From Crowded Corridor to Thriving Urban Boulevard
The City of Calgary and Urban Systems have had a long and productive relationship. In August 2014, when the City put out a public Request for Proposals (RFP) for the modification of one of their busiest corridors located between the Chinook LRT Station and a major regional retail shopping mall, Urban Systems partnered with Gehl Architects design firm, and together submitted a successful bid to the corridor.
Time for an Update
This particular corridor connects with a busy transit hub where over 15,000 pedestrians use the narrow sidewalks each day, and was truly ready for an update. A typical suburban arterial, it prioritized vehicle traffic over people on foot, and crowding was happening regularly along most areas of the sidewalk with people having to step onto the road to pass others. With pinch points at every intersection and a lack of high-visibility and easy-to-use crossing zones, the corridor felt uncomfortable to anyone not in a car. The City of Calgary wanted to balance motor traffic with heavy pedestrian volume and make the corridor safer and more attractive for all modes of travel. They also wanted a stronger connection between Chinook Light Rail Transit (LRT) Station and Chinook Centre, to set the scene for economic development, and ultimately to build a complete street—a more useable environment, for everyone.
Through a collaborative concept design process, a preferred preliminary design was proposed to carry the project into the next steps of the process. Urban Systems advanced the preliminary concept through to detailed design and continued to incorporate valuable input from the City throughout the process. In the spring of 2016 the City extended the design contract to keep Urban Systems as their lead consultant to manage construction and contract administration for the project, which wrapped up in 2017.
This unique project evolved considerably between the visioning and final design phases and has proven to be a great success. It recently took home the Award of Merit at the 2018 CEA Showcase Awards.
A Fresh Take on Sharing the Street
Complete streets—or “streets for everyone”—are a relatively new concept in North America. In their goal to balance the needs of many, they can involve complex design challenges. Balancing the priorities of people riding bikes with those walking and driving is a unique task. Not to mention working with multiple stakeholders and navigating public and political desires along the way. With all these considerations at play, roadway design guidelines used in communities over the past several decades are quickly becoming antiquated.
Flexibility is Key
Urban Systems transportation engineer Phil Kirkham joined this project as lead engineer once the early designs were completed. He explains that with complete streets, being flexible to evolve is key. This project was no exception, particularly when detailed designs began.
“Once my colleagues had completed the initial concepts and preliminary engineering, I came in to undertake the detailed design of the corridor. That’s when we look at the design with fresh eyes – is it realistic, can we actually build it, how is it going to function and how will it all fit together?”
Phil says a lot of flux took place during this process—for example, the original designs explored incorporating physically separated cycle tracks in the area. Ultimately, it was decided this was going to swing the pendulum too far and potentially put the horse before the cart with respect to growing the City’s cycle track network without sufficient connectivity beyond the immediate project limits. In trying to find a middle ground, an alternative was proposed—an extra wide multi-use pathway with a custom, streetscaped boulevard.
While this shift during the design process resulted in a better balanced end product, there was a considerable redesign effort required in short order to ensure the project remained on schedule. Clearly articulating the City’s needs within the design while keeping an eye on the overall project goals and visions was a priority for Phil.
“Once all was said and done, this project had evolved to something very different than the originally identified concept. But that evolution is part of good design and part of what made this project such a success—we were flexible but stayed true to the vision of delivering something very special.”
A Re-Imagined Space
The finished project introduced a variety of improvements. The corridor received a fresh look thanks to landscaping, custom street furniture (including bike racks and benches), custom lighting and a public art component—a custom mural was painted on the side of a business along the corridor with the help of local high school students. Also delivered were safety improvements; reducing intersection crossing distances and lowering vehicle travel speeds through the use of environmental design, as well as a colourful extra wide shared multi-use pathway and the incorporation of sub surface soil cells that will catch drain water to give the new trees a natural water source.
A Place for Community to Flourish
Ultimately, as Phil points out, this project was about more than retrofitting a street—it was about setting the scene for the community to flourish.
“I think every project we work on at Urban Systems does touch the community in a certain way. This wasn’t just, ‘Let’s widen the sidewalk, narrow the lanes and call it a day.’ It was about setting the stage to rethink and re-imagine how this entire corridor will function and about encouraging economic vibrancy within the area. We envisioned a place where businesses could flourish and people would want to be. Now that it’s complete, it is literally a one of a kind corridor in Calgary and a destination in and of itself.”
When asked what he loves most about his work Phil says it’s about seeing projects come to life. “I love seeing work evolve into something truly tangible—when I walk down that corridor and see people enjoying the space and sitting on the new street furniture, I love that. There is nothing like watching a project come to life in the community.”
Converting 61st Avenue SW into a landmark Urban Boulevard is the first in many transformations for the area surrounding Chinook Centre and the Chinook LRT station in Calgary. Stay tuned to see more updates on the area as it evolves.