It is laudable that the internationally renowned New York City based Gehl Studio has been engaged to lead the public consultation and creation of a much needed new design for Stephen Avenue Walk.
However it will take more than a mega makeover to capitalize on Stephen Avenue potential as a people place. It will require:
the various cultural and corporate stakeholders working together to capitalize on the existing things to see and do, as well as creating new ones
a branding of Stephen Avenue Walk as a fun place for Calgarians to hang out, meet up and to bring visiting family and friends, as well as tourists
a paradigm shift in the thinking of all Stephen Avenue stakeholders, as well as Calgarians about how we perceive THE WALK
We will need to adopt a more “Meet you on THE WALK!” attitude!
Nobody expects Stephen Avenue to have the vitality of Times Square.
Gehl Studio is an off-shoot of Copenhagen’s Gehl Architects, founded by Jan Gehl who is considered by many as an urban placemaking guru. Gehl’s mantra is “making cities for people,” meaning redesigning cities to accommodate more pedestrians and cyclists, rather than cars.
Gehl and his colleague’s claim to fame is the redesign of Times Square in 2009, creating a series of public plazas (which included removing traffic) to double the amount of pedestrian space.
Today, Times Square’s pedestrian traffic is incredible – in part due to Gehl Studio’s redesign, but also in part because there are 50+ hotels within a few blocks.
Nearly 380,000 pedestrians enter the heart of Times Square each day.
On the busiest days, Times Square has pedestrian counts as high as 450,000.
Times Square stays busy late, with over 85,000 pedestrians between 7pm and 1am.
(December 2018, timessquarenyc.org)
Heck, Stephen Avenue doesn’t have 85,000 pedestrians from 7am to 7 pm on weekdays when the 100+ office buildings nearby are full of workers. On a regular day Times Square has three time the number of pedestrians than Calgary has downtown workers.
While nobody expects Stephen Avenue to have the vitality of Times Square, in theory should be a vibrant place.
Aftercall, it has all of the ingredients of a people place - a major museum, a major performing arts centre, a convention centre, Olympic Plaza (numerous festivals and events), Devonian Gardens, historic and modern architecture, a historic department store, a mega indoor shopping centre (The Core), a major music venue (The Palace), access to a major public transit corridor and thousands of $2 evening and weekend parking spots.
But it still struggles. Why?
Stephen Avenue lacks the density of residential, hotel and university/college development needed to make it animated in the evenings and weekends. Take Montreal’s Saint Catherine Street and Vancouver’s Robson Street - both are vibrant streets day and night, weekdays and weekends as they are surrounded by an equal mix of office, hotel and residential buildings, as well as numerous post-secondary campuses. In comparison, SAW is deserted in the evening and weekends because it is mostly surrounded by empty office buildings at that time.
Even during the day office workers are there to work - not shop, visit art galleries, museums and tourist attractions. They aren’t there to stroll the streets like hotel tourist or students coming and going at all times of the day and night. Also most of the Calgary’s downtown hotels are business oriented, which means their guests are working all day (and sometimes evening) then heading home for the weekend.
Great streets have a diverse mix of retail, restaurants, cafes, attractions and other pedestrian oriented businesses at street level. Stephen Avenue is mostly a restaurant row, which means it can get busy at lunch hour weekdays and dinner time, but deserted afternoon, evenings and weekends.
Combine this with the fact several of Stephen Avenue’s key corners being occupied by banks (not open in the evenings and weekends) and you don’t get the vitality you expect from your signature main street.
On a positive note - the redevelopment of the old Scotia Bank pavilion into a retail restaurant food hall and a roof-top restaurant has the potential to help make Stephen Avenue a more unique entertainment destination.
The completion of the Telus Sky and the conversion of Baron building will add much needed residential development nearby.
While some blame Calgary’s +15 walkway for the lack of pedestrian activity, remember Saint Catherine street has an underground network of shopping centers that is larger than Calgary’s and is accessible by subway vs Calgary’s street level LRT system.
Don’t blame the +15 - it is also dead evenings and weekends.
One of the reasons Stephen Avenue struggles is the surrounding residential communities have their own pedestrian streets. This means those living near Stephen Avenue don’t see it as their urban playground. To make matters even worse, East Village will soon have its own indoor shopping mall and the new plans for Stampede Park will challenge Stephen Avenue as Calgary’s premier culture and entertainment district.
Also when it comes to walkable public spaces, those living in the downtown core are more inclined to walk along the Bow pathways than head to Stephen Avenue, the latter being a cold, dark and often windy place from October to April. Multi-million dollar upgrades to the Bow River pathway over the past 10 years have transformed it into one of North America’s most attractive pedestrian strolls
As well, the new Central Library downtown’s new “go to” public space, has no synergy with Stephen Avenue because it is hidden behind the Municipal Building.
Indeed, Stephen Avenue has become a bit of an orphan.
Big Changes Needed
While a redesign of Stephen Avenue Walk will certainly help make it more pedestrian-friendly, what is really needed is a change in the tenant mix along the street and more collaboration and creativity between and by the merchants.
Retailers and restauranteurs need to be more creative in attracting people to come to Stephen Avenue Walk. Some restaurants’ window are so dark you think they are closed when they are open.
Restauranteurs need to have the happiest happy hours in the city. They need to work together to develop special Stephen Avenue Walk food events. Stephen Avenue needs to have its own signature event. The Santa Claus Parade us to be the kick off to the Christmas shopping season. What about summer weekend patio parties? Maybe an annual summer sidewalk sale? How about collaborating with the Glenbow’s Free First Thursdays specials?
Stephen Avenue Walk needs some new street-front anchor tenants, ideally unique to Calgary like the new Simons store. It is unfortunate Calgary-based Sport Chek didn’t create a flagship concept store on Stephen Avenue Walk when they had the chance. Unfortunately, when it comes to attracting major international retailers, Stephen Avenue Walk simply can’t compete with the likes of Chinook Centre, Market Mall or even The Core.
Yes, creating a new design for Stephen Avenue Walk will help make it more attractive for pedestrians and cyclists, but it won’t make it a vibrant street. Street vitality happens when there are lots of things to see and do, for people of all ages, at all times of the day – everyday.
Good design is important, but it is secondary to the diversity of activities.
In reality, there is only so much the City and Calgary Downtown Association can do to program the Stephen Avenue Walk with events and activities. Great streets don’t need lots of programming, it is the inherent street life of locals and tourists mingling about that attracts people to not only want to go there, but to want to stop, linger and bring visiting family and friends.
Great streets must capture the imagination of locals.
When was the last time you said to visiting family and friends, “we must take you to stroll Stephen Avenue to experience the great architecture, the unique shops, the theatres, concert hall, the museum, the restaurants and the nightlife.”
Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos section on September 8, 2019.
Full Disclosure: As Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA) from 1995 to 2005, my team was responsible for the programming and management of Stephen Avenue Walk.
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