With the completion of the West Eau Claire Park, Calgary now has one of the best urban river shorelines in North America, perhaps even the world.
What’s so special about the Bow River as it passes through the City Centre (Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage) is that it is still more or less natural - no concrete, canal-like retaining walls; no theme-park bars and restaurants lining the shore. You can still walk to the river, throw stones, dip your toes in, go fishing, launch a small water craft or even river surf.
The Bow River is one of Calgary’s key urban differentiators.
Bow River Promenade
Over the past two decades, the City of Calgary has invested over 100 million dollars to create a pedestrian-friendly urban edge to the Bow River – complete with parks, plazas, promenades, pathways, public art and bridges. Today, it has ten bridges including three signature ones - the historic Centre Street Bridge, Peace Bridge and King Bridge. It also links to several parks – Prince’s Island, St. Patrick’s Island, Fort Calgary, Sien Lok, Shaw Millennium and Nat Christie.
Perhaps it is time to come up with a unifying name for the 4+ km south shore public spaces - at present, it has a collage of names. In East Village segment is officially called the Jack & Jean Leslie RiverWalk, most people know it simply as RiverWalk.
From Chinatown to just past Eau Claire Market, it becomes the Bow River Pathway and then changes to West Eau Claire Park for the section west of St. Patrick’s Island at the base of the Peace Bridge till the 10th Street bridge where it becomes Bow River pathway again until you get to the Nat Christie Park just east of the 14th Street bridge.
From both a local and tourist perspective, the entire pathway should have one name. I don’t suggest RiverWalk as it would be seen as if we are trying to imitate San Antonio’s famous River Walk – nothing could be further from the truth.
What about Bow River Promenade? Bow River Stroll? Bow River Parade? Maybe even Bow River Loop (as you can loop back along the north shore and take in Poppy Plaza and get a better view of the Calgary’s ever-changing downtown skyline which is quickly becoming dominated by new condo towers)?
Urban Living Renaissance
As a result of all the public improvements, the Bow River’s south shore has become a mecca for urban living. Since the mid ‘90s, new condos on or near the Bow River have been completed every few years creating an interesting urban design history lesson.
The earliest is Eau Claire 500, the two, dark brown brick buildings designed with the enclosed courtyard and completed in 1983 by SOM, one of the world’s most renowned architectural firms.
The complex literally turns its back to the pathway and river - no townhomes face the promenade, just a blank wall. This would never happen today.
Neither would the River Run townhome condos completed in 1995 behind Eau Claire Market with no set-back from the promenade. At that time, the City was desperate to see some residential development in downtown so they approved this low-density project that looks like it has been imported from the suburbs.
The 21st century has seen the completion of the two Princeton towers on Riverfront Avenue with low rise buildings facing the promenade (which minimize shadowing on the promenade and park) with its timeless red brick façade and sandstone coloured accents. East Village is home to several contemporary condos facing St. Patrick’s Island Park.
The two newest condos are the Concord at the Peace Bridge and the Waterfront at Sien Lok Park, both with glass facades that step-down to the river to maximize views of the river, pathway and downtown. Anthem Properties’ ambitious Waterfront project is the biggest condo project in Calgary’s history with 1000 homes in ten different buildings.
Today, the Bow River’s south shore is one of Calgary’s most desirable places to live and one of North America’s best examples of the 21st century urban living renaissance.
It Almost Didn't Happen?
The postwar oil boom resulted in hordes of head offices moving to Calgary which led to a huge increase in traffic into the downtown. By the early ‘60s, civic leaders felt part of the problem was that downtown was hemmed in by the Bow River to the north and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks to the south so they pitched the idea of moving the CPR tracks to the river so downtown could spread out into what is now the Beltline.
However, by 1964, City Council killed the relocation of the rail lines amid bickering and cost issues and came up with a new Downtown Plan.
Then in 1968, a transportation study called for several new Calgary highways - Crowchild Trail, Blackfoot Trail, 14th Street West freeway, Anderson Trail, and the Downtown Penetrator (Yes, that was the name!).
The Downtown Penetrator was a proposed major freeway that would have extended from Sarcee Trail into the downtown along what is now 2nd and 3rdAvenues SW.
The plan called for demolishing 400 homes, many in low-income areas that were considered skid rows. The Centre Street, Louise and Langevin (now Reconciliation) bridges would have been replaced with new bridges. Chinatown would have been relocated and much of East Village, (called Churchill Park then), would have been destroyed.
Fortunately, the Downtown Penetrator died as a result of public protest (especially from Chinatown) creating the opportunity to rethink our connection to the Bow River.
Many developers and urban planners in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s said downtown residential would never happen in Calgary. It was a time when the single-family reigned and most Calgarians turned their noses up at the idea of communal condo living.
Calgary’s corporate executives lived in houses along the Elbow River in Roxboro or “on the hill” (aka Mount Royal), not along the Bow River. Eau Claire, Chinatown and East Village were mostly old homes, skid rows and a prostitute stroll. Eau Claire 500 sat alone for almost 15 years before another condo tower joined it.
It is amazing what can happen over a few decades.
The Bow River, its islands and riverbank have gone from a neglected jewel in the ‘70s to a vibrant urban playground in the ‘10s. I can see the promenade extending all the way from Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage in the future.
It’s time to give our unique collection of urban public spaces along the Bow River a meaningful and memorable name! In addition to promenade, stroll and loop, perhaps the Makhabn Passage (Makhabn being the Blackfoot name for the Bow River) might be an appropriate name?