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Calgary’s downtown strategy gets approval at city committee

Calgary’s downtown “reinvention” plan got a ringing endorsement by a city committee and now heads for fine tuning and potential funding.

The Greater Downtown Plan was delivered to the city’s planning and urban development (PUD) committee Wednesday and described as a transformation of the city’s downtown.

“This plan lays out a vision for a new downtown that builds on our strengths while pointing us in a new direction that will make our downtown a place that can thrive in the new economy,” said Thom Mahler manager of urban initiatives with the City of Calgary.

Mahler outlined some of the challenges the downtown is facing, with a now-record 32 per cent vacancy rate and plummeting property values. He also highlighted the work-from-home trend that’s taken hold during the COVID-19 pandemic and less commuting downtown.

“This gives us a great opportunity to use our streets and sidewalks in different ways that cater more to residential and tourist needs,” he said.

He said early models suggest business travel will never return to pre-pandemic levels. Tourism traffic is expected to come back strong. That’s one of the catalysts for creating a better sense of place in the downtown area.

“We have a harsh public environment focused more on moving traffic and attracting visitors and businesses. This downtown does not work trust anymore, is not economically viable,” Mahler said.

“It needs a new purpose and needs to be reinvented in order to compete in the new economy and the post pandemic world.”

The right plan, with some tweaks?

Most of the speakers appreciated the vision of the Greater Downtown Plan. It activated public spaces, created a different vibe suited for tourists and residents, it opened up green spaces and calmed traffic in the downtown area.

While the big picture thinking was admired, Dr. Farnaz Sadeghpour, president of the Downtown West Community Association said the action items they wanted differed from those proposed by the city.

She questioned how they were incorporating resident feedback into the plan. Sadeghpour pointed to the list of strategic investments for her area. She asked why they didn’t get feedback into those items.

“I would like to say they are not exactly aligned with the priorities of our community,” she told council during the public hearing.

She pointed to Shaw Millenium Park being one of the projects, but not BowForth Park – a park “lent” to the community to use, but its acquisition and development not included in the plan.

The city did, however, use a photo of BowForth in their plan.

Sadeghpour also pointed to the lack of basic infrastructure like sidewalks in the area. Residents have moved away and areas are inaccessible because of sidewalk quality.

“If you’re serious about bringing vibrancy to the city and to the community and to the people who live downtown, I feel we have to listen to what people are actually using,” she said.

Coun. Evan Woolley agreed the improvements should be made, but said those should be done outside of the Greater Downtown Plan.

“Sidewalks shouldn’t be in the plan. That should just get done,” Woolley said.

Chinatown cultural contribution

Terry Wong, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement Area (BIA) appreciated the collaboration the city had among stakeholders during the process.

He spoke Wednesday about ensuring the cultural makeup of Calgary’s Chinatown was preserved.

“While we are destined to have more residential commercial development it is the cultural development that is more important to Chinatown,” he said.

“This includes the addition of public art, murals, displays of Asian architecture, streetscape and more.”

Wong also said the area is committed to multi-modal transportation. However, people also want to come to Chinatown from other parts of Calgary.

“Having said that, cars and parking is still a vital mode of transportation for Chinatown. And we look forward to working with the city and ensuring that the Green Line, the BRT, and all modes of transportation work effectively for all Calgarians,” he said.

Committee support for the downtown strategy

Most of the participating councillors supported the strategy.

Coun. Druh Farrell, who spearheaded work on the plan and said it’s difficult to change that mindset of a quick entrance and exit from the downtown.

“This represents a shift. It’s a remarkable shift for our city. It’s not a recovery, it’s a reinvention,” Farrell said.

“We recognize that we need to build a public realm for a neighbourhood. The public are ready and waiting for this.”

Coun. Woolley said for the past 10 years the city has reacted to much of what’s gone on in the world. This downtown plan signals a different approach.

“What we have before us now is something that’s proactive. And I think it is the plan that’s going to take us into the next 10 years,” he said.

The committee unanimously approved the document. A smoothed version with potential amendments will head to the April 26 strategic meeting of council. A significant funding component is expected to be debated at that time.