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Opinion: Stephen Avenue Walk needs more than a makeover

This piece by Richard White, on the revitalization of Stephen Avenue, is funded through our Patreon campaign. We pay all our writers. For $5 or $10 per month, you can help us deliver more community-focused content. Please consider making a pledge today!

While everyone seems to be excited that Stephen Avenue is going to get a makeover by international renowned urban designers – I am less so.

I can tell you 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, but don’t expect a new design to solve all of its problems. 

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. 

New Stephen Avenue needs more for people to do

What SAW needs most is a better 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. high-priced, expense account restaurants. 

Many of the restaurants don’t even open during the day on the weekend. Some of the restaurants are so exclusive they have windows so dark they look closed even when open.  More recently, chain restaurants like Earls, Milestones and Cactus Club have unfortunately become SAW’s anchor restaurants – all available elsewhere so there’s 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.

Gone are retailers like Soundsaround, McNally Robinson, Arnold Churgin, 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. 

You can easily walk by Bankers Hall and The Core entrances on SAW and not know there are 150-plus retailers inside.  I’ve had many a tourist ask me, “Where are all the shops?” when they were standing next to Bankers Hall and then TD Square. 

Even the Bay has leased out its SAW street frontage to an upscale restaurant, so you don’t know there’s 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 Holt’s 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 is true at Christmas. 

Unique experiences needed along SAW

SAW’s current mix of restaurateurs, 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’re successful.

Artist rendering of the north east corner of Stephen Avenue Walk and 2nd Street (CNW Group/Slate Asset Management LP)

What Stephen Avenue needs is for the City to relax their signage rules to allow more neon signs, more advertising billboards, just to add some colour and animation to the streetscape.

What SAW needs is to have the happiest happy hours in North America. It needs a great live music scene and some mega new anchors that are unique to Calgary. Stephen Avenue needs to have its own signature event. What about a huge summer sidewalk sale? 

What SAW needs most is more residential and hotel development nearby. Telus Sky and the Baron Building conversion will add a few hundred more people. What’s needed is thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people living along or near Stephen Avenue.

What would be best for Stephen Avenue is if all of the surface parking lots along 9 Avenue were transformed into residential towers.

I’m sure some will want to ban vehicle traffic on SAW 24/7. I think that would be a huge mistake.  Pedestrian malls were tried in the 1970s and 1980s across North America and failed.

Multi-modal passage in the downtown

Today’s great streets are most often multi-modal: cars, transit, pedestrians and cyclists all sharing the space. Both Denver’s 16 Street Mall and Minneapolis’ Nicolet Mall incorporate both pedestrians and transit.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes city planners and designer made was segregating transit to 7 Avenue, pedestrians to 8 Avenue and cars to 6 and 9 Avenues.

Looks at some of historic photos of Stephen Avenue and you’ll see a street bustling with street cars, horse and buggies, vehicles and lots of pedestrian traffic. 

I’m thinking the new design should allow vehicle traffic 24/7 from November to March, when the patios are gone and there’s 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. And, while some like to blame the +15 system for the lack of street vitality, it too lacks vitality evening and weekends.

Stephen Avenue: The Last Word

Great pedestrian streets are messy and cluttered, filled with small unique shops, restaurants, cafes, lounges and pubs. They have 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. They don’t have high-rise buildings that result in streets that get no sun for six months of  the year.  

The reality is SAW thrives when corporate Calgary thrives and right now corporate Calgary is barely surviving.