New Condos Create Hidden/Invisible Density

I am not sure who coined the phrase “hidden or invisible density” but I first heard it in the late ‘90s from Brent Toderian, then City Centre Manager, City of Calgary and now, an international freelance urban planner.  In his case, he was referring to lane housing, which is exactly as it says – new homes built facing the back lane in established communities, i.e. they are hidden or invisible from the street.  Since then, lots of “lane housing” has happened – and continues to happen - in established communities across Calgary. 

However, recently I have become aware of two condo projects I think would fit an expanded definition of “hidden or invisible density.”  One is in Altadore along 16th Street SW by Brookfield Residential and the other is in West Hillhurst, just off Crowchild Trail being built by Truman Homes.   

In both cases, the density being added is significant (i.e. on the same scale as a mid-rise condo project at about 100 units/acre), yet the housing isn’t any taller than the neighbouring new infill homes. From a pedestrian experience, these modest condo developments fit nicely into the traditional streetscape with their front lawns, sidewalks and small porches.

Altadore 36 streetscape

Altadore 36

Brookfield Residential has recently begun marketing Altadore 36, located at the corner of 16th Street and 36th Avenue SW (hence, the name).  In this case, the developer will be replacing eight dilapidated old homes with two 3-storey buildings containing 62 contemporary condo homes. “How can that be invisible or hidden?” you ask. 

Well, Calgary architect Jesse Hindle designed two, interlocking L-shaped buildings that cleverly utilize the adjacent streets, alley and an interior courtyard to create three different streetscapes for the ground floor units. From the street, each ground floor townhouse has a small front lawn and patio that function much like the front porch of those early 20th century homes we all love. The above-the-ground-floor condos are two-storey flats, each with a generous glass, half-walled balcony that fosters interaction between the street and the building.

All “interior” homes (both ground and upper units), i.e. those that face onto a courtyard with sidewalk, trees and plantings, provide an attractive street-like view from their patio or balcony.

Altadore 36 design is very compatible with the new, flat-roofed, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired single-family homes in the community. Hindle chose a sandstone-coloured brick, yielding a warm and timeless look.  The refined rectangular-shaped buildings with their clean edges have a traditional yet contemporary sense of place. Good urban design is about quality materials as well as respecting the scale and architecture of the past and the present.  Altadore 36 is an impressive hybrid of modern urban and suburban design that will fit almost invisibly into the new Altadore.

Altdore 36 will also add a much needed affordable housing option for middle-income earners and retirees in a community where most infills are million dollar homes.  Great communities offer a variety of housing options at different price points to attract people of all ages and backgrounds.

Altadore 36 Courtyard.

Upper West

Upper West (hopefully they can come up with a better name, one that reflects the location,) is located just east off Crowchild Trail on 2nd Ave NW in West Hillhurst.  It is on an interesting block, one that already includes two seniors’ multi-family buildings in a community of mostly single-family homes. Truman’s Upper West condo will replace three single-family homes that are nearing their “expiry dates” with 45 new homes (a mix of 17 one-bedroom and 28 two-bedroom condos) in a 4-storey building.

2nd Ave NW homes that will be removed to make way for Upper West, with red brick seniors' apartment. 

The building’s design - very contemporary with its three sloped roofs and large corner balconies - resembles the mega new infill homes being built not only in West Hillhurst, but also in neighbouring Briar Hill, Parkdale and St. Andrew’s Heights. The materials are conservative greys with some wood fencing at street level.  All parking will be underground, leaving the street parking for everybody to share.

Located just a “hop, skip and a jump” from Crowchild and Kensington Road means anyone living in Upper West has easy access to Mount Royal University, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital and downtown, by transit, car, bike or on foot.  This should make it very attractive to young professionals as well as empty nesters. 

There are more amenities in the area than you might think nearby - including two meat shops, a gelato café, a pizza and pub shop, liquor store and convenience store. Upper West is also within easy walking distance to both West Hillhurst’s historic Main Street (aka 19th Street) and the Parkdale Loop (Lazy Loaf Café). Best of all, residents are just minutes to the Bow River pathway for walking, running or cycling, making it a perfect location for increased density.

Upper West condo on 2nd Ave NW.

Last Word

While these two projects are adding densities (100units/acre) similar to those of the 4 to 8-storey new highrise condo buildings in Kensington, Bridgeland or Mission, visually they will not rise above the height of existing apartment blocks and new infill homes. Altadore 36 and Upper West will be almost invisible in scale, design and materials to neighbours.

Kudos to Altadore and West Hillhurst communities’ YIMBYs (Yes In My BackYard) who will soon be welcoming many new neighbours to their community.

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Stampede Park vs Spruce Meadows vs CalgaryNEXT

Great cities need wealthy individuals with vision and insights to create great architecture, public spaces and collect art that government can’t justify using taxpayer dollars - think of the Rockefellers (New York) or Carnegie (Pittsburg). 

In 2014, I blogged about how Tony Hsieh invested $350M of his own money (Hsieh sold Zappos an online shoe and clothing site to Amazon for $1.2M) to create Container Park in Las Vegas an incubator for new businesses and how Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO of Target, spent $250M of his own money to create the wonderful Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix.

With the recent announcement of CalgaryNEXT and the $200M the five partners are prepared to invest in a new arena and stadium, I think it fitting to look at how Calgary businessmen have helped shape Calgary’s culture over the past century – specificially two signature places - Stampede Park and Spruce Meadows.

Stampede Park

Most Calgarians may know about how in 1912, Guy Weadick came to Calgary with the idea of a world class rodeo, selling the idea to four Calgary businessmen - Patrick Burns, George Lane, A.E. Cross and Archibald J. McLean (who became known as the Big Four). They put up $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.5 million today) to underwrite a rodeo called the Calgary Stampede.  Backstory: All of the Big Four were successful ranchers, with Burns also owning a large meat packing business and Cross a brewery.

The rodeo took place at Victoria Park, 94 acres (another 54 acres were added in 1954) purchased by Calgary’s Agricultural Society from the Dominion of Canada. Back story: In 1908, a whopping (that is the word used by James H. Gray in his book Citymakers: Calgarians After the Frontier, I could find no actual dollar amount in my research) from the government allowed them to build several large exhibition pavilions, a roofed grandstand, a livestock sales pavilion with seating for 1,000 and horse barns.

  Stampede Park 1908 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede Park 1908 (from Canadian Geographic website)

In 1919, when the original Agricultural Building and Victoria Pavilion were completed, Weadick was invited back to Calgary to produce another rodeo (again backstopped by the Big Four) celebrating the end of World War I. Weadick was hired in 1923 to organize an annual rodeo until he was fired in 1931, but by then the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede was part of Calgary’s culture.

Since then, the Stampede Board and government have shared in funding the creation of a world class exhibition and tradeshow festival park that includes the Stampede Corral (1950), Big Four Building (1959), New Grandstand (1974), Saddledome (1983), Round-Up Centre (1981), expanded and renamed BMO Center in 2007 and most recently, the $60M Agrium Western Event Centre with $50M coming from government.  All of these facilities were funded mostly government dollars.

  Stampede Park 1959 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede Park 1959 (from Canadian Geographic website)

There are many parallels with CalgaryNEXT- the Big Four Building was the world’s largest curling rink; the Corral and Saddledome have hosted hockey, curling and lacrosse games.  The Grandstand and track was the home of Calgary horse racing for many years.

The Calgary Stampede and grounds, truly a shared vision of an individual entrepreneur and four Calgary businessmen, has been fostered over the past 100-years by its Board of Directors, staff, thousands of volunteers and significant funding from all levels of government. In 1944, then Mayor Andrew Davison said the Stampede “had done more to advertise Calgary than any single agency.” I expect Mayor Nenshi would say the same today.

  Stampede Park in 1985 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede Park in 1985 (from Canadian Geographic website)

Stampede at a Glance

  • 148 acres (city owned)
  • 2,000,000+ annual attendance
  • Stampede Show Band/Young Canadians Home
  • BMO Exhibition Centre
  • Agrium Western Event Centre
  • Stampede Corral arena
  • Scotia Bank Saddledome
  • Big Four Building
  • Grandstand/Rodeo Arena
  • Casino
  • Horse barns
  • Numerous auxiliary buildings

Spruce Meadows

Spruce Meadows’ mission statement, established in 1975, states: “Spruce Meadows is committed to being the leading venue in the world for the international horse sports with a focus on the organization and hosting of show jumping tournaments of unmatched quality.”  Over the past 40 years, the Southern Family (the owners) have not only fulfilled their mission but admirably and created their legacy - all without any government (taxpayer) funding by investing $80M of their own money. 

Spruce Meadows was officially recognized by the FEI (the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the world governing body for the horse sports), as #1 in the world as both a venue and as an organization until 2010.  The FEI is comprised of 133 member national federations and each year sanctions over 1500 international show jumping tournaments. Since 2010, the North American Riders Group took over the ranking of equestrian shows and facilities and Spruce Meadows has been #1 for the past five years. 

Spruce Meadows stadium

Spruce Meadows organizes, six world-leading FEI tournaments annually.  Additionally, Spruce Meadows organizes and hosts 16 tournaments under the authority of Canada’s National Sports Organization (NSO), Equine Canada. Athletes from 60 nations have competed at Spruce Meadows since 1976, winning more than $112 million in corporately-sponsored prize money before over 10 million fans. The daily attendance record was set on the final day of the 2011 ‘Masters’ with 89,632 fans visiting the grounds.

Since Spruce Meadows opened in 1975, Canadian athletes have won 24 team or individual show jumping medals at FEI championships including the Olympic Games (3), the Pan American Games (15), World Cup Finals (4) and the World Equestrian Games (2). Much of Canada’s international success in the sport of show jumping is directly attributable to Spruce Meadows as a result of the international experience that Canadians gain at home against the best in the world.

More Than Just Show Jumping

Spruce Meadows hosts over 300 events annually in addition to the Federation sanctioned tournaments.  Included amongst these:  G8 Summit meetings, World Petroleum Congress, Joint Chiefs of Staff, NATO, Changing Fortunes Round Table, G20 Sherpas, Ministerial Summits, Government Caucus and Strategy, Corporate Sector Strategy Conferences & Forums (Automobile, Forestry, Energy, Petro Chemical, Agriculture, Fertilizer, Utility, Technology. Telecom, Transportation, Manufacturing, Retail).

Spruce Meadows’ international success, reputation, and recognition as one of Canada’s official institutional and sport SuperBrands (as is the Calgary Stampede) has, in large part, been achieved through its highly sophisticated and integrated professional media capabilities.

Each year Spruce Meadows issues over 400 individual media accreditations as well as agency and wire service accreditation to Reuters, CP, BBC World Service, Business News Network, IMG/TWI, Fox Sports, CBC, Post Media, Bell Globe Media, CNBC, NBC Sports, QMI, Bloomberg, Sun Media, Radio Canada, and CBC News World

Spruce Meadows Television produces and distributes 130 hours of Tournament, documentary and news production to 108 countries, with a viewing footprint of 2 billion - via the world wide web through the networks and distribution channels of CBC, Radio Canada, CTV, FSN, NBC, British Sky Broadcasting, BNN, Bloomberg, ESPN, EuroSport, CNBC, Fox Sports International, IMG, Rogers Broadcasting, cbcsports.ca and sprucemeadows.com.

Third party economic impact studies (Conference Board of Canada model) confirm Spruce Meadows as a major tourism destination, media entity, economic catalyst and employment centre, contributing in excess of $110 million annually to GNP in direct benefits with total benefits in excess of $300 million.

Spruce Meadows at a Glance

  • 500 acres (120 acres Tournament Grounds)
  • 20 buildings
  • 10 permanent stables
  • 2 indoor arenas
  • 7 outdoor grass rings
  • Community dog walk area
  • 500,000 visitors annually
  • Open 365 days of the year to everyone
  • General Admission $5 with children under 12 and seniorsfree

Last Word

While Stampede Park and Spruce Meadows have evolved over decades, if the proposed CalgaryNEXT plan happens the arena, stadium and fieldhouse will all have to come on stream at once.  As such, it will require a significant upfront investment by the private individuals who have created the vision and government, rather than smaller investments over decades that helped foster Stampede Park and Spruce Meadows.

It will be interesting to see how much “skin-in-the-game” the Big Five Billionaires of the 21st century (Edwards, Libin, Markin, McCaig and Riddell) are ultimately prepared to spend to realize THEIR vision compared to the Big Four Millionaires of 20th century (Burns, Cross, Lane and McLean) or even the Big One (Southern).

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21st Century: Century of the Condo

Historians in North America will probably look back at the 20th century and coin it as the “century of the single family home.”  It was a time where the dream of every young married couple was to buy a home with front and back yards to raise their children.  The single family home was also where seniors wanted to live out their lives, kicking and screaming when their adult children suggested their home was too big and too much work to maintain. The single family home was everyone’s “castle.”

On the other hand, the 21st century is shaping up to be known s the “century of the condo” as more and more people - young and old - are choosing condo living.  It became crystal clear when recently when visiting Seattle and seeing the multitude of condos being constructed in that city. It seemed like on every city centre block was a condo recently completed or under construction.  While some were low and mid-rise, many were in the 40-storey range.

This got me reflecting on to recent visits to Chicago, Portland and Denver recalling they too had abundant of condo construction activity in their city center neighbourhoods.   And we all know that Toronto and Vancouver can’t seem to build condos fast enough.

High-rise condos are abundant in Seattle's Denny Triangle district. 

Mid-rise condo in Seattle's Belltown, would look right at home in Calgary's Mission District. 

Condo block in Denver's LoDo district could easily fit into Calgary's  Bridgeland or Kensington communities. 

YUPPIEs & DINKs

It is no surprise that many 21st century young urban professionals (YUPPIEs) and double income no kids (DINKs) have adopted condo living as their preferred lifestyle for many (not all) they have no interest in spending a lot of time cooking, cleaning, home maintenance or gardening.  In chatting with Joe Starkman, developer of University City Village at Brentwood Station and N3 (East Village condo with no parking) awhile back he told me his research showed many young buyers don’t want a big kitchen as they mostly eat “takeout” and don’t need room for a big screen TV as they watch movies on their laptop.

Another friend recently said their son and his girlfriend wanted to move from their 650 square foot condo in Kensington, as it was “too big to keep clean.”  I have often shaken my head when I saw my middle-age friends cutting grass or shovelling snow while their teenage kids slept in.   I suspect the idea of owning a home for young people today is daunting.

High-rise condos in Calgary's Beltline community just south of the central business district.

RUPPIEs

For many retired urban professionals (RUPPs) who have worked all their life downtown, the idea of living in or near the downtown, an area of familiarity, and enjoying the food, festival and cultural scene is very attractive.  Seattle, like Calgary, has very attractive walkable residential communities surrounding its vibrant downtown - Belltown, Capitol Hill and South Union Lake. In both cities, new restaurants and cafes seem to open weekly and festivals happen almost every weekend.

Retired professionals often want the freedom condo living brings – just close the door and drive away or jet off on the next travel adventure. Or, enjoy more time to bike, walk or meet up with friends, rather than spend time painting the fence, cutting the grass or cleaning the garage.

Montana condo near RED, Calgary's retail /entertainment district. 

St. John's condo in Calgary's tony Kensington Village would fit into almost any major city in North America. 

Block of new condos in Calgary's popular Bridgeland neighbourhood.

Even in Calgary's suburbs condos are as prevalent at single-family homes.

Last Word

And the 21st century condo living phenomenon is not limited to the city centre either. More and more condos are being built in suburban communities too.  In some cases, this is driven by price as the condo has become the “new suburban starter home” for first time buyers while in other cases, is it driven by the easy living lifestyle that condos preferring to retire in the ‘burbs near grandkids and friends.

Given that the evolution of urban living for centuries has been all about increasing “convenience and comfort,” it is perhaps not surprising that condo living is the next step in that evolution. 

An edited version of this blog was commissioned for  Condo Living Magazine.

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University District: What's In A Name?

Over the years, I have been a big advocate of the importance of picking a “mindful” name for a new community, condo or development project.  I have always believed East Village should be named Fort Calgary Village given its proximity to Calgary’s birthplace and to celebrate our city’s history and sense of place.  

 Similarly downtown’s West Village could be rebranded as Mewata. Did you know that Mewata means, “to be happy” or “pleasant place” in Cree? The name dates back to 1906 when Rev. John McDougall (one of the most well known Calgary area missionaries) named the popular picnicking, football, baseball and playground area, “Mewata Park.”  It would be a very fitting name if the site becomes the home of Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation’s Flames new sports district.

Choosing a new community name is not as easy as you might think.  For example, when the West Campus Development Trust group (WCDT) wanted to develop a name for their new community on the west side of the University of Calgary campus, they undertook an extensive strategic process beginning in 2014 that involved a stakeholder workshop, focus groups, surveys just to identify possible names, followed by more focus groups, more testing and another stakeholder workshop.

And the winner is: University District! In testing this name, 47% of people made it their first choice and 22% their second choice.  (No other name garnered over 25% support as either first or second choice.)  People liked that the name has a direct connection and association with not only the University of Calgary but also of the neighbouring communities of University Heights and Varsity Village.  It tested well as being accurate, honest, welcoming and modern.

Aerial view of Calgary's new University District community. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

 Brilliant Street Naming Strategy

Former Canadian astronaut and University of Calgary alumnus Dr. Robert Thirsk is the University's current chancellor.

But WCDT didn’t stop with just mindfully picking a community name. They also wanted “meaningful” street names.  After much debate, a brilliant idea emerged -  why not name the streets after the 13 University of Calgary Chancellors!  As a refresher, the University Chancellor is a volunteer who is elected by their peers from the University Senate.  A Chancellor is someone who has made a significant lifetime contribution to enhancing the quality of life for Calgarians. Their role is to be an ambassador for the University of Calgary and connect the University to the diversity of communities across the city.  So given the University District is all about fostering a sense of community, it made perfect sense. 

  • Dr. Jim Dinning (2010-2014)
  • Dr. Joanne A. Cuthbertson (2006-2010)
  • Dr. William J. Warren (2002-2006)
  • Dr. J. Jack Perraton (1998-2002
  • Dr. M. Ann McCaig (1994-1998)
  • Dr. David B. Smith  (1990-1994)
  • Dr. James S. Palmer (1986-1990)
  • Dr. Brian Norford (1982-1986)
  • Dr. Louis Lebel (1978-1982)
  • Dr. Muriel Kovitz (1974-1978)
  • Dr. William A. Friley (1970-1974) 
  • Dr. C. Campbell McLaurin (1966-1970) 

WCDT will also be respectful of Calgary’s inner city street naming history by continuing to name all north/south routes “streets” and east/west routes “avenues.”

University District's proposed street names, neighbourhoods and parks. (image credit: West Campus Development Trust)

 University District At A Glance

  • 40 acres of open space (7 spaces)
  • 11,000 new residents
  • 5,500 new jobs
  • 8.6 million square feet of residential, retail and commercial development
  • No “cookie cutter” buildings
  • Walkable connected community
  • Kensington style main street
  • Central Park
  • 8 km of multi-use pathways and trails 

Some people have already claimed their spot in Calgary's new University District. 

University District Boundaries

  • North Boundary – 32nd Avenue
  • South Boundary – TransCanada Highway
  • East Boundary – Collegiate Road
  • West Boundary – Shaganappi Trail

Walk Score

Walk Score measures the diversity of places one can walk to as part of one’s everyday activities (e.g. work, shopping, dinning, entertainment, recreation and learning.)  

The existing communities neighbouring the University District have walk scores ranging from 62 to 73 (100 being the best). However, with the addition of the University District’s amenities the walk score of the entire area is expected to exceed 85.

  • Walkability to work - University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital and Innovate Calgary Research Park
  • Walkability to its new pedestrian oriented  “Main Street”
  • Walkability to three performing art spaces and one art gallery
  • Walkability to Market Mall (shopping and work) 
  • Walkability to numerous fitness facilities

Last Word

Sure some people will question the fact Calgary has two other universities – Mount Royal and St. Mary’s University College, making the name University District a bit confusing. But for most Calgarians, the University of Calgary is top of mind when thinking of Calgary’s university (sorry Mount Royal University).

In most other major cities, their universities have been the catalyst for a vibrant bohemian urban community with small live music venues, cafes, galleries, bookstores and trendy shops and restaurants. They are often one of the most vibrant places in the city to live. Montreal’s city centre is so vibrant in part because of its connection to several post-secondary institutions, the same in Berkeley in the San Francisco area.  

To date, the University of Calgary, SAIT and Mount Royal University have not spilled out beyond their boundaries to create a hipster community.   University District is about to change all this and Calgary will be better for it.

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NIMBYism gone wild?

Seems like we can’t do anything these days without a group of citizens shouting “not in my backyard.” There seems to always be a loud minority who can’t accept that Calgary’s urban landscape has always been evolving and will have to continue to evolve if we want to be a viable and vibrant city for everyone. Let’s stop the madness.

School Yard Bullies

In Scenic Acres, you can’t build a school on a site that had always been intended to be used for a school because some neighbours thought is was going to be a park forever. 

In Varsity, 30 residents launched a lawsuit against the Calgary Board of Education to prevent the relocation of the Christine Meikle School for 120 special needs students on land that has been designated as a school site since 1971.

Back story: Since 1957, the Christine Meikle School has successfully operated in Bridgeland with some students even giving back to the community, through its volunteer program.  The new site near the Alberta Children’s Hospital means not only a better school to meet the needs of today’s students, but importantly allows as access to special therapy these students often need.

Who are these “schoolyard bullies?” Calgary is lucky nobody lived in Varsity in the mid ’60s when the University of Calgary was being proposed. Can you imagine the stink they would have raised at the thought of building a university for 30,000+ students next to them?

We may never have gotten a university! 

School yard bullies vandalizing sign announcing new school illustrates just how childish some adults can be sometimes. Living in a city means sharing space with others. 

Living on the Edge

And then there's Edgemont where some residents feel you can’t build a skatepark in a park because there are houses nearby.  What’s next - maybe we shouldn’t modernize and expand playgrounds in parks because there are houses nearby? Don’t we WANT skateparks built where there are homes close by so the community kids can walk to the park and play unsupervised?

Sure skateboarding is noisy, but so are lawnmowers, kids jumping on backyard trampolines and dog yapping at all times of the day – perhaps we should ban these also.

While there are 500 people on the petition against the skatepark, there can’t be more than a dozen homes that are actually within earshot of the proposed skatepark.  Interesting that in this case the Community Association is onside, but not the immediate neighbours – truly a “not in my back yard” issue. 

Skateboarding is one of the most popular activities of young Calgarians. The City has mobile skate parks around the city in the summer but what about the other three seasons.  When we have a winter like this one, the kids would be using the park year-round.

Live on the edge; let the kids play!

As you can see there are no houses in immediate proximity to the skatepark site. The closest are those across a busy street and then they are set back by large setback.  

Evolve or Die

In Bridgeland, some community members don’t want the 1921 Bridgeland School, which has been sold to developers to be turned into lofts surrounded by townhouses.  Personally, I think converting old school sites into mixed residential sites (lofts, townhouses, low-rise condos) is a great idea.  It will attract new people to the community something needed continue Bridgeland’s wonderful revitalization.  The townhouses will be ideal for young families, who can’t afford the million dollar new infills, yet want to live closer to the city’s downtown.  This project is more about diversifying the communities housing stock than density.

The protesters are probably the same people who complain that we can’t close inner-city schools because of declining enrollment, yet they won’t let the community evolve to attract young families.  You can’t have it both ways.

Communities must evolve or they die!

The proposal takes two surface parking lots and turns them into town homes, isn't that a good thing? Adds new tax revenues so the City can reinvest in established communities. 

Cougar Attack 

And then there’s the “Save The Slopes” residents group (mostly Cougar Ridge) up in arms over the Trinity Hills project east of Canada Olympic Park along the Paskapoo Slopes.  If you check out the proposed redevelopment, you’ll find out the land is privately owned and people have be using it as recreational space ONLY because the owner has allowed them to do so.

I drive by the site almost daily in the summer and most times never see anyone there.  The proposal has 69 hectares of the upper slopes (the most sensitive land) becoming a true park with public access to proper trails for biking and walking that will preserve the slopes.

The proposed village with hotel, retail, restaurants and residential is very synergistic to all of the year-round activities happening at Canada Olympic Park. Seems to me this one is a win-win!

Thank God there was no Cougar Ridge community in the early ‘80s when the city was making its bid for the 1988 Olympics.  Can you imagine how they would have attacked the idea of building Canada Olympic Park on the Paskapoo Slopes? We can’t preserve everything!

We would never have gotten the Olympic games, which put Calgary on the international map.

The Outline Plan clearly illustrates how the sensitive upper slopes will remain as green space with all of the development along the bottom with links to Canada Olympic Park. 

Six Month Limit

Too often it is the developer who gets pummeled by the community for proposing new developments with new uses and higher density.  But in reality, increased density and diversity of uses in established communities has been mandated by City Council, based on extensive research showing that a more compact city is more cost effective to manage.

Recently attending the City’s Open House for the proposed new Currie Barracks development, I was surprised to learn that since September 2013, 39,050 flyers have been distributed to surrounding community residents, and 230 hours of community engagement and four previous open houses had taken place.  And still people who weren’t happy. Obviously no matter how much community engagement you have you can never may everyone happy.

While I am all for public engagement, Council needs to realize they can’t please everyone no matter how long we take. The City needs to place a six-month limit on a well-planned public engagement process, integrating community ideas that are feasible based on accepted urban design principles, economic realities and the overall City’s Master Plan. Random personal opinion of what is appropriate should not make for endless debate.

Last Word

There are many different public(s) living in Calgary. Given that, it’s to be expected that people’s wants, needs and wishes are diametrically opposed.  Community consultation is currently costing the City and the development community millions of dollars each year in unnecessary unproductive, endless engagement.  This cost results in higher taxes and higher housing costs. I’m guessing, few if any of us want that.

Let’s stop the madness now!

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Enhancing Established Community Development: SDAB Reform

As discussed last week, one of the City of Calgary’s current Municipal Development Plan goals is to encourage future growth via redevelopment within in established neighbourhoods. With Calgary’s population expected to grow by 363,000 people by 2039, the City has set a goal of 33% of new growth should be in existing neighbourhoods (i.e. 192,000 more people or about 80,000 new homes).  The other 67% would be new housing development at the edge of the City, like Brookfield Residential’s SETON (southeast) and Livingston (northern).

The new established community growth will come in various forms from new master planned urban villages like West Campus, West District and Currie Barracks to the redevelopment of golf courses like Harvest Hills and Shawnee Slopes, to new infills single and duplex homes and smaller condo projects in communities from Sandstone to Altadore. 

  Older homes making way for new homes is healthy for established communities. Communities need to evolve is they are going to attract families.

Older homes making way for new homes is healthy for established communities. Communities need to evolve is they are going to attract families.

As stated last week, the difficulty in diversifying the housing stock of inner city communities is getting City approval for multi-family projects large and small. Why? Because, there is always a few individuals who don’t want the increased density and are prepared to fight any new development all the way to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.   I will try not to bore you with all of the details of the role of the quasi-judicial Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB) made up of members of the public appointed by Council.  

SDAB 101

The City of Calgary’s web site saysThe SDAB makes decisions in an impartial manner and applies the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness, which includes but is not limited to: the right to a public hearing; a duty to be fair; the right for all affected parties to be heard; the right to an adjournment if the SDAB determines it is merited; and the right to legal counsel.”

The SDAB has begun holding procedural hearings prior to the actual hearing date. The purpose, as I understand, is for the appellant and the applicant to put on the table their respective positions so that at the hearing, everyone can be prepared to speak to each other’s arguments. This is a good step if it eliminates lengthy adjournments. However, it does not preclude at the actual hearing of ‘hangers on’ (people who might be affected by a project but didn’t bother to appeal or respond to any prior circulation) from coming out of the woodwork and presenting information that is uniformed and/or not relevant at the actual hearing.

For example, a neighbour appealed a project on the basis of a desire for a parking relaxation. At the prehearing, both sides presented their arguments and then went away to prepare for the actual hearing. Then at the hearing, other individuals (who did not file an appeal) turned up and were allowed to speak and brought up new issues that were not even contemplated by the original appeal. The SDAB even allowed comments from a neighbour who lived almost a full block away from the site. The net result: the developer had to make several last minute changes, which in turn was passed on to the new homeowners.

I even heard about one person who appealed a project on Elbow Drive on the basis it would negatively impact his drive to work.  Seriously! We need to streamline SDAB’s procedures to be fair to the developer and the community while keeping in mind citywide benefits.

I understand that a 50+ page SDAB decision is not uncommon and there has even been a case of a single-family home appeal that resulted in a 125-page decision.   Appeals are no longer between citizens and developers but both sides are bringing their lawyers into the debate. I have heard it referred to as “lawyering-up!”

  Brookfield Residential's Altadore 36 is a good example of how 6 older single family homes can be transformed into 62 townhouse and penthouse flat homes, while retaining an attractive streetscape. 

Brookfield Residential's Altadore 36 is a good example of how 6 older single family homes can be transformed into 62 townhouse and penthouse flat homes, while retaining an attractive streetscape. 

Need for Reform

While there has been some reform of the subdivision and development appeal process over the past few years, there is room clearly for more improvement.

There may be some hope in sight! City Council has appointed all the members of the current SDAB for only one year – common sign change is on the horizon. Some members have been on the Board for over 10 years, which is not right, there should be maximum of six years.

In March 2012, Councillor Farrell attempted to initiate a motion to find efficiencies in the appeal process with respect to:

  Back lane housing over the garage is becoming more popular in communities like West Hillhurst.

Back lane housing over the garage is becoming more popular in communities like West Hillhurst.

  • Hearing process and timelines
  • Validity of an appeal
  • Appeal fee and structure
  • Feasibility of a fee refund for successful applicant

 Unfortunately, an internal review resulted in only a few minor changes. What I believe is needed is an external review, identifying the “best practices” for subdivision and development appeals in other municipalities. 

 I also think Council needs to better communicate to members of the SDAB the City’s goals and objects with respect to development. SDAB must make decisions, which are consistent with the goals of the City’s current Municipal Development Plan.

Last Word

Reforming SDAB’s structure and systems to allow an effective appeal process for both the developer and the public is a win-win situation the City could complete in in 2015.  Now, that would look good on their year-end report card.

By Richard White, January 31, 2015 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on January 31, 2015 with the title "Development Appeals Need Reform." 

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Enhancing Established Community Development: Multifamily

If the City of Calgary is serious about wanting more Calgarians to live in established neighbourhoods there are three initiatives (perhaps they could be New Year resolutions) Council could undertake in 2015 that would benefit the City, homebuyers and developers.

  1. Make Multifamily Development a permitted use
  2. Subdivision and Development Appeal Board reform
  3. Remove bureaucracy

Over the next three weeks, we will look at each one of these initiatives beginning with “making multi-family development a permitted use.” 

The Problem

I know of a recent case where the City Planner thought it would be a good idea to ask the developer to create homes that face both the street and back alley. The developer agreed and proceeded to create a design that would accommodate both street and laneway homes. The Community Association was on side with the design when it was presented to them. But a couple of neighbours didn’t want to share the back alley with the new homes, so they appealed the decision - and won. 

 Parkdale boutique infill condo project is not much taller than some of the new single-family, mega mansions in the community.

Parkdale boutique infill condo project is not much taller than some of the new single-family, mega mansions in the community.

Now, after more than a year of debate, it is back to the drawing board for the developer. The net result is the new project will have more expensive homes, as the developer needs to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the first design and community engagement. This is an example of just one of the lost opportunities to build more affordable homes in established communities in a timely manner as allowed by the existing zoning rules.   And, I know this isn’t an isolate example.

Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP) is a comprehensive document that will guide Calgary’s growth over the next 40 or more years.  One of its stated goals is to encourage 33% of future housing growth to be accommodated within the city’s developed area (established or existing communities); this means 80,000 new housing units, or approximately 2,000 new condo and townhomes per year.

The Plan recognizes that as Calgary evolves and society changes so does Calgarians’ housing wants and needs. Fifty years ago single-family homes dominated every new community in Calgary - Lakeview, University Heights or Acadia. But this changed starting about 2010 with the increased demand for multi-family housing mostly by young professionals, empty nesters and affordable first homes for young families.

In fact from 2003 to 2013, 74% of all new housing units in Calgary were multi-family condos and apartments or row housing, however, 90% were in new suburbs.  The dilemma is that in established communities there is always a vocal minority who has difficulty accepting multi-family housing in their neighbourhood.  This makes building new multi-family buildings in established communities, difficult and expensive.

  Row or Townhomes in Currie Barracks create an attractive streetscape with their diversity of facades and hidden density - no side yards. 

Row or Townhomes in Currie Barracks create an attractive streetscape with their diversity of facades and hidden density - no side yards. 

Permitted vs. Discretionary Uses

The City of Calgary’s Land Use Bylaw zones all land in the city for specific uses e.g. Commercial, Residential or Industrial. The Bylaw even goes further to specify what types of buildings can be built on residential land e.g. single-family, town-homes or multi-family.  It even dictates what size of multi-family building can be built - how many units, how high and how many parking stalls are needed, just to name a few of the requirements. 

While the City has several multi-family, land-use categories, that define what size of multi-family building you can create on a specific piece of land, it is still at the City’s discretion if they will let a developer build a multi-family building on the land they have purchase at a cost that reflects the approved multi-family zoning i.e. the more density the land is zoned for the higher the land cost.  However, with discretionary use, it means the developer first has to buy the land, design the project and then present their plan to City, community and neighbouring landowners to and then they must wait to see if the City will allow them to build their project even if it meets all of the City’s approved conditions for development.  This is a very time consuming and costly way to foster multi-family development in established communities.

  University City is an attractive (some don't like the bright colours, I do) and affordable phased multi-family project adjacent to the Brentwood LRT Station. It transform a parking lot into a village and adds to the diversity of housing in the community .  The City wants and needs to capitalize on its investment in LRT with projects like these at every LRT station.

University City is an attractive (some don't like the bright colours, I do) and affordable phased multi-family project adjacent to the Brentwood LRT Station. It transform a parking lot into a village and adds to the diversity of housing in the communityThe City wants and needs to capitalize on its investment in LRT with projects like these at every LRT station.

The Solution

Make multi-family developments a “permitted” use on land zoned for multi-family development - not discretionary.  If the proposed development meets all the approved standards (which have already been debated when the Land Use Zoning was approved by City Council) for the site (e.g. parking, height, landscaping, density and setback), it gets approved without debate.  If a proposed development meets the existing rules as approved by the City and community, shouldn’t the project simply get approved without debate? If not, what was the point of creating the rules in the first place? If the proposal requires relaxation from the approved requirements only then should the project is open for debate and approval at the City’s discretion.

As it is, today all new multi-family projects are discretionary use, which means planners and the community get to comment on everything from the aesthetics of the roofline and window placements, to door colour and tree planting.  When I was on Calgary Planning Commission, I remember reading a community association’s letter saying, “we would like each unit to have granite countertops.”

As one might expect, debating the merits of a development can take months, even years, to get approval with so many different knowledge bases and aesthetic sensibilities.  There is no perfect development for everyone. Everyone might like the proposal except for a small component (and in fact it is often a different component for each person who is opposed to the development) and you end up with a refusal.

Or you get approval from the City, but one or more individuals appeal the project to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board, which can then delay the project for several months, which will be the subject of next week’s column.

  Savoy condos, with main floor retail, on Kensington Road in West Hillhurst are located within walking distance to downtown and SAIT and have excellent bus connections to University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre complex and downtown. Increasing the density of people living along Kensington Road could be the catalyst for its transformation into a Main Street. 

Savoy condos, with main floor retail, on Kensington Road in West Hillhurst are located within walking distance to downtown and SAIT and have excellent bus connections to University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre complex and downtown. Increasing the density of people living along Kensington Road could be the catalyst for its transformation into a Main Street. 

Last Word

I am told Edmonton developers and planners get a chuckle when told “multi-family developments are a “discretionary use” in Calgary, even when they are on land zoned for multi-family buildings.   This alone should be the catalyst for a change in Calgary’s Land-Use Bylaw in 2015. 

Richard White, January 25, 2015 (this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on January 24, 2015 with the title "A call to streamline the approval process."

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Calgary deserves more respect from international planners!

While flaneuring Winnipeg’s Sherbooke Street on a cold day last December, I happened upon a copy of Ken Greenberg’s book “Walking Home” or “The Life and Lessons of a City Builder” in the Salvation Army thrift store for a buck. Who could resist? Greenberg, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY is a highly respected new urban designer for over 25 years, working on projects internationally with Toronto as his base.  In 2008, he was engaged by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to be part of the River walk design team.

The book reads a like an autobiography, but unlike entertainment stars who talk sex, drugs, relationships and life lessons, Greenberg talks only of urban design which can be a pretty boring subject except to urban nerds like me. What surprised me was how little he mentioned Calgary (just three times to be exact) given our City has been one of the fastest growing cities, (downtown, inner city and suburbs) over the past 25 years in North America.  It seemed every time he made a point about how great other cities were, I could find as good or better example from Calgary.  

Collaboration

Early in the book, Greenberg identifies “collaborations as the lifeblood of successful city building.” Later, he talks about private public partnerships, identifying organizations like Cityscape Institute in New York City and Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance both founded to foster the development of parks and public spaces citywide. 

Parks Foundation Calgary (PFC), founded in 1985, has been responsible for $150M in parks, playgrounds and pathway development. Greenberg can be forgiven for not mentioning PFC’s ambitious new project the 138 km The Rotary/Mattamy Greenway that will soon circle our city, given his book was published in 2011.

  The historic Haultain School, home to the Parks Foundation Calgary, is appropriately located in Haultain Park and across the street from Memorial Park.

The historic Haultain School, home to the Parks Foundation Calgary, is appropriately located in Haultain Park and across the street from Memorial Park.

Public Spaces

Throughout the book he talks about the importance of rich and varied public spaces and the importance of the public realm (even devoting an entire chapter to “reclaiming the public realm”). He points to Scandinavian cities as having some of the best public spaces.   I was disappointed there was no mention of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue Walk and its evolution from a pedestrian only mall to an innovative flexible space that is a pedestrian mall by day and road at night. As a designer for the East Village River walk surely he was aware of the success of the Bow River Promenade in Eau Claire and Prince’s Island, one of the best downtown festival sites in the world. While I realize, Greenberg is more interested in urban spaces, I think it was a major oversight in my mind not to mention Calgary has the most extensive citywide pathway system in the world at nearly 1,000 km that links our suburbs, inner city and downtown communities.

When you talk about diversity of public spaces, you can’t get much more diverse than Calgary which offers everything from an urban skateboard parks to snowboard hills, from handicapped parks to Douglas Fir trail. Olympic plaza.  With over 5,200 parks and over 1,000 playgrounds, Calgary is the envy of almost every city.

The Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall is a unique experiment in urban placemaking. It is a pedestrian mall by day and one-way street by night. 

  Century Gardens is a pastoral, urban oasis for downtown workers and residents. 

Century Gardens is a pastoral, urban oasis for downtown workers and residents. 

  The Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular meeting spot for downtown workers and shoppers. This public space is a good example of go urban design as it is built on top of a 700-stall parking garage, includes a major public artwork, has lots of seating and is directly linked to an LRT station. 

The Harley Hotchkiss Gardens is a popular meeting spot for downtown workers and shoppers. This public space is a good example of go urban design as it is built on top of a 700-stall parking garage, includes a major public artwork, has lots of seating and is directly linked to an LRT station. 

Urban Streets

Greenberg doesn’t even give Calgary a nod for the great work it has done in fostering the development of 9th Avenue in Inglewood, 10th Street and Kensington Road in Kensington Village; 4th Street in Mission, 17th and 11th Avenues and 1st Street in the Beltline.

Surely, Bridgeland’s renaissance as a result of the General Hospital’s “implosion” and plans for Calgary’s multi-billion dollar East Village mega-makeover (one of North America’s largest urban redevelopments) could have been worked into the text as urban experiments to watch.

 The streets of Kensington Village are full of pedestrian oriented shops, making it one of Canada's best walkable urban neighbourhoods. 

The streets of Kensington Village are full of pedestrian oriented shops, making it one of Canada's best walkable urban neighbourhoods. 

  One of the trendy ideas in North America these days it to transform street parking into pedestrian oriented spaces. Sometimes the parking spaces become patios or as in this case the patio is on the actual sidewalk and the parking spaces become a new sidewalk. 

One of the trendy ideas in North America these days it to transform street parking into pedestrian oriented spaces. Sometimes the parking spaces become patios or as in this case the patio is on the actual sidewalk and the parking spaces become a new sidewalk. 

  Pedestrian oriented streetscapes exist in numerous Calgary communities like this one on 19th Ave NW in West Hillhurst.

Pedestrian oriented streetscapes exist in numerous Calgary communities like this one on 19th Ave NW in West Hillhurst.

  Calgary also has its fair share of quirky cafes like this one in Ramsay's Industrial district. 

Calgary also has its fair share of quirky cafes like this one in Ramsay's Industrial district. 

  Neighbourhood farmers' markets are also popular in Calgary. 

Neighbourhood farmers' markets are also popular in Calgary. 

  Who says Calgary's City Centre isn't for families? The Beltline's Haultain Park is full of families using the playground, tennis courts and the playing field for a pick-up game of soccer. 

Who says Calgary's City Centre isn't for families? The Beltline's Haultain Park is full of families using the playground, tennis courts and the playing field for a pick-up game of soccer. 

Suburban Urbanization

While Greenberg talks endlessly about the need to urbanize existing suburban communities, he falls short on mentioning some efforts that have been made in cities like Calgary to create more diverse and dense suburban communities.  Calgary’s new master-planned communities are being created at a density that surpasses those of early 20th century communities with a mix of single-family, duplexes, four-plexes, town homes and condos designed with singles, families, empty-nesters and seniors in mind.

  McKenzie Towne street.

McKenzie Towne street.

Surely too, he must have known about Calgary’s pioneering community of McKenzie Towne developed by Carma Developers LP, now Brookfield Residential in the mid '80s. 

Brookfield’s SETON project was also on the horizon in the late 2000s when Greenberg was busy researching and writing his book.  The idea of creating a new downtown at the edge of a major city with a mega teaching hospital as an anchor is both innovative and unique in North America’s quest to create a new suburban paradigm.

And what about Remington Development’s Quarry Park project? It definitely warranted a mention with its mix of office park, market place and residential development all linked to future LRT development. 

What city builds a transit-oriented village before the transit is even built e.g. Quarry Park and SETON!

  Pancake breakfast in McKenzie Towne.

Pancake breakfast in McKenzie Towne.

  Quarry Park is an ambitious 400 acre urban infilling project, given is was an old quarry in the '90s and today it is well on its way to becoming a mixed-use community with four million square feet of office space, for 20,000 workers (including the head office of Imperial Oil), home to 6,000 residents, 140 acres of nature space and a retail/grocery district.

Quarry Park is an ambitious 400 acre urban infilling project, given is was an old quarry in the '90s and today it is well on its way to becoming a mixed-use community with four million square feet of office space, for 20,000 workers (including the head office of Imperial Oil), home to 6,000 residents, 140 acres of nature space and a retail/grocery district.

  Aerial view of Brookfield Residential's SETON with the new South Health Campus constructed on land sold to the province by the developer as the employment anchor for a new downtown that will serve all of the surrounding communities. One of the interesting partnerships is the YMCA's operation of the Wellness Centre as part of the Health Campus. It is the first YMCA to be integrated into a hospital setting. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

Aerial view of Brookfield Residential's SETON with the new South Health Campus constructed on land sold to the province by the developer as the employment anchor for a new downtown that will serve all of the surrounding communities. One of the interesting partnerships is the YMCA's operation of the Wellness Centre as part of the Health Campus. It is the first YMCA to be integrated into a hospital setting. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

City Building: A Two-Way Street

Greenberg talks about the important role the city and the private sector play in city building, focusing on Vancouver as the model city with the development of Yale town, False Creek and Coal Harbour.  It would have been nice to have included examples from other Canadian cities – like Garrison Woods in Calgary or the above mentioned new developments East Village, Quarry Park, Bridges and Currie Barracks that were conceived in '00s.

Garrison Woods streetscape (photo credit: www.mardaloopherald.com)

Beltline's yimbyism

Greenberg talks about his work in Paris with its arrondissements and New York with its boroughs. He talks of the important role of community boards to reconcile the needs of the whole city, while acknowledging the importance and individuality of the different parts of the city.  He notes that New York’s 59 community boards play a key role in shaping how that city has evolved and suggests it might be helpful to establish community boards in Toronto where there is a significant urban suburban divide.

I would suggest any urban planner interested in the “good, bad and ugly” of how community boards and community engagement is shaping a city today, should look no further than at how Calgary’s 150+ community associations are increasingly shaping our city.

Calgary’s Beltline community in particular is especially deserving of praise internationally for its uniqueness in welcoming density and mega mixed-use developments. Its community association has been known to demand developers build to the maximum density allowed. I think their motto is “leave no density behind” as they have turned “Nimbyism into Yimbyism (yes in my backyard)!”

Infill Development Gone Wild

Greenberg talks about the importance of selective infill development in the suburbs and need to increase density horizontally, as much as vertically.  Of all the 20 or so cities I have visited over the past 10+ years, Calgary is the leader when it comes to inner-city infill residential development.  

Nowhere have I seen the diversity and magnitude of old single family homes being replaced by larger single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes or several homes being bought up and replaced by new within established neighbourhoods. I can literally say that they is a construction site on every other block in Calgary's inner city communities near downtown. 

A parade of new infill home in Calgary's trendy West Hillhurst just 3 km from downtown. 

  University City is a multi-phase development that will convert a retail power center with a sea of parking into an urban village next to an LRT Station (middle of image far right side) across from the University of Calgary (other side of Crowchild Trail). 

University City is a multi-phase development that will convert a retail power center with a sea of parking into an urban village next to an LRT Station (middle of image far right side) across from the University of Calgary (other side of Crowchild Trail). 

New condo development at the Lions Park LRT Station with direct link to North Hill Shopping Centre, Safeway and public library. 

Suburban / Urban Divide

Greenberg remarks often about how Toronto and other cities’ struggles with forced amalgamation that often results in dysfunctional regional councils.  Or the flight of businesses and people to edge cities in the middle and late 20th century, leaving the old central city to crumble and die (e.g. Detroit or Hartford).  The suburban urban dichotomy is something that every city in North America is facing today as the continent becomes more and more urban.

I think it would interest Greenberg’s readers to know that Calgary has a unique uni-city model as a result of annexing smaller communities and land on its edges before they could become large independent competing cities.  As a result, the city’s tax base has not been fragmented and there is little regional competition for economic development amongst the various edge cities.  The city benefits from having a single Police, Fire and Emergency services, single transit and roads system and integrated water and sewer system.  While the city has a large environmental footprint, it also has one of the most contiguous growth patterns of any city in North America.

While Calgary’s uni-city model is certainly not perfect (I am convinced there is a no perfect model for city-building or city-governance), it is unique and should be studied internationally for both its pros and cons.

This image shows how contiguous Calgary's growth has been as a uni-city.  You can see the large spaces taken up by parks like Nose Hill, Bowness, Fishcreek and the rivers, as well  as the airport in the northeast.

Last Word

Perhaps by now you can sense my frustration that Calgary gets no respect from the international planning community for its leadership in city building over the past 25+ years.

Sorry Mr. Greenberg if I took too much of my frustration out on you and your book. Indeed, your book provides lots of interesting ideas to explore in my future columns and blogs. For example, I love the concept of  “social spaces vs. public spaces.”  I invite you to spend more time in Calgary, as many of the things you suggest cities need to be doing to enhanced urban living in the 21st century is already happening in Calgary.

We might not be the best at anything, but we are better than most at almost everything. 

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