Highland Park Deserves Better?

I started writing this column about the Highland Golf Course redevelopment in NE Calgary thinking it would be just another case of NIMBYism.  But as I researched it, I began to realize the important issue here is not the density (1,600 vs. 2,100 units) or the design (height and placement of a highrise condo tower) of the project, but the timing of the Land Use approval. 

The Highland Golf Course and its edges have been neglected for decades.  

Why was the Land Use Redesignation approval being sent to Planning Commission and Council when critical pieces of the community redevelopment puzzle have yet to be determined?  Usually, I am all for making decisions quickly on redevelopment projects in established communities as delays increase the costs to new homeowners and taxpayers. But in this case I have to say, “What’s the rush?” Lets build a better backyard for everyone to enjoy - new and existing residents of the Highland Park community. 

Red area is retail, brown and gold areas are residential buildings. (from City of Calgary website)

The large grey area with no streets is the old golf course land that is now available for redevelopment. 

The Issues

A major community workshop is planned for this Fall to look at final plans for the Green Line LRT which will have stations at McKnight and 40th Avenue on the east side of the redevelopment site.  Surely, it makes no sense to approve new Land Use until the City, homeowners, businesses and landowners have a chance to look at LRT options in more detail. The 51-acre site (similar in size to East Village) has the potential to be Calgary’s next transit-oriented “urban village.” Highland Park needs – and deserves - integrated, not fragmented development.

Centre Street looking south to downtown - Bow Tower in the background.  Centre Street is already a busy bus route. 

Secondly, the City is in the middle of studying plans for widening McKnight Boulevard, which is on the northern edge of the site.  The City, developer and community need to understand exactly what is planned for McKnight Boulevard and how it can be capitalized to create a community that accommodates all mobility options – car, bus, train, bike and pedestrian.   

The corner of McKnight Boulevard and Centre Street is a throw back to the '50s and '60s when major corners in residential communities had one or more gas stations - it has three and a Convenience Store on the other.  There is a huge opportunity to make this corner a mixed-use hub. 

Thirdly, Nose Hill Creek ran through the site until 60 years ago when it was redirected into an underground pipe as part of the best practices of water management at the time.  The developer and City have looked at restoring the creek as part of the redevelopment but it would consume a significant amount of land to meet today’s engineering standards. While the current plans for storm water management and flood mitigation are probably adequate and the easiest solution, I understand more research is currently being conducted before a water management plan is finalized.

Fourthly, the community is concerned the developer has indicated that only 10% of the 597 existing trees can be retained.  While this number seems low, it is probably realistic as many of the trees are near the end of their life cycle and won’t survive all the site work and installation of new infrastructure. On the positive side, the developer has agreed to plant 1,868 new trees, resulting in almost a 4-fold increase in trees.

The golf course has become an informal off leash dog park.  The old cart path has become a walking path. The golf course is full of stands of mature trees like these ones. 

Last but not least, the public space issue must be resolved to the existing community’s satisfaction as this is critical to creating a vibrant urban village. The current plan has the developer providing the minimum amount of public space required (i.e. 10%) which will increase Highland Park’s public space to 6.3%, significantly less than the City’s benchmark of 10%.  In addition, the City’s website says there is City-owned public utility land that will become more accessible as part of the development, but it is unclear what this means. 

There are existing multi-family buildings along the edge of the golf course. 

Better not bigger

It isn’t the quantity of public space that matters as much as the quality. How the new public space will enhance the quality of the lives of people of all ages living in Highland Park needs to be clearly determined.

The density planned for Highland Park is greater than the new University District, which has state-of-the-art storm water, tree preservation and public spaces, as well as a comprehensive plan. Why shouldn’t Highland Park have the same quality of planning and development?

It is my understanding the developer bought the land for a very good price - the land cost per residential unit will be about $4,000 significantly lower than the $40,000 per unit for most multi-family residential developments in established communities in Calgary. 

Add to this, the fact City of Calgary will receive millions of new tax dollars every year when the new development is complete. Surely some of these dollars deserve to be reinvested in the creating quality public spaces in Highland Park.

This means there is room for the developer and City to provide state-of-the-art storm water and flood mitigation infrastructure as well as high quality public space for the new Highland Park as happened for East Village or University District.

Center Street has some retail development development near the golf course but it is old and tired. Sites like these are prime for redevelopment.  

Center Street has some retail development development near the golf course but it is old and tired. Sites like these are prime for redevelopment.  

Last Word

In the case of Highland Park, I believe most of the community welcomes the redevelopment of the golf course and the Green Line as a means of revitalizing the community by attracting a more diverse population and housing types, some new retail and much-needed public space.  I don’t think it would take too much to get their support and make them ambassadors for the project as opposed to antagonists. 

Link: Highland Park Redevelopment Plan

It is not too late to make Highland Park a postcard for established community revitalization.  Lets work together over the next six months (Council has delayed its Land Use decision to January 2017) to make this happen.

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Calgary Herald and appeared in the New Condos section on September 26th, 20016. 

Richard White can be reached at richardlw@shaw.ca and you can follow him on twitter at @everydaytourist or blogs at everydaytourist.ca  

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