Stephen Avenue redevelopment plans call into question the practice of de-listing Calgary’s heritage sites

Many believe that developing the core comes at a cost

By Mario Toneguzzi | June 2, 2022 |5:00 am

A new development proposal for Stephen Avenue would knock down several heritage buildings to make room for a 66-storey tower, making it the biggest in the city, as well as two other towers in the overall mixed-use development for office, hotel, and residential space.

Photo: Robert Jobst

A massive development proposal for a downtown city block that would include building three skyscrapers has called into question the vulnerability of heritage sites in the city.

The proposal would include a 66-storey tower, making it the biggest in the city, as well as two other towers in the overall mixed-use development for office, hotel, and residential space.

In a tweet about the Stephen Avenue Quarter development proposed by Triovest, former Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell said: “Designation of heritage sites is meant to be in perpetuity. De-listing Calgary’s most important collection of heritage buildings and a National Heritage Site would be devastating to the future of heritage in Calgary.”

The massive development proposal also has some experts wondering what it would do for pedestrian traffic in the core, while others are wondering why the city’s heritage buildings are not being protected. 

More questions than answers 

Josh Traptow, CEO of Heritage Calgary, said there are 17 historically significant sites present in the redevelopment area, seven of which are legally protected under heritage designations from both municipal and provincial governments.

They include the Bank of Montreal, Tribune Block, Self Serving Grocery, Calgary Electric Light Company/Hinds Meat Store, Rochons, Delamere Block, and the Calgary Stock Exchange. The proposed redevelopment is between Centre Street and 1st Street SW and 7th Avenue and 8th Avenue SW. 

“Overall, I have a lot more questions than answers,” Traptow says. 

“It’s still at the very early stages of concept and development and I think there’s a lot of moving pieces from a downtown revitalization point of view, which has obviously been a key piece for the city but also this part of Stephen Avenue is included in the national historic sites along with other designated sites.” 

Tall towers often dwarf pedestrians 

Everyday Tourist blog writer and former executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association Richard White recently wrote in his regular blog that tall towers are not ideal for creating a great downtown experience as they dwarf pedestrians, can cause wind tunnels, and create shadowing issues — especially in the winter.  

“Mega projects don’t have a great track record in Calgary for creating street vitality. In fact, they are often devoid of any street animation,” White wrote.

“For Stephen Avenue Quarter to be successful, they will have to incorporate dozens of small spaces for cafes, boutiques, and restaurants along both Stephen Avenue and 7th Avenue,” he says. 

“And the spaces will have to be affordable for local small businesses and not geared to chain stores, as nobody is going to come downtown to shop or dine at the same places they have in the suburbs.”

Opposing views when it comes to Stephen Avenue 

In an interview, White said there are two camps regarding the Stephen Avenue proposal. One believes that the downtown core, Stephen Avenue, and 7th Avenue need people living there. The second camp believes the proposed residential development would destroy the pedestrian sense of place and walkability on Stephen and on 7th Avenue. 

Some believe the proposed residential development is a positive addition to the area, as is the hotel. Also, the new retail space created by these new towers would be welcome. 

“The negative of course is that big projects, block projects, don’t work,” he says, adding the big difference with this one is that it would be residential. 

“These are not human-scale buildings. It will destroy the pedestrian sense of place on Stephen Avenue and on 7th Avenue. I don’t think people realize that 7th Avenue is as important as Stephen Avenue,” White says. 

“There’s over 100,000 people that go by 7th Avenue every day on the train. And that’s their first and maybe only impression of downtown. Another positive is cleaning up that block which looks pretty seedy and it looks like nobody cares about it.” 

The allure of Kensington and Inglewood 

At the same point, turning it into a monolithic office space with some retail isn’t going to be very attractive either, White adds. 

White says streets with highrise towers are not pedestrian-oriented. Where people want to be is where the buildings are of human scale of two or three storeys like in Kensington, Inglewood, and 17th Avenue SW. 

“When you start putting 20 and 30 storey, let alone 66-storey towers, they will create shadows and they will create wind tunnels and they just will create an environment that pedestrians don’t want to go to and they don’t have to go,” White explains. 

“They can go to Inglewood, they can go to 17th Avenue. People living downtown, they’re going to go walk along the river.” 

Opening the doors to a vibrant core 

In an emailed statement, the proposal developer, Triovest, said: “Our approach to real estate has always been to improve and enhance properties to achieve their full potential. This approach includes a robust exploration of potential community, social, and economic benefits.

“As we look to develop mixed-use options for businesses, residents, and visitors in downtown Calgary, we have applied for a development permit and land use amendment with the City of Calgary for the 100 Block of Stephen Avenue.”

They added that they are “excited to contribute to the revitalization of downtown Calgary through the execution of this world-class development which celebrates the historic fabric of Stephen Avenue and opens the door to Calgary’s vibrant future.”

Triovest said further details will be shared as this work proceeds. 

7th Avenue.

A major corridor steeped in heritage 

Traptow says Stephen Avenue has always been a focal point of the city — where it all started — and 7th Avenue has always been a major corridor. Over the last few years, various owners have not found a use for the buildings on 7th Avenue.

“We’ve seen them decline and decay, which has been unfortunate, kind of to the point a lot of people are arguing those buildings aren’t worth anything anymore and they’re not going to be sad to see them go,” Traptow says. 

He says the larger conversation is the fact that these buildings are designated and legally protected by a previous owner and a previous council back in 2014.

“As far as we can tell from the renderings, none of those buildings are going to remain on 7th Avenue… There’s a lot of questions we have on this project and will continue to have as it moves forward.”

What do we lose as a city when we lose heritage buildings?

It could be a huge loss for the city, Traptow says. 

“I think we lose some character in what makes Stephen Avenue so attractive to people as a pedestrian mall and a place to take visitors,” he explains.

“When people talk about how they’ve gone to Europe or they’ve gone this place or that place they talk about the heritage and the walkability. The human scale to the built scale. And I think when we lose some of these one, two, three-storey buildings, we’re losing that scalability in a human scale that I think is important.”

Also, he says, older, smaller buildings attract different independent stores and restaurants. Heritage provides that vitality and viability for some of the smaller enterprises than a high-rise tower.

However, White says it all comes down to one issue about Calgary’s core: safety.

“If downtown isn’t safe, businesses don’t want to be there, tourists don’t want to be there, people don’t want to live there,” he adds. 

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Mario Toneguzzi

Mario Toneguzzi is a contributor with Calgary Citizen.

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