Calgary·Opinion

Here's what we lose by adding more towers on Stephen Avenue

The proposal falls short, even if allowing more people to live downtown is its the primary strength. Our city doesn’t need another generic clump of towers that aims to conceal its neglect of the public realm by dressing up its glass façade with a veneer of Calgary’s history.

The latest office and condo megaproject will diminish downtown Calgary's best public space

Stephen Avenue Quarter would comprise nearly the whole block between Centre Street and 1st Street SW, from the pedestrian mall to the 7th Avenue rail tracks. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Ximena González, a freelance journalist who trained as an architect. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The City of Calgary has devised myriad plans to reinvigorate our city's ever-dwindling core and attract residents, visitors and investment over the decades —  last year's Greater Downtown Plan is the most recent effort. Ever since the creation of the Downtown Master Plan in 1966, there's been an evident disconnect between the city's vision and the interests of developers.

The proposed development of Stephen Avenue Quarter is a case in point.

Despite downtown Calgary's woes, from recession to pandemic, Stephen Avenue remains a destination for Calgarians to enjoy culture and entertainment. The liveliness and unique character of Stephen Avenue are made possible, to a large extent, by the aesthetic qualities of the heritage buildings framing it.

The new proposal jeopardizes these very qualities.

Three towers, several uses

Stephen Avenue Quarter would comprise nearly the whole block between Centre Street and 1st Street SW, from the pedestrian mall to the 7th Avenue rail tracks. It's an area currently occupied by 17 designated and listed heritage buildings, the highest concentration of heritage buildings in a single block downtown. 

This development of hotel, retail, residential and office space is spearheaded by Triovest, a real estate manager and developer controlled by the wealthy Mannix family. Three towers would stand 24, 45 and 66 storeys, linked by a 10-level podium or base that's about twice as tall as the Core Shopping Centre.

Like every other downtown tower, the ground floor of all three towers would have some retail, but most of it would be located at the +15 level on the second floor. The majority of the office space would be concentrated in the shortest tower and podium, while the two towers would be primarily residential units and hotel. 

According to the application, the alley that splits the block lengthwise would be lined by retail spaces and landscaping. Existing heritage buildings would be demolished and some façades preserved. 

The long-vacant buildings along 7th Avenue, many more than 100 years old, would be removed entirely. (The Central United Church and Bank of Montreal building — now a gym — are outside of this proposal.)

The proposal calls for several new buildings on the north side of 8th Avenue between Centre Street and 1st Street S.W. Seen in this rendering, the two buildings on the west side (the historic Bank of Montreal building and the Central United Church) would be left as they are. (Triovest, Google Earth)

While many have questioned adding office space when Calgary's office vacancy rate is the highest in Canada, as well as the loss of heritage buildings, others have praised this project as a symbol of our city's recovery, highlighting the inclusion of much-needed residential units in the project's design program, a core tenet of the Greater Downtown Plan.

But the implications of this proposal extend beyond the uses it aims to accommodate, and even beyond heritage preservation per se. The addition of  Calgary's tallest building and additional glass towers will unquestionably impact the role of Stephen Avenue as Calgary's main square — a place that, at least in theory, people of all backgrounds can enjoy, whether sitting at a sunny patio or on a brightly coloured bench.

Heritage buildings help foster public spaces whose quality is nearly impossible to equal in contemporary towers, with their big empty lobbies to welcome office workers or residents. It doesn't take much effort to notice the impact high-rises have on the west end of 8th Avenue, where few patrons choose to visit a patio sitting below the oppressive shadow of Eighth Avenue Place or Bankers Hall. (It makes one wonder who would sit in the patios surrounded by towers in the proposed alleyway.)

While cities around the globe capitalize on their character to attract talent and investment, Triovest's proposal falls short, even if allowing more people to live downtown is the primary strength of this proposal.

Our city doesn't need another generic clump of towers that aims to conceal its neglect of the public realm by dressing up its glass façade with a veneer of Calgary's history.

Fix what's truly ailing Calgary's core

To revitalize its core, Calgary needs to find ways to preserve its character and construct people-scaled buildings that take into account the impact on their surroundings, if not improve them.

The woes of our downtown are not solely caused by the perceived lack of residents — they're exacerbated by the lack of amenities and housing choices, and by a disregard for the impacts highrise towers have on the livability of outdoor public spaces. 

Calgary Planning Commission will consider this project later this year. Over the coming weeks, Calgarians can help shape the future of our city's main square by submitting their comments to city hall.

What comes out of this process will show Canada and the rest of the world if Calgary is the renewed city we strive to become, as Stephen Avenue Quarter would mark the start of our future.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ximena González is a Calgary-based freelance journalist based whose work appears regularly in The Globe and Mail and The Sprawl. She is also a trained architect and holds a master’s degree in environmental design.

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