block has is a good mix of office, retail, residential and hotel buildings while Calgary's downtown is a sea of office buildings.

Typical Montreal City Centre streets are cluttered with small shops, cafes and restaurants with apartments above creating a vibrant pedestrian environment. The streets don't have any banners or fancy furniture and the sidewalks are often cracked and uneven, but that just adds to the urban patina.  Pristine streets too often are sterile streets. 

Typical Montreal City Centre streets are cluttered with small shops, cafes and restaurants with apartments above creating a vibrant pedestrian environment. The streets don't have any banners or fancy furniture and the sidewalks are often cracked and uneven, but that just adds to the urban patina.  Pristine streets too often are sterile streets. 

Office buildings kill urban vitality

Calgary’s downtown is dominated by a 50+ block area - Centre Street to 8th Street SW and from 9th Avenue to 2nd Street SW) that is almost exclusively office buildings. There are 135 of them in fact (Source: Building Owners Managers Association Guide, 2016). Some blocks having three and four office towers.  Even, in Montreal, the streets next to their major office complexes were dead on evenings and weekends. 

It was only where hotels, residences and shops are located next to each other that you find urban vitality in the evenings and weekends. Montreal’s downtown benefits from having 75 hotels (including five 5-star) compared to Calgary’s 14 (with no 5-star hotels).

In addition, unlike Montreal, almost all of Calgary’s urban residential buildings sit are on the periphery of the downtown core, each with their own pedestrian streets to eat, shop and hang out on evenings and weekends.

The streets around Montreal's office towers are devoid of people and animation, as they are in every city. 

The streets around Montreal's office towers are devoid of people and animation, as they are in every city. 

Huge Student Population

Another huge difference is Montreal’s City Center being home to several major universities (Universite du Quebec, 66,000 students; Universite de Montreal, 55,000 students; Concordia University, 44,000 students and McGill, 32,000 students) that is more students than Calgary has office workers. Many of these students also live in and near the city centre, making it their place to “live, learn and play,” not necessarily in that order and not just weekdays from 7am to 7pm like office workers in Calgary.  Montreal’s downtown cafes and shops are full of students all day, everyday.

In comparison, Calgary’s City Centre has just two post-secondary schools - Bow Valley College (14,000 students) and University of Calgary’s downtown building offering primarily non-credit general interest and professional development courses.   Neither has a student residence, as most students leaving the downtown to homes in the suburbs at the end of the day just like the office workers.

Crew Collective & Cafe in the historic Royal Bank headquarters building is a commercial cafe and shared workspace but in reality, it is a huge study hall for students seven days a week. This was taken on a Sunday. 

Crew Collective & Cafe in the historic Royal Bank headquarters building is a commercial cafe and shared workspace but in reality, it is a huge study hall for students seven days a week. This was taken on a Sunday. 

Tourists love Downtown Montreal

Montreal is also a mega tourist city, with much of its tourism being downtown-oriented. Its $9.2 billion tourism industry (9+ million visitors, 7.7 million hotel room nights) blows away Calgary’s $1.7 billion tourism industry (4 million visitors, 3.1 million room nights).   And, in the case of Calgary, most downtown tourists are weekday business travellers, or those enroute to Banff – they are not here to shop and play in downtown.

Montreal’s mega Palais des Congress (convention and trade show venue) was shortlisted in 2015 as the World’s Best Congress Centre for hosting the most international events of any North American facility.  It annually host 300+ events attracting over 800,000 visitors.  Calgary’s Convention Centre hosts only 41 conventions/tradeshows attracting 250,000 visits, of which only 50,000 are non–residents.

In addition, Montreal’s St. Catherine Street retains its long-standing reputation as a popular shopping street with locals and tourists, while Calgary’s Stephen Avenue is mostly an upscale restaurant row.  By nature, restaurants don’t generate the same street vitality as shops as they are used mostly at lunch and evening with patrons staying inside for longer periods of time. Shoppers on the other hand, are frequently and continuously moving in and out of the stores, giving the street more vitality.

Montreal's Quarters des Spectacles, the equivalent of Calgary's Olympic Plaza Cultural District was animated day and night over the Christmas season with shoppers, culture vultures and families enjoying the diversity of things to see and do. The diversity includes Desjardins Complex (shopping centre, office, hotel, grocery store), as well as a contemporary art museum, theatre, cinema, convention center and two Christmas Markets.

Montreal's Quarters des Spectacles, the equivalent of Calgary's Olympic Plaza Cultural District was animated day and night over the Christmas season with shoppers, culture vultures and families enjoying the diversity of things to see and do. The diversity includes Desjardins Complex (shopping centre, office, hotel, grocery store), as well as a contemporary art museum, theatre, cinema, convention center and two Christmas Markets.

IMHO

Calgary’s downtown core has limited street vitality in the evenings and on weekends not because of the +15 system (which is also empty), but because it is dominated by office buildings that are empty in the evening and weekends.   Even on weekdays street vitality is limited to noon-hours as office workers are inside working, not out playing like tourists, students and residents.

Vibrant urban streets, like those in Montreal are created by a healthy diversity of building uses - residential, hotel, office, post-secondary schools, shopping, cultural and government.

If Calgary wants to foster more vitality in its downtown core, we need to focus less on the mega office towers and find ways to encourage more projects like the Le Germain building (hotel, office, residential and restaurant at street level) or TELUS Sky (office, residential and retail at street level).

Plaza St. Hubert is a funky (some might say tacky) canopied street that offer something for people of all ages and backgrounds.  

Plaza St. Hubert is a funky (some might say tacky) canopied street that offer something for people of all ages and backgrounds.  

St. Catherine Street at 10am on a Sunday morning in December is already full of people. 

St. Catherine Street at 10am on a Sunday morning in December is already full of people. 

Old Montreal plaza is also busy on the same Sunday afternoon. 

Old Montreal plaza is also busy on the same Sunday afternoon. 

Montreal's Underground is also busy on Sunday next to St. Catherine Street. 

Montreal's Underground is also busy on Sunday next to St. Catherine Street. 

Something to think about?

Imagine if instead of two office towers - Bankers Hall, TD Square, Eight Avenue Place, Western Canada Place - each had one condo and one office tower how the dynamics of Stephen Avenue would change.  Perhaps the un-built second towers at Brookfield Place and First Canadian Centre on 7th Avenue should become either downtown’s next hotel or condo tower?  

Perhaps some of downtown’s vacant office space could be converted to a new post-secondary school for Calgary. Great cities have lots of universities and colleges.

Downtown Calgary is dominated by office buildings.

Downtown Calgary is dominated by office buildings.