Stephen Avenue is known as an arts and culture hub for downtown Calgary, but since 2019, the city has begun creating a new identity for the area.  

The goal is to create a walkable urban core that can become a vibrant and thriving destination for citizens and visitors alike. After decades without much change, followed by pandemic restrictions and high office vacancies, the heart of downtown needs to be invigorated with fresh energy and ideas, as noted in the The Future of Stephen Avenue Public Realm Study (pdf).

Watch Amie Osness’s report

A transformation from a business district to mixed-use space is key, the study explains. As people gather in the city’s core, it creates opportunity for local businesses and a sense of community.

The Future of Stephen Avenue project proposes revitalization for the entirety of Eighth Avenue from Olympic Park Plaza, down Stephen Avenue, and westward all the way to the Mewata Armoury.

Project manager, Jenna Matthews, explains the plans are the focal point for Calgary’s downtown strategy.

“We’re working to position Stephen Avenue to be downtown’s key, great, public space,” said Matthews.

Project manager for the Future of Stephen Avenue Project Jenna Matthews on Stephen Avenue S.W. in front of The Guild. PHOTO BY: Amie Osness

The initial research phase, Matthews explains, found the highest-level issues and challenges the avenue faces. Opportunities were then considered to create possible designs.

Jessica Théroux and Rich Théroux of Rumble House Live Art, located just east of the Mewata Armoury, think some basics should be addressed.

“Public bathrooms and public showers would be huge,” said Jessica. 

“Shade,” Rich added.

The Théroux’s have taken part in over 300 hundred street cleans on their block, as well as donated winter coats from a table in front of their studio when the temperatures drop.

“I think it’s just being aware, in so many ways, being aware that we’re guests on this land and treating it with respect, and getting in and immersing yourself with the space before you try and make decisions,” said Rich.

Ideas such as pollinator gardens, seating clusters and a Winter City Design competition have been test-piloted since 2021.

The city has been sharing plans online through Stephen Avenue, and gathering feedback from citizens via online surveys and a virtual open house on designs, concepts, and programming.

Matthews said her team has met with businesses, property owners and organizations operating on the avenue.

“Throughout the month of February we shared our draft preferred streetscape concept plans online to understand what type of infrastructure we need to build into the plan to support how Calgarians want to spend time on the avenue,” she said.

There are two main proposals for street modernization. The first will create an extended pedestrian street from Macleod Trail S.E. to 4 Street S.W. with vehicle access restricted to delivery and emergency vehicles.

The second will include multi-use, incorporating two-way traffic, sidewalk extensions and bike lanes from 4th Street S.W. to 11th Street S.W.

Stephen Avenue S.W. on a chilly day. PHOTO BY: Amie Osness

The idea of wider sidewalks and increased foot traffic is appealing to Jessica and Rich Théroux. Their non-profit live art studio has held art creation and auction events every Wednesday for over 10 years and for the past eight years they’ve been located on the west end of Eighth Avenue S.W.

“The gentlest answer is it would bring way more people downtown to engage with us,” said Rich.

However, they feel other issues on the avenue are more important.

“The dignity of people needs to be taken care of first,” said Jessica.

The executive director of Chinook Blast, Franca Gualtieri, said the festival has grown every year. The winter festival creates a real sense of community downtown and Gualtieri is excited for the Future of Stephen Avenue project.

“I think it’s what we need for our city,” said Gualtieri. “I think it’s what we need for our citizens, andI can’t wait to see what that’s going to bring and how that’s going to look and how it’s going to change our downtown.”

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