Urban Living in Calgary: 2015 in review

As 2015 quickly comes to a close, one can’t help but reflect on Calgary’s evolution over the past year from an urban living perspective.  While the news on the economic front has continued to worsen, from an urban residential development perspective, things have continued to evolve pretty much as predicted. 

In fact a record six new high-rises were completed in 2015 – First, Fuse, The Park, Outlook at Waterfront, Guardian I and Aura II. The previous record was five in 2008 and again in 2010.  Perhaps even better news - another six are anticipated to be completed in 2016.

The boldest condo announcement in 2015 was Knightsbridge Homes’ and Metropia Urban Landscapes’ plan for a 167-unit condo in East Village with no parking.  Not only did they announce their innovative project, but they got approval, sold out and started construction all in 2015.

Rendering of N3 condo in Calgary's East Village that has no parking.  I thought N3 stood for No Parking, No Problem, Nitwits, but was told it stands for New Attitude, New Vision, New Lifestyle. 

Beltline Bankruptcy Blues

This year, several abandoned projects from the 2007/08-mortgage collapse morphed into new projects.  Remember Astoria, the condo tower with its $10 million penthouse (on 10th Ave between 8th and 9th Avenue) that was abandoned when it was just a big hole in the ground? That has since been taken over by WAM Development Group and will be two towers 17 and 34-storeys.  This development will nicely integrate with Qualex-Landmark’s Mark on 10th at the corner of 10th Ave and 8th street.

As well, just a little further west at 1235-11th Avenue SW (the old Kai Tower project, named after Kai Mortensen Fine Furniture that used to be on the site) has evolved from initially being two vertical towers (Oslo and Copenhagen) into a single 13-storey horizontal building called Metropolitan by Statesman.

The Park condo in the Beltline was just a hole in the ground for several years until it was completed in 2015. 

In Victoria Park (aka Beltline East), Arriva, on the historic Victoria Park School site, was supposed to be an avant-garde, three-condo tower complex. However, it was abandoned after the first tower was completed.  Since then Hon Towers Ltd. picked up the pieces, redesigned the remaining two towers as two 44-floor South Beach-like white towers that will be the highest in Calgary. Rebranded as the Guardian Towers, the first tower is nearing completion while the second tower is more than half finished.

And in the heart of the Beltline (Memorial Park), Lake Placid Group of Companies completed The Park condo after a few years of no construction.  Across the street from Memorial Park, Qualex-Landmark has also broken ground for the first tower of their two-tower Park Point project  - sure to become one of the Calgary’s signature buildings.

It also looks like Strategic Group will be reviving the Sky Tower site at the corner of 10th Ave and 1st SE, having recently received approval for a 277-unit residence.

Ian Meredith a consultant at Altus Group Limited Residential Advisory Services, doesn’t expect to see any of the projects currently under construction to have financing issues given “the institutional level of investment at play now simply wasn’t present during the last downturn.  Over the past five years, Calgary has attracted most of the significant high-density developers from across Canada.  Even during a slower growth period there will be no shortage of long-term interests pushing towards the successful redevelopment of our inner city communities.”

  Statesman purchased the old Kai Towers site and changed it from two vertical towers condos to one horizontal rental apartment block.  

Statesman purchased the old Kai Towers site and changed it from two vertical towers condos to one horizontal rental apartment block. 

  Rendering of what Kai Towers were originally suppose to look like.  

Rendering of what Kai Towers were originally suppose to look like.  

  WAM's two unnamed rental apartment towers are rising up from where the luxury Astoria condo which was just capped off at ground level when it went bankrupt. 

WAM's two unnamed rental apartment towers are rising up from where the luxury Astoria condo which was just capped off at ground level when it went bankrupt. 

  The Astoria condo was announce back in 2007 with much fanfare especially for its $10 million dollar penthouse that never got built. 

The Astoria condo was announce back in 2007 with much fanfare especially for its $10 million dollar penthouse that never got built. 

Rendering of the original plans for Arriva block that included three sister condo towers, renovations of two schools and a major public artwork.

Bridgeland is Blooming 

The Bridges (aka old Calgary General Hospital site) redevelopment also came to a grinding halt in 2008, but gradually the entire Bridgeland/Riverside community is blooming into a lovely urban village. 

Vancouver’s Bucci Developments has been the “King of Bridgeland” for many years. Back Story: Owner and President, Fred Bucci’s father, the founder of the company was actually born at the Calgary General Hospital and grew up in the neighbourhood.

Bucci Developments not only built Bella Citta (2003) and Bella Lusso (2006) as part of Phase 1 of The Bridges, but also built NEXT (4th St and 7th Ave NE) nearby. Their new Bridges project Radius, planned for the southeast corner of Centre Avenue and 8th St. NE, will have a lovely view of The Bridges’ Central Park.  In addition to the 200 new homes, Radius’ modern design will add a new dimension to The Bridges with its rooftop terrace and garden.

As well, not only has GableCraft Homes’ modified Bridgeland Crossing II (mothballed for a few years) now nearing completion next to the LRT station, but they have also started Bridgeland Hill condos.

Not to be left out, Remington Developments’ new Meredith Block (office/retail) on Edmonton Trail just past Memorial Drive is further evidence that Bridgeland/Riverside is starting to bloom as Calgary’s newest vibrant urban village.

Bridgeland's Farmers' Market (photo credit: sustainablecaglary.com)

Urban Living Comes To The NW

The biggest urban living announcement in 2015 was the City’s approval of University District on the University of Calgary’s west campus land around the Alberta Children’s Hospital. They are already moving dirt on this 184-acre urban village (Calgary’s first 24/7 village given it will serve two hospital sites), that will include 6,000 multi-family residential units (home for about 15,000 people), 245,000 square feet of retail and restaurants in a Kensington-like pedestrian streets and 1.5 million square feet of office space for about 10,000 workers.  University District also includes 40 acres of parks, ponds, gardens and plazas and 12 km of pathways.  It holds the distinction of being the first ever new, master-planned urban village in Calgary’s northwest quadrant.

On a smaller scale, but still significant the Kensington Legion site redevelopment in West Hillhurst along Kensington Road at 18th St. NW has been called a “game changer” by both the NIMBYs and YIMBYs alike.  Truman Homes announced plans in 2015 to transform this large site into a mixed-use site with two buildings - a 4-storey office building and 8-storey condo, both with restaurants and retail at ground level. While there has been much controversy over the height of the condo building, everyone seems to agree the design of both buildings - especially the condo building with its cascading north façade – are very attractive. It could well become the “poster child” for the City of Calgary’s Main Street program (which includes Kensington Road from 14th Street to Crowchild Trail) and become the catalyst for the evolution of West Hillhurst into Calgary’s next vibrant walkable community.

University City at Brentwood LRT Station is a just one Calgary's many transit oriented developments.  Nearby is the University of Calgary, downtown is a short LRT ride and there are two grocery stores within walking distance.

Aerial view of University District site on the west end of the University of Calgary campus, with the Alberta Children's hospital in the middle. (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 

Rendering of proposed pedestrian street with shops and cafes that will at the heart of new University District urban village. 

  Kensington Legion site as it exists Fall of 2015. 

Kensington Legion site as it exists Fall of 2015. 

Proposed office (left) and condo (right) buildings for Kensington Legion block. (photo credit: Truman Development Ltd.)

Last Word 

In a recent full-page advertorial by Qualex-Landmark in the Herald’s New Condo section, comments made by Parham Mahboubi, Vice-President of Planning and Marketing with Qualex-Landmark resonated with me and bear repeating. 

“As developers, we have our sights on the long-term horizon.  I think this is something like the sixth temporary economic downturn Calgary has faced in over the past 30 years. It’s a cyclical market. Calgary has so much going for it that makes it one of Canada’s major metropolitan cities. We are not throwing in the towel. We will continue to respond to the ongoing demand for quality, high-density, inner-city communities by building new condos to further demonstrate our commitment to renewing the economic, social and cultural vibrancy of Calgary’s Beltline.”

This aptly captures the essence of what I have repeatedly heard from dozens of residential developers over the past year. Well said, Mr. Mahboubi!

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section titled, "Calgary Growing From The Ground Up With Many Starts" on December 19, 2015.

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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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Calgary: A Few Hidden Gems

Every city has their hidden gems - cafes, bookstores, pubs or shops - tucked away off the beaten path, that even some locals aren’t aware of.  Here are five Calgary hidden gems for locals and tourists who like to explore off the beaten path. 

Aquila Books, 826, 16th Avenue NW

Who would think the little building with the blue awning on the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Ave N) is home to one of North America’s - if not the world’s - great antiquarian bookstores?  Aquila specializes in books dealing with Polar Expeditions, Western Canadiana, Mountaineering and the Canadian Pacific Railway. As much a museum as a bookstore with antique maps, prints, photos, letters, postcards and scientific instruments, it even has an Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling.

Recently, owner Cameron Treleaven published Mount Everest’s 60th Anniversary book of George Lowe's letters written to his sister while climbing Everest in 1953. The book is signed by Jan Morris, Huw Lewis-Jones and Peter Hillary and includes a cutting of Lowe's sleeping bag used during the expedition, making this an extraordinary addition to any book collection.

Note the Inuit kayak hanging from the ceiling - very cool!

More info: Flaneuring The Trans Canada Highway

Café Rosso, 803 - 24th Ave SE

Every city needs a signature café. In Calgary Café Rosso in Ramsay’s industrial district is one of ours.  Yes, they have other locations but this is the original Rosso with its own Probat L12 roaster, Marzzoco machine and Anfim grinder. They arguably serve up the city’s best espressos and lattes. It is also a great bakery for those craving a muffin, banana bread, scone or a tangy sandwich.

Located in the 1927 Riverside Iron Works complex whose roots were as a small machine repair shop, which grew into a major steel manufacturer. Today, the site is home to many funky businesses including Ladacor Ltd., a sea container construction company and F&D Scene Changes fabricators of public art, parade floats, theme park structures, theatre and film set designs. Ramsay, one of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods, is a great place to explore on foot.

Everyone loves Caffe Rosso in Ramsay!

More Info: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District

Heritage Music, 1502 - 11th Ave SW

For music collectors, Heritage Music is THE place to be. Before going inside be sure to check out the wall of records on the north side of the building with remnants of the iconic Rolling Stones’ Tongue.

And don’t let the 1927 quonset-style former service station building fool you. Inside you will find not only vintage vinyl, but new and out-of-print music, rare concert tour and gig posters, photos, movie posters and just about anything “music” you can think of. Holger Petersen of Stony Plain Records says, “Heritage Music has the best collection of Blues, Folk, Roots and Jazz records in Canada.”

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Heritage Music's fun, funky and quirky street art facade.

Louche Milieu,3401- Spruce Dr. SW

Midcentury modern maniacs will adore this little shop authentically located in the mid-century Spruce Cliff Shopping Centre. “Louche” is a French term for decadent, flashy, sketchy, dubious, shady and disreputable and “milieu” means an environment or setting, but there is nothing shady or decadent about Louche Milieu.  Full of well curated treasures it’s a “must visit.” Plan around its limited hours, Friday and Saturday 12:30 to 6 pm or call to make an appointment 403-835-1669.

Next to Louche Milieu is Little Monday Café, which serves up tasty homemade muffins and cookies with a full range of caffeine drinks.  It is very popular with young families as evidenced by the chalkboard artwork.

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Lots of hidden gems here.

Crescent Heights Steps

Memorial Drive at 2rd St. SW parking lot.

For those looking for a uniquely Calgary workout, try climbing the McHugh Bluff stairs. Not only will you get a great workout, but you will be rewarded with an amazing view of Downtown skyline, mountains and river valley from the top. 

With 167 steps divided into 11 flights, most people find once is enough. But there is fun challenge on the net, based on 10 laps starting at the bottom and finishing at the top.

<17        minutes = Olympian

17 – 20 minutes = Professional, top amateur

20 – 24 minutes = Very athletic

24 – 28 minutes = Athletic

28 – 35 minutes = Average

35 – 37 minutes = Somewhat out of shape

>37        minutes = Out of shape 

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the company of one or more Calgary Stampeders, Flames or a Canadian Olympic athletes working out. Bring your phone or camera as you are definitely going to want to take pictures.

  Lets make this challenging and carry my bike up the stairs also.

Lets make this challenging and carry my bike up the stairs also.

Last Word

Calgary is full of hidden urban gems...happy exploring.  Love to hear from both locals and tourist what are your favourite!

PS...no I have not taken up the Crescent Heights Stair Challenge.

 

 

New Condos Create Hidden/Invisible Density

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

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

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

Altadore 36 streetscape

Altadore 36

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

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

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

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

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

Altadore 36 Courtyard.

Upper West

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

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

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

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

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

Upper West condo on 2nd Ave NW.

Last Word

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

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

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Seven Reasons To Visit Mexico City

Recently, I spent 18 days in Mexico City with my 84-year old mom flaneuring Mexico City and was truly amazed by what I found.  Our two key reasons for going - she wanted to see the Guadalupe shrine (she has travelled the world to see Roman Catholic sacred places) and I love cities but had never been to a mega-city, i.e. one with a population over 10 million.

While Mexico City has a reputation of being smoggy, unsafe and gritty, what we found was a city that was safe, bustling with activity and had clean air except for two days.  Yes it was gritty, but that seemed authentic for a city 500+ years old.  We loved the unpretentious nature of the city and its people. 

Here are our top seven reasons why you should visit Mexico City:

 

#1 The History

Anyone who is into history will love Mexico City. The historic center is 150 blocks (give or take a few blocks) of historic buildings - some immaculately restored (Post Office Building and Palacio de Bellas Artes concert hall), some left to age gracefully (Palacio Nacional) and others in an advanced stage of decay.  The City centre is chock-a-block full of monumental buildings oozing an mind-boggling amount of history.  Today, we can build big buildings but I am not convinced they can be described as monumental. 

The literally sinking Cathedral Metropolitana, is the heart of the world’s largest Catholic diocese, took almost three centuries to build (1525 to 1813 AD) and is the second largest church in the world (only St. Peter’s in Rome is bigger) and you can just walk right in. You can even climb to the bell tower to look out over the Plaza de la Consititucion commonly known as Zocalo, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest).

There are even the remains of Templo Mayor, a 14th and 15th century Aztec temple unearthed in the 1970s - right in the middle of the historic centre of the city and another ruin on the edge of the historic district.  

An hour outside of the city lies Teotihuacan, one of the world’s most impressive cities of the ancient world. Founded before the Christian era, the city housed 125,000 people and covered 20 sq. km. It dominated the region until AD 650 before being destroyed (possibly by its own people) and abandoned. The name means “the place where men become gods” and it was later held sacred by the Aztecs.  You can climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun one of the biggest pyramids in the world (the base is of similar dimensions as the Great Pyramid of Egypt but only half as high at 65 meters).

Our day at Teotihuacan was memorable, not only for the two pyramid climbs (Sun and Moon), the walk along Avenue of the Dead, Jaguar Mural and Temple of Quetzalcoatl, but also for the mini-history lessons from our very enthusiastic tour guide.  The tour also included demos for locals on carving, getting water from cactus plants and using plants for colour.  It was mentally exhausting and exhilarating.

Palaciao de Bellas Artes' Art Nouveau facade is equalled only by its impressive Art Deco interior that includes murals by some the greatest Mexican artists of the 20th Century. The concert/theatre space is magnificent and home to Mexico's iconic ballet company - Ballet Folklorico. 

The Palace Postal still functions as a post office and includes a contemporary art gallery space as well as a post office museum.  The interior may well be the most elegant space I have every experienced. 

  Climbing the Temple of the Sun was one of the most memorable experience of my life - I didn't think it would be a big deal.&nbsp;&nbsp;

Climbing the Temple of the Sun was one of the most memorable experience of my life - I didn't think it would be a big deal.  

Just one of the many powerful carvings that remind you of human cultures that have existed in North America for centuries. It changed my perception of North America. 

#2 The Muralists

Today every city seems obsessed with acquiring iconic public art, yet much of it is generic, i.e. it could be anywhere. For example, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park could easily be in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza or any urban plaza for that matter. 

In Mexico City, you won’t find a lot of modern public art but what you will find is the work of early 20th Century muralists – Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to the 70s, these three Mexican artists created hundreds of murals documenting the historical, nationalistic, social, political and everyday living messages of the Mexican culture.   I was captivated by the power of these murals in conveying a sense of the human struggles (work, passions and violence) that took place in Mexico before and after the arrival of Europeans.  There is a wonderful sense of humanity and story telling in the murals, something that is often missing in modern public art.

In good urban design, we talk about the importance of human scale of buildings (i.e. buildings that don’t dwarf people, usually under 10 or 12 storeys).  Similarly, I think good public art should connect with local history and have a sense of humanity too.

A segment of one of Diego Rivera's murals titled "In the Arsenal."  Both the National Palace and the Secretaria de Educacion Publica are filled with Rivera murals that tell the stories of violence and passion of the Mexican people (both have free admission).  At the end of our visit my mom commented, "Did you notice that most of his murals have a gun and military in them."

#3 The Museums/Churches

There are supposedly over 250 museums in Mexico City and I don’t doubt it.  It seems like there is a church and/or a museum on every block - sometimes both.  Our favourite four museums were: Archeology Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Soumaya Museum and the Toy Museum.

The Archeology Museum is huge with 23 galleries that tell the story of Mexico history from the arrival of man to present day.  The artifacts and displays are perhaps some of the best I have ever seen.  It is at least a half-day visit and possibly a full day if you want to really try to take it all in.

The Museum of Popular Art is housed in a wonderful art deco building – a perfect setting for folk art.  And the Soumaya Museum, outside the historic centre in Polanco, is an uber-modern architectural gem that houses the art and artifacts of Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. It houses one of the largest collections in the world of Rodins in the top floor sculpture gallery. 

A hidden gem is the Toy Museum, otherwise known as Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico.  Located outside the historic centre in a non-descript, four-storey office building, it is jam-packed with 55,000 toys.  This is not a real museum in that the work is not curated or labeled with accompanying didactic panels.  It is more like a flea market, with displays and vignettes from floor to ceiling – everything from foot-peddle cars to dolls, from robots to games.  It is guaranteed to make you smile.

Plaza de Santo Domingo is home to the Santo Domingo Church with its red volcanic rock a Tuscan colonnade for vendors and while we were there a modern art artwork with video inside.  Funny story - the artwork in the plaza we had seen before in workshop space next to the Toy Museum where is had been the focus of some sort of artists' party the night before. 

I had a peddle car as a kid but not a cool as this one. 

#4 Parks/Plazas/Boulevards

When you think of Mexico City, you probably don’t think of great parks, plazas and boulevards – but you should! Bosque de Chapultepec is one of the great urban parks in the world. A public park since the 16th century, today it is home to numerous museums (Architectural, Tamayo and Modern Art), Castillo de Chapultepec (once home to Emperor Maximilian), a zoo (free) and botanical gardens.

As well, Paseo de la Reforma, a 3.5 km boulevard (that connects downtown to Bosque de Chapultepec) once lined with beautiful houses, is today home to numerous skyscrapers (offices and hotels), as well as monumental traffic circle with a magnificent statues commissioned in the 19th century to commemorate prominent Mexicans. On Sunday mornings, the street is closed to traffic, allowing thousands of cyclists, joggers and walkers to use the street.

Then there is the Monumento a la Revolucion plaza. It includes Porfirio Diaz’s unfinished congress building which was turned into a monument, museum and plaza.  A glass elevator to the roof top deck offers outstanding views of the city.  At night, the monument is surreal as it is lit up pink or blue.  The plaza is used for numerous events from outdoor conferences to concerts. When we were there, it hosted six hours of Beatles tribute bands one Saturday and a lineup of Mexican bands including Jenny and the Mexicats the following Saturday.  It was also used for some sort of convention for a couple of days during the week.  

A highlight of our trip was heading to the plaza on Sunday nights to watch people of all ages run through the colourfully lit dancing fountains. The shrills of excited, soaked kids will be a lasting memory of Mexico City.

Monumento a la Revolucion towers above the surrounding buildings.  The plaza encompasses a super block that provides space for a variety of activities and event. The museum is underground at the base of the monument. 

Enjoying a Sunday morning ride along Passeo de la Reforma.  Note the playful, colourful sculptures in the backbround. They helped created a carnival atmosphere that will be the subject of a future blog. 

Young couple enjoying the temporary installation of red house shaped objects that supported a single hammock for Design Week. 

#5 The Villages

You definitely don’t feel like you are in a city of 21 million people when you visit one of Mexico City’s suburban villages.  While most tourists just check out the Historic Centre village, there are many other interesting villages to explore. 

We especially loved the artists’ village of San Angel with its Saturday artisan market in the lovely Plaza San Jacinto, lined with cafes, galleries and restaurants. 

Coyocacan, its sister village, to the east is home to Museo Frida Kahlo, Museo Estudio Diego Rivera and Casa/Museo Leon Trotsky.  I think every city should have a designated artists’ village.

Though Xoxhimilco lies 20 km southeast of the city centre, it is definitely worth the trip.  We joined six others from the hostel to catch the subway to the end of the line and then a train to this once lakeside village. Today, it is home to canals and semi-floating flower and vegetable gardens built originally by the Aztecs.  Here you can rent a colourful punts (wooden roofed boats with a table down the middle) with a local boatman who poles the bunt along the canals. Beware: you will be accosted by other boats trying to sell you beer, food, trinkets and live music. The village is also home to a thriving farmers’ market, charming park and Iglesai de San Bernardino, a fortified monastery built by the Franciscans in late the 16th century. While travelling to this quaint village, along the way you will see what the working class suburbs of Mexico City are like and get a better appreciation of what a city of 21 million looks like.

The Saturday Art Market in the Plaza San Jacinto hosts dozens of artists working in many different genres.

There are hundreds of colourful punts at Xoxhimilco. Once you are on the canals it becomes a wonderful kaleidoscope of colour with the boats, the flowers and the reflections. 

# 6 The People

There is something endearing about the people of Mexico City that I have never felt in any other city.  The first hint of this came when walking through Alameda Park. Located in the city centre, it was once an Aztec marketplace. Today, it is 75 percent park (with restful pathways, huge trees and decorative fountains) and 25 percent tented vendors selling food, clothing, CDs and trinkets. 

It was here that we first began to appreciate how Mexicans have mastered the art of “sitting.” The park is full of ornate benches where people of all ages sit, talk, cuddle and kiss.  While all around them is the hustle, bustle and honking of a big city, the park holds a tranquility that is almost surreal. 

Soon we began to notice that handholding is also very popular in Mexico City, not only with parents holding kids’ hands on busy streets, but also by couples (young and old), mothers and adult daughters and just friends.  Somehow this handholding on busy sidewalks created a wonderful, subtle sense of tenderness and caring in what is definitely an intimidating, alienating urban environment.

Finally, after visiting many churches and attending several masses, my mother observed that people of Mexico City had a spirituality that she has never experienced in any city she has ever visited - including Rome. She was impressed not only that every church had multiple masses every day, but that they were full.  She also noted churches embraced a diversity of people from homeless to rich and were open all day long.  One day a homeless man, in need of good bath, sat next to her at mass. He was respectful throughout the service and even found a coin in his pocket to give a donation. 

My mom befriended another homeless man who sat slumped on the sidewalk all day just a few doors down from our hostel. She would go out each morning and say Hi and he would wave to us each day as we headed off on our journey.  Before we left for home,  she said good-bye and gave him some money for which he gratefully thanked her.

In an email to family after our trip, my Mom said, “I went with the idea of seeing and feeling something at the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe, but found it instead at the Church of St. Jude.”

The streets of Mexico City are full of couples of all ages holding hands. Count the number of couples holding hands in this photo. 

Benches come in all shapes and sizes in Mexico City.  One of the things we observed early were the number of families who love to hang out together in their public spaces. 

Two young girls crawling on the Revolution Plaza during the Zombie Walk.  Everyone was keen to have their picture taken that day and everyday in Mexico City. 

#7 Mexico is a bargain

Where in the world can you ride the subway for $.05 USA (yes, that is five cents), or get into a world-class museum for $5 USA or less (many of the museums are free). We stayed at the Hostel Suites (Youth Hostel) for $40 USA a night, which included a huge private room with two beds, breakfast, a full bathroom with a huge shower, daily housekeeping, two lounges/patios and the best staff I have ever experienced (their concierge services matched those at any 5-star hotel).  Meals are cheap and you can get a beer for under a $1 USA.  The all day tour to Teotihuacan was great value at $45 USA and front row seats at the Lucha Livre wrestling cost only  $12 USA.

Last Word

After spending three weeks in Florence and Rome last year and 18 days in Mexico City this year, I would have to say Mexico City has more to offer historically and culturally than both of these major European cities combined. I encourage everyone to visit Mexico City at least once in their lifetime.

Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging in more detail about Mexico City. I hope you will find the blogs interesting and intriguing.

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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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Calgary: Not your parents' suburbs!

"Not your parent’s suburb” was the headline of a Brookfield Residential’s advertorial back in November 2014 announcing their new master planned Livingston community on the northern edge of the city. That headline has stuck with me ever since as it is true not only for Livingston, but for almost all of the Calgary’s new communities. 

While some planner and politicians have been touting the “death of the suburbs” given the millennial generation doesn’t want the suburban lifestyle of their parents, other planners and developers have been quietly evolving new community planning to incorporate the best of suburban and urban living that appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds. The new communities of the 21st century look nothing like those of the late 20th century i.e. “your parents suburbs!” 

Not just about density

Too often the discussion of suburban vs. urban living is focused on density and type of housing – single family vs. multi-family.  Yes, the lots for single-family homes in Calgary’s new communities are smaller then they were 20 years ago.  Yes, there are more condos being built in the ‘burbs than ever before. 

The housing types today are also more diverse. Rather than creating homogeneous communities where all the homes look alike, and are marketing to the same demographics, new communities today include housing that will attract, young singles, young families, older families, empty nesters and even seniors’ homes.  Today we understand creating community is about integrating people of all ages and backgrounds.

But, today’s master plan communities are not just about residential development, it is about strategically integrating residential with retail, restaurant, health and other commercial development so that many of our everyday needs can be obtained within our community.  Road and pathways are designed to allow residents to walk, cycle or take transit to more of their everyday activities.  Terms like complete streets, walkable communities, healthy choices and transit-oriented development populate every new community master plan.

Livingston

Livingston, at 1,430 acres is one-third the size of Okotoks, but will have a density higher than Hillhurst/Sunnyside at 8 to 10 units per hectare. It will include a town centre like Kensington for shopping, surrounded by three residential communities – Carrington, Livingston South and Livingston North. 

It will be home to 35,000 people living in 5,000 single-family homes and 6,500 multi-family homes (apartment style condos, townhomes and semi-detached). Plans call for 70% of the homes to be at an affordable price point with flexible zoning allowing for home-based businesses and secondary suites.

Livingston will be the northern terminus of the North Leg of the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and eventually the LRT, giving residents easy access downtown office jobs. They will also have easy access to Stony Trail for commuting to Calgary’s growing NE Airport/Distribution District.   Plans also call for 7,000 people to work in Livingston’s at various commercial buildings – rumour even has it that Calgary’s next major hospital will call Livingston home. 

In addition to a full range of shops and services in the town centre, Livingston is part of 138 km citywide Greenway pathway that will be linked to numerous parks, green spaces and pathways within the community. Show homes could be open as soon as late 2016.

For more information: Livingston 

New community of Livingston is being planned as "live, work, play" community with 90% of homes within 400m of transit. 

West District

West District (not to be confused with West Village or West Campus) is a new master planned infill community on Calgary’s west side next to existing Cougar Ridge, Wentworth and West Springs. Of the 3,500 homes, less than 50 will be single-family and those will be along the southern edge where West District links with existing a single-family street. The vast majority of the buildings will have retail or town homes integrated at street level with 5 to 8 storey apartment style condos above.

Like Livingston, West District will have Kensington (10th Street) like pedestrian shopping street anchored by an urban grocery store. In addition to 500,000 square feet of retail, West District will also have 1,200,000 square feet of office/institutional space for 5,000+ workers, which could include a post-secondary satellite campus or a health care facility.

Truman Homes who conceived West District have already received significant interest from empty nesters from the neighbouring communities who want to continue to live in the area, but are looking for a smaller low maintenance homes.  First-time buyers are also expressing interest as plans include a shuttle bus to the West Leg of the LRT.  Young professions like the affordability and size of the West District’s condos along with the easy cycling access to downtown.  Discussions are currently taking place to include a care facility for seniors so people living in West District continue to live in the community as they age.

The centerpiece of West District will be a central park on the same scale and quality as the Beltline’s Memorial Park that can be used for festivals and a farmer’s market.  It will provide a vibrant urban experience not only for those living in the community, but for all of Calgary’s communities west of Sarcee Trail.

Aerial view of West District surrounded by sea of low density single-family homes i.e. 20th century new community planing 

West District's Central Park will include: Performance space, plaza, skating trail/rink, cafe, splash park, playground, sports court, putting green and natural area. 

A prototype for a mixed-use condo building in West District with retail at street level. 

Last Word

It is interesting to note that when fully built-out Livingston will provide $20 million in annual taxes to the City and pay out $170 million in development levies.  West District is expected to add $10 million in new residential and business tax each year and over the next 50 years will generate $400 million more in taxes than a low density residential communities i.e. “your parents suburbs” would generate.

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Calgary: Are we too downtown centric? 

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.&nbsp;

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. 

If you liked this blog, you might like:

West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild

University District: Calgary's First 24/7 Community

Kensington Legion Redevelopment: Taller is better?

The Rise and Fall of the Grocery Store!

Recently, I wrote that Calgary’s greater downtown communities are being well served by the numerous existing supermarket chains and specialty grocers.  However, several readers questioned me about the need/opportunity for boutique urban grocery stores given the numerous condos popping up everywhere around the downtown.

Their comments haunted me for a few weeks until recently, when west driving along 20th Avenue NW from 10th to 19th street (where there is a mid-century corner store every few blocks).  I was reminded how Calgary’s inner city communities, when first developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, all had “mom and pop” mini, grocery stores every few blocks. 

The mid-century corner store was critical to the walkability of those communities (back then it was one car per family).  It was not large, in fact no larger than neighbouring houses at about 1,000 square feet. Some were two storeys; others had an attached home to create the equivalent of today’s live/work space. The stores were usually located on major community access roads (like 20th Ave NW) that were enroute to other places, making them very convenient.

It had no surface parking lot, nor a requirement for assigned street parking - neighbours just accepted cars would pull up, get what they needed and drive off.  There were no concerns about children’s safety, even though they regularly played on the street. It was a place where kids as young as six years old could be sent to pick up a loaf of bread, a jug of milk and even occasionally allowed to spend the change on a treat from the penny candy selection.

It was also a time when people didn’t demand organic foods, exotic fruits from their favourite boutique orchard in Okanagan, farm-to-table vegetables or artisan breads.. It was a time of instant coffee and canned vegetables. People didn’t drive across the city to get their favourite coffee beans or find that specialty spice for an ethnic-inspired dish.

It was all about basic foods bought at convenient locations.  The “mom and pop” corner store, evolved into chain convenience stores like 7-Elevens and Mac’s, in the ‘60s, which served a similar purpose but weren’t located every few blocks. 

Jimmy's A&A Deli is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 13th St NW. 

Browns's Grocery is located at 20th Ave and 11th St. NW.

Weeds Cafe is located at the corner of 20th Ave and 18th St. NW.  I expect it was a grocery store when first built. 

21st Century Corner/Convenience Store

Might bringing back the convenience store be something developers and city planners in Calgary should be looking at - both for established communities and new suburbs?   Would creating a land use that would allow a small corner store every few blocks along access roads in new communities make sense? Would people support them?

Perhaps the MBA yuppie types laid off in the oil patch might consider using their entrepreneurial skills to create the 21st century convenience store. Two good case studies for a model new convenience store can be found in Bridgeland, where both Lukes Drug Mart and Bridgeland Market, though very different, seem to be thriving. 

Lukes Drug Mart is very interesting model. Family-run since 1951 and today under Gareth Lukes’ leadership, it is more than just a drugstore - it is also a coffee bar (serving Four Barrel coffee from San Francisco), grocery store (basement) and hipster store (with numerous niche brands of specialty retail and dry goods).  In this tiny store, you can buy groceries, have a prescription filled, access to Canada Post office and shop for unique items like Rifle Paper cards, Vance Family Soy Candles or Mast Brothers Chocolate.

Did you know that Lukes was named one of the Top 11 new record stores in Canada by Aux (a Canadian specialty TV channel and website) in 2013?  Yes, Lukes carries vinyl too!

Bridgeland Market at the east end of First Avenue NE is a second example of a 21st century corner grocery store. Compared to Lukes, it is a more traditional mid-century corner grocery store but with a modern twist. They pride themselves on having some of the “rarest, freshest and most ethically created products in the community.”  You can complete their “Product Request” form online if there is something you think they should bring in and  sign up for Marketgrams for updates on when they’re cooking up something fresh.

Along with artisan breads of all kinds, you will find croissants and “Made by Markus” treats like macaroons.  Combine that with other offerings like Santa Cruz Lemonade and Green Cuisine tofu and you see how convenience food has morphed into today’s increased demand for organic comfort food.

However, like Lukes and even the mid 20th century corner store, Bridgeland Market is family-owned and operated. As they say, “we’re just a bunch of locals.”

Both Lukes and Bridgeland Market are small spaces - less than 2,000 square feet (the size of today’s typical Calgary home) and certainly not to be confused with new urban grocery stores like Urban Fare at 30,000 square feet, (coming soon to Lower Mount Royal), a Shoppers Drug Mart at the base of a condo building (15,000 square feet) or a destination supermarket (50,000+ square feet).

Lukes Drug Mart is located on 1st Ave at 4th St. NE

Bridgeland Market is located on 1st Ave and 10th St NE.

Bridgeland Market's provides great local grocery shopping.

Bring back the milkman?

All this thinking had me also wondering if the next evolution of grocery shopping isn’t the “bricks and mortar” local grocery store at all, but rather home delivery.  With the rise of online shopping, one can’t help but think the next step in the evolution of grocery stores will be to bring back the 21st century equivalent of the ‘50s bread man and milk man.

Instead of creating mega supermarkets or micro-grocery stores, everyone may well have a “Shopping List” App that links to a giant warehouse that will deliver your groceries and dry goods at your convenience. For those living in downtown condos, that would mean one less reason for owning a car.  And for everyone, it would free up a lot of time for extracurricular activities.

In fact, online grocery services already exist in Calgary. One is called Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery (or Spud for short) focusing on organic food. Sunterra also has an online grocery ordering and delivery service, as does Walmart. 

Home milk delivery was common place until the late '60s in Calgary.

Last Word

Hmmm….could it be that in the future, at least some of those monolithic Walmart and Costco sites will become mixed-use condo villages? Never say never!

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Calgary's NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Flaneuring Calgary's Original Craft Brewery

Flaneuring the fringe: 19th St. NW

Calgary's Cafe Culture

Dublin Revisited In 36 photographs!

A year ago we were flaneuring the streets, pubs, museums and shops of Dublin, Ireland. As all good “everyday tourists” do on their one-year anniversary of a trip, I reviewed my collection of photos and revisited the many great memories of Dublin. 

Also this week, I received a lot of positive feedback from my Summer Sunlight photo-essay blog so I thought it would be fun to do a photo-only blog of Dublin.  I have picked 36 photos (there is no magic in the number) that cover everything from art to architecture, food to fashion, parks to plazas and of course beer and pubs.

In no particular order, the photos are in true flaneur-like fashion.  Let the photos aimlessly take you on an off-the-beaten path stroll of Dublin. 

If you want to know more about our Dublin adventures you can check out the links for learn more about the city, its people and places:

Dublin: FAB fun in The Libertines

Dublin: Newman University Church a hidden gem

Dublin vs. Calgary /Apples vs. Oranges

Dublin: St. Stephen’s Green vs. St. Patrick’s Cathedral Park

Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library – Look but don’t touch

Dublin: Iconic barracks makes for great museum

Everyday Tourist goes to gaol!

Parks: Calgary vs. Dublin/Florence/Rome

the poor
pillars

Altadore 36: An Ideal Infill?

One of the key issues facing Calgary politicians and planners, as well as established communities, is how best to foster the integration of new infill condos on single-family housing streets without the “constipation of consultation.” Brookfield Residential, with its Altadore 36 project (located at the corner of 36th Avenue and 16th Street SW) could well become the model for future condos in established communities.

Brookfield Residential, headquartered in Calgary, is one of North America’s largest homebuilders and perhaps best known for its suburban, master-planned communities like McKenzie Towne and SETON.  What is amazing about Altadore 36 is that it got City and community approval in just 11 months, despite increasing the density ten-fold, i.e. six dilapidated, single-family homes are being replaced by 62 condo homes.  In many cases, a project like this would take years to get community and City approval for a building permit.

Architect Jesse Hindle (he lives in Altadore and his office is in nearby Currie Barracks) created two interlocking ‘L shaped’ buildings oriented east/west along 35/36th Avenues SW. By aligning the development lengthwise along 35/36 Avenues, he maximized the street frontage for each unit and minimized the depth of each of the two buildings across the site.  The result: two, long narrow buildings that wrap around a 30’ x 160’ central landscaped courtyard.  Each unit located on the courtyard or 35/36th Avenue has 30’ of street frontage, allowing for large windows that provide residents with views, natural light and fresh air.  The two-storey, two-bedroom suites along 35/36th Avenues and the courtyard have a total of 60’ of street frontage.  All this and the building isn’t any higher than the fourplex next door.

Architect's drawing of how the two L-shaped building work together to create interior courtyard and provide active street and alley frontages. (photo credit: Hindle Architects)

Bigger isn't always better?

Though the zoning would have allowed a fourth floor, the architect and developer thought this scale was more synergistic with the existing buildings.  Good infill development isn’t always built to maximum density.

The design of Altadore 36 is also very compatible with some of the new, flat-roofed, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes in the community. Hindle chose a sandstone-coloured brick, for a warm and timeless look.  The refined rectangular-shaped buildings with clean edges have a traditional, yet contemporary presence – nothing wild or wacky about this condo!  Good urban design is about quality materials, as well as respecting the scale and architecture of the past and the present.  

From the street, each townhouse unit has a small front lawn and patio that function much like the front porch of early 20th century homes.  Above the street are the penthouse flats which have glass, half-walled which foster interaction between the street and the building.  Good urban development is about cultivating exchanges between neighbours, not complete privacy.

All interior homes face onto a courtyard with sidewalk, trees and plantings providing an attractive view from their patio or balcony. Altadore 36 is designed as an impressive hybrid of urban and suburban design.

Rendering of the interior courtyard with its urban mews sense of place. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential)

Affordability/Beautification?

While some might lament the loss of the six older homes which were providing affordable rental housing for some Altadore residents, the new homes starting in the mid $300s will provide affordable housing for first home buyers, seniors or single parents of moderate income.  In fact, with a monthly mortgage cost in the $1,300 range, the cost of these homes won’t be any higher than renting a two-bedroom Altadore apartment.

As well, in addition to diversifying the housing stock in Altadore, Brookfield’s Altadore 36 project will create a much more attractive pedestrian experience both along the street and the back alley for a win-win proposition.

Altadore 36 will create an attractive pedestrian street experience. (photo credit: Brookfield Residential)

Last Word

This Hindle-designed, Brookfield Residential condo could well become the “model” for successfully diversifying the housing in Calgary’s established communities.  It is projects like Altadore 36 that will evolve our predominantly single-family, mid 20th century communities into attractive, animated 21st century ones designed be appealing for generations to come.

NB. An edited version of this blog was commissioned for Condoscapes column in Condo Living Magazine.

If you like this blog, you might like these links:

Altadore: An opportunity to create a model 21st Century Community

King Edward Village

Are school sites sacred cows? 

Parents - Park your cars in your garage!

Yesterday (Saturday, September 26, 2015) I almost hit a child playing in the street!  Luckily I was driving slowly but it could have easily ended in disaster – for him, for his family and for me.  I had only a split second to react as he came out from behind a parked SUV.  He was not alone; two or three other boys were weaving in and out of the cars from the sidewalk to the road, on bikes and scooters.

I am all for sharing residential road with kids.  Some of my best childhood memories are of playing street hockey for hours on the road in front of our house.  However, if I recall correctly, our streets were pretty much free of parked cars. At best you could only park on one side of the street (Hamilton bylaws were such parked cars could only be on one side for the first 15 days and the other side of the last half of the month). Another factor in our car free streets of the ‘60s was that most families only had one car and they parked it in the driveway, carport or garage.

Today it is a different story. Most of Calgary’s inner city streets are lined with large SUVs and trucks on both sides of the road making it difficult if not impossible for drivers and kids to see one another. I think this is a huge safety hazard – and one largely preventable. I don’t understand why parents, so concerned about their children’s safety, create such a safety hazard. All of these homes have garages or a parking pad off the back lane - why don’t they use them? There is no need for them to use the street!

Boys playing along the sidewalk on a street lined with cars, trucks and SUVs, that make it hard for the boys to see the cars and drivers to see the boys. 

Boys hidden by SUV with a cargo carrier on top which makes it even higher and therefore harder to see the kids. 

Boys weaving in and out of the cars on the open road. Note that where there are no parks cars it is far easier for drivers to see children playing on the sidewalk and for children to see the cars. 

A typical tree-lined, oops I mean car-lined street at 8:30 in the morning. 

Get the parked cars off the street!

An effective way to increase street safety would be if everyone stopped parking on the street, unless it is for short stays.  This would ensure the kids and drivers have better sightlines to see each other. Perhaps we should remove all of the “permit-only” parking on inner city residential streets, which just encourages residents to use the street instead of their garage to park their car. 

Residential streets with just a few parked cars are much safer for everyone!

Just saying!

Some people are advocating reducing the speed limit on Calgary's residential streets to 30km from 50 km.  While this may help, I expect it not only won’t slow down those who like to speed, but will be difficult to enforce and penalizes those who already drive safely.  Instead lets discourage street parking as much as possible on residential streets.

It is only common sense that parents who have the most to gain from making the street in front of their house safe for their kids to play would lead by example, by parking in their garage.  Neighbours without kids should voluntarily use their garage in the spirit of being a good neighbour. 

Common on folks, clean out the garage! And start using it for what it is meant for – parking your cars.

We need to learn to share the street in residential neighbourhoods.  Everyone has to assume some responsibility for making it safe. 

Reader Feedback:

NL writes: We seem to have become much more car-centric since the 60’s or maybe it’s just in Alberta, but most people with a garage still need space to park their 2nd and 3rd vehicles. Even on a street like ours, where cars are usually only parked on one side, many drivers are at the 50km/h speed limit or beyond which makes it dangerous for any pedestrians to be on the street, regardless of their age. For kids, sidewalks have replaced the streets for most activities and when ball hockey is the planned activity, cul-de-sacs are best and aren’t too difficult to find in any of the neighbourhoods built in the last 40 years.

A Brief History of the Bow River Islands

With the recent reopening of St. Patrick’s Island, I have been getting a lot of questions about the history of Calgary’s urban islands. So with the help of a few historian friends, history books and Google searches here are the Coles Notes of the Bow River Islands.

In the late 19th Century, when Calgary was first being developed along the banks of the Bow River, there were several large islands between what is now Deerfoot Trail and Crowchild Trail.  In 1890, Calgary’s Town Council named the lower (east) island St. George’s and the upper (west) island St. Patrick’s. In 1908, at the suggestion of William Pearce, the federal government donated three islands in the Bow River to the City of Calgary - St. George’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Patrick - on the condition they be used for recreational purposes.  Nobody seems to know where the names came from other than their strong link to British history and hence, Calgary’s history. The islands were little oasis on the otherwise treeless prairie, with their towering poplars nearly a meter in diameter as well as being full of raspberry and saskatoon bushes and strawberry patches.

St. George's Island

St. George’s Island was the first to be developed with the establishment of a bandstand and dancing platform in 1909. At the same time, Calgary Alderman Fred Curry started the fledgling Calgary Zoo.  

The next development was the Firth of Fourth, a small, narrow waterway between St. George’s and St. Andrew’s Island into a lagoon, swimming pool and large children’s playground with a rustic bridge connecting the two islands.  It became the place for Calgarians to enjoy a family outing on a weekend.  Following a drowning in 1920, the lagoon and swimming pool were closed, the strait filled in and the Island of St. Andrew’s became part of a larger St. George’s Island.

  St. George's Island's bandshell.

St. George's Island's bandshell.

  St. George's Island ways a popular spot for a summer picnic.&nbsp;

St. George's Island ways a popular spot for a summer picnic. 

St. Patrick’s Island

St. Patrick’s Island (just west of the Zoo) and until recently had been left in a natural state with just a few pathways and a disc golf field in the middle.  In the late 20th century, it became a haven for many of Calgary’s homeless. 

With the early 21st century development of the new East Village to the south and the revitalization of the Bridgeland/Riverside community to the north, St. Patrick’s Island became an ideal location for a 21st century urban playground. A redeveloped St. Patrick’s Island was seen, as critical to the revitalization of these communities as was a redeveloped Prince’s Island to the communities of Eau Claire, Chinatown, West End, Hillhurst and Sunnyside in the ‘90s.

St. Patrick's Island's pebble beach is popular on a warm summer day. 

The redeveloped St. Patrick's Island includes "Bloom" a piece of public art created from street lamp-posts that resembles a blooming flower. 

St. Patrick's Island's new pedestrian bridge is quickly becoming a tourist attraction.  The downtown Segway Tour includes a stop on the bridge.  

Man-made Island

Today, the most famous of the Bow River islands is arguably Prince’s Island, named after Peter Prince Manager of the Eau Claire Lumber Mill that operated on the island from 1886 to 1944. Some accounts have the Island as being no more than a shifting gravel bar while others suggest it was in fact not an island, but a peninsula in the river until the company dug a channel (now the lagoon) to get logs from Kananaskis closer to the sawmill on the banks of the river, thereby creating an island. Yes, Prince’s Island is a man-made island.  However, a late 19th century map of Calgary shows Prince’s Island as a smaller, but distinct island.

In 1889, Prince formed the Calgary Water Power Company to supply electricity to the town for streetlights.  At first, steam-generated by burning sawdust powered the Mill, until in 1893 the first hydroelectric plant was built near the east end of the lagoon. 

It wasn’t until 1947 that the City of Calgary purchased the land from the Prince family and created a park.  Today, Prince’s Island is one of the premier urban parks in North America.  It is home to one of Calgary’s signature festivals, Calgary International Folk Festival, as well as one of our best restaurants, River Café.  In addition, there is skating on the lagoon in the winter, a small sculpture garden, a popular children’s playground and numerous other festival and events.

As well, the entire east end of the island is the Chevron Learning Pathway where visitors learn how wetlands serve as natural habitat for wildlife and act as a filtration system to clean storm water from the city before it enters the river.

  This postcard shows logs floating down the Bow River to St. Patrick's Island and the Eau Claire Lumber mill.&nbsp;

This postcard shows logs floating down the Bow River to St. Patrick's Island and the Eau Claire Lumber mill. 

  This 1883 map of Calgary documents several islands in the Bow River as it flows by downtown.&nbsp;

This 1883 map of Calgary documents several islands in the Bow River as it flows by downtown. 

The Peace Bridge just west of Prince's Island is popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists. 

The Unknown Island

There was also a substantial island just west of Crowchild Trail (24th Street) called William’s Island, that was the location of the City’s water works infiltration plant in the early 20th century.  Damaged in the flood of 1929, the plant was replaced by the Glenmore Reservoir in 1933.

The Island was then transferred to Calgary’s Parks Department and the old reservoir on the island used by the infiltration plant became a local swimming hole, and the Calgary Archery Club also called the island home (hence, the nickname Archer’s Island).  In the mid-20th century, the island and surrounding Bow River at Crowchild Trail was used for gravel operations for various construction projects, resulting in the destruction of the swimming hole and some of the island.

Today, the island is a popular breeding site for ducks and geese as well as a popular fishing hole for West Hillhurst’s family of osprey.

Pieces of Wiliam's Island just west of Crowchild Trail can be seen in this Google Earth image. 

Last Word

Though, the Bow River Islands enhance the quality of urban living for Calgarians from all parts of the city, it is especially so for those moving into the many condos being built along or near the river.  They are also quickly becoming an urban tourist attraction with their iconic pedestrian bridges, signature festivals/events, great restaurant, public art and fun people watching.

NB. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on September 19, 2005. 

If you like this blog, you might like these links:

Historic Calgary Postcards: St. George's & St. Patrick's Island 

Calgary: The History Capital of Canada

Calgary's secret heritage trail?

Aerial view of St. Patrick's and St. George's Islands along the Bow River (photo credit: Peak Aerials) 






Island living fosters strong sense of community in Calgary!

What is the first thing that comes to mind when some says, “I love island living?”  I bet it is an image of living in the Caribbean, maybe the South Pacific or maybe even Salt Spring Island or Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  Island living is synonymous with relaxation, sitting by the water sipping a cool drink, taking long walks on the beach and enjoying the simplicity of life.

Yet, for a few lucky (hard working) Calgarians, the pleasure of“island living” is part of their everyday living.  Yes, in lovely landlocked Calgary we not only have river and lakefront homes, but we also have a few island homes. They’re on Brookfield Residential’s Mckenzie Lake (24 homes built in 1997) and soon on Hopewell Residential’s Mahogany Lake (22 homes, approved in December 2014), both in Calgary’s trendy southeast quadrant.  Island living is attractive to both retirees, as well as those wanting to raise a family.

Google Earth image of McKenzie Lake a master planned community in Calgary's southeast quadrant. 

Grant and Judith Hansen moved into their McKenzie Lake island home in 2000 as part of their retirement plan that included lots of travel, but also wanting a home that felt like they were still on holidays when living in Calgary.  For them, “one of the unexpected bonuses of island living is having our grandchildren tell us how much they enjoy coming to our house because of the things they can do right from our back yard.  In the summer, be it swimming or a slow pedal boat ride around the Island with Grandma and Grandpa, or on their own pushing their way through the waves on a stand up board, or sitting patiently on the dock trying to catch a fish. In the winter, skating or talking with families and learning about ice fishing followed with a chance to warm up while roasting marshmallows around the fire pit.”

The Hansens also love the sense of community they share with their neighbours. “One of the most pleasant surprises and certainly a positive one is the camaraderie that exists amongst the residents or “Islanders “ as we refer to them. The person living next to us is not only a neighbor, but a friend.  There is a social aspect that is special - we have “Island” block parties, mini golf events, informal get togethers and everyone - adults and children - are welcome. We look out for each other, help each other and respect each others’ property” shares Grant.

Speaking of neighbours, Susan and Bryce McDougall, neighbours of the Hansens, who also moved into their home in 2000 (it appears that once people get a taste of Calgary’s island life, they don’t move) echo the same thoughts, “there is a strong sense of community created by common ownership of the roads, utilities, causeway and gates. The condo board run by the residents manages these common assets and has become the social catalyst for block parties and multiple activities organized each year. I am grateful I have got to know all my neighbors through the condo board activities.  We have a truly caring community, contrary to what some politicians and planners say about gated communities” says Bryce.

The McDougall family (parent and three children) love the wildlife that resides on the island or visit periodically - birds of all sorts, rabbits, coyotes, fox mule and white tail deer, porcupine.  They even have some fun encounters with their furry neighbours.

“One night we were having a fire down at our fire pit beside the lake and I noticed something moving very slowly behind us along the stairs up from the lake. It was the largest porcupine I had ever seen. I was sure I was seeing things but it turns out he had been living on the island for some time.”

“We also had a pair of curious little red foxes who would come out at night while I shovelled the rink and would come right up to me to try to figure out what I was doing. They had a den under one of my neighbor’s docks that winter. Not what you’d expect in the middle of a city for sure!”

For Bryce “looking out each morning down the lake to the beach and the panoramic mountain views never gets old!” For their three children growing up on the island with its year-round cottage lifestyle was so outstanding their youngest daughter (now 13) has already laid claim to the island home when her parents get older, but has kindly agreed to allow them to live on the walkout level as long as they want to.

Google Earth image of the new Mahogany master planned community with its own lake and island. 

Mahogany Island

Construction is underway on what will be the largest island on the largest man-made urban lake in Canada. You had better hurry if you are interested in a lot on Hopewell Residentials’ new Mahogany Island as there are only 22 and fifty percent have been spoken for.  Lots range in size from 54 to 64 feet wide and are available by contacting the builders directly. The Island lots are exclusively offered through Calbridge Homes (2013 Builder of the Year) and Morrison Homes (2014 Builder of the Year).  And, Mahogany has won the Home Builder’s Association’s “Community of the Year” award for the past three years. 

The new community of Mahogany has already become one of the City's most popular places to live, approved by City Council in 2007, it is already home to 2,660 Calgarians.

Aerial view of Mahogany community with its proximity to Highway 22X and Deerfoot Trail, as well as Seton community and new South Health Campus.

Mckenzie Lake Island History

McKenzie Lake has a bit of a sorted history it was actually built by the Bank of Nova Scotia in 1989, after the bank had taken over McKenzie Towne development from Daon in the mid ‘80s recession. They decided to create a lake as a way to restart the community and as they were creating the lake it was decided to create an island on the east side of the lake. Carma (now Brookfield Residential) purchased McKenzie Lake and Mountain Park development in 1989.  The Island became a joint venture with Jayman constructing all of the homes while Carma built the entire supporting infrastructure. However, it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that people started living on the Island.

Last Word

Attractive cities foster a diversity of lifestyles, from high-rise urban living to island living that help to attract and retain people of all ages and backgrounds.  If the market demand exists for more island living, the City of Calgary politicians and planners should be open to more island developments as our city continues to evolve to meet the needs and expectations of everyone.

NB: An edited version of this blog was commissioned for Domus magazine.

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

Don't judge a new community too soon!

Suburbs move to the City Centre in Calgary

Our Country Estate Voyeur Adventure

Do we really need to develop West Village?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Villages 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannibalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Village ARP 101

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

These include:

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Living is in its infancy in Calgary

Calgary: Leader in addressing urban issues

 

Kensington Legion Redevelopment: Taller is better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)&nbsp;

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. &nbsp;(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.&nbsp;

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.&nbsp;

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

A Staycation with a Twist Francais

As “everyday tourists” we are always looking for creative ways to have a tourist experiences even when we are at home in Calgary.  Recently, friends invited us to join them for dinner at Fleur de Sel, an established Parisian-style restaurant in Calgary’s trendy Mission district.  Of course we said “yes,” but what we didn’t anticipate was how the dinner would bring back vivid memories of our past trips to Paris and Lyon.  

Charming Fleur de Sel restaurant in Calgary's tony Mission district.

As soon as we walked into Fleur de Sel, we were immediately reminded of the charm of Paris bistros.  Upon looking at the menu, I noticed one of the items was cassoulet, a traditional peasant dish of meat and beans that is popular in Lyon. This immediately conjured up memories of one evening in Lyon, France ironically with the same friends.

One of our best meals was a cassoulet dinner in an off-the-beaten path old house that had been a bouchon for over 200 years. Not only was the cassoulet excellent, but they also offered us a couple of free brochette de quenelles they had made for the early seating and wouldn’t keep for the second seating.

I finished the meal off with a flourless chocolate cake that was perhaps the most decadent dessert I have ever tasted. My mouth waters even now thinking about it! 

Decadent flourless chocolate cake in Lyon, France.

The memories didn’t end there as we quickly all recalled that special night didn’t end with the meal.  While walking back to our hotel, we heard some music a few blocks away, so decided to head in that direction. Stopping to listen outside the church, someone came out and invited us to come in. It was truly magical to experience - centuries old music in a centuries old church. 

Listening outside historic church in Lyon.

The quaint Hotel de Champe de Mars

As the recent evening’s discussion continued, it centered mostly around our other visits to France including our first visit as travel neophytes.  For that trip, we were given us a copy of the Wine Spectator with a feature on Paris by Richard Harvey of Calgary’s Metrovino wine store to help us plan out trip.  As a result, we found ourselves in the tiny tony Champ d’ Mars Hotel across from the iconic Marie-Anne Cantin cheese shop and down the street from the Rue Cler pedestrian mall. We couldn’t have been luckier for our first trip to Paris at Christmas. 

Rue Cler is one of the best pedestrian streets not only in Paris, but in the world. At Christmas it is simply magical.

One of the fondest memories of that visit was dinner at a nearby restaurant recommended in the Wine Spectator feature.  We went by earlier in day to make a reservation to learn there had just been a cancellation (otherwise we’d have been out of luck). 

We came back for dinner and the place was an amazing buzz of conversation.  We quickly realized we were the only tourists in the place.  After asking a few questions (clearly showing our naiveté) our server asked, “Can I just look after you?” We said “yes!” And we are glad we did.  

Food and wine just kept coming out from the kitchen and we just kept eating and smiling.  Turns out this husband and wife-owned restaurant was only open three days a week and is always full weeks in advance.  We even got to see their two children who lived upstairs and came downstairs to say good night.  It is a memory etched in our memories.

Back to Calgary

As the dinner at Fleur de Sel continued, it became much more like our Paris dinner experience as the server knew our dinner mates well and they chatted like old friends, just like in the Paris bistro. 

But perhaps the highlight of the night came near the end of the evening. All of a sudden, the sound system blasted Marilyn Munro singing Happy Birthday and disco lights floating around the room.  Soon our server came rushing in with a chocolate-dipped strawberry speared by a birthday candle, complete with a sparkler and three balloons.  He quickly put down the strawberry, broke the balloons, the sparkler fizzled out and the song was over.  The fun pop-up birthday party was all over before we really knew what was happening.  What first I thought it was pretty kitschy, really was a fun celebration. 

  Happy Birthday Surprise!

Happy Birthday Surprise!

Last Word

While a trip to your local French restaurant won’t replace a trip to France, it can be a great way rekindle the memories of past trips to France.  You can do the same thing by checking out your local authentic Mexican Italian, Turkish, Vietnam, Ukrainian or other favourite ethnic restaurants.  

Similarly, a night out at the theatre might be the catalyst to evoke memories of a trip to New York and an off off Broadway play. Or, a trip to a museum or art gallery might be the stimulus to recall a trip to London or Frankfurt.

Whatever you choose, it could add a whole new dimension to “staycation.” 

We even got doggie boxes to take home and enjoy the next day.  Gotta love the FUN and CREATIVE packaging. 

If you like this blog, click on these links: 

Window licking in Paris

Lyons Sidewalk Ballet

Adapt or die? 

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!

Seattle vs Calgary: Capturing the urban tourists' imagination?

For years now friends and colleagues have been telling me “You have to go to Seattle. You will love it!” In May, we did visit Seattle (we have been there before but it was 12 years ago) and yes we did love it, but I couldn’t help but wonder why people love Seattle so much when Calgary has as much urban culture to offer.

Seattle, like Calgary, is a corporate city - Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks are all headquartered there.  However their downtown doesn’t feel as “corporate” with downtown blocks having a good mix of hotel, residential and office buildings, with some street level retail and restaurants thrown in.  In fact, on Seattle’s downtown neighbourhood map, they refer to it as the downtown retail core.  In contrast, Calgary has 40-blocks filled with two, three and sometimes four office towers per block and no street retail except for Stephen Avenue.

Downtown as a tourist attraction

Perhaps the biggest difference is Seattle’s downtown is perceived as a major tourist destination. Great tourist cities have iconic attractions.  In Seattle, hands down, the icon is Pike Public Market.  But Seattle also has converted their 74-acre, 1962 World’s Fair site into a year-round attractions district, clustering the Experience Music Project, Chihuly Gardens, Science Centre, Children’s Museum, Space Needle, IMAX and Key Arena into an area called Seattle Centre. Calgary’s equivalent would be Stampede Park - if we added the Calgary Tower, TELUS Spark and the new National Music Centre.

To visualize what the Calgary Flames are proposing for West Village, Seattle would be a good place to visit given its side-by-side baseball and football stadiums at the south end of downtown along the water’s edge, next to the LRT and Amtrak tracks.  We explored the area a couple of times (when there were no games going on) and it was like a ghost town. I hope the Flames do better.

From an urban design (architecture, public art and public spaces) perspective, Seattle and Calgary are similar, both having early 20th century historical buildings districts (Pioneer Square vs. Stephen Avenue) as well as many shinny late 20th and early 21st century towers.  Seattle’s free Olympic Sculpture Park along their waterfront includes a who’s who of international public art, while Calgary’s entire downtown is a sculpture park with over 100 artworks. 

The Seattle Art Museum (known as SAM), like Calgary’s Glenbow, is both an art and history museum.  We lucked out on the day we went - SAM is free on the second Thursday of the month. The place was packed – making me wonder why the Glenbow doesn’t offer one day free per month like most museums and galleries in major cities. 

Seattle, with its huge convention centre, makes Calgary’s look very minor league.  I loved that the public areas have hundreds of artworks that are free for all to explore.

Loved the psychedelic reflection of the Seattle Needle in the facade of the futuristic Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project building.

Seattle Convention Centre has a galleria over the road connecting the large exhibition spaces and meeting rooms.  Inside there are hundreds of artworks that create a free public art gallery.  A similar galleria was proposed for Stephen Avenue in Calgary connecting Bankers Hall and TD Square but never got built. 

The Seattle Central Library is an iconic architectural gem that is popular with both locals and tourists.  Hopefully Calgary's new Central Library will have the same popularity. 

Like Calgary Seattle has public art everywhere.  This piece that using water from the roof of the building caught my attention. In addition, Seattle has a massive Art Park with a "who's who" of public art artists. 

Hotel Fun

The hotel culture in Seattle seems very different from Calgary’s, focusing much more on the leisure tourist vs. the corporate traveler.  In “sleeping around” downtown Seattle, we discovered a delightful commonality - a vibrant “Happy Hour scene.” The historic Mayflower Park Hotel (famous for their martinis) offers guests free appies in their intimate Oliver’s lounge. The hipster Hotel Max offered free local craft beer in their lobby/living room (as well as great art and several large picture windows for catching the city’s “sidewalk ballet”). The playful Hotel Monaco offered a wine tasting with very liberal pours.  Seattle could well be the Happy Hour capital of North America, with 600+ happy hour listings in “The Sauce “magazine.

Mayflower Park Hotel is full of historic charm and character.  It is perfectly located for shoppers just a block away from Nordstrom and Macy's. 

Hotel Monaco had the most colourful hotel rooms we have ever stayed in.  The yoga mat was a nice touch.  

Every room at the Hotel Max had a door with a large photograph on the door by a local artists.  On our floor all of the doors had photos of Seattle musicians.  Very cool!

Like Calgary, Downtown Seattle lacks a real Main Street for shoppers.  From a tourist shopping perspective, I was surprised at not only how fragmented their retail is, but also that Nordstrom’s flagship store wasn’t more grand and upscale. Calgary’s The Core shopping center surpasses anything Seattle has to offer shoppers and Holt Renfrew is grander than anything in Seattle.

Urban Living

Urban living is exploding in Seattle - 58 residential projects will add 10,000+ residential units in their City Centre over the next few years. In comparison, Calgary has 7,194 units approved or under construction in its City Centre. Like Calgary, trendy urban communities surround Seattle’s downtown core. 

Dozens of highrise condos dot Seattle's urban landscape.  Seattle's monorail provides a futuristic perspective of the city for tourists, as does Calgary's 20 km +15 elevated walkway. 

Cafe Culture 

Belltown is Seattle’s Beltline with lots of new highrise condos, trendy restaurants and its link to the Seattle Centre (1962 World’s Fair site) i.e. their Stampede Park. 

Capitol Hill and First Hill communities are separated from Seattle’s downtown core by the I-15 interstate. Capitol Hill is the city’s hipster district with several new low to mid-rise condos and restaurants opening weekly.  It is home to Starbucks’ mega new Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room and several other local roasteries. Calgary’s equivalent would be Mission/Cliff Bungalow with its 4th Street restaurant row or Kensington with its abundance of coffeehouses and roasteries.

This Coke machine appeared mysteriously over 15 years ago, outside of the Broadway Locksmith near the corner of John and Broadway in the trendy Capitol Hill district.  Nobody knows who it belongs to, where the money goes or who restocks it.  It seems pretty popular as two people stop to buy a beverage while I was taking photos. 

The Denny Triangle is an extension of the downtown core, much like Eau Claire is in Calgary with a mix of office and condos. Amazon purchased three blocks in the district to create its highrise campus, which will be analogous to Eau Claire’s campus-like collection of dark blue glass oil patch towers - Devon and Centennial towers soon-to-be joined by Calgary City Centre and Eau Claire towers.

South Lake Union, Seattle’s newest urban community, anchored by a Whole Foods store is quickly becoming surrounded by condos, restaurants and shops.  Bridgeland would be Calgary’s equivalent.

Whole Food patio in South Lake district creates a wonderful street buzz. 

Urban Living Test Drive 

For anyone thinking of moving to one of Calgary urban communities and wondering what urban living is all about I’d recommend a trip to Seattle and staying in a couple of different hotels. Our penthouse (12th floor) suite at the Mayflower was equipped with two bathrooms, a lovely living room area with city and sea views and Macy’s and Nordstrom across the street.  If you like old world charm, this is your spot.

If you want some fun new home décor ideas, check into Hotel Max or Hotel Monaco.  At Max, each room door features a full, door-size local photographer’s work. Walk the hallways and enjoy the free photography exhibition. Our room had original art, as well as a record player with local musicians’ records. How cool is that?

Hotel Monaco is like living in an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein 60s Pop Art artwork with its use of bright colours and bold patterns. It is amazing how big 500 square feet can look and feel when the city lies outside your front door.

Seattle is know for its coffee, what surprised us were the scrumptious biscuits and jam that on many menus. Yum! Yum! 

Last Word

Creating a vibrant city centre is more than just making it a place to “live” (new condos) and “work” (new office towers).” It is about creating a fun urban playground – shops, museums, galleries, restaurants, cafes, concerts, pubs, festivals, theatre, parks, public art and architecture. Calgary’s city centre has much to offer urban tourists as Seattle, Portland or Denver, but for some reason it hasn’t captured the attention of urban tourists. 

It is certainly not from a lack of trying by Tourism Calgary!

Click on links below for Calgary blogs that connect to statements made in this blog about Seattle vs Calgary: 

Beltline: North America's best hipster neighbourhood?

Kensington: One of North America's Healthiest districts

NoBow: Jane Jacobs could live here!

Ramsay: Calgary's FFQ Industrial District