Unlocking the Gateways to Calgary’s Downtown - A Think Piece on Potential Developments at the Entrances to the Centre City

Posted on
July 10, 2019

As you approach Calgary from any direction, you’ll see the skyscrapers of the downtown core first. They rise out of the prairie like the Emerald City in Wizard of Oz. You can see them from an hour’s drive away in any direction.

But from within the city, the downtown core struggles to draw traffic. It’s a common problem for mid-size cities with heavily corporatized downtowns. The office workers stream in and out for their commute and leave the downtown quiet and empty. Planned for businesses first, it only really gets used during business hours.

The solution is a diverse offering in addition to various housing models, businesses, services, public buildings and cultural/entertainment venues to support round-the-clock traffic from a variety of demographics.

Where would we build these new destinations? In this article, we focus on the entrances to downtown.

What kind of vista greets a visitor to downtown Calgary?

Spoiler alert: it’s not great. Great new structures do exist, such as the new Central Library, the National Music Museum, The Bow, the TELUS Sky and the new Brookfield Place, but they’re all hidden deep within the core. None of them are there to usher you into the Centre City.

Entering the downtown core, you would expect to see the best of the city: modern buildings, beautiful cultural venues, a showcase of the city’s architectural crown jewels. If you’re not tempted to pull out your phone and snap a photo, the view isn’t impressive enough.

Entrances to Downtown: A Review

Reconciliation Bridge and the 4th Street Overpass

This triple fronted Bookers site is well matured and ready to be the redeveloped as our main gateway entry.

Coming in from the east (and, in most cases, from the south, and from the north if you are on the QE2 and then take Memorial Drive), that Emerald City silhouette breaks down the closer you get. By the time you arrive downtown, crossing the Bow river on either the Reconciliation Bridge or the 4th Street overpass, you’re greeted by the Calgary Drop-In Centre. A heavy and imposing structure on the left, and the very low-profile Booker’s BBQ on the right; an underwhelming and fragmented vista.

Centre Street Bridge

The "small grain" and fragmentation of the north main downtown entry is nothing but annoying.

If you enter via the Centre Street Bridge (coming from the Trans Canada Highway), the city’s silhouette appears a little more coherent. The Calgary Tower, acting at the view terminus, and the Bow, a Norman Foster modern glass high-rise, draw your eye upwards. A cluster of low-rise buildings at the entrance to Chinatown pull the view together. However, you still have to get through vacant sites that have been converted to parking lots, a less-than-impressive welcome considering the grand promise of the Centre Street Bridge structure.

Macleod Trail

This is so valuable as a gateway for the entire city.

Entering through Macleod Trail from the south, you encounter a large vacant lot (currently a parking lot) that used to belong to the old Elbow River Casino. A new three-tower residential development was just announced last week. Its massive silhouette would block the city panorama and overpower its immediate surroundings, including the river’s edge. Further to the north, you pass the old Fire Station No. 2, an excellent heritage site still used by Calgary Emergency Services. There’s potential here, but still plenty of room for improvement.

Louise Bridge (aka Kensington Bridge or Hillhurst Bridge)

This is maybe the most urban and intimate site in downtown. Beautiful located it also promises that it could have a "built-in" C-Train station.

Louise Bridge offers perhaps the friendliest entrance to downtown, with beautiful white concrete work and a series of evocative war memorials. In good weather, you will see pedestrians walking along the bridge and shoreline, as well as surfing the standing wave in the Bow River.

The West Village

Too bad the City made the deal with the Flames a no-go. This location deserves something very special.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

West Village area has been recently promoted to be the house of CalgaryNEXT, but the overall project appears to be shelved for now. It has been forced by the City to return to the Stampede Grounds for the time being. This spot presents the perfect opportunity to add a cultural (or sporting) venue into the future downtown once the East Village redevelopment is proposed for these areas.

Sight Potential, Potential Sites

World-class cities choose spectacular sites for their cultural venues – sites that create a visually stunning view in addition to providing exceptional values. Think Sydney Opera House.

In my opinion, Calgary still has some perfectly situated lots just waiting to be developed. The best are:

Ex-River Casino lot as seen over the Elbow River Macleod Trail Bridge.

The ex-casino lot on the intersection of Macleod Trail and Elbow River – now spoken for, but likely to remain underused to its true potential.

Bookers site as seen from the Reconciliation Bridge (4th Avenue flyover in the foreground).

The site at the entry to downtown from the Memorial Drive and 4th Avenue flyover. Currently occupied by Bookers BBQ Grill and Crab Shack.

This site is a real urban "gem".

The ParkPlus Lot 6 site located along the 4th Avenue SW and the Bow River Walk, near the 10 St NW Louise Bridge (maybe the best "empty" downtown site in the entire city).

The city is promoting building an opera building in the anticipated Entertainment District in Victoria Park, near the new Flames arena and the Stampede Grounds. Certainly, there is the space but why bury such a significant, one-of-a-kind building in a fairground? Does an opera house really belong next door to an arena with its screaming fans?‍

Once developed, these high-potential lots will be gone for good. As long as they are available it would be wise to use them to their best advantage: as gateways and cultural introduction to our city. These spots are like empty settings in the necklace of downtown. Let’s make sure we set them with diamonds, not rhinestones.

Photo credits: Tomasz Sztuk, Google Maps, Google Earth Pro

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