Downtown cores: Denver vs. Calgary
A recent visit to Denver reminded me of how similar, yet different, its downtown is to Calgary’s.
Downtown Denver is divided into 10 districts encompassing an area of about eight square kilometres. This would be the equivalent in Calgary of the downtown, Downtown West, the East Village, Beltline, Sunalta, Hillhurst, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Inglewood.
While Calgary’s central business district has twice as much office space and significantly better shopping (Denver has nothing to match our Hudson’s Bay, The Core or Holt Renfrew), Denver offers more museums, a baseball park and a huge convention centre. Both cities have two waterways lined with parks, pathways and condos — Denver has the South Platte River and Cherry Creek while Calgary has the Bow and Elbow rivers. While downtown Denver focuses on professional sports facilities, Calgary’s downtown forte is its recreational centres. Denver boasts its Elitch Gardens (a summer midway fairground and botanical garden) while Calgary has Stampede Park and the Zoo. Denver’s spanking new Union Station is the hub for an extensive regional transit system while Calgary’s 7th Avenue serves as its transit hub.
From a public space perspective, Denver has 69 hectares of parks (Civic Centre Park, Confluence Park, Commons Park and Centennial Gardens), but Calgary can go toe-to-toe with its 68 hectares, including Olympic Plaza, Prince’s Island, Memorial Park, Shaw Millennium Park, Fort Calgary Park, Eau Claire River Promenade and East Village River Walk.
From a contemporary architectural design perspective, Denver’s modern gems are the Denver Art Museum (architect, Daniel Libeskind) and Public Library (architect Michael Graves). Calgary easily matches that with The Bow (architect, Norman Foster), the Peace Bridge (architect, Santiago Calatrava) and Eighth Avenue Place (architect Pickard Chilton) and Hotel Le Germain (architect, LEMAYMICHAUD).
From an urban design perspective, both cities’ downtowns are dominated by pedestrian malls, which serve as their urban backbone, linking their respective neighbourhoods, attractions and amenities. The creation of downtown pedestrian malls was all the rage in the 1970s and ’80s. However, most have not succeeded in revitalizing their downtown as a shopping and dining destination, especially in large cities. Most of the North American pedestrian malls have been abandoned while others have added some car or transit traffic.
Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk and Denver’s 16th Street Mall are two of the more successful, large city pedestrian malls in North America. Denver’s 16th Street Mall is 16 blocks long, running from its Civic Center district through its Central Business District (CBE), LOGO and terminating at Union Station and the South Platte River. Technically, the 16th Street Mall is no longer a ‘pedestrian mall,’ as it now has a free shuttle bus (the equivalent to Calgary’s free fare LRT zone) that runs back and forth every five minutes, relegating pedestrians to sidewalks. While the 16th Street Mall links several districts, most of the major attractions are several blocks off the mall, including the Library, Art Museum, Convention Center, Performing Arts Center, Children’s Museum and Aquarium.
While Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk (also not a true pedestrian mall because it has traffic on it at night) is only six blocks long, however it connects pedestrians to the front door of an amazing number of its downtown activities and attractions such as City Hall, Olympic Plaza, Performing Arts Centre, Glenbow Museum, Convention Centre, historic district, Devonian Gardens and the Financial and Fashion districts.
After visiting the 16th Street Mall, I think it might it be time to consider extending Stephen Avenue to 11th Street SW, making it 12 blocks long. In doing so, it would provide a pedestrian-friendly link from the thousands of new condos planned for downtown’s West End, as well as to Shaw Millennium Park and the potential new contemporary public art gallery (at the old Science Centre) to the downtown and the downtown’s burgeoning East End. An expanded and redesigned Stephen Avenue could also accommodate cycling. The days of restricting urban streets to just one mode of transportation are gone. Good urban design evolves with changes in urban living. Today, the focus for creating vibrant urban places is on creating good pedestrian, transit, cycling and vehicular access.
Denver has made significant residential development gains during the past 15 years, especially along the South Platte River and in LOGO. Currently, 66,000 residents live in their 10 downtown districts, with another 7,000 condo units under construction or planned. A similar comparison of the 10 communities surrounding Calgary’s downtown adds up to 65,000 residents. Recently, Altus Group (Calgary Herald, May 15, 2014) estimated there are 12,447 residential units proposed, in pre-construction and construction stages in our City Centre, and this doesn’t include those communities north of the Bow River or east of the Elbow.
Most of Denver’s new condo developments are mid-rise (10 to 15 storeys) compared to Calgary’s multiple 20-plus storey condos. Denver’s LODO (lower downtown) district is the equivalent of Calgary’s Beltline. Both are vibrant hipster and yuppie hangouts with diverse restaurants, pubs and clubs next to their respective central business districts. Twenty years ago, LODO was just a vision — today it is a lively urban village. This augurs well for Calgary’s East Village.
Impressive public art outside a municipal building in Denver.
The Denver Art museum is a modern architectural gem.
The 16th Street Mall in Denver is 16 blocks long.
The LODO district in Denver is the equivalent of Calgary’s Beltline.
Like Calgary, Denver has 2 waterways lined with parks and condos.