Affordable Housing: Unique Situations?

As cities and towns across Canada age and evolve, old buildings become outdated or are no longer needed for their original purpose. Neighbourhoods also evolve - what was once a warehouse or industrial district near downtown becomes a trendy upscale place to live.  What was the wrong side of the tracks is now the right side, meaning low-income housing is being replaced by upscale homes. One of the key issues facing cities and towns across Canada today is how to provide affordable housing. 

Karine LeBlanc, Media Relations Officer with Canada Mortgage and Housing indicates that “CMHC provides provinces and territories with funds through the Investment in Affordable Housing program which gives them the flexibility to invest in a range of affordable housing programs and initiatives to meet local housing needs and priorities. Initiatives can include, for example, new construction, renovation, homeownership assistance, rent supplements, shelter allowances, and accommodations for victims of family violence.”

One way CMHC has identified to create more affordable housing is adapting old non-residential buildings into housing.  While there are no specific limitations on the types of non-residential buildings that may be converted to residential use, certain types of buildings lend themselves more easily to conversion - old schools, hospitals, offices, motel and hotels buildings can be converted into apartments. Warehouses and factories are suitable for open concept live-work spaces.

CMHC studies identify seven advantages of converting non-residential buildings into housing including; construction costs are usually lower, housing is delivered faster, less stress and resistance from the neighbours, opportunity for historical preservation, neighbourhood revitalization and environmental friendliness given reuse of materials and building. 

The key barriers to conversion from CMHC’s perspective may be; difficulty in obtaining traditional financing, additional time for design, land use changes and building permit approval, expensive environmental cleanup, loss of employment in community and unexpected problems in construction.  

Lessons Learned From the Netherlands

One of the most objective and comprehensive studies of the feasibility of converting non-residential buildings into housing was conducted in 2014 in Europe. The “Adaptive reuse of office buildings: opportunities and risks of conversion to housing” study looked at 15 buildings in the Netherlands, all of which were office building conversions to housing.

The study found the advantages of conversions were, preservation of the unique heterogeneity of architecture in a neighbourhood, office buildings are constructed to carry more weight than housing, in most cases additional floors could be added to improve the economic feasibility of the project.  In addition the study identified the reuse of a building that is vacant and derelict as positive outcome, as well as, adds diversity to the housing inventory of the community, which attracts new and diverse residents.

On the negative side the study showed, older buildings don’t meet modern building code, which often leads to major renovations to both the exterior and interior of building and residential buildings require more vertical shafts for electricity, water and plumbing than office buildings especially after 1965 when pre-stressed concrete was used which loses its strength when cut.  Another major barriers were the fact that many older buildings lack parking, green space and balconies, all required to create attractive residential buildings.  In addition, their low ceilings don’t allow for the higher ceilings that are the norm in modern residential development today. Like the CMHC study, the Netherlands research found cost overruns as a result of slow approval process and increased hours spent developing solutions to unforeseen problems as key issues faced in office building conversions.

Success Factors!

The authors concluded in all 15 cases, the success factors for the conversion of offices to residential buildings were - low purchasing price, adaptable floor plan, government subsidies, purchase and conversion by housing associations that in general work with long-term investment scenarios and do not require profit-maximization

A municipality may use several approaches to encourage the conversion of non-residential buildings for the purpose of affordable housing. These approaches include adopting flexible zoning policies such as those for mixed-use developments and live-work spaces and allowing residential conversions as a permitted or conditional use in appropriate commercial or industrial zones. 

Other municipal led initiatives include, undertaking an inventory of vacant public and privately-owned buildings that may be suitable for conversion and notifying affordable housing providers about publicly owned, non-residential buildings that are suitable for conversion and offering these buildings to such providers on favourable terms.

Critical to successful adaptive reuse projects is providing technical assistance from building inspectors and planners to groups interested in converting non-residential buildings into affordable housing. And finally, providing tax exemptions, fee exemptions, waivers, reductions, grants or other financial incentives

CMHC Case Studies

Regina’s Renaissance Retirement Residence

 In early 2005, the Derrick Building was an abandoned city-owned, five-storey office building in Regina, unoccupied for 15 years. By late 2006, it was transformed into a seven-storey seniors’ residence with a mix of market and affordable units. The conversion of the building into the Renaissance Retirement Residence was carried out by a private company with support from all three levels of government.

Renaissance Retirement Home

The project budget was $14.5 million ($92,357/door), financed through private investment, mortgage financing and $2.1 million from Canadian Association Heritage Professionals ($1,055,000 from CMHC and $845,000 from the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation). In addition, the City of Regina provided a five-year property tax exemption, valued at $211,000 as the project supported the City of Regina’s priorities of downtown revitalization and conversion of non-residential buildings into affordable housing.

The architectural firm of Alton Tangedal designed the converted building. Structural analysis showed that it would be possible to add two more stories to the five-storey building, thus improving the feasibility of the project.

The conversion retained the shell but fully gutted the interior, creating a total of 157 units (104 studio suites, 42 one-bedrooms and 11 two-bedrooms). In addition, there are two floors of common amenities’ space. The main floor has a lounge and reception area, while the downstairs has a large recreation area complete with a theatre, library and dance floor. In addition, outside there is an 800-square metre deck with gardens that the residents help maintain.  There are only 25 parking spaces for residents.

Renaissance Retirement Home interior

A priority for new and repaired government-assisted housing under the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals (CAHP) is improved energy efficiency to contribute to a greener environment and to lower costs for residents. This was achieved at the Renaissance Retirement Residence by incorporating 30 solar panels on the roof as well as a system of geothermal wells with 54 boreholes to a depth of close to 150 metres (500 feet). The integration of these two systems maximizes the seasonal efficiency of heating and hot water for the building.

The government assistance enabled 80 of the 157 units to be offered as affordable accommodation with optional assisted living services, renting at around 25 per cent below market rates. The Renaissance has been highly successful and currently has a long waiting list.

Salt Spring Island’s Murikami Gardens

Murakami Gardens

On Salt Spring Island, a popular resort isle in British Columbia, a 27-affordable units housing complex was created by the conversion of an unused fish plant gifted by the Murakami family, long-term Island residents. The capital cost was $5,037,150 (or $186,561/door) in 2008.

Murikami Gardens wouldn’t have happened without CMHC provided seed funding and proposal development funding of $31,000, plus $648,000 in Rental Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program monies.  The Ministry of Housing and Social Development provided $1.8-million in interim construction financing and one-time grants totally $1,312,000. The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, through Community Action on Energy Efficiency (CAEE), provided $15,000 towards energy upgrading. The Murakami family provided $442,412 in land equity and a forgivable loan of $200,000. John Lefebrve provided a $500,000 interest-free loan for construction. The Capital Regional District provided $324,000 in Regional Housing Trust funding.  Salt Spring Island Community Services contributed $110,000 cash and $104,738 in-kind donations. The Real Estate Foundation provided $50,000 while The Islands Trust approved zoning that allowed for higher than normal density.

Murikami Gardens has been a huge success since day one. 

Thorold’s Welland Mills Centre

The Welland Mills Centre is an imaginative reuse of an old stone flour mill building located on 16-acre historic landmark site in downtown Thorold, Ontario.  The building was converted into an 18-unit affordable housing development for singles and seniors by Keefer Developments Ltd with assistance from both the City and the Region.

The City waived $40,392 in development charges and provided $237,633 in municipal grants. The Region of Niagara waived $47,880 in development charges. With further funding from the Province and the federal government, as well as a $100,000 developer contribution, the Welland Mills Centre got built and officially opened its doors in 2006.

Completed in 2006, the total cost of the project was $2.2 million (or $122,222/door) and it continues to serve the community well.

Welland Mills Centre interior

 Adaptive Reuse Requires Subsidies

While there are many examples of successful reuse of old buildings, many architects, engineers and developers caution that adaptive reuse is not a slam dunk every time.  It is not a panacea for old neighbourhoods and it comes with significant risks, costs and compromises. 

Barry Lester, retired VP at Stantec in Calgary, with extensive experience in historical building renovations, perhaps articulated it best when he said “The interesting thing about the reuse of old buildings is that in many cases, it ends up costing more than building something new. Usually very little of the original building is salvageable -the structure of course, and maybe the envelope or cladding. But most old mechanical and electrical systems don't work efficiently or don't meet new codes. And the finishes are all likely all to need replacement.

If one thinks in terms of construction costs, the structure is usually about 20% (or less) of the total building cost and the cladding (or envelope) may be another 10% provided that it is moisture and thermal-resistant. So the potential savings of using an older building versus a new, built-for-purpose facility are generally 30% or less. And this 30% savings can very quickly be eaten up by the inefficiencies inherent in fitting residential uses into a commercial or historical space and by the premium cost of renovation versus new construction.”

Lester concludes, “The argument must be made on some other inherent value of the older building such as heritage or community pride.”  

Last Word

CMHC’s Leblanc cautions, “While some conversion projects, including the Renaissance Retirement Residence in Regina have been made possible in part, due to financial assistance from CMHC, the funding was part of other programs delivered by the Corporation and not a program specifically designed to support the conversion of non-residential buildings.”

Indeed it obvious from the three Canadian case studies that significant subsidies, heritage preservation and community pride are the key factors in adaptive reuse of old buildings into affordable housing. Where there is a will, there is a way!

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog was published by Manasc Isaac Architects for publication in their Winter 2016 magazine reimagine titled " Reuse It or Lose It."  

Read Winter 2016 issue of "reimagine"

Click here for more information on Manasc Issac Architecture

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King Edward Village

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Infill Development Levies: Don't cook the goose that lays the golden eggs!

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo Section on November 28th, 2015 titled "Do proposed development levies double dip on City taxes?" 

Is the City of Calgary about to “cook the goose that has been laying the golden eggs?”  For over a decade, Hillhurst Sunnyside has lagged behind the Beltline, Bridgeland, East Village, Eau Claire, West End and Inglewood in attracting new, mid-rise condo development.  It is only in the past few years we have seen any new mid-rise condo developments in and around the Sunnyside LRT station - St. Johns Tenth Street, Pixel and VEN, with Kensington and Lido currently under construction. 

Not only have and will these new condos add more diversity and density, allowing Kensington Village community to continue to thrive, but they have also provided significant new property tax revenues for the City – and at no cost to the City.

In the case of VEN, developer Bucci paid (or should I say VEN residents paid as the costs always get passed down on to the purchaser) over $500,000 in infrastructure costs (including $275,000 for new water service, $127,000 for Hillhurst Sunnyside Park, $45,000 for new sidewalks/wheelchair ramps and $20,000 for streetlights).  That amounts to about $4,400 per new condo.

VEN replaced 11 older homes that paid $35,000 total in property taxes. Now, the 114 condo owners will pay $272,000 total per year - for a net gain of $237,000 annually to the City (or a whopping $2,370,000 over the next 10 years from VEN alone).  If we assume a similar amount from St. Johns, Pixel, Kensington and Lido, the City will gain $1,000,000 annually ($10+ million over ten years) from new condo development.

St. John's On Tenth condo.

Why a Vancouver Model?

However, it seems the City isn’t satisfied with the millions of new property tax dollars that it is getting from new inner city condo development. It is now working on a new density bonus levy based on a Vancouver model to pay for local public realm improvements like new and renovated parks, plazas and streetscape improvements. The monies will not be eligible for things like sewer and water pipe upgrades.  

For example, Pixel paid about $80,000 to the existing bonus levy (yes, there is already a levy in place) when it was built in 2014. However, over the past year, the Planning Department has been considering a major increase in the “public realm improvements only” levy.  In one scenario, a project like Pixel would pay as much as $2.1 million; in a second scenario, $700,000. The calculation of the proposed new Hillhurst Sunnyside density bonus levy is currently still being reviewed, but in all likelihood the cost per unit for the “public realm improvements only” levy could increase from $800 to between $7,000 and $21,000/unit. This could easily drive purchasers to the suburbs where they can get more for their money.

As stated earlier, the City will net about $237,000 each year from increased property taxes, so after three years a new condo project like Pixel, will contribute an estimated $700,000+ in new tax revenue - the same amount as in scenario two of the proposed new public ream levy. Does the City really need both the increased “public realm” levy AND new property tax revenue for public realm improvements? 

Why too would the City of Calgary use a Vancouver model for development levies given Vancouver has the highest housing costs in Canada and some of the highest in the world?  Why too is it that so many of Calgary’s urban condo developers are Vancouver-based (e.g. Anthem, Bucci, Concord Pacific, Embassy Bosa, Grosvenor, Landmark-Qualex)? Is it in part because Vancouver’s excessive development levies have caused them to look elsewhere for development opportunities?

Perhaps we should be asking the fundamental question, “Why does the City need more money for public realm improvements in established communities?” It would seem - given both residential and commercial property owners in Hillhurst Sunnyside have been paying taxes for many decades - there should already be money set aside for upgrading parks, tree planting, sidewalk replacement as part of an ongoing maintenance program. Why should the burden be placed on the new residents to fund the cost of community improvements?

Pixel condo with crane for Lido condo under construction.

Did Somebody say “Cash Grab?”

Another document emailed to me illustrates how suburban developers currently pay a development levy of about $350,000/hectare for off-site regional infrastructure, but no levies for public realm improvements projects. Depending on the scenario Council chooses for the Hillhurst-Sunnyside the public realm levy, it could work out to between 4M and $14M/hectare. Is somebody saying “Cash grab?” If not, they should be!

City Councilors, Administration and Community Associations love the density bonus levy as it gives them access to new dollars for specific public space improvements that make living in the community more attractive.

On the flipside, landowners hate it because it decreases the value of their property. Developers have to pay the City more to develop the land, which in turn means they have to deduct the same amount from their offering price. Developers who have already assembled land and paid a price based on the old development cost formulas will now have to increase the pricing of their new projects - or delay construction given the current housing market won’t bear the new pricing. Potential new condo owners also don’t like it as the cost to live in established neighbourhoods will rise, making suburban homes and condos more cost effective than established communities ones.

While the City’s Municipal Development Plan (aka its vision/master plan) and Councilors with strong urban agendas have been strongly encouraging growth in established communities for Calgarians of all ages and backgrounds, increasing development levies will have the opposite effect. As the cost of inner city condos increases, fewer and fewer Calgarians can afford to live established communities, accelerating the gentrification of these communities. Nobody wants that!

Last Word

In 2013, the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Transit-Oriented Development Proposal Activity Snap-Shot listed 16 potential projects with over 1,000 dwelling units.  Four were under construction (now completed), two are now under construction and the other 10 are in various stages of planning.

All Hillhurst-Sunnyside developers are now waiting until the density bonus levy program is finalized.  If the levy increase is too high, it may be years until there is any new condo development. That would be a real shame as Hillhurst-Sunnyside should be Calgary’s signature transit-oriented urban village given it sits next the city’s first urban LRT station built back in the ‘80s.  It shouldn’t take 30+ years!

You can also bet the Vancouver-based levies won’t stop in Hillhurst-Sunnyside but be applied to all new condo developments (maybe even to new single and duplex homes) in all established communities, driving more development to the suburbs and fostering urban sprawl. Exactly the opposite of what the City wants.

I am all for public realm improvements but “cooking the goose that lays your golden eggs” is not the way to pay for it.  

If you like this blog, you might like:

Kensington Village: One of North America's Healthiest Urban Villages

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Florence: People & Places (a photo essay)

This photo blog focuses on the offbeat people and places we encountered over 12 wonderful days of flaneuring in Florence in the Fall of 2014. It was an enchanting experience, from my favourite gelato shop waitress, to the husband and wife seamstress half a block down the street from our apartment who spoke no English, yet managed to help me find a new handmade belt. In between are photos from thrift stores to boutiques, galleries to street art, markets to churches, parking to cycling, fashion to food.

In reviewing, my photos I noticed there were two major differences from our Dublin experience.  One being the number of seniors in the streets of Florence and the second being the centuries of urban design that create a wonderful array of textures and light in its City Centre. 

We hope you will enjoy the photos and would love to hear which ones are your favourites.

If you want to see more photos and stories about our Florence adventures, click on the links below:

Window licking along Florence’s Via Tornabuoni

Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

One Night in Florence

The ugliest pedestrian bridge in the world?

Flaneuring Florence’s Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

Public Art: Calgary / Florence / Rome

 

Busking with style.

Salvador Dali's Bike?

No wonder Picasso painted faces as he did!

Just one of many very stylish parking garages.

A Florence office building?

Lots of open doors...

I wish I could read Italian.

A work of art and very tasty! 

Magritte would have loved this photo.

Ghost busker....

Sisters sharing donuts?

Instead of tree lined streets, Florence has motorcycle lined ones. 

Would you drink out of this street fountain? Supposedly you can.

Obviously I am not the only one taking a photo of this intriguing reflection. 

My fashionista advisor. 

Florence comes alive at night. 

What was he thinking/feeling to create this drawing? 

Art is everywhere in Florence, yet there is very contemporary little public art. 

Market madness...

There is no lack of empty shoe boxes in Florence. 

Florence's finest were there to greet us when we arrived.

These ladies were moving quickly. 

Fountain of youth?

Window licking anyone?

No line up at the Marino Marini Museum...we liked that!

Once you get to the edge of the City Centre, the streets are much less crowded.

Cars, bikes, scooters and pedestrians share the road.

It was hard to go to sleep after discovering this church was open on one of our nightly walkabouts. 

Blue Man Group?

Does it get any better than this? Taken from a balcony restaurant at lunch.

Small space, narrow places...smaller is better?

People watching fun!

Innocence?

Climbing the wall fun.

Elvis? 

Fashionistas heading to the thrift store. 

Who needs wide sidewalks? enhanced streetscapes? 

My other fashionista advisor.

Who needs a car to carry a lamp home? 

Iceberg soup!

Everyone is out for their evening stroll.

That is a mighty big steak?

No dedicated bike lane? No problem? 

Fashionista at the world's most amazing thrift store. 

Now that is a tight parking spot.

This photo is not upside down.

Self serve wine - how good is that!

Do we really need to develop West Village?

When Calgary Sports and Entertainment Group (Calgary Flames/Stampeders/Hitmen/Rednecks owners) announced their preferred location for its CalgaryNEXT project (arena/stadium/fieldhouse) was West Village, many Calgarians exclaimed, “Where’s that?”

It is the land west of 14th Street SW, north of the CPR tracks, south of the Bow River and east of Crowchild Trail. The name was given to the area after the City acquired much of the land in the area and subsequently developed an Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) in 2009.  West Village has many similarities to East Village (land east of the Municipal Building, north of the CPR tracks, south of the Bow River and east of Fort Calgary) in that it is immediately adjacent to Calgary’s downtown core, is underdeveloped (three car dealerships and the Greyhound Bus depot), has old infrastructure and the land is contaminated.

One of the key selling features of CalgaryNEXT made by CSEG was that the new arena/stadium/fieldhouse complex would be the catalyst for the development of West Village.  However, many are questioning, “Do we really need to develop West Village?”  Some are even saying we have a glut of inner city urban villages and that West Village would just cannibalize development from them.

The City of Calgary's West Village Area Redevelopment Plan identifies numerous parks and public spaces as keys to creating an attractive liveable urban community in West Village. 

Currently, Calgary has ten urban villages, all at various stages of development or revitalization:

  1. Beltline (revitalization)
  2. Bridges (revitalization)
  3. Currie Barracks (new)
  4. East Village (new)
  5. Inglewood (revitalization)
  6. Kensington (revitalization)
  7. Mission (revitalization)
  8. University City (new)
  9. University District (new)
  10. Westbrook Station (new)    

West Village would make eleven inner city urban villages!  This list doesn’t include large single site infill condo projects like – SoBow, Stadium Shopping, North Hill Sears and Inglewood Brewery sites.

  This Google Earth image illustrates he proximity of Calgary's 10 urban living (condominium) communities to each other. 

This Google Earth image illustrates he proximity of Calgary's 10 urban living (condominium) communities to each other. 

Urban Villages 101

An urban village is a multi-block mixed-use (office, residential, retail, recreational, healthcare) walkable community, where the everyday needs of the residents is within a short five to ten-minute walk. 

Most of its residents live in multi-family condos (low, mid or highrise) with retail, restaurant, cafes, yoga, health clubs, professional services and an urban grocer at the street level.

Parking is underground; transit service is frequent with stations and stops within walking distance and there are bike lanes to encourage cycling.  

Small attractive community parks and plazas serve as outdoor living rooms for the residents to meet and mingle.   There is also an active patio culture that animates the sidewalks.

Urban villages often have a signature, annual street festival or event (e.g. Lilac Festival along 4th Street in Mission).

The proposed Promenade along the Bow River in West Village will function much like the River Walk in East Village as meeting place for new residents. 

Cannibalism?

While each of Calgary’s old and new urban villages listed above have their unique charm, they are in many ways competing for the same condo buyers – yuppies and rupppies (retired urban professionals) who the urban lifestyle - walking, cycling, arts, festivals, music, cafes and dining out. 

West Village is ideally located to cannibalize all of the current villages given its catchment area would include the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, SAIT and Mount Royal University as well as downtown.

Both the City of Calgary and developers have already made significant investment in plans and infrastructure to foster the development of the current ten urban villages. The City would be wise to capitalize on those investments (e.g. underground Westbrook Station, new overpass at Flanders Road cost-shared with Canada Lands Corporation, new Central Library) before making any more infrastructure investments.

Finishing some of the villages already started or the advanced planning stages, will allow Calgarians to see what a vibrant urban community really looks like.  The last thing we want is a bunch of half finished urban villages.  Urban villages only work when they have the density of people to attract the diversity of amenities that make it an attractive and vibrant place to live, work and play.

  The City's West Village ARP conceptually identifies five precincts for the new community. The CalgaryNEXT arena/stadium/fieldhouse would take up the entire Promenade District. 

The City's West Village ARP conceptually identifies five precincts for the new community. The CalgaryNEXT arena/stadium/fieldhouse would take up the entire Promenade District. 

West Village ARP 101

A quick review of the West Village ARP tells us that before a new arena/stadium/ fieldhouse gets built there are significant infrastructure projects that need to happen before any new buildings can be added.

These include:

  • Bow Trail realignment and redesign as an urban boulevard,
  • Remediation of contamination,
  • 9th Avenue redesign
  • 14th Street NW roundabout design
  • Upgrade main stormwater lines on-site and downstream. 

The ARP contemplates a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) be put in place to pay for these infrastructure costs similar to how the East Village infrastructure cost were funded.  There is no way the CRL can pay for both infrastructure improvements and share of the arena and stadium costs as proposal by CalgaryNEXT.

The ARP also calls for a Riverfront Promenade/Park along the Bow River that would rival that of East Village and create a spectacular contiguous urban river walk extending from Crowchild Trail to Fort Calgary.  It even calls for a pedestrian bridge to West Hillhurst on the north side of the Bow River.

The City has invested significant time and money into developing the West Village ARP. Any changes to it should include significant community engagement.

Last Word

As one colleague (who asked to remain nameless) emailed me re CalgaryNEXT’s proposal, “My research indicates that there are 15,000 condo units proposed in the City Centre along with another 15,000 in high density developments next to LRT stations located outside the core. This equates to over 25 years’ worth of existing concrete multifamily supply.”   

It would seem Calgary doesn’t really need to develop West Village at this time and in fact, maybe not for another 15 to 20 years. The City currently limits development in the suburbs to land that either already has services or is most cost-effective to service. Perhaps this discipline should also be applied to Calgary’s inner city.

Given the current economy, now is a good time to finish what we have already started! 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on September 12, 2015 entitled "Do we really need to develop West Village?" 

If you like this blog, below are links to related blogs:

CalgaryNEXT: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, The Bold

Urban Living is in its infancy in Calgary

Calgary: Leader in addressing urban issues

 

Kensington Legion Redevelopment: Taller is better?

On September 9th I attended a meeting organized by Calgarians concerned about the redevelopment of the Kensington Legion site. In fact, it was openly organized by those who opposed the development - there was full transparency about that.

This was not an official Open House organized by the City or Truman Development Corp. who has joint-ventured with the Kensington Legion to redevelop the Kensington Road Legion site. I found out from a friend who lives near the site and had a notice placed in his mailbox. Given I live in West Hillhurst and the 19th Street/Kensington Road intersection is quickly becoming our Town Centre. I attended to better understand their concerns.

Of the 120 or so people there, all but a few others (including me) vehemently opposed the redevelopment for various reasons. Most were concerned about the proposed height of the concept building (10 storeys) and the number of condo units (190), which would make it the largest project in the central northwest - larger than anything in Kensington Village.  It was referred to many times as “a game changer” and “precedent setting.”

Conceptual rendering of the Kensington Legion site redevelopment, with the new Legion / Office Building on the left and the mixed-use condo building on the right.  The design and materials create a unique sense of place and function as a gateway to West Hillhurst. 

Looking northwest this rendering illustrates how the building relates with the community. Note the height of the building next to the homes on the north side is not any higher than a new large infill single family house. 

  This rendering illustrates the sites proximity to downtown, Bow River and Kensington Village. 

This rendering illustrates the sites proximity to downtown, Bow River and Kensington Village. 

The Proposal at a Glance

Truman has submitted an application to rezone the land into two parcels and it is being reviewed by the City of Calgary. The smaller parcel on the west side would become home for a four-storey mixed-use Legion building. The first two floors would be the Legion’s new home and the top two would be new office space to be leased to tenants as a means of increasing and diversifying their revenues. This could become a new redevelopment model to rejuvenate struggling Legions across Canada.

As a trade-off for building at turn-key home for the Legion,Truman is seeking to rezone the land where the existing Legion and parking lot exists to allow for a mixed-use mid-rise development i.e. retail at street level and condos above.

This is where it gets confusing. Despite there being two phases to the project, the Land Use rezoning for both is happening at the same time. To complicate matters further, Truman is also submitting the development application for the 4-storey office building, however this will only happen if Truman is successful with the Land Use rezoning for a four-storey office building.

It is also expected Truman will be submitting the mixed-use (retail/condo) development application this fall even though the Land Use Rezoning decision by City Council – including a public hearing where anyone can get their 5-minutes to address Council – will not be made until December at the earliest.

Site 1 is where the proposed Phase One 4-storey office building will be located and Site 2 is where the proposed Phase Two mixed-use retail/condo building will be located. 

What is Land Use Rezoning?

Every piece of land in the City is zoned for a certain type and scale of development – there are dozens of different types. In layman’s terms, some land is zone exclusively for single-family residential; other zoning allows for condos and townhomes at various heights and densities, some zoning allows for a maximum of four-storey multifamily with retail at the street, or six story wood frame. There is also separate zoning classifications for commercial, industrial or institutional development.

Zoning is the means the City strategically develops land in a compatible and balanced manner with neighbouring land uses and infrastructure, as well as with the City’s overall need for residential, commercial, industrial and institutional development.

Rezoning of Land Use happens quite frequently.  While a landowner thinks s/he has a better idea for the use of the land than the current land use, s/he applies to the City for change-of-use and provides their rationale. The application is evaluated by City Administration and other stakeholders (Community Association) as part of the review process. The City Administration then makes a recommendation to Calgary Planning Commission who in turn make a recommendation to City Council to determine if the Rezoning is aligned with the City's strategic long-term planning policies and goals as set by Council, and also if it fits with the best interest of the neighbours and community. If Council, ultimately approves the Land Use Rezoning the landowner can apply for a development permit based on the new zoning.

  The timeline shows how the new Land Use Redesignation (or Rezoning as it is sometimes called, just to confuse the matter more) will be conducted including the public engagement and public hearing aspect of the process. (from Turman website) 

The timeline shows how the new Land Use Redesignation (or Rezoning as it is sometimes called, just to confuse the matter more) will be conducted including the public engagement and public hearing aspect of the process. (from Turman website) 

  This illustration documents how the development permit application process works including public engagement.  (from Truman website)

This illustration documents how the development permit application process works including public engagement. (from Truman website)

  This illustration documents how the Site 2 (mixed-use building) development permit application will proceed with public engagement continuing into 2016. (from Truman website)

This illustration documents how the Site 2 (mixed-use building) development permit application will proceed with public engagement continuing into 2016. (from Truman website)

Kensington Legion: Prime Site For Redevelopment

In the case of the Kensington Legion site, it is currently an underutilized site with its one-storey building and large surface parking lot located 3 km from downtown, along a major bus route, near schools and the historic West Hillhurst Main Street (along 19th St NW).  It not only has great access to downtown but also to SAIT, University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital and Mount Royal University.  These factors make it ripe for redevelopment.

The City's Municipal Development Plan identifies Kensington Road (between 10th St NW and Crowchild Trail) as a Neighbourhood Corridor supported by Primary Transit (i.e. Bus Rapid Transit) and as a Neighbourhood Boulevard, which makes it an ideal site for retail at street level, with office spaces and condos above.  The great debate is how much retail, office and condo development should go on the site and how does it get configured.

Kensington Road (from 14th Street to Crowchild Trail) is part of the City’s new Main Street Initiative,  which looks at how the City can foster the development of more pedestrian-oriented streetscapes with restaurants, cafes, boutique retailers, yoga/fitness studios, professional offices and low (under 4 storeys) to mid-rise (under 12 storeys) condo buildings so as to create walkable communities.  

Interesting to note that a Kensington Road Main Street Open House (ironically held at the Legion Building), citizens indicated strongly that they wanted to see more retail, restaurants, an urban grocery store and more condos in high quality buildings - almost exactly what Truman has proposed.  One caveat some in attendance (not all) stated the maximum height should be four-storeys. At the same time they also said they didn’t want it to look like Kensington Village, but something unique to their community.

With the current the Legion sitting on uniquely large inner-city site there is potential for a much larger and taller building than you would typically find in Kensington Village, Marda Loop or Mission.  Truman’s concept building cascades downward from 10 storeys (at Kensington Road), to just three storeys (adjacent to the alley).

Truman did not set out to design a 10-storey building, but achieve a particular floor to land area ratio (FAR) goal as per Land use requirements. One way the FAR goal could be achieved with this project is by creating a cascading building form and height with 10-storeys on the southside next to Kensington Road stepping down to its lowest height on the northside next to the single-family homes. This helps to minimize the shadow impact on existing neighbours. 

This illustration shows that the 10-storey configuration of the concept building actually creates less of a shadow than a six-storey box structure would. 

Summary of comment from Kensington Road NW Main Street Open House. 

This Google Earth image illustrates the proximity of the Kensington Legion site to key employment centers and amenities. 

The Objections to the Development

While I believe many people in attendance at the September 9th meeting were in favour of some development, there were a plethora of reasons they objected to Truman’s 10-storey development. Comments I heard were:  

  • West Hillhurst should remain a single-family home community

  • Will bring “hordes” of panhandlers and drug users

  • Shouldn’t be any development taller than four storeys

  • Will lower the value of my home

  • Would be better as a park

  • Some feared that if 10-storeys was allowed with this project the next project could be 15+ storeys.

  • Back alley concerns from delivery trucks and poor garbage removal by businesses

The most interesting objection was parents concerned about all vehicular access to the site being from 18th Street (via the back alley) as 18th Street is an important street to access Queen Elizabeth (QE) Schools (elementary, junior high and high school).  It was also stated that QE is a “walk-only” school. (I later checked with the Calgary Board of Education who said they don’t use that term, but QE is a designated community school which many children walk to. But they also added QE offers many alternative programs that attract students from other neighbourhoods who are bussed to school.)

I do see dozens of school buses and cars parked outside the three schools every school day dropping off and picking up students. The kids walking to school are already used to negotiating the busy streets surrounding the school. I appreciate some parents’ concerns about the increased traffic exiting and entering off of 18th Street and the safety of children, but I wonder if this objection is a red herring. 

As for the worst objection, my “vote” goes to…

Some people complained Truman didn’t do enough to notify people that about the development and provide ample opportunity for input as most of the engagement happened over the summer. Perhaps that is true if you were away all summer, but really, how many people go away all summer?

In reality, Truman manned a display room in the Legion building every Wednesday (4 to 7 pm) and Saturday (11am to 2 pm) from July 15th through August 29th for people to view the proposal (poster board information panels and a 3D model) and chat with their development team one-on-one.  In all, there were 14 different sessions totalling 42 hours. In addition, a website had all of the information about the project and contact information since early July - and it still exists.

Thirdly, sandwich boards were placed at various locations near the site along Kensington Road inviting people to visit the Display Room at the Legion. A small kiosk next to the sidewalk in front of the Legion also had information about the proposal and post-it notes for people to provide comments anytime day or night.

Temporary kiosk located at the Kensington Legion site next to sidewalk to allow neighbours to read about the project and provide comments. 

  Concept images of the proposed buildings for Kensington Legion site redevelopment. 

Concept images of the proposed buildings for Kensington Legion site redevelopment. 

  Information panel outlining the process for rezoning and development permit approval at the kiosk. 

Information panel outlining the process for rezoning and development permit approval at the kiosk. 

 

Last Word

The last thing I would like to see is cookie cutter, four-storey box condo all too commonly seen in urban renewal communities not only in Calgary, but in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Edmonton.  The Kensington Legion site has the capacity to be home for a signature building that would be the gateway to the new West Hillhurst.  How exciting would that be!

Yes, it is a “game changer” - and that is a good thing. It could be the impetus for transforming West Hillhurst into a wonderful 21st century urban village with a vibrant town centre complete with local shops, cafes and offices. 

Yes, it is “precedent setting” and I hope the precedent will lead to more low to mid-rise, mixed-use buildings along Kensington Road, thereby attracting more people to live/work/play in OUR community. 

I also hope it has the potential of being the catalyst for a name change from West Hillhurst to Grand Trunk, the original name of the community. 

It is time for West Hillhurst to step out of the shadow of the neighbouring Hillhurst/Sunnyside community and become Canada’s next best community. This YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) says YES!

If you like this blog, click on the links below for related blogs: 

Kensington Village: One of North America's Healthest Communities

Calgary: Flaneuring 19th St. NW

West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild

Calgary Community Engagement: Raising the bar again!

Last September, I posted a blog entitled “ West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild” documenting the outstanding efforts of Truman Developments to make it easy for the public to share their thoughts about “West District,” a multi-block urban village being planned by Truman in the middle of suburbia on Calgary’s west side.

Their engagement plan included the construction of a building on site to meet with people in groups and individually to discuss ideas and concerns over a four-month period. This was no cursory open house meeting where the community was allowed to rant and rave and give their opinions while the developer politely listened but went away and developed the master plan more or less as they had planned anyway. The old “design and defend” development process is dead in Calgary. (Learn more at: West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild.)

Now a year later, Brookfield Residential is raising the bar yet again on community engagement in Calgary by engaging the Kingsland community with their Kingsland Market on Macloed (Brookfield’s name for the project) project on the huge former McKay car dealership site on Macleod Trail near Heritage Drive SW.

Brookfield's Kingsland Market on Macleod is ideally situated to become the gateway to the community from Macleod Trail. 

How could that be?

Brookfield is meeting with the neighbours and community even BEFORE they buy the land to determine how the community feels about the idea of transforming the site into a 21st century urban village.  There are no plans, no sketches, no pretty pictures of what might be; it is just a blank slate until they get the community’s input I am not aware of any developer to date being so proactive in Calgary.

At this time Brookfield’s vision and plans for the site are purposely unresolved, to wisely avoid falling into the “design and defend” debate.  In a recent email I received, the vision statement read:

“Kingsland Market will be Calgary’s newest sustainable urban village at the gateway to this established community. The vision is to generate a magnificent renewal of the site that will present new residential and commercial options for an ever-increasing and diverse population within our city.  It will reinvigorate green space and reunite this area into a seamless whole with the rest of the community and all that it has to offer.”

 While some might argue this is too ambiguous, I think it helps to start the discussion by identifying four key community-enhancing ideas:

  1. New residential options that will diversify the community’s population.
  2. New commercial options – retail, restaurant, café, entertainment, recreational – that will create a more walkable live/work/play community.
  3. Enhancement of green spaces which will make the community more attractive for existing and new residents.
  4. Enhancement of connectivity by creating a more attractive, walkable experience for residents to the Heritage Station LRT and Macleod Trail bus stops.

The survey says…

Their first step was posting a survey online asking neighbours to share their concerns and ideas.

I contacted Brookfield to see if I could get the results of the survey and in the spirit of transparency they willing agreed to share them.

As of September 8th the Kingsland survey had generated over 200 survey responses, the comments range, as one would expect from entirely opposed, to entirely positive.

 The common themes to date are:

  • Retention of Market on Macleod
  • Rental/Residents
  • Affordability of condos
  • Traffic/Speed
  • Parking
  • Height

Key questions raised in the comments:

  • Who is the target market of this project?
  • Will this result in the loss of the market?
  • Will the units be owned or rented?
  • Do we get to vote on the redevelopment?
  • Has the community association already committed?
  • Would you consider trying to incorporate the marketing into the development?

Sample positive comments:

  •  This looks like an amazing project – I look forward to hearing how it progresses
  • I think this is a great idea and could really improve our neighbourhood!
  • I would welcome this site but only if it can be kept affordable.
  • I am excited to finally have a project that will give our community a vibrancy transfusion it hasn’t had for years. The community has been atrophying from lack of interest.
  • We would love to have a professional, seamless development that would provide a good example of modern urban renewal.

Sample negative comments:

  •  I am fundamentally opposed to any rental or highrise development in Kingsland. I understand this is a condo or a rental that is a ways away but once one of these projects gets a toehold, many more will follow.
  • I am very disappointed that you are doing this. The Market will be gone and a quiet residential neighbourhood will be turned into another urban concrete jungle, not a quaint village. I live very close to this proposed development and may move because of it.
  • You are lowering the value of our already unappreciated community thanks to developers like you and renters.
  • Definitely not thrilled about the Market being demolished to build more [yuppie] condos.

None of these comments are surprising; they are the same comments you hear from the community for every Calgary infill development whether it be Stadium Shopping Centre, Harvest Hills Golf Course or Kensington Legion site.

The next step is to host an open house further discuss the ideas, issues, concerns and opportunities.  Everyone is welcome:

When: September 16, 2015 at 7:30 pm, Kingsland Community Association Hall (505 78 Ave SW)

It will be interested to see how many people attend the open house and what they have to say.

Kingsland Market FAQ

About Kingsland

Kingsland is, for the most part, a typical Calgary community.  It is unique in that residents in Kingsland are less likely to live in a single-family home (28%) compared to the 58% city-wide and more likely to be renters 68% compared to 31% city-wide. 

The median age of the 4,812 Calgarians that call Kingsland home is on par with the city average and the education profile of the Kingsland community is about the same as citywide figures - yet their median household income is only $59,908 compared to the city-wide figure of $81,256. 

Where Kingslandians shine is that 26% take public transit to work and 10% walk compared to only 17% of Calgarians city-wide using transit and 5% walking to work. 

(Source: City of Calgary, Community Profiles, 2014)

The boundaries of Kingsland are Glenmore Trail on the north, Heritage Drive on the south, Macleod Trail on the east and Elbow Drive on the west.

Last Word

In chatting with Jaydan Tait, VP Calgary Infill Communities, with Brookfield Residential he tells me “We are doing this early engagement to build trust with our neighbours right off the top. We want to understand our neighbours’ direct opinions on the potential reinvigoration of the site. The early kick-start to the conversation and using the Metro quest survey provides unfiltered feedback from people.  This is different from more typical development engagement where feedback is often collected and channeled by a Community Association or other groups. The engagement will inform our decision on whether to proceed with the acquisition based on the ability to realize a shared development vision.  We want to demonstrate to neighbours, community and City Council, we are being completely transparent in our commitment to creating great places in our City.”

Kudos to Brookfield to let the neighbours get their thoughts on the table early, even before the City planners. Now the challenge will be to continue work with the community and neighbours where there is a diversity of ideas - some diametrically opposed - to foster a shared vision linked to market and financial realities.

As I always like to say, “There is no perfect vision, no perfect redevelopment plan. You can never make everyone happy!” Best wishes Kingsland community and Brookfield!

"Roger That" says 12-year old Matt about public art

Everyday Tourist Note: I have always wondered what others think of public art and public spaces, realizing my perspective on public art is unique - as is everyone’s. While I get lots of feedback from others via conversations, emails and social media regarding public art, it is always from adults, very rarely from young people i.e. the next generation who are going to inherit the art.

This summer  a new piece of public art was unveiled at the Tuscany LRT Station, an artwork chosen by a jury that I was part of, but not my first choice. (You can learn more about the jury process in my blog “Confessions of a public art juror.”)

I thought rather than blogging my critic of the artwork and the station as a public space, I would ask a friend’s 12-year old grandson who lives in Tuscany if he might like to do a guest blog.  To my surprise, he said yes!

Guest blog by Matt:

The storm was coming in when we got on the train. The crowfoot C-train station felt pretty industrial and grey. We got on the train and headed west towards the mountains. The new Tuscany station is now the end of the line. Tuscany is my home community.

When we approached the new station I noticed that they had planted trees along the tracks below me. The roof of the inside of the station was wooden and felt more connected to nature somehow. The station felt similar to Crowfoot, but with more natural elements.

Eamon's Bungalow Camp built in the 1950s and was an icon for people travelling in and out of Calgary for decades. For the complete story click here: Avenue Magazine: The Story of Eamon's Camp

The big Eamon’s Bungalow sign was still there, and I know that they thought about tearing it down or selling it. It was very historic, and I think it cool that they decided to keep it.

After exploring the platform a little more, I found that there was a small colorful building with painted sides. Public art is better than just looking at an empty wall.  The station’s reputation can be positive. I hope that the people who see the painting will get something out of it.

I was really surprised that the painted building was actually a public washroom! I wonder if other C-train stations have these to take care of the public that use the stations across the city? And with fancy art on them? The colourful paintings definitely made the building more artistic and appealing.

Some might ask if this is public art or decoration? Matt just likes it! Roger That!

I looked around and saw several metal sculptures with lights that reminded me of trees.  When they are illuminated at night, it is far cooler because it looks like light spheres.

I looked around and saw several metal sculptures with lights that reminded me of trees.  When they are illuminated at night, it is far cooler because it looks like light spheres.

The installation of tree-like lamp posts as public art is titled "Roger That" and was created by Vancouver artist Bill Pechet. One of the guidelines for the project was to create something that would link the communities of Tuscany and Royal Oak.  "Roger That" is a military saying for communicating to someone "I understand."  In some ways they remind me of the old TV antennas that use to sit on top of everyone's homes.  Or could it be some sort of visual morse code? Good art is often ambiguous, allowing everyone to see what they want to see based on their experiences. 

Another view of "Roger That."

The yellow lights are the same as you see on roadside construction sites. 

"Roger That" at night. (photo credit calgary.ca)

Roger That at dusk or dawn creates an eerie beacon of light. (photo credit: Pechet Studio)

Bridging Communities 

Day or night, there are similar sculptures on both sides of Crowchild Trail.  It made me think that it’s kind of weird that the C-train station is the only bridge between the communities of Tuscany and Royal Oak. I wonder if people will actually visit each other’s community now, or if the train is as far as they will go?  Only time will tell. I think it will, because families can enter unexplored territory on the outside of what they see every day.

There are a lot of youth in Tuscany. My mom says that there used to be only one way in and one way out of Tuscany, and if it snowed, people couldn’t get anywhere. Then they built roads and even added a C-train station. The Tuscany C-train station kind of opens up my world and represents freedom to me.  Now I can go where I want, and travel outside of my community whenever I want. I think that the freedom for people to go where they want is just as beautiful as the art they have at the stations.

Artwork in communities is cool. A community that has art means that it has people that care about it. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it should make people stop and think about it.  All art won’t be meaningful to everyone, some people will like it and some will hate it.  The purpose is to cause a reaction.

In 20 years I wonder what my friends and I will think about that station and the artwork when we look back…?

Roger That another perspective.

Last Word

I am not sure what I expected in from Matt, but this certainly wasn’t it. Who would have though at 12-year old would see the coming of a LRT Train Station has his road to freedom? Who would have thought he’d be concerned about community?

It is also interesting that it seems like the art on the utility boxes made a bigger impression on him than the large sculptural installation.  Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from that as we think about future public art projects, not only in Calgary but other cities.

As Art Linkletter (click here for link Art Linkletter TV show) use to always say “Kids say the darndest things!” 

For more information on the "Roger That" sculpture by the Pechet Studio click on: City of Calgary "Roger That" Public Art Site.

Calgary's urban grocery store saga!

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's NEW CONDOS section on Saturday, August 29th, 2015 titled, "Grocery store placement a tricky business." 

Whatever happened to the six grocery stores being planned in Calgary’s City Centre (all of the urban communities within 3 km of downtown office core)? Back in August 2014, Calgary Herald City journalist Jason Markusoff reported that developers of no less than six different condo projects were negotiating with grocery stores to locate in their projects.  

Fast forward to August 2015 - Loblaw’s has done a deal for a mega 100,000 square foot (50% will be groceries and 50% other goods) East Village with Rio Can. First Capital Realty recently announced they have inked a deal with Vancouver’s Urban Fare (a subsidiary of the Overwaitea Food Group) as the anchor tenant of the ground floor retail space for The Royal condo on 8th Street and 16th Avenue SW.

  Concept of the new Loblaws store in East Village. 

Concept of the new Loblaws store in East Village. 

Ryan Bosa, President of Embassy Bosa Inc. the developer for The Royal (condos and commercial spaces) is “very excited with Urban Fare being at our doorstep as First Capital’s anchor tenant.  Grocery stores help define neighbourhoods and Urban Fare will fill in the last piece to make this a fully amenitized neighbourhood with a massive convenience for the existing community and our homebuyers alike.  Without question, the grocery tenant had a huge impact on us going after this site (though Urban Fare was not confirmed at the time we did the deal, we did know there would be a high-caliber grocer).”

  Computer rendering of the new Urban Fare store at street level of The Royal on 8th Ave SW at 16th Street.

Computer rendering of the new Urban Fare store at street level of The Royal on 8th Ave SW at 16th Street.

Why did it take so long to get two new grocers to locate in the Beltline and East Village?  And why is Whole Foods rumoured to be locating in Northland Mall and not in an urban community you ask?”

Perhaps it is because Calgary’s City Centre is already well served with its current nine grocery stores – three Canada Safeway (Mission, Beltline and Kensington), Calgary Co-op Midtown, Sunterra, Community Natural Foods, Bridgeland Market, Amaranth Whole Foods Market and Sunnyside Natural Market.

In chatting with a few grocery store experts, a modern large grocery store like Canada Safeway, Sobey’s, Save-On-Foods or Calgary Co-op needs a minimum customer base of 30,000 to warrant opening up a new store.   Given that our greater downtown has four large grocery stores, they alone have the capacity to serve over 120,000 residents.  If you add up all of the communities within a 4 km radius of our downtown core, the population only adds up to 75,000. So our greater downtown communities are well served by the existing grocery stores - despite what some might argue!

There is probably room for a couple of other specialty grocers, which is exactly what we have with Community Natural Foods, Bridgeland Market, Sunterra, Amaranth Whole Foods Market and Sunnyside Natural Market.

Proposed sites for new grocery stores

The mega makeover plans of Eau Claire Market includes a grocery store but the population of Eau Claire, Downtown Core and West End won’t even add up to 20,000 people when all the proposed new condos are completed.  With the coming of a mega grocery store in East Village, that just about kills any opportunity for a major grocer to set up shop in Eau Claire.

An ambitious three-tower residential project called West Village Towers at 9th Ave SW at 10th Street (old Stampede Pontiac site) is another location looking for a major grocery store to locate there, but with Canada Safeway, Calgary Co-op and Community Natural Foods all just blocks away, this will be a tough deal to negotiate.

West Village Towers is a partnership between Wexford Developments and Cidex Group of Companies who retained NORR architects Calgary and Dubai offices, including world-renowned architect, Yahya Jan, to design West Village Towers, which will include 575 units and 90,000 sf of retail including a possible grocery store. 

Anthem Properties has been sitting on their Mcleod Trail 25th Ave SE land (just west of Erlton LRT Station) since 2007. Its proposed development plan calls for a mixed-use development with four residential towers totaling 570,000 sf, (which translates to 600 condos or about 1,000 people).  Their website indicates the commercial podium at street level will be anchored by a 75,000 square foot grocery (there is even a computer rendering showing a generic Grocery sign). 

The question one has to ask is “Would Sobeys possibly sell their Canadian Safeway site in Mission and open a modern grocery store in Erlton?”  There aren’t sufficient residents in Mission, Erlton and Roxboro to support for two grocery stores even with several new residential developments over the next five to ten years. 

Peter Edmonds, Director, Marketing tells me Anthem Properties is “currently working with a national grocer (not Sobeys) on a 38,000 square foot store to open within three years and with construction starting on their Erlton Station mixed-use development in the spring of 2016.”

Erlton Station mixed-use development includes retail along Macleod Trail with a grocery store.

PBA Land & Development recently announce plans for a 100,000 square foot mixed-use project at the corner of 17th Avenue and 1st Street SE, which would include a 15,000 square foot grocery store at street level.  If the Erlton Station deal is inked it would be difficult to imagine another grocery store at this location.

Facing Reality

While many Calgary urbanites would love to see more grocery stores locate in new developments, the harsh reality is there are already more grocery stores in our greater downtown communities than in most urban centres.  The current Canadian Safeway and Calgary Co-op store sites are economically viable in part because they have only owned their land for a long time and they own the building.  Trying to operate a viable grocery store in a high rent urban site with limited vehicular and loading access and expensive indoor parking and without a critical mass of residents is a difficult investment to make for the low margin grocery store business.

One former senior executive with a major international grocery store chain told me "people should be careful what they hope for.  If we opened a story in Bridgeland, that would probably mean the end of the local mom and pop stores like, Lukes Drug Mart and the Bridgeland Market and we'd become the big bad corporate store. Despite what many think, we are sensitive to our relationship with the communities we serve - they are our customers."

The addition of a Loblaw’s grocery store in East Village and the Urban Fare in the Beltline will dramatically change Calgary’s urban grocery store culture for the next decade making it difficult for any new players for several years.  That is just my opinion and I hope I am wrong!

Last Word

The public should realize developers are working very hard to ink a deal with new grocery store operators, but it isn’t easy, Nobody is going to sign a deal that doesn’t make economic sense for both the developer and the grocer. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Whole Foods Lincoln Park 

Beltline: One of North America's best hipster neighbourhoods

Calgary's secret urban village?

 

CalgaryNEXT: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, The Bold

Finally. The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) came forward with their proposal for a new Calgary arena (Events Centre) and stadium (Field House) for West Village. I can now see why their vision of a massive integrated enclose arena and stadium complex would not fit at Stampede Park as per my Flamesville vs. Stampede Park blog (posted August 14, 2015). 

Now that CSEC’s idea, called CalgaryNEXT has been hatched, here are my thoughts on the good, bad, ugly and bold aspects of what has been presented.

Rendering of the CalgaryNEXT stadium and arena in the middle of West Village. The white buildings in the foreground and the taller buildings along the LRT and CPR tracks are the new tax generating building that would generate new tax revenue to pay off the Community Revitalization Levy loan. 

West Village with its proximity to the Bow River and downtown has the potential to be a very attractive and active mixed-use urban district with or without the addition of an arena, stadium and fieldhouse. 

The Good

The biggest GOOD that could come from CalgaryNEXT is the redevelopment of West Village, an underutilized urban wasteland with three car dealerships and the dying Greyhound Bus Terminal – not exactly the best use of land along the Bow River next to our vibrant downtown. The vision is CalgaryNEXT will attract hotel, condo, restaurant, bar, pub, lounge developers to redevelop all of the land surrounding the arena and stadium, creating a vibrant new urban community where Calgarians can “Live, Work & Play!”

CalgaryNEXT will also fast track the cleaning up of a creosote contamination on land next to the Bow River, something which should have been done long ago.  That is GOOD!

The proposed complex will also be unique in North America - maybe even in the world; this is no cookie cutter development. It is ambitious and contrary to Calgary’s usual pragmatic prairie conservative mantra. It will capture the attention of sports fans and urban tourists across North America.

It is GOOD that the stadium/field house will be enclosed allowing it to be used year-round and for more than just football and amateur events. This is a wonderful adaptation to Calgary’s harsh climate – cold in winter and evening hail and thunderstorms in the summer. It will also be designed with the idea Calgary might be able to attract professional soccer in the future.

There is also a $300 million savings by building the two integrated facilities vs. three separate facilities at different sites. That is GOOD!

It is also GOOD that the Calgary Stampede & Exhibition can move forward with evolving its master plan, knowing that a new arena will not be part of the vision. In addition, the University of Calgary can begin to determine how it might capitalize the McMahon Stadium lands.

Conceptual rendering of proposed new arena, stadium and fieldhouse west of 14th Street bridge

The Bad

  Conceptual rendering of how the arena and stadium will be under one roof. 

Conceptual rendering of how the arena and stadium will be under one roof. 

The proposed funding program is a BAD deal for taxpayers with CSEC only contributing $200 million of the estimated $890 million direct costs of the facility and nothing to the possible billion dollars it will take to clean up of the site and upgrade several interchanges and roads.  Most major developments in Calgary today, have the developer sharing the cost of infrastructure requirements needed for the development.

The fact CSEC didn’t present some sort of business plan or time line for negotiations, community engagement and construction was a BAD mistake. I would suggest the best-case scenario for a timeline is:

  • 2015   determine the cost of contamination cleanup, infrastructure improvements
  • 2016   develop a master plan for West Village with CalgaryNEXT as centerpiece
  • 2017    finalize funding program with municipal, provincial and federal governments
  • 2018   commence clean up/ commence roads and infrastructure improvements 
  • 2019   finalize design and building permits
  • 2020   start construction
  • 2023   opening of complex 

As well, it would have been helpful if CSEC had introduced development partners like a major hotel and condo developer as part of their concept.  A residential/hotel development above CalgaryNEXT would make the project more viable as it would increase the tax base.

What about announcing a name sponsor for the project. Surely CalgaryNEXT is not the real name for the complex.  Imagine if CSEC had come forward with corporate sponsors for say $100million for 20 years for the two complexes and that the money would be used to cover capital not operating costs. That would have added credibility to the project and improved the funding structure.

Rendering of the proposed translucent roof that will give the feel of an outdoor stadium. 

As well, there were many references to the fact West Village could be developed using a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) like in East Village. While that looks good on the surface, East Village had a master plan that included almost 7 million square feet of development (office, retail and condos) in addition to its two sites for public (non-tax paying) uses (National Music Centre and Central Library).  East Village development has strategically staged private and public developments like The Bow Tower and condos with River Walk and 4th Street Underpass. 

For CSEC’s idea to work it would have to lead with the arena, stadium/fieldhouse (not tax paying projects) and hope that 7 million square feet of private projects will follow. A BAD scenario! For a CRL to work private development must happen at least concurrently with the public projects. 

It was also BAD when CSEC announced there was a $300 million savings by integrating the three complexes and didn’t say immediately that some of those savings would be passed on to the City. A good gesture would have been to say the City’s contribution to the fieldhouse would be $125 million instead of $200million as a result of cost savings.

The Ugly

While CSEC made reference to the need for road and transit improvements to accommodate the increased traffic to the arena, stadium and potential office, hotel and condo buildings, there was no understanding of the costs and who would pay for them.  In most if not all new developments the developer and the city share the costs of new roads and interchanges; in some cases, the developer pays 100% of the costs.  CSEC could have at least said they would expect to share in the cost, which would be determined in negotiations with the City.

The Sunalta station is designed for hundreds not ten of thousands of transit riders. 

While there was lots of attention given to where the province and/or the city would get the $300 million for cleanup and $200 million for the field house, what about the $1 billion for road work and upgrade to the Sunalta LRT Station. As it stands this could be an UGLY negotiation.

The cost to upgrade the Crowchild and Bow Trail interchange could easily be $500 million and take several years to design and build, it is on par with the Macleod and Glenmore Trail project. It will be ugly when and if the Crowchild, Bow Trail, 10th Avenue interchange gets redesigned.

In addition, 14th Street interchanges at 9th Avenue and Memorial Drive would have to be upgrades, as would Memorial Drive and Crowchild Trail and the enlargement of the Sunalta LRT Station.

The entire west end of Calgary City Center would be an UGLY, two billion-dollar nightmare for probably five years with roadwork, infrastructure work and construction of CalgaryNEXT.

Google Earth image showing the four major interchanges that would have to be upgraded and the Sunalta LRT station. The Bow River and the Canadian Pacific Railway main line also make this a very difficult site for access and egress. 

The Bold

While there are a lot of questions to be answered and terms to be negotiated, CSEC has put a BOLD idea on the table for debate.  If this debate results in Calgary getting a new arena, stadium, fieldhouse, environmental cleanup and a fix to the chaos on Crowchild Trail, it will be a win-win-win-win-win situation for Calgarians.

As with any BOLD mega project, it will require significant negotiations (think Ring Road, Cancer Centre and Green Line LRT), with give and take on all sides – government, owners, public, community associations and developers.  At least with CSEC’s BOLD announcement we no longer have to speculate on the site or the scope of the project. Let the negotiations begin!

Brilliant vs. Boondoggle

There is no perfect development for West Village, some have called it a brilliant idea, others a billionaires boondoggle. CalgaryNEXT deserves to be dissected and debated to determine if we can link vision with reality. We must roll up our sleeves, keep an open minded and work together to see if we can add another dimension to the vitality of our City Centre in a cost-effective manner.

Perhaps the best next step is to create a CalgaryNEXT steering committee with diverse representation and expertise to determine the feasibility of the idea of an arena, stadium and fieldhouse as the catalyst to transform West Village into something Calgarians will be proud of not only in 2023 (when phase 1 could open), but also in 2073 when it is 50 years old.

Last Word

Let's see if we can make CalgaryNEXT work, and if not - at least we tried.  Remember East Village had several unsuccessful redevelopment plans before the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation's plan commenced.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Flamesville vs Stampede Park

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Front Yard Fun???

For decades, city dwellers and developers have abandoned the front yard as key element of a home’s livability, especially in new suburbs where the front porch was replaced by the two-car garage that left room for just a modest landing at the front door. 

This photo of a front yard patio/living room was sent to me a few weeks ago when I tweeted out I was working on a front yard blog. It is located along 19th Avenue in West Hillhurst.

But it was not just suburbanites who turned their backs on the street. Many inner city homes with back alley garages also seemingly forgot they have a front yard.  Sure they often had a small porch, but it was more for decoration than use. While they often held chairs, maybe a small table and a plant or two, but we rarely saw anyone sitting on them.  And too, often the inner-city front yard had a tree or two, a patch of lawn and a narrow sidewalk (seldom used as their residents entered the house from the back where the garage is). There are more similarities than differences between new suburban and new inner city homes than one might expect at a glance.

However, more recently, we have noticed while out on our community walkabouts, that more and more inner city Calgarians are discovering their front yard is a great space for a diversity of uses.  And this is a good thing, as it means more interaction with neighbours, as there are no six-foot fences and more eyes on the street.

This little cottage home uses the front yard as an outdoor living room. 

Playgrounds 

At first it was the swing on the trees that caught our attention.  Then it was the addition of comfy soft seating on the porch, or in some cases, a front-yard plaza/deck to sit and people watch rather than hide behind a six-foot backyard fence.

Found this fun front yard water slide in Altadore.  It was being used for a birthday party. How cool is a front yard birthday party!

This home had not one but three tree swings. I love the sculptural quality of the three swings individually and collectively.

This front yard swing gets lots of use. 

Not your traditional front yard; this one has a sandbox and other fun kids play areas.

Art Parks / Gardens

Others have turned their front yard into an art park - one local house even has a cow from the Colourful Cows for Calgary art project back in the year 2,000.  It is a “must see” spot with 20-month neighbour boy has to go see the “Moo” whenever he joins us on our walkabouts.  Another neighbour has created a sandbox for their kids in the front yard. Several neighbours replace the front lawn with raised vegetable gardens.

This is "Moo" who lives down the street from us.

This front yard sculpture garden can be found in Crescent Heights. 

A street art display case in Bridgeland.

Raised vegetable gardens in the front yard are popping up all over Calgary.

LFL

Another great front yard phenomena are the – Little Free Libraries (LFL).  Calgary now boasts over 200 of these libraries and growing weekly. It simply doesn’t get any better than inviting neighbours walking by to stop and look at what you have been reading - perhaps taking a book home or leaving a book of their own.   I love that fact that many of the LFL have a theme, some are lower to the ground and obviously for children, other contain more philosophical books and some are arts oriented. We always stop and check them out.

Just one of 200+ Little Free Libraries across Calgary.

Perhaps the best example of Calgarians rediscovering their front yards was seen on a recent bike ride - not one, but two, children’s playhouses were located on the front lawns along Broadview Road between 14th and 19th Streets.  How cool is that?

How cool is this play house in the front garden? It has a children's story book quality about it. 

Note this play house even includes the kitchen sink!

Last Word

I expect I there are hundreds, if not thousands of examples of innovative new uses for front yards in Calgary.  Send me your photos (richardlw@shaw.ca) of front yard animation in your community and I’ll post them to this blog.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Peyto: Calgary's Every Street Walker

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The Art of Architecture and Colour

For the past 35 years, I have observed - with interest - the evolution of Calgary’s urban design culture from its pragmatic prairie conservatism to today’s more liberal contemporary designs. Perhaps the biggest change has been the use and abuse of colour.  I was reminded of this when recently exploring the Beltline and seeing Lake Placid Group’s The Park - the new condo next to Memorial Park with its dark blue glass facade. 

I was a bit shocked as it was, to my eyes, so strikingly different from the promotional renderings which showed a more transparent, light green building, like a huge green house and more synergistic with the greens of the park.  My first impression of the deep blue was it was too dark, too heavy and too gloomy.  I have the same reaction to the dark glassed Keynote Towers just further east.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and my eyes are always attracted to buildings with bright, bold, cheerful colours like the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Guess I am a kid a heart!

Original computer rendering of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

  Actual photo of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Actual photo of The Park condo from Memorial Park.

Does anyone care?

I decided to ask Rob Taylor, President of the Beltline Community Association to see what he and his group thought of the change of the design. He informed me many people didn’t even notice the change and some that responded negatively at first, later changed their minds. He reminded me “that not everyone has to like every building.” How true!

I then thought I would get some other insights into Calgary’s new culture of colour. Joe Starkman, Partner at Knightsbridge Homes is the guy responsible for those bright orange and yellow University City condos on Crowchild Trail at the Brentwood LRT Station.  He indicated the public response has been a 50/50 split between those who like the colours and those who don’t.  The colours by the way were inspired by colours of grasses, bushes, flowers and trees at different seasons in Nose Hill, Blakiston Park, Strathcona Hill and Canada Olympic Park - all of which can be seen from the condo’s picture windows.

The multi-coloured University City condos at the Brentwood LRT Station.

Mid '90s green glass condos in Calgary West End.

Arriva condo in Victoria Park -  subtle use of colour. 

Beige/Brown City

Bruce McKenzie, VP at NORR architects, who designed the striking AURA I and II across the street from the Beltline’s Barb Scott Park shared with me that when he and his family arrived back in Calgary in 1991 after four years in Bermuda (where architecture celebrates the vitality of the island with vibrant colours), they were astonished at the “brownness” of the city.  He is a big fan of integrating colour into architecture and looking to nature for colour inspiration. At the same time, he cautions the use of bold colours in large scale as they create a “look at me architecture without any meaning or relevance to sense of place.”

New Pixel condo in Kensington.

Paul Battistella, General Manager at Battistella Developments has championed the idea of colour and condo design for several decades now. For him “colour is very personal and is reflective of a person’s personality.”  His design team uses colour both literally (bright yellow balcony highlights in Pixel) and psychologically. “We try and tap into the psychological appeal of colour and how it connects to a person’s self image.” Orange was chosen as the name for their ‘90s East Village condo (when East Village was only a dream) because the colour matched the “eclectic creative” people that live there.  Their new East Village project named “Ink” will have multiple colours on its exterior, reflecting the diversity of psychological profiles of purchasers.

A not-to-be-named architect once confided in me, saying, “many architects do not understand colour. Many are afraid of colour as it adds a complexity to the form, rhythm and light of the architecture which confuses them.”

AURA condo from Barb Scott Park.

Last Word 

Starkman, an architect by training, thinks “the new architecture we are seeing being built in Calgary today is quite refreshing and spectacular in many circumstances…all contributing to a dynamic rebirth of downtown Calgary.”  I think most Calgarians would agree with this statement.

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtown Calgary: Paint it black

Tale of three Calgary Pedestrian Bridges

Chicago: Architecture River Cruise

Everyday Tourist follower Sonny Tomic sent in this photo of a colourful new boutique office building in downtown Calgary.



St. Patrick's Island: The Good, The Bad, The Nice To Have

Note: I have received several emails and tweets supporting the ideas and comments in this blog.  Thought I would share this one with you from architect Tom Tittemore which I think provides an informed perspective on the Island and East Village design and development. 

TT writes: "Carol and I walked the upgraded St Patrick's Island yesterday - Sunday - and we concur with most of your observations. The public art piece is a clever amalgm of largely highway-scaled light fixtures, but we, as your blog noted, merely observed and walked on.  However, I would like to see it at night to finalize my opinion.  It may also perform better during cold, icy winter days. For us, the Island and George King Bridge, the River Walk, renovated Simmons Building, East Village etc., makes for a most pleasant stroll or powerwalk or bike ride …While New York has its Highline, I must say that the Island / River Walk makes great strides (that's a pun) towards a similar urban pedestrian experience that enables people to view the City with fresh eyes."

Blog: St. Patrick's Island: The Good, The Bad, The Nice To Have

It is with much anticipation that I have been waiting for St. Patrick’s Island to reopen.  On July 31, 2015, after being closed for two years of renovations, St. Patrick’s Island opened again to the public just in time for the August long weekend to much fanfare.

For two-years before the closure, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) conducted a comprehensive public engagement process to determine what Calgarians wanted to see in their new urban park.  Open houses, social media and an on-line survey collected ideas, which were clustered and prioritized for further public engagement to finalize the wish list.

CMLC’s call for proposals then went out to local and international landscape architect firms. Seventeen proposals were received and CMLC awarded the contract for the $20 million makeover to the joint team of New York-based W Architecture and Denver-based CIVITAS.

Loved

I love the mix of uses on the island. From quiet seating areas near the river to a hill with a fire pit on the top. From a children’s playground to pebble beach and wading pond. There is even a site-specific artwork. 

Knowing one of the public’s requests was to keep the island as natural as possible, I was pleased to see many areas where the river, trees, shrubs and rocks have been left undisturbed.

There is also a welcoming sense of arrival, be that from the elegant George C. King Bridge on the west side or from the zoo parking lot on the east. 

I was very impressed with the toboggan hill called The Rise, which was created in the middle of the island using soil from the reclaimed lagoon filled in during a previous renovation. The grass on The Rise was as lush as anything I have ever seen in Calgary. It was inviting people to just tumble down the hill – and some did!  This would be a great site for a permanent “slip and slide,” allowing year-round use.  

The children’s playground is not your cookie-cutter community playground that looks like it was built from a box of Crayola Crayons.  While the slides are bright red, most of the equipment is wood. The wobbly low bridge seemed particularly popular with people of all ages.

Overall, I love the new St. Patrick’s Island and how it has been divided up into smaller public spaces for different interests and uses.

The wobbly bridge/steps are popular with children and adults. 

At various points on the Island there are information panels that tell the history of the island. 

On of the several natural areas still on St. Patrick's Island.

Collectively these benches have a contemporary sculptural look with the mix of wood, concrete and lines. The design is very clever as one person can be lying down on one side while two people can be sitting on the other side of the back support.  

Room for Improvement

I am not sure how many people will use the larger seating area with the arboretum over top of the chairs and tables at the east entrance. It feels too much like you are sitting in a parking lot and you have limited view of the Bow River.  I realize when the water levels are higher, the area might be more animated with rafters getting off the river at this point, but I am wish this lovely seating area was closer the river with unobstructed views of the river and city skyline. 

I assume and hope Food Trucks will be allowed to park next to the East Entrance as the Island has no café or restaurant (there were no trucks on the Monday of the August long weekend).  Something like Boxwood (in Memorial Park), River Café (in Prince’s Island) or Angel’s Cappuccino & Ice Cream Cafe (at Edworthy Park) would be a good future addition to the St. Patrick’s Island. 

There is a need for way more bike parking in almost all areas of the park. I overheard this comment several times on both opening day and the holiday Monday.

The stairs up to the top of The Rise for tobogganing (and hopefully “slip & sliding”) are very steep and will not only be difficult for young children or seniors to climb and will be difficult to shovel in the winter. Might a ramp have worked better?

At the east entrance is this wonderful bistro seating area, but in my three visits to the island I saw very little use.

Climbing the stairs to The Rise will be a bit of a challenge for some, especially with in the winter.   

These picnic tables don't look that inviting and are too far removed from the playground nearby. Parents need to be able to see their kids. It is surprising that the seating is fixed, it would be great if families could move table and seating to suit there needs.

Back to nature

I was surprised there wasn’t more use of natural materials for people to sit on.  The concrete slab seating seemed out of keeping for a park with huge trees and natural areas. In a couple of cases, the concrete slabs did have wood backs for seating and lounging that was very attractive. Similarly, there is a long metal pathway that seems totally out of context.

I was also surprised the children’s playground didn’t incorporate some of the new thinking on playground design that invites children to explore more natural areas and objects – logs, rocks and trees - to climb over, jump off or crawl under.  The playground seems to focus only on young children, given the family nature of the Island it would benefit from more activities for older children and even teens.

These spring loaded stepping platforms didn't get any use when I was hanging out on the Island.  I am thinking they are too far from each other for kids to jump from one to another.  I saw something similar in Rome but the platforms were closer and they were very popular. 

This long metal walkway over a wetland area, seemed out of context on the Island.

This bench found in Parkdale would be great on St. Patrick's Island as kids could climb all over it and others could sit on it. A nice to have?

This fun modern playground can be found at Las Vegas' Container Park.  It is popular with kids by day and young adults at night. Playgrounds should be designed for all ages. 

The Beach

As promised, the new St. Patrick’s island has a beach. Though not a sand beach but a pebble beach, it was very popular with families on the hot August long weekend. However, what I had envisioned (hoped for), was a green beach like in Frankfurt, Germany along its River Main where a long stretch of grass along the river offers families, teens, young adults, seniors and couples a lovely place to sit, picnic and people watch.  I was hoping it would be integrated into the south side of the island where you could look out over the Bow River to Fort Calgary, East Village and downtown.  I believe the idea of a “green beach” was one of the more popular ideas with citizens as part of the Master Plan process. I hold out hope for a green beach in the area under the new public artwork.

St. Patrick's Island's pebble beach with wading pond. 

The lush grass at the bottom of The Rise is a very attractive place to sit and linger. It has some of the elements of a green beach.

Frankfurt's green beach is a people magnet. In the foreground is the outdoor bar serving up draft beer for the beach. How civilized?

It would be nice to have a green beach right on the river like this one in Calgary's Stanley Park on the Elbow River.

Bloom or Bust?

St. Patrick’s Island’s a new piece of public art called Bloom is by Montreal artist Michel de Broin.  To date, most social media attention has been positive, interestingly as the piece has much in common with both the controversial and much hated, “Travelling Light” aka “giant blue ring” by the airport (which is actually a fancy street light) and the equally controversial big white metal trees on Stephen Avenue.

Bloom is an assemblage of nine industrial grey street lampposts, three forming a tripod on the ground to support the other six (with actual streetlight fixtures that light up at night) sticking out in different directions like stamens and pistils of a flower.

By day, the artwork seems awkward, or as one passerby said to me “out of scale with the island.”  It also lacks the colour associated with a flower in bloom and competes negatively (in my humble opinion) with the elegant and playful George C. King (“skipping stone”) pedestrian bridge.

It is my understanding the idea behind the artwork is to connect natural elements of the island with urban street life. For me it is all urban, nothing natural. As it is, people seem to give bloom a glance and move on, it doesn’t really capture the public’s imagination.  

I couldn’t help but think this would have been perfect for some sort of interactive artwork like Chicago’s Millennium Park.   Something like, Jaume Plensa’s, 50 foot glass block tower Crown Fountain would have been perfect for St. Patrick’s Island as would Anish Kapoor’s 12 foot high 110 foot long reflective “Cloud Gate.”  Something, created by Calgary’s Jeff deBoer’s in the same vein as his “When Aviation was Young” in the West Jet wing of the Calgary International Airport would have been perfect. 

Bloom artwork with George King bridge in the background.  While the location is next to a high traffic walkway, people stop, glance quickly at the artwork and move on.  

Crown Fountain with its wading pond attracts thousands of visitors a day to stop, watch and play, seven days a week, daytime and evening. I would have been nice to have an interactive artwork like this on St. Patrick's Island. 

Cloud Gate's curved, reflective surface captures the imagination of people of all ages and backgrounds.  It is a very popular "selfie" location. 

Last Word

It is too early to judge the success of St. Patrick’s Island $20 million mega makeover. That will be determined in several years when the lust of the new has worn off. However, I am optimistic St. Patrick’s Island will, quickly loved by Calgarians as much as St. George’s Island and Prince’s Island are today. 

In many ways the combination of the Simmons Building, Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island redevelopment with the condos and offices, parallels what happened in the ‘90s with Eau Claire Y, Market, Promenade and Prince’s Island redevelopment. How St. Patrick's Island and East Village stand the test of time will be interesting to see.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Vegas Crazy Container Park 

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Does Calgary need an urban beach? 

 

Myth of Excellence

Editor's Note: Earlier this week I participated in a twitter debate about the importance of striving for excellence in city building with two Councillors and several twitter followers.  It all started when I questioned the need strive for excellence in "urban design" with projects like Paskapoo Slopes, when so much of master planning is subjective and changes over time. I became the lone wolf in the debate which went on for several hours.

Afterwards I started thinking about the book "Myth of Excellence" I had read several years ago and wondered if I could find my book report.  Not only did I find the book report, but also my Calgary Herald column I wrote on the this very enlightening book, so I thought I'd post it for you to read and comment on. 

Myth of Excellence (Calgary Herald)

In 2001, Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews published “Myth of Excellence” that recommended businesses should not get caught up in the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of their business. Their research showed companies that pursue excellence at everything ended up not being “world-class” at anything. Their research recommended businesses focus on being excellent in one key management area, above average in one or two other areas and just average for others areas.  It was their conclusion that it is a myth that you have to be excellent at everything to succeed!   

What has this got to do with cities you ask? Personally, I think a lot.  Too many cities are trying to be “world-class” or “best of class” in too many areas. Too often you hear politicians and special interest advocates say – we must have “world-class” architecture, parks, sports and recreation facilities, tourist attractions, airports, roads, transit, bike paths, libraries or recycling programs.   Too often we are commissioning “Best Practices” studies which then leads to Best Practices Syndrome. 

Today we seem obsessed with city ranking. Every week there seems to be a new ranking - which city is ranked highest for liveability or walkability, which is the most attractive to the creative class, families or retirees, which city is the most affordable or most expensive, which is the most wired or has the lowest taxes, which is most business friendly. These rankings are then used by politicians and advocates to lobby for more funding to improve their cities ranking. Note - Calgary often ranks very high in most world-wide city reports, but it is not usually at the top, except for being the world's cleanest city!  

Rather than beating ourselves up because we don’t have the best recycling program, the best bike lanes, the best snow removal program or the best contemporary architecture. We should accept that these are not our priorities.  Calgary can’t be all things to all people.  As the book states,  we only need to be average in most areas and excellent in one or two.  

Let’s not fool ourselves, people live in Calgary because there are lots of jobs here, in particular private sector jobs, not because we have the best library, art gallery or bike paths. Yes there are nice to have but the key to Calgary’s past and future success will be our ability to foster an environment that will continue to attract business investment to Calgary.  For example, Calgary doesn’t have the history, climate, geography or proximity to major markets to be a major year-round tourist city.  

In many ways Calgary is still a frontier city, looking for pioneers who will come and invest in the development of our natural resources for profit. As such Calgary, must be focused on being a “Business First” community.  Calgary must be excellent at Economic Development. 

We also need to be above average in the area of City Planning. A rapidly growing boom/bust city like Calgary must have a robust planning department able to meet the needs of a very diverse and discerning population.  Planning that is decisive, that can conduct the analysis and consultation to make good decisions quickly re: suburban planned communities, new urban villages, urban renewal programs, business parks, downtown office developments, road and transit planning. All these things must happen at the same time in a complex and coordinated manner that will enhance the quality of life for Calgarians.  

New Rocky Ridge Recreation Centre 

Excellence in Parks & Recreation 

One of Calgary’s key differentiators should be our Parks/Recreation.  I think these two areas go hand-in-hand in a young family-oriented city like Calgary. In the summer parks of all sizes and in the winter indoor recreational facilities are critical to making Calgary an attractive place for  families to live.  Calgary should be a “Families First” community (that doesn't mean we ignore singles, DINKS and seniors).

Calgary’s moniker should be “The City of Parks and Pathways” as we have an amazing collection of parks from Fish Creek to Nose Hills, from Stampede Park to Heritage Park, from Prince’s Island to the Calgary Zoo.  Calgary is blessed with one of the world’s best recreational pathway systems and one of the most unique urban pedestrian systems - +15 walkway – both need to be celebrated.   

From a recreational perspective, yes we have a lot of needs and wishes – more arenas, more soccer fields - but we also have a lot to be thankful for like our excellent recreation centres.  We also have some very unique recreational facilities – Olympic Oval (speed skating), Canada Olympic Park (luge, bobsled, centre of excellent for Winter Olympic athletes), Spruce Meadows (equestrian), Calgary Polo Grounds and Riley Park (cricket). 

New SETON Recreation Centre 

When do we just say "No!"

In all other areas of city management we just need to be average, OK, good enough. We have to make choices we simply can’t be excellent at everything. When do we say - “No?”  When do we say - “enough is enough?”

Do we really need a new airport tunnel that won’t be needed for several years and some say will never be needed with a $300+ million price tag? Do we really need two iconic pedestrian bridges at $25 million each over the Bow River? Do we need a signature Central Library at another $200+ million?  Do we need a comprehensive commuter bike path system for a few thousand people most who will use it for only six months of the year at $28 million?  Just asking!

Calgary Herald, February, 2011

New Quarry Park Recreation Centre 

Last Word

This Herald Column was written in early 2011, while the airport tunnel debate was top of mind. Since then we have completed or started construction on most of the projects listed above.  At the same time we have also started construction on four new recreation centres - Rocky Ridge (opens in 2017, cost $191M), SETON (opens in 2018, cost $200M), Quarry Park (open in 2016, cost $63M) and Great Plains (opens in 2016, cost $33M). In addition, the has created several new parks and renovated others both in the suburbs and City Centre - Barb Scott Park, ENMAX Park, St. Patrick's Island Park, Bowness Park and Ralph Klein Park, as well as the 132km Rotary Mattamy Greenway.  

Collectively, these investments enhances Calgary's reputation as "The City of Parks & Recreation.   

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Calgary: Needs vs Wants?

Calgary: Preservation vs Prosperity Perdicament

Calgary: The City of Parks & Recreation 

Starbucks Tasting Room vs Simmons Building

In December 2014, Starbucks opened its “coffee cathedral” in the former circa 1920s Packard automobile dealership building in Seattle’s tony Capitol Hill neighbourhood.  It was designed to roast and showcase Starbucks’ small batch, reserved coffees.   The 15,600 square foot Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (SRRTR) building has quickly become a mecca for local and international coffee cynics and zealots.

Not to be outdone, in June 2015, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation opened up its “flagship foodie fun spot” in the 1912 Alaska Bedding Company (ABC) warehouse building aka Simmons Building (in 1919 the Simmons Bedding Company purchased the building from ABC).  The 16,000 square foot building has quickly become the epicenter of Calgary’s growing café and food culture and could well be the project that puts Calgary on the international coffee/food map.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle.

Simmons Building facing East Village's Riverwalk. 

Let the competition begin!

As one would expect, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room (SRRTR) dwarfs the Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters’ space in the Simmons building.  While both have roasterie machinery, SRRTR has the look and feel of brewpub - lots of shiny machinery, an amphitheater space for viewing and learning about the bean-to-brew process.  Yet there is still a vibrant café atmosphere with lots of seating, huge windows to watch the “sidewalk ballet” that invites you to linger. There is even a library space if a quiet space to read or have a small meeting is what you’re after. We loved the idea that you could get a flight of coffees (three brews for $15) like you might have at a wine bar or craft brewery. 

Compare that to Phil & Sebastian’s café and coffee where the experience didn’t differ significantly from any other P&S café or other Calgary cafes. Advantage: SRRTR.

SRRTR looks like a science lab.

Seattle hipsters tasting the coffee, food and treats at SRRTR.

Calgarians lined up for their coffee at Phil & Sebastians.

SRRTR has its own Coffee Ambassadors – and there were many - young coffee experts from Starbuck cafes around the world who greet you at the door, find you a place to sit, bring you free water, answer your questions and engage you in a discussion.  On the flip side, Simmons Building seems a bit confusing as you have to line up to buy your coffee in one place, then line up again to buy your dessert, salad or sandwich at another vendor in the building.  Advantage SRRTR.

While SRRTR’s focus is definitely on coffee, it does have a Tom Douglas (Seattle celebrity restaurateur) Serious Pie restaurant on site, which is well known in Seattle for its pizzas and desserts.  Similarly, the Simmons Building is home to Charbar owned by Calgary’s celebrity restaurant owners Connie DeSousa and John Jackson.  I would have to award the restaurant advantage to Calgary’s Charbar with its more interesting menu, which offers up ocean, prairie and local garden ingredients.  It also offers a vegetarian small plates options. Advantage: Simmons Building.

Charbar restaurant in the Simmons Building.

The bar at Charbar. 

Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie pizza restaurants are also well known in Seattle for their desserts but my mouth still waters whenever I think of the Sidewalk Citizen’s Bourbon Bread Pudding and Earl Gray Apple cake we had a week ago.  Aviv Fried, owner of Sidewalk Citizen quietly putting Calgary on the map, has amazing sourdough bread and pastries.  Advantage: Simmons Building.

Sidewalk Citizen bakery at the Simmons Building.

From an overall design perspective, I loved the open, transparent, sunlight feel of SRTR over the Simmons Building that seems dark, closed and confined.  Both buildings have their historical exteriors preserved but there is little sense of history in the contemporary warehouse interiors. Simmons Building wins the design competition with its rooftop patio offer spectacular views of the city skyline and river valley. Advantage: Simmons Building.

SRRTR is a bright and airy space with lots of places to sit and chat, people watch or learn about coffee. It is part laboratory and part classroom. 

The Library at SRRTR

If you like to shop, SRRTR offers a small retail area with all kinds of coffee paraphernalia.  Simmons Building has no retail for those would need their shopping fix. Advantage: SRTR.

The retail space at SRRTR with the Serious Pizza in the background.

In the real estate world, it is all about “location, location, location.” While SRRTR has a great urban location at the junction of downtown and Capitol Hill, it is no match for the Simmons Building’s location on the East Village Riverwalk, next to the Bow River, near the soon-to-be best new urban park in North America - St. Patrick’s Island and what is shaping up to be one of North America’s finest early 21st century urban villages – East Village. Advantage: Simmons Building.

Simmons Building roof-top pato with Bow River and East Village Riverwalk below. (photo credit @GiantBlueRing

Simmons Building rooftop patio. (photograph by Colin Way, courtesy of CMLC) 

My Last Word

Yes, as a Calgarian I am biased.  Yes, I did love the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and would recommend you check it out if you are in Seattle. It is one of the most welcoming and friendly places I have visited in a long time with a great buzz to it.  But when push comes to shove, I feel the Simmons Building offers a more interesting and diverse urban experience for tourists and locals alike.  

My only wish is that by next summer, Calgary’s own Village Ice Cream has a space in the Simmons Building so I can buy a cone while wandering the Riverwalk and St. Patrick’s Island.

John Gilchrist's Last Word

In chatting with John Gilchrist (CBC Radio One's Calgary Eyeopener food critic for 33 years, best selling author and international food writer and judge) while I was putting the final touches on this blog - he would argue Calgary is already on the North American coffee/culinary map. He reminded me Calgary baristas have won four of the last five national barista championships and Ben Put of Monogram Coffee just finished 3rd in the World Championships. As well, Phil &Sebastian's coffee has been sold nationally for a few years now and is respected internationally.

On the food scene, he emphatically stated "Calgary has become a culinary destination not only nationally but internationally. One small example is that the US-based Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Association is holding its annual conference in Calgary this fall, the first time it’s been held outside the USA."

Insofar as the Simmons building is concerned, he too would like to see Village Ice Cream join the family. John feels, "the Simmons building showcases three of Calgary’s fine culinary entrepreneurs, exposing them to more than the usual foodie cognoscenti. That’s great but we not always want a full meal or even a coffee in the afternoon. But ice cream is always welcome."

He added, "the Simmons is one of the most notable development in Calgary’s culinary scene I’ve ever seen. The partnership between the City and these three entrepreneurs is a fine example of private and public enterprise. And especially impactful in the development of the new East Village neighbourhood."

If you like this blog you might like: 

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We can have SW Ring Road + Cancer Clinic + SE LRT for under $5B?

Recently, during a round of golf the banter turned to politics and the need for the government to rethink how they approach capital projects. Perhaps we don’t need to always have the Cadillac (or perhaps in today’s world the Audi or BMW) model for our mega projects.  As I like to say in golf after a decent drive that has landed close to the fairway, “good enough!” We don’t have to build the best of everything – best roads, best transit, best recreation centers, best hospitals, best pedestrian bridges etc. etc.  Sometimes “good enough” is perfectly okay!

One of the foursome told me in confidence that an independent review of the SW Ring Road conducted by an experienced engineering and construction specialists came back with an estimate of $3.5 billion (including the payments and transfers to the Tsuu Tina) versus the $5 billion originally quoted by the province. if changes were made to the design of the interchanges, the amount of land being used and the way it was being financed. Yes, a $1.5 billion dollar savings for basically the same result.

Then we got talking about the Tom Baker Cancer Clinic and the difference between the projected $500M cost to build it at the South Health Campus versus the cost of $1.3B to build it at Foothills Hospital site.  We were both in agreement this was a no brainer. If you can save $800M, why not do it? 

Think about what $800M would buy!

We immediately thought of southeast Bus Rapid Transit, (connecting communities in southeast communities to downtown) which is estimated to cost about $800M or the upgrade to full LRT status. This would provide Calgarians with rapid transit access to the South Health Campus and a new Cancer Clinic, something which doesn’t exist at the Foothills Medical Centre campus. 

We both laughed and thought this is how we do our budgeting at home when we need to balance the need for three major projects - home improvements, new car and a vacation.  We don’t build an addition to the house but renovate the basement to get another bedroom. We don’t get the BMW, but the Honda. And we opt for a one-week vacation in Canada versus a two-week in Hawaii.   We make compromises and accept the sacrifices.

Do the math!

If I am doing the math correct, this means that for $5 billion dollars we could build not only the SW section of the ring road, but the Cancer Clinic AND the SE bus rapid transit instead of just one mega Cadillac project.

Billion$

3.5     Basic designed SW section of the Ring Road                                                                         .5     Cancer Hospital at South Health Campus                                                                               .8     SE Bus Rapid Transit or upgrade to LRT                                                                                 4.8   Total Cost of three mega projects 

Governments at all levels have to really start thinking how can they can maximize the value of every tax dollar they spend and not isolate budgets in silos like transportation and health. 

We need to link vision with economic reality. We need to find the most cost-effective economical way to build infrastructure that is “good enough!” 

Aerial view of South Health Campus and land available for Cancer Hospital. photo credit: Peak Aerials 

Last Word

Why does the public always seem to restrict its comments to the fringes of public spending, the one percenters such as art and bicycle paths and pedestrian bridges; while remaining relatively silent on the really big ticket items such as $5 billion for a ring road or $1.3 billion for a hospital?

If we are not confident the bureaucrats in government can make the right decision when it comes to buying a piece of art for $1 million or less; then why would we be confident they can make the right decisions when spending billions. Where is the public outcry to spend every tax dollar as wisely as possible?

Click here for more information on the history of the Calgary Ring Road. 

Window Licking in Seattle

For me, one of the fun things to do when visiting another city is to check out the reflections of streetscapes in windows. I first discovered this obsession (yes, I think it has become a bit of an obsession) when visiting Paris where many of the storefront windows are like mini art exhibitions.  You might expect this given the Paris' fashion culture, but it was more than just upscale shoes and purses, it was the juxtaposition of the people, architecture and the sense of spontaneity and surprise.  

What was also interesting in Paris were the great windows weren't just on the retail streets, but also in the little shops in the residential neighbourhoods.

Let me out....

Picture perfect? 

Why window licking? 

Some might just call this "window shopping,” but in French window shopping is called it "faire du leche-vitines," which literally translates into “window licking” in English. Since Paris, I have made sure that in every city I visit, I spend some time "window licking."

While it is not measurable, I am convinced there is a direct correlation between the quality of the street windows and the quality of the street life.  Unfortunately today, too many retailers and others with street windows don't appreciate the importance of great windows in making people stop, look and think.

Our recent trip to Seattle provided me with some great "window licking" experiences. Not only was downtown Seattle populated with some interesting windows, but so were the the neighbouring communities like Pioneer Square that offered some great surprises.  But the best window licking was along Ballard Avenue, i.e. main street for the community of Ballard. 

This is downtown Ballard when the Sunday market takes over its main street. It is a great people watching experience and has some of the best windows in Seattle.

Window licking in Pioneer Square.

It wouldn't be Seattle without some glass art window licking.

Last Word

While Richard Florida has coined the terms  Bohemian Index, Diversity Index and Gay Index as a way of measuring the health of a community, I am thinking he might want to look at the "Window Licking Index."  This index would look at how often and long people stop and look in the windows along a given street, as a measure of the street's attractiveness to pedestrians. 

Intuitively, I'd probably give Seattle an 8.5 out of ten on my "Window Licking" index.  Have a look at these some more samples and the links to window licking in Paris, Chicago and Florence and let me know what images you like best.

PS. In reviewing my window licking images I realized that almost everyone has trees in it.  One of the first things I noticed about Seattle and loved about the city's streets was the wonderful filtered light from the canopy of wonderful trees. 

Surrealism is a frequent theme in window licking art.

Luxury fashion shops are always good for window licking photos.

The classic mannequin historical building window.

This is perhaps the most unique window I have experience to date. 

If you like this blog, click on these links to other window licking blogs:

Window licking In Paris

Window licking in Chicago 

Window licking along Florence's Via Tornabuoni

 

 

 

Flaneuring Calgary's original craft brewery

Long before Portland, Denver or (insert the name a city here) became the Craft Brewery Capital of North America and certainly long before Calgary’s Big Rock, Village or Wild Rose Breweries, there was Calgary Brewing and Malt Company (CB&MC) established back in 1892. Unfortunately the site on 9th Ave and 15th Street in Inglewood has been closed since 1994 and the buildings have deteriorated significantly.

 A few years back I attended a presentation by Calgary architect Lorne Simpson who also happens to be the city’s most experienced historical restoration expert on the state of the CB&MC buildings.  He has been responsible for most Calgary’s restoration projects for the past 25+ years.  The key take home message I got from his workshop was that most of the buildings were beyond restoration, pointing that many of the buildings had been added in such a way that if on was removed you had to remove several others as they were all supported each other.

While many have seen the full buffalo sculpture from 9th Avenue, this art deco style buffalo head in the middle of the site is a hidden gem. It definitely deserves to be a focal point of public space. 

This sandstone Calgary beer logo attached to the facade of this building also deserves a more prominent location with a storyboard. 

 

 

He did however off some suggestions on how the site might be developed to retain the industrial design character of those buildings while adapting them to new uses and modern building codes. While some of the audience was very disappointed that more of the site couldn’t be preserved, others were excited by the opportunity to create a unique industrial district that would keep some connection with Calgary’s past. 

 

 

My longtime mantra of linking vision with reality was put to the test for while one’s vision of a 21st century charming century brewery district with multiple 100-year-old buildings and garden with fish ponds, just didn’t jive with current economic, design and building code realities.  

This iconic buffalo has aged gracefully and it along with the previous two artifacts should be integrated to create a unique public space for the future Inglewood Brewery District (IBD). 

But seeing is believing…

For a while I have been bugging Eileen Stan, Development Program Manager, M2i Development Corporation to give me a tour.  Recently, our schedules jived and I got my wish.

I can’t believe how complex the redevelopment will be with numerous buildings scattered throughout the site making the location of major new buildings (needed to pay for the restoration) difficult.

Just one of areas where the sandstone foundation of the builiding is beginning to form mini hoodoos. 

Then there is the utilities right of way, set back from the street, CPR tracks and 17th Avenue (which use to run right through the middle of the site) to contend with.

I saw for myself how the sandstone on the buildings is “more sand than stone.” Brush it with your hand and sand pours down the side of the building, in some places, miniature hoodoos are being formed.

Inside, I saw how the building’s structure would make it difficult to convert to modern uses. Perhaps reusing materials makes more sense than repurposing the buildings.

The gardens and two buffalo sculptures were wonderful and would make a great tribute to the past. It would be lovely to somehow incorporate them into a plaza or pocket park that would be the centerpiece of a new brewery district.  

That is 17th Avenue SE which use to run right through the site and still has a utility right of way attached to it. 

Postcards from CB&MC

I am hoping that these images will help you appreciate the complexities of redeveloping the historic Calgary Brewing and Malting Company site for current uses. 

I am a sucker for "ghost signs" like this one for the The Alberta Government Fish Hatchery. Not sure how you save this wall and incorporate it into a new building/new use! I am told that it could become part of a sunny historic plaza that would document the full history of the site. 

In the middle of the site is a lush oasis of trees, walkways, bridges and concrete ponds. Not sure they are in the right location for a contemporary pocket park and they are at the end of their lifespand. 

One of the few building that is still in good shape, unfortunately it is not in a great position. 

There is an simplicity in the minimalist, cubist, industrial architecture of the brewery that could be respected in new buildings.  It is my understanding that the brick chimney will be preserved. It is kinda the Calgary Tower of Inglewood - should it remain the tallest structure in the community forever? 

There is a nice juxtaposition of the round and the rectangular shapes at IBD. 

This image illustrates how all of the building are interconnected, but each with different foundations and structures that makes restoration a nightmare. 

The interior spaces are very dramatic, but don't lend themselves to easy conversion to retail, office or residential uses. 

Some of the newer building from 1984 were never used and are actually overbuilt for future needs and have potential for adaptive reuse. 

Last Word

After walking around the site, I have a much better appreciation of the difficulties and complexities of redeveloping the site for modern uses - this is not a Currie Barracks, an East Village or a Bridges site. 

Rather than let the buildings further deteriorate and have a prominent site sit in limbo for another decade or more, the idea of developing the site incrementally starting with the Bottling Plant building as proposed by Stan’s team makes sense.  Great spaces and places happen organically, not systematically.

Though, some have suggested the need for a Master Plan before anything happens on the site, I disagree. We don’t want another “East Village” scenario (i.e. a new Master Plan developed every five to ten years with nothing happen for 30+ years).  Master Plans tend to all look the same anyway; I expect we will get something more unique and eclectic without a Master Plan.

 Jane Jacobs was also a big fan of incremental redevelopment rather than revolutionary redevelopment. I think she would have approved of starting by animating the 9th Avenue and 15th Street corner (across from the West Canadian Digital Print Centre) with some street retail like a ZYN wine and spirits store and warehouse. 

The Bottling Plant on the corner of 9th Avenue and 15th Street SE is being proposed as Phase 1 of the mega makeover of the Inglewood Brewery District. Different options for the restoration of the sign are being looked at. This is not the original sign.

This is a conceptual rendering of what the Bottling Plant and new streetscape will look like if Phase 1 is approved. 

This is the proposed site of the new BRT/ LRT station for Inglewood and Ramsay just two blocks from the Brewery District.  It will also link up with the 17th Avenue SE BRT route to create a major transit hub. The stars are beginning to align for two of Calgary's oldest communities.   

Walk Score vs Lifestyle Score?

One of the great things about living in a condo in an urban vs. suburban community is that you can walk to almost any and all of your everyday activities.  To promote that advantage, more and more condo developers are including the Walk Score of the address as part of their marketing plan. 

Walk Score is a number between 0 and 100 that measures the amenities in any given address that you can walk to: 

  • 90 – 100 walker’s paradise

  • 70 – 89 very walkable

  • 50 – 69 somewhat walkable

  • 25 – 49 mostly car dependent

  • 0 – 24 car dependent

Walk Score uses Google maps to find the stores, restaurants, bars, parks and other amenities within walking distance of your address.  Using this data from Zillow, a real estate database, the information is plugged into a complex algorithm (mathematical equation) to calculate the score. For example, amenities within 0.4 km are given 100, while those more than 1.6 km are given a zero with those in between assigned varying scores depending on the distance.

Link: Walks Score: How it works?

While steps have been taken to improve the methodology since it was first introduced in 2007 by Josh Herst, CEO of Walk Score in Seattle, there still remains problems.  For example, Google Maps doesn’t always include all of the amenities in a neighborhood.  As well, the methodology doesn’t take into account topography (e.g. if it is up hill), climate (e.g. icy sidewalks in winter) or how pleasant/unpleasant the walk might be (e.g. busy road vs. quaint homes).  It doesn’t take into account age and fitness level - for some a 1 km walk is very easy; for others, not so.

Living near a nature preserve or hiking trail won’t improve your Walk Score, this results in unfairly creating lower suburban neighbourhood scores. The scoring system is heavily biased to urban lifestyles.

 Lifestyle Factors  

  • If you have a dog that you walk twice a day, it is probably more important you are near a dog park than a grocery store you use twice a week.

  • If you go to the gym or yoga several times a week, that should trump being close to a cupcake shop.

  • If you are a family of four, you are probably not walking to and from the grocery store, carrying home several bags of groceries - even if it is close by. We are a family of two and when we go grocery shopping it is often difficult to carry the bags 30 feet from the garage to the back door. However, access to a playground that you might use several times a day is very important.

For families living near a playground can be more important than living near a grocery store, bakery or cafe.

Lastly, Walk Score doesn’t take into account that rarely are our daily trips planned around a single activity. Often when we head out the door, we have multiple stops to make over an extended period of time. 

It could involve a trip to the recreation centre, then to a café in another community to meet up with a friend, then drop some books off at the library, then go to the wine store with the best sale this week (often not the closest) and pick up some groceries before heading way home.  This is not a trip that lends itself to walking – or even cycling for that matter.

A Better Walk Score?

It would be ideal to have a formula allowing individuals to plug-in their five most frequent weekly activities, as well as how far you are willing to walk and then calculate how walkable a street or neighbourhood is for you and your family.

Buyer beware - just because a community has a high or low Walk Score doesn’t mean you should automatically embrace or reject it. 

Pedestrian-Friendly vs. Pedestrian-Safety

I have always thought of Calgary as a very pedestrian-friendly city.  There are few other big cities where, in residential areas, cars will stop and let pedestrians walk across the street.  Try that in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver or big American cities!

One of Calgary's 1,270 signalized pedestrian cross walks.

There also are thousands (1270 signalized pedestrian cross walks and 7,118 signed crosswalks) of dedicated pedestrian crosswalks in addition to traffic signals helping pedestrians easily and safely cross busy streets. I also learned that a City of Calgary Bylaw states, “every intersection is a crosswalk unless otherwise posted” so drivers should yield to any pedestrian at a corner who indicates they are going to cross.  Who knew?

As well, I have always thought our recreational pathways were a wonderful amenity that encouraged walking. However, after recent experiences on the pathways with my 80+ year old spry Mom and her experience sharing the pathways with cyclists, I am not so sure walking the pathways is always a pleasant experience for those wanting a recreational walking experience.

Recent media coverage of Calgary’s pedestrian-vehicle collisions and fatalities’ data also point to the fact that walking in our city is not a safe as it needs to be to encourage walking.  Consequently, the City of Calgary is currently undertaking a major community engagement project to identify how to make our city more pedestrian-friendly for everyone.  I hope that we explore some simple common sense solutions before spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

For example, I’d like to see a ban on headphones for walkers, joggers and cyclists.  We all need to be able to see and listen for others when we are out on the streets and pathways. It is a shared responsibility.

  Calgary has a pedestrians first culture, where cars routinely stop to let pedestrians and cyclist cross the road even when it is not a cross walk.

Calgary has a pedestrians first culture, where cars routinely stop to let pedestrians and cyclist cross the road even when it is not a cross walk.

Calgary boasts almost 1,000 km of shared pathways for people of all ages and abilities.

Pedestrians should have to wear reflective clothing when out in the dark so cyclist they are more visible to cyclists and motorists.  Too often pedestrians are dressed in black and are almost impossible to see.

The one infrastructure improvement I’d like to see is better sidewalk lighting.  I don’t know if it is just me, but the roads in Calgary seem to be getting darker as the city installs new street lamp posts and LED bulbs. I have always had a problem with street lighting that is solely focused on the road and nothing on the sidewalk.  If we want people to feel safe walking in the dark (14 hours of the day in the winter), every lamppost should have a light on the road and one on the sidewalk.

Last Word

In addition to Walk Scores, there are also Transit Scores, Bike Scores and Park Scores for those who love numbers.  I am waiting for the Drive Score as I am sure most Calgarians also intuitively factor in how quickly they can drive to their weekly activities – school, work, recreation centre, arena, soccer field, grocery store and gym.

I expect we all have our own “algorithm” for calculating what is the best community for us and don’t really need some quasi-scientific score to help us determine where we want to live. 

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by the Calgary Herald and published in the New Condo section on May 30th, 2015 titled " More to Walk Score Than Just A Number."

BL emailed: 

The fundamental question should be "who decided that walking is such an important criteria?"

For me today,  the most important activities in my life are visiting my kids and my grandkids, none of whom I can visit by walking; and going golfing, ditto. Pretty good life right?

But even back in the days prior to retirement, my principal daily activity, going to work, could not be accommodated by walking. Nor could I attend university, go to school (except for elementary), attend a football or hockey game, go skiing or golfing, visit my cabin at the lake, or any of the other myriad of activities which have filled my whole life.

Planning our communities around the rare individuals whose limited range of activities can be accommodated by walking would be like planning our entire food industry around organic vegans. Desirable objective, maybe; but practical? Definitely not.

For most of us the Walk Score would fall into the category of "who cares?" It's nice to have a walk down 17th Avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon when there is nothing better to do, but the majority of the folks out strolling the avenue probably got there in their cars. How about judging communities by the "Park Score" i.e. How close can I park my car?

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Tale of three pedestrian bridges!

Cars, cyclists and pedestrians need to learn to share!

Calgary: Wake up and smell the lilacs!

Too often we forget – or never even give a thought to Calgary once having been mostly sloughs and prairie grasslands, with a few wooded areas along the rivers.  It wasn’t until William Reader, hired as Calgary’s Park Superintendent in 1913 that a vision of Calgary as a city of beautiful parks, streets and pathways was created.   Some of his most famous projects were Memorial Park (Beltline) and Reader Rock Gardens (on the hill on the southeast corner of Macleod Trail at 25th Avenue SE).

Reader was inspired by the early 20th century, international City Beautiful Movement, which envisioned the entire city planned as a beautiful place with a formal master plan.

Healthy lilacs add colour, charm and privacy to homes in many early 20th century communities in Calgary.

Reader’s Vision:

Unfortunately the historic lilacs along the boulevard of Bowness Road have not been properly cared for. 

His vision was to develop Calgary into one of the most desirable cities of western Canada. The intent was to illustrate that Calgary was a civilized city with high quality public spaces. One of his principal initiatives was the creation of streets lined with trees and developed with landscaped boulevards and medians. In 1913, Reader stated "I doubt that any other public improvement will tend to create and foster a civic pride in Calgary to the same extent as will the making of boulevards, and planting of trees on our streets, nor will any other feature of our city impress visitors so favorably." (Source: City of Calgary website)

Evidence of Reader’s vision is everywhere amidst Calgary’s early 20th century luxury residential communities like Elbow Park, Mission, Mount Royal, Roxboro and Scarboro all on the south side of the Bow River. 

On the north side of the Bow River, there is one street in particular that epitomizes Reader’s implementation of the City Beautiful Movement principles in Calgary. That is Bowness Road from 14th Street NW to 17th Street N. It is unique for its regularly spaced purple flowering Common Lilacs planted in 1932 along the street’s boulevard. 

In addition to the tree-lined street and lilac median, the 1700 block of Bowness Road is home to one of Calgary’s oldest lawn bowling clubs, also built in 1932 and including a lovely garden originally created by Reader himself in 1936.

Today lilacs have fallen our of favour for new flowering ornamental trees like these planted next to the Bow Valley Lawn Bowling Club. My friends at Ground3 Landscape Architecture tell me they are Amur Cherry trees. 

Why Lilacs?

Lilacs are very hardy shrubs, able to withstand the heavy frost, Calgary experiences every winter. They also grow rapidly and have an attractive early spring flower with a lovely fragrance (that was very alluring to early settlers after a long winter) and attractive green foliage when not in bloom. 

Lilac hedges and trees are popular in Calgary inner city communities.  It is not coincidental that the 4th Street Lilac Festival is one of Calgary’s most popular annual events attracting over 100,000 people to the Mission neighbourhood in late May.

Advocates of the City Beautiful Movement believed high quality designed streets and public spaces would foster a harmonious social order that would enhance the quality of life of its citizens and reduce undesirable social behavior.  It may seem far-fetched, but walking along these blocks of Bowness Road can be like a walk back in time; an ethereal tranquility may even come over you.

There are still many small cottage homes along the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Bowness Road that retain the small town charm that was once Calgary. 

A reminder of how modest homes were 100 years ago - hard to believe that a family of ten or more could have lived in a house like this. 

Last Word

It is truly one of Calgary’s beautiful places, especially in the spring when you can revel in stopping to smell the lilacs. Only a lucky few Calgarians can live on one of these three blocks.  While today there are many modern million-dollar homes on the street, it still retains a sense of when Calgary was a sleepy little prairie town. 

Editors's Note: This blog was commissioned by inner city specialist realtor Ross Aitken. I thought I would repost it in honour of this Sunday being Calgary's popular Lilac Festival. Perhaps the City should declare next week Lilac Week to celebrate the importance of lilacs in Calgary's early urban placemaking history. 

Colourful new infills have allowed Bowness Road in Hillhurst and West Hillhurst to evolve into a very attractive 21st century address.

Gone are the lilacs in favour of other ornamental tress and shrubs. 

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.

If you like this blog, you might like:

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What's with the names Arts Commons and Contemporary Calgary?

Calgary's Name & Placemaking Challenge? 

Montana aka Nellie: What's in a name?