University District: Urban Format School mindfully planned!

As a long time advocate for the diversification, intensification and integration of both old and new schools sites within the neighbouring community, Calgary's Everyday Tourist is excited by the idea of integrating a new school into a larger building (perhaps a seniors' centre) at Calgary's Urban District. 

The University District (UD) team not only uses the term “mindfully-made” when talking about the new urban village planned for the west side of the University of Calgary campus but they also “walk the talk.”

Indeed, everything about University District (a new community being developed on the west side of the University of Calgary campus around the Children's hospital) is carefully thought-out and all options are looked at in advance and evaluated to determine what is in the best interest of creating a vibrant, inclusive community. 

A great example would be the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that has been signed between the University District and the Calgary Board of Education to explore building an Urban Format School if and when the need arises.

The University District's shopping street will be similar in scale to 10th Street in Calgary's Kensington Village. 

What is an Urban Format School?   

As part of the early planning and design process the University District planning team looked at the South Shaganappi Communities Area Plan (SSCAP) for guidance.  One of the concerns identified in the Plan was that as the communities were getting older, school enrollment was declining and schools were facing possible closures.  University District was seen by neighbouring community leaders as a positive development that would attract more families with school age children to the area. As such the UD planning team, wanting to share community infrastructure like schools did not include a school site in the original University District plan.

However, as planning discussions continued the various stakeholders like the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) it was determined they might indeed require a school in the future, while the Calgary Catholic School District indicated they would not.

Initially the CBE indicated they needed a traditional large 7-acre parcel of land set aside for a new school.  However, the University District team was able to work with the CBE to look at an urban format school, which could place a purpose-build school space within a mixed-use building at a site next to a community park and playground.

Based on research and tours of new urban villages with schools in multi-use buildings in other cities, the University District team and CBE officials were able to identify two sites in the University District’s Land-Use Plan next to land already designated for 1-acre community parks that would be ideal sites for an urban format school.

After further negotiations, a MOU was signed by University District authorities and CBE officials that will allow the CBE to exercise its right to develop a new school at one of the two sites, depending on how demand for classroom space evolves as University District gets built-out and neighbouring communities evolve.

What would an Urban Format School look like?

The building would be designed specially to accommodate a 38,000 sq. ft. school space (built to Alberta Education standards) that could be on multiple floors, with additional floors being available for other uses.  Already one of the possible compatible uses that has been identified is seniors’ housing.

The school would be situated next to a park with a playground that can be easily accessed by the students for outdoor activities, as well as to the University of Calgary and all of its amenities.

Backstory: Since, 1995, the CBE has successfully operated the W.H. Cushing Workplace School a workplace school (Kindergarten / Grades 1 to 3) in the Len Werry Building on 7th Avenue at 1nd St SW in the heart of the downtown core with classrooms in retail spaces along the 7th Avenue sidewalk next to the LRT. Students used a second floor plaza a half a block away as their playground space (until the construction of TELUS Sky) and a church for their gym. The downtown is considered part of their extended classroom (W.R. Castell Library, Devonian Gardens, Olympic Plaza, Glenbow Museum etc.) The school was open to everyone not just TELUS employees.  This workplace school was the first of its kind in Canada.

Len Werry building is a 17 storey office building., until recently the ground floor was home to Canada's first workplace school.  

What are the benefits of an Urban Format School?

Allows for a more compact, mixed-use development of the entire University District site.

Plans have already been discussed to possibly include seniors’ housing as part of the mixed-uses of the Urban Format School building that would allow for innovative multi-generational programming.

Students at the school could have an enriched experience as they can easily interact with the community on field trips be that local artists studios or amenities at the University of Calgary.

Subject to approval by the Provincial Government, the CBE could potentially lease the space as an operational cost, rather than the tradition method of financing new schools as an upfront capital cost.

There is built in flexibility by having two sites identified for a school, if the CBE determines demand isn’t sufficient when the first site is ready for development they can defer to the second site and wait until the community is more built out to determine ultimately if a school is warranted.

The Urban School Format will be a pilot project that could be duplicated in other new Calgary urban villages being planned like Currie.

Computer rendering of the proposed central park plaza that will become the gathering place for the University District residents and employees. 

Last Word

As an champion for the diversification, intensification and integration of both old and new schools sites within the neighbouring community, this MOU is very exciting. 

Kudos to University District team for presenting the idea and for the CBE, the City and neighbouring communities for buying into it the idea.

Also perhaps instead of calling them urban format schools we should be calling them "integrated schools," as the idea of integrating schools into the community, rather than isolating could (should) happen anywhere in the city and we would all be better off for it. 

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