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OPINION: Maybe the 1,000 things downtown Calgary needs are small businesses

While most of us have been focused on the impact of COVID-19 on our everyday lives, there has also been lots of attention being paid to how we can breathe life into downtown Calgary.

It continues to struggle with not only the impact of COVID-19, but also the decline in its role as a hub for oil and gas. 

New York’s Gehl Studio shared their ideas on how to improve Stephen Avenue as downtown’s iconic main street. Ken Bautista of Makespace Group has been engaged to create some pop-up projects that will hopefully entice people to stay downtown and attract others to come.

Perhaps the strangest downtown animation study happened the first week of October, when University of Calgary professor Dr. Fabian Neuhaus organized a week-long student review of the downtown. 

The goal was to generate 1,000+ ideas (Yes 1,000!) on how to make downtown more vibrant after participating in various workshops lead by urban professionals. I was surprised to learn that they didn’t actually spend time exploring the downtown to see for themselves what’s happening.   The goal of this project was to kickstart discussion, motivate others to share their ideas, and perhaps even implement a few.

While some of the ideas were interesting, most were naïve, already happening or versions of the same idea.  A few ideas did capture my attention:

  • Free WIFI throughout downtown
  • Animation of +15 system and making it a tourist attraction
  • Barclay Mall enhancement as a pedestrian greenway linking Stephen Avenue to the Bow River
  • Downtown Tours were mentioned many times – heritage, public art, architecture
  • First Nations Plaza

Vision and Road Map

On Oct. 20, Gehl Studio and Stantec delivered their “The Future of Stephen Avenue: Vision and Road Map” presentation online.  The vision looked at 8 Avenue SW from Olympic Plaza to Mewata Armouries.  They divided it into three character areas: The Commons (east end) The Core (middle blocks) and The Village (West End). 

Some of the ideas included:

  • Creating a pedestrian walkway through the Municipal Building to link Stephen Avenue with the Central Library
  • Avoiding blank walls and papered-up windows
  • Increasing connectivity to other places in the downtown and City Centre
  • Attracting the right kind of investment to Stephen Avenue that will transform it into a complete neighbourhood that offers the right amenities to live, work and play
  • Converting surface parking lots into residential development
  • Pedestrian traffic only year-round from Macleod Trail to 4 Street SW
  • More programming

Unfortunately, none of their observations or ideas were new or innovative.

Programming Ideas

Bautista, in partnership with several local groups, is hoping to launch five temporary projects that will animate about 100,000 square feet in and around Stephen Avenue Walk in the new year.

These include:

  • Downtown Food Network
  • Lobbies as Living Rooms
  • Artist Residencies 
  • Building Façade Enhancements,
  • Meet-Up spaces

Look for something temporary to happen in the Clarence Block that has been empty for several years since SportChek moved out.  

You can find out more at: onemillionfeet.com/calgary

Other initiatives

In addition to the aforementioned items, the City of Calgary is undertaking the Tomorrow’s Chinatown study. It includes a Cultural Plan and a New Local Area Plan designed to foster a “vibrant, culturally-rich place to live, visit, work and do business for generations to come.”

And over in Eau Claire, the City is working on a Public Realm Plan which includes a redesign of Eau Claire Plaza, Jaipur Bridge replacement and West Eau Claire Pop-up Vendor Plaza.

Also plans for major redevelopment of Arts Commons and the Glenbow Museum, downtown’s two signature cultural centers, progressed to the design stage in 2020.

Need a positive perspective

While everyone seems concerned about our downtown’s future the reality is it is perhaps more healthy (resilient) than people give it credit. 

Let’s stop focusing on the 25 per cent office vacancy rate, and focus on the fact our downtown has 30 million square feet of occupied office space. That’s more than any downtown our size in North America and many cities that are much larger – like Vancouver. 

Let’s also focus on the many new residential developments happening in and around the downtown core – Telus Sky, West Village Towers, UPTEN, Park Central, SODO and Curtis Block towers.

Yes, downtown Calgary is struggling because of COVID. So are most downtowns around the world, including London, New York City and Montreal.

Last Word

Many have been looking for the big, transformative idea that will magically make our downtown thrive.

Perhaps it will be 1,000+ little ideas that will make our downtown buzz again. 

It’s long been said that Calgary’s downtown needs people. That’s hopefully coming with the opening of the new towers.

But, maybe we should stop looking for the next big corporation to move its headquarters to Calgary.

Instead, why not look at making it a viable spot for 1,000+ small enterprises to repopulate our downtown?   

Perhaps we must stop thinking big and think smaller!