Calgary: New downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification.

By Richard White, June 28, 2014

(An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section, June 28, 2014 titled; "Embrace downtown's explosive growth.")

I have received several comments from readers expressing concern that the term "downtown sprawl" is negative and inappropriate, especially as it relates to urban development and as the term urban sprawl.  One reader suggested the "downtown ripple effect."  In giving this blog further consideration I decided to retitle the blog "Calgary: New downtown office towers catalyst for inner-city densification," which I think better reflects my thesis. 

Calgary: Benefits of Downtown Sprawl? 

Calgary’s urban sprawl is unique in that it’s happening both at the edge of the city as well as all around its downtown.  While much attention is given to the ever- increasing number of new suburban communities by city politicians, planners and the media, the number of new master-planned urban villages close to downtown (under construction or in the design phase) is significant. Perhaps we can coin the phase “downtown sprawl.”

With over 7 million square feet of new downtown office space constructed over the past five years and another 5 million under construction or in the design phase, Calgary is a leader in downtown growth in North America. Twelve million square feet of office space will accommodate another 40,000 office workers, many of whom will undoubtedly want to live in or close to downtown.  

In May, Altus Group reported that there are an amazing 12,447 residential units proposed, pre-construction and construction stage in the Downtown and Beltline. (Note: this doesn’t include the condos proposed for communities north of the Bow River, east of the Elbow River or any of the new inner city urban villages along or near Crowchild Trail).

Brookfield Place 

Telus Sky Tower

Manulife office tower

Proposed Eau Claire Market site redevelopment with five new towers. 

East Village condo construction as downtown sprawls eastward.

Urban Transformation

Calgary’s thriving downtown has literally transformed the Beltline into a parade of show condos; there are new condos being built on almost every other block.  Over the past decade, the Beltline has evolved into one of North America’s best yuppie communities with great restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, two grocery stores and a health food store.

Everyone knows about the incredible transformation underway in East Village, designed to become a new urban village of 10,000 people. There are currently more construction cranes in East Village than in the entire downtown core!

And, of course there is Bridgeland where the old General Hospital site is in its final phases its master planned redevelopment.  Mission is quickly becoming the Mount Royal of condo living with numerous luxury condos along the Elbow River.

More recently, the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community is also experiencing the impact of downtown sprawl with several new, mid-rise (under 10 floors) condos recently completed, under construction or in the design phase. New urban-type condos (main floor retail with condos above) area also popping up in Marda Loop, West Hillhurst and Montgomery – with more to come.

But the impact of downtown sprawl doesn’t stop here. There are plans for several new planned urban infill villages - Currie Barracks, Jacques Lodge, West Campus, University City, Stadium Shopping Centre and Westbrook Village. 

Each of these planned, mixed-use developments has been carefully researched in collaboration with the neighbouring communities and City Planners to create “walkable” villages where residents’ everyday needs will be within walking distance. They will also be well served by public transit, allowing easy access not only to neighbouring employment centers, but also to downtown. In fact, Currie Barracks' key marketing message is "An urban village only seven minutes from downtown." 

Over the next few months, I will be profiling each of these new urban villages.  

Creating great urban places to live is more than densification i.e. building more condos.  The Bridges has created a new Main Street for the Bridgeland community incorporating both old and new retail spaces. 

University City will create a new urban hub at the Brentwood LRT station. 

St. John's on 10th is just one of many new mid-rise condo developments in the Kensington Village area.  This is a model new urban community as it integrates old and new, single-family, small apartments/condos, low and mid-rise residential, with strong retail and an LRT station. 

Inner City Makeover

In addition to the new urban villages, Downtown sprawl is responsible for the incredible demand for inner city single-family infill housing.  Over the past five years, inner city communities from Altadore to Tuxedo and from Inglewood to Spruce Cliff, Calgary’s inner city communities have become a parade of infill show homes. 

From 2008 to 2013, 3,345 new infill homes (excluding 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 for 10,000 people.  Most new communities take 10 to 15 years to build out (e.g. Aspen Woods), yet we have, in effect, built a new inner-city community in just five years. 

The value of these new homes is estimated at one billion dollars, equivalent to the value of one major office tower the size of Eight Avenue Place or the Bow. These homeowners will pay $15 million in dollars in property taxes per year; about five times what was being paid by the small cottage homes they replaced.

New infill homes mean new families moving into the inner city, a very healthy evolution as young families bring a new energy to schools, parks, playgrounds, recreation centres and local retailers. 

Even some major businesses are looking beyond the traditional greater downtown, boundaries for office space. A good example would be the relocation of Venture Communications last year to the old UMA building at the corner of Memorial Drive and Kensington Road in West Hillhurst last.  Recently, the Calgary Co-op opened a liquor store next to Venture Communications and rumor has it that a New York Style café opening on the same block.

The Memorial Drive / Kensington Road corner (in the early 1900s this area was called Happyland) has the potential to become a micro-hub; there already are several professional offices, a convenience store, two sportswear stores and Bob’s Pizza/Pub nearby. Another rumor has Phil & Sebastian and Starbucks looking for a location in the West Hillhurst area, further evidence that the influence of downtown’s growth is spreading north and west. 

Lane housing in West Hillhurst.

Main Street Montgomery has added a new condo with retail at street level.  There are dozens of new infills under construction in this community. 

Venture Communications new head office in an area of West Hillhurst once called Happyland. 

The Calgary Co-op liquor store is more evidence of the urbanization of the West Hillhurst community. 

A parade of new infill homes in West Hillhurst.

Calgary is Unique

While some may lament the loss of the tiny cottage homes and the independent mom and pop shops, and that includes me sometimes the old adage rings true - change is the only constant in life.  And, in community development I might add.

I liken community development to gardening.  Plants grow for a few years, but eventually, some die and some need to be split and transplanted.  A garden needs constant attention – new planting, weeding, fertilizing, deadheading and pruning.  A community, like a garden, is never static; it is growing or it is dying.

Over the past year, I have visited numerous cities across North America (Winnipeg, Hamilton, London, Memphis, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, Tucson and Portland) all of which would love to have the downtown sprawl Calgary has.  

Instead of complaining, we should consider ourselves very fortunate and capitalize on the opportunity to make a good city great.  Calgary has an incredible opportunity to transform its established single-family oriented communities into vibrant new mixed-use urban ones - thanks to a thriving downtown.