BANFF – The return of passenger rail from Calgary to Banff is part of a vision for a car-free Banff and redevelopment of the dilapidated train station lands.
Jan and Adam Waterous, through their personal holding company Liricon Capital, are currently working on an area redevelopment plan (ARP) with the Town of Banff for the 17.4-hectare train station lands they lease from Canadian Pacific Railway.
A 16-page document covering highlights of the draft ARP calls for restaurants, retail shops, medium-density residential housing, an amphitheatre for concerts and special events, and more than 1,000 intercept parking stalls on both sides of the train tracks.
The plan envisions passenger rail from Calgary International Airport to the 1910 Banff train station and a shuttle-only system to various points of interests and tourist hotspots throughout Banff National Park.
Liricon also continues to pursue an aerial gondola from the train station lands to the base of the Norquay ski hill – although Parks Canada previously said no to a gondola from the train station to the summit in 2019.
Officials say the goal is to address the impact of personal vehicles degrading the environment and visitor experience and help Banff National Park become North America’s first net-zero emissions community by 2035.
“The overarching vision is to reinvigorate the railway lands as an arrival destination centre,” said Randall McKay, the Town of Banff’s manager of strategic initiatives and special projects, during a recent governance and finance committee meeting.
“This plan focuses more on a new multi-modal transportation vision with pedestrian connectivity, place-making, a range of visitor services and design infrastructure.”
Jan Waterous said past public consultation has shaped much of the key elements of the current draft ARP.
“We have been conducting community consultation periodically over the last several years to solicit public input into how to best make the railway lands a multi-modal transit hub and community gathering destination,” she said.
More recently, Jan said they have met with about 25 businesses, community leaders and Indigenous groups since early May 2021 to discuss the draft ARP for the railway lands.
“Our community outreach will continue this summer and throughout the fall,” she said.
“We will expand it to include meetings with small and medium sized groups – now that COVID restrictions are loosened – as well as larger community open house meetings.”
This ARP is for the 17.4-ha site, located inside the limits of the Town of Banff, and includes the 1910 heritage train station building, which is a federally designated railway station, the station grounds and adjacent lands.
Aside from restaurants, shops and rentals, there is a plan for a 300-seat venue adjacent to the restored CP Rail Gardens for festivals, concerts, aboriginal culture and special events.
There is also the possibility of small satellite locations for The Banff Centre and Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies to showcase and promote current exhibitions on main campuses.
Several historical buildings will form part of the redevelopment, including the Glacier train station, Field train station and Field telegraph building currently in inaccessible locations that have been falling into disrepair for decades. Together with the Banff Station Master’s House and Banff Ice-House, the structures will form a five-building precinct along the south side of Railway Avenue.
“Each restored building with curated exhibitions and artifacts tracing CP Rail’s history in the development of Banff National Park with ancillary food and beverage,” according to the Liricon document.
As for the aerial gondola, Parks Canada turned down a gondola proposal from the townsite to the summit of Mount Norquay in 2019 following a feasibility study.
The draft 2021 draft management plan is completely silent on the gondola and Parks Canada has said it’s off the table.
While the ARP would be adopted by Banff town council, Parks Canada must sign off on the plan under the incorporation agreement – a special agreement that lays out which powers are with the municipality and which stay with the federal government.
Liricon’s 16-page document says a town-to-base gondola would address Parks Canada’s primary issues with the previous summit proposal, and noted a gondola terminus requires approval in the Town of Banff ARP.
“Norquay will only be able to make a specific, comprehensive proposal to Parks Canada for a town-to-base gondola following an approved ARP,” states the document.
Banff town councillor Peter Poole is trying to encourage his council colleagues to remove the gondola terminus from consideration in the draft ARP, not wanting to be seen as fostering or supporting a previous development proposal foreclosed by Parks Canada.
However, he has been accused of a conflict of interest by an undisclosed complainant because he owns a hotel on the lower slopes of Mount Norquay. Following legal advice, council will discuss the matter again at a closed-door meeting scheduled for Aug. 9.
“We do not want to give the impression that we are the agent for the developer pushing Parks Canada to do a 180-degree turn on what Parks Canada has been clear on,” Coun. Poole said last week.
Council was given an update on the draft railway lands ARP on June 14; however, much of the discussion was behind closed doors following a brief public presentation by administration.
Council endorsed a terms of reference for the railway lands ARP in February 2019 that established the boundary of the planning area and a summary of what council expected to be addressed.
McKay said the first completed draft of the ARP was completed and submitted in February 2020.
“In the opinion of administration, it required significant changes and amendments and re-thinking of its policy direction,” he said during the June 14 governance and finance committee meeting.
“Following the submission of that plan, a decision was made to collaborate more closely on policy development, work closely with the consulting team and form what essentially is a private-public alliance to rethink the overall approach to the plan.”
McKay said these types of plans are typically used by municipalities to guide the redevelopment of existing, developed, or disturbed areas in need of some form of rehabilitation.
“The primary goal of the ARP is to encourage the conservation of the railway station and preservation and rehabilitation of key historical elements of the grounds themselves,” he said.
“A parallel goal is to build on the historic character of the area and allow for more interpretation of the history of the railway and its significance in the evolution of railway tourism in both Banff and Canada,” he added.
“It also provides an opportunity to return the station to its former prominence with several initiates aimed at revitalizing and improving the overall site conditions and come up with some elements that are better suited to today’s travelling public.”
Liricon’s plan for the return of passenger rail between Calgary and the Banff train station got a boost last week with an additional agreement to advance the estimated $1 billion project.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Invest Alberta – the provincial government’s investment attraction Crown corporation – and Alberta Transportation and the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB).
The project envisions a 150-kilometre passenger rail service that would include several stops – Calgary International Airport, downtown Calgary, Cochrane, Morley, Canmore and Banff along a dedicated line built within the existing CP Railway’s corridor.
The service could have up to 10 departures per day from the airport to Banff and the capability of running an express service from Calgary International Airport to downtown Calgary every 15 to 20 minutes.
Miranda Rosin, MLA for Banff-Kananaskis, said she has been an advocate for this project since 2019.
“After a year of COVID 19 travel restrictions, I believe there is no better time to consider this major investment than right now,” she said in a news release.
Premier Jason Kenney welcomed the next steps.
He said in a news release the project "has the potential to be the first airport-to-mountain community transit solution of its kind in North America, making Alberta an even more compelling destination for global visitors year-round."
According to research commissioned by Liricon, transportation CO2 emissions in Banff National Park total 105,000 metric tons per year year, of which 96 per cent are from visitors and four per cent from residents.
For comparison, these emissions are 63 times higher per visitor relative to Zion National Park, Utah, which has about 4.5 million visitors per year, similar to Banff’s 4.2 million annual visitors.
Liricon officials say vehicles are degrading the visitor experience in Banff National Park, noting research suggests 30 per cent of visitors cut their trip short due to congestion and crowding, and 20 per cent of visitors not returning for the same reason.
They point to Zion National Park, which created a shuttle-only service to points of interest more than 20 years ago, as a success story.
“By combining intercept parking and a “hop-on, hop-off” service, Zion became the global leader in national park mass transit,” the document on the highlights of the ARP states. “Clearly the status quo (in Banff) is not working.”
Liricon also advances Zermatt, Switzerland as a sustainable mountain community with its multi-modal transportation system, including passenger rail, intercept parking, aerial transit and shuttles.
“The core magic of both Zermatt and Zion is they have each created integrated transit systems,” states Liricon in the document highlighting the ARP. “Once visitors reach a central arrival hub, they no longer need a personal vehicle.”