Major facelift of 17th Avenue too disruptive for at least one business

 It’s a pretty rough ride down 17th Avenue these days, even for a seasoned Calgary driver.

Coming in from the east, making a right turn off First Street, S.E., you ponder the probability of your car veering up over the street-level curb as you navigate the bustling intersection of two exceptionally narrow roads in an effort to avoid less diligent drivers. Telephone wires crisscross overhead, cutting up what would have been a decent view of the downtown core as you head west. A pedestrian cuts in front of you on an otherwise invisible crossing.

It’s certainly not the prettiest end of the avenue, that’s for sure.

City officials appear to agree; that dilapidated street corner is just one of many areas along Calgary’s famous, or infamous, Red Mile slated to receive extensive rejuvenation this year and into 2018. Starting this summer, 17th Avenue from Macleod Trail to 14th Street, S.W., will undergo a massive upgrade, above and below ground.

The project, expected to cost roughly $44 million, includes much-needed structural improvements, while implementing visible design changes that maintain the heritage and vibrant culture of the popular street, which became known as the Red Mile after the Calgary Flames’ unexpected run for the Stanley Cup in 2004, sparking fans to flood the avenue in celebration.

The ATB Financial branch on 17th Avenue hosted multiple information sessions discussing the $44-million upgrade of the popular street during the week of May 16, where City of Calgary officials briefed citizens on construction plans. The information slides made available at these meetings will soon be accessible via calgary.ca/17avenue. Photo by Michaela RitchieHowever, the police presence grew during subsequent playoff runs in 2006 and 2015 when the crowd became more rambunctious and residents in the area complained about noise, traffic snarls, increasing amounts of trash and people urinating in alleyways.

After more than 30 years of such experiences, coupled with substantial vehicular and pedestrian traffic, Ryan Murray, with the City of Calgary’s transportation department, says the road has simply aged and is in desperate need of a fresh start.

“Ultimately the objective here is to invest back into 17th Avenue. The roadway is over 30 years old and needs to be rebuilt,” he said, elaborating that the avenue “has reached the end of its life cycle, and so needs to be replaced in order to maintain a reasonable traffic flow and quality of service.”

Since it’s original planning stages, the project has escalated to include replacing utility lines and upgrading aesthetic features in an effort to avoid further disturbance to locals down the road.

“As soon as you open the road like this, suddenly everyone wants in — utility companies and electrical and such,” explained Murray at an open house held May 19 at ATB Financial on 17th Avenue.

“They want to do their upgrades now while the road isn’t in because if they come back three or five years later, they’re just disrupting people again, and needlessly so. So it’s a big project for sure, but it’s also in an effort to try and disrupt people as little as possible over the next 20 to 30 years.”

Ryan Murray, communications consultant with the City of Calgary transportation department, was available from May 16 to May 20 at the 17th Avenue ATB branch to discuss the upcoming schedule for revamping of the avenue, as well as how the city expects construction to affect the lives and businesses of locals. Photo by Michaela RitchieAn extensive research and planning period in fall 2015 studied the ways in which the avenue is utilized by locals and tourists, as well as analyzed primary concerns of local business owners given what they knew about the project at the time.

“All the businesses want and need is to stay open,” said project manager Logan Tolsma at the May 19 open house event. “It’s the number one item that we’ve been hearing back from businesses, is to maintain access to their stores.”

The request that the city be mindful of keeping the street alive during construction was paramount for both businesses and locals, as Tolsma points out: “We’d have to really dive in to find out what the number two request was — access is just such a concern, for everyone.”

As a result, project co-ordinators have worked to implement a new marketing strategy to help aid in navigating and understanding the construction as it’s happening, as well as continue to draw attention to businesses throughout the process.

“There’s never going to be a good time to shut down the street, because it’s more than just a street,” said Murray. “We don’t have the luxury of telling people to avoid the area, because it’s the street that never sleeps, for Calgary. It’s more than just a pathway, it’s one of the most popular destinations in the city.

“It’s going mean putting up that proverbial neon sign that, instead of saying ‘No, don’t come this way,’ tells people how they can continue to get to and enjoy 17th Ave. despite the construction,” Murray said of the unusual approach the city plans to take in trying to maintain a flow of visitors to the avenue.

The project manager of the 17th Avenue rejuvenation project, Logan Tolsma, says that while citizens’ anxiety about the duration of the project is understandable, the city is working hard to proceed with respect to businesses and answer to the needs of locals first. By extending the timeline of the project by a year, is city is “hoping the businesses along the corridor will have more time to prepare themselves, as well as have more predictability about what’s going to be happening.” Photo by Michaela RitchieIn addition to trying to keep citizens and tourists informed about the progress of the construction via digital newsletters, mail-outs, and social media efforts, the original timeline of the project has also been expanded. While construction was originally slated for the next two summers, feedback from residents and businesses persuaded the city to extend the process a year in order to push back the initial groundbreaking and give locals more time to understand the process and prepare themselves financially.

“What we decided to do was spread out some of the tasks to manage the risks that come with scheduling to create more predictability,” explained Tolsma. “This year we’re going to be installing the shallow utilities — your gas, power and electrical, and communications. By removing those from the roadwork schedule, it allows the roadwork and deep utilities to be working around shallow utilities that are newer, more stable, and also have less hands in the cookie jar.”

City officials do not expect the expanded timeline to negatively impact businesses in any significant way. Tolsma cites the project as having a major vested interest in helping businesses in the area, by improving the environment in which their daily operations are carried out.

“I’d be lying if I said there would be no impact, but we are working as hard as we can to mitigate those impacts with good planning,” he says.

Continued construction concerns

However, it’s no secret that some business owners still feel wary of the impact the construction will have on what can already be a difficult marketplace in which to attract customers. As The Calgary Journal and Metro Calgary have previously reported, some folks are more than just worried.

Although the city says it is trying to maintain access to local businesses along the 17th Avenue corridor during construction, the nature and duration of the project have left some businesses with a bad taste in their mouth. Brett Roy, owner of Sweet Lollapalooza, says that while the construction is not the sole reason for closing his 17th Avenue location, the impending construction merely rubs salt in wounds left by an already unstable marketplace, forcing his hand. Photo courtesy of Sweet LollapaloozaIn fact Brett Roy, owner and head chef of Sweet Lollapalooza, a chocolatier and confectionary café in the Gravity Pope building between 10th and 11th Streets, S.W., plans to close down, in part because of the impending construction.

“I can appreciate what they’re trying to do,” he says of the city’s intention to improve the pedestrian experience, in turn hopefully boosting foot traffic to local businesses. “But from the perspective of a small operation like us, we just don’t have the deep pockets to wait for another two years for [the area] to be revitalized.”

However, the city’s depressed economy, which has not been kind to small speciality businesses like Sweet Lollapalooza, has also played a part in Roy’s decision to close his doors in the coming months.

“It’s like they’ve turned the tap off,” says Roy of Calgary’s current economic dry-spell, which has prompted a decreased demand for specialty goods. “The business has just been awful.”

Roy says he wasn’t notified about the city’s plans to start construction in the area until after he had already made arrangements to set up shop in December 2015.

As a new business in the area, who has yet to gain a loyal following, construction of this magnitude would be completely detrimental, according to Roy. In an economic climate that is already working against him, the reveal of the 17th Avenue construction felt like rubbing salt in his wounds.

“If I had known that was the city’s plan, I wouldn’t have gone in there in the first place,” he says, noticeably frustrated. “We just can’t continue to fund something that doesn’t bring in traffic. Honestly, I believe [the construction] is just going to make things worse. It kind of made the decision for us.”

Get them while you still can! Sweet Lollapalooza owner and head chef Brett Roy plans to close the doors of his 17th Avenue location in the coming months, confining these confectionary delights to a single outlet in Edmonton, Alta. Photo by Michaela RitchieHowever, for those businesses that can afford to tough it out through the next three construction seasons, Tolsma say the improvements — both structurally and aesthetically — will be well worth the wait.

“It’s an investment in the goods and services offered by this community, as well as the people who come down to this location. It serves the needs of Calgarians as a whole, as well as those who come through this corridor.

“Obviously, if the roadway is failing, we can’t continue to use it, so only by investing into this area can we continue to have those services.”

The first phase of construction began May 24, and will continue until snowfall with a focus primarily on replacing shallow utilities (power, gas and telecommunications). Once the safety of those lines is ensured, a process that will likely take all of this summer in conjunction with completion of above-ground design plans, the real heavy lifting commences in 2017 with road construction and upgrading of deep utilities (water and sanitary utilities).

To learn more about the construction, or stay up to date with the City of Calgary’s latest news from 17th Avenue, visit the project’s website.

Thumbnail by Michaela Ritchie.

mritchie@cjournal.ca