By Richard White, December 13, 2014
Though it doesn’t make any “best seller” lists, nor even have a catchy title, Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan is a recommended read for those living in Calgary now, as well as those seriously considering moving here. The Plan illustrates how our city will reshape itself over the next 30 to 60 years, during which an estimated 1.3 million more people call Calgary home.
An idea that particularly intrigued me was the concept of creating enhanced urban corridors (think condos, shops, cafes, restaurants, patios, offices and small parks and plazas) corridors along major transit streets throughout the city. This idea that has been incubating with City planners and politicians for a few years now, has now been rebranded as the Main Street Program (corridors sounded like a transportation initiative) and was approved by City Council in May 2014.
I have always loved the old main streets of Bowness and Montgomery and wondered why they haven’t changed much over the past 25 years as the City’s population doubled. I also loved the Britannia and Parkdale loops with their shops and restaurants. A good neighbourhood Main Street need only be a vibrant block or two long.
I also love the idea of the City working with landowners, communities and developers to create new vibrant Main Streets across the city where locals can walk for a coffee, yoga, dentist, and doctor or meet up with friends for a meal, a beer or a glass or two of wine. Atlantic Avenue (9th Avenue) in Inglewood is a good example, 25 years ago it was a seedy place of pawnshops and hookers, today it is the heart of Canada’s best neighbourhood.
The City has identified 24 potential Main Streets across the city (excluding the City Center i.e. downtown and Beltline). Some are called neighbourhood main streets (1st Ave NW, Bridgeland) as the volume of traffic and the size of the road is more local, while others are known as urban main streets as the road handles much more traffic and is more regional in nature (e.g. 32th Avenue NE or 16th Ave N).
What will it take?
I am not the only one who has wondered why Calgary’s old retail streets have not shared in the prosperity of economic booms of the past 25 years. I am told the land use and zoning are in place to allow for larger buildings with a greater mix of uses, but nothing has or is happening, even where there has been lots of residential infilling. Why?
A key reason is that current landowners are happy with their rate of returns, having bought the buildings many years ago for what seems like peanuts today, they are able to generate good revenue without having to invest any money in upgrading or expanding their buildings. Current owners are not motivated to sell when they are making money and the value of their land is increasing. It is the best investment in town!
The fragmented ownership of the land along these main streets also makes redevelopment difficult. It can take years, maybe even decades, to assemble a big enough piece of land for the development of a new condo or small office building with some retail, café or restaurant space.
A third reason for the lack of new development on retail streets in established neighbourhoods, is the difficulty in attracting new retailers and restaurants at they are surrounded by single-family homes, which means they don’t have the density needed to support new businesses.
Fourthly, the demographics in older neighbourhoods work against them as they don’t have a lot of young people (i.e. those in their high consumer years) living around them.
Early Public Engagement
Another barrier to redevelopment of retail areas in established neighbourhoods is the real potential of community opposition. When a new building is proposed, almost always the community has concerns about traffic, parking, crime and shadowing of nearby homes. Developers can take a year or two working with the community and City to get approval, which not only adds to the cost of the redevelopment, but the risk the project might not get approved, so they look elsewhere to invest.
Communities also often want a say in what retailers are welcome in their community. Who wants to have their community gentrified? The removal of longstanding family-owned and operated drugstore for a big chain drug store can be the cause of WWIII.
I am all for fostering mom and pop cafes, restaurants and shops as they create a unique sense of place. Part of the charm of Inglewood (Canada’s Best Neighborhood in 2014) is that its Main Street, Atlantic Avenue, has no chain stores.
We must remember, that these tired and worn retail strips are in fact incubators for local entrepreneurs who need older buildings with low rents. We need to find a way to include them in any Main Street redevelopment.
The additional time and money required for redesign and approval gets passed on to the tenants, making it almost impossible for “mom and pops” to afford the rent. It also means delays in bringing the project to the market, which is why the demand for retail, office and housing currently exceeds supply in Calgary today, which in turn increases the cost to both the homebuyer and the retail tenants.
Early Private Engagement
At a recent meeting with developers and the City planners I heard the comment, “The City needs to help take out the front-end pain.” To achieve this the private sector would like help with understanding the political and community support for the development of these Main Streets. Is the Councillor is on side? We need the Councillor to become the Main Street champion.
Everyone also agreed one of the first steps should be to prioritize which Main Streets have the best chance of success and focus on them first – building on success will be important.
Another key issue to redevelopment would be the capacity for the infrastructure to accommodate redevelopment. One suggestion was for the City to do the infrastructure review studies for high priority Main Streets and then sell the information to perspective developers.
It was also recommended the Main Street Program not only at the actual Main Street, but also how residential redevelopment could happen along the streets flanking the proposed Main Streets to increase and diversify the market.
The development of a communication plan focusing on the benefits (e.g. aging in place, with new seniors housing) of the Main Street Program for each of the stakeholders was also thought to be a good idea.
The City planners liked the ideas and suggestions said they would discuss them with their colleagues and report back in the new year. What was really encouraging about this meeting was that the City’s planners and private sector were all singing from the same song sheet.
The City plans to form a Main Street Team (no date set) modelled after the City Centre Team which will work with the community, businesses, landowners and developers to foster the creation of new vibrant 21st century Main Streets across the city. The 24 identified Main Streets border on 60 different Calgary communities, with a total population estimated at about 300,000 (25% of the city’s current population).
One of the key goals of our Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is to ensure established communities share future city growth. To achieve this goal we must diversify our predominantly single-family residential established communities built from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. These communities must evolve into more complete communities, which is defined in the MDP as “a community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play. This is an ambitious goal, but if we work together we can make our city a better place for everyone.
And wouldn’t it be great, if one day, instead of talking about NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard), we’re talking about BABBEism (Building A Better Backyard for Everyone).