2014: Calgary's condo culture comes of age!

2014 could well be branded the year of the “luxury condo” in Calgary with Vancouver’s Concord Pacific’s announcement of their 218-unit Eau Claire project, The Concord, which includes a 6,200 square foot penthouse with a price tag of 13 million dollars.  The project design team included Arthur Erickson, arguably Canada’s most celebrated architect.

It is interesting to note that this announcement comes just one year after Calgary’s great flood of 2013. The banks of the Elbow and Bow River continued to attract major upscale condo developments in 2014.   Joining The Concord along the Bow River is Avenue in the West End by the Vancouver development team of Grosvenor/Cressey’s and their architect James Chen.  Vancouver’s Anthem Properties also announced the final phase of Calgary’s largest condo development -the 1,000-unit Waterfront on the old bus barn lands on the east side of Eau Claire.  

Yes, Vancouver developers and architects continue to transform the south shore of the Bow River into a tony, upscale highrise urban community.  The only thing missing in 2014 was the announcement that Harvard Properties was moving forward with their billion-dollar Eau Claire Market site redevelopment designed by
Vancouver’s IBI/Landplan group (that was announced late in 2013).

Calgary’s Park Avenue

One would have thought it might take a few years to see any new condo developments in the Mission area given the devastation of the flood. The uber-chic River condo with its record condo setting $8 million dollar penthouse made some quick changes to it is flood prevention design while construction continued. 

But, the big new announcement in 2014 was the 14-storey XII boutique condo (on the corner of 2nd St and 26th Ave SW).  It will have only 12 units i.e. 10 floors will be a single condo with four floors consisting of two 2-floor units.  Designed by the Calgary’s own Sturgess Architecture, this project is a quantum leap in luxury with its car parking elevator that will allow residents get out of their car in the parkade at street level, so the car can be parked robotically in the parkade. How amazing is that!  The architectural design is also futuristic with its transformer-like shape.  Residents will also get private consultation with the architects and interior designer (Douglas Cridland) and make a trip to Vancouver (yes, Vancouver) to meet with balthaup kitchen team there.

Luxury condo development along 26th Avenue in Mission started in the late '70s. 

XII condo on 26th Avenue will set a new benchmark for contemporary architecture in Calgary. 

  The River condo on 26th Ave SW is Calgary's most expensive condo project to date.  

The River condo on 26th Ave SW is Calgary's most expensive condo project to date.  

Kensington is exploding

This past year has been a big one for Kensington village as new residents moved into Battisella’s Pixel and StreetSide Development Corporation’s St. John’s condo, both Calgary developers.  Vancouver’s Bucci Development started construction of Ven just east of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside LRT station and announced the Kensington, on 10th Street NW.  As well, Battistella also announced plans for Lido (as sister condo to Pixel), also on on 10th Street. 

After years no condo development, Calgary’s only NoBow urban community is finally participating in Calgary’s emerging condo culture. There are currently over 1,000 condos at various stages of development in Kensington Village.

  Bucci hasn't even completed its Ven condo in Kensington and they have already begun construction of Kensington on 10th Street. 

Bucci hasn't even completed its Ven condo in Kensington and they have already begun construction of Kensington on 10th Street. 

Battistella just finished Pixel in the background and almost immediately started on Lido in the foreground. 

Bridgeland is bustling

After stalling for a few years because of the recession, condo construction resumed in earnest in Bridgeland this past year. The completion of the St. Patricks’ Island pedestrian bridge in the Fall of 2014 and the redevelopment of the island itself, scheduled to be completed in 2015, is making Bridgeland a very attractive place for, Calgary rapidly increasing yuppie community.

Thus it’s not surprising that Apex and GableCraft Homes have decided to proceed with Bridgeland Crossing II and Assured Developments with Giustini Development Corp are proceeding with STEPS, both are within easy walking distance to the LRT and the new St. Patrick’s Island. 

Bridgeland Crossing 2 is currently under construction on Memorial Drive across from the LRT station. 

The Steps is just one of many modest condo projects approved, under construction or recently completed in Bridgeland. 

Suburban/Urban

Condo building continued to be strong in the Beltline with the topping off of The Park (Lake Placid Group) and Mark on 10th (Qualex-Landmark) as well as the first tower of The Guardian (Calgary’s tallest condo at 44-storey by Hon Development). However, new condo development wasn’t restricted to the greater downtown communities like the Beltline in 2014.

In fact, citywide condo development in 2014 outpaced single-family housing starts by two-to-one with 8,915 multi-family housing starts vs. only 4,363 single-family as of the end of November.  Not only were almost 90% of new condo units are being not built in the greater downtown; this trend is expected to continue.

The City approved several new “suburban/urban” villages in 2014.  In September, City Council approved West Campus, a planned community east and south of the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  After several years of community consultation, it approved the West Campus Development Trust’s a master plan for the 184-acre site that will eventually accommodate 15,000 new residents (mostly in condos) and 10,000 workers when completed by about 2025.   

In December, Truman Development presented its master plan for its 96-acre West District community to the City.  When fully built out, in 10+ years it will be home to 7,000 residents and 5,200 workers.  Both West Campus and West District are planned as complete communities that will allow residents (families, yuppies, empty nesters and seniors) to not only live, work, play and age in their community.

West Campus' main street with condos above and in the background. (rendering by RK visuals, photo credit: West Campus Development Trust.)

  Rendering of condo concept for West District (photo credit: Truman Development).

Rendering of condo concept for West District (photo credit: Truman Development).

Livingston is Brookfield Residential Properties' new urban community at the north edge of the city. It will have many of the features of SETON including a major town centre. 

Last Word

Recently, Brookfield Residential, one of North America’s largest homebuilders and headquartered in Calgary, branded its proposed new Livingston community at the northern edge of the City as “not your parents’ suburb.”  While still only in the conceptual stage, it promises to create a new town centre at the northern edge of the city, equivalent to their SETON urban village on the southeastern edge.

As of the end of November, metro Calgary multi-family starts was only 378 units shy of the City record of 10,602 units in 1978.  Indeed, Calgary’s developers are building condos at a record pace in the greater downtown communities, established neighbourhoods and in the new suburbs. 

But what is really exciting is that they are not just building condos, they are building communities that have a density and diversity of uses that hasn’t been seen for over a century. Calgary's new communities are not your parent's or even your grandparent's suburbs but your great-grandparents suburbs.

By Richard White, December 26, 2014 

NB: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on December 27, 2014

Concept rendering by RK Visuals of the SETON a planned new urban community at the city's southeast edge. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential Properties).

  Auburn Walk condo in Calgary's new community of Auburn Bay developed by Brookfield Residential Properties. 

Auburn Walk condo in Calgary's new community of Auburn Bay developed by Brookfield Residential Properties. 

What is urban living and who really cares?

By Richard White, November 27, 2014 

80% of Canadians live in cities, but only a small part live urban,” reads one of the tweets in a recent tweeter debate by a few of us urban nerds.

This got me asking myself “what really is urban living anyway?”  Can you live in a city and not live “urban?”

I tweeted the author asking what his definition of urban living was, but got no answer.  Indeed, too often people – including urban designers planners, architects, engineers, politicians, developers and yes, even myself use terms that even we don’t really have a shared meaning of and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense to others.

I have often thought the term “urban sprawl” should more aptly be called “suburban sprawl” as what is being referred to is the sprawl of low-density predominantly residential development at the edge of a city, areas commonly thought of as suburbs. But, I digress; perhaps a topic for another time.

  Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

  Is this urban living?

Is this urban living?

What is urban living?

I admit – not only did I not have a handy definition, I could not recall ever seeing one.  It begs a number of questions, including:

  •  Do you have to live in or near downtown to “live urban?”
  • Do you have to live in a community with a certain density to be considered urban living? 
  • Is urban living measured by the percent of time you walk vs. take transit vs. drive?
  •  Does urban living mean not having a car? Or, is it driving less than the Canadian average of 18,000 km/year?
  • Is urban living about the size of your house, condo and/or vehicle?
  • Is urban living about residing in communities with a diversity of commercial and residential buildings?  

I thought a Google search might help, but I struck out. Unable to find a nice clear and concise, definition I went “old school” and checked some dictionaries. They all just said something about “living in a city,” much too ambiguous to satisfy me.

  Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

  Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

 

Statistics Canada says…

 Not one to give up quickly, I turned to our government, specifically (and logically) Statistics Canada.  I found out that, in 2011, Statistics Canada redesignated urban areas with the new term "population centre" a new term was chosen in order to “better reflect the fact that urban vs. rural is not a strict division, but rather a continuum within which several distinct settlement patterns may exist (their words not mine).”

Stats Canada went further, identifying three distinct types of population centres: small (population 1,000 to 29,999), medium (population 30,000 to 99,999) and large (population 100,000 or greater).

They go on to say, “It also recognizes that a community may fit a strictly statistical definition of an urban area but may not be commonly thought of as "urban" because it has a smaller population. Or, functions socially and economically as a suburb of another urban area rather than as a self-contained urban entity. Or, is geographically remote from other urban communities.”  Have I lost you yet - it is getting very muddy for me!

For example, Airdrie, with its population of 42,564, is a medium size population centre, but it is socially and economically a suburb of Calgary.  On the other hand, Medicine Hat, with its population of 61,180 is also a medium size population centre, but because it is the largest population centre for a large geographical region, it could be thought of as “urban.” 

Despite its change in terminology, Statistics Canada’s current demographic definition of an urban area is “a population of at least 1,000 people where the density is no fewer than 400 persons per square km” (which would include all of Calgary’s 200+ communities).

Dig a little deeper and Statistics Canada defines low-density neighbourhoods as those where 67% or more of the housing stock is composed of single-family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings and/or mobile homes.  A medium-density neighbourhood is deemed one where the percentage of single-family, detached or mobile homes is between 33 and 67%, while high density is where these types of dwellings comprise less than 33% of the housing stock.

By this, Stats Canada identifies six high-density neighbourhoods in Calgary (they didn’t name them), by far the least of any of Canada’s major cities.  Perhaps the author of the tweet meant only those Calgarians living in Calgary’s six, high-density neighbourhoods are living urban?

  Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

YYC Municipal Development Plan

Still not satisfied, I moved on. I wondered if the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has a definition of “urban living” or a related term in its glossary of terms. The best I could find were the following:

Intensity: A measure of the concentration of people and jobs within a given area calculated by totaling the number of people either living or working in a given area. 

Complete Community: 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. 

So, where does that leave me and others who are interested in a meaningful debate about how we work together to build a better city. What would be a useful definition of “urban living” that professionals and the public to agree upon as the on debate how best to “urbanize” Calgary continues?

  Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

  Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Possible working definitions

One potential definition of “urban living” might be, “living in a place where you can comfortably walk, cycle or take public transit to 80% of your regular weekly activities (i.e. work, school, shop, medical entertainment and recreation).

As for The definition of “comfortable,” I leave up to the individual. For some, a comfortable walking distance might be 15 minutes; for others it might be 30 minutes. I know Calgarians who take the bus or even drive the two kilometers from Mission to work downtown, while others cycle 15+ km to work (and back). I myself used to walk 50 minutes to and from work downtown for 10+ years.  

A second possible “urban living” definition might be, “when you regularly use at least three of the four modes of transportation (walk, cycle, take transit and drive) to engage in your regular weekly activities.”

  High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

  Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

  Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Last Word

But really, does the average Calgarian even care if they a live urban or suburban? Thanks for indulging me.  I hazard a guess to say most don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly suspect they just want to be able to get to their activities in a timely, affordable manner.

Yet for us urban nerds, we are always thinking about how can we build a better city for everybody, one that is more cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, affordable, integrated and inclusive. It’s what turns our cranks!

By Richard White, December 4, 2014

Reader Comments:

GG writes: "Initially the definition was applied to the rural/city divide, and has since become a true city ‘divide’. It doesn’t seem to matter than many of these ‘urban inner-city communities’ were the suburbs of a few decades back, and the reasons that people built there and moved there are no different than those today.  By virtue of Calgary’s rapid growth, they are now close to the city center and have developed a ‘cachet’. This was not a result of great urban planning, foresight, or any attempt at smart growth. The densities in many of these communities are less than they are in the ‘reviled’ suburbs that are being built today. They were the product of development methods of the day, and schools and community centers were part of the package.  Families were one car or even no car, and transit was a common denominator. And today, it is all too common to see perfectly liveable houses bulldozed so that the affluent can enjoy a big house but be environmentally and developmentally superior by being an urban dweller, an inhabitant of the inner city."

CW writes: "A most excellent column. Certainly people do care very much about their urban living, yet our language completely fails to capture how we choose to situate ourselves in life. Why would that be? Everybody knows it's not good manners to talk openly about class, but a definition of urban living should take into the account the ability to insulate oneself from undesirable situations of class. Most people love the city they choose to live in, but they also wouldn't be caught dead in some parts of it."

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Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary 

Don't be too quick to just the new suburbs?

Importance of comfort, convenience and privacy in urban living 

Urban cottages & Gentrification 

 

 

West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

By Richard White, November 29, 2014

West District is a proposed new MAC (Major Activity Center) community on a 96-acre site that straddles the southwest communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge by Truman Developments. The boundaries are north of 9th Ave., west of 77th Street, east of 85th Street and south of Old Coach Banff Road in the southwest.

 A MAC is a term from the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan to describe an “urban centre for a sub-region of the city, which provides opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.”

West District is a unique infill MAC community, as the land surrounding it has already been developed for several years. Most new MACs are at the edge of the city with no surrounding communities.  As a result, Truman Development’s team of planners and urban designers have been able to respond to what currently exists, as well as what is missing for the West Springs and Cougar Ridge to become a vibrant live work play community.

They were also able to respond to the City’s guidelines for creating successful MACs, which were not in place or not possible given most of the previous developments in West Springs and Cougar Ridge were on small parcels of land with fragmented ownership making master-planning impossible.

Over the past year, Truman Development has embraced the City’s vision of creating a vibrant new mixed-use, mixed-density communities in consultation with the community.

  This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

Community Engagement

One of the first things Truman did right was to engage the existing community from the start, not after they had developed a comprehensive plan.  Rather than the old open house format where developers would present their vision after it was completed and then defend it when the individuals in the community raised questions and concerns.

They decided to open what they called the EngageHub in the spring of 2014, a purpose built 2,000 square foot building where people could visit, learn more and weigh in on some of the ideas being considered for West District. Since opening, the EngageHub has been open to the community 130+ hours  (weekdays, weekends and evenings) for people to drop-in to see how the West District plans were evolving based on community input.  

  The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

  The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

Density Dilemma

As with almost every new development in Calgary the biggest issue is always density. Too often the developer is put in an awkward situation as the City is demanding more density, but the existing community doesn’t want it.

For example, West District’s density is envisioned to be 36 units/acre, which is 10 times the current density of the surrounding developments.  However, when you average the density of the existing communities with the addition of West District the overall MAC density would be 5.3 units/acre, which is less than the City’s current goal of 8 units/acre for new communities and not that different from the 3.1 units/acre that currently exists. 

Too often the public hears the term density and immediately thinks 20 storey highrise condos, but in fact the density for West District and other proposed MACs will be achieved with a mix of single-family, town/row housing and some low and mid-rise condo bulidings.  This allows for a diversity of housing options that will be attractive and affordable for first homebuyers, families, empty nesters and seniors housing.

Indeed, vibrant communities include people of all ages and backgrounds. Truman Developments is Attainable Homes Calgary’s biggest multi-family partner and they are keen to see a healthy mix of market housing with some more affordable units in West District.

  This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

Central Park

Over the past seven months of community engagement one of the things Truman heard loud and clear was the need for a park to serve both existing and new residents. One of the community’s desires was to retain many of the existing and beloved Aspen Tree groves. As a result, the design team has developed large central park that balances passive natural areas with programmable activity areas, which will allow for year-round use.

West District Central Park

Traffic / Transit

Another key issue for existing residents when new developments are planned is the ability of roads and transit to handle the increased traffic.  While the West Leg of the LRT does provide improved transit service to the Calgary’s west-side communities, it is unfortunate that is it is surrounded by low-density communities rather than something like a West District. 

To capitalize on the City’s 1.4B investment in the West LRT, Truman Development is proposing a developer-funded express bus between West District and the 69th Street LRT Station, about four kilometers away. Kudos to Truman Development for taking this innovative initiative.

West District shuttle.jpg

Cost Effective Development

West District is an infill development and as such the area has already been serviced to urban standards for water and sewer, which means no addition costs for new infrastructure.   There is also a good network of existing major and arterial roads that will be further upgraded with the completion of the west leg of Stoney Trail.

In addition, West District will add an estimated $550M in new residential and business taxes over the next 50 years, which is significantly more than the $130M that would be generated by a typical low density suburban development. The additional half billions dollars can be used for new or enhanced parks, recreation centres, as wells as new buses or roads across the city – everyone benefits from mega infill developments like West District.

  One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited.  

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

  West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

NUVO Kensington

In many ways, West District is like building a new Kensington community on the west side of the city.  In fact, the new condos in Kensington - Pixel, St. John’s, Lido and VEN – are very similar to what is being proposed for West District. There are also similarities between West District’s Central Park and Riley Park and West District’s main street and the mix of shops along Kensington Road and 10th Street.

  While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

Last Word

One of the criticisms I often hear from new comers to Calgary, especially those from major urban centres is we don’t have enough walkable urban communities like Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood.

No plan is perfect, however, I am thinking the City should be fast tracking the approval of West District if we are serious about providing attractive, affordable and accessible housing for both existing and new Calgarians.

By Richard White, October 27, 2014

West District At A Glance

  • 7,000              residents
  • 3,500              dwelling units
  • 20%                detached/attached homes
  • 80%                4 to 8 floor condos
  • 10                    acres of park space
  • 500,000         sq. ft. or retail (small scale with urban grocery as anchor)
  • 1.2                   million sq. ft. of (office, medical, satellite education)
  • 5,200              workers 

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80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs.

"When it comes to house prices, here's how much location matters" was the title of a Maclean’s article in their November 17, 2014 edition. The story looked at how Canadian homebuyers in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary can save thousands of dollars by buying a home further away from downtown. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Most Calgarians and I expect those in other cities figured that out a long time ago.

But it was interesting to see that in all the cities except Calgary, the savings increased with every 10 minutes further you lived from downtown. But in Calgary, the price dropped from an average of $665,500 10 minutes from downtown to $515,900 if you lived 20 minutes from downtown and stayed in the $500,000 to $550,000 range until you got 50 minutes away.  Calgary’s big ring of established communities with similar housing stock in the 20 to 40-minute commute range to downtown, making them very attractive to downtown professionals with their higher than average salaries, stock options and profit sharing. 

Majority of Calgarians simply can’t afford to live in established neighbourhoods.

Do the math and you quickly find out the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live in the established neighbourhoods. A family income of $100,000 (Calgary’s median family income was $98,300 in 2012, Statistics Canada) will support a mortgage of only $300,000. I am told 3 times your gross income is a good benchmark for how much mortgage you can afford.  If we assume a generous down payment of say 20%, that means 50% of Calgarians can only afford a house or condo under $360,000.

A quick review of the City’s average home sales costs by community shows that in the southwest has no communities with an average selling price in the $360K range and there are only two in the northwest.   In the southeast, there would are three or four, while in the northeast almost all of its communities are close to the $360K mark. I realize that even with an average selling price over $360K in established neighbourhoods there will be many homes under that price, but most of them will be smaller and in need of renovations that will bring the price over the affordability of most Calgarians. 

So While the City of Calgary wants to encourage more Calgarians to live in the established neighbourhoods in the inner city west of the Deerfoot Divide, most Calgarians simply can’t afford the $500,000+ cost.  In fact, only 21% of Calgary’s households have an income over $150,000 which in turn would allow them to have mortgage of $450,000 which combined with say a $100,000 down payment would, get them a $550,000 house.  

If only 20% of Calgarians can afford to live in established communities, this means we have to accommodate 80% in the suburbs until we can find a way to build affordable housing for the average Calgarian in established communities. 

  A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

A street of older mid-century homes in one of Calgary's established communities on 50 foot lots. Typically they sell for $500+ to developers who knock them down and build a two story infill that is 1,800+ sf and better meets the needs of a modern family. 

  A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

A typical street of new infill homes in an established community. Prices start at $700,000 for older infills with new ones starting at $900,000.  

  A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

A new duplex in the inner city starts at about $900,000 as they are about 200sf larger than detached infills. 

  These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

These two new infills on a 25 ft lot sell for $900,000 for 1,800 sf. A similar size house and lot in the 'burbs sells for about $450,000. 

  New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

New condos in established communities start at $300,000 for studio, $400,000 for one bedroom and $500,00+ for a two bedroom.  

Why are we always focused on downtown?

However, my biggest beef with this study - and most of these kinds of studies for that matter is they are only looking at the downtown commuters, which represents only 25% of Calgary’s commuters. For the majority of Calgarians, their decision where to buy a house isn’t governed by the commute to downtown, and that majority is getting larger every year.

The City’s most recent job growth numbers from 2006 to 2011 show that downtown job growth was only 11.5% of the new jobs in the city, while growth in the City’s industrial areas accounted for a whopping 77% of the job growth.  Is it any wonder there is a huge demand for homes and condos in the southeast and the northeast near the industrial and warehouse developments?  In the ‘90s GO Plan, the City’s goal was to get people to live closer to where they work.  That being the case, we need to build more communities near our industrial lands.

The majority of Calgarians don’t need to live near downtown.

Retired Calgarians can live anywhere; commuting time is not a factor.  Many retirees I know have a goal of not leaving the house until after 9 am and being home before 3 pm leaving the roads available for those who need them.   

For those working in and around the airport, the ability to live in the far northeast and northwest means minimal time on the Deerfoot and a shorter commute time.  Living east of the Deerfoot in the far southeast also results in a short, 10 to 20-minute commute for those who work there.

With only one leg of the LRT serving the NE and none the SE the quadrant, workers in our major industrial, transportation and distribution centres have limited transit access and so the majority must drive to work.

Unfortunately, the large tracks of land needed for industrial and warehouse operations don’t create the concentration of jobs in a small geographical area needed for effective rapid transit. Transit only works well for downtown, and a few other places like large employment centres (e.g. university, hospitals), but not for the majority of Calgary workers. 

Calgary’s urban planners and politicians must realize that today’s Calgary is as much a distribution warehouse city as it is an oil & gas downtown office city. Did you know that transportation & manufacturing (mostly east of Deerfoot) accounts for 125,000 jobs in the city, while oil & gas adds up to only 72,000?  The NE with growth of the Calgary International Airport has evolved into a major economic engine for the city and could in the future rival downtown. Did you know that there are more hotel rooms in the northeast than in downtown?

Why Calgarians love the burbs.

While many young urban singles are willing to live in a 500-square foot home and pay $450+ per square foot that won’t work for families.  A young family of four wants 2,000 square feet (the same 500 square feet/ person), which means they can not afford the $500,000+ an older established neighbourhood home, but the home doesn’t meet their needs.  As a result, the majority of young Calgary families are forced to go to the edge of the city where starter homes or larger condos can be had for $300,000 to $400,00 and don’t need any major renovations.

Did you know 67% of Calgary households have children and another 2.3% are multiple family homes? It is therefore not surprising 62% of Calgarians want a single-family home, 16% want a semi-detached home and only 22% desire a multi-family one (Calgary Growth Benchmark, 2014).  Currently, there are more multi-family homes being built than single or semi-detached. Obviously, since supply isn’t meeting demand, the cost of single and semi-detached homes will only increase, making them even less affordable.

I know some will ask, “Why does a family have to be raised in a single-family dwelling?” And, indeed some parents will choose a semi-detached or multi-family home but most desire a single-family home where the kids to run, play and make noise without disturbing the neighbours. As well multi-family buildings don’t meet the storage needs for an active family in a four-season city like Calgary.

  Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

Suburban population growth from City of Calgary's "Suburban Residential Growth 2014 -2018 Report.

  Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

Land Supply (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018)

  Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

Residential Building Permit Applications, City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2014 - 2018 Report)

The BIG Question.

Should we be pushing families to live in multi-family housing in established neighbourhoods they can’t afford and aren’t any nearer to work? I fact, if we get more people to move into the established neighborhoods west of Deerfoot, we will be encouraging more people to drive to work, creating more traffic issues as there is no effective transit to their jobs in the far northeast and southeast. 

  Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

Calgary needs more mixed-use, mixed density urban style development on the edges of the city like Brookfield Residential's SETON. 

  SETON happy hour.

SETON happy hour.

A Radical Idea.

Instead of trying to get more people to live in the established communities (where the existing community members don’t necessarily want more density and the majority of Calgarians can’t afford to live there anyway), we should focus on how we can improve the live/work/play opportunities in Calgary’s northeast and southeast quadrants of the city.

In the 20th century urban thinking was to separate housing from employment centers so most of the housing was west of the Macleod and Edmonton Trails and the jobs east. By the late 20th Century the Deerfoot became the dividing line between living and working.  In the 21st Century, we need to look at integration, not separation of live/work centres. We need to rethink the balance between inner city and suburban growth. We need to think of suburban growth as mega infilling projects. 

We need to think of Calgary differently, as a federation of five different economic zones - NW, NE, SE, SW and Inner City.  Each one needs to have its own growth management strategy (land use, transit, roads, recreation, retail) that capitalizes on each zone’s unique aspects as a place to live, work and play. 

By Richard White, November 26, 2014.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Intelligent infilling or Living in a bubble!

Is Calgary too downtown-centric?

Don't be too quick to judge...

Calgary's Learning City is blooming!


Calgary's MAC attack

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.   

  Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

  An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

  MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets .  Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

  This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

MAC 101

The City’s Municipal Development Plan has some very specific guidelines when it comes to what is a MAC, these include:

  1.  200 jobs per gross developable hectare (a hectare is approximately the size of two CFL football fields including the end zones).
  2.  Provide a business centre/employment center; this could be an independent office buildings or office/medical space above retail.
  3.  Range of housing types – single-family, town and row housing, medium-density condos (under 6 floors), rental and affordable housing
  4.  Large format retail (big box) should be at the edge of the MAC to allow access from other communities
  5. 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.
  6.  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.

 

  This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

  Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street.  

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

  Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

  SETON at might with street patios. 

SETON at might with street patios. 

Coming Soon

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.  

  This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

  West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

Last Word

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. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to make Calgary better!

District: Community Engagement Gone Wild 

West Campus: Calgary's first 24/7 community?

3Rs of walkable communities?

 

Casel: Paris on the "on ramp"

Calgary’s Nikles Group took a huge risk in developing Casel condo on the corner of 17th Avenue and 24th Street SW.  It is a strange corner as 24th Street heading south serves as the “on ramp” to Crowchild Trail; not exactly the most attractive place to live.  It is also up the hill and west of the 17th Avenue action so not the most attractive walk to those living to the east in Scarboro or Bankview who have to cross the Crowchild Trail Divide to get to the retail.  As well, it is not near a LRT station; though it does have good bus service to downtown. Despite the negatives, Nikles Group has made it work.

Casel looking southwest on 17th Ave SW.

Casel, opened in 2011, could very well be the prototype for future condos in many Calgary inner city communities. It is unique in that it is nine stories with ground floor retail, second floor commercial and concrete construction. In contrast most new condos in Bridgeland, Marda Loop, West Hillhurst or Montgomery are four floors, with main floor retail, three floors of residences and wood frame construction.

It is also unique in that the main floor retail is not your usual fast food joints, café and professional offices.  The Nikles group successfully created a European market- like atmosphere with the cluster of Cassis Bistro, Market 17, J.Webb Wines and Bros Dough.  Many of my retail colleagues had doubts that these upscale retailers would survive in this location, yet now three years later and they seem to be doing well.

  J.Webb Wine Merchant is Calgary's oldest and one of its most respected independent wine merchants. 

J.Webb Wine Merchant is Calgary's oldest and one of its most respected independent wine merchants. 

  The market at Casel.

The market at Casel.

The design of Casel is also unique in that the two-floor podium is set square to the corner block location, while the seven floor condo tower is turned 45 degrees to the street.  This clever positioning of the condo tower provides everyone with great views of either the mountain or the downtown. It also makes for a better pedestrian experience, as there is no nine-storey wall adjacent to the sidewalk.  And thirdly, it means those living on the lower floors are further away from the street making them quieter.

Casel looking from the navy base on the east side.

At first I was disappointed by the dull grey and sliver façade of the building as seen from Crowchild Trail.  Being a colourist, it seemed to me the addition of colour would have added to the visual appeal of the building. However, when I explored the area on foot I realized that the colour and material of the condo tower is similar to the HMCS Tecumseh Navy Base on the block to the east of Casel.

Back story: Perhaps one of the strangest things in land-locked Calgary is that we have a navy base. Yes, in 1943 the Calgary Navel Reserve division was formed and named after a Shawnee chief who fought with the British and Canadian military forces in the War of 1812.

  The  HMCS Tecumseh Navy Base has a similar facade as the Casel condominium building.

The HMCS Tecumseh Navy Base has a similar facade as the Casel condominium building.

As the City of Calgary looks at how best to evolve our inner city communities from primarily residential to mixed-use walkable communities, we can expect to see more projects like Casel along key transit corridors with major bus routes like 17th Avenue and Kensington Road.  

By Richard White, October 26, 2014

An edited version of this blog appeared in Condo Living Magazine, October edition.

If you like this blog, you might like:

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West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild?

Richard White, September 15, 2014 

It wasn’t that long ago that suburban developers in Calgary created a new community master plan, presented it to city planners, got comments, made changes, held a one night community open house (if there was another community close by), integrated the community’s input and then got the  “go ahead” from the city. But no longer is one, or even a few open houses sufficient to get the City and the community’s approval for new developments – large or small.

In 2003, the City of Calgary adopted a community engagement (CE) policy called “Engage” that governs how both the City and developers must work with citizens (stakeholders) to ensure they are informed and engaged in all developments that impact their quality of life. Over the past 10+ years, community engagement has become more and more complex.  The City even has an “Engage Team” with a director and manager to ensure the proper engagement protocol has been followed not only by the private sector, but also by City departments.

  The EngagementHub aka EngagementHug along 85th Street in the community of West Springs. 

The EngagementHub aka EngagementHug along 85th Street in the community of West Springs. 

EngagementHub  (EH)

At first, developers were hesitant to embrace the idea of CE, but today most developers understand the need to get community support before you go to City planners, not after.

I recently learned Truman Development Corp. has embraced the idea of CE to an extent never before seen in Calgary and I expect Canada, maybe North America.  This past April, they launched an information-rich website announcing plans for creating a new 96-acre urban village community called West District in the new community of West Springs.  (For comparison East Village is 113 acres in size.)  

Then in June they opened a purpose-built “EngagementHub” building on the 700 block of 85th Avenue SW.  This 2,000 square foot EngagementHub that looks like a hip café from the street, was open for four weeks in June/July to talk to the community about “neighbourhood building” principles, then for another four weeks in August/September to share visuals around a proposed vision based on previous input.  The plan is for it to be open again in October to present even more detailed information. That is a total of over 200 hours of pre-application open houses - and, this doesn’t include all of the private meetings that have taken place with individuals and the community associations!

Is this an example of “community engagement gone wild?” Have developers finally abandoned the 20th century “design and defend” model of community planning i.e. the developer and consultants spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars developing a master plan and then defend it to the public and planners.

The EH is full of large concept renderings of sample streetscapes with shops, restaurants and patios, as well as concepts for modern, Paris-scale condos (six to eight floors high) and park spaces.  There are also worktables and lots of urban design books for the public to leaf through and share their ideas on what West District should bring to their community.

While some would say Truman’s vision for West District is like Calgary’s Kensington shopping district, in fact, it is the other way around - West District is what Kensington is trying to become as it starts adding more condos into its mix of existing shops and single-family homes.

Perhaps a more fitting name for Truman’s EngagementHub might be the EngagementHug as Truman has totally embraced the idea of community buy-in upfront, not at or near the end of the approval process. 

I can’t help but think the developers who so clearly seek community input should be rewarded with an accelerated approval process.  If the community supports the development, why should the City delay its approval - especially given it won’t cost the city a penny to service the land. This is in fact a mega infill project.

Inside the Engagement Hub is a massing model of the proposed community, along with lots of display boards with facts, figures and pictures. 

  Just a small section of the post-it board full of ideas and concerns left by visitors. 

Just a small section of the post-it board full of ideas and concerns left by visitors. 

  A works station with survey questions and interactive presentation screen.

A works station with survey questions and interactive presentation screen.

  Just a few of the resource books available for looking up ideas. 

Just a few of the resource books available for looking up ideas. 

  Interactive video screen with all of the key information at a touch.

Interactive video screen with all of the key information at a touch.

West District At A Glance

West District is a 96-acre, master-planned new community in West Springs, at the corner of 85th Street SW and Old Banff Coach Road.  Truman’s vision is to create a new walkable, mixed-use community with 3,500 residences (that could house 7,000+ people), as well as 500,00 square feet of street retail (think Kensington Village) and 1.2 million square feet of office space employing about 5,265 people. This is significantly different than the 700 residences (for 1400 people) and about 200 jobs that the current zoning allows for. 

Truman’s vision fits perfectly with the City’s vision of walkable suburban development. In the past, new communities might have 3 to 5 units/acre. West Springs and nearby Cougar Ridge (WSCR) has a current density of only 3.1 units per acre.  West District’s plan calls for 36 units per acre, which, while 10 times the current density, would only increase the overall density of the WSCR to 5.3 units/acre, well below the City’s 8 units/acre benchmark for new suburban development.

You would think it would be difficult to sell the idea of a modest density, mixed-use community in the middle of an existing upscale, suburban single-family community like West Springs.  However, to date, while some have questioned the idea of an urban village in the suburbs, everyone seems to have appreciated the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of their community. It will be interesting to see how the vision evolves as it enters the final stages before submission to the City later this fall.

Kudos to Truman Development Corp., Intelligent Futures and CivicWorks Planning + Design for establishing a new benchmark for community engagement in Calgary. 

  Conceptual condo rendering with ground floor shops and seven floors of residential. It should be noted that Truman is both the developer and builder so what you see should be what you get.  In most new communities, the developer creates the vision and then sells parcels of the land to builders who interpret the vision and often make changes from the conceptual drawings. 

Conceptual condo rendering with ground floor shops and seven floors of residential. It should be noted that Truman is both the developer and builder so what you see should be what you get.  In most new communities, the developer creates the vision and then sells parcels of the land to builders who interpret the vision and often make changes from the conceptual drawings. 

  Proposed land use map for West District. Not how streets link with existing community to the east. 

Proposed land use map for West District. Not how streets link with existing community to the east. 

  Map of the fragmented ownership of the West District site.  One of the issues the City has for development of the land on the west side of the city is fragmented ownership, which doesn't allow for comprehensive community planning. Truman has been able to get development agreements with all of the landowners, which then allowed them to develop an integrated community vision. 

Map of the fragmented ownership of the West District site.  One of the issues the City has for development of the land on the west side of the city is fragmented ownership, which doesn't allow for comprehensive community planning. Truman has been able to get development agreements with all of the landowners, which then allowed them to develop an integrated community vision. 

Last Word

More and more Calgary is seeing development of urban villages outside of the inner city – including Brookfield’s SETON in the southeast and Livingston in the far north. Traveling out to West Springs area is like traveling to a different city for an inner-city guy like me. Who knew that 85th Street is the new 4th Street with Mercato West, Vin Room West, Blue Door Oil & Vinegar and Ohh la la Patisserie? Maybe they will even host the Lilac Festival in the future!

With the predicted average of 20,000+ people moving to Calgary each year for the foreseeable future, the City and developers must find a way to work together to facilitate the approval of one of these urban villages every year, in addition to developments in new suburbs and inner-city communities.  

And although I realize planning approval resources are tight, the City must find a way to expedite projects like West District that help fulfill the City’s vision of creating walkable new communities. It must not be delayed it in a heap of red tape.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to create better communities

Intelligent Infilling or Living in a bubble

West Campus: Calgary's first 24/7 community

Mount Royal: City Beautiful or Man vs Nature?

Calgarians have a long history of being in love with building mansions. Long before there were Aspen Woods or McKenzie Lake Island, there was Mount Royal.

Back in the early 1900s, Mount Royal was just a treeless hill southwest of city limits, like many of the hills in today’s edge communities.  The land belonged to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) part of the 25 million acres of land granted to them by the federal in government in 1885 as an incentive to build Canada’s transcontinental railway.

 It wasn’t until 1905 that the CPR decided to subdivide the “yet to be named” land into huge (some an entire city block) lots to attract the wealthy and make a healthy profit.  By 1907, seven mansions had been built on Royal Avenue and Hope Street for wealthy American businessmen attracted to Calgary by its bustling ranching and agricultural opportunities. As a result, the new community got the nickname “American Hill.” 

The first Mount Royal Homes were built on land devoid of any trees. This home was built by D.J. Young in 1910 at the corner of 8th Street and Durham Road. 

Mount Royal becomes American Hill and you can see some of the early trees. 

Mount Royal early 20th century. 

By the 1916, homes like the Coste House were starting to be more park-like with substantial trees. Credit: Vicky Williams " Calgary Then and Now" (1978) 

  Found this on the gate of the Dower House.

Found this on the gate of the Dower House.

  If this is what Calgary looked like 100 years ago, imagine what it will look like in 2114. 

If this is what Calgary looked like 100 years ago, imagine what it will look like in 2114. 

CPR: Calgary's Past & Present

The CPR executives in Montreal (CPR’s corporate headquarters) and Calgary lawyer R.B. Bennett (future Canadian Prime Minister) were none too happy with the nickname, so they lobbied to have Calgary’s newest suburb named after the exclusive community of Mount Royal in Montreal (the home of William E. Van Horne, president of CPR).  CPR even went as far as to give the new community Canadian character street names like – Wolfe, Sydenham and Durham, as well as French-Canadian names like Champlain, Frontenac, Joliet and Vercheres.  Local folklore has it that the Montreal executives joked “let them damn Yankees try to pronounce those names when they tell their friends where they live.”

Mount Royal developed rapidly during the 1910 to 1912 Calgary boom, becoming the home of such notables as Colonel James Macleod and the A.E. Cross family.

In an ironic twist of fate, by the end of the 20th century - 1996 to be exact - Calgary businessman David O’Brien orchestrated the relocation of CPR’s head office to Calgary, much to the shock of the Montreal business community.

Today, many of the early 20th century mansions still exist in Mount Royal alongside many contemporary new ones.  In local historian Harry Sanders’ book “Historic Walks of Calgary,” there is a great self-guided walking tour of the community with lots of interesting insights.

City Beautiful

Like master-planned communities today, Mount Royal is a product of the urban thinking of its time.  The “City Beautiful” movement was very popular in Canada in the early 20th century, with its principles of creating urban communities that were less grid-like and more park-like. This meant curved streets, irregular lot shapes, boulevards, an abundance of parks and architectural controls; this is not dissimilar to what we saw in Calgary’s late 20th century communities.

Just one of the many curved streets of Mount Royal. You can see the proximity to Downtown with the office towers in the distance. In the early 20th Century, Mount Royal was on the edge of the city. 

  Many of the homes have huge lots that are like private parks. 

Many of the homes have huge lots that are like private parks. 

  Many of the homes are located at top of a hill, giving them an enhanced sense of grandeur. 

Many of the homes are located at top of a hill, giving them an enhanced sense of grandeur. 

  R.B. Bennett House was built in 1912.  Canada's 12th Prime Minister owned this home from 1917 to 1947, but never lived in it.  The rounded corner tower with its octagonal roof, it not typical of Georgian Revival homes (Calgary Walks, Harry Sanders, 2005).

R.B. Bennett House was built in 1912.  Canada's 12th Prime Minister owned this home from 1917 to 1947, but never lived in it.  The rounded corner tower with its octagonal roof, it not typical of Georgian Revival homes (Calgary Walks, Harry Sanders, 2005).

A carriage house that is now modest Mount Royal home.

Architecture 101

Sanders points out that while most of Mount Royal fits the “City Beautiful” mold, there is one exception. At the top of the hill between Prospect and Dorchester Avenues, from 10th Street to Carlton sits a grid-like development. This was the 10-acre site sold to Dr. Ernest Willis in 1904 for his hill-top sanatorium before the CPR’s design controls were in place.

Today, walking the streets of Mount Royal is like walking through a history book of home styles – English, Georgian and Revival, Art & Crafts, American Foursquare and more.  You will also see modern designs influenced by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright.   

One example is the Katchen residence at 800 Prospect Ave. SW.  Built in 1954 it was the home of Mire Katchen, a successful cattleman who, with his brother Samuel, founded Canadian Packers. The house, designed by Clayton, Bond & Morgridge, is an excellent example of the International style with its post and beam wood construction, flat roof, open floor plan and private outdoor spaces that integrate with the interior living spaces.   

  Katchen Residence.

Katchen Residence.

  Another of the mid-century modern homes.   Note that there is no sidewalk on this side of the street and no massive driveway, creating a nice balance between man and nature. 

Another of the mid-century modern homes. Note that there is no sidewalk on this side of the street and no massive driveway, creating a nice balance between man and nature. 

  One of the few homes in Mount Royal with an unobstructed view of the street. You don't get set-backs like this in new subdivisions, even on an estate lot. 

One of the few homes in Mount Royal with an unobstructed view of the street. You don't get set-backs like this in new subdivisions, even on an estate lot. 

  It is hard to tell if this is a new house or a modernized turn of the century home. 

It is hard to tell if this is a new house or a modernized turn of the century home. 

What's in a name?

One of the things I love about the mansions of the early 20th century is that they took on the names of their owners.  Sanders’ book is full of names like Davidson Residence and Coach House, R.B. Bennett House, Coste House etc. each with their own story to tell. 

A quick scan of current MLS listings shows that you can still buy a modernized piece of history, i.e. a 1910 Mount Royal home on a one-acre lot complete with a heated 6 car garage and a Carriage House.  The average Mount Royal home sells for about $2.5 million for a 3,000+ square foot home.  It is also interesting to note there are lots of families living in Mount Royal - not just empty nesters.  In fact, 25.5% of Mount Royal’s residents are under the age of 19, which is higher than the city average of 24%.

If you are a gardener, Mount Royal is a great place to wander and see what survives in Calgary, as many of these gardens are 100 years old.  It truly is like walking in a park as the huge lots allow for many huge trees and shrubs, something that isn’t possible on the tiny lots in Calgary’s new subdivisions with all their underground services.

Back story: Developers and urban planners in the late 20th century buried the ugly overhead wires to make new suburbs more beautiful. However, the unintended consequence was that large trees could not be planted near the underground services making tree-lined streets in new suburbs a thing of the past. As you wander Mount Royal, you get the feeling of a nice balance between man and nature, something missing in new suburbs where the house, driveway and road dominate. 

As you wander Mount Royal you will discover historical artifacts like old fieldstone fences and old coach houses that have since become separate homes. Many of the huge lots have been subdivided allowing for new infill homes to be built. 

Yes even Mount Royal is being densified! 

One of the many river rock walls from the early 20th Century that add charm to the community. 

Coste House mailbox

Not everything in Mount Royal is conservative and historic, found these blue trees that have a wonderful luminous quality that is ver contemporary.  Could this be an environmental statement?

  Just one of many infills in Mount Royal; this house could be in any one of a dozen or more inner city communities in Calgary. 

Just one of many infills in Mount Royal; this house could be in any one of a dozen or more inner city communities in Calgary. 

By Richard White, August 23, 2014 (An edited version of this blog appeared in the Fall edition of Domus Magazine.) 

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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.

Postcards: Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix)

By Richard White, May 6, 2014

I had no idea the world’s largest museum of musical instruments (15,000 instruments from over 200 countries) was located in Phoenix when we arrived there.  It was only by chance that I found a mention of it while surfing the net.  It looked interesting so I took a chance and after a "too short" visit I can safely say it is very impressive. 

What is just as impressive though is that Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation, was able to accomplish the feat of building this world-class museum in just five years from its inception. 

The story goes (according to one of the museum’s gallery educators) that Ulrich was in Europe in 2005 looking to purchase some major artworks when he got the idea to create a major new museum focusing on musical instruments.  Using his Target store opening experience, he set a very ambitious goal of having the museum open in five years.  This is unheard of in museum circles where even planning and fundraising for a museum expansion or renovation can take decades, let alone one that had no land, no collection and no staff.

Ulrich immediately hired Rich Varda (who oversees Target’s team of store designers) as the main architect to create the building and exhibition displays.  He also hired Bille R. DeWalt, a cultural anthropologist (University of Pittsburgh) as the founding president and director to guide the development. 

True to his word, the Musical Instrument Museum opened five years later, in April 2010. The $250 million dollar museum has five huge galleries devoted to Africa and Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, and the United States and Canada. There are almost 300 vignettes, each with historical instruments from the country, related artifacts and a short video about the people and the instruments.

With the videos using the latest Wi-Fi technology, you don’t have to press any buttons. As soon as you get near the videos, the headphones you are provided with pick up the sound and all you need to do is listen. The museum also has a theatre for concerts, a conservation lab and an “experience gallery” where visitors can play the instruments.  You could easily spend all day there. They even have a two-day pass to allow you to come back if you haven’t given yourself enough time to digest everything in one day.

My only complaint is the museum is located at the edge of the city, making it accessible only by car. It’s unfortunate it wasn’t designed as an anchor for a new urban village or perhaps closer to some of the other Phoenix museums to create a museum district.

The guitar exhibition in the lobby.

Lyre guitar, France, c. 1815. I loved the mask, folk-art quality of this guitar

Harp guitar, Germany, 1994 (replica of 1920 harp-guitar by W.J.Dyer % Bros.)

The integration of the local costumes relating to the music and culture was impressive.

A framed collection of harmonicas.

The trumpet call harmonica was probably my favourite piece. 

The evolution of the bag pipes.

Binzasara (rattle), 20th century, wood and rope

One of the five exhibition gallery spaces each the size of a Target store.

Look from the second floor galleries to the lobby below.

Footnotes:

The Musical Instrument Museum is impressive not only as a music museum, but also as an art museum and a cultural history museum.  It is definitely a must see if you are in Phoenix.  

When you think of Phoenix you don't think of it as a cultural mecca.  However after spending six days in the Phoenix and area my image of the city changed significantly because of the impressive museums we visited. And we only visited a few.

Here is quick list Phoenix museums: 

  • Phoenix Museums
  • Phoenix Art Museum
  • The Heard Museum
  • Arizona State University Art Museum
  • Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology
  • Arizona Science Centre
  • Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
  • Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright's School of Architecture)
  • Desert Botanical Garden  

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Spruce Cliff: A hidden gem

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours on March 27, 2014. 

By Richard White, May 3, 2014

As an avid off-the-beaten path shopper, I recently discovered the community of Spruce Cliff when I went there to check out Louche Milieu, a mid century modern shop located in the Spruce Cliff Shopping Centre.   The “shopping centre” name is a bit deceiving as it is just a single row of six or seven small retail shops. But sometimes you find the most interesting things in small out-of-the-way places. 

Louche Milieu was definitely worth the trip. It was full of vintage furniture and home accessories, all in great shape and nicely displayed.  We also enjoyed a coffee and homemade muffin at the cute Little Monday café that had just opened.   There was something refreshing and authentic to this vintage ‘50s shopping centre with its locally owned and operated shops, something missing from the big box franchised power centres.

If you blink, you would miss Spruce Cliff. Driving along Bow Trail just west of the Shaganappi Golf course, it parallels Bow Trail for only five blocks – 33rd to 38th St SW.  Its boundaries are Bow Trail on the south, Bow River on the north, 38th street to the west and Shaganappi Golf Course on the east.  Though the land was annexed by the city of Calgary in 1910, it wasn’t developed until the ‘50s.

What intrigued me as I entered the community along Spruce Drive SW, was the dichotomy of the many small mid 20th century apartment complexes with the large 21st century Westgate Park and Copperwood condo projects. It was as if two worlds were colliding.  Coincidently, a few days later I was reading Robert M. Stamp’s book “Suburban Modern” where he documents postwar dreams in Calgary and there is a section on the “Spruce Cliff Apartments.”  They were a $7 million, social-housing project designed by Rule, Wynn & Rule that are “sensitively distributed across the site, establishing a park-like setting (32 buildings over a 50-acre site) and offering remarkable views of the city skyline.” 

Driving around the community there was a conspicuous absence of single-family homes.  Indeed, Spruce Cliff’s housing mix is different from most Calgary communities with 65% of its housing stock being apartments, (city average 27%) and only 42% of the homes are owner-occupied (city average 73%).  A check of the community’s demographics and you find Spruce Cliff is a haven for young single Calgarians - 37% of the population are 25 to 34 year of age and 71% live alone.

It is not surprising Spruce Cliff is attractive to young professionals (31% have a university degree vs city average of 25%) given you can walk/cycle to downtown or catch the LRT train at the nearby Westbrook Station.  In addition, there are few places in Calgary where you can walk to a golf course for a round of golf in the summer or some cross-country skiing in the winter. You also have easy access to Edworthy Park and the Douglas Fir Trail for hiking and more biking.  

Spruce Cliff has been home to the Wildflower Arts Centre for over 30 years, offering classes to everyone from preschoolers to seniors.  Recently they offered a “Famous Artist” series of lectures covering everything from the Group of Seven to Matisse.  In addition there are pottery, painting and drawing classes, making it a fun place to discover your inner artist.

Spruce Cliff is also home to Calgary’s annual Greek Festival at the Hellenic Community Centre; this year’s festival happens from June 20 to 24.  Calgary’s Hellenic Orthodox Community was formed in 1957 and the St. Demetrious Greek Orthodox Church was built two years later. It has since been joined by the St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church and the Church of Shepard, creating a church campus in the middle of the community.  If you have always wanted to go to Greece but haven’t yet made it, head to Spruce Cliff for this year’s festival.  

Like many of Calgary’s inner city communities, Spruce Cliff is about to be transformed from a low-density ‘50s residential community into a early 21st century mixed-use community.  The most obvious evidence of this change is Intergulf-Cidex’s three high-rise towers right on Bow Trail at Spruce Dr. SW.  Westgate Park added not only 480 high-end condos, but started to create the link between Spruce Cliff and the planned Westbrook LRT Station transit-oriented urban village.

Similarly, the new Copperwood condos along Hemlock Crescent added 517 units in several buildings, each with spectacular views of downtown, Bow River valley and the mountains.  These two developments alone have attracted over 1,500 affluent new young professionals and empty nesters to Spruce Cliff, who no doubt will germinate other new developments like Louche Milieu and Little Monday café.   

Spruce Cliff is yet another example of how Calgary’s inner city communities are successfully being transformed into active, attractive, diverse and denser 21st century neighbourhoods. 

St. Demetrious Greek Orthodox Church

Little Monday Cafe

Louche Milieu

Spruce Cliff Shopping Centre

Westgate condos

Wildflower Arts Centre

Shaganappi Golf Course 

Aspen Woods: Home to Calgary's "nouveau riche!"

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's Neighbours on April 22nd, 2014.

By Richard White, May 2, 2014

In the early 20th century, Mount Royal was Calgary’s new upscale community. Nicknamed American Hill, it was very popular with those from our neighbouring states to the south who were moving to cowtown.  Fast forward to the early 21st century, and it is Aspen Woods that it the hot upscale new community.  It too is located on a hill (Signal Hill), just a little farther away from downtown with boundaries being from 17th Avenue SW north to Bow Trail and 69th Street SW west to 101 Street SW. 

The old real estate adage “location, location, location” being the most important factor in home buying was never more true than it is for Aspen Woods.  What people love about living in Aspen is that it is 15 minutes to downtown and 15 minutes out of town to the mountains.  It is also 15 minutes to Chinook Centre (Calgary’s biggest mall), the University of Calgary, Foothill Hospital and Alberta Children’s Hospital.

The location is also great for young families with the best collection of schools in the city.  In addition to public and Catholic schools, there six private or charter schools – Calgary Academy, Calgary French & International School, Calgary Waldorf School, Edge School, Rundle Senior High and Webber Academy.  It should come as no surprise then that 25% of the population is under 14 years of age compared to the city average of 18%.  What might be shocking though is that only 3% of the population is over 65 (City average 10%).

 Aspen Woods is a haven for Calgary’s successful young executive and entrepreneur families - 71% of the population is married (City average 50%), a whopping 45% have university degree (City average 25%) and home ownership stands at 90% (City average 73%).  However, unlike Mount Royal in the early 20th century, 24% of the Aspen Woods’ residents are visible minorities, exactly the same as the city average. 

In addition to its great location and schools, Aspen Woods also has some great shopping in the community and nearby. The Aspen Landing shopping centre is a hybrid of urban street shopping and suburban big box stores.  Residents can shop at trendy places like Blush Organic Market, Ladybug Bakery & Café and boutique wine stores like Merlo Vinoteca.

Jennifer Rempel Executive Director of the 4th Street BRZ (business revitalization zone) is typical of many young Calgarians who have chosen to move to Aspen Woods upon the arrival of their first child. To quote Rempel, “For a 30 something (with a new family), if you have lived somewhat inner city for most of your 20s and into your 30s, and are looking to move to a family community that still has great restaurants, cafes, shopping without the drive on Deerfoot to work, Aspen has it all. It’s the type of community where kids play hockey in the street during the day and parents can walk to dine at Mercato at night.”

Smiling, she adds that it’s just coincidence that many of her 4th Street merchants have opened a second location in or near Aspen Woods, including Vin Room West, Mercato West, Original Joes and Frilly Lilly.

Aspen Woods residents also enjoy having access not only to one of Calgary’s best, in fact one of North America’s best recreational centers – Westside Recreational Centre. Did you know it is home to the largest leisure ice surface in North America? It also has Canada’s first youth-dedicated wellness centre, where they have their own place to work out and hang out.

As you would expect and hope, Aspen Woods has been carefully designed to preserve its many stands of Aspen trees and to provide views and access to the many ravines as it is the beginning of the foothills.  It is more like living in a park than living in an urban or suburban community.  It shares some of the elements of the international “City Beautiful Movement” of the late 19th century where architects and urban planners introduced the idea that if cities focused on designing beautiful, monumental and grand parks, plazas, streets and buildings, there would be more social harmony and order in the lives of its citizens. 

It isn’t cheap to live in Aspen Woods with the average new home priced at over one million dollars.  The community grabbed national attention last February when a 9,300 square foot home dubbed the “French Castle” sold for over $10 million. 

Aspen Woods truly is the home to many of Calgary’s noveau riche. 

Westside LRT Station Parkade (photo credit: dominion stuart olson)

The Aspen Woods castle (photo credit: Ross Pavl)

Blush Lane Organic Market

Rundle Senior High 

Aspen Woods skateboard park

Westside Recreation Centre

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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Flaneuring the Fringe: 19th Street NW

By Richard White, March 10, 2014

For Calgarians and tourists alike, exploring Calgary’s urban “street life” all too often means we head to the same places – 17th Avenue, Inglewood, 4th Street, Kensington, the Design District or maybe Stephen Avenue. This is the second of a three-part look at “street life” on the fringe of Calgary’s city centre. 

19th Avenue NW from Nose Hill Park to the Bow River is a popular bike route from the northwest into the downtown.  Along this corridor are two urban hubs, one in West Hillhurst from 1st Ave to 3rd Ave NW and another at 20th Avenue in Capitol Hill.  Neither are presently on the radar of urbanists, but they should be.

Main Street West Hillhurst, (aka 19th Street NW)

West Hillhurst is one of Calgary’s most active infill communities with construction of new homes on almost every avenue. And now the under construction four-storey Savoy condos at Kensington Road and 19th St corner will bring urban living a step closer to reality for this community.   Rumour has it the Savoy developers are courting Phil & Sebastian for one of its retail spaces.  Another rumour has Starbucks moving into a former restaurant space on 19th Street.  Even without these cafes, Main Street West Hillhurst has all the makings of a great community hub with its dry cleaners, hair salon, florist and hardware store and office spaces.

Dairy Lane (391 - 19th St NW)

Dairy Lane has been a fixture on 19th Street since 1950.  If you like omelettes, burgers and milkshakes, this is the place to go.  Dairy Lane has strong connections to 20 different farm-to-table suppliers.  A very popular breakfast spot; don’t be surprised if people are eating on the patio even in winter as they provide heaters and blanket.  They also provide coffee to those who have to wait in line to get a table either inside or out.  Dairy Lane proves that good things really do come in small places – seating capacity inside is about 20 people. 

Central Blends (203 - 19th St NW)

This is my favourite place in the city for muffins – they are chock full of fruit and fresh out of the oven every morning at 7 am.   And Central Blends is more than just a café; it is also an art gallery with revolving exhibitions of local artists/artisans - you never know what you are going to find here.  This is where both hipsters and GABEters chill in West Hillhurst.

Amato Gelato Café (2104 Kensington Rd NW)

The local retailer for Mario’s Gelati traditional Italian ice cream, Amato Gelato offers over 50 varieties of gelato, sorbetto, yogurt, tofulati and specialty desserts.  Open year round, it becomes especially animated in the summer, when it becomes one of the city’s best places for people and dog watching.

SA Meat Shops (106 - 2120 Kensington Rd. NW)

Located in the strip mall next door to Amato Gelato, it offers authentic home-cured South African sausages, dried meats and groceries. Its Piri Piri chicken was cited in Avenue Magazine’s top 25 things to eat in Calgary.  Looking for a snack? Try the dried beef or buffalo sausage sticks or chewy dried beef biltong (a cured meat that was originated in South Africa, similar to beef jerky but thicker).   

West Hillhurst Recreation Centre (1940 - 6th Ave NW)

For those into vintage, you may want to slip into the West Hillhurst Recreation Centre.  This recreation block dates back to the ‘40s when “The Grand Trunk Hot Shot League” needed some playing fields.  In 1951, a clubhouse was built on this corner, the arena followed in 1971.  On hot summer days, the adjacent family- friendly outdoor Bowview Pool is a welcome throwback to the ‘50s. 

  One of literally thousands of new infills that are redefining urban living in West Hillhurst and all communities north of the Bow River within a 45 minute walk, 20 minute cycle or 10 minute drive of downtown Calgary. . 

One of literally thousands of new infills that are redefining urban living in West Hillhurst and all communities north of the Bow River within a 45 minute walk, 20 minute cycle or 10 minute drive of downtown Calgary.

  Bowview Pool is part of West Hillhurst's recreation block which includes the pool, arena, playing fields, playground, gym, squash courts, tennis courts and meeting rooms.  

Bowview Pool is part of West Hillhurst's recreation block which includes the pool, arena, playing fields, playground, gym, squash courts, tennis courts and meeting rooms.  

  Amato Gelato Cafe is popular with the young families who are moving into West Hillhurst. 

Amato Gelato Cafe is popular with the young families who are moving into West Hillhurst. 

  Central Blends Cafe has an "everyday" Mexican charm to it. 

Central Blends Cafe has an "everyday" Mexican charm to it. 

  Dairy Lane is very popular summer or winter. 

Dairy Lane is very popular summer or winter. 

Capitol Hill Corner, (aka 20th Avenue at 19th Street NW)

 Just up the hill from West Hillhurst, across the TransCanada Highway (aka 16th Avenue North) at 19th Street and 20th Avenue is Capitol Hill Corner – a collection of old and new shops and small offices buildings for various professional services and a drug store. 

Edelweiss Village (1921 - 20th Ave NW)

Edelweiss is like entering a little European village complete with café, cheese shop, butcher shop, bakery, grocery and gift shop all under one roof. Though not very big, it packs a lot of product on it shelves with food and home accessories from Swiss, German, Ukrainian and Scandinavian suppliers – only in Canada!  

Weeds Café (1902 - 20th Ave NW)

Established in 1964, this bohemian corner café serves a wide selection of handcrafted food, beer, wine and 49th Parallel coffee.  The walls are covered with local art and there is live music on weekends.  It is a “chill space” for many students from University of Calgary, SAIT and Alberta College of Art & Design.

Ruberto Ostberg Gallery (2108 - 18th Street NW)

It’s one of Calgary’s best-kept secrets with its eclectic exhibition schedule of local artists’ work on the main floor and artists’ studios in the basement.  Exhibitions change monthly featuring everything from glass and ceramics in various genres realism and expressionism.  Kitty-corner to Weeds and just a block east of Edelweiss, it’s worth checking out.

 

  Edelweiss Village is a bit of Europe in the middle of Capitol Hill. 

Edelweiss Village is a bit of Europe in the middle of Capitol Hill. 

  Weed's Cafe is a charming bohemian hangout.

Weed's Cafe is a charming bohemian hangout.

Glass work by the Bee Kingdom collective at Ruberto Ostberg Gallery.

  Bee Kingdom's opening night at Ruberto Ostberg Gallery in early March. 

Bee Kingdom's opening night at Ruberto Ostberg Gallery in early March. 

Last Word

While the City of Calgary officially considers Calgary’s City Centre to be on the south side of the Bow River i.e. downtown and the beltline I think it is time to rethink those boundaries. 

In reality our City Centre should encompass the north side from 20th Avenue south to the Bow River and from 19th Street NW east to at least 11th Street NE in Bridgeland. 

Doing so would include Kensington, Edmonton Trail, Centre Street and Bridgeland, all of whom offer local residents a walkable urban living experience with their cafes, restaurants and shops. 

Calgary's urban experience is more than just downtown and the Beltline.

Do we all need to go back to kindergarten?

By Richard White, March 6, 2014

Learning to share is a key lesson we are all supposed to learn in kindergarten.  Did many of us miss it? Do some of us need a “do over?”  Specifically, why can’t we learn to share the parking in front of our houses?  Seems to me every day the number of free parking spots in Calgary’s inner city communities dwindles. 

I pride myself in being able to find a 2-hr parking spot wherever I go – downtown, Beltline and inner city - whenever.  Yes sometimes I have to walk five or ten minutes, but I don’t mind as often I discover something interesting flaneuring along the way and it’s just good active living. 

My “tipping point” was arriving recently at Bodhi Tree yoga on 14th St. and 8th Ave NW and finding six, 2-hour parking stalls on 8th Avenue have now become permit only.   The parking spaces are located at the side of a corner house so the homeowner already has street parking in-front on 15th Street. Why do the home owners need six more on 8th Avenue?

Over the past 10 years, I have watched as gradually most of the street parking in the area has become paid or permit parking.  First it was the residents along 15th and 16th Street that converted their street parking from 2-hour parking to permit. Then the seniors’ home on 8th Street converted their 15th Street parking in permit parking, followed by the Calgary Parking Authority creating paid parking around the old Grace Hospital and Hillhurst School.  I wouldn’t mind if the permit parking spots were used, but they sit empty most of the time.  That is just selfish.

  This is the corner where the 8th Ave street parking has been converted from 2-hour to permit.  These two cars are parked illegally, I expect they didn't realize the signage had changed.  

This is the corner where the 8th Ave street parking has been converted from 2-hour to permit.  These two cars are parked illegally, I expect they didn't realize the signage had changed. 

  This is the Seniors' complex that had the 15th street parking changed from 2-hour, to no parking except for the one handicapped parking spot which makes sense. 

This is the Seniors' complex that had the 15th street parking changed from 2-hour, to no parking except for the one handicapped parking spot which makes sense. 

Though there is some off-street visitor parking for restaurant, yoga studio, and various offices in the 8th Ave/14th St condo complex, it is very awkward to get in and out of given the access is directly off the busy 14th Street.

For inner-city communities to thrive and become more walkable, we need to encourage more everyday amenities like cafes, pubs, restaurants, hair salons, dry cleaners, yoga studios, florist, daycares and medical offices to locate in these communities.  We also must recognize small businesses can’t survive on walk-in, transit and cycling traffic only; there needs to be some street parking for those who arrive by car.  To ask small businesses to provide parking on site, or cash-in-lieu is not realistic or affordable.  We need to learn to share the abundant street parking that already exists which, for much of the time sits empty day and night, weekdays and weekends. 

Why are we so selfish that we want to reserve the parking in front of our house for just our private use?  In kindergarten we are supposed to learn how to share. Perhaps we all need to go back for a refresher class, “Sharing 101.”

It is not just me who feels this way.  A colleague shared with me a story last week, about her Mount Pleasant neighbours who successfully lobbied to have their street parking changed to permit only.  She had no say in the change; if the majority wants to have permit parking then they get permit parking. 

The back story to this is a 4th Street NW restaurant on the corner that had become very popular for its good food and live music resulting in more cars parking on their street and staying longer. Is this another case of NIMBYism? Yes we want to have more community amenities, just not next to ME!

This is the Mount Pleasant street which will be limited to permit parking only.  As you can see there is lots of room to share the street parking.  Yes maybe you won't get the spot right in front of your house - the walk will do you good (or maybe you can clean out the garage in the alley and use it to park your car rather than store your junk).

And yes, I do practice what I preach.  We have a mid-block, busy day care (with no street parking) across the street from our home where 50 or so parents arrive twice a day, every weekday to drop off and pick up their kids. As we live on a cul-de-sac, it means everyone has to turn around mid-block to get out.  Yes, some days it is gridlock on our little street (and knock on wood, to our knowledge there has never been an accident in over 20 years). We even have some parents who drop off their kids, park all day and cycle into work.

The funky daycare fence is on the right and the row of staff cars parked along the street is upper left.  Note there is no parking in front of the daycare to allow for drop-off during the day. 

Starting about 7 am and 4 pm the cars arrive for the Daycare Ballet. You can see the white truck is parked on the berm of the park, the white SUV is backing into the spot in front of the daycare. While another SUV is parking in front of our house. 

  Here you can seethe  red car blocking the lane and two cars edging past each other.  All the while there are parents with kids crossing the street and alley.  It is chaos sometimes, but just for a few hours and then the ballet is over.    Personally, I love to watch the parents pick-up the kids, often in the summer they will run to the playground and play before going home.  One day had over 20 parents and kids playing tag in the park, some were neighbour kids some from the daycare, it didn't matter we just all had fun.  Community is about sharing, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Here you can seethe  red car blocking the lane and two cars edging past each other.  All the while there are parents with kids crossing the street and alley.  It is chaos sometimes, but just for a few hours and then the ballet is over.  Personally, I love to watch the parents pick-up the kids, often in the summer they will run to the playground and play before going home.  One day had over 20 parents and kids playing tag in the park, some were neighbour kids some from the daycare, it didn't matter we just all had fun.  Community is about sharing, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Luckily, as we have a park across the street (meaning fewer houses) this allows for extra parking and turning around space.  We have chatted with the neighbours and while all are frustrated sometimes with the traffic and parking, we have decided (so far) to share the road and parking – no 2-hour limit, no permit parking only.

In some cases it is not just about “foreigners” parking in front of your house that gets people upset, I have heard about streets where it gets nasty if a neighbour parks in front of your house instead of theirs.  For a fun and informative blog on this issue, check out “Who parked in my spot?”

Last Word

Why can’t we all learn to just get along?  Seems like everywhere I turn our society is become more divisive and nasty - “inner city vs. suburb needs,” “cyclists vs. drivers,” “developers vs. neighbours,” “city vs. provincial leaders” “provincial vs. federal government leaders” - need I go on?  Is this the net result of the “what’s in it for me?” culture that has been fostered for several generations?  I say “everyone back to kindergarten!”

If you like this blog, you might like:

Why can't we share the road?

Building a better bike rack.

Be a tourist in your own neighbourhood