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Calgary Green Line LRT: Why underground matters in the downtown

Stakeholders in Calgary’s downtown say the Green Line LRT needs to be built underground right to the north edge of the core – even if the increased costs means eliminating parts of the project for the interim.

Continued setbacks could also put a project already razor-thin on the proposed timeline in jeopardy of getting further behind.

In an upcoming workshop Jan. 28, Calgary city councillors and administration, with the input of stakeholders, will determine the latest alignment of Calgary’s Green Line. This iteration and technical plan for the nearly $5 billion project would likely still need public consultation before getting the final go-ahead.

ONE YEAR AGO: Calgary Transit Green Line construction already well underway

One of the most debated aspects is how to handle the downtown portion, including the connection across the Bow River and onto Centre Street.

Accessibility, aesthetics among the concerns if track surfaces too early

The primary concern for Richard Morden, Senior VP for office properties west for QuadReal Properties, and chair-elect for the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Calgary, is where the line surfaces in the downtown.

Should the line surface at the proposed spot just north of 4 Avenue SW along the current 2 Street alignment into the downtown, Morden said it sets off a chain reaction of impacts to the neighbouring areas.

“Basic concerns have to do with reduced accessibility for the existing projects in the area,” he said.  There are several parking garage accesses for downtown buildings that are along 2Street SW.

“It’s a bad visual for a project.

Richard Morden, Senior VP for office properties west, QuadReal Properties

Morden also said that should the line surface too early (or if more of it is laid at grade along 2 Street SW) facilities for loading at many of the buildings would also be compromised. In addition, 2 Street likely wouldn’t accommodate the current two-way street with a transit line.

Where the transit line surfaces, it creates an accessibility impediment with concrete abutments on both sides of the tracks, Morden said. Add in fencing or an elevated line to keep people off the tracks, and all-in-all, the area’s connectivity and appeal drops, Morden said. Some residential projects will have their lobbies facing a potential concrete, chain-link-fence view.

“It’s a bad visual for a project,” Morden said.

Lastly, a transit line that reaches the surface at 4 Avenue SW effectively splits Eau Claire and Chinatown. Morden said there’s two large developments underway there.

“I would point you to the Seventh Avenue transitway, which you know, which is frankly a real-life test case for the impact of these things,” he said.

“Life does not get better for retailers or restaurants along any of those affected strips.”

These factors influence downtown property values, which the city has spent considerable time protecting. Further, it impacts the public’s desire to live in these areas at a time when they’re trying to bolster the number of residents in the downtown, Morden said.  

The portion of the line needs to be done right, said Richard Morden, Senior VP office properties west with QuadReal Properties.

‘Tricky’ part of the line: Transportation GM Michael Thompson

City of Calgary Transportation GM Michael Thompson said city engineers are acutely aware of the complex challenge of the surfacing location and the connection with the north stretch of the Green Line.

It’s a balancing act between what it looks like, the costs, the impacts to adjacent property owners and the corresponding mobility issues for all modes of travel.

RELATED: Green Line transit cost projections showed cost overruns: GM Thompson

“That’s really the tricky area right there,” Thompson said.

The concerns brought forward by downtown stakeholders are on their radar as they’re challenges the city’s own planning team identified.  

Thompson said it’s an issue of geometry – both horizontally and vertically – to make the appropriate transition into the downtown, taking into consideration where they may possibly want to go underground, the incline before getting to a bridge across the Bow and passage through Prince’s Island Park.

When we talked with Thompson, he said they had no firm solution at that time. It’s a focus of their work before the Jan. 28 workshop.

They’ve also got their eyes on both sides of the ledger, Thompson said, understanding the property value impacts some of these decisions might have. Choices made that affect the desirability of a residential project, or the viability of a retail or other commercial location also impact the value.

“(The Green Line) not only impacts the land and development, it also impacts the revenue, which is taxes coming into the city,” Thompson said.

“And so, we have to look at both sides of the ledger; what the costs are going out to what the revenue is coming in.”

Solution: Full underground route through the downtown

Both Morden and Chris Ollenberger, Managing Principal of Quantum Place Developments Ltd, past president and current board member with commercial real estate advocacy organization NAIOP, said the first task is nailing down the entire downtown portion of the Green Line underground.

Ollenberger also called it a 3D geometry puzzle, considering where the rail needs to surface, how it travels through Prince’s Island Park and the connection to a bridge across the Bow River.

One challenge is keeping Prince’s Island’s connectivity on either side of the line. Raising the line too early so users could pass under would presumably impact either the grade to that elevated line crossing the river, or would require the LRT to surface earlier along 2 Street SW.  If it stays at the surface level through Prince’s Island, it affects connectivity in the park.

“I think minimizing the surface level impacts downtown should be a highly important consideration for any new alignments,” Ollenberger said.

Morden’s suggestion, reinforced by Ollenberger, was to surface in the downtown after 2 Avenue SW, and cross the Bow River and enter an underground portal in the side of the hill as it gets to the Centre Street alignment. This would keep the incline at a minimum and it could surface and be at grade after 16 Avenue NW.

“And maybe, come through about halfway through the (Prince’s Island Park) and basically go on the ground halfway through the park so you can keep connectivity east and west,” Morden said, noting the underground portion could be rehabilitated back to park space once work was done.  

Connection aside…

The 7 Avenue surface LRT line poses issues for the viability of adjacent properties, said Chris Ollenberger. (LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO).

The surface level LRT along 7 Avenue in the downtown is evidence enough to show that the Green Line should be underground, Ollenberger said.

“It has a pretty dramatic impact on the viability of some of the properties that are there on Seventh Avenue. And if you walk up and down that corridor, you can see a number of properties have really kind of stagnated,” Ollenberger said.

If not for this and the reasons Morden mentioned earlier, it should be underground because the length of the city blocks running north and south is shorter than they are east / west. That presents a problem with the length of trains stopping at stations, Ollenberger said.

“If you picture a typical LRT train, and the new ones will probably be similar in length, very easily, they could block intersections every time they pulled to a stop,” he said.

“And not just for cars, and but they could also interfere with transit routes and pedestrian routes, bike routes and all that kind of good stuff.”

Vision for the Green Line

Morden said most downtown building owners support the idea of realizing an effective downtown Green Line. It brings in potential customers, transports residential traffic and improves overall connectivity.

“It’s a great piece of infrastructure if it’s done right,” he said.

He believes the city ended up in at this point because the Green Line team was asked to get the full scope of the project from 16 Avenue in the north down to 126 Avenue in the southeast within the $4.9 billion budget.

“They came back with a plan that tries to do that,” Morden said.

He doesn’t know the specific costs to tunnel the line through the entire downtown core, but that’s what needs to happen. Even if it means cutting stations from either the north or south portions of Phase 1 and putting them off to a later date.  

“If it costs more, you rephase your project, and you negotiate with the government for the flexibility to do that,” he said.

“But you do no harm downtown. If you’re not prepared to build downtown correctly, then you don’t build.”

When asked about this prospect, Thompson said they want to make sure they’re making the right investments “not just in the downtown, not just in the south, but across the entire line.”

“We’re very focused on what options and trade-offs we can make as we’re going through,” Thompson said.

“At the same time, we need to be cost-effective. And we need to ensure that we’re driving to a budget and that we’re meeting a budget and we’re being responsible with the investment that we’re making.”

Green Line LRT timeline in jeopardy

Both Morden and Ollenberger expressed that it’s important to get it right. They understand the challenges the city is up against both economically and technically. Both expect a plan to emerge from the Jan. 28 workshop.

The City’s Green Line timeline shows Segment 1 construction beginning in Jan. 2021.

They also expect it will go through public consultation once again.

Thompson said it means they’re behind schedule. According to the city’s Green Line timeline, they wanted to begin construction on segment one (4 Street SE to Shepard) of phase one in January 2021.

“This is taking longer than we wanted,” Thompson said.

“We’re looking at the schedule right now to understand what the impacts are, we’re still pushing forward to be done in the same time frame that we were, but obviously, we’re behind where we want to be. And so, it’s looking at how we can speed some pieces up and get caught up.”