Home Month and Year April 2024 Can Calgary take back the Core?

Can Calgary take back the Core?

Advocates say much is being done to improve downtown safety, but only tip of the iceberg

Stephen Avenue entertainment and commercial district of downtown Calgary.

David Wallach has seen first-hand the reasons behind escalating safety concerns in downtown Calgary. 

For more than two decades, the owner and broker of Barclay Street Real Estate and his team have operated out of the company’s offices on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 3rd Street S.W.  

In recent years, hes had an increasing number of employees reporting incidents ranging from harassment to being physically attacked – often occurring just steps away from their office both before and after work. 

“And those are just the things we hear about,” he says. “We never used to have these issues. It’s turning into extreme behaviour, and it’s scaring a lot of people away from wanting to be down here.” 

Wallach is not alone. Public concerns about safety in the core continue to be an ongoing issue for Calgary. In the City’s 2023 Citizen Perspective Survey, 94 per cent of Calgarians say City Hall should be doing more to address safety issues in Calgary’s downtown.  

For its part, the City created a Downtown Safety Leadership table last year to identify gaps and barriers to creating a safer downtown, while also finding “targeted and action-oriented” approaches to addressing public safety concerns. 

The task force came back early this year with some initial recommendations that included bringing a police station back to downtown, 24-7 outreach services and immediate funding for specialized housing for people facing addiction and mental health challenges. 

The final report is expected to be released to council this spring.  

Calgary Downtown Association executive director Mark Garner, who co-chaired the task force, strongly advocates that the path to addressing safety concerns in the core will need to be multi-faceted, and deal with the root causes of safety concerns. 

“Its not a one-time thing, its an all-the-time thing,” he says.  

To that end, while he advocates for a downtown police station, Garner believes Calgary cannot just enforce its way out of the current situation. As an example, he points to a three-month pilot program last spring that saw Alberta Sheriffs join Calgary Police Service (CPS) officers on patrols through the inner city. 

Operating from February 27 to May 31, the pilot sought to discourage crime in the Core through the presence of more uniformed officers who could better connect vulnerable communities with support services. 

However, a CPS report released last fall found that the sheriff program did not result in a “marked decrease” in social disorder that would be expected during increased enforcement and patrols. 

The report surveyed 76 downtown businesses and residential agencies. Many noted the perception of safety did not change, citing continued open-air drug use, generalized social disorder and safety concerns on public transit. 

“The sheriffs program was a good thing to increase visibility. Would I welcome it back? Sure, I would. But it’s part of a multi-pronged approach that needs to be implemented,” says Garner. 

“You cant enforce your way out of these problems. Youve got to have wraparound services.” 

Wallach agrees, adding, “you cant have police on every street corner. We cant afford it. It doesnt make sense. Its not the right solution. The solution is how to deal with the issue and to deal with the people who create the issue. It has to be a community solution, not a police solution.” 

Garner says Calgary also needs to do a better job of addressing the perception of safety downtown.  

“Its the open consumption, the graffiti, garbage cans overflowing … these are the things that are going to be the immediate things that could address perception of safety issues,” he says. 

In early 2023, the province provided $1 million to the Calgary Downtown Association to support projects meant to improve the overall cleanliness and safety of the Core. Garner notes much of those funds were put toward beautification projects such as power washing graffiti off buildings and general cleanup throughout downtown. 

Garner credits the Alberta government for stepping up, but is calling on both the provincial and federal governments for continued support in tackling social disorder in downtown Calgary. 

“Don’t get me wrong. The province did a great job. But I need a million dollars every year,” he says, adding that, “all three levels of government need to work together in a way theyve never worked before.” 

Arts Commons president and CEO Alex Sarian agrees with Garner in saying Calgary can’t do it alone. 

“It has to be a team sport, but not just from all levels of government,” he says. “We also need to be able to have very sophisticated conversations between the public and the private sector. We need to engage the local business community … and create incentives for them to also have a vested interest in seeing the downtown thrive.” 

Sarian believes revitalization efforts included in the existing downtown strategy will help in providing a backbone in the creation of safer spaces throughout the Core. Among several capital projects planned for the area is a $480-million expansion and modernization of Arts Commons located between 9th Avenue and 8th Avenue S.E. 

The transformation, being led by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), represents the largest cultural infrastructure project in Canadian history. It will include a new 200,000-square-foot performing arts facility, a re-imagining of the adjacent Olympic Plaza and a complete modernization of Arts Commons’ existing building. 

The first phase of construction is scheduled to begin in 2025. 

“Anecdotally, we hear a lot about how people are worried about coming downtown. I mean, the data shows it,” says Sarian, “But what gives me great confidence is when those same people who are nervous about safety in the downtown are asked how it should be addressed, the number one option they put forward is increasing the vibrancy through programming, through retail, through food and beverage.” 

One of the things that Sarian says he’s most excited about it is the recent addition of the Olympic Plaza redevelopment being included into that scope of the Arts Commons transformation project.  

“One of the things we get to do is to curate a more comprehensive patron experience within the downtown core,” he says. “And it doesnt just stop with us. It extends to the Glenbow Museum, the National Music Centre, the library … were starting to create this network of opportunities that will get Calgarians out and engaging and contributing to the vibrancy of our downtown.” 

While Wallach is encouraged by the attention the issue is getting, he believes it’s going to take a lot more than just talking to resolve the systemic issues impacting safety in downtown Calgary.  

“Its not about another plan. Its about execution. If we dont start executing, it will just get worse,” he says. 

Wallach goes a step further and says that sentiment should extend beyond downtown. 

“I dont know why were just focusing on downtown because I regularly hear about safety concerns in Kensington, East Village … many people aren’t willing to take the LRT from the 69th Street station or get off at Chinook because they feel it’s too dangerous. The issue is growing,” he says. 

“So, we cannot just look at downtown. If we dont solve the issue, the issue will just move somewhere else.”