How to build a pedestrian-friendly retail district

Everyday Tourist writer Richard White talks about Calgary's neighbourhood failures and successes, and what the future holds

Writer Richard White is the Everyday Tourist in Calgary.

Richard White on creating a pedestrian-friendly Calgary
Richard White

Do you have a favourite neighbourhood to walk in in Calgary and why?

White: West Hillhurst partly because it’s where I’ve lived for 25 years. I love the mix of tiny old houses and big new homes, even the seniors’ complexes now that I am a senior. I love the many playgrounds – Grand Trunk, Helicopter Park and Dinosaur Park, and two great natural areas along the ridge that offer spectacular views of the Bow River valley and downtown. It even has its own Bow River pebble beach and island you can wade out to.

And our own main street, aka 19th, is slowly evolving into the 21st century with Made By Marcus ice cream joining Dairy Lane. We also have Amato Gelato, Jan’s Deli and the new Sunterra Market/Café. It’s also home to a French immersion school, a school for pregnant and parenting teens, a homeless shelter and an abortion clinic – it doesn’t get more eclectic than that!

What are some of the key elements needed to make for a successful walking retail and entertainment district?

White: It must have a diversity of things to do at all times of the day and year round. It must be an attractive place to meet and hang out, spaces for big events and small events, things that are free, as well as paid activities. It needs to look and feel exciting as soon as you arrive. But, most of all, it must have patios, pocket parks and plazas with people in them.

Colourful banners that get changed regularly help create a festive atmosphere. And one of things that good retailers do is have great window displays that change regularly that make pedestrians stop, look and walk in. There also needs to be obvious places where people want to take a selfie or a photo to post it on social media for family and friends. It needs to be a place full of fun surprises, not too contrived with standardized signage and architectural controls. It needs to be organic and yes, even a bit messy.

One benchmark of a good retail/entertainment district is the number of doors on the street that are available for people to pop in and out of with different things to see and do inside.

What does the city’s downtown need to do to attract more people, especially after hours and on the weekend?

White: I wish I knew. I spent 10-plus years with the Calgary Downtown Association trying to tackle this issue. I did learn a few things.

It depends on what you define as Calgary’s downtown. If you mean the Central Business District, i.e. from 8th Street S.W. to Centre Street and from 9th to 3rd Avenue S.W., there isn’t much we can do as it’s almost all office towers. Office towers kill street vitality – they’re hostile to pedestrian activity as they have no or few pedestrian-oriented businesses at street level, they dwarf pedestrians, they put the sidewalk in shade most of the time and they create wind tunnels. Neither Wall Street nor Bay Street have people on the street after hours or on the weekends. Calgary’s problem is we have about 40 blocks of offices in the middle of our downtown or city centre that are pretty much a no-go zone after hours and weekends.

The Core’s glass roof is spectacular, but in itself isn’t enough of an attraction to come downtown in the evenings and weekends to shop. The restaurants on Stephen Avenue also need to offer a more unique experience – maybe live music, comedy nights, piano bar – more of a ‘dinner show’ experience. Downtown retailers and restaurateurs have to dare to be different from their suburban brothers and sisters.

We need retailers like Sport Chek, which is a Calgary company (or was), to have a flagship/concept store on Stephen Avenue. Hudson’s Bay needs to up its game in Calgary, the windows on 7th Avenue should be spectacular. I was sorry to see the windows on Stephen Avenue get taken over by The Guild. The Guild does a good job of animating the street during patio season but for the rest of the year it looks like a storage area, which isn’t great. Winners, Holt Renfrew and Brooks Brothers windows all need to up their game when it comes to window displays.

People are looking for experiences. Downtown needs more fun and unique things to see and do, especially in the winter.

One suggestion might be a permanent light show on the office buildings from October to March. The new Telus Sky building promises to have a spectacular light show on the side of the building by Douglas Coupland, one of Canada’s leading makers of public art. The Calgary Downtown Association has promised a month-long light spectacle next February. The plans include a light show on the skating rink at Olympic Plaza and other interactive pieces to engage people and keep them coming back.

I don’t think static public art like Wonderland, aka Big White Head, are a major downtown draw. It’s nice but nobody is coming downtown to see Wonderland, which at best is a five-minute experience. The same goes for the Joe Fafard piece in Harley Hotchkiss Gardens. Perhaps a sculpture park full of interactive pieces would attract people downtown. The best public art project in Calgary’s history in my opinion was the Udderly Art Cow that attracted thousands of people to come downtown every evening and on the weekend in the summer of 2000.

Public art needs to be fun and interactive. Two great examples are The Cloud (aka The Bean) and The Fountain (done by Jaume Plensa, who did Wonderland), both in Chicago’s Millennium Park. They attract thousands of people to visit them almost every day. Perhaps rather than a bunch of small artworks and murals scattered around the downtown, we need to create one or two spectacular pieces of art that are must-see for anyone visiting Calgary.

Downtown also suffers from the competition, as all of the neighbouring communities have their own pedestrian streets with restaurants, cafes and boutiques, making there less of a need to go downtown in the evening and weekends.

What the downtown core really needs are more residential buildings. Telus Sky and the conversion of the Barron Building to residential will help, but the core needs probably 25,000-plus more residents to become a vibrant community in the evenings and weekends.

What impact do you think the development of Victoria Park will have on the city in the future?

White: It makes sense to create a sports hospitality entertainment district (SHED) where everything is in one place and a critical mass of events and activities can be achieved. Big buildings like a convention centre and arena are difficult to integrate into a main street as they are closed to the public most of the time and basically create block-long dead zones. I visited Vancouver’s Convention Centre block, as well as their arena and stadium sites several times over the past month and they were like ghost towns every time.

I’m concerned the new Victoria Park/Stampede Park entertainment district will cannibalize some of the street life from 17th Avenue west of 4th Street, Stephen Avenue and the budding activity along 10th and 11th Avenues in the Beltline. We already have a bit of an arts and entertainment district downtown with Arts Commons, Glenbow, Vertigo Theatre, Lunchbox, The Grand and Palace Theatre.

And 17th Avenue businesses have branded themselves as Calgary’s Retail Entertainment District (aka RED). Inglewood is Calgary’s Live Music Village with Blues Can, Ironwood and Festival Hall. Calgary is not a huge tourist city like Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto, I’m not sure we can support several entertainment districts. I hope I’m proven wrong.

I would argue the Telus Convention Centre (phase 1 and 2), Glenbow Museum and Arts Commons complex have virtually done nothing to create vitality on the east end of Stephen Avenue over the past 40 years. Yes, something needs to be done to redevelop Victoria Park, but Calgary doesn’t have a great track record with its urban renewal projects. Just look at the Eau Claire redevelopment, which was started in the late 1970s and to this day still has lots of surface parking lots. After 50 years, Eau Claire is still trying to become a vibrant mixed-use urban village.

Do you think we’ll ever get to the point of developing the West Village area and what is the potential for that area?

White: West Village has huge potential with its access to the Bow River and could become part of a wonderful urban promenade along the Bow River from Pumphouse Park to Fort Calgary. I would love to see West Village become an Innovation Hub campus with a mix of established and startup businesses, international, national and local, mingling with lots of live/work spaces and mid-rise residential and of course retail, restaurants and recreational amenities. Perhaps it could become an agricultural innovation hub. Let’s build on the fact Calgary has a number of agricultural headquarters we could leverage. I’d love to be part of an advisory committee to make this happen.

However, I don’t see much happening in West Village until 2040, when hopefully East Village, Victoria Park and Stampede Park redevelopment is nearing completion and have become bustling places. That being said, the new West Village Towers being built at 9th Avenue and 10th Street S.W. is an exciting project that could kick-start more development at the western edge of downtown.

– Mario Toneguzzi for Calgary’s Business

calgary district pedestrian-friendly

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