Downtown underpass gets infrastructure upgrades, art homage to Calgary’s ancient past

Multi-million dollar renovation adds permanent bike lanes, wider sidewalks, better lighting, art, and more

Canadian artist Jill Anholt poses next to her designs for the 5 Street and 9 Avenue SW underpass, that was reopened with upgraded bike, road, and water pump infrastructure on Thursday, June 23, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Upgrades to the 5 Street SW underpass were unveiled to the public Thursday, marking a complete corridor redesign.

Among the improvements are widened sidewalks for pedestrians, a permanent cycle track, much-improved lighting, upgraded water and flood pumps. Public art by Canadian artist Jill Anholt pulls the corridor together.

The project was budgeted at $7.85 million, which included work on sidewalks along 10 Avenue SW.

“What is powerful about this space here is two things: One is that it’s a beautiful blending of form and function with public art,” said Ward 8 Councillor Courtney Walcott.

“The second is it actually shows Calgary has a commitment to upgrading community experience, and the physical experience the way Calgarians move in and around downtown.”

The underpass is used by roughly 1,200 cyclists and 6,500 pedestrians daily.

Joyce Tang, Main Streets and centre city program manager for the City of Calgary, called the upgrades a careful approach by the city.

“When we’re investing in our public infrastructure here in the City of Calgary, it really is for everyone. We’re not favouring one group over another. We really do want it designed for inclusivity and for resiliency,” she said.

Art reflective of Calgary’s ancient past

Anholt called working on the art for the underpass a fantastic opportunity. The space is one that citizens don’t normally seek out.

“They’re really places we have to go through, not places we want to go through,” she said.

She said that by bringing more colour, light, and texture to the design of the underpass, it created a space that had a greater sense of connection.

“The first spark for this project came from just a simple recognition that Fifth Street is a direct connector between the Bow and the Elbow rivers to waterways that have always defined Calgary,” said Anholt.

“Underpasses in Calgary are this opportunity to delve into the layers of the city, below the groundwork to things we can’t really see but histories and conditions that are incredibly important to this place.”

Among the new features are winding pastel blue elements that will light up at night. They’re designed to reflect the esker formations beneath glaciers in Alberta’s distant past.

The second element is pre-cast concrete wall surfaces. These surfaces are based on formations from when Alberta was an inland sea between 66 million to 100 million years ago. These were made from actual castings of geological formations found at the Rundle Rock Quarry near Canmore.

Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong spoke about the importance of the design elements to Indigenous culture in the city.

“What I see here, especially when you take a look at the walls is tranquility,” he said.

“This river flow is that calm, the tranquility that people need to understand that Calgary is built on diverse First Nations, but Calgary is also built on people who make this place vibrant.”

He said the underpass connects the commercial interests in the north to the residential and retail interests to the south.

Water features not just limited to art

Project manager Colin Chapman said that the underpass upgrades also allowed lifecycle upgrades on adjacent stormwater pumps.

“Part of bringing it up to current city standards is making sure that we’re planning for those heavier rain falls and getting the water out of the underpass to maintain the operational requirements of the roadway and also the sidewalks as well,” he said.

Chapman also said that the modernization increased drainage flow rates, due to the upgraded internal components.

Standardizing the pumps and electrical systems with other work being done throughout the city was another benefit.

“It really helps with maintaining that continuity with the operations team,” he said.

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