West Campus: Calgary's First 24/7 community

Richard White, July 13, 2014 (an edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Calgary's West Campus could be our own city that never sleeps," July 12, 2014

Could Calgary soon have its first 24/7 community?  West Campus (since this blog was written West Campus has been rebranded as University District) is the working name for the development of an urban village (residential, retail, restaurants and office buildings) on the University of Calgary’s lands west of the current campus – hence the name.  It is all of the undeveloped land north, south and west of the Alberta Children’s Hospital. In 2011, the West Campus Development Trust (WCDT) was created to continue the development of the master plan that was developed in 2006. 

The reason the West Campus could be Calgary’s first 24/7 community is because the chief economic engines are not only the University, but also the Foothills Hospital and Alberta Children’s Hospital, both of which are 24/7 operations.

Unlike downtown offices, which are busy from 7 am to 7 pm weekdays only, or the shops in Kensington, 17th Avenue or Inglewood that are open from 10 am to 6 pm, or the restaurants, pubs and clubs that open at noon and close at 1 am; the hospitals are open around the clock. Imagine meeting friends for happy hours or to work out at the gym at 11 pm, or maybe after work at 8 am; this is when hospital shifts end and begin.

The University of Calgary campus also operates 7 days a week, with activities starting at about 7am and going on into the evening with classes, performances and recreational activities.  

Today, on any given day, nearly 100,000 people visit (work, school and medical appointments) what I call the “Learning City” - University of Calgary, SAIT/ACAD, Foothills Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Market and North Hill Malls.  Currently, 55,000+ people live in the 12 communities in and around the University of Calgary. 

However, by 2030, the University of Calgary campus could be the heart of a new city with its own culture based on academia, wellness and sports excellence. It could be surrounded by several vibrant self-sustaining pedestrian-oriented urban villages e.g. University City, Stadium Village, West Campus and McMahon Village. 

 

The 184 acres of underutilized land west of University of Calgary main campus is part of a bold development plan for a new urban district in Calgary’s northwest. The development will create a dynamic new community with all net revenue going back to support University initiatives.

West Campus Vision Highlights

While other universities have been the catalyst for a university village with its own street culture - shops, restaurants, cafés pubs, live performance venues - on its boundaries, the University of Calgary has been a bit of an island with no interaction with neighbouring communities. 

However, if James Robertson and his WCDT team have their way the University of Calgary’s campus will become more of a university town with its own town centre. 

Recently, I along with hundreds of others attended one of three Open Houses to learn more about the WCDT’s vision and master plan for West Campus.  The plan is an ambitious one as it includes not only “optimizing financial return to the University” but also “ensuring the Plan connects and harmonizes with surrounding neighbourhoods and the university.”

The plan calls for the 184 acres calls for:

  • 40 acres of parks, ponds, gardens and public space (size of Prince’s Island)
  • 12 km of pathways
  • 6,000+ multi-family residential units (15,000+ people)
  • 245,000 square feet retail and restaurants (a four block Kensington-like pedestrian street)
  • 1.5 million square feet of office space (10,000 workers)

West Campus is designed to be a pedestrian and transit first community, meaning that many of the people will live, work and play within a few kilometers of their home. The plan includes a shuttle to link the University campus with the University LRT Station, Foothill Hospital campus and the Alberta Children’s Hospital, which makes transit a very attractive option.  There is also a comprehensive cycling program that includes dedicated cycling lanes on some streets

Developer interest in the project is very strong, already a grocery store has said it will “paper a deal” i.e. commit to building on a site when it is available.  Rumour has it another major deal could happen quickly if the City approves the Plan. It is possible, West Campus if approved could happen quicker than other projects like Bridgeland or East Village given the level of interest being shown by developers.

 

Concept Plan Rendering.jpg

Land Use Plan: Mustard is residential 2-3 storeys, Orange is residential 4 storeys, Light brown is residential up to 8 storeys, Dark brown is high density up to 16 storeys, Red is mixed-use retail/residential with 2-3 storey podium and then up to 6 storeys above and Purple is mixed use retail/office 4 to 8 storeys. 

Public Questions

I heard some concerns about the traffic and could the project really get people out of their cars and walk or take transit to work, shopping or the gym.  While this good in theory and every planners dream, I don’t think it is just a dream in this case. Why? Because University Heights already has 49% of its residents walking, cycling or taking transit to work.  There is no reason to believe that West Campus can’t achieve the same results given there will be even more amenities, connectivity and it will be more pedestrian friendly.

Others were concerned about the height of the buildings, which could be as high as 16 storeys.  I also heard concerns that the plan was underwhelming and lacked innovation as an urban design.  There were also concerns that there is no provision in the plan for townhomes in the plan - everything is multi-family.

It is really difficult to judge a project at the Land Use Plan stage as the plan looks like an abstract artwork with its blocks of magenta, purple, green, orange, baby blue and tan representing the different land uses from residential low, medium and high density, mixed-use retail/residential, mixed-use retail/office, municipal reserve and environment reserve.

As I said to one person “this is just a land use plan, it doesn’t mean everything will be built at maximum density or exactly as zoned.  What ultimately gets built we be determined by market demand if there is no demand for a 16-storey condo then it won’t get built.” I also expect that there will be some townhomes at street level in some of the multi-family condos.  Over the next 20 years (the expected build-out period) the market for housing, office and retail will change dramatically and the plan for West Campus will have evolve with it - this is just a starting point.” 

I believe there is no such thing as a perfect plan!  Looking at the West Campus Plan it checks all the boxes for right mix of residential, retail, restaurant and recreational spaces, as well as integrating existing and new work places.

 

A four acre urban park just south of the main street spans an entire block and is the potential home for a farmers' market, an outdoor skating rink and pop-up performance spaces. The space will encourage people to meet and mingle year-round. 

The plan incorporates a variety of building types ranging from townhouses up to 16-storey high rise apartments. With direct access to the street at ground level through patios and public-oriented uses, a ‘porch culture’ will extend from the main street into residential neighbourhoods, and even the office district, creating a sense of safety and social interaction. With 12 kilometres of pathways throughout, the streetscape is interconnected, lively, and supports the day-to-day activities of a vibrant community.

The plan incorporates a variety of building types ranging from townhouses up to 16-storey high rise apartments. With direct access to the street at ground level through patios and public-oriented uses, a ‘porch culture’ will extend from the main street into residential neighbourhoods, and even the office district, creating a sense of safety and social interaction. With 12 kilometres of pathways throughout, the streetscape is interconnected, lively, and supports the day-to-day activities of a vibrant community.

Last Word

The really difficult task in new community building is linking vision with reality.  Anyone can present animated streetscapes, parks and public space with fun, funky buildings as part of their vision document– in fact to the untrained eye all community master plans look pretty much the same. 

The challenge is to enlist developers and urban designers to create places and spaces that are competitive (price, size of units and amenities) with other projects in Calgary that offer similar lifestyles. 

Calgarians are lucky as they have several new inner-city urban villages to choose from - East Village, University City and Bridgeland, with several more to come Currie Barracks, Stadium Shopping Centre, Westbrook Station and Jacques Lodge  site.

The test will be “if you build it, will they come?” I think West Campus will be very attractive to healthcare workers and academics.  

There has been significant community engagement from the very beginning of the West Campus project with numerous open houses to present ideas and gather feedback.

There has been significant community engagement from the very beginning of the West Campus project with numerous open houses to present ideas and gather feedback.

Dubai's Healthcare City has many parallels with Calgary's West Campus.