Centre City gets makeover
Ben Barrington made a mega career change in 2010. He left his position as senior architect with BKDI Architects to be the program manager of Centre City Implementation for the City of Calgary.
Centre City describes a large swath of Calgary’s core, ranging from 14th Street S.W. on the west to the Elbow River on the east; and from the Bow River on the north to 17th Avenue on the south.
Upgrading the livability of this huge area — which includes Beltline, Chinatown, Downtown, East Village, West End and Stampede Park — is being supervised by Barrington and his team.
His mandate covers everything from creating a more bicyclefriendly downtown to adding more public art.
As part of the city’s land use planning and policy department, the role of Centre City Implementation is to “facilitate project development and delivery when needed,” says Barrington. “Our level of involvement varies greatly between projects — from very little as a stakeholder to being the managers of the project.”
The communities his team covers were founded more than a century ago, making them some of the oldest in the city. They are also the most heavily used neighbourhoods in Calgary, with about 200,000 people living, working and playing in Centre City each weekday.
It is not surprising the area’s public realm — its sidewalks, parks and plazas — is looking tired and dated. The demands of 21st-century urban living and employment are quite different than they were in the early 20th century, when much of the infrastructure was built.
For example, the need to integrate trains, buses, cars, bikes and pedestrians is different today than it was even 20 years ago, not to mention the demand for street patios, public art and pocket parks.
Cars are bigger and cycling is back — and have you seen the size of baby strollers? They’re like mini SUVs, demanding more space on downtown sidewalks.
It is no wonder Calgary’s century-plus Centre City is in need of a major makeover.
Being in charge of this is a big responsibility, but after Barrington took over in 2010, he found a further complication.
While municipal officials had approved a Centre City plan, with more than 400 action items, the budget for implementing them was fragmented among the city’s various business units and city-held development funds.
But that didn’t deter Barrington. Instead, he and his team have quietly and diligently been working at strengthening and creating relationships to make things happen — both internally, with the various city business units, and externally, with building owners, landowners and business revitalization zones.
During the past three years, Barrington analyzed the action items, looking for synergies between them and projects municipal officials or the private sector were planning in the Centre City area.
Priorities were then established based on where Calgarians are currently walking, cycling and playing, looking at ideas on how those activities could be expanded and enhanced with other programs.
In terms of the creation of pedestrian-friendly corridors, 8th and 1st streets S.W, as well as Centre Street, were determined to be the highest priorities. These roads currently have the most pedestrian traffic and potential for connectivity to key destinations.
The Centre City team also identified several different funds within existing municipal budgets and bank accounts that might be used as seed money for various projects in each of the Centre City communities.
While Barrington was not at liberty to tell me the number, he told me his goal was to leverage dollars in partnership with other city departments and the private sector, thus maximizing the return on investment for everyone.
this all mean?
Today, the Centre City team has more than 25 projects at various stages of implementation, all designed to make the public realm downtown more attractive for residents, workers and tourists.
For example, it aims to create sidewalks with adequate lighting and no trees, bus shelters or poles in the middle of them, ensuring people feel safe at all times.
It means placing public benches to invite people to sit and linger, as well as installing more banners, planters and flower baskets to add colour to the streetscape.
Look, too, for more patios to animate the streets in the summer — and, yes, it also means a more bicycle-friendly downtown with dedicated bike lanes.
Public art and new pocket parks will also add a sense of pedestrian-friendliness.
The Centre City team is also working with various city business units and utility companies to create a “dig once” culture.
This will hopefully mean no more digging up streets and sidewalks for stormsewers one year, say, and for gas or electrical lines the next.
Some of the public realm makeovers are already happening — and not all are directly linked to the Centre City Implementation Team.
For example, the Victoria Crossing Business Revitalization Zone spearheaded the initiative to revamp Central Memorial Park, which received new fountains, pathways and the wonderful Boxwood Cafe, making it a more attractive place to visit and linger.
The independent, nonprofit association represents more than 300 merchants and businesses.
The renovation of LRT stations along 7th Avenue was precipitated by the need to allow for longer four-car trains as part of Calgary Transit’s long-range plans to increase capacity.
The stations have been totally revamped to create contemporary, airy stations that are integrated with new wide, sloping sidewalks — no stairs to an ugly concrete platform — to allow easy accessibility for everyone.
Public art has also been integrated into many of the stations to enhance the urban experience.
The need to create an eastwest route through the Beltline that was more friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists led — through the city’s land use planning and policy department — to the 13th Avenue Greenway.
It aims to direct such users away from the heavy vehicle traffic along 11th and 12th Avenues, as well as connecting some of Calgary’s best historic sites, such as Central Memorial Park and the Lougheed House and gardens.
A dedicated bike lane has also been created along 7th Street S.W. to allow for easier cycling into the core from the Bow River pathway. Through the city’s transportation planning department, bike lanes have also been painted on routes such as 10th Avenue S.W. to allow for better sharing of the roadway.
Meanwhile, illumination of the Centre Street Bridge has been totally upgraded to LED lighting, not only accentuating the classic architecture of Calgary’s second-oldest bridge, but also making it more energy efficient.
This was conducted through the city’s land use planning and policy department, with the City Centre team being the managers.
The team also completed the new downtown way-finding system in 2012. It involved creating a common look, language and logic to signs that highlight key attractions in the Centre City area.
There are now 135 sidewalk
Upgraded LED lighting for the Centre Street Bridge was managed by the Centre City team. way-finding signs in key locations throughout the area, making it easier for people to navigate the maze of streets, towers, underpasses and Plus15 bridges.
Using photos from the Glenbow Museum and original artwork, an ongoing program is also in place through the city’s land use planning and policy department to transform ugly utility signal boxes into community history billboards.
Through the city’s parks and recreation department, a brand-new park is under construction along Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th avenues S.E. Enoch Park will replace an existing parking lot over the LRT tunnel.
Yes, in Calgary, we are tearing up parking lots and building urban paradises.
Hopefully, plans to move the adjacent Enoch House and convert it into a restaurant will come to fruition. The Queen Annestyle house is one of the few remaining original homes in Victoria Park.
The Carl Safran Park — which is on the west side of the historic school of the same name — is nearing completion as an initiative of the city’s parks and recreation department.
There will soon be a place for those living on the Beltline’s west side to kick a ball, throw a Frisbee or catch some rays.
One of the biggest eyesores and barriers for better connecting the Beltline with the rest of the Centre City area are the ugly railway underpasses that pedestrians have to negotiate.
The completion of the new 4th Street S.E. railway underpass linking East Village and Stampede demonstrated what an underpass can and should look like.
The $70-million project included wide, pedestrianfriendly sidewalks, dedicated bicycle lanes and LED lighting in its walls and handrails, making the space brighter and more inviting.
Upgrading the 1st Street S.W. railway underpass near the Fairmont Palliser Hotel was originally slated for last year, but because of the flood, it will be a 2014 project.
The Marc Boutin Architectural Co-operative — the same group that did the Poppy Plaza war memorial along Memorial Drive — has designed an uber-cool, cocktail loungelike pedestrian experience for the underpass.
This is part of a long-range plan to create an enhanced pedestrian corridor all the way from 17th Avenue’s Rouleauville Square at St. Mary’s Cathedral to the Bow River and Prince’s Island.
The proposed corridor has some of Calgary’s best historic buildings.
A plan for upgrading the 8th Street S.W. underpass and sidewalks is also close to being finalized, with improvements expected to start in 2014. The design has been led by Rene Daoust — who designed the public space in the Place des Arts in Montreal — with assistance from D.A. Watt Consulting Group Ltd and Marshall Tittemore Architects.
Discussions are also taking place on how to better integrate pedestrian traffic along 8th Avenue with Century Gardens — a park developed in 1975 to commemorate the city’s centennial — and a nearby new LRT station.
C MFor many more photos, and other Richard White columns, visit our website under the heading: ‘More News and Views.’
The smallest project the Centre City Implementation Team has supported to date was to provide funding to Central United Church to install lighting in its alley as a preventive safety measure for its congregation.
Indeed, small projects are just as important as mega ones.
As for the quirkiest project, Barrington thought it would be the “20-minute makeover,” where various corporate teams volunteered 20 minutes to clean up the area around their buildings.
More than 3,800 people at 260-plus locations collected tons of garbage.
“It was amazing how many cigarette butts there are on the sidewalks,” says Barrington.
The city has a comprehensive clean and safe program for the Centre City that aims to be proactive in dealing with issues before they become a problem — and responding quickly once they are identified.
Barrington says all of the improvements — both current and future — are about connecting the different activity nodes in the Centre City, with attractive pedestrian corridors.
The vision is to create a delightful, 24 /7 pedestrian experience for people who work, live and visit downtown Calgary.
HAS WRITTEN ON ART, ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN CULTURE FOR MORE THAN YEARS. IS CURRENTLY THE URBAN STRATEGIST
Better signs are part of the new way-finding system.