Businesses and residents asked to participate in process

The main drag in one of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods entered a new design process last week with an initiative to gather all interested parties around the same table.

International Avenue, the stretch of 17th Avenue S.E. from Deerfoot Trail to the eastern city limits, was the subject of a “charrette” sponsored by groups including the city, the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone, the University of Calgary faculty of environmental design and the FGL Society.

“We are almost, in fact, like the client,” says Alison Karim-McSwiney, executive director of the International Avenue BRZ.

A charrette, named for a French word for a small cart, brings all stakeholders in an area or development together for a brief, intense visioning or problem-solving session.

Shannon Oatway photo, Business Edge
Geoff Dyer, left, Gian-Carlo Carra, Dennis Syran and Alison Karim-McSwiney take a look at plans for International Avenue.

The term is said to have originated from the porter at a French architecture school wheeling around a charrette to collect student drawings for marking after exams, U of C graduate student Gian-Carlo Carra says.

The university involvement is through an urban studies class, a research project and a community outreach, says U of C architecture professor Robert Kirby.

“We are the new kids on the block,” says Kirby. “We can’t just assume that nothing happened here before and we know everything.”

Carra says the charrette process includes residential and business stakeholders from the area, social agencies, governments, financiers and real-estate interests that do the actual work of development.

In the first International Avenue charrette held this past week, the neighbours were encouraged to set their goals.

Karim-McSwiney says that International Avenue is not like other BRZs, because it’s 35 blocks long and includes a major highway and more than 400 businesses.

And unlike some parts of historic Calgary, the BRZ doesn’t have a single historic building. Most of the existing developments are dated from the 1970s.

Seventeenth Avenue is also a major truck route – Highway 1A runs from Deerfoot Trail to the city limits at 84th Street S.E. Traffic is definitely a concern.

But Kirby says the team is working to change the character of the road from simply being a highway thoroughfare into becoming the main street of the surrounding community.

He says a streetcar running in from Chestermere might be one idea to consider. He also suggests a smoother transition at the east end of the avenue from urban to country uses – perhaps with businesses such as dog kennels or horse stables.

“We want to get rid of this idea that the city just marches endlessly into the country,” says Kirby.

A large worktable in the centre of the charrette site – Bad Ass Coffee Shop at 3620 17th Ave. S.E. – features a large-scale map of the greater Forest Lawn area indicating two large business nodes and smaller centres of activity in between.

Kirby says the map shows what could ideally develop in 20 or 30 years, and that whatever plans arise out of the charrettes will have to be pragmatic and business-oriented.

“So it’s a balancing act,” he adds. “The urban designer has to represent everybody’s interests.”

Karim-McSwiney of the BRZ sees the university recommending more intense development in some sections, “and sparking some interest.”

She calls the avenue an authentic mix of businesses because of the ethnic mix. “It’s essentially a little snapshot of the world in a city.”

Shoppers on International Avenue are looking for authentic ethnic goods as well as basic necessities.

Thirty to 35 per cent of the businesses on 17th are food-related.

The BRZ has its own design plan supplemented by surveys of pedestrians and merchants, and studies on truck traffic, adds Karim-McSwiney. “We have all these things, but what is exciting about this is a chance to kick-start something.”

One survey showed 28 per cent of customers arrived by walking. Right now, the area is all about cars.

Mac Logan, city transportation planning manager, says the avenue is a business corridor and a standard roadway. The business access can be maintained and the traffic flow balanced, he believes.

“I don’t see it evolving into an expressway,” he says.

One thing is sure – the eclectic nature of International Avenue is an advantage for it present and future. Other areas with lively, interesting reputations – Kensington, uptown 17th Avenue and Inglewood – also share that feature, and International Avenue appears to be heading in the right direction.