It would be wise for those who are currently looking at the future of Stephen Avenue Walk as a public space to consider the flex street concept, says Richard White.Azin Ghaffari / Postmedia

White: London versus Calgary


On a recent visit to London, Ont., I was surprised to learn residential towers are currently under construction and several others are at various stages of planning in London’s city centre. A sure sign that urban living is on the rise in that city! In fact, a new two-tower proposal for the Camden Terrace site calls for one of the towers to be 40 storeys, which would make it the tallest tower in Ontario west of Toronto.

That lead me to wonder: is it fair to compare urban living in London with Calgary? After all, London is Canada’s 11th largest city with a metro population of 494,069 (Stats Canada 2016 census) while Calgary, with 1,392,609 people, holds down fourth place.

A bit of research and some flaneuring of London’s city centre revealed to me these two cities share some interesting and comparable urban development stories.


First, both downtowns are positioned at the confluence of two rivers. In the case of London, it is the north and south branches of the Thames River; in Calgary it is the Bow and Elbow rivers. Both cities also have a mix of historic and modern architecture that includes historic churches, as well as major museum, art gallery and theatre spaces.

Both have significant parks, not only along the edge of the river, but interspersed within their city centres. London’s Victoria Park, with its Kiwanis Memorial Bandshell and a small skatepark has elements of Calgary’s Prince’s Island, Riley Park and Shaw Millennium Park. Downtown London is home to Budweiser Gardens, a multi-purpose event centre for hockey, concerts and theatre — think smaller version of Calgary’s Saddledome.

As well, London’s Western Fair District includes an 160,000-square-foot agriplex, 160,000-square-foot Sports Centre and a weekend farmers’ market — think Stampede Park. London’s Labatt Park, the world’s oldest baseball stadium (5,200 seats) dates back to 1877. Calgary’s equivalent would have been Mewata Stadium, which opened in 1909 but was replaced by Shaw Millennium Park in 1999 or perhaps the Buffalo Baseball Stadium in Eau Claire.

Both cities have a strong corporate headquarters culture. London is home to corporations like London Life Insurance, GoodLife Fitness, Libro Financial Group and 3M (Canadian head office). Also, Imperial Oil and Canada Trust were first founded in London. Calgary’s head office corporate culture is centred around the oil and gas industry. And, while London doesn’t have tall skyscrapers, it has several modern glass office buildings, including One London Place, the city’s tallest building at 24 storeys.

London’s Richmond Row is a lot like Calgary’s 17th Avenue S.W. with its mix of shops, restaurants and cafes, and Dundas Street with its historic buildings has some parallels with Stephen Avenue.

Urban Renewal

From a shopping perspective, London has nothing to match Calgary’s the Core, Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew complex. In 1986, the now defunct Campeau Corp. transformed the 1960s Wellington Square into Galleria London — a one million-square-foot retail centre anchored by the Bay and Eaton’s with 200 other tenants including Harry Rosen, Eddie Bauer and the Gap. Calgary’s equivalent at the time would have been the four blocks of Stephen Avenue from the Bay to our Eaton’s store, with TD Square and Eaton’s Centre.

However by 2001, only 20 stores remained in the Galleria London and a major redevelopment took place — Western University leased a large block of space for continuing education and GoodLife Fitness leased 70,000 square feet in the basement. Then the 180,000-square-foot Hudson’s Bay space was converted into a new London Centre Library, followed by Fanshawe College leasing space for its theatre arts program and Citi Cards Canada turning 114,000 square feet of old retail space into offices. In 2009, the Galleria was rebranded as Citi Plaza after its flagship tenant. Over the past few years insurance and tech companies have started to move into the building, as well as the offices of the Middlesex London Health Unit.

At the same time, Calgary’s TD Square and Eaton Centre — while not in as dire shape as Galleria London — were definitely looking tired. However, in Calgary’s case, owner 20 Vic embarked on a mega $150 million, three-year renovation of the two retail centres, which included linking the two retail centres with a 656-foot long, 85-foot wide spectacular glass roof creating an atrium space that is now “centre ice” for Calgary’s 20-kilometre indoor walkway system.

Given Calgary’s glut of downtown office space, there is perhaps a lesson to be learned from London on how to repurpose urban buildings. While we have lost the opportunity to transform an office building into a new Central Library, there could be opportunities to use some of the excess downtown office space for new post-secondary schools. Perhaps we could attract a couple of major International Schools to set up a satellite campus downtown. Or what about relocating the Alberta University of the Arts (formerly ACAD) to downtown, something which has been talked about for decades? Shouldn’t the University of Calgary’s business school be downtown?

In Chicago, more than 30 post-secondary schools have located in a district known as the “Loop U.” Montreal has six universities and 12 colleges within an eight-kilometre radius of its downtown, totalling almost 250,000 students and playing a major role in creating that city’s urban vitality.

It’s time for Calgary’s downtown office landlords to “think outside the office and inside the classroom.”

Old East Village versus New East Village

I was surprised too to learn London has a neighbourhood called Old East Village. I was shocked to discover it looks a lot like Vancouver’s East Hastings, with the homeless and drug users having taken ownership of its main street. I couldn’t help but wonder if Calgary’s East Village would have become our East Hastings if not for the City of Calgary’s investment of $400 million in infrastructure and public amenities to attract nearly $3 billion in private sector development in our East Village.

London approved at Community Improvement Plan 20 years ago, which has seen some major developments like the transformation of the old Kellogg factor into an amusement centre that includes North America’s largest indoor rope course and the creation of an Agri-food hub. And while the main street is tired and dirty, several new businesses have opened up recently that hopefully is the beginning of a renaissance.

Speaking of falling on hard times, London’s Dundas Street in the downtown, which is currently lined with two- and three-storey older buildings, is getting a major makeover that will convert it into the “Dundas Place Flex Street.” The vision is to convert the street into a flexible space where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers can co-exist on an everyday basis, yet can easily be shut down to vehicular traffic to create a five-block linear plaza for hosting entertainment and cultural events. Cost: $16 million.

It would be wise for those who are currently looking at the future of Stephen Avenue Walk as a public space to consider the flex street concept.

Last Word

While no two cities are alike and every city and every neighbourhood is at a different stage in its evolution, there are always lessons to be learned from other cities, no matter how small or big they are.