Intelligent Infilling or Living in a bubble!

By Richard White, April 2, 2014

Yes we live in a bubble!  Calgary is one of the few cities in North America with healthy inner-city neighbourhoods.  While many Calgarians complain about the proliferation of infill projects – big (East Village) and small (infill homes) it is a problem most North American cities would love to have.  Just ask people and politicians from Winnipeg, Hamilton or London, Ontario.  The new developments attract new young families who will foster community vitality for another 50+ years.

Not everyone agrees infilling is a good thing! Every major infill project is met with public outrage - Shawnee Slopes golf course, Stadium Shopping Centre, Bridges or Brentwood Mall. The concerns are always the same more traffic, more crime, shadowing and loss of views.  Too often the complaints are dismissed as NIMBYism (not in my back yard) or BANANAism (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).  While that is definitely true for some individuals (there are some people you just can’t please), often locals have valuable insights for city planners and developers.  People who have lived in a community for years, understand the local culture and how the community functions. Intelligent infilling should build on the existing community, not radically change it. 

This philosophy is inline with that of Jane Jacobs, the ‘60s renowned community development guru and author of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” who suggested community building should be evolutionary not revolutionary i.e. lots of little developments rather than mega multi-block projects should be encouraged.  Nobody called Jacobs a NIMBYist.  

While Calgary has its fair share of mega inner-city infill projects at various stages of completion the real infilling is happening house-by-house, duplex-by-duplex and condo-by-condo from Glenmore Trail north to Confederation Park and from Sarcee Trail east to Deerfoot Trail.

Toronto Crescent in St. Andrews Heights is quickly being transformed into a multi-million dollar mansion row with huge new two story homes being built to capitalize on the outstanding views.

Contemporary infill home.

Modern new infill home.

An example of the cottage homes that are quickly disappearing to be replaced by larger single-family or duplexes. 

An example of the cottage homes that are quickly disappearing to be replaced by larger single-family or duplexes. 

Lane homes are becoming more and more common in places like West Hillhurst. 

There is not longer a negative stigma of living in a duplex in Calgary's City Centre. 

Evolve or Die!

Fortunately, all of Calgary’s inner city communities are experiencing gradual redevelopment as old 600-square foot cottages are being torn down and replaced by either single family homes, duplexes or, if a developer can assemble enough land row housing, or in sometimes small condo projects. While some lament the loss of the small homes that provided affordable living for fixed-income seniors and low-income individuals and families, the benefit is the new homes attract young families i.e. new investors. 

If inner city communities are going to compete with the “call of the ‘burbs” for families then we must provide family-sized housing.  This means a large kitchen, family room, a media room, separate bedrooms for each child and several bathrooms. A 600 square foot cottage won’t do it, nor will a 1,200 square footer.  Young families are looking for 1,800 square feet or more.

The addition of new families means inner city schools are viable again, as are the existing recreation and community centres. From the government’s perspective, there is no need for new schools, libraries, recreation centres, parks, fire, police or ambulance stations. While that is not quite true, some of these facilities are in dire need of repair or replacement.  But the good news is each new infill home will generate approximately $5,000/year more in taxes than the tiny cottage home.  So for every 100 new infills, $500,000 per year in new tax revenue lands in the government’s bank account.

New families also mean “new investors” to the community as evidenced by the new playgrounds in almost every inner city neighbourhood park. It is in the playgrounds, schools and recreation centers that neighbours often meet and foster a sense of community. Healthy communities are those that constantly adapt to new economic realities, new market demands of young families.

From 2008 to 2013, 3,345 new infill homes (this doesn't include condominiums and apartments) were built in Calgary's inner city communities.  At three people per home that is the equivalent of building an entire new community of 10,000 people.  Most communities take 10 to 15 years to build out e.g East Village or Seton, yet we have built a new community in just five years. 

The value of these new homes is estimated at one billion dollars, which is equivalent to value of  one major office tower the size of Eight Avenue Place or the Bow. These home owners will also pay $15 million dollars in property taxes per year, significantly more than what was being paid by the small cottage homes they replaced.

Yes we live in a bubble! 

A parade of infill show homes in Hillhurst. 

More and more stroller and trikes are decorating the front lawn of City Center homes. 

More and more stroller and trikes are decorating the front lawn of City Center homes. 

Haultain Park's playground is very popular with families living in the east side of the Beltline. 

Gentrification is good?

Gentrification happens when a community is redeveloped in a way that attracts more high-income families at the expense of low-income ones.  If you were to look at the average selling price of homes you would say that gentrification is rampant in Calgary’s inner-city communities. Today, new duplex homes cost $750,000+ and new single-family homes start at $1.2 million and condos are the new urban cottage with 600 square foot units starting at $300,000. 

While some wonder how families can afford these homes, in reality, many families can and do.  In Altadore 17% of the population is under 14 years of age, close to the city’s average of 18%; in West Hillhurst, 16% are under 14. The number of young children is only going to increase, as the population of 25 - 44 year olds (those of childbearing years) is 40% in Altadore and 38% in West Hillhurst, above the city average of 34%.

However, while housing prices have increased, most of Calgary’s inner city communities have not seen the upscale retail and restaurant development usually associated with gentrification.  For example, despite all of the development in West Hillhurst we still have our bohemian 19th Street shops with anchors like Central Blends, Vina Pizza & Steak House and Dairy Lane that have been part of the community forever.  Similarly, Parkdale still has its “Lazy Loaf block” and the Capitol Hill Corner still has Weeds and Edelweiss Imports. 

In addition, Calgary’s inner city communities continue to have active recreation and community centres that attract people citywide to programs and events.  The Hillhurst Community Center boast one of the best and longest running flea markets in Canada.  The West Hillhurst recreation centre’s gym becomes a church on Sundays and the Tri-Wood Arena is home to Calgary’s women roller derby league. 

And we have not forgotten about our seniors, there are old and new (Lions Village and Glenway Gate) affordable seniors facilities scattered throughout Calgary’s inner city communities.

If new housing options and new neighbours (with kids) means gentrification, then I say bring it on.

Recess in Parkdale. 

There is a wonderful parade of kids walking to school in Rosedale. 

Bridgeland Market is just one of a dozen of examples of the improving urban amenities in Calgary's City Centre communities. 

Evolutionary vs. Revolutionary Development

In some inner city communities, it seems like at leas one new infill project dots every block.  Some streets look like a suburban “Parade of Show Homes.” While some might see this as too much too fast, personal experience has demonstrated that it takes decades to infill an existing community. 

I have lived in West Hillhurst years for over 20 and despite what seems like constant infilling, there are still older homes on every street. It will take another 20 years for all mid 20th century homes to disappear and by that time my 40-year old infill will be ready for a mega-makeover or demolition

Last Word

Communities are like gardens, every year you have to rip out a few of the old plants that have died off to make room for new ones.  From my perspective, Calgary’s developers, home builders and planners have planted the seeds for “intelligent infilling” of our inner city communities.  “Intelligent infilling” is a gradual process that increases the diversity of housing options in a community so it continues to attract people of all ages and backgrounds to want to call it home. 

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