Pedestrianizing Calgary’s 17th Avenue SW ‘completely feasible’: former city planner

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A former Calgary city planner says a proposal to pedestrianize 17th Avenue Southwest is “completely feasible.”

The petition, organized by pedestrian advocate Christopher Chiasson, proposes to close the area to vehicular traffic during select weekends in the summer and calls on the 17th Avenue BIA to enact a community-focused pilot to “unlock the full potential of 17th Avenue Southwest.”

According to Chiasson, the initiative will stimulate local businesses by increasing foot traffic and providing more opportunities for outdoor dining and retail. He also said the initiative will improve the quality of life for residents and visitors in the area by reducing traffic noise and pollution, as well as creating safer public spaces for events.

As of 4:15 p.m. Friday, Chiasson’s petition had gathered 288 signatures.

“I’ve heard more and more of my community members talking about how they don’t really like to walk on (17th Avenue Southwest) as much as they used to. They’ve found that loud vehicles, driving aggressively, make it uncomfortable to walk around or sit on a patio or shop in the area,” Chiasson told Global News.

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“I felt like the issue wasn’t getting the kind of rigorous attention that it deserved, and I felt as though some of the organizations in the area were not being an honest broker when it came to how pedestrianization might function and how it would affect the local, residential and business community.”

Chiasson said he wants to see temporary closures between certain streets in off-peak hours on Friday evenings and during the weekends. He said the area between 4th Street and 8th Street is a good place to start, and the timing will allow people who use the 17th Avenue Southwest thoroughfare for their daily commute to still access the street.

The pedestrianization of 17th Avenue Southwest will also encourage alternative modes of transportation in the city, such as public transit and biking.

Similar initiatives have been launched in Montreal. This year, city officials say over nine kilometres of Montreal streets will be pedestrianized over the summer and 2,100 businesses will be accessible by foot. The city will also invest $12 million in the pedestrian zone initiative over the next three years, with financial help from the Quebec government.

“Pedestrian streets bring goodness, but it brings also a lot of people to enjoy the street and enjoy the city differently during summer,” said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

“Our public spaces tend to be used in the manners that we design them to be. For decades, we’ve been thinking about our public spaces, roads, which are, you know, some of the largest, collections of public spaces we have in the city as being purely for vehicular traffic and ignoring any other potential uses,” Chiasson said.

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“By designing these streets to be more hospitable towards pedestrians, towards visitors and reducing the prioritization of vehicles, we would invite new people into the area. We would encourage other types of usage other than speeding along in your Suzuki.”

However, the 17th Ave BIA said it is not supportive of the proposal, saying it will harm local businesses in the area.

In an email to Global News on Thursday, the BIA’s executive director Tulene Steiestol said the association secured more than $1 million to “improve the pedestrian appeal and usability” for everyone who visits 17th Avenue Southwest.

Steiestol also said the BIA was a “vocal champion” in the City of Calgary’s commitment to upgrade sidewalks and infrastructure along the business strip, and the $40-million, multi-year project is set to be finished this fall.

“Businesses do not want to see funds spent on programming to shut the roads down making their businesses not accessible,” Steiestol said. “If shutting roads is good for business, then why is the City of Calgary now compensating all businesses in Marda Loop and Bridgeland $5,000 for disruptions to business due to road interruptions?”

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But Chiasson says he wants the BIA and the City of Calgary to work together to find a solution, including improving public transit in the area.

“I would say that Calgary Transit does a wonderful job, finding effective and accessible routing decisions which take into account temporary closures that occur on various streets … I have a lot of confidence in that organization, as any agency to develop rerouting plans which would effectively meet the needs of transit riders in Calgary,” he said.

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How does the City feel about the proposal?

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said the petition was reasonable and balanced. Walcott told Global News he has had conversations with the 17th Avenue BIA and the Beltline Neighbourhood Association (BNA) and the proposal to shut down the thoroughfare temporarily on special weekends is a good start.

“It’s not a new conversation and it’s ongoing for the purpose of trying to get everybody on board. There is a possible solution here,” Walcott said.

“The last conversation I had with the BIA (board of directors) was that we have to take an opportunity knowing that this is something the community has been calling for, to explore what the possible solution looks like. It benefits both the businesses and the community together in that same space. (The BIA) was on board for the exploration and that’s something that we’re going through right now.”

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But Walcott said plans to improve the sidewalks and transit in the area will delay the proposal by at least another year.

The city plans to replace all of the sidewalks along 17th Avenue Southwest, which was delayed since 2020 when restaurants in the area built sidewalk patios to try and recoup some money lost throughout the early years of the pandemic. The significant construction will limit what visitors and residents can do in the area, Walcott said.

The city is also planning to install new bike lanes on 14th Avenue and 15th Avenue Southwest this summer, thanks to a $10-million investment from both the federal government and the city.

“We’re about to get into construction season where we are putting in new active transportation right through the middle of the Beltline. The reason why that’s important is because if we were to pursue pedestrian streets on any weekend, these areas that will be under construction (this year) would also be the detour areas for cars and traffic. And so all of that would kind of have to be managed carefully together to make sure that we do have the capacity to do the detours,” Walcott said.

“It means that the Beltline is about to significantly improve how people can get around through active transportation.”

Walcott acknowledged that the construction will be a major challenge for businesses in the area but further delaying the project will not be good for the neighbourhood long term.

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“We’ve actually been delaying this project for years specifically to avoid the detrimental impacts to the businesses. The reality is that at some point, we have to get in there and we have to complete the construction and the faster we get it done, that’s going to be successful in the long term versus always having future construction, and delays looming over there,” he said.

A spokesperson for the City of Calgary told Global News in an email that it is aware of public conversations about closing 17th Avenue Southwest to cars. However, the city has not received any specific requests.

“When we do receive such requests, we consider many factors, including impacts to emergency services, adjacent streets and communities, local business and residents, accessibility, and transit service, parking and our mobility network overall,” the spokesperson said.

Former city planner calls proposal 'modest'

Consulting city planner Brent Toderian called Chiasson’s proposal “modest” and completely feasible in an interview with Global News on Friday, saying the area is already closed to vehicular traffic for special occasions such as the Lilac Festival.

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Toderian used to work for the City of Calgary as manager of centre city planning design and led the creation of Calgary’s Centre City Plan, which includes the Beltline area. He said 17th Avenue Southwest is a good place to kickstart the pilot that Chiasson is suggesting because it is surrounded by walkable areas with walking populations and lots of existing destinations, such as restaurants and local businesses.

However, he said the City of Calgary and the BIA must learn from other cities around the world to ensure the pilot’s success. In Montreal’s case, the city closed down areas not only to cars but replaced them with “activity and energy.

“The number one mistake that cities make is just barricade the street and hope that people will come and see it as just a place for walking … This isn’t about a walking city. This isn’t about walking as transportation. It’s about placemaking and creating a place where people will want to come,” Toderian said.

“You have to take that space that used to be filled with cars and fill it with things – temporary things or seasonal things or permanent things if the transformation is permanent.”

Toderian refuted the BIA’s idea that pedestrianization will be harmful to businesses. Studies have shown that pedestrian-friendly spaces and walkable spaces strengthen the success of a neighbourhood if preconditions are met (walking populations, established destinations, etc.), he said.

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“Let’s be blunt, many businesses will prosper with this change and some might not, because in retail and commercial, there are always winners and losers. But in general, when you do this well, study after study in city after city has shown that business improves. This is good for business,” Toderian said. “It’s true that if you do this badly, it is possible that it will be bad for business.”

The city planner also rejected the idea that pedestrianizing the Beltline isn’t feasible because Calgary is a car-centric city. While it is true Calgary is car-centric, he said, the focus shouldn’t be on transportation but rather on neighbourhoods that will prosper by creating pedestrian-friendly areas temporarily or permanently.

“This (proposal) is quite modest compared to more ambitious cities. I’m not talking about progressive cities that Calgarians think are so different, I’m talking American cities, Australian cities that are at least as car-dependant as Calgary,” Toderian said.

“Of course, Calgary is a car-centric city, particularly out of downtown. Of course, there will still be cars. Nobody is talking about changing that, but it becomes a false narrative.”

Toderian said Calgary’s focus on cars is a big strategic limitation, one that it inflicted on itself. He said the city missed out on social, civic and economic opportunities because it is so car-centric.

“The lazy narrative is that it will hurt businesses and we’re just too pro-car. Those are both lazy narratives that have held Calgary back,” he said.

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“Cars are Calgary’s Kryptonite when it comes to out-of-the-box thinking because cars are too often used as an excuse to prevent trying something smarter and better.

“The city that Calgary has been building has always had much greater potential than the narrative that Calgary uses to make excuses.”

–With files from Leora Schertzer, Global News. 

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