River Living: Come Hell or High Water?

By Richard White, June 19, 2014 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the summer edition of Domus magazine). 

As we celebrate the first year anniversary of the great flood of 2013 I thought it would be interesting to see what impact it had on inner-city luxury home design and the housing market in the upscale communities that were impacted.

The most obvious changes in house design has been to raise the elevations of the entire basement, higher concrete window wells at ground level, water proof all window barriers, move all electrical systems and panels to the main floor or to the garage. Nothing too exciting or earth shattering, but logical changes (more later).

We have also seen a bit of a shift in where luxury homebuyers are looking.  Communities like Altadore have broken the two million dollar barrier as buyers are moving to higher ground.  Britannia, BelAir and Mayfair have seen their listing sell faster and at higher prices also as the lower Elbow Park, Glencoe and Roxboro buyers moved up Elbow Drive, but not past the dreaded Deerfoot barrier.

The Canadian Armed Forces had to be called in to help. 

Some homes had to be completely destroyed. 

Thousands of homes in the Bow River and Elbow River flood plain were damaged by the flood of 2013.

Thousands of homes in the Bow River and Elbow River flood plain were damaged by the flood of 2013.

West Hillhurst / Hillhurst Revival

In chatting with Ross Aitken, at ReMax his observation is that West Hillhurst and Hillhurst have never seen more interest from today's luxury homebuyer. These two communities did not flood and their proximity to the river pathways, downtown, Kensington, SAIT, ACAD, University of Calgary and Mount Royal, as well as both the Foothills and Children’s Hospitals making them a very attractive choice for urban professionals. He pointed out that the 22 million dollar plus home sales in these two communities since the flood is more than Altadore and Elbow Park.

Aitken also pointed out to me that in the 10 months prior to the flood only 20% of the million dollar plus homes sold in Calgary were in the NW quadrant, but that number has risen to 28% for the 10 months since the flood. While the upscale homebuyer, especially the oil patch executives have always preferred the SW, perhaps that is changing.

Acreages aren't hip?

One might think the inner-city luxury homebuyer might have moved out of the city entirely, but that is not the case.  Westside acreages in communities like Elbow Valley and Stone Pine are not moving quickly, in fact their sales have stagnated and prices are being reduced significantly to get a sale.  One theory is that today’s homebuyer is more “amenity conscious” and while living on an acreage has its advantages, it might not be enough anymore for the young hip GABESTER families (geologist, accountants, bankers, brokers and engineers) who want to be close to live music and theatre venues, spin class / yoga studios, Calgary’s growing café/patio culture and having the option to cycle or walk to work.

Calgarians are moving to higher ground. 

One of the many new mansions on the ridge in St. Andrews Heights.

A parade of new infills in West Hillhurst.

Just one of many new home construction sites in communities like Britannia, Altadore and Briar Hill located on higher ground. 

New Rules

You might think the luxury buyers would be looking at the Bow River’s northside ridge communities of Crescent Heights, Rosedale, Houndview Heights, Briar Hill and St. Andrew Heights.  However, the new monster mansions on the ridge in St. Andrew’s heights are struggling to sell.  The impact of the flood on prices and sales in the other Bow River ridge homes has been more or less neutral.  

Recently, the City of Calgary passed tougher new rules for rebuilding homes in flood-prone areas.  Things like all new homes and buildings in the flood fringe and overland flow areas must be 60m from the edge of the Bow River and 30m from the Elbow, Nose Creek or West Nose Creek.

All new homes must also must be constructed at a minimum of 0.3m above the highest grade existing on the street abutting the parcel of land that contains the building and all electrical and mechanical equipment must be located at or above the first floor.

Paul Battisella, whose inner city home was flooded and is General Manager of Battisella Developments builders of new condos in the Beltline, East Village and Hillhurst agrees with the changes. He would add that new homes in flood prone areas should also be installing large sump pumps in the basement with portable back-up generators in case of power failure and thicker basement slabs and waterproofing of foundation to avoid ground water issues, which was a big part of the flooding problem last year.

Battisella indicated the City has to proceed with caution regarding how it applies the new rules to existing homeowners so as not to be punitive to those wanting to do modest renovations and additions to existing homes.

Some are even questioning the wisdom of using the basement as a living space at all.  It is probably not the best idea if you are in a flood prone area to create an expensive home theatre space in the basement with lots of high-end built-ins like a bar and or vintage wine cellar.  Have we seen the last of the walk-out basement to the river?

This City of Calgary diagram visualizes how the terms floodway, flood fringe and flood hazard area is defined. (photo credit: City of Calgary website)

This is an updated map of the Bow River Floodway / Flood Fringe showing that the new Ven condo project by Bucci Developments is not in either.  (Photo Credit: Bucci website)

Similarly, a map of the Elbow River's Floodway/Flood Fringe from Bucci Development showing that Tribeca condo is outside the flood risk area. (photo credit: Bucci website)

Last Word

The impact of the flood of 2013 is not over and mitigation discussion are sure to continue for years.  

In March, homeowners in Elbow Park, Elboya, Ramsay, Erlton, Mission and Rideau-Roxboro area concerned about riverbank repairs, a new berm and flood barrier work currently underway at Stampede Park questioned what impact redirected flood water might have on their homes.  This is just the beginning of what is sure to be long and heated debates on the impact, cost and value of proposed flood mitigation projects.

The demand for home in in Calgary’s Elbow River communities continue to be strong. There has not been a mass exodus from these communities as one might have expected.  In many ways it is business as usual for luxury home and condo sales in 2014. The sale of luxury homes (over one million dollars) for the first four months of 2014 is up 12.8% from the same period in 2013.  When one looks at two million plus sales, the numbers are almost identical in 2014 and 2013 for the January to April period in the flood-affected communities.

Another sign the flood has not deterred Calgarians from wanting to live next to the river is the commencement of construction of the upscale The River condo located on the bank of the Elbow River, in Mission. More recently Concord Pacific announced they are proceeding with their luxury  condo project in Eau Claire on the Bow River. And, last fall Harvard Developments Inc. shared plans for a mega billion dollar redevelopment of their Eau Claire market site. 

Indeed, Calgarians love living near their rivers “come hell or high water!”

Concept rendering of the Eau Claire Market site redevelopment along the Bow River which flooded most of downtown Calgary in 2013.