Over the next few months, Calgary’s planners and politicians are going to experience a “MAC attack” as developers present plans for new Major Activity Centers (MAC) on the west and north edges of the city.
What is a MAC you ask? The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan defines it as an urban center for a sub-region of the city providing opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.
MAC is not a new idea
In the early ‘90s, the City’s Go Plan called for “mini-downtowns” at the edge of the city and in many ways a MAC is like a small city downtown with a main street and offices surrounded by low rise residential development. Then in the early 21st century, planners started using terms like “urban villages” and “transit-oriented development (TOD)” for mixed-use (residential, commercial) developments that incorporated live, work, play elements.
The problem with TOD was that in many cases Calgary’s new communities were getting developed years before the transit infrastructure was actually in place. For example, Quarry Park and SETON in the southeast are both being developed today along the future SE LRT route, but the trains won’t arrive for probably another 15+ years away.
TOD also had other limitations, as MACs are not always right next to major transit routes, but more oriented toward major roadways in the city. For example, the Currie Barracks has all of the attributes of MAC but no major transit connections. Its focus is more on Crowchild Trail and Glenmore Trail, with Mount Royal University and the Westmont Business Park and ATCO site redevelopment as its employment centre.
The City’s Municipal Development Plan has some very specific guidelines when it comes to what is a MAC, these include:
- 200 jobs per gross developable hectare (a hectare is approximately the size of two CFL football fields including the end zones).
- Provide a business centre/employment center; this could be an independent office buildings or office/medical space above retail.
- Range of housing types – single-family, town and row housing, medium-density condos (under 6 floors), rental and affordable housing
- Large format retail (big box) should be at the edge of the MAC to allow access from other communities
- Pedestrian/transit-friendly design i.e. pedestrians and transit have priority over cars. For example, vehicle parking should design to minimize impact on transit and pedestrian activities, ideally underground.
- Diversity of public spaces i.e. plazas, playgrounds, pocket parks and pathways. Sports fields should be located at the edge of the MAC as they take up large tracts of land and are only used seasonally. Planners want to keep as many higher uses clustered together near the LRT or Main Street.
While these are useful guidelines, they should not be prescriptive, as each site must be allowed to develop based on its unique site opportunities and limitations - no two MACs are the same.
Earlier this year the City approved land-use plans for the University of Calgary’s West Campus an inner city MAC that was developed after extensive community engagement.
Up next for Council’s approval will be West District that links the west side communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge and Brookfield Residential’s Livingston at the northern edge of the city, both of which will be topics for future blogs.
As Calgary evolves as a city, so does the glossary of terms used by planners and developers to describe their utopian vision of what Calgary could and should be in the future.
Calgary’s development community has enthusiastically taken up the concept and challenge of creating MACs; this is a good thing for two reasons. One Calgary needs to speed up its residential development approval process if we want to create affordable and adequate housing for the next generation of Calgarians. Second, more and more new Calgarians are looking for walkable urban communities.
While in the past developers and planners didn’t always see “eye-to-eye” on how new communities should be planned, more and more there is a shared vision of how to create pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use and mixed-density communities.
Calgary’s planning department use to have the motto “working together to make a great city better.” I am thinking this would be a good motto for all of the city’s departments, as well as the development community and the citizens of Calgary.
By Richard White, November 22, 2014
An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Big hopes for mini-downtowns" on Saturday, November 22nd in the New Condos section.
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