Letters, June 26: Your thoughts on revitalizing Calgary’s downtown

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As part of our special week-long series Downtown Turnaround, we asked readers how they would revitalize downtown. What would they change, add or take away? Here is a selection of the replies we received to the newsroom:

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For too many years, we have had city councils that have actively discouraged anyone from going downtown unless they absolutely have to. That approach needs to be reversed. The last time I had a business lunch downtown, parking cost more than the meal. I am a senior and I am not comfortable on downtown streets, or on transit even during daylight hours.
(Calgary never seems to want to deal with its significant parking costs — and so many cite it as a main reason not to go downtown.)

I lived downtown from 1984 to 1994. After moving, I would ride my bike downtown after work to take in what was happening there. Downtown has changed due to drug use of certain groups inhabiting the downtown. Prior to the drug use increase, the worse thing I would see biking was someone passed out along the riverbank or urinating in the open along a path on St. Patrick’s Island. Now, I have been chased on the bike paths on the east side of the downtown by people trying to steal my bike. I believe that converting the Drop-In Centre in East Village to dorms for students attending BVC (Bow Valley College) would be another step toward making downtown a great place again. The Salvation Army Booth Centre already provides services to individuals in need of help a few blocks from the D-I. Also, Alpha House isn’t too far away from downtown either. I believe the D-I is needed — it should just be located on the west side of the city to help spread out clients accessing the D-I’s supports and services.
(Thanks for your input, Kelly.)

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I suggest “designated smoking areas on Stephen Avenue with painted circles on the pavement. If I’m sitting on a bench downtown, why is someone allowed to come out of any restaurant and puff in front of it, allowing the smoke to float over to me? Then, there’s the problem of the lack of benches: I know most were removed before COVID to discourage street people from loitering. And, the stretch of Stephen Avenue in front of Bankers’ Hall is very chilly even in summer, because of the high-rise wind tunnel there, so why not install some heat lamps? (Some restaurants already have them outside.) Also, to help fill all the empty store vacancies, how about a community collective of artisans and creatives who could split the cost of rent, utilities, etc., but still have high visibility at street level and add to the vibrancy? I’m not all complaints: I love looking at all the beautiful flowering hanging baskets on Stephen Avenue and have noticed how many tourists take pictures of them. I’m also grateful for more regular garbage can maintenance and also feel ‘more safe downtown’ because of the Calgary Police Safety Hub office, which also repurposed a previously empty storefront. I thank them for their service every time I see them.
(Some thoughtful suggestions. Thank you.)

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If the City of Calgary does not improve safety, reduce crime, or improve transit safety, then I cannot see why any important billion-dollar company should establish its headquarters in downtown Calgary. Converting office towers into rental apartments or condos would seem to offset any idea of expanding corporate offices into the downtown core. People wish to live outside of Calgary because of the crime and violence and drug trade. It is also not OK to convert office towers to house homeless mentally ill people in the downtown core — people who are criminally oriented and out of control — and who would pose quite a challenge to safety of office workers and executives who wish to use the facilities in a downtown modern city. Calgary either goes upscale or it will go downhill. For the past 10 years, Calgary has been going steadily downhill due to the lack of competence in the mayor’s office. I would not recommend Calgary as a destination for quality companies. I have lived in other cities in Canada and this city has a history of problems — and the province of Alberta is a more serious problem than it has been for over 100 years of cultural disconnect and division — and bad conduct.
(No doubt that recent history has not been kind to the downtown.)

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I always use to love going downtown until the last few years due to the homeless hanging out and begging for money. It’s not a nice place to take your visitors when you are trying to show off your city. I used to work downtown many years ago on 8th Avenue and it was always safe. I hope something can be done to make it a safe place to go once again.
(Improving safety has to be one of the main missions.)

I’ve lived in Calgary since the mid-80s and the ‘need’ to revitalize comes up at least once a decade. I have found that often translates into giving opportunities to developers to bulldoze our heritage buildings in exchange for colourless retail spaces and malls full of Reitmans and food courts. The ‘need’ was most likely for increased wealth in the pockets of developers. Given the densification strategies and transit-linked development all over the place, I really think we should stop and think for a minute. How much do we really want, let alone need, more retail space, more endless construction zones, snarled traffic, and scarce and costly parking with a budget in the billions? Some of the ideas are good ones in terms of an increased post-secondary presence, urban farming and affordable housing, but do we really want the downtown core to look like Macleod Trail?
(We definitely do not need another Macleod Trail!)

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The issues you discuss are similar to my recollection to Edmonton’s downtown downturn in the mid- to late-1980s. I recall my first move to Alberta to the Air Force base in Cold Lake led us to frequent trips to Edmonton — it was the end of a recession and the opening of the West Edmonton Mall! I believe the city and its employees in the planning office have made huge mistakes in thinking that downtown development is all about tearing down old buildings and seeing who can build the biggest, tallest new one. Not everything has to be in the core. They have missed a huge opportunity to develop new businesses, jobs, etc., in the deep south around the South Health Campus. I first road my bike down there in 2015 as training for the Ride to Conquer Cancer and standing at the South Hospital, there was nothing but prairie looking south. Now there is a huge YMCA and condos and apartments, and housing developments. But no business construction. I suspect there are no arts venues either. The city is focused on overbuilding the core.
(Looking outwards is always a good idea, too.)

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I moved back to B.C. from Calgary a few years ago and as you know, cities in B.C. are experiencing the same problems as Calgary; even beautiful Penticton and Kelowna. The homeless, mentally ill, add your mix of people who cannot find affordable lodging, are destroying our once beautiful downtown areas. Three years ago, I was so embarrassed when I took my American family to their favourite shops on Robson Street in Vancouver. It was a nightmare and even worse now. I grew up with downtown Vancouver as my backyard — as young kids of 12 it was safe to go downtown, go to Chinatown on Saturday afternoon, etc. — no longer. The streets are now buried in excess garbage, garbage bins are overflowing (obviously the city can’t keep up with the homeless and all the issues they create), people were no longer hiding in alleys or sleeping in doorways but were sprawled across the sidewalks, oblivious to anything happening around them. What tourist would ever want to return to scenes like this? We used to own a gift shop in Eau Claire Market in Calgary where we had a lot of Hollywood actors as well as local movie and TV personalities — not to forget all the international tourists — frequent our shop. Calgary was a beautiful place in those days. The few homeless were harmless and were no bother. Wouldn’t it be less expensive in the long run to build basic housing for these people; a place where their medications were monitored? A place they could call home and feel secure in as well? Everyone should have a home, shouldn’t they?
(Housing is one of the many areas that needs attention.)

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I live in West Eau Claire and the river walk is a jewel. There is a serious issue with the high cost of parking in Calgary which is certainly a deterrent. Another is the perception the LRT is not safe. With all the talk of converting old buildings, why would a developer try to compete with city hall? The CBE is talking of closing schools, yet city council talks of opening one downtown. Would people move to the core if there were a school? Who knows? Retail is sadly lacking as well. Cities like Vancouver, New York and Paris have retail on the ground level to attract business. Just not chains as they are available everywhere. Small grocers and unique retail would attract. If people are to attend the downtown for events, have cheap parking or parking included in the ticket. Navigating downtown is a nightmare for people who live here. There is construction everywhere. Perhaps City Hall could be aware of how difficult it is to drive downtown and co-ordinate the projects better for Calgarians.
Class C buildings have been undesirable before 2014 and making them condos won’t help. They should be taken down for green space and end the tunnel effect. There seems to be a greater appreciation of bikes and scooters than pedestrians. Almost all the people in our building take advantage of the river walk and walk everywhere. At times, this is very difficult as there is more traffic from bikes and scooters than on some streets. Pathways designated for pedestrians often is used by bikes, which makes it very difficult and often unsafe.
(Good suggestions from someone who lives downtown — thanks Glen.)

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Bonus letters — online only

The idea of turning office buildings into condos would certainly encourage the creation of a downtown living — vibrant, fun and pedestrian-driven. Add restaurants, a bit of shopping … some more trees … welcome dogs. Police on foot (would also contribute to) a healthy community.
(Thanks, Brenda.)

Address the parking cost issues and downtown would thrive again. No one or businesses go there as it costs too much to park. If you’re a business that the clients come to see you, they have to pay $10 to $25 to park. That is why downtown is dead.
(Parking rates are atrocious.)

My solution would be to at least try to show the city cares about safety by quadrupling the police presence downtown during the day and night. There have simply been too many incidents that have happened recently that are unacceptable. Show this city gives a darn about safety and the other problems will naturally get fixed once people at least feel safe to go downtown in the first place.
(Safety first – then the fun.)

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If you really wanted to do a service for Calgarians, first understand how we got there — how government has an oversized role in creating the problem. How government overreach in trying to drive out the automobile, limit parking, forcing people on transit, creating a space people don’t want to go to. Then look at how federal government persecution of the energy industry is unprecedented and created the vacancies. How too much of Calgary’s downtown is built on a flood plain due to extremely questionable municipal planning decisions necessitating frequent government rescue. Look for creative thinking, places that let market forces dictate how the downtown should evolve, not government overreach and overplanning. I am tired of all this thinking that if only more exponentially out-of-control government spending would be dumped on this problem, we could solve it. In case you haven’t noticed, runaway government spending is driving inflation and causing a lot of economic pain. Our economy is in a crisis.
(Thanks, Dave.)

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My thoughts:
1. Too many bike lanes.
2. If you close the downtown off to traffic, it will become more of a ghost town. We are not London, England. Not sure the solution is to ban cars. Good luck with that.
3. Create reasons for coming downtown (in your car). Do you think retail stores actually sell more goods to those on bikes? Guess more 65-year-olds will carry bigger, heavier backpacks on their bikes.
4. Very little attracts one to the core. Even companies have moved out to such places as Quarry Park. Reduce the cost of parking, add more events or maybe even an event centre.
5. We are not Vancouver, where more people do ride bikes because of the weather. Here someone drank the Kool-Aid and made it less safe with two-way bike lanes on one-way streets. I don’t think even Vancouver did that!
6. Stop trying to copy trends in other cities that don’t fit reality here.
7. The top priority for Calgary — a climate change emergency?
Politicians justifying expenditures of millions of dollars on projections out to 2080, justify their spending decisions. I could sell anyone, anything doing that.
Envisioning a new core for Calgary … so far all I’m hearing is that the downtown core will become less and less relevant except to a very few.
(It’s a changing world. Especially around bike usage.)

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