Mexico City: A Kaleidoscope of colour

Recently I posted a slide show of black and white photographs of every day places and space in Mexico City that was very well received, however, several readers also pointed out that Mexico is known for its splendid colour.  I too was overwhelmed by the colour of streets of Mexico City and one of the reason I chose to take some b&w photos was to see how the city looked without all of the colour.  

Based on reader feedback, I decided to put together a slide show that would capture the wonderful colour of the everyday people and places of Mexico City.  I hope you will enjoy the slide show.

Below is the Mexico City: Noir slide show if you'd like to compare. 

Comments are welcomed!

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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Exploring Mexico City in black & white

This blog experiments with a cinematic-like film-noir style of still photography.  While in Mexico City, I took several black and white photos to see how they might capturing and interpret the city's architecture, people and places I encountered on the streets.

I have selected, edited and sequenced the photographs in a way that I hope tells an ambiguous story without context or words. The viewer is invited to make sense of this series, and becomes a collaborator in the mystery of the story. I debated on the use of music to accompany the images or not and in the end I decided to incorporate some music. 

I would love feedback on this 3 minute experiment. 

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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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Mexico City vs Calgary / Public City vs Private City

Recently, I embarked on an 18-day adventure in Mexico City to see what could be learned about city building from a mega city. “How can you compare Calgary, a city of 1.2 million and just 100 years old, with Mexico City, a city of 21 million that’s five centuries old?” you ask.  While there were many differences and some similarities, the biggest revelation was an appreciation for how people in Mexico City experience personal and public space.

Personal Space

Calgary is a very private city - we love the privacy of our cars, our single-family homes (often with six-foot fences and attached garages), our 6,000+ parks, playgrounds, green spaces, plazas and 800+ km of pathways all of which give us the option of not having to mingle with others.

Mexico City is the complete opposite - families work, play and even dine on busy sidewalks and 75 percent use a very crowded pubic transit as their primary mode of transportation. A typical home or apartment is a third the size of an average Calgary home.  Young children quickly learn how to live without much personal space.  Babies are carried (no humongous strollers) until they can walk, then they just walk alongside their parents everywhere.

In Mexico City a popular activity is reading the newspaper on the sidewalk. 

Family dining on the street in Mexico City.

In Mexico City you don’t live in the entire city, but one of the 16 boroughs (ranging in size from 116,000 to 1.8 million), which are further divided into 160 colonias. While this is somewhat like Calgary with its four quadrants and 200+ communities, the density eight times greater than Calgary’s.  

How is that accomplished? Surprisingly, not with a lot of highrises but rather with homes having no front yards, backyards or driveways, as well the average home being 70% smaller than Calgary’s. In fact, many homes are called “informal homes,” i.e. self-built on “found” vacant land.  Only recently has the City adopted more formal zoning and building permit processes.

Also there are few schools with huge playing fields, large community playing fields, green spaces and no dedicated dog parks.  I didn’t see a single huge surface parking lot anywhere. 

Public Space 

Like Calgary, homes in Mexico City’s inner city are the most expensive, but unlike Calgary, its suburbs are where the low-income, transit-dependent, working class live. Mexico has one the most extensive and well-used transit systems in the world; the subway and buses are packed from 7 am to 10 pm, a far cry from Calgary where its transit is only heavily used for a few hours in the morning and afternoon on weekdays.  Transit fare in Mexico City is ridiculously cheap at 40 cents per trip.

Despite being packed in like “sardines-in-a-can,” sellers jump on the subway trains, pawning everything from USB keys to BIC pens. Backstory: Vendors are literally everywhere on sidewalks, including in front of new iconic office buildings.  Can you imagine The Bow or Eighth Avenue Place’s plazas/sidewalks being occupied by dozens of haphazardly placed vendors?

A crowded subway car with vendor selling trinkets for Day of the Dead in Mexico City, mid-afternoon.

Upscale vendor sheds on the sidewalk in front of one of Mexico City's newest office towers. 

Street Vitality

Having transit operate at capacity all day long does not mean less road traffic road in Mexico City; the main streets are probably 20 times more crowded with cars, buses, taxis and delivery trucks than Calgary.  A constant, ear-piercing symphony of honking and traffic police whistling accompanies the dance of pedestrians and vendors on crowded, narrow and uneven sidewalks and roads. 

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Check out the video below for a sample of Mexico City's street symphony.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Sidewalk dining on a side street in Mexico City.

Mexico City has lots of market streets like this one that are a free-for-all, while at the same time full of life and energy. 

Sterility vs Vitality

Whoever coined the term “messy urbanism” must have had Mexico City in mind.  There is garbage everywhere, partly due to no garbage cans anywhere and to the streets being filled with thousands of food and retail vendors with all their accompanying waste. The City has also lost the battle with graffiti; it exists on pretty much everywhere. There is a totally different urban aesthetic in most of Mexico City. The streets are a beehive of activity with people coming and going, setting-up or taking down their stalls, cooking, eating, selling and buying – messy, but alive!

Head to Avenida Presidente Masaryk in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco district and you discover a typical Calgary urban street scene – wide, clean sidewalks, trendy boutiques, larger restaurants and patios and no street vendors. Here, like Calgary, the sidewalk is devoid of people - even on a nice Saturday afternoon.  Could Calgary’s streets be too sanitized to create the vibrant street life the late urban lobbyist Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet?”

Avenida Presidente Masaryk in the upscale Polanco district is devoid of people, like many of the sidewalks in Calgary's urban districts. Could it be that pretty streets are empty streets?

Crowds quickly gather waiting to cross the street in Mexico's historic district's pedestrian malls. 

Typical Mexico City sidewalk ballet.

Public Space: Keep It Simple

Like Calgarians, people living in Mexico City love their public spaces.  The Zocalo square, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest) is always crowded. Calgary’s equivalent would be Olympic Plaza. In the 18 days I was there, it was used for a huge book fair, world archery championship, major concert and Day of Dead activities. The Monumento `a la Revolucion plaza is also huge with the monument/viewing platform in the middle, underground museum, two huge flat plaza areas as well as sunken, flat hard-surfaced areas activities like soccer and dog play. Calgary’s equivalent might be Shaw Millennium Park.

Check out the video below of how Revolution Monument plaza is used for an outdoor dance studio.  We also saw it used for a street performance and wedding photos and lots of other informal activities. 

People trying to get to and from Monumento a la Revolucion plaza for a major event. 

Public Affection = People Friendly 

Mexico City is home to one of the world’s great urban parks – Bosque de Chapultepec.  At 1,695 acres, it is 1,000 acres smaller than Nose Hill or Fish Creek Park. One third of the park is home to numerous museums including the world class Anthropology Museum, a zoo, castle, walkways, garden and ponds while the rest is a natural area.  It was amazing how refreshing it was to walk in this and other Mexico City parks - you get a real appreciation for parks being the “lungs of the city.”

Boulevard road in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec.

Mexico City’s parks are more urbanized than Calgary’s with buildings, attractions, vendors, formal walkways and lots of benches, while their plazas are simple, open spaces with little ornamentation allowing them to be multi-purpose spaces.  In contrast, Calgary has lots of parks, most left natural, while our plazas are heavily ornamentalized.

The "art of sitting" is popular everywhere in Mexico City. 

While Calgarians always seem to be on the move (walking, cycling or jogging) in our parks and pathways, Mexicans have mastered the art of sitting, talking, people watching and engaging in public affection. (Couples young and old love to hug, cuddle and kiss in public and people of all ages hold hands in the streets.) I was surprised too at how they loved to have their pictures taken by strangers.  Collectively, this created an unexpected and lovely pedestrian friendliness in a harsh urban environment.

Delivering toilet paper takes on a different perspective in Mexico City.

Last Word

Mexico City’s public spaces not only serve as a community living room, but also as their kitchen, dining and bedroom. It is not unusual in the evening to see a family dining at a street vendor, young children playing on the sidewalk while older children do their homework. In Mexico City the majority “live, work and play” in public, not in the privacy of a home. 

Let’s remember Calgary is only 100 years old. We have grown very rapidly in geographical size based on 20th century planning and regulations (good and bad) not organically and without public engagement and regulations over centuries, as is the case for Mexico City and many other vibrant urban cities. 

For Calgary, the 21st century will be one of infilling development projects (big and small), which will dramatically change our personal and private spaces.  It has already begun and it is to be expected many will “kick and scream” about losing their privacy and personal space.

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo Section on November 21, 2015. 

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Calgary's Top 10 Public Artworks??????

Recently, I received a twitter message from @yycpublicart asking if I would be interested in collaborating on a blog about public art.  Always interested in getting other people’s thoughts on Calgary I said “sure” and gave him my email address for further correspondence. 

 In our short email correspondence, it seemed to me we had very different perspectives on Calgary’s public art. I am thinking this is a good thing, as it will give me some new insights.

@yyycpublicart said “the city has a phenomenal collection of public art that needs to be talked about more.” The email went on to say “The City is constantly unveiling new pieces so it just a matter of showing up to the unveiling to check it out and then blogging about it.” 

I responded I don’t think our collection is phenomenal and that we need more critical dialogue and that just “showing up to unveilings and blogging about it is not sufficient” in my opinion. 

I suggested @yycpublicart send me his top 10 public art pieces as a way of perhaps moving the discussion forward. 

The response was quick and definitive:

“My favourite pieces, in sort of descending order of most favourite”

 1. Chinook Arch: interactive lights that you can control with your cellphone! What else! Place making tool at its best.

2. Ascension: giant spiders by the Avtamsaka Buddhist Monastery marching into another plane. Couldn't be more poignant and appropriate.

3. Luminous Crossings: public art on LRT that spans across time and space AND changes colours to signify arrival of the trains.

4. The Same Way Better/Reader: giant 110' long mosaic mural with close to a million pieces of tile that took two years to design and make and that tells the story of Calgary.

5. Upside Down Church (aka The Device to Root out Evil) an upside down church balanced on its turret. AND it roots out evil. What else could one want? Unfortunately, this one has been decommissioned pending new location.

The Device to Root out Evil, by Dennis Oppenheim, formerly located at Ramsay Exchange building along 24th Ave. SE. was removed in 2014 after the lease expired. 

Acension, by INCIPIO MODO artist team is located at 4th Ave and 9th St SW

The Same Way Better/Reader, by Ron Moppett

6. Bloom: A giant dandelion at the edge of St Patrick's Island that has "flowers" made from streetlights.

7. Outflow: A storm water drain that's an upside down/inverted topographical map of an outflow glacier (I believe). Serves to educate ppl on where water comes from, the various technique water services uses to treat the water, etc. I like pieces that educate and create a sense of wonder.

8. The Giant Blue Ring: Just cause I have built an 8' ring and I know how f@*#%*g hard it is. And how it started the debate in yyc about pooling of public art funding (which is a great thing) and it is fun to piss off people.

9. Poppy Plaza. Memorial drive WW1 memorial and public space in Kensington. Enjoy amazing views of the river, people watch, or simply hang out and soak in the atmosphere.

10. Wonderland. Cause it is a giant f'ing head and the probably the most photographed contemporary landmark since the Calgary Tower.

 

 

Outflow, by Brian Tolle is located along the north side of the Bow River Pathway at Parkdale Plaza.

Bloom, by Michel de Broin is located at the southwest corner of St. Patrick's Island. 

Poppy Plaza, by Marc Boutin architectural collaborative, is located on the southwest corner of Memorial Drive and 10th St. NW. 

Wonderland, by Jaume Plensa, on the plaza in front of the Bow office tower corner of Centre Street and 6th Ave SW. 

I also asked for some background and the response was:

“I sit on the yyc public art board of directors. I have run several (unrelated) placemaking projects such as Bow to Bluff (bowtobluff.org) and AudioMobYYC (AudioMobYYC.com).

@yycpublicart also stated “I am not gonna have time to go through your blog.  (I had suggested reading some of my blogs about public art to develop an appreciation of my perspective on the subject). So in fairness, you should list your top 10 pieces and tell me why you like them. Let’s see what you got.”

Happy to oblige, I immediately responded with the following email:

Off the top of my head, here are my top 10:

  • Sadko/Kabuki, by Sorel Etrog, Bow Valley Square – love the colour, the cartoon, comic sense of fun and playfulness that contrasts with the conservative, seriousness of a central business district.
  • Charged Line, by Jill Anholt, South Calgary Fire Station - love the playfulness and cleverness…could be a wire or a hose…fits with the site.  
  • Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do by Joe Fafard, Hotchkiss Plaza - love the link with Calgary’s horse culture, but in a contemporary interpretation…love the scale and the subtle colour.
  • Conversation by William McElcheran, Stephen Avenue outside The Bay – again, love the context of businessmen in the central business district on our iconic street, scale is perfect, love the way the public interacts with it…good public art should invite people to play with it.

Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do, by Joe Fafard

Sadko/Kabuki, by Sorel Etrog on the northeast corner of 2nd street and 6th Ave. SW.

Conversation, by William McElcheran, on Stephen Avenue outside The Bay.

Brotherhood of Mankind, by Mario Armengol

  • Brotherhood of Mankind, by Mario Armengol, in front of old Calgary Board of Education Building - is another classic, Calgary is a very family oriented city, young city, energetic city and this artwork reflects all of those values for me. Again, love the scale and the fact that you can wander in amongst the figures. There is a bit of a schoolyard sensibility or ring-around-the rosie…which was appropriate for the site when it was the Board of Education.
  • Giving Wings to the Dream, Doug Driediger, east wall of old CUPS building on 100 block of 7th Ave SE. I think this mural has held up very well for being 20 years old.  Again I like the fact the piece relates to the site, which was home to Calgary Urban Projects Society when it was first commissioned. I think it talks nicely about Calgary as a caring city. It is well executed. 
  • Women Are Persons by Barbara Paterson, Olympic Plaza – again, celebrates Calgary’s history in a fun way and offers a chair for people to sit in and become part of the artwork. The public often interact with the piece leaving change or cups of coffee in the outstretched hand…very popular spot for tourists to take photos.
  • Weather Vanes by Colette Whiten and Paul Kipps, on the southeast corner of Bankers Hall - connects well with Calgary’s sense of work, live and play. I love the way the pieces work with the surrounding architecture.  There is a lot of synergy between the aesthetics of the art and the architecture.
  • The Same Way Better/Reader by Ron Moppett, East Village at LRT overpass. Again love the colour the link to Calgary’s history and the sense of craftsmanship. I am a sucker for art that tells a story.
  • Dream by Derek Besant, 700 block 8th Ave SW. Etched words and images that read like a dream sequence of a man/woman relationship on the windows of the +15 bridge over 8th Avenue at Husky Towers.  I love the visual verbal synergies, very urban, very contemporary and that fact he used the +15, one of Calgary’s most unique urban design elements makes it outstanding. Click here for Dream Blog
  • Cloud Parkade (not sure what the exact title is but will find out) by Roderik Quin at SAIT. I think this is an amazing piece that is visually stunning and clever and utilizes new technology. It speaks to Calgary’s sense of place with its beautiful skies and clouds. I love how it changes with the sunlight. I love that it turns a parkade into a work of landscape art. And it is beautiful. 
  • When Aviation Was Young, Jeff De Boer, Calgary airport…makes me smile, love that kids can play with it like a giant toy. Love how it relates to the site (WestJet Departure and Arrival area). And love the craftsmanship. 

Women Are Persons by Barbara Paterson, on Olympic Plaza outside the entrance to the Jack Singer Concert Hall. 

Dream, Derek Besant, on +15 over 8th Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets. 

When Aviation Was Young, Jeff de Boer, WestJet arrivals and departures lounge, Calgary International Airport.

I went on to say:

These are not in any particular order which would require some more thought and I am not sure that is necessary to rank them. Yes I know there are 11.

I don’t consider Poppy Plaza public art…it is a public space…and as a public space I don’t think it works to attract the public to stop and linger.

I did love the Upside Down Church but wouldn’t include it as it doesn’t exist in Calgary for public viewing. Is it even in Calgary? Do you know?

Unfortunately, I never heard from @yycpublicart after this email. Hopefully I still will and we can continue our discussion.

Last Word

In the meantime, I would love to hear from readers their thoughts on their favourite pieces of public art in Calgary. Full disclosure - I know I am weak on suburban public art, so would be especially great to hear from those in the ‘burbs about their favourite pieces. 

And, if you don’t live in Calgary, love to hear what is your favourite piece from the community you live in, or perhaps your all-time favourite piece from any city you have visited or lived in.

Below are links to two great sites to find more information about public art in Calgary.

City of Calgary Public Art Collection

Downtown Art Guide

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Public Art: Love it or hate it!

Do we really need all of this public art?

Confessions of a public art juror.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

More info: Calgary's Rail Trail Stroll

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.

More info: Spruce Cliff Shopping Centre Revitalization

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.

 

 

Increased Density Doesn't Always Mean More Traffic

It seems inevitable that every time a new infill condo development gets announced the neighbours immediately cry “It will generate too much traffic!”   However, according to the team at Bunt & Associated Engineering Ltd. who has completed many “Transportation Impact Assessments (TIAs)” for new condo projects in Calgary this may be more myth than fact.   

Here are three of the major myths many Calgarians have about new condos and traffic:

Myth #1: Density always brings more traffic. 

Within many inner city neighbourhoods, traffic volumes have actually been stagnant or in some cases, decline over the past 20 years. 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 fact that numerous condos have been added to the community. The same trend is being experienced on Kensington Road where the traffic volumes have remained constant in spite the West Hillhurst population growing by 11% over the past five years.

The trend to static or in some cases reduced traffic volumes is driven by increased transit, walking, and cycling usage in established communities near downtown. Increasing residential density in established communities actually results in overall lower vehicle usage for a number of reasons including:

  • Higher density improves the viability of local business and therefore removes the need for community residents to always drive to a restaurant, store or fitness studio. 
  • Higher density supports more frequent transit, which in turn attracts more transit users from the community as a whole.
  • Higher density in close relation to employment cores (i.e. Downtown) makes cycling more viable, which in turn increases the demand for cycling infrastructure which results on more cycling from the community as a whole.

4th Street in the Mission District is lined with shops and restaurants that locals can walk or cycle to. 

Myth #2: 1 parking stall means 1 commuter trip/day

Having 200 parking stalls does not mean 200 vehicles leave and arrive everyday at rush hour. While there is a correlation between parking stalls and traffic, there are many other factors at play. One is that not everyone leaves home between 7 and 8 am. People have different schedules and destinations, as such some residents leave home before 7am or after 8am, while other residents don’t leave home at all during the morning peak period or return home at the rush hour (working from home, part-time or retired).

In addition, just because a condo owner has a vehicle doesn’t necessarily mean it is used to get to work. Data from Beltline TIAs found many residents who had vehicles left them at home during weekdays and used them only on evenings and weekends.

It is not as simple as saying 200 parking stalls results in 200 trips during rush hour. Data actually shows about one third of residential condo vehicles might leave during the peak weekday commuter period from 7 to 9 am.

4th Street traffic on a Sunday afternoon in the summer, not exactly grid-locked. 

Kensington Road in West Hillhurst on a winter Saturday afternoon. 

Another corner on 4th Street that is devoid of traffic in the middle of the summer. 

Myth #3: Adding a 100-unit condo building isn’t the same as adding 100 houses

Multi-family and single-family dwellings do not have the same trip-making characteristics. Multi-family dwellings are more likely to have a higher proportion of residents under 30 or over 65 years of age. As a whole, these age groups have smaller family sizes (often no family), lower vehicular ownership rates and in some cases, less disposable income, all of which correlate into lower vehicle usage.

Generally, in terms of vehicle trip generation, two single-family dwellings are equal to approximately three three multi-family dwellings in suburban communities. In established communities one new infill single-family home often is the same as three condo units when it comes to traffic generation.

New condo development in Mission. 

Last Word

It is critical that as Calgarians (i.e. City Council, planners, architects, developers, engineers of all disciplines and residents in established communities) work together to make our communities better for everyone.  It is essential to separate fact from fiction when it comes to urban living in the 21st century.

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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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Condo Living: More Time For Fun?

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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.

If you like this blog you might like: 

Intelligent infilling or Living in a bubble?

Enhancing Established Communities: Make Multi-Family A Permitted Use

Florence: People & Places (a photo essay)

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

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

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

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

Window licking along Florence’s Via Tornabuoni

Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

One Night in Florence

The ugliest pedestrian bridge in the world?

Flaneuring Florence’s Markets: Flea, Food & Fashion

Public Art: Calgary / Florence / Rome

 

Busking with style.

Salvador Dali's Bike?

No wonder Picasso painted faces as he did!

Just one of many very stylish parking garages.

A Florence office building?

Lots of open doors...

I wish I could read Italian.

A work of art and very tasty! 

Magritte would have loved this photo.

Ghost busker....

Sisters sharing donuts?

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

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

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

My fashionista advisor. 

Florence comes alive at night. 

What was he thinking/feeling to create this drawing? 

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

Market madness...

There is no lack of empty shoe boxes in Florence. 

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

These ladies were moving quickly. 

Fountain of youth?

Window licking anyone?

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

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

Cars, bikes, scooters and pedestrians share the road.

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

Blue Man Group?

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

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

People watching fun!

Innocence?

Climbing the wall fun.

Elvis? 

Fashionistas heading to the thrift store. 

Who needs wide sidewalks? enhanced streetscapes? 

My other fashionista advisor.

Who needs a car to carry a lamp home? 

Iceberg soup!

Everyone is out for their evening stroll.

That is a mighty big steak?

No dedicated bike lane? No problem? 

Fashionista at the world's most amazing thrift store. 

Now that is a tight parking spot.

This photo is not upside down.

Self serve wine - how good is that!

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.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Suburbs: Don't be too quick to judge!

What is urban living and who really cares?

Suburbs move to City Centre in Calgary

Calgary: Are we too downtown centric? 

Calgary: The Paskapoo City

In the early morning hours of November 7, 1886 fire broke out in the rear wall of Parish & Son Flour and Feed store on 9th Ave SE.  By the time the fire was extinguished at noon, 18 buildings were destroyed.  As a result, town officials recommended all future major buildings be constructed of local Paskapoo sandstone (16 sandstone quarries soon operated near Calgary) rather than wood.

Today, dozens of early 20th century Paskapoo sandstone buildings can be found in and around our downtown. Here are five iconic ones that create a nice 60 to 90 minute walking tour.

Old City Hall, 800 Macleod Trail SE

Calgary’s old City Hall, constructed in 1911 and designed by Calgary architect William M. Dodd is a four-storey Richardsonian Romanesque building with central clock tower, rows or recessed windows and a red, pressed metal tile roof.  It is still used today as the offices for the Mayor and Councilors.

The building’s storied past includes the halting of construction when the original $150,000 budget ran out and the by-law authorizing additional funds was turned down by the citizens.  Eventually, the building was completed, but without a lot of Dodd’s decorative elements. 

In the late 19th century, Calgarian William Pearce envisioned Calgary as Canada’s “City of Trees” encouraging the City and citizens to plant lots of trees.  Pearce loved to experiment including the planting of 210 palm trees next to the old City Hall, one of which survived until 1935 because it was moved indoors.

The City’s coat of arms carved in relief at the top of the entrance includes a glaring error, the scroll below the shield has two dates; signifying Calgary’s incorporation as a town (1882) and city (1894), but Calgary didn’t become a town until 1884.

Old City Hall built in 1911, with new municipal building in the background.

Old City Hall Clock Tower

Alberta Hotel Building, 808 – 1st Street SW

Walk west down Stephen Avenue from City Hall and you will discover several historic sandstone buildings, but the one with the most storied past is the Alberta Hotel Building.  Built in 1890, it quickly became the urban playground for southern Alberta ranchers.  Here, Guy Weadick convinced the Big Four ranchers (Patrick Burns, George Lane, A.E. Cross and Archibald McLean) to finance his idea for a “Frontier Week” celebration, which became the Calgary Stampede.

It was also renowned for its 125-foot long bar, the longest bar west of Winnipeg at the time. Future Prime Minister R.B. Bennett lived on the third floor and took all his meals in the dining room at the “Bennett table.” 

Today, the building is home to upscale outdoor clothing stores, a boutique wine store and one of Calgary’s best restaurants – Murrieta’s.

Alberta Hotel, 1890

Grain Exchange Building, 815- 1st Street SW

Head south to the Grain Exchange building built by William Roper Hull in 1909. At six storeys, it was Calgary’s first skyscraper and foreshadowed Calgary’s future as one of North America’s premier skyscraper cities.

The Grain Exchange stands out historically because of its decorative elements, which include the elaborate carved sandstone arch over the entrance with relief lettering announcing the original anchor tenant, as well as the exquisite oak doors with beveled glass and the interlocking letters next to the entrance that form Hull’s monogram. It is also notable for having Calgary first passenger elevator and is a reminder of Calgary agrarian past. Today it is home to artist’s studios, not-for-profits and start-ups.  On the street level is one of Calgary’s best fly-fishing shops.

Grain Exchange Building, 1909

Memorial Park Library, 1221- 2nd Street SW

A short walk under the CPR tracks sits Memorial Park Library, a fine representation of French Beaux-Arts architecture. At the eastern edge of Calgary’s first park, it was designed by Boston architects McLean & Wright. The interior, with its terrazzo floors, iconic columns, classically-inspired decorative moldings and marble staircase is worth checking out.

Opening in 1912, it was Alberta’s first library thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Foundation.  Originally, both the library and park were called “Central,” but in 1928 the name was changed to “Memorial” when the cenotaph at the west end was unveiled and the park became a war memorial site. 

Memorial Park Library, 1912

McDougall Centre, 455 - 6th Street SW

Completed in 1907, McDougall School was Alberta’s first normal school, used for the training of teachers. In 1922, the building was purchased by Calgary Board of Education, who renamed it McDougall School in honor of Methodist missionary George McDougall and operated it as a junior high and elementary school until 1981. That same year the Government of Alberta purchased the building and converted it into office space for the Premier, Calgary Caucus and a government meeting and event space.  Today, sitting proudly in the middle of a one-block park, a testament to the early 20th century vision of Calgary as a major urban centre.

Its character-defining elements include the entrance with its entablature (a horizontal structure that rest on columns) bearing the words “McDougall School,” circular tablets bearing the numerals “1”, “9”, “0” and “7”, triple-arched doorways and the two-story columns.

McDougall School, 1907

McDougall Center plaza

Last Word

Calgary's City Centre is home to numerous other sandstone buildings including several major turn of the century schools.  Stephen Avenue (aka 8th Avenue SW from Macleod Trail to 4th Street SW is home to so many sandstone and other historical buildings, that it is a National Historic District. 13th Avenue SW from 1st Street to 8th Street SW also makes for a great historical stroll with numerous historical buildings and parks (Calgary's Secret Historical Trail)

Haultain School, 1894

Calgary Collegiate, 1907

Lougheed House and gardens, 1891

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Tourism Calgary

 

 

 

 

 

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?

Calgary: Best Places To Sit

For the past couple of years I have been taking photos of the best places to sit in Calgary and posting them on Twitter.  I thought it might be fun to organized a few of them into a blog with supporting text on the benefits of sitting, thinking, relaxing, reflecting and talking. 

"To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment." Jane Austen

"I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it." Gertrude Stein

Blue Skying 

coupling...

Chinooking...

Wondering...

Playing....

Chatting...

  Remembering...

Remembering...

Watching...

Swinging...

Pondering...

Sit Quietly 

Sit quietly
focus and forget
rest with the great achievement.
The ancient child asks
"what is the great achievement?"
It is beyond description in any language
it can only be felt intuitively
it can only be expressed intuitively.  
Engage a loose, alert, and aware
body, mind, and sound
then look into the formless
and perceive no thing.
See yourself as a sphere
small at first
growing to encompass
the vastness of infinite space.  

Sit quietly
focus and forget then
in a state of ease and rest
secure the truth of the great achievement.
Employing the truth will not exhaust its power
when it seems exhausted it is really abundant
and while human art will die at the hands of utility
the great achievement is beyond being useful.
Great straightness is curved and crooked
great intelligence is raw and silly
great words are simple and naturally awkward.  
Engaged movement drives out the frozen cold
mindful stillness subdues the frenzied heart.

Sit quietly
focusing
forgetting
summon order from the void
that guides the ordering of the universe."


Tao Te Ching, Chapter 45, Translated by John Bright-Fey, 2006 

 

Contemplating...

Meditating...

Contrasting....

Discussing...

Downtime

The need to be connected is, in fact, very basic in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the psychological theory that explains the largest and most fundamental human desires. Our need for a sense of belonging comes right after physical safety. We thrive on friendship, family, and the constant affirmation of our existence and relevance. Our self-esteem is largely a product of our interactions with others.
It is now possible to always feel loved and cared for, thanks to the efficiency of our “comment walls” on Facebook and seamless connection with everyone we’ve ever known. Your confidence and self-esteem can quickly be reassured by checking your number of “followers” on Twitter or the number of “likes” garnered by your photographs and blog posts. The traction you are getting in your projects, or with your business, can now be measured and reported in real time.
Our insatiable need to tune into information – at the expense of savoring our downtime – is a form of “work” (something I call “insecurity work”) that we do to reassure ourselves.

What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space, Scott Belsky, 99U

Learn More: What happened to downtime...

Napping...

Playing....

Viewing...

Floating....

Sitting...

Relaxing...

Sitting...

Epiphanies

Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself
Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime.

Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, Oct. 2013

Learn more: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime

  Refecting....

Refecting....

Playing...

Watching...

Listening....

Eating...

Watching...

Change Your LIfe

"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. It's a line repeated so frequently, in the era of smartphones and social media, that it's easy to forget how striking it is that he wrote it in the 1600s.
I'd wager even Pascal would have been disturbed by a study published recently in Science, showing that people detest being made to spend six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think – even to the extent of being willing to give themselves mild electric shocks instead. It's natural to conclude that there's something wrong with such people. 

Change your life sit down and think, Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, July, 2014

Learn more: Change your life...

Thinking.....

Buddy time!

Last Word

These are just a few of my "best places to sit" images.  I expect there are thousands of "best places to sit" in Calgary and area. If you have a special place to sit, be it Calgary or elsewhere, I'd love it if you would email a photo of them to me (richardlw@shaw.ca) and I will add to this blog or perhaps if I get enough I will create a new blog.  Thanks for reading.

If you like this blog, you might like: 

The importance of the public realm

Everyone needs to find their sanctuary

Rome: A surprise playground lunch!

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 Cafe Culture

Calgary's Trans Canada Highway Motel History

This week I received a second “everyday tourist” care package from my third cousin Sally in Los Angeles. In it were more historical Calgary postcards she hunted down at the Vintage Paper Fair, in Glendale, California. This time (last time it was a vintage CANADA Vacations Unlimited magazine from 1951), her big find was a bunch of postcards of Calgary’s mid-century motels, which coincidentally were mostly along the Trans Canada Highway (aka 16th Avenue N) near 19th Street – just blocks from where I live.

It was 1962 when the Trans Canada Highway opened and in Calgary, it went right through the City’s northern inner-city communities.   While today the urban planning buzz term is “urban village,” back in the ‘50s and ‘60s Calgary was famous for its “motel villages” both along the Trans Canada Highway (between 19th and 24th Streets NW, aka Crowchild Trail) long before the University of Calgary existed and the other in Montgomery (between 43rd to 46th St. NW) which didn’t amalgamate with the City of Calgary until 1963. 

After 50+ years, a few of the modest old motels from the middle of the 20th century still exist, although most have had a facelift or two.  Names like Red Carpet Inn, Thriftlodge, Days Inn, and Traveller’s Inn dot the streetscape along the Trans Canada highway in Montgomery. While the Motel Village next to McMahon Stadium includes names like Super 8, Travelodge, Thriftlodge and EconoLodge, as well as hotel brands like Best Western, Hamptons and Ramada.  There is even a funky boutique hotel – Aloft.  However, the classic mid-century modern motels like the Mount Eisenhower Motor Court, the Highlander Motor Hotel and the Cavalier Motel are gone - survived only by these postcards.

The Highlander Motor Hotel located on the Trans Canada Highway at 17th St NW provides ideal connections to Downtown, a multi-million dollar Shopping Centre, Jubilee Auditorium, McMahon Stadium and The University.  Today it is the site of the Home Depot. 

Calgary North, Travel Lodge, 2304 16th Ave NW. Bus at the door.Your Hosts: Ed and Carol Sandor (A member of the world's largest network of hotel). 

The Cavalier Motel, 2304 - 16th Ave NW. The essence of luxury - 50 modern units, equipped with televisions and telephones. Large heated swimming pool, adjoining restaurants, close to the largest shopping centre on the Trans Canada Highway i.e. North Hill Shopping Centre. Yes, the North Hill Shopping Center opened in 1958 and it was not only Calgary's first shopping center, but the largest along the entire Trans Canada Highway. 

Mount Eisenhower Motor Court, 2227 Banff Trail, 20 new units, modern AMA & AAA approved.

Importance of 16th Avenue North

If you drive or even a walk along the Trans Canada Highway today, you still see bits of evidence of how this was once Calgary’s most important vehicular street, long before the Deerfoot, Glenmore and Crowchild Trails or Memorial Drive.  It was, and still is, the gateway to Calgary’s first post-secondary campus – Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).

At one point, it was also the gateway to the Calgary Airport located in Renfrew.  The historic Rutledge Hangar (731 – 13th Ave NE), built in 1929, is the only building remaining from Calgary’s first publicly operated airport, commonly known as the Stanley Jones Airport.  It was the first airport in Canada to install runway lights to facilitate twilight landings. It was also home to a short-lived airmail service for the Prairies and served as a training site for the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War Two.  

In addition, to small retail shops and restaurants all along 16th Avenue North, it was the gateway to Calgary's first shopping center - North Hill Shopping Centre in 1958. Calgary’s iconic Peters’ Drive-In (219-16th Ave NE) located on the Trans Canada Highway is another testimonial to 16th Avenue’s mid-century, automobile-oriented history.  Today you will still find numerous Tire, car parts and oil change shops along 16th Avenue. 

Banff Trail Motel is typical of the many modest motels that use to exist all along 16th Avenue North in the mid-20th century. 

Trans Canada Highway at Motel Village looking east with the SAIT residence in the background.

Calgary's Motel Village today is a hub of low-rise motels, an office building and 10+ restaurants. It is walking distance to the University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology campus.  It is adjacent to a LRT Station that is just 5 minutes from downtown. 

Other Mid-century Motels

In downtown, while the Palliser Hotel adjacent to Canadian Pacific Railway Station was the City’s signature hotel, the Caravan Motor Hotel with its Steak and Rib House (4th Ave and 4th Street SW) touted itself as Calgary’s finest downtown motor hotel, only three minutes from the city centre. Another reminder of just how much our city has changed over the past five decades.

But for me, the best postcard was of the Bow River Motel (103, 24th Street NW aka Crowchild Trail).  On the back was their motto “It is quiet by the river” and the phone # AT 3-0777.  It was a reminder that not that long ago Crowchild Trail was a tranquil dirt road with no sidewalks and lined with small businesses and homes… a far cry from the speedway with bland, concrete sound barriers that it is today.

Caravan Motor Hotel and Steak and Rib House, 89 ultra modern units, completely air-conditioned, each room thermostatically controlled. TV, Hi Fi, Radio. Complete room service. 

 Bow River Motel, 103, 24th St. NW (aka Crowchild Trail). Note the road looks like it is still dirt and there are no trees or sidewalks. This was the edge of the city in the '50s.&nbsp;

Bow River Motel, 103, 24th St. NW (aka Crowchild Trail). Note the road looks like it is still dirt and there are no trees or sidewalks. This was the edge of the city in the '50s. 

Last Word

I couldn’t help but wonder if 16th Avenue North hadn’t become the Trans Canada Highway in the ‘60s, would have it evolved into a more pedestrian-oriented, retail street like 17th Avenue South. Just wondering.

If you like this blog, you might like these:

Flaneuring the Trans Canada Highway

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 1)

CANADA Vacations Unlimited 1951 (Part 2)

Calgary: History Capital of Canada

 

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?