While everyone seems excited that Stephen Avenue is getting a makeover by internationally renowned urban designers, I am less so. Why? Because I think Stephen Avenue Walk (SAW) needs more than a physical makeover.
Full disclosure: I was involved in the management of SAW from 1995 to 2005 as the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association.
Yes, SAW needs to be redesigned to better accommodate, pedestrians, bikes, scooters and cars. And I truly wish Gehl Studio all the best in creating a better SAW design that will attract more Calgarians and tourists to want to play, live and work on our historic main street. But don’t expect a new design to solve all of its problems.
Needs Unique Merchants
What SAW needs most is more diversity of things to see and do. Over the past 20 years, it has evolved into a restaurant row for the business community i.e. a lot of high priced expense account restaurants. Many of the restaurants don’t even open during the day on weekends. Some of the restaurants are so exclusive they have windows so dark they look closed even when they’re open. And, more recently chain restaurants like Earls, Milestones and Cactus Club have unfortunately become SAW’s anchor restaurants - all available elsewhere so no need to come to SAW.
What SAW needs are new merchants and property owners who are less corporate and conservative in their thinking. Calgary-based Sport Chek missed a golden opportunity to create a flagship concept store on SAW. Instead, they created a suburban store that captured nobody’s interest.
Needs less restaurants
Gone are retailers like Soundsaround, McNally Robinson, Arnold Churgan, Riley McCormick and Out There. The addition of Simons department store in the Lancaster Building is great, but it has a poor entrance to SAW. As well, you can easily walk by Banks Hall and The Core entrances on SAW and not know there are 150+ retailers inside. I have had many a tourist ask me “Where are all the shops?” when they were standing next to Bankers Hall and TD Square! Even Hudson’s Bay has leased out its SAW street frontage to an upscale restaurant, so it’s not obvious is a department store inside.
One of my biggest pet peeves is that retailers like Indigospirit, Winners and Lammle's Western Wear rarely change their windows and while Holts and Brooks Brothers windows, are too conservative to capture anyone’s attention. The retail windows along SAW at Stampede this year were lame and the same holds true at Christmas.
SAW’s current mix restauranteurs, retailers and property owners do very little to create a unique experience. The street is too conservative, too corporate and too contrived to be funky or quirky.
The new owners of Stephen Avenue Place are looking at creating a unique entertainment experience in the old Scotia Bank pavilion - I hope they are successful.
Needs Funky Signage
What will help Stephen Avenue is for the City to relax their signage rules to allow more neon signs, more advertising billboards, to add colour and animation to the streetscape.
SAW needs is to have the happiest happy hours in North America, a great live music scene, and some mega new anchors unique to Calgary. Stephen Avenue needs to have its own signature event – what about a huge summer sidewalk sale or patio party?
Needs More Residential
What SAW needs most is more residential and hotel development nearby. Though Telus Sky and the Baron Building conversion will add a few hundred more people, what is really needed is thousands, tens of thousands of people living along or near Stephen Avenue.
What would be best for Stephen Avenue would be if all of the surface parking lots along 9th Avenue were suddenly transformed into residential towers.
While I am sure some want to ban vehicle traffic on SAW 24/7, I think doing so would be a huge mistake. Pedestrian malls were tried in the ‘70s and ‘80s across North America and failed. Sure this is a different time, but great streets most often are multi-modal i.e. accommodate cars, transit, pedestrians and cyclists all sharing the space. Both Denver’s 16th Street Mall and Minneapolis’ Nicolet Mall are examples of successful incorporation of pedestrians and transit.
Traffic 24/7 in the winter
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes Calgary planners made was segregating transit to 7thAvenue, pedestrians to 8thAvenue and cars to 6thand 9thAvenues. Look at some historic photos of Stephen Avenue and you will see a street bustling with street cars, horse and buggies, cars and lots of pedestrian traffic. I think the new design should allow vehicle traffic 24/7 from November to March, when the patios are gone and there is lots of room on the sidewalks for pedestrians. Merchants would benefit from having people next to their windows and the sidewalks would look more animated as pedestrians wouldn’t be scattered all over the road.
SAW’s vitality is also hindered by it being Calgary’s Financial District – Bankers Hall, TD Square, Royal Bank Tower, TD Canada Trust Tower, Scotia Centre (now Stephen Avenue Place) – it is more like Wall Street and Bay Street than Queen Street or Robson Street.
And, while some like to blame the +15 system for the lack of street vitality, it too lacks vitality evening and weekends.
Needs more clutter
Great pedestrian streets are messy and cluttered, filled with small UNIQUE shops, restaurants, cafes, lounges and pubs, with a mix of office, hotel and residential buildings and signature anchor tenants. Sometimes you have to face reality – SAW is in the middle of a 40 block office district, in a harsh winter city!
Don’t give me the argument Scandinavians cities are also winter cities. They don’t get weeks of -30 Celsius and snow that lingers for months on end. And, they don’t have high-rise buildings that result in streets that get no sun for six months of the year like Stephen Avenue.
The reality is SAW thrives when downtown’s corporate Calgary thrives. And right now corporate Calgary is struggling to survive.
Note: An edited version of this blog was published by Live Wire, Calgary’s 21st century online community news publication.
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