Brokering Conversations to Build Connections

Calgary Rivers District Master PlanCalgary, Alberta—Canada

Calgary’s Rivers District is envisioned to become the city’s most dynamic gathering place with improved connections to Calgary’s downtown core and to surrounding neighborhoods that stimulate development.

The east side of Calgary has long hosted many of the city’s most energetic and beloved events, including concerts, conventions, Calgary Flames hockey games, and – biggest of all – the Calgary Stampede’s 10-day rodeo, exhibition and festival that’s been held annually since 1923, drawing more than a million visitors each year. Still, this part of the city, framed on two sides by the Elbow River and known as the Rivers District, was underutilized for decades, located within walking distance of downtown Calgary and yet disconnected by railroad tracks and arterial highways that created a complicated “cul-de-sac” experience.

Approved by City Council 2018 | Work ongoing
Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, City of Calgary, and Calgary Stampede
Vision Planning
Project type/category
Civic/Municipal, Mixed Use, Public Realm, Urban District
calgary rivers district rendering

Transforming a neighborhood for a vibrant community

The City of Calgary, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), and the Calgary Stampede teamed up to consider ways to transform the 286-acre neighborhood into the city’s culture and entertainment district – a vibrant community that would not only serve as Calgary’s gathering place but also fuel millions of square feet of new mixed-use development and nurture better connections.

Goals included:

  • Stitching the Rivers District into the existing fabric of Calgary and linking downtown to the river;
  • Celebrating the region’s cultural heritage including its First Nations people and the annual Calgary Stampede festival;
  • Developing a new home for the city’s NHL team, the Calgary Flames;
  • Creating an urban design vision to encourage landowners within the district to consider cooperative redevelopment and to broker the deals.
rendering of the calgary rivers district
rendering of the calgary rivers district
calgary stampede participants riding horses with canadian flags

Finding common ground among diverse stakeholders

Aligning a diverse mix of property owners, neighbors and the city around a common design vision and development strategy would be critical to meeting these goals, so Civitas was brought in to participate in creating a master plan for the district and, more significantly, to facilitate important conversations between the project’s numerous stakeholders. Following on the heels of Civitas’ involvement in the successful redevelopment of Calgary’s St. Patrick’s Island, the firm’s leaders were well known for their ability to bring people together and create a cohesive plan.

calgary rivers district new entertainment plan
calgary rivers district new entertainment plan

Distilling feedback for a clear design vision that stakeholders can rally around.

Feedback from a total of 36 stakeholder engagement events held between 2017 and 2018, and data from nearly 4,000 survey respondents were distilled into what would become the Rivers District’s guiding principles: authentic, connected, resilient and vibrant. What once felt complex could now be boiled down to a clear design vision and an understandable development plan for stakeholders to rally around.

The Rivers District Master Plan was adopted by Calgary’s City Council in 2018 and lays out a 20-year development strategy. It envisions a new urban center with connections radiating out to the surrounding neighborhoods and to the city at large. A system of open spaces improves walkability and bikeability as it weaves through the grid, knitted together by a cohesive and consistent public realm and connected to existing urban trails and riverside parks, including St. Patrick’s Island. Six different zones, called character areas, are each defined by unique identities and clear purposes ranging from residential to entertainment and education to agriculture.

  • 36
    Stakeholder Engagement Events
  • 4,000
  • 6
    Character Areas
Calgary rivers district updated stampede trail with people gathering

A New Stampede Trail

Planned to run north-south through the new district, a new Stampede Trail becomes the primary street with retail and restaurant spaces, each oriented outward to the street in order to activate the public realm. The plan also includes expansion of the existing convention center as well as a new event center, proposed to replace the Calgary Flames’ home arena, the Saddledome.

people gathering in new shopping district of calgary rivers district

Stitching together the community

Multiple communities are stitched together by a realigned pedestrian and vehicular corridor that connects to 17th Avenue SW. New green line light rail – planned by Calgary Transit years before the new Rivers District was envisioned – is shifted underground to improve connectivity rather than create more divisions with above-ground rail lines. Overall congestion is improved by opening connections and eliminating the “cul-de-sac” experience.

calgary river district urban plan for the entertainment district
calgary river district urban plan for the residential and commercial district

The master plan also outlines a strategic approach to phased development based on economic realities, property owner interests and existing infrastructure constraints, and its earliest phases are already considered a success. Since adopting the master plan, the city is moving forward with the underground light rail and with other major infrastructure, including:

  • Creation of a new 5 Street SE between 12 Avenue SE and 14 Avenue SE;
  • The relocation of the 5 Street underpass to 6 Street SE;
  • An expanded footprint and parcel configuration for a new event center;
  • A potential new event center plaza, located along Stampede Trail;
  • Potential opportunities for the Saddledome land; and
  • Expansion of the BMO Centre, expected to be complete in 2024.

Civitas continues to play a vital role in stitching the city and its neighborhoods together and in bringing the players together. With an inherent willingness to have the hard conversations, to ask questions and listen for answers, Civitas helps to guide stakeholders toward a clear vision. Flexibility is crucial for long-term functionality, but the firm remains committed to preserving that vision and purpose all the way through each project, even if that means decades.