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As cities and towns across Canada age and evolve, old buildings become outdated or are no longer needed for their original purpose.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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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.  

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Kensington Legion: NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

The acronym NIMBYism is often use by media and others to describe those who object to new developments (condos, office buildings, affordable housing) in their communities. What we seldom hear is the term YIMBYism (Yes in My BackYard) applied to supporters of the same development. There is something seemingly innate in humans that makes us protest louder when we don’t like or understand something.

A good case study of NIMBYism vs. YIMBYism is the proposed redevelopment of the Kensington Legion land (Kensington Road and 18th St. NW). Recently, I attended a meeting with 120 others, most of whom opposed the development. Afterwards, I posted a blog about why I liked the project and to my surprise got as many emails, tweets and comments in favour of the project as opposed. The first person to respond, who was also at the meeting said, “I was afraid to speak up in favour of the project.” What does that tell you?

Since posting the blog, I have communicated with 20 or so community people about the project and it is pretty much divided into those who live closest to the site (truly in their backyard) who don’t like it and those who live a few blocks away and think it is great.

I don’t envy City Planners and Council - who should they listen to?  Do they listen to the 100 or so people who live near the site and will be most affected by a development new? Or, do they listen to the greater community of say 5,000 people who are near the site but less impacted? Do they follow the City’s Master Plan which encourages more people to live in established communities (meaning more condos on under-utilized, well-located sites)?  More specifically, does the City follow through with its Main Street Initiative to create 24 pedestrian shopping streets in strategic locations across the City – one of which being Kensington Road from 14th St. NW to Crowchild Trail? 

If the City is looking for a poster child project for the Main Street initiative, they couldn’t pick a better site than the Kensington Legion. Located in the middle of the proposed Kensington Road Main Street, it would complement West Hillhurst’s historic main street on 19th St. and help connect the scattering of other retail, office and services along Kensington Road. It is also on a major bus route and it’s a very large site which can accommodate two large buildings.  With signature buildings and the right mix of uses, the site could be a wonderful addition to West Hillhurst, maybe even be the gateway to the community and a definite game changer.

Kensington Legion Site RevitalizationIn January 2015, the Kensington Legion (No. 264) entered into a partnership with Truman Development Corporation to redevelop their site. Since then, Truman has been working with architects and planners to develop a plan that will meet the needs of the neighbours, community and the City.

They are proposing a new four-storey office building on the western third of the site, which is a currently surface parking lot.  The Legion will own the building, use the street floor as its restaurant/lounge and the second floor as their office while leasing out the top two floors.

Once the Legion has moved out of its existing building, Truman would replace it with a contemporary condo building with retail at street level.  The original proposal for the second building would be 10-stories high along Kensington Road, then stepping down to 3-stories at the laneway on the north side.  The “step down” design will not only create an interesting shape, but will achieve the City’s density requirements while minimizing shadowing of neighbours’ backyards. The main floor will have 15,000 square feet of prime retail space.

Throughout the summer, Truman hosted open houses at the Legion every Wednesday and Saturday to get community input. The two major concerns were: size and height of the building and increase in traffic along 18th St NW (entrance to parkade will be via the back lane off 18th St NW) which is the access road for children walking to Queen Elizabeth (elementary, junior high and high) Schools.

Is Taller Better?

For many established community residents, the ideal maximum height for new condos is four storeys. However, the downside is there is only so much you can do with a 4-storey building design – they all tend to look the same. Once you go beyond 4-storeys, however, the condo usually becomes a concrete building which allows the more flexibility in the design and materials.

Many cities across North America have determined mid-rise buildings (5 to 12 storeys) are the most appropriate to revitalize established communities (especially for signature sites) as they create sufficient density to attract retailers and restaurants while still being pedestrian scale.  Kensington Road has the potential to become a vibrant pedestrian street with the addition of strategically located mixed-use projects like Legion No. 264.

North side of condo building with garden facing to homes. 

Is Traffic a Real Concern?

As with all major infill developments, the City of Calgary requires an independent
“Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA)” be conducted. Bunt & Associates Engineering Ltd. has submitted its TIA of this office/condo project based on parameters developed jointly with City administration. It will first be reviewed and technically scrutinized by the City administration and then circulated to the community to determine what, if any, changes are needed to minimize the traffic impact of the development on the community.

Bunt & Associates’ preliminary findings:

  • All intersections will continue to meet the City requirements. 
  • Sidewalk improvements are required.
  • Current crosswalks meet City standards.
  • Calgary Transit confirms it can accommodate site users.
  • Parking requirements will be met on-site.

Having completed many similar TIAs for various Calgary inner-city condo developments over the past few years, Bunt and Associates have observed, “density doesn’t always bring more traffic.”  For example, traffic volumes in Mission (on 2 St SW, 4 St SW, and 5 St SW) are lower now than they were in 1987, despite the addition of many new condos.  The same trend is already being experienced on Kensington Road where traffic volumes have remained constant despite West Hillhurst’s population growing 11% over the past five years.

The City and Bunt believe increasing residential density is contributing to lower vehicle usage in part due to:

  • Attracts new local business reducing the need for residents to drive to a restaurant, store or fitness studio. 
  • Supports more frequent transit which attracts more transit users from the entire community.
  • Located near employment centres (downtown, post-secondary institutions, hospitals) makes cycling more viable and increases need for cycling infrastructure, leading to increased cycling by the entire community.

Aerial view of project looking west. 

Back alley parking design. 

Truman has listened

Before submitting their proposal to the City, Truman took all the comments received and published a “What We Heard” report.  This 97-page report is a comprehensive document of the community engagement comments and how the Truman will respond to them, with excellent visuals. With respect to the above concerns, they have made the following changes – reduced the condo building height to 8-storeys, developed a proposal for traffic-calming measures for 18th St NW (which Truman will fund), exceed on-site parking requirements and will ensure residential permit parking only for surrounding blocks. 

Shadowing effect of tiered building design

Street between office and condo building.

Last Word

Truman’s team has created two attractive buildings that fulfill the City’s goal for mixed-use, modest density development of key sites in established neighbourhoods near major employment centres.  The proposal meets the expectations of YIMBYs living west of 14th Street, east of Crowchild Trail and north of the Bow River to the escarpment in creating a more walkable community. However, it will never meet all the demands of NIMBYs living in the immediate area.   

No development is perfect, but the Legion No. 264 proposal checks off all of the boxes on any City’s list of good infill urban projects principles. Indeed the project could be the poster child for the City’s Main Street Initiative and the catalyst for West Hillhurst becoming one of Canada’s best urban communities.

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Community Engagement 101: You can't make everyone happy!

It was three years or so ago that James Robertson, President, West Campus Development Trust (WCDT) said to me “design and defend is dead.”  What he meant was that developers, especially those wanting to do major infill projects in established communities, can no longer just design what they want to build, then host a single public open house where they defend the design of their project as the best thing since sliced bread.  Robertson’s comments came after one of the several WCDT open houses to share with neighbours, their planned development of the University of Calgary’s land on the west side of campus near the Alberta Children’s Hospital (now called University District). 

Robertson and his team were very careful not to design anything before talking to the community first to get some idea of what there concerns were. They first – and wisely – got some idea of neighbours concerns. Only then did they begin to develop a master plan for the 184-acres always keeping the public informed with more open houses and meetings with Community Associations to fine tune the plan as much as possible to meet the University’s needs and those of the community.  At the same time the thoughtful plan had to be based on sound economic and urban planning principles.  University District when fully built out will become home to 15,000 residents and 10,000 workers.

A typical post-it board of comments from any open house or community workshop for an major infill development.

Urban Village in Suburbs?

In the spring of 2014, Truman Developments created the Engagement Hub, a purpose-built 2,000 square foot building on site of their proposed new community West District next to West Springs and Cougar Ridge.  The café-like build was designed as a place where people could comfortably visit and learn about some of the ideas Truman was considering for their new urban infill community. The Engagement Hub was open weekdays, weekends and evenings to allow neighbours to drop by at their convenience to find out what ideas others had given, share their ideas and peruse a library of books with examples of good urban planning.  It was only after 200+ hours of consultation in groups and in one-on-one basis that Truman finalized their master plan for this condo-only community next to sea of single-family homes.

Truman's purpose built Engagement Hub building provided everyone to drop by and discuss plans and ideas for the new West District community. 

Kingsland Densification

More recently, Brookfield Residential took community engagement one step further.  They engaged the community before they even purchased the Market on MacLeod (a former car dealership site on Macleod Trail near Heritage Drive).  In this case, they sent a survey to neighbours soliciting input on their concerns and opportunities to redevelop this gateway site to the community. Once the survey results were in, they hosted a public open house to share the results and, further discuss the redevelopment of the site to determine the community’s appetite for transforming their community into more of an urban village.  Brookfield is currently evaluating the community’s input before they exercise their right to purchase the land and begin the master planning design process.

  Market on Macleod site is perfectly located for urban densification. 

Market on Macleod site is perfectly located for urban densification. 

Harvest Hills Densification 

Cedarglen’s purchase of the Harvest Hills Golf Course - with the intent of converting it into a condo/townhome residential development - has been met with significant resistance from the neighbours since Day one.  However, unlike the Shawnee Slopes Golf Course redevelopment a few year back where the new landowners were reluctant to meet with the community, Cedarglen, with the help of Quantum Developments, have been actively discussing with the community their Land Use Rezoning application, as well as options for redevelopment. However this process hasn’t prevented some very heated exchanges by those wanting the City to retain the land for recreational use only.

Google Earth image of Harvest Hills Golf Course today.

Outline Plan of the proposed Parks at Harvest Hills development. 

Last Word

In each of these cases, while there has been significant upfront community engagement, there are still some unhappy Calgarians.  Unfortunately, there is no master plan for new urban infill developments that will meet the diversity of needs and demands of everyone in a community. The biggest issue is always the City (not the developer) wanting to create denser (i.e. condo) communities, which are cheaper to manage (roads, schools, emergency services etc.), while most Calgarians have a love affair with the single-family home.

Lesson Learned 

You can’t make everyone happy, no matter how much community engagement there is!

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living magazine. 

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Kensington Legion Redevelopment: Taller is better?

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!

Flamesville vs Stampede Park???

With great interest I have been following all the speculation surfacing around the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation’s (CSEC) plans for a new, mega, sports-oriented urban village west of Mewata Armoury.  I admire and respect CSEC for not wanting to debate the merits of their idea in the media until they have political support and financing in place.  However, at the same time, I wonder how open they will be to new ideas sure to surface from the public, given they have spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours developing the proposal. 

I fear we are reverting back to the old “design and defend” developer mentality so prevalent in the late 20th century.  It was a time when the developer would come up with what they thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and then defend it with all their resources.

I am always leery when someone says, “Trust me. You will love this proposal when you see it” which is what Ken King, President of CSEC said months ago. This raises everyone’s expectations and no plan can please everyone. I really hope Ken is right.

The Saddledome is one of Calgary's best examples of iconic architecture. 

Too Big!

Jane Jacobs, the 1960s guru of urban renewal, said good urban development is “incremental not revolutionary” meaning good urban renewal is the result of lots of little projects that get built over an extended period of time.  Good examples would be the Beltline, Mission or Inglewood where new projects happen almost every year, but none are mega block projects. 

Jacobs also warned against grouping too many mega buildings (libraries, museums, public art galleries, convention centres, arena and stadiums) close together this kills any chance of urban vitality.  Any building that takes up an entire block and has only one or two entrances is destined to be street vitality killer.   Locate two or three together can spell disaster. Look no further than the lack of street vitality around the Glenbow, Art Commons and Convention Centre.

SHEDs

That being said, Sports, Hospitality, Entertainment Districts (SHEDs) are being created in many cities, including Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto. These districts include arenas, stadiums (football/baseball), convention centres, hotels, casinos and many sports bars and lounges.

Calgary actually already has a SHED – better known as Stampede Park with its two arenas, two major event centres (BMO Centre and Big Four Building) and an underutilized stadium (Grandstand). 

For years I have wondered why the Calgary Sports & Entertainment Corporation and Stampede Board couldn’t develop a shared vision for Stampede Park that would elevate the Park into a vibrant 21st century mixed-use park.  A place with a modern arena and a stadium (that could accommodate the rodeo, chuckwagon races, grandstand show, CFL football, concerts and track and field events).  A place that would open up to Mcleod Trail and to East Village and not be a gated community.

  Google Earth image of Stampede Park with its current access to two LRT station and one future LRT station, as well as existing Saddledome and Grandstand/Stadium.

Google Earth image of Stampede Park with its current access to two LRT station and one future LRT station, as well as existing Saddledome and Grandstand/Stadium.

Not the right site?

I am not convinced the West Village is the best site for a new SHED, given the cost to overcome the issues of contamination, major roadway redevelopment, land ownership and lest we forget, flood prevention. It could take years, if not a decade, to resolve just the Crowchild Trail, Bow Trail and Memorial Drive bottleneck.

West Village would be much better developed incrementally over the next 20 years with a mixture of projects including residential development for 10,000+ people. West Village has tremendous potential as a mixed-use “live work play” community with its easy access to the river pathway, LRT, downtown, universities of Calgary and Mount Royal, as well as Foothills and Children’s Hospitals.

As the Flames’ email to season ticket holders included the “live work play” brand; this means residential could be the new dimension to their West Village vision they will be announcing on Monday. If the Flames vision for West Village included approximately one third residential development, one third work and one third play that would be a game changer, as it would have the elements of a real mixed-use urban village.

Google Earth image of West Village an site of possible new arena at the Greyhound Bus site and the location of Sunalta LRT station and key interchanges for access and egress from the site.

Last Word

Still, I believe the City should ask the Calgary Stampede Board and CSEC to work together to create an innovative and exciting plan for Stampede Park and Victoria Park to create a vibrant SHED that will include all the major sports and entertainment facilities Calgary will need for the next 50 years. 

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, August 15, 2015 titled "Flames shouldn't overlook using Stampede Park for megaproject." 

If you like this blog, you might like:

YYC: Wants vs Needs: Arena, Stadium, Convention Centre

Calgary's Audacious New Library

2015: Year of Calgary's mega infill projects

Reader Comments: 

As of Aug 16th over 1,000 people have read this blog and not one has emailed or tweeted that they like the West Village site over the Stampede Park.  

BL writes: 

I agree that it seems like the attitude of the city, the Flames and the Stampede Board is that the Stampede area is screwed up; so instead of trying to fix it, let's go screw up somewhere else.

The West Village concept is OK as a potential site for a stadium, arena and entertainment district. But is it really necessary to go there? From a city planning perspective, wouldn't it be better to complete all of the development on the lands east of Macleod Trail between the Bow and the Elbow; and thereafter go looking to develop the West Village?

The planners have put similar restrictions on suburban development, basically saying that everything can't be built at the same time; so why not do likewise in the inner city?

 

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 

Calgary evolving into five cities

Over the past week or so I have had several discussions with people about the pros and cons of the City of Calgary's proposed Scenario A and Scenario B changes to the existing 14 Ward boundaries.  Some see the changes as major, others as minor.  Kudos to the city for publishing the two scenarios they think would work best on their website and asking public input. 

Personally, I am thinking the two scenarios are not significantly different and that we should be looking a radical boundary changes that will significantly change how our city is governed in the future.  Here are a few other scenarios that should be considered: 

Scenario C -  The map below illustrate how the City is are monitor growth in our city and where their is land available for both residential and commercial growth.  It is interesting to note from a strategic growth planning perspective the City has created eight sectors based on several common denominators, not 14. Therefore, why not have just 8 Wards with boundaries that match these sectors?  

Scenario D - Perhaps we should even go further and develop just five Wards - Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest and Centre.  We could have two Councillors for each ward for a total of 10, four less than the current 14.  

Scenario E  - We could be even more radical and have no Wards and just elect 10 Councillors at large. Perhaps this would help remove the urban/suburban split that exists in Council today as all of the members would have city-wide mandates, versus the special interests of their Ward. 

I am thinking a few more scenarios would create much more debate and perhaps result in real change. 

These sectors are based upon general planning, housing markets and servicing criteria. The suburban sectors have strong relationships to future servicing and infrastructure requirements. (City of Calgary, Suburban Residential Growth 2015 - 2019 Report).

Current residential population and employment in each of the City's geomatic sectors. 

In thinking about this issue, I remembered a column I did for the Calgary Herald back in 2011 about "Calgary evolving into five cities." I have reprinted it below as it is no longer available on the Herald's website.  I hope that you will find it thought provoking. 

"A Tale of Five Cities"

By Richard White, Calgary Herald June 11, 2011

One of Calgary’s advantages during the past 50 years has been its ability to annex land and surrounding communities as it grows.  Examples include Forest Lawn and Midnapore in 1961, or Bowness in 1963.

As a result, Calgary has been able to evolve as a single city with a healthy inner city and suburban neighbourhoods, rather than a fragmented urban region such as Edmonton with large, suburban edge cities (OK, Calgary may not be perfect, but it’s better than most.) This is not the case for most North American cities.

Fragmentation of North American cities

In most cases, the original city was surrounded by smaller towns with their own town council, as well as fire, water, safety and school systems. During the past 50 years, these small “edge towns” have mostly become large, independent cities able to offer lower taxes and housing because they didn’t have transit systems, social programs or an aging infrastructure. This resulted in more and more residents and businesses choosing to locate to such places. For example, in 1961, the City of Vancouver’s population was 384,522, with a regional population of 827,000.

Today, the lower mainland of B.C. has a population of 2.5 million divided into 21 municipalities, with Vancouver representing only 23 per cent of the metro population -down from 46 per cent in 1961. On the other hand, Calgary’s population in 1961 was 249,641, or 89 per cent of the regional population of 279,000. Today, the City of Calgary’s population is 1,071,515, or 81 per cent of the regional population.

During the past 50 years, Airdrie has grown to a city of 39,822, Okotoks to 23,201, Cochrane to 15,424 and Strathmore to 12,139 -but they are still, for the most part, bedroom communities of Calgary. In the past, this growth has been mostly residential. However, more and more these edge cities are experiencing retail and industrial growth as a result of no business taxes and lower land costs.

Calgary will not be able to annex these cities as they did in the past, which could lead to fragmented development in the future.  As Calgary has grown, even internally, its residents have begun to think less and less like those of a unified city and more and more like a fragmented one.

One of the unique features of Calgary is that despite living in a city of more than a million, for the most part people live in one of four quadrants. If you divide them into 250,000 people apiece, that’s roughly a city the size of Saskatoon or Victoria for each quadrant.

Many Calgarians living in the northwest never cross the Bow River except to go downtown to work. Similarly, those who live in the southwest also never cross the Bow River except to get to the airport. More and more Calgarians are identifying with the quadrant they live in.

Downtown is an island of skyscrapers in a sea of low rise buildings.  In this photo you can see how the Bow River divides the western half of the city into north and south quadrants. (photo credit Peak Aerials).

A City Divided?

When it comes to new infrastructure, the city is currently very divided. The airport tunnel, though an issue for businesses and residents in the northeast, is a nonissue for the rest of the city. The southeast LRT extension, though a key issue for southeast downtown commuters, isn’t an issue for southeasterners who don’t work downtown -nor for those who live in the city’s other three quadrants. The ring road connection is a key issue for those in the southwest now that they have their LRT connection to downtown, but less so for others.

More and more, Calgary is a city divided. We are now living in a “what about me” (WAM) society. Most 20th century cities -including Calgary -are now dealing with problems based on that century’s downtowncentric model of planning cities.  In other words, downtown was made the focal point for al commercial, cultural and civic activities, as well as roads and transit.

While there are few cities in the world as downtowncentric as Calgary, our downtown struggles to thrive in the evenings and weekends when commuters are back home in the suburbs. And while downtown is still Calgary’s economic engine, other parts of the city are developing their own character, charm and culture.

Another problem is that while downtown remains important to the everyday lives of 20 per cent of Calgarians, for the other 80 per cent, it is not part of their urban experience on a monthly, quarterly, or for some even an annual basis.

Fish Creek Park divides the communities north and south of this huge provincial park within the city limits. 

Weaselhead Flats and the Glenmore Reservoir serve as a natural dividing line between the inner city and established communities to the south. 

I see Calgary quickly evolving into five distinct “cities,” each with their own economic base, amenities and culture: the Learning City, the Airport City, the Playground City, the Corporate City and the Healthcare/Rail City.

Five Future Cities?

I thought it might be interesting to look at how Calgary might evolve over the next 50 years.

The Learning City

This is primarily the northwest quadrant of the city running from the Bow River to the city’s northern limits, and from Deerfoot Trail to the city’s western limits. Its employment centres are the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre (teaching hospital), SAIT Polytechnic and Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD). This is where the majority of professors, instructors, doctors, nurses and other staff live, work and play.

It has two major parks: Nose Hill and Bowness Park. Recreationally, it has Canada Olympic Park and Shouldice Athletic Park, as well as several major recreation centres. It has more than five million square feet of retail, including Market Mall, Northland Village mall, North Hill Mall, Brentwood Mall and Crowfoot Power Centre.

It is also home to Calgary’s first urban village - Kensington, with its cafe culture and Plaza Theatre. About 325,000 people live in the Learning City.

University District will become a new urban village on the west side of the University of Calgary campus. (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 

SAIT campus (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 

University of Calgary campus (photo credit peak aerials) 

Foothill Medical Centre (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 

The Airport City

This is basically the northeast quadrant of the city, an area from east of Deerfoot Trail and north of 17th Avenue S.E.

The airport is the key differentiator for this “city.” and the driver for its economy is the almost 40-million square feet of industrial space and six-million square feet of suburban office space surrounding the airport.

It is home to about 230,000 Calgarians, who not only work there but shop (International Avenue, Marborough Mall, Sunridge Mall and CrossIron Mills could be included as part of the Airport City) and play (Rotary Park and Elliston Park) there.

The Airport City could also be called our multicultural city.

Calgary International Airport (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

New suburban residential development at the edge of the city. (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

The Playground City

This is all communities south the City Centre and Mcleod Trail. It is where the majority of corporate Calgary lives and plays. It is home to Chinook Centre, Calgary’s largest shopping centre, as well as IKEA, Southcentre, WestHills and Shawnessy Power Centres -almost 10 million square feet of retail space. It is served by two legs of the LRT.

It is also home to amenities such as the Westside, Southland and Trico recreation centres, as well as Glenmore Reservoir, Weaselhead, Fish Creek and Heritage Parks, along with Spruce Meadows. Surrounded by golf courses at its edges, it also has three private clubs -Calgary Golf and Country Club, Earl Grey, and Canyon Meadows -within its boundaries.

It has two non-retail employment centers -Mount Royal University/Westmount Office Park and Manchester industrial area.

About 400,000 people live in our Playground City.

The Corporate (Centre) City

This is the area from Inglewood to Sunalta, from Crescent Heights to Roxboro (in other words, the Bow/Elbow River Valley.) It overlaps with the Learning City on the north side of the river. Not only is it the economic engine for Calgary and one of the top economic engines for Canada. It is the heart, soul and face of Calgary.

It is home to Calgary's truly urban districts -  Kensington Village, Uptown 17th, Stephen Avenue Walk, Design District, 4th Street and Inglewood Village.

It is also home to more than 60 million square feet of offices, hotels, retail, restaurants, attractions and condos. It is one of the most densely developed areas in North America.

It is Calgary’s corporate, cultural and civic headquarters and home to most of our cultural, festival and sporting events. It is home to Stampede Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Prince’s Island Park, as well as signature recreation facilities such as Talisman Centre, Bankers Hall Club and Eau Claire Y.

More than 150,000 Calgarians come to work here each workday, with about 70,000 calling it home.

Municipal Building with old City Hall (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 

Shaw Millennium Park & Mewata Armories (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

New condo in downtown's West End (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

The Healthcare / Railway City

This is Calgary’s newest city. Located in the southeast, it will soon be dominated by the new mega-South Health Campus in Seton.

It is also Calgary’s largest industrial area, with more than 45.9 million square feet of industrial space and more than three million square feet of suburban office space, including the new Quarry Park development.

Existing recreational and park amenities include Calgary Soccer Centre, Fish Creek Park and Carburn Park. It is currently home to about 75,000 people but it is expected to grow to more than 120,000 by 2020.

South Health Campus anchors the new SETON community which will create a new city with in the city complete with its own downtown. (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 

Quarry Park office, retail and residential development (photo credit: Peak Aerials)

Fish Creek Library (Peak Aerials)

Conclusion

Cities are a human creation. They are part of the ongoing human adventure. They are a work in progress. We are still experimenting. Calgary needs to rethink the North American city of the 21st century.

We need to stop trying to Europeanize our city and develop a winter/prairie urban model that embraces the car, transit, pedestrians and bikes.

Calgary could be a leader in the development of new urban models, rather than imitating what cities did 100 years ago.

We need to look inward, not outward, and start thinking BIG and planning in terms of how can we foster the development of five distinct sustainable Calgary cities - each with their own quality of life, their own sense of place, and their own mix of employment, residential, retail/restaurant, parks, recreation and cultural centres.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

Calgary Region: An Inland Port

Understanding Calgary's DNA

 

Mean Streets, Main Streets, Pretty Streets

Over the past few months the City of Calgary’s Main Street team has hosted dozens of workshops in various communities around the city asking Calgarians what they think about creating a new Main Street in their community.  The facilitated workshops are well organized with not only information panels, but also nine tables where community members work with a City Planner to document everyone’s ideas into three categories – issues, opportunities and outcomes.

I participated in two workshops (Kensington Road and Montgomery) and the passion and pride Calgarians have for their community is outstanding.  I especially loved working with the three young guns (30 somethings, young Dads, newcomers to Montgomery, professionals, cyclists) from Montgomery where we were exploring ways to transform both Bowness Road and the Trans Canada Highway into Main Streets.

Be careful what you wish for?

One of the problems with public engagement can be raising the public’s expectations that any idea they have, no matter how unrealistic, is going to happen. One of the common denominators at both workshops was the idea their current “main street” was a “mean street” with traffic, poor lighting, tired business facades, few trees and patios.

Everyone agreed that it would be nice to have a boulevard or promenade like streetscapes with new traffic signals, cross walks, street lamps, banners, benches, sidewalks, trees, flowers and bike lanes.  I expect all the workshops identified this as an issue, opportunity or outcome.

Great idea, but who is going to pay for this?  It could easily cost $5 million dollars to upgrade a few blocks (eg. traffic signals cost $300,000, cross walks $80,000. At $5 million for 24 Main Streets the City could be on the hook for a $120 million dollar streetscape program.

Mean Streets

Kensington Road sidewalk next to school yard fence is a "mean street." 

On the south side of Kensington Road is dominated by a crazy quilt of fences and unkept backyards of single family homes.   

Pretty streets don't attract people

While everyone loves the idea of pretty streets, they don’t necessarily attract people. Look at East Village, for the past several years it has had some of the prettiest streets in North America - banners, hanging flower baskets, ornamental street lighting, new roads and sidewalks – but it is still like a ghost town.  Why? Because there is nothing to see and do yet!  This will all change when the condos, hotel, museum, retail and restaurants open.

 16th Avenue NW has an diversity of shops and restaurants, as well as an upgraded streetscape with new lighting, median etc. but it has yet to attract any significant pedestrian traffic. 

16th Avenue NW has an diversity of shops and restaurants, as well as an upgraded streetscape with new lighting, median etc. but it has yet to attract any significant pedestrian traffic. 

 

Perhaps a better example is 16th Ave (aka Trans Canada Highway), it was prettified several years ago, but so far it hasn’t attracted any major new development and there are not a lot of pedestrians along the north-side sidewalks even with improved sidewalks, decorative lighting and median.  There are a variety of shops, some very bohemian (comics, used books, records and audio equipment).  However the six lanes of traffic and no street parking, make for a poor pedestrian experience. 

Why do Calgarians love wandering Kensington, Inglewood, 4th Street or 17th Avenue? Because they have a diversity of things to see and do – cafes, boutiques, restaurants, galleries, pubs, live music venues, patios and cinemas – not because of their pretty streetscapes.

Peters' Drive-In is a Calgary mid-century icon and is a good example of 16th Avenue NW's car centric DNA.

New Identities

Both Montgomery and Kensington Road groups talked about creating an identity for their Main Street.  A loud cheer went out when someone said “Bowness Road stops in Bowness!” The Montgomery Young Guns, thought Bowness Road in Montgomery should be renamed Montgomery Boulevard and look like a boulevard. 

The West Hillhursters were clear that Kensington Road should NOT be an extension of Kensington.  So perhaps a new name is needed to kick start a new identity. How about Grand Trunk Village (West Hillhurst use to be called Grand Trunk) which would encompass both 19th St SW and Kensington Road, from 18th to 20th Street.

Bowness Road in Montgomery has already begun its transformation into a 21st century Main Street with the addition of new building with retail at street level and condos above.  Residents would like to rebrand the street create a stronger community identity. 

The addition of small pocket parks and town squares as community meeting places are also desired by many residents. 

Recruitment

One of the things we talked about is how can we recruit new retailers to locate on the proposed new main streets, especially a couple of good neighbourhood pubs – for the Montgomery Young Guns that was top of mind.  The wish list for Kensington Road included a pub, but the butcher, baker, candlestick maker and even a small grocery store.

While these would all be nice to have, it is not very realistic to expect retailers to locate in fringe commercial districts just because the residents think it is good idea. It takes thousands of customers a week for a local retailer to survive, and the economics of “pioneering” into a new area can be very risky. 

The discussion also wasn’t realistic when people talked about creating Main Streets that are 5+ blocks long.  Most good neighbourhood pedestrian streets are just one or two blocks long – Britannia would be a good example.  Better to have two good blocks than four or five blocks that have half the space empty. 

Kensington Road has an eclectic mix of merchants this block has yoga studio, small grocery store, gas station and restaurant. Around the corner is medical building and dentist. 

While everyone would love to get a building of this quality from both a design and tenant mix, the Atlantic Avenue Art Block is not likely to be repeated again soon in Calgary.  It should be noted that transformation of Inglewood from a rundown hookers' stroll, with pawn shops and second hand stores into Canada's Best Neighbourhood has taken over 30 years and is still only in the middle of its transformation. 

Too focused on the 3 Rs

Most of the workshop discussion focused on new retail, restaurants and residential development, but in reality a good main street is just as much about office development. The traditional Main Street was where all of the local business took place; unfortunately much of that business today takes place online.

Pedestrian oriented street level medical and financial offices add sidewalk traffic on weekdays when the residents are at work. Upper floors can make good office space for small professional firms like accountants, engineers, fitness clubs and lawyers.

Condo on the opposite block to school on the same day provides a pleasant pedestrian experience. 

Marda Loop is an example of a contemporary pedestrian streets with retail shops at street level and condos above.  They bring new residents and retailers to help revitalize the community with many of the shops open 7 days a week and into the evening.

Communities should also be encouraging more office developments in and around their main streets to provide a more diversified client base for the cafes, restaurants and shops. 

Landowners are the key

In Montgomery one of the issues was the ugly facade of the businesses along Bowness Road.  The city has separate meeting set up with the landowners to discuss ways to encourage them to upgrade their buildings or to redevelop.  Many cities like Edmonton and Hamilton have incentives for landowners and business owners to make improvements.

In Calgary, many of the landowners are not very motivated to sell as they face huge capital gains taxes. They also aren’t interested in improvements as they are making a good rate of return without having to invest any money into their buildings or business.  It should also be noted the older, tired buildings provide more affordable rents for local “mom and pop” businesses to survive.

Many of the main street being studied have fragmented ownership like these apartments along Kensington Road, making it difficult to assemble sufficient land for a new mixed-use development. 

Connectivity

In both workshops connectivity was an issue and an opportunity.  In Montgomery, there needs to be better pedestrian connectivity between Bowness Road (aka Montgomery Boulevard), Safeway Mall, the Motel district on the Trans Canada Highway, Shouldice Park and the River.

In West Hillhurst (aka Grand Trunk) it was surprising to see how close the SunAlta LRT Station if only there was a direct pedestrian link over Memorial Drive and the Bow River. Retail connectivity was also an issue with a few shops clustered on 19th Street SW, some on Kensington Road between 18th and 21st Street and others further west at the intersection of Crowchild Trail, Kensington Road and Memorial Drive.

Nothing over Four Floors

It was interesting density was not an issue in either workshop I attended, people understood that density was critical to creating a more diverse community with more amenities.  However it was clear at the Kensington Road workshop, that nobody wanted anything over four floors.  It was also clear they didn’t just want cookie cutter condo blocks, but quality architecture and materials.

Length matters

In chatting with some of my colleagues with Main Street redevelopment experience, one of the issues facing the Calgary project is that it was originally conceived as a Corridor program.   As a result, all of the study areas are 6+ blocks long, which is not the right scale for a traditional Main Street.  As one colleague said, “the core or signature stretch of Robson Street in Vancouver is 3-blocks, in Calgary’s Inglewood it is only 2-blocks.”  Perhaps the first step in Calgary’s Main Street program would be to focus on just a 2 or 3-block area where there already is some pedestrian-oriented commercial development.

Roberta Brandes Gratz (urban critic, author of The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way) suggested one of the best ways to promote urban revitalization is to strengthen what already exists before building new. 

Last Word

As one Main Street expert said to me “communities need a bit of a reality check on the investment required to kick start residential and retail interest. East Village, Kensington, Mission, 17th Avenue and Inglewood to some extent benefit from being next door to the downtown and/or the river. Creating neighbourhood Main Streets takes time and relatively small moves that build like a snowball.”

While the City and communities have ambitious ideas I hope they will be able to link vision with reality. The development of 24 new Mains Streets is very ambitious going to take time. It is the landowners who hold all the cards for Main Street development.  The focus should be on them, not the community.

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's Condo section on Saturday May 16, 2015. 

Readers's Comments:

BL wrote: 

The first issue for me in creating Main Streets is on-street parking , usually but not always combined with two-way single lane traffic. This may seem like a typical engineer's approach to a planning/architectural/environment problem but if you stop and look at what separates a good urban street from a "mean" street you might notice this to be true. 

The east end of Kensington between 10th and 14th, arguably the busiest section for traffic, has on-street parking which facilitates successful retail business; but the portion of Kensington west of 14th has no on-street parking but also very little traffic. It would cost the city very little to introduce on-street parking along most of this stretch.

The second issue is to determine what is the principal use of the street. Is it a shopping street or is it a through way? No amount of effort will ever turn the TransCanada Highway into a pleasant place to spend time strolling or shopping. So why not accept that TCH through Montgomery is a through way, and focus our "Main Street" efforts exclusively on Bowness Road.

Further isn't it time to stop using 16th Avenue as the TransCanada Highway? One has only to look at a broader map of Alberta to see that the TCH detours north just east of Strathmore; a political move made over fifty years ago to appease the business interests in Strathmore at the time of the TCH construction. It would be a simple move to direct TCH traffic along the Highway 22 alignment through the southern part of Calgary diverting north at either Bragg Creek or the soon to be built(??) southwest ring road.

One of the oft-ignored principles of urban planning is that the right kind of car traffic is a good and a necessary component of creating successful main streets. Did the attendees at these Main Street planning meetings include transportation engineers?

CO wrote: 

Good blog....a couple of other barriers to developing Main Streets in Calgary include:

  • Calgary's Land Use Bylaw essentially sterilize pubs from being near residential and restaurants too small to be viable
  • Planners fight surface parking or loading facilities: both essential for retail to survive in suburbs
  • Planners assume all retail is boutique or mom and pop and actively fight larger stores that act as anchors 

 If you like this blog, you might like:

Montgomery: Calgary's newest urban village.

Beautiful Downtown Bowness

Flaneuring the TransCanada Highway 

Mount Pleasant & Calgary's other 4th Street



 

 

Calgary's City Council must stop micro managing!

Sometimes I just shake my head, wondering what are they thinking?  Why is City Council spending so much time debating and making decision on things that obviously should never even come to Council in the first place?

I was reminded of this, this past Monday when two of the agenda items were perfect examples of things that should never come to Council. First was the ongoing decision by Council to make the decision to approve every secondary suite application in Calgary.  In this case, Council should approve policy for Secondary Suites in Calgary and then trust administration implement it – end of debate.  Worse case scenario let the Ward Councilor make the decision and others just rubber-stamp their decision.

The second was the debate on community and street names proposed for the Brookfield Residential’s new Livingston community.  In this case Council has approved policy and clear guidelines for Community and street names. Why are they debating the names of streets?

I think the naming of communities and streets is critical as part of celebrating Calgary’s history and fostering a sense of place.  Yes I think in the past we have made some poor choices, but there is no point lamenting over names like Coral Springs, Tuscany or Royal Oak - we need to move on.  We already have a “Community and Street Naming” policy and it is Council’s responsibility to review the policy if it is not working – end of discussion.

Calgary's City Council can't continue to govern the city like it did 30 or 40 years ago. 

Waste of everybody’s time

It is not only a waste of Council’s time, but also staff time as dozens of senior staff have to hang around the Council meeting waiting for their agenda item to come forward.  There is also the time it takes for other staff to gather and compile all of the information for Council meetings for the agenda items they shouldn’t be discussing in the first place. It would be enlightening after every Council (and Committee meeting for that matter) to add up the amount of staff time that has been invested vs. the value added.

Backstory: As I was writing this blog it turns out someone has estimated it costs $10,000 for every Council meeting that goes past per meeting in just over time.  It is probably the same cost for Planning Commission and other meetings that drag on.

Council Members vs. Corporate Board Members

This type of behaviour would never survive in the private world.  Can you imagine Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors having to deal with every customer or staff complaint in person or Suncor’s Board of Directors deciding on the naming of wells or who gets which corner office in the Suncor Centre?

Calgary’s sheer growth over the past 10 years should dictate Council has to be a governance Board and not a working committee.  The City’s current 2015 to 2018 plan calls for $22 billion in capital and operating expenses compared to the $10.2 billion in the 2005 to 2008 plan. 

Council has no time to get bogged down in minutiae of the implementation of policy at the expense of larger issues. As stewards of a multi-billion business Council members should be focused on setting direction, goals and policy, not day-to-day detail. 

Delegation Opportunities

One suggestion I have heard for Council to better manage the City is to create more City owned corporations like ENMAX.  For example, Water & Sewer Services could become a utility company with its own Board of Directors instead of being a department of the City.  Similarly, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has done a good job of developing the City’s land in East Village; perhaps it should be responsible for developing all City owned land. Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of the City perhaps its mandate could be expanded to include the work being done by the Calgary Housing Company.   

Perhaps the City should be hiring a Governance Advisor rather than an Integrity Commissioner, who could help them manage their Board and Committee meetings more effectively.  Remember the old adage, “time is money.”  While almost all of the Councilors complain they are too busy, one has to wonder: Are they busy doing the right things?

Last Word

Council is often challenging others to do things differently, but in many ways it is still governing the City as if it was the ‘70s.  Today, Calgary is a complex corporation with over 12,000 employees and an annual budget of over $4 billion.  It needs to start managing its affairs as if was a corporation and not a working committee.

 PS

Before I posted this blog I shared it with 10 key informants asking for their input to make sure my comments were constructive and appropriate.  Collectively these individuals had over 125 years of experience in senior positions with the City and over 150 years of corporate experience. They all encouraged me to post the blog, saying change is needed immediately. 

By Richard White, February 11, 2015


Enhancing Established Community Development: Multifamily

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

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

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

The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permitted vs. Discretionary Uses

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

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

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

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

The Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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Calgary: The importance of a good mayor

Recently, I read Ken Greenberg’s book Walking Home where is shares his lessons learned as a “city builder” in various cities around the world.  One of his comments that sticks in my mind is “mayors are the chief designers of their cities.”  That got me reflecting on how Calgary’s mayors have influenced the design of our city over the past 35 years, when just four very different mayors governed our city. 

Calgary’s Mayor Terms

  • 1980 to 1989                        Ralph Klein          
  • 1989 to 2001                        Al Duerr
  • 2001 to 2010                        Dave Bronconnier    
  • 2010 to 2017?                      Naheed Nenshi

 

Klein: The Communicator

Unlike the USA, any Mayor in Canada has limited power to drive his/her agenda - unless their power of persuasion can convince the majority of their Council members to buy into their vision or agenda. 

Klein

That being said, Calgary has benefitted from having strong mayors for 35+ years, each capitalizing and adapting to the economic cycles of our boom and bust economy.  Calgary entered the 1980 in a building boom that rivalled that of today, however the Federal government’s National Energy Program (NEP) quickly put Calgary into a recession that lasted into the mid ‘90s.

Post-NEP, Ralph Klein adopted a Roosevelt-style of government, negotiating with the Province to help fund major city projects like Northeast LRT, Municipal Building and Performing Arts Centre.

He was instrumental in the negotiating with the Province to ensure Calgary’s Saddledome got built for the Calgary Flames and 1988 Winter Olympics. Klein, and then Premier Peter Lougheed enjoyed a synergistic relationship that was instrumental in getting not only the Saddledome built but also the Northwest LRT constructed in time for the Olympics.

Therein lies an important lesson - it is critical for Calgary’s mayor to have a good working relationship with the Premier and his cabinet. Master of persuasion and relationship building - with citizens, other governments and the President of the International Olympic Committee - Klein was pivotal in making Calgary an international city, much like Nenshi is today.

The Saddledome at Stampede Park on the southeast edge of downtown.

The Municipal Building, old City Hall and Olympic Plaza.

Construction of the Performing Arts Center with its concert hall and four theatre spaces with a total of 3,200 seats, made it one of North America's largest centres in 1985. 

Duerr: The Planner

The early ‘90s was a period of little growth in Calgary. We were still in a recession and our infrastructure was in pretty good shape, so much so that there were no tax increases for five years.

Duerr

As a planner, Mayor Al Duerr realized this was a good time to review outdated planning documents like the Transportation Plan, so he initiated a community engagement process that resulted in the Go Plan being approved in 1996. The process was critical in that it forced Calgarians to look into the future and determine what kind of city they wanted to build.  One key issues at the time was mobility and lengthening commuter times – sound familiar.

A key idea of the Go Plan was the creation of mini downtowns in the suburbs, allowing some of those who lived in the ‘burbs to live work and play close to home. Today, were are doing just that with, for example Brookfield Residential’s SETON and Livingston’s town centres, as well as urban villages at Westbrook, University and Bridgeland LRT Stations.  

The city and development community have also created significant new communities in the SE and NE quadrants close to the city’s large manufacturing, warehouse and distribution employment centres, making it possible to live work and play without crossing the Deerfoot Divide.

Another major decision of the Go Plan was no new Bow River crossing.  Calgarians were already starting to think about the environment, our rivers and sustainable growth. Before the Go Plan, the City plans called a river crossing at Shaganappi Trail (in Montgomery) and another one in Bowness.  Unfortunately, without these crossings and the City’s significant residential only growth on the westside, we now have the Crowfoot Trail crisis.

Under the guidance of Duerr Calgary became a more “caring city.”  He was instrumental in the development of the Calgary Homeless Foundation in 1998, which was unique in North America at the time and a far cry from the Klein’s famous “creeps and bums” fiasco.

By the end of Duerr’s reign, a new Transportation Plan was in place, setting the stage for Bronconnier, the builder and project manager, to take over the reigns.

  The Bridges is a master planned community on the site of the old General Hospital on the northeast edge of the City Centre, based on transit oriented development principles.

The Bridges is a master planned community on the site of the old General Hospital on the northeast edge of the City Centre, based on transit oriented development principles.

Brookfield Residential's SETON (which stands for southeast town), is a new live, work, play community with its own downtown being created at the southeastern edge of the city 20 years after the approval of the GO Plan. It will eventually be linked to the rest of the city by the SE LRT. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential and RK Visuals)

Bronconnier: The Builder

Bronconnier

Dave Bronconnier had an agenda and was always ready to share it.  From day one, he said we needed to improve Calgary’s infrastructure and he delivered.  Bronco (his nickname for good reason as he rode the horse no matter how hard it tried to buck him off) knew how to count to 8 (not seconds) Alderman as that is what he need for a majority vote at Council.  By 2004, he had successfully negotiated with the Province to get a share of the gasoline tax paid in Calgary for infrastructure projects. With the funding in hand, he was the catalyst for the extension of all three legs of the LRT out to the new suburban communities and the funding and design of the West LRT on time and on budget.

Bronco, recognizing the need to balance the city’s investment in both transit and roads, included several major road projects including the gigantic GE5 (Glenmore, Elbow Drive and 5th Street underpass), as well as numerous over passes at key intersections around the city as part of his agenda.

He was also instrumental in realizing the mega East Village makeover after over 20 years of false starts by negotiating with the Province an innovated new funding model based on the USA’s TIF (Tax Increment Financing) model.  And he was able to convince his colleagues on Council to form the controversial Calgary Municipal Land Corporation to develop and implement a master plan for East Village utilizing both the city and private sector lands. East Village has the potential to become Calgary’s postcard to the world of urban planning and living.

I am told Bronco was able to negotiate an amazing $15B from the Federal and Provincial governments for Calgary infrastructure projects during his term. He was instrumental in working with other Big City mayors to get municipal funding from the Federal Fuel Tax and Federal GST refund. The latter provided seed money for Calgary's new Science Centre and Library as well as major upgrades to Heritage Park and the Zoo.  He was also instrumental in setting up the ENMAX Park Fund. Bravo Bronco!

The northeast LRT extension included the new Martindale Saddletowne station. (photo credit: GEarchitecture)

  Aerial view of the GE5 interchange (photo credit: PCL)

Aerial view of the GE5 interchange (photo credit: PCL)

Nenshi: The Ambassador 

Nenshi

Perhaps it is too early to tell how current Mayor Nenshi will shape our city, but already he has exercised his persuasive powers to get the controversial Airport Tunnel approved (only time will tell if this was the right decision). 

Nenshi, a tireless champion of the need to create a more urban Calgary, has encouraged more dense communities at the edges of the city and infilling of older existing communities.  To date, several major inner-city urban village projects have been approved Stampede Shopping Centre, West Campus and West District. 

To date, he has been less successful when it comes to the approval of secondary suites and cutting the red tape around the approval of infill projects in established neighbourhoods to allow for more density and diversity. However, it is not for lack of trying!

He has been a strong advocate for making transit a priority and trying to get funding for both the North and SE LRT legs.  While the funding for LRT is still a long way away, a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit that will run along the same route as future LRT tracks) program is in the works as the first phase in the development of these two “game changing” transit routes.

Nenshi has also been an outstanding ambassador, building the City's reputation internationally as a young, hip, progressive city. At home, his negotiating skills will be tested by the City's growing urban/ suburban divide, the long list of "wants and needs" vs revenues and the growing NIMBYism in established communities. 

  Airport Tunnel construction. 

Airport Tunnel construction. 

Transit routes

Last Word

Greenberg identifies “civic pride” as a key ingredient to successful city building. I doubt Calgary’s civic pride has ever been higher than it was after the Olympics in 1988. Unless of course it was after the 2013 flood, when Calgary demonstrated its amazing community spirit, under the leadership of Mayor Nenshi.  While no mayor is perfect, Calgary has been very fortunate to have effective mayors who for the past 35 years have helped Calgary evolve into one of the most liveable cities in the world. 

By Richard White, January 16, 2015

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2015: Year of Calgary's mega infill projects!

I have often thought it would to be fun to be a “futurist.” So for fun I thought I would look ahead at what key condo developments might happen in 2015.

Probably the biggest announcement I predict for 2015 will be the Calgary Flames Partnership plans for a new SHED (Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District). It could be the redevelopment of the lands around the Greyhound Bus Station, or McMahon Stadium lands including the baseball stadium and playing fields, or they could surprise everyone and announce a site on the edge of the city. Wherever the site, I predict it will be a creative and comprehensive plan with condos, hotels, offices, and retail - maybe even a convention centre and new stadium.

With the development of the West LRT, the under utilized land west of 14th Street had been identified as a site for redevelopment, however the cost to reconfigure the road and other infrastructure work make this site very costly to redevelop. (Image credit: Ross Aitken)

Remington Development's Railtown site was once thought to be site for a arena. It is next to the future SE LRT station and could include a mix of office and condo towers. (image credit Ross Aitken)

All of the playing fields surrounding McMahon Stadium have been discussed as a potential redevelopment site for several years now. Could this site accommodate a new stadium and arena? (image credit: Ross Aitken)

Will 2015 be the year that Harvard Developments will announce they are beginning phase one of the mega makeover of the Eau Claire Market.  Back in November, 2013, Harvard announce ambitious plans for the site that would include 800,000 sf of office, 800,000 sf of residential (600+ condos), 600,000 sf or retail and 200,000 sf of hotel space in four ultra contemporary towers and a futuristic podium. This project has the potential to be a game changer in making south shore of Calgary's Bow River one of the premier luxury urban communities in North America.  

Artists rendering of new Eau Claire Market in winter with skating on the lagoon at Prince's Island.

Rail Trail Rejuvenation

Three concept towers for the West End along 9th Avenue SW.

Currently, 9th Avenue in Downtown’s West End is flying under the radar, but both the Metro Ford and Stampede Pontiac sites have proposals floating around for mega developments that may well come to fruition in 2015. WAM Development Group has plans for the Metro Ford site (9th Avenue and 10th Street SW), rumoured to include four towers containing 1,800 luxury condos and 150,000 square feet of retail.  This would make it the largest condo project in Calgary’s history, but construction won't begin for at least another 5 years, until Metro Ford's lease expires. 

Across the street on the NE corner of 9th Ave and 10th St SW, West Village Towers is a 3-tower (575 units), 90,000 square feet retail proposal by Wexford Developments Corporation and Cidex Developments.

Further east on 10th, Lamb Development will start construction on its “6th and Tenth.”  A long shot for 2015 would be if Remington Development announced updated plans for its mega Railtown project straddling the tracks from 9th Avenue to 10th Avenue east of the new 4th Street SE underpass.

West Village condos proposed for Stampede Pontiac block. 

Approved condo on the south east corner of 6th street and Tenth Avenue SW.

West LRT Catalyst

In 2014, Calgary developer Matco Investments acquired 10 acres of City land adjacent to Westbrook Station. This Transit Oriented Development site is part of the larger Westbrook Village area plan that envisions an innovative, vibrant pedestrian and cycling-oriented urban community.  I am told design for the first phase of the Westbrook Station village is well underway for the land along 17th Avenue and 33rd Street SW, just east of the underground station. It will include residential, retail, restaurant and a public plaza.  A development permit for phase one will be submitted in the first part of the new year, which means construction, will start in 2015.

Aerial view looking northwest of the Westbrook Station site with the existing shopping centre and the new condo towers in the bottom right corner. (www.peakaerials.com)

  Images are from City of Calgary's Westbrook Village brochure.

Images are from City of Calgary's Westbrook Village brochure.

Jacques Site Redevelopment Ideas

Look for an announcement on the redevelopment of the 5.3-acre Jacques site immediately northeast of the 29th Street SW LRT Station – some of the former seniors’ cottage homes have already been removed.  Silvera for Seniors has been working with the City, urban designers and the community to create a unique, seniors-focused village with a variety of multi-residential housing types, a small-scale retail office development, a park/plaza public space and a pedestrian mall. 

Images are from Silvera for Seniors website.

 This image is from the City of Calgary's Shaganappi Plan, illustrating how the Jacques site redevelopment fits into the larger plan.

This image is from the City of Calgary's Shaganappi Plan, illustrating how the Jacques site redevelopment fits into the larger plan.

  These are three conceptual alternatives on how the site might be developed. They are for discussion purposes only.

These are three conceptual alternatives on how the site might be developed. They are for discussion purposes only.

jacques site 2
jacques site 3

Inglewood R & R

Capitalizing on Inglewood being proclaimed Canada’s greatest neighbourhood by the Canadian Instituted of Planners in 2014, several developers will be moving forward on new projects in 2015.

The Inglewood Brewery site, quietly waiting for redevelopment for decades, will finally see some construction in 2015. Over the past several years, owner Matco Developments has been doing its due diligence with the City, Province and community regarding balancing historical preservation opportunities and economic realities of redevelopment of this historic industrial site.

Conceptual rendering of how some Inglewood Brewery buildings could be redeveloped. (image credit: Matco/M2i Development)

With the second phase of Matco/M2i Development’s SoBow condo project at the eastern edge of Inglewood completed, their attention in 2015 will turn to the creation of a live, work, play Brewery District in multiple phases.  Revitalization will begin in 2015 with the renovation of the Bottling Plant to accommodate commercial uses, which will set the stage for future residential development.

Further west along 9th Avenue two new condos are planned at 13th St SE. On the northeast corner Torode Reality will complete its four-storey project with retail at street level and 54 condo units above. On the southwest corner, I have a sneaking suspicion a similar scale project will be announced in the new year.

Further west on 9th Ave Jeremy Strugess’ architectural team has designed the uber- contemporary and controversial Avili condo across the street from the funky Atlantic Avenue Arts Block that I believe will start construction in 2015. All of these projects call for retail space at street level and residential units above (R&R) just like the old brick buildings built 100 years ago when Atlantic Avenue (9th Street) was Calgary’s first Main street. 

Six-Storey Condos?

In 2015, as many suburbanites will be moving into condos as single-family homes. Today’s family-oriented suburban communities – not like those of their parents - have a mix of condos, town and single-family homes. No longer do single-family homes dominate new suburbs.  

A good example of the type of new condos being built in the ‘burbs is Auburn Walk in Brookfield Residential’s master-planned community of Auburn Bay. This two building, four-storey, modern designed condo is a short walk to shopping, lake and bus rapid transit. Units range in size from 544 to 1,018 square feet - similar to new high-rise condos in the Beltline meaning many suburban Calgarians live in the same footprint as those downtown.

My crystal ball tells me the big new 2015 condo announcement in the ‘burbs will be the construction of Calgary’s first six-storey, wood-frame condo building. The City recently changed its policy to allow for this type of structure as a means of creating more density and affordable condos. Ideally, the City would like to see six-storey condos in established communities, but that might take a couple of years, as everything is more complex in the inner city.

Six storey wood framed condos are becoming more and more common in North America; this allows more density and more affordability as wood construction is half the price of concrete.  In the past, the building code dictated a four-storey maximum for wood framed buildings.  

Last Word

It doesn’t take a futurist to know that 2015 will be a big year for East Village (EV) as the first wave of new residents since 2003 will move into two new condo towers - FUSE and FIRST.  It is estimated 750 more people will call EV home in 2015, with 500 to 1,000 new residents moving into EV each year for the next several years. And, some people thought is would never happen!

If oil prices stay below $80 for all of 2015 it will be a challenging year for developers and homebuyers. I am confident that what is currently under construction will be completed, but projects could be delayed.  However, after a record year of condo starts in 2014, it might be time to take a bit of a breather. 

East Village is a mega construction site today - a magnificent multi-generational village soon!

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An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condos section titled "Future Projects Reshape Calgary" on January 3, 2015