Fixing Calgary's downtown ghost town

A "ghetto for office workers," Calgary's core is mainly a jumble of office towers. At night the streets seem to roll up. Richard White explains what this means to our city, and looks at what's been done over the last 40 years to fix it.

A 'ghetto for office workers,' Calgary's core is mainly a jumble of office towers

With the core dominated by office towers, it caters to the needs of office workers. The effect is a largely empty downtown at night. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Downtown Calgary has often been referred to as a ghetto for office workers — and why not, most streets are lined with office buildings and shops that cater to only to office workers.

Sure the vista of towers that is our cityscape makes for a spectacular postcard, especially when backdropped by the mountains. But it doesn't make for a vibrant community.

Outside office hours, the core is a ghost town — something every Calgarian knows, or thinks they know.

In the 2015 Citizen Satisfaction survey, 32 per cent of Calgarians said downtown revitalization was very important, while 47 per cent said it was somewhat important. This is surprising, as the vast majority of Calgarians don't work downtown or live downtown.

Calgarians "get" that a healthy downtown is critical to the entire city's well-being.

"It's pretty much a universal truth: vibrant cities have growing downtowns and stagnating cities have declining downtowns," says John Karras, founder of urbanSCALE, a numeric rating system of a city's vibrancy.

Tower city

Calgary's downtown has one of the highest concentrations of office buildings and corporate headquarters in North America. (Getty Images)

Our downtown has one of the highest concentrations of office buildings and corporate headquarters in North America. 

The stats tell the tale.

Calgary's downtown is made up of roughly 90 blocks — stretching from Macleod Trail to 11th Street S.W, and from the Bow River to Ninth Avenue. In that space, the BOMA Building Guide lists 151 office buildings. 

"Centre ice" for the core is the 300 block of Stephen Avenue.

With six office buildings (totalling 193 storeys), two major retail centres, Devonian Gardens, the Plus 15 hub (world's largest elevated walkways system) and a mega piece of public art (white steel trees), it is one of the most diverse and dense blocks in North America. 

In the "live + work + play = vitality" equation, our downtown math doesn't add up. Eighty per cent of downtown buildings are places of work.

That's a two-fold problem. First, few people live downtown. Second, few think of going into the core after dark.

The 'core' problem

Calgary's downtown can feel empty at night, once all the office workers have gone home. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

People generally don't like to wander and linger where buildings dwarf them and offer nothing to see or do at street level.

Those who do live downtown face an inhospitable pedestrian environment. Towers (including condo and apartment towers) shade the sidewalks and create wind tunnels which makes a casual stroll unpleasant. So, many downtowners quickly head to the Beltline or Kensington as their urban playground. 

As to getting people to come into the downtown at night, University of Calgary urban sociologist Harry Hiller thinks it is difficult for two reasons — our city is dominated by child-rearing families who don't see the need to head to the core, and office workers tend to want to "escape" it. 

Calgary city planners recognize this is a problem. And they've been trying to fix it.

For a long, looooong time.

The plans (many of them)

Calgary's city hall was part of a revitalization program that included Olympic Plaza and the performing arts centre now called Arts Commons. (Richard White)

For nearly 50 years, the city has tried, with various large-scale urban renewal projects, public and private, to create a vibrant downtown outside of office hours.

Density can be a good thing — a community with services both public and private, parks and diverse character. Or a bad thing — monotonous and monolithic areas that alienate. Calgary is trying to turn one kind of density into another.

In the '70s, Stephen Avenue was converted into a pedestrian mall. And the Glenbow Museum, Marriott Hotel, Calgary Tower, Convention Centre and Palliser Square were all built as part of a plan to revitalize downtown's east side.

In the '80s, a second attempt to revitalize the east side included the new Performing Arts Centre, Olympic Plaza, the Seventh Avenue LRT corridor, and the building of the "blue monster" we call the municipal building.

In the '90s, the city turned its attention to the Bow River — approving Sheraton Suites Hotel, Eau Claire Market, Eau Claire Y, several new condos, Prince's Island Park redevelopment and Eau Claire promenade. Then, more recently, the Anthem Properties' Waterfront project added 1,000 condos.

In Calgary's urban planning history, "big" is apparently "good."

But the results of all these plans have been mixed.

From 2009 to 2014, downtown's residential population grew by 17 per cent. The number of residents now living in the downtown core is 9,000 (15,817 if you include Eau Claire, Chinatown, Downtown West and East Village). That's not far behind the Beltline (21,357) and significantly more than Hillhurst/Sunnyside (10,345).

Progress surely, but the core is still struggling to become a truly vibrant urban community.

Enter the latest, and far more widespread experiment.

It's an interesting experiment. Level a large area of the core, and start again.

Engineering community

Mayor Naheed Nenshi and others open the St. Patrick's Island Bridge, part of the huge redevelopment of the East Village. (Drew Anderson)

Today, all eyes are on East Village revitalization — a project that's been in the works for over 30 years. At around 120-acres, it is the biggest urban renewal project in our city's history.

The master plan incorporates the latest in urban renewal thinking — density, diversity, connectivity, mixed-use, walkability and good urban design. It includes billions of private and public dollar investment in new condo towers, museum, library, Riverwalk, St. Patrick's Island redevelopment, underpass, pedestrian bridges and public art.

Community building

There is a distinct possibility that our current thinking about urban and community revitalization is wrong.

Jane Jacobs, the late, great guru of all things urban, said vitality comes from evolutionary, not revolutionary redevelopment. The idea of lots of little projects — more organic growth as opposed to full-block mega projects.

With Calgary continually fixated on mega plans and buildings, it is not looking good. Perhaps one positive outcome of the oil patch meltdown will be that we begin to think smaller.

U of C's Hiller even goes as far as to say, "The notion of a downtown as the central core of a city is a somewhat out dated concept, because many activities formerly occurring only in the core now take place in many locations throughout the city."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Richard White

Freelance contributor

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.