By Richard White, December 2, 2013
Forget the million dollar luxury homes, or the million dollar streets; Calgary now has million dollar communities. Yes there are 14 communities (based on the MLS sales July to September 2013) in the city where the average selling price is over one million dollars.) In fact, five communities have an average selling price of over two million dollars.
Who are they? Belaire is #1 with an average selling price of $2.5 million, followed by Britannia at $2.2 million. Mount Royal, Elbow Park/Glencoe are tied for third and fourth spots at $2.1 million and Eagle Ridge is #5 at just over $2 million.
Most of the million dollar communities are clustered in the area north of Glenmore Trail, south of 17th Avenue, west of Elbow Drive and east of Crowchild Trail i.e. the “Oil Patch Executive District (OPED).” There are only three million dollar communities north of the Bow River – St. Andrew’s Heights, Varsity Estates and Rosedale and they are all just barely over the one million mark.
Britannia: Model Community Development
One of my favourite million dollar communities in Calgary is Britannia. For 10 years when I lived in Kelvin Grove and worked at the Muttart Art Gallery in the historic Memorial Park Library building I use to drive by this community everyday. I think what attracted me most was the quaint Britannia Plaza with its angled parking and local shops that looks like an early 20th century prairie Main Street. What community wouldn’t lust to have its own Main Street with grocery store, bistro, café, bookstore, wine merchant and hardware store? Funny this is what we are struggling to create in our new communities and yet it was already created in over 50 years ago. It is even surrounded by small three floor condos and apartments to add some density without creating monster high-rises. In an ironic twist, the lowest price condo sale in the city from July to September was in Britannia at $125,000.
I am surprise that this model of community development with a single block of retail easily accessibility to Elbow Drive wasn’t duplicated as the city expanded southward. For that matter it could have also worked along 10th, 14th and 19th Street NW, as well as Centre and 4th St NE.
Plaza / High Street
Mike Keho at Fairfield Commercial informed me that in 1953, the Britannia Plaza was the first purpose-built shopping centre in Calgary and became a template for other small scale suburban retail strip malls at the entrance to other communities like Fairview, Cambrian and Mailand Heights and even the Stadium shopping centre.”
The creation of outdoor strip malls in the ‘50s and ‘60s was an experiment that worked for 25 or 30 years before falling to mega indoor shopping centers and today’s big box power centers with their huge grocery stores and hardware stores with acres of parking. Britannia Plaza demonstrates that local small retailers can survive, with good vehicle, pedestrian and cycling access, some density nearby and without a sea of surface parking.
Smaller than you think
I was surprise to find out how small Britannia is with only 746 people living in the community - it must be one of the city’s smallest communities population wise. It is also small geographically with its borders being Elbow Drive on the east and Elbow River on the west, 50th Ave on the south and Britannia Drive on the north.
It is also interesting that Britannia Plaza thrives without any high density housing in the area. A quick check of the City of Calgary’s community profile shows that Britannia is 71% single-family housing and 29% apartments, which is significantly higher than the than city-wide figure of 58% for single-family, but surprisingly also slightly above the city average for apartments which is 27%. What is missing in the housing stock is town and row housing. When it comes to home ownership and rentals Britannia mirrors the city average of 73% homeowners and 27% renters.
I expect what makes Britannia so attractive is the abundance of large single- mid-century homes and large lots with great accessibility to Calgary’s many urban playgrounds - Downtown, Mission, 17th Avenue and Chinook Mall. Easy access to Calgary Golf and Country Club, Riverdale Park and the Elbow River doesn’t hurt.
Britannia is very attractive to Calgary’s young “executive class” and their families as evidenced by the fact 21.3% of the population is between the ages of 5 and 19, significantly higher than the city-wide 17.7% for the same bracket. It is not surprising that a whooping 49% of adults living in Britannia have a BA or higher level of education, compared to a citywide figure of 25%. Yes it does pay to get a higher education!
Britannia was annexed into the city in 1910, but no significant development took place until the 1950s - the bungalow era for North America housing. If you wander the community you can still see many of the mid-century bungalows, however, they are quickly becoming extinct as the young “executive class” are buying them up and adding a second floor as children today must have their own bedroom and in many cases their own bathroom too. The mid-century ranch house has evolved into a mini boutique hotel or inn, complete with master retreat, media room and private wine cellar.
One of the other fun things you notice when wandering Britannia is that all the street names have a distinctly British theme – Coronation Drive, Edinburgh Boulevard and Elizabeth Road. In fact, “Britannia” is an old Latin name for Great Britain and in the Roman period Britannia was the name of a goddess depicted as a beautiful young woman, wearing a helmet of a centurion with her right breast exposed.
Creating and sustaining estate communities in Calgary to attract and retain the “executive class” is essential to creating a complete city. Just as important as creating “urban villages” to attract the “creative class.” Great cities are attractive to people of all ages and backgrounds.
A version of this blog was written for Calgary's Domus Magazine, winter 2014 edition.
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GB writes: I was just a young boy when Britannia was developed but I remember very well my Mom and Dad driving us around the old traffic circle and up Elbow Drive into what would become Britannia. In about 1955, there was a house built on the East side of Elbow Drive at about Imperial Way or 49th Avenue. It was known as the Trend House or The Trend Home and I think it was one of a series of houses that were built across Canada to demonstrate new building materials. All that I can remember from walking through it with my folks was that it had an electric can opener and I think it had a dishwasher which was unheard of at that point. The house is still there. Anyway, a story on the Trend Home would be very interesting if you wanted to follow it up.