16th Ave N Urban Corridor: What went wrong?

Back in 2011, with much fanfare, the City of Calgary completed the expansion and enhancement of 16th Ave NE from 6th St NE to 10th St NW. Originally budgeted at $20M, the project more than quadrupled to $89M as the project evolved from a simple addition of an addition land east and west to creating an “urban corridor” that - in theory - would attract new mixed-use developments with commercial at street level and residential above. 

In fact, a key reason for the increased cost of the project was the City’s acquisition of several sites to allow for immediate road expansion and future mixed-use development.  Unfortunately, now five years later, the new developments haven’t happened resulting in several huge vacant lots along what should be a showcase for Calgary’s new urban sense of place.

  There are several long vacant lots on the south side of 16th Avenue N that should have been developed by now even in the recession. 

There are several long vacant lots on the south side of 16th Avenue N that should have been developed by now even in the recession. 

  16th Avenue N is still very auto-focused.  

16th Avenue N is still very auto-focused.  

Why no new developments?

The City wants wider sidewalks while still retaining large right of ways on the remaining land, resulting in development sites that are too shallow for cost effective parkade designs that meet city standards.

The City’s Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) zoned several key sites for major redevelopment, without considering how property lines or ownership were impacted. Some sites owned by one entity were split into two zonings with different densities and heights, but still the City wants to see one building. This makes development complex and therefore costly.

The ARP on 16th Ave N also lacked input from experienced mixed-use developers, critical to understanding the complex financial considerations associated with creating viable zoning, heights, site access and uses for viable mixed-use development.

Some areas of 16th Ave N still have huge by-lawed setbacks that sterilize key corners for viable pedestrian-friendly development.

The City went out of its way to expand 16th Ave N to six lanes for vehicular traffic, recognizing its importance as a crucial east-west link, but then prohibited vehicular access except from rear lands. 

The City left key pieces missing from expansion plans (e.g. former gas station at 16 Ave and 11 St NW) where they didn’t expand sidewalks or address access leaving the costs to the developer - and ultimately new residents - which in effect rules out competitively priced mixed-use projects.

Large sections of 16th Avenue N on its south side are isolated, unpleasant and very noisy with giant sound walls reflecting traffic noise back at the pedestrians.

Chris Ollenberger, Managing Principal at QuantumPlace Developments Ltd. (and mastermind of the East Village master plans) thinks, “that while 16th Ave expansion was a vehicle transportation-focused project, it is plagued by some questionable planning regulations that haven’t worked. It hasn’t realized the development the City planners were hoping for due to fiscal, physical, market and commercial considerations that didn’t have the voice needed during the planning process.”

Today, Ollenberger’s office is right on 16th Ave N at 10th Street and he has been working on three projects along the corridor. If anyone could make a project work on 16th Avenue, it would be him.  He has observed that locals often use the back alley on the north side between 16th and 17th Ave as their east-west pedestrian corridor, avoiding 16th Ave sidewalks all together.

(see response from City Planner, Jordan Furness re: changes made in 2017 to 16th Ave Area Redevelopment Plan at the end of this blog)

  16th Ave N has wide sidewalks but no pedestrians. 

16th Ave N has wide sidewalks but no pedestrians. 

Rise of 17th Avenue NW

Ironically, while 16th Ave N has struggled to attract development, 17th Ave N has been booming with new major residential developments on almost every block from Centre St to 10th St NW.

One of these is the recently completed and sold out Attainable Homes’ 31-unit Mount Pleasant 1740 at the corner of 9th St and 17th Ave NW.  A bit further east under construction is Trico’s Delaney, a 44-unit condo (12 units being affordable housing of which 10 are wheelchair accessible). It is interesting to note the Delaney is oriented to the alley between 17th and 16th Avenue as per Ollenberger’s observation.

Further east, Castle Mountain Developments have dug the hole for Elm on 17th and two newer condos have also been completed and occupied.

The good news - this increased 17th Ave N residential development will ultimately make the 16th Ave N more viable for commercial developments as they will provide the patrons needed to help make pubs, cafes, restaurants etc. viable.

  Mount Pleasant 1740 condo project

Mount Pleasant 1740 condo project

  Delany condo is oriented to the alley between 16th and 17th Ave N

Delany condo is oriented to the alley between 16th and 17th Ave N

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Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 1.41.04 PM.png

Good News For 16th Ave NW

The Calgary Co-op, in conjunction with Quarry Bay Investments, have submitted a combined development permit and land use redesignation (re-zoning) application for their existing 16 Ave N site. The development proposes five buildings containing a new supermarket, liquor store, financial institution, office, gas bar, car wash, and 115 residential units.

The Marquee Group, a hotel developer turned condo developer, has also recently completed Marquee on 16th a nine storey 138-home residential development on 16th Ave at 1st St NE. Located near the Calgary Co-op site, these two developments could mark the beginning of a vibrant 16th Ave urban streetscape. 

Several interesting businesses along the north side of 16th Ave N – Aquila Books, Earl’s, The Cat’n Fiddle Pub, Turn It Up Records & HiFi, Guitar Works, Phoenix Comics, Namskar Fine East Indian restaurant and White’s Flowers – could become important building blocks for future pedestrian-oriented blocks.

As well, the City is working on making 16th Avenue N a major cross town BRT route which should result in more pedestrian traffic on 16th Ave (i.e. transit users getting off and on the bus) and remove some of the cars, helping with some of the noise.

Councillor Druh Farrell admits, "the ARP was overly complicated and restrictive and has since been simplified drastically." Ollenberger thinks it is great the City has acknowledge the ARP flaws.  He adds, "the best thing the City could do is sell the remaining land it has quickly and  then collaborate with the development and investment industry to enabling viable new developments to happen." 

  Calgary Co-op site could become anchor 16th Avenue transformation. 

Calgary Co-op site could become anchor 16th Avenue transformation. 

  Marquis on 16th condo from back alley. 

Marquis on 16th condo from back alley. 

Last Word

While in the past 16th Avenue N as part of the Trans Canada Highway was car-oriented, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be pedestrian-oriented in the future.  For example, Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue is a wide car-oriented street yet also a popular pedestrian destination. The same goes for South Granville in Vancouver.

Ironically, 16th Avenue N is no longer the TransCanada Highway. Signs at both the east and west entrances to the City no longer direct drivers to take the 16th Ave N but rather the ring road, bypassing the City altogether. 

City's Response:

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, titled "Roadblocks stall City's Vision for 16th Avenue N,"on January 20, 2018.  On January 23, I received the following email:

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I would like to thank Jordan for taking the initiative to contact me with this information which indicates that the City is trying to address the problems associated with 16th Ave N redevelopment and that there is still a need for improvement. 

I am optimistic that as the City finalizes plans for the Green Line LRT along Centre Street that further improvements will be made to help transform 16th Avenue into a vibrant urban street. 

As I like to say, "it takes decades for urban transformations."    

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Flaneuring The Fringes: 16th Ave N

Calgary: TransCanada Highway's Motel History

Mean Streets, Main Streets, Pretty Streets