All Aboard!

Project Seventh Avenue Lrt Station Reconstruction and Pedestrian Upgrades, Calgary, Alberta

Architect Sturgess Architecture/Graham Edmunds Cartier

Landscape Carlyle + Associates

Text David Down

Photos Robert Lemermeyer

Whether it is the result of a healthy economy or the growing sense of confidence that cities acquire when they reach a certain size, Calgary is beginning to pay more attention to its appearance and to its overall urban health. Still smarting from the generally uninspiring results of the development scramble of the late ’70s, there is now a growing sense of interest among the Mayor and City Council over matters of design, supported by firm direction from the Calgary Planning Commission to raise the standards of architecture and urban design throughout the city. Calgary’s fledgling Urban Design Review Panel is one year old and the City participated in the recent Mayor’s Urban Design Awards (MUDA), part of the RAIC-initiated national program. Like other cities in North America, there is renewed interest in living downtown, and given the resulting abundance of development applications, there is a conscious effort at the planning level to find a balance between response and reflection about their collective impact. Currently, an “aspirational plan” for the Centre City is underway which will provide a comprehensive vision. Promising bold ideas, one of its key components consists of directions for improving the quality of the public realm in downtown Calgary.

The Future of Downtown Calgary, released in 1966, was the last approved “visionary” document for downtown, and included a proposal for rapid transit which is still being realized (the expressway between downtown and the Bow River that was also proposed in this plan was mercifully killed). In the 1980s, as the city began to implement the idea, the choice was made to place the downtown leg of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system above grade, an economic decision which sparked intense debate at the time and continues to be regularly questioned. Seventh Avenue was envisioned as a “transit mall” for the exclusive use of trains and buses in counterpoint to the established Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall running parallel one block south. At that time, the available LRT cars had high floors and required raised platforms for entry. A series of stations were designed which minimized their width and incorporated all of the access stairs and ramps within the platform’s area in an attempt to reduce the impact of the raised structures on the adjacent sidewalks and the businesses fronting the structures. The result was a series of compact but crowded stations which still acted as barriers between the shops and the street, and sparked the gradual decline of both the businesses and the quality of the street itself.

Fast forward 20 years. Calgary is again experiencing unprecedented growth with no end in sight. The LRT system has among the highest ridership of any in North America and is bursting at the seams. One of the proposed remedies is to increase the number of cars per train from three to four, but none of the downtown stations can accommodate this. The transit mall is a huge success at moving commuters in and out of the core, but it is a business and pedestrian wasteland–7th Avenue is the most used and the most hated street in the downtown. At the same time, attitudes are beginning to change and rapid transit, typically viewed as a necessary evil in car-obsessed Calgary, is finally accepted as one of the key solutions to traffic woes. The desperate physical and economic conditions of 7th Avenue make clear the need for a renovation and rethinking of this portion of the LRT system, and through the vision and tenacity of inner-city alderman and outspoken urbanophile Druh Farrell, the project made it onto the City’s infrastructure radar in 2004. At one point in the long debate, Farrell told City Council that they might as well just vote for it, because she would never give up.

The resulting Sturgess/Graham Edmunds Cartier/Carlyle + Associates master plan re- envisions the transit mall as a “linear park” connecting Millennium Park in the west through downtown to Fort Calgary on its eastern edge. This gesture will connect existing parks, plazas and open spaces, and trees and vegetation will be pulled into the street and along the avenue, creating a canopy and defining a continuous and more generous public realm. Where the existing stations are single-sided and stretched over virtually every block, the proposed scheme relocates and twins as many as possible, alternating station blocks and garden blocks, connecting them with enhanced sidewalks and plantings. Stations will occupy more distinctive locations along this park, and the consistent rhythm of their alternation will reinforce this clarity. The current elevated platforms will be removed and wherever possible, the sidewalks will be raised to become the platforms themselves, providing expanded passenger areas and removing the barriers to adjacent businesses.

With their design for the first of the new stations, the design team’s functional objective was to cover as much of the street as possible and provide maximum enclosure for the transit users. At the same time, their design inspiration was the brightness and light of the foothills sky, and they looked to providing height, openness and transparency to maximize the sky views and sun penetration. Opened in fall of 2005, their design fulfills these aspirations. The new platform is a continuation of the sidewalk, ramping up to the required elevation and merging effortlessly with the adjacent buildings. In one of these, a note of delightful and unexpected animation is provided by a primary school which opens directly onto the new platform. The designers of another adjacent pro-ject, Art Central, which contains a collection of small shops, galleries and restaurants–embraced the concept eagerly and reworked the faade of their renovated building to locate business entries along the ramping sidewalks.

The new station was arrived at through the close collaboration of all members of a large team including numerous city departments. Every element and its location had to be carefully considered and negotiated. The lightness, grace and order of the new structure are a testament to this team’s success at unravelling a complex knot of problems and initial conflicts. The widened platform sits above a maze of utility vaults and service conduits of all types, each with its own tight dimensional tolerances. The canopies themselves, composed of butt-jointed, spider-clipped glass achieve a high degree of transparency, and are the result of a close association with the supplier, Ferguson Glass. The struggle to organize and simplify the large number of disparate elements crowding the old stations led to light standards designed to perform multiple functions including providing both street and pedestrian-level lighting, carrying the power for the trains and traffic signals, and also flying decorative banners.

Public art will be an important and integral component of Calgary’s future, as a recently adopted Public Art Policy includes a 1% allotment required for all City infrastructure projects. Given the predicted growth and the scale of infrastructure requirements, this will mean significant and welcome additions to the city’s public realm. Here, the art is included in the form of cowboy poetry, written by established Calgary artist Derek Besant and realized as text sandblasted onto the glass panels of the station canopy. The words are projected by the sun onto the adjacent buildings and floor of the platform, shifting with the sun throughout the day and providing a subtle and elegant clue to the design origins. Decorative LED lighting, not yet operational, will extend the effect into the night. The completed station is already a popular addition to downtown, spurring adjacent new restaurant and retail development. The design receiv
ed a Mayor’s Urban Design Award in 2005.

Huge opportunities lie before this city, and there is clearly the desire to shake off the corporate blandness of the 1970s and take Calgary to a new level. This master plan and its first realized station are evidence of commitment to the renewal of the public realm that is long overdue. London’s Foster and Partners, together with Sturgess Architecture and the Zeidler Partnership are designing a major addition to the office core. Arriola & Fiol of Barcelona are part of a team including Marc Boutin Architect and Landplan that is reworking a major downtown public space, Eau Claire Plaza. There are other important public projects on the way, including a new downtown library. Together, these projects have the potential the significantly alter the way Calgarians see and use their Centre City.

Like an empty ballroom before the dance, Calgary is a city poised at that moment when anything can happen. The guests are arriving, and it’s time for Calgary’s leaders, architects and citizens to step up and make something magical happen. Cities are only rarely given the opportunity to effect large-scale change and this is Calgary’s chance. If the 7th Avenue improvements are a first step in changing downtown Calgary for the better, then they are right on track.

Client City of Calgary, Transportation Infrastructure

Architect Team Lesley Beale, Doug Carlyle, David Edmunds, Vance Harris, Martin Jones, Gary Mundy, Jeremy Sturgess

Civil Urban Systems

Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd.

Landscape Carlyle + Associates

Transportation Finn Transportation Consultants

Cost Consultant Costplan Management Ltd.

Budget $4.5 M

Completion Fall 2005

David Down is an Associate Principal of Busby Perkins + Will in Calgary.