Atlanta vs Calgary: Coca-Cola vs Oil & Gas

Whenever I told people I was going to Atlanta for 14 days of flaneuring, I was warned I would need to rent a car. Not true! Even on Day 14, I was discovering new fun things to see and do within walking distance of my Midtown Airbnb. 

Metro Atlanta, the fifth largest U.S.A. city with 5.8 million residents is the primary transportation hub of the southeastern U.S.A. It boasts the busiest airport in the world.  Home to the headquarters of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Delta Air Lines and Turner Broadcasting; it is the business capital of southeastern U.S.A. It hosted the 1996 Olympic Summer Games.

While Calgary is obviously a much smaller city (1.3 million), we share many of the same characteristics – a major transportation hub, business capital of Western Canada, and former Olympic host city. I found myself often comparing the two cities.

  Atlanta's midtown skyline, with Piedmont Park in the foreground.

Atlanta's midtown skyline, with Piedmont Park in the foreground.

  Downtown Calgary with Prince's Island Park in the foreground.

Downtown Calgary with Prince's Island Park in the foreground.

Atlanta’s Midtown vs Calgary’s Downtown

  Atlanta's Symphony Tower.

Atlanta's Symphony Tower.

Over the past few decades, many of the amenities you would expect in a traditional downtown have migrated from Atlanta’s old downtown to Midtown, about 3 km north. Today, Midtown has over 20 million square feet of office space (Calgary’s downtown has 43 million) with over 23 new office buildings in the past 15 years. 

The 41-storey Symphony Tower, completed in 2005 by Pickard Chilton Architects is a sister tower to Calgary’s Eighth Avenue Place, designed by the same firm.

Midtown is where you will find the Woodruff Arts Centre (5 performance spaces; 3,400 seats), and High Museum of Art.  Calgary’s equivalent would be Arts Commons (5 performance spaces; 3,200 seats) and The Glenbow. 

Midtown also is home to the historic 4,665-seat Fox Theatre, as well as 14th Street Playhouse, Museum of Design Atlanta and Centre for Puppetry Arts.   Calgary’s Theatre Junction GRAND, Lunchbox Theatre and Vertigo Theatre and Palace Theatre would match Atlanta’s performing arts scene.

Midtown is also home to 24,000+ postsecondary students attending Georgia Tech, Emory University Hospital, Savannah College of Art & Design, John Marshall Law School and Westwood College.  Calgary’s equivalent would be Bow Valley College, and SAIT/ACAD with about 10,000 students in all.

Advantage: Calgary (office vitality); Atlanta (student vitality)
  Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, combines theatre, concert hall and art museum. 

Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center, combines theatre, concert hall and art museum. 

  World Events is a 26-foot high sculpture by Tony Cragg at the entrance to Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center's concert hall.  

World Events is a 26-foot high sculpture by Tony Cragg at the entrance to Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center's concert hall.  

  Calgary's, Wonderland, by Jaume Plensa on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower designed by Norman Foster. 

Calgary's, Wonderland, by Jaume Plensa on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower designed by Norman Foster. 

  Typical Midtown streetscape in Atlanta.

Typical Midtown streetscape in Atlanta.

  While most of downtown Calgary's streets are lined with office towers like Atlanta, Stephen Avenue Walk is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. It is  a very popular place for office workers to stroll at lunch hour. It is lined with patios and street vendors in the summer, creating a festival like atmosphere.

While most of downtown Calgary's streets are lined with office towers like Atlanta, Stephen Avenue Walk is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. It is  a very popular place for office workers to stroll at lunch hour. It is lined with patios and street vendors in the summer, creating a festival like atmosphere.

  While Atlanta's Midtown does have two subway stations, it has nothing to match Calgary's LRT system and it 7th Avenue SW Stations.  Atlanta also can't match Calgary's FREE fare zone in the downtown. 

While Atlanta's Midtown does have two subway stations, it has nothing to match Calgary's LRT system and it 7th Avenue SW Stations.  Atlanta also can't match Calgary's FREE fare zone in the downtown. 

  Altanta's MARTA subway stations are dark and dingy. Note the street is lined with above ground parkades vs Calgary's underground parkades.  

Altanta's MARTA subway stations are dark and dingy. Note the street is lined with above ground parkades vs Calgary's underground parkades.  

Piedmont Park vs Calgary Urban Parks

Midtown’s 200-acre Piedmont Park is the South’s greatest park and Atlanta’s “backyard.”  It encompasses the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a huge playing field area, a lagoon, outdoor swimming pool, pub/restaurant, paved pathways, trails, two dog parks (one for large dogs; one for small dogs) and lots of places to sit. It hosts several signature festivals – Dogwood, Jazz, Food & Wine, Road Race, Arts, Music Festival, Gay Pride and Kite. A lamppost banner said there are over 3,000 events annually in Midtown.

Calgary could counter with its four signature urban parks - Prince’s Island, St. Patrick’s Island, Riley and Central Memorial Parks.  Add in Stampede Park and Shaw Millennium Park with all of their festivals and events and Calgary matches Atlanta’s Midtown for parks and festivals.

Advantage: Tied
  An outdoor science fair in Piedmont Park, is a popular annual family event.

An outdoor science fair in Piedmont Park, is a popular annual family event.

  Piedmont Park is also a popular place for people to read, picnic and play.

Piedmont Park is also a popular place for people to read, picnic and play.

  Calgary's Prince's Island Park is transformed into a huge "love-in" during the Calgary International Folk Festival. 

Calgary's Prince's Island Park is transformed into a huge "love-in" during the Calgary International Folk Festival. 

  Calgary's St. Patrick's Island has recently been transformed into a popular public space for Calgarians of all ages. 

Calgary's St. Patrick's Island has recently been transformed into a popular public space for Calgarians of all ages. 

 Murdoch Park in Bridgeland is a popular family park even in Calgary's winter.

Murdoch Park in Bridgeland is a popular family park even in Calgary's winter.

  Shaw Millennium Park is one of the best skate parks in North America. It also has a festival area, beach volleyball and basketball courts.   

Shaw Millennium Park is one of the best skate parks in North America. It also has a festival area, beach volleyball and basketball courts.  

Atlantic Station vs East Village

Like Calgary, Midtown is undergoing an urban living renaissance with 8,000+ new mid and highrise homes under construction or about to break ground. 

On the northwestern edge of Midtown sits Atlantic Station, a mega 138-acre redevelopment of an old steel mill.  It includes a multi-block midrise condo town center with ground floor retail above a mega 7,200-space underground parking garage. It has grocery store, Dillard’s department store, 16-screen Regal movie theatre, as well as 30 other retail stores and 20 restaurants.  It also includes office and hotel towers, with a Target and Ikea store nearby.  When completed, it will have 12 million square feet of retail, office, residential and hotel space as well as 11 acres of public parks.  It will be home for 10,000 people.

Calgary’s equivalent would be the 120-acre redevelopment of East Village, which will also be home to about 10,000 people when completed.  It too will have a grocery store, retail and restaurants and hotel. Instead of office towers it will have two major public buildings – New Central Library and National Music Center.  It includes the 31-acre St. Patricks’ Island, 40-acre Fort Calgary Park and the 2-km RiverWalk.

While Atlantic Station is further advanced development-wise than East Village, it is not as well connected to its neighbouring communities and its public spaces are not as attractive.  It has nothing to match East Village’s Bow River. 

Advantage: Calgary
  Sunday morning church service in Atlantic Station's Central Plaza

Sunday morning church service in Atlantic Station's Central Plaza

  One of Atlantic Station's several shopping streets. 

One of Atlantic Station's several shopping streets. 

  Setting up for Sunday artisan market at Atlantic Station. 

Setting up for Sunday artisan market at Atlantic Station. 

  Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech are both separated from downtown and midtown by huge highway. However, the overpasses have very large pedestrian sidewalks. 

Atlantic Station and Georgia Tech are both separated from downtown and midtown by huge highway. However, the overpasses have very large pedestrian sidewalks. 

  Calgary's East Village is a massive master-planned urban village project on the eastern edge of the downtown.   

Calgary's East Village is a massive master-planned urban village project on the eastern edge of the downtown.  

  Roof-top dining on the Simons Building on the banks of the Bow River in East Village.

Roof-top dining on the Simons Building on the banks of the Bow River in East Village.

  In addition to East Village, Calgary's City Centre has several other major condo projects along the Bow River in Eau Claire and West Downtown, as well as Kensington, Beltline, Inglewood and Bridgeland. 

In addition to East Village, Calgary's City Centre has several other major condo projects along the Bow River in Eau Claire and West Downtown, as well as Kensington, Beltline, Inglewood and Bridgeland. 

Shopping & Dining

Atlanta is missing a main street like Stephen Avenue in its urban core (25 sq. km.). Other than Atlantic Station and Ponce City Market, there is no retail in downtown or midtown. Calgary's Eau Claire Market pales in comparison. 

However, Atlanta has nothing to match Calgary’s mega downtown shopping mall - The Core - or the main street shopping and patio dining of  Kensington, Inglewood, Beltline or Mission.   

Advantage: Calgary
  Ponce City Market is a massive Sears Roebuck & Co. retail store, warehouse and regional office.  Today it is home to restaurants and shops.  It is surrounded by new condo developments.

Ponce City Market is a massive Sears Roebuck & Co. retail store, warehouse and regional office.  Today it is home to restaurants and shops.  It is surrounded by new condo developments.

  Ponce City Market is a popular place on weekend to meet up with friends.

Ponce City Market is a popular place on weekend to meet up with friends.

  Ponce City Markets massive outdoor patio. 

Ponce City Markets massive outdoor patio. 

  Calgary's The Core is a three-block long retail centre with The Bay and Holt's department stores anchoring the two ends.  It also has a major indoor park. 

Calgary's The Core is a three-block long retail centre with The Bay and Holt's department stores anchoring the two ends.  It also has a major indoor park. 

  The historic Hudson's Bay department store in downtown Calgary.  

The historic Hudson's Bay department store in downtown Calgary. 

  Calgary's 17th Ave SW is lined with patios, cafes and shops from 2nd to 14th Street.

Calgary's 17th Ave SW is lined with patios, cafes and shops from 2nd to 14th Street.

Rivers & Pathways

Atlanta also has nothing to match the natural beauty of Calgary’s Bow and Elbow Rivers and their lovely multi-use pathways.  However, Atlanta does have an old abandoned railway line called the BeltLine, which has recently been converted into a promenade attracting tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists on weekends. It has already been a catalyst for several mid-rise condo developments and mega pubs.  It has a huge potential to create a vibrant urban corridor.

Advantage: Calgary
  Atlanta's BeltLine is a popular multi-use pathway that has been a huge catalyst for development. 

Atlanta's BeltLine is a popular multi-use pathway that has been a huge catalyst for development. 

  There are huge pubs along Atlanta's BeltLine. 

There are huge pubs along Atlanta's BeltLine. 

  In summer, Calgary's Bow River pathway on the edge of downtown is a special place to stroll. 

In summer, Calgary's Bow River pathway on the edge of downtown is a special place to stroll. 

  The Peace Bridge is a popular spot to cross the Bow River for cyclist, runners and walkers.

The Peace Bridge is a popular spot to cross the Bow River for cyclist, runners and walkers.

Centennial Park vs Olympic Plaza

Atlanta beats Calgary when it comes to creating a tourism legacy from the Olympics.  Their 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park located downtown includes the Fountain of Rings, a dancing fountain that families love to run through, a Ferris wheel and playing fields.

In addition, it is surrounded by the World of Coca-Cola museum, Georgia Aquarium, CNN Centre and National Centre for Civil and Human Rights. It is a huge year-round tourist attraction.

The vitality of Calgary’s Olympic Plaza pales in comparison except when the Calgary International Children’s Festival or some other major event is happening.

Advantage Atlanta
  Every city needs to have more dancing fountains. 

Every city needs to have more dancing fountains. 

  Even though there was nobody on the Ferris Wheel, it creates a playful sense of place.

Even though there was nobody on the Ferris Wheel, it creates a playful sense of place.

 Gotta love the Coca-Cola sponsored funky information booth at Centennial Olympic Park, that looks like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. Note the cafe and aquarium in the background. 

Gotta love the Coca-Cola sponsored funky information booth at Centennial Olympic Park, that looks like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture. Note the cafe and aquarium in the background. 

  Calgary's Olympic Plaza has little urban vitality except when an event is taking place, despite being surrounded by a major library, City Hall, municipal building, arts center, museum and convention centre. It has limited tourist appeal. 

Calgary's Olympic Plaza has little urban vitality except when an event is taking place, despite being surrounded by a major library, City Hall, municipal building, arts center, museum and convention centre. It has limited tourist appeal. 

Arena, Stadium & Convention Centre

Atlanta has clustered their new Mercedes Benz Stadium, Phillips Arena and World Congress Center (convention center) around a large plaza just south of its Centennial Park. Unfortunately, it is not well connected to either Centennial Olympic Park or downtown. And with no everyday amenities, it was like a ghost town the April afternoon we visited. 

Calgary’s equivalent is Stampede Park with its two arenas, Grandstand and the BMO exhibition centre. Hopefully, the new Stampede Entertainment District Plan will create a mix of everyday uses and connect the district with its neighbours – 17th Ave, East Village and Inglewood.

Advantage: Tied
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  Atlanta's lovely plaza that links the stadium, arena and convention centre is devoid of any animation most of the time.    Clustering large single use special event facilities is a big "No No" in Jane Jacob's book.

Atlanta's lovely plaza that links the stadium, arena and convention centre is devoid of any animation most of the time.  Clustering large single use special event facilities is a big "No No" in Jane Jacob's book.

  Calgary's Stampede Park is amazing public space during the 10 days of Stampede.  It is also home to numerous other major events.   

Calgary's Stampede Park is amazing public space during the 10 days of Stampede.  It is also home to numerous other major events.  

  Stampede Park can be a desolate place when there are no events happening.   

Stampede Park can be a desolate place when there are no events happening.  

  Calgary's Saddledome arena with downtown skyline in the background.

Calgary's Saddledome arena with downtown skyline in the background.

Last Word  

While Atlanta might be five times bigger than Calgary, its urban core (25 sq. km) is no match for Calgary’s. Almost all of its large buildings have huge multi-floor, above-ground parkades that destroy street life on three sides.  Calgary is fortunate most of its urban parking is underground, sometimes even with a park on top e.g. James Short Park.

Calgary is also fortunate its urban core is compact. Olympic Plaza Arts District, Stephen Avenue National Historic District, Financial District, Music Mile, urban parks and shopping districts are all within easy walking distance.

What Atlanta’s City Centre does have that Calgary could definitely use more of is postsecondary school campuses. What a great use for downtown’s empty office space. I am sure somebody is on it!

  One of dozens of above ground parkades in Atlanta's urban core that destroys the street life. 

One of dozens of above ground parkades in Atlanta's urban core that destroys the street life. 

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Stampede Park 2025

During the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, Nashville received a lot of attention for how its downtown came alive on game days as the Predators strived to win the Cup. On game nights, tens of thousands of fans who didn’t have game tickets flooded their downtown to watch the game on huge screens outside the arena. 

Nashville’s arena and the next door convention centre were thought by some to be the model for what a new arena and expanded convention centre could do for Calgary’s Stampede Park and City Centre.  

I had to see this for myself, so I planned to be in Nashville for the opening home game of the Predators’ 2017/18 season.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald (New Condos section), titled, "Nashville is wrong model for reviving Stampede Park" on Feb, 3, 2018. 

  Bridgestone Arena plaza that open up to Lower Broadway is empty most of the time even though it is also home to Nashville Tourist Information Centre. 

Bridgestone Arena plaza that open up to Lower Broadway is empty most of the time even though it is also home to Nashville Tourist Information Centre. 

What I found

I spent 12 days in Nashville, wandering the area around the arena and convention centre almost every day. 

What I found was the streets next to the arena and convention centre were dead except on game days.

  Gold Walk, Nashville Predator hockey players

Gold Walk, Nashville Predator hockey players

Only once did I find the arena plaza animated and that was for the annual “Gold Walk.” That’s when, before the first home game of the season, at around 4 pm the Predator players walk into the arena along a gold-coloured carpet.

Lined with fans and cheerleaders, it’s a bit like how football players enter the stadium before a game.  Though, it seemed a bit hokey to me, the few hundred Nashvillans in attendance clearly enjoyed it.

But, on opening game night, it was not hockey but the 50th anniversary celebration of the nearby Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge that drew thousands of people to the street outside the arena.  The block of Lower Broadway - across from the arena - was closed for an all night outdoor concert with free live music by the likes of Alberta’s own Terri Clark.

  There was no street animation at any time on three sides of the arena that are blank walls to the street. 

There was no street animation at any time on three sides of the arena that are blank walls to the street. 

For the entire 12 days, the cavernous 2-block long convention centre was empty, or at least it appeared so from the street. I did go in several times but nothing significant was happening and it certainly did nothing to create street vitality.

The Bridgestone all-purpose arena was built in 1996. However, only now, 20 years later are new private sector developments happening around it – Bridgestone and Pinnacle office towers, a mixed-use building (including the National Museum of African American Music) under construction, as well as numerous hotels.  

It is the new convention centre, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the growing popularity of the live music experience along Lower Broadway that are the real catalysts for new downtown developments like the impressive Omni hotel.

Nashville’s main street, Lower Broadway is a gritty street lined with of loud honky-tonk bars that offer free (no cover charge) live music from 10 am to 3 am. The bands play at the front the bars with the windows open so you can hear the music and see the musicians as you stroll along.  Think of it as one long street party 365 days of the year. 

Over the past decade or so, Nashville has done a good job of revitalizing its downtown by making it a major tourist attraction.  The key to the revitalization is the free music 365 days of the year (similar to Las Vegas’ gambling and shows). Note: The NISSAN stadium, home of the NFL Titans, is across the river from downtown sits vacant most of the time. Opened in 1999, to date there has been no other development around it. That should be a “red flag” to anyone thinking a downtown stadium is an automatic catalyst for other developments.

  The new convention centre looked lovely, but I never saw anyone use this patio during our 12 days stay, not did I see the centre full of people at any time.

The new convention centre looked lovely, but I never saw anyone use this patio during our 12 days stay, not did I see the centre full of people at any time.

Lessons Learned

As Calgary contemplates the development of an expanded BMO Centre and new arena at Stampede/Victoria Park, we need to be realistic with our expectations. Calgary’s ability to become a mega urban tourist attraction is limited by our accessibility to major tourist markets.  For example, there are 12 million people within a 2.5 hr. drive of Nashville and 250 million within a 2-hour flight. In comparison, Calgary has but a small fraction of that – one million within a 2.5 hr. drive and maybe 15 million within a 2.5-hour flight.

Our weather is also a factor.  In North America, the peak convention and trade show months are from September to June, which for Calgary means cool if not downright cold weather.  In Nashville, even in mid October it was warm enough for shorts - daytime and evenings.

And to be brutally honest, Calgary also lacks a unique sense of place or history essential to becoming a year-round urban tourist attraction.  Nashville is well known internationally as the birthplace of country music, which it has capitalized on to become a year-round music destination. Unfortunately, the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day event, doesn’t allow for a year-round tourist experience.

If Calgary is serious about becoming a tourist city, albeit not on the scale of Nashville, we need to transform Stampede Park into vibrant Sports Hospitality Entertainment District (SHED) for locals first and then tourists.

  Stampede Park has been trying to expand for over 20 years.  Will a new arena and expansion of the BMO Centre be the catalyst to create a vibrant year-round sports, entertainment, hospitality district (SHED)?

Stampede Park has been trying to expand for over 20 years.  Will a new arena and expansion of the BMO Centre be the catalyst to create a vibrant year-round sports, entertainment, hospitality district (SHED)?

  Does it really make sense to spend $500M+ to build a new arena just a block away that will have less seats for public and more seats for corporate fans?

Does it really make sense to spend $500M+ to build a new arena just a block away that will have less seats for public and more seats for corporate fans?

What is needed?

  • Expand the BMO Centre and repurpose the downtown Calgary TELUS Convention Center. We can’t afford to market and manage two similar facilities.
  • Create a vibrant Main Street (live music venues, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops) along 4th Street SE linking East Village, Victoria Park and Stampede Park. 
  • Build a new arena or an upgraded Saddledome and manage it as a major entertainment/events facility not just a sports centre.
  • Build a Stampede Museum/IMAX where tourists and visiting family and friends can enjoy the history and “spills and thrills” of the Stampede experience year-round.
  • Open up Stampede Park along Mcleod Trail so passers-by can see into the park. 
  • Open up the 17th Avenue entrance to vehicular traffic.
  • Remove guard huts at the entrances to allow free flowing traffic through the park 24/7
  The next evolution of Stampede Park will be from restricted gated-community to an open community where people are free to walk, cycle and drive through like any other community in Calgary. 

The next evolution of Stampede Park will be from restricted gated-community to an open community where people are free to walk, cycle and drive through like any other community in Calgary. 

Stampede Park: A place to live?

Given Calgary doesn’t have access to a large tourist market, the key to a vibrant Stampede Park SHED will be to surround it with thousands of condos that are attractive and affordable to Calgarians of all ages and means. 

Stampede Park must become the front yard, back yard and outdoor living room for thousands of Calgarians living in East Village, Victoria Park, Erlton, Inglewood and Ramsay.  It must become a year-round urban playground.

We need residential projects like Lamb’s The Orchard (485 units), Anthem’s Crosstown (874 units + grocery store) at Erlton Station and Cidex’s HAT@Elbow River (1,200 units) on the Elbow River Casino site to happen sooner rather than later.

  Anthem Properties has plans to build four condo towers next to Stampede Park and the Erlton LRT station in the future.  Stampede Park would be their playground. 

Anthem Properties has plans to build four condo towers next to Stampede Park and the Erlton LRT station in the future.  Stampede Park would be their playground. 

  Lamb Corporation has plans for two towers along 11th Avenue and 5th St SE. 

Lamb Corporation has plans for two towers along 11th Avenue and 5th St SE. 

  This is a conceptual plan developed by Sturgess Architects for the redevelopment of the land next to Erlton Station with the Anthem towers included.

This is a conceptual plan developed by Sturgess Architects for the redevelopment of the land next to Erlton Station with the Anthem towers included.

  Remington Developments owns the land south of the CPR tracks that was at one time earmarked for the mega Railtown development that would have included office, condos, shops, LRT and high speed train station.  

Remington Developments owns the land south of the CPR tracks that was at one time earmarked for the mega Railtown development that would have included office, condos, shops, LRT and high speed train station.  

Last Word

Calgary will be hosting 25,000 International Rotarian Convention attendees in 2025.  What a great opportunity to showcase Calgary’s new 21st century Stampede Park as a year-round tourist destination to the delegates.

There’s no time to waste. The Stampede Board, Mayor, Council, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation must begin working quickly to develop an exciting share vision for Stampede Park.

We MUST work together if we want to make our city a major year-round tourist attraction.

Richard White can be reached at rwhiteyyc@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @everydaytourist

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

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Calgary Wants Vs Needs: Arena, Convention Centre, Stadium

Flamesville vs Stampede Park