HCG's: Condo Buying Advice

It wasn’t that long ago that highrise condo living in Calgary was limited to just a dozen or so buildings.  However, since the turn of the century, condo living across the city has not only become much more commonplace, but highrise living has also become very trendy in the Beltline, East Village, Eau Claire, Downtown West and Mission communities.

Over the past 10 years, over 30 highrise condos have been built in Calgary, so perhaps it isn’t surprising three enterprising realtors decided to create the Highrise Condo Group (HCG). Julie Dempsey, Steve McKenna and Tim Huxley, all members of Sotheby’s International Realty Canada have not only created HCG, but have developed a comprehensive new website devoted to highrise condos in Calgary (highrisecalgary.com). 

Collectively, HCG has 40+ years of experience in condo sales in Calgary.  They understand the economics of condo development and sales “inside and out,” having worked with developers (to build and sell condos) as well as with buyers and sellers of new and resale condos. And, over the past 10 years, they have actually lived in several of Calgary’s new condos, and currently have personally invested in Calgary’s highrise condo market.  As they readily admit, “we’ve got lots of skin in the game.”

Lessons Learned

HCG is proud to share the lessons they have learned over the years to maximize the value for their clients, both buyers and sellers.  Things like:

#1       Always buy quality. 

They are shocked how often experienced buyers are willing to purchase condos in poor buildings or in poor locations in quality buildings.

#2       Always buy the best view. 

One of the key selling features of a condo is the view. So, if you have a view, show it off to full advantage.  If you are looking at two condos and can’t decide, choose the one with the best view. Huxley likes to say, “Buy as much height as you can afford.”

#3       Do your homework.

It is important that you know as much as you can about not only your condo, but also the building.  For example, visit the parking stall to determine how easy you can park in it, where it is located relative to the elevator or how low in the parkade is it.  A poor parking spot can be a time waster and negative for resale.  Huxley also recommends buyers verify measurements of all rooms don’t rely on marketing condo plans.

#4       Visit often before buying.

McKenna encourages his clients to visit a condo several times before buying. He suggests you visit in the daytime and night, as well as on weekends to experience how clean the building is and what happens in the neighbourhood.

#5       Get to know your neighbours.

Dempsey makes sure her clients talk to people who live in the building.  She loves to hijack residents in the condo elevator so she can drill them with questions about what it is like living in the building and the immediate neighbourhood.

#6       Get a “statement of occupancy.”

Dempsey encourages her clients to purchase a “statement of occupancy.” For about $20, it will tell you how many of the units are owner-occupied and how many are rented.  Typically condos with higher homeowner occupancies increase in value more than those with lots of investment units. 

#7       Be aware of pending developments.

It may be a parking lot today, but in a few years it might be a 20+ condo that blocks your view of downtown or the mountains or an unoccupied building today can be a nightclub tomorrow.  On the plus side, a new condo nearby can bring more retail, restaurant or café and maybe even better transit service.  It pays to know what the neighbouring landowners might have planned for future developments and what the land uses are.

#8       Are you really going to use the amenities?

Your condo fees are paying for the amenities even if you don’t use them.  An extra $100/month in condo fees for amenities you aren’t using is $1,200 you could be using for other things like paying your mortgage.

Trend Spotting

HCG has noticed today’s highrise purchasers are not only looking for great views but also outdoor space.  Even if a condo is only 500 square feet, if it has a good-sized balcony, will be more attractive, retain its value and be easier to sell. Units located at the top of the podium (the two to four storey base of many condos that often have office or town house condos) with a patio are hot, hot, hot.

Concierge services are also becoming more the norm.  While you might think having a concierge is a luxury you don’t need, it is amazing how convenient it is to have someone receive or pick up packages for you, or let in tradesman. It is especially economical in highrises where you have 200+ units to amortize the costs.  In some cases, sister condos like Luna, Stella and Nova share a concierge. 

HCG believes Calgary will see more condos like Mark on 10th where Landmark Qualex pioneered using the rooftop as shared amenity space for all residents rather than a private multi-million dollar penthouse suites.  The concept has been very well received. McKenna says, “It is like living in a luxury hotel. Residents love the space and really use it, unlike amenities in lots other condos buildings that never get used.”

Dempsey feels there is a growing starting interest in downtown’s eastern communities - East Beltline (east of 4th St SW), East Village, Inglewood and Bridgeland.

When asked if there is any interest from developers to build three-bedroom. Family-oriented condo units, the HCG group members shook their heads saying, “there is still no market in Calgary for families wanting to live in highrises given the cost is over $500 per square foot which means a 1,500 square foot condo would start at over $750,000. You can get a lot of house for $750,000 in today’s market.”

Limo Fun

Highrise Condo Group’s website is definitely worth checking out and those who are interested can not only sign up for free condo market reports, but their FREE limo tours, which typically take you to five different inner-city projects by various builders. 

I’m in - sounds like and interesting and informative way to spend a Saturday morning.

Note: This blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine for their November 2016 edition. 

Battisella: Pioneers & Innovators

The Lido Café’s neon sign stood as an icon along 10th Street NW in Kensington Village for over 70 years beckoning diners in.  That changed in 2014 when the café was demolished to make way for an eight-storey new condo.  Thankfully, it was Battisella Developments who was designing the new condo as they have strong commitment to quality design that reflects and fosters a strong sense of place and time. 

In this case, the new condo would be called Lido and the Lido Café sign would be restored and hung prominently on the side of the building as a lasting tribute to the café. True to their word, the sign now hangs proudly on the soon-to-be finished condo.

What I didn’t realize is that “lido” is Italian for beach, shore or sand, and is used in Europe to mean a “place of relaxation”. How good is that as name for an urban condo?  Who doesn’t want to live in a place of relaxation?

Battisella has a long history of strategically choosing intriguing names for their condos.  For awhile, all of the names were colours – Chartreuce, Orange Lofts, Chocolate and finally Colours.

For Lido, Battisella could have just replicated Pixel, Lido’s sister condo immediately to the east that opened in 2014, perhaps changing the balcony colour from yellow to green, orange or red.

But no. Lido has its own design, featuring a much lighter off-white façade reminiscent of what you might see along Miami’s South Beach (or some other hot resort destination), nicely fitting with the lido theme of beach, shore and sand.  With the Bow River only a hop, skip and jump away with its lovely turquoise water and pebble edge it is often thought of Calgary’s equivalent of a lake or ocean beach.   

Subtle and clever.

Lido condo in the foreground will have retail on the main floor a 21-suite O Hotel on the second floor and condos above.  It currently has a pop-up library occupying a main floor space that won't be need for retail until 2017.  There is also public parking in the underground parkade as a result of a partnership with the Calgary Parking Authority.  

Urban Pioneers

I have always been impressed with Battisella’s commitment to contemporary designs. Each condo has a different design sensibility; no cookie cutter condos for them.  I love their use of colour - sometime bold and sometimes subtle - as well as their commitment to animate the sidewalk with street retail when appropriate and possible. 

Founded in 1980, Battistella Developments, led by the late urban living pioneers Jacqueline and John Battistella, has always been on the vanguard of urban development. The company started out by building Calgary's first narrow lot infills, slowly evolving into building small condos in Inglewood and the Beltline long before urban living became trendy.  They were the first to develop condos in East Village (Orange Lofts), well before the rest of the industry recognized its potential.

Backstory: Councillor Druh Farrell moved into Orange Lofts (paying market rent) when they were first built, while her Hillhurst home was undergoing a mega-makeover.  The experience was a huge eye opener for her as she got to experience firsthand the undesirable activities (groups of 30 people smoking crack, regular break-ins and blood on the street) that made it hard for many to believe East Village could become the trendy urban village it is today. The experience was fundamental in helping Farrell to understand the problems and potential of East Village and her subsequent commitment to champion the community’s renaissance. as well as Clean to the Core and downtown beat cops for the entire City Centre. Kudos to her for getting her hands dirty - so to speak. 

However, perhaps the Battisella family’s biggest and most lasting contribution is their commitment to served on many City boards and commissions. . I have served on some of those Boards and Commissions with them and know firsthand their deep passion to foster vibrant urban communities in Calgary.  

  Battisella condos are noted for their quirky artsy entrances and lobbies. 

Battisella condos are noted for their quirky artsy entrances and lobbies. 

Last Word

Our city is a better place as a result of the vision and pride the Battisella family has for Calgary.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the November 2016 edition of Condo Living Magazine

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East Village: Lust of the new playground

As tempting as it is, one of the key lessons to learn when judging new public spaces, retail developments or communities is not to judge them too quickly.  

Too often when a new playground, park, restaurant or store opens it is very popular for the first few years and then the popularity wanes.

I was reminded of this lesson  one Sunday this summer when I visited East Village in the morning and Eau Claire in the afternoon.

  Eau Claire Market when it first opened was very animated with market stalls, cafe, restaurants, patios, cinemas and Calgary's first IMAX.  

Eau Claire Market when it first opened was very animated with market stalls, cafe, restaurants, patios, cinemas and Calgary's first IMAX.  

  East Village's Riverwalk has become a popular meeting place. 

East Village's Riverwalk has become a popular meeting place. 

  Eau Claire's River Promenade is enjoyed by thousands at noon hour on weekends and all day on weekends.

Eau Claire's River Promenade is enjoyed by thousands at noon hour on weekends and all day on weekends.

Lust of the new playground

It was delightful to see all the families enjoying the pebble beach area of St. Patrick’s Island and the other areas of East Village, Calgary's new urban playground.  The two and half year old I went with loved it as did his parents -  so much so his parents took him back there after his afternoon nap that same day.

East Village's Riverwalk was also animated - people walking, cycling and boarding along the promenade, as well as playing PokemonGo (whose popularity was at its peak). The area around the Simmons Building was literally packed with people.

It is great to see East Village come alive after years of dormancy. However, I wonder will this last, or is it just the “lust of the new?”

What will happen when the marketing and programming funding is no longer available and it become just another of Calgary’s 200+ communities?  Fortunately Calgary Municipal Land Corporation will continue to fund and manage St. Patrick’s Park and all of the East Village public spaces until the end of the Community Revitalization levy term, which is 2027.

  East Village's pebble beach.

East Village's pebble beach.

  Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Test Of Time

I remember when Eau Claire Market and Plaza (with wading pool) opened in the early ‘90s. It was a big hit. Then came the new Sheraton Hotel and Eau Claire Y, as well as a new office building.  Prince’s Island got a makeover with a new stage for the Calgary Folk Festival, improved space for Shakespeare in the Park, River Café, enhancement of the lagoon and redevelopment of the eastern edge of the island as the Chevron Interpretive Trail. 

New condos followed and there was even the creation of Barclay Mall with its wide sidewalk, large flower planters, trees, public art and a traffic-calming, snake-like road design linking to the downtown core and 7th Avenue transit corridor.

It seemed to be the perfect recipe for creating a mixed-use urban village.  In the early ‘90s, everyone had great hopes Eau Claire would become a vibrant residential community on the edge of our central business district.

Sound Familar?  

Fast forward to today - Eau Claire Market and plaza have been struggling for more than a decade and are now waiting for a mega makeover that will totally change the scale and dynamics of the Eau Claire community - for better or worse? Only time will tell.

The good news is Prince’s Island is thriving. As a member of the Prince’s Island Master Plan advisory committee in the mid ‘90s, I am pleased the renovations to the Island have proven very successful.  There are no longer any complaints about the festival noise by the neighbours.  The Island is able to nicely accommodate the main stage, as well as several smaller stages for workshops and a mega beer garden to create a special music festival experience.  And yet, at the same time, the public is able to freely enjoy the eastern half of the island, the lagoon and the promenade.   

So while Eau Claire Market, plaza and surrounding developments have failed to create a vibrant urban community, Prince’s Island has. Our hopes are now pinned on East Village.

  Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.   

Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.  

  East Village's river's edge and pedestrian bridge. 

East Village's river's edge and pedestrian bridge. 

  Eau Claire's other pedestrian bridge is also a playground. 

Eau Claire's other pedestrian bridge is also a playground. 

  Eau Claire's proximity and link to the downtown office core makes it a very attractive lunch spot. 

Eau Claire's proximity and link to the downtown office core makes it a very attractive lunch spot. 

Calgary’s best communities may surprise urbanists 

I often say to people “don’t judge a new community until the trees are as tall as the houses.”  It is interesting to look at old photos of some of Calgary’s inner city communities in the early 20st century. The Beltline and Mount Royal look exactly like Calgary’s new communities on the edge of the city today – huge homes with no trees. 

Too often urbanists are quick to criticize Calgary’s new communities for their bland, beige, cookie-cutter architecture and lack of walkability.  However, it takes decades for communities like Bridgeland and Inglewood or Lake Bonavista and Acadia to evolve into unique communities. The old cottage homes of Sunnyside, when they were built, were pretty much all the same but over time each has taken on a unique charm with paint, plants and renovations. Also as the trees have grown taller and broader, the streetscape has become less dominated by the houses. 

It is interesting to look at Avenue Magazine’s Top 10 Calgary Neighbourhoods in 2016.  Three are early 20th century communities – Beltline (#1), Hillhurst (#5) and Bridgeland/Riverside (#9).  Three are mid-century communities – Brentwood (#2), Dalhousie (#3) and Acadia (#4) while four are late 20th century communities – Signal Hill (#6), Arbour Lake (#7), Riverbend (#8) and Scenic Acres (#10).  

I doubt many urban advocates would have Brentwood, Dalhousie, Acadia, Signal Hill, Arbour Lake, Riverbend or Scenic Acres on their list of Calgary’s best communities given they don’t meet the density, mixed-use and walkable benchmarks.

One of the interesting results of the annual Leger (a research and marketing company survey commissioned by Avenue) was in 2015 respondents valued walkability as the most important attribute for a good neighbourhood, but in 2016, walkability dropped to #8.  In 2016, the two most important elements of a good neighbourhood was access to parks/pathways and low crime rates. 

I am often very suspect of survey results, as people will often respond to questions based on what they think they should say or do or what is trendy and not what their actual behaviour. People might say they want a walkable community, but that means different things to different people. For some it might be the ability to walk to the park or pathway; for others the ability to walk to most of their weekly activities. Walkability also depends on an individual’s lifestyle, family situation and commitment to walking (I know too many individuals in my neighbourhood who could walk to the gym or the squash courts but never do).

  Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

  New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

  Eau Claire office buildings add a weekday population that is missing in East Village.

Eau Claire office buildings add a weekday population that is missing in East Village.

  Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

  I would venture to say the Eau Claire Y will attract as many people in a day as East Village's Bell Studio and perhaps the new Central Library. Time will tell. 

I would venture to say the Eau Claire Y will attract as many people in a day as East Village's Bell Studio and perhaps the new Central Library. Time will tell. 

Last Word

So, I plan to head my own advice and not judge new developments to quickly. I will reserve judgement on the success of St. Patrick’s Island, Simmons Building and East Village, Studio Bell and the new library for at least a decade. 

I also am not prepared to judge Calgary’s experiments with creating more urban (mixed-use) new communities like SETON or Quarry Park for at least a decade.  

And, I am also going to wait for a few years to judge if Calgary’s bike lane network is successful or not.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday, November, 12, 2016 titled "Don't Rush To Judgement On New Developments." 

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Calgary: Sitting On The Porch

Recently I attended a wedding at the Bow Valley Ranche homestead in Calgary’s Fish Creek Park (one of the largest urban parks in the world at 13 square kilometers or three times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park).  Like others, I went gaga over this lovely house, its tranquil setting in the middle of the enormous park and the lovely wraparound porch.

Bow Valley Ranche's wraparound porch creates a "welcoming" sense of place.

History: Bow Valley Ranche

The Bow Valley Ranch site was first settled by John Glenn, who created one of Alberta’s first permanent farms in the 1870s.  In 1877, the federal government purchased the site for $350 to create an instructional farm to teach First Nations people how to farm their land. After several years, the program was phased out. 

In 1896, cattle rancher and businessman William Roper Hull purchased the Bow Valley homestead and built, a lovely two-story yellow brick home with a huge wraparound porch.  Then in 1902, Patrick Burns, one of the Big Four who started the Calgary Stampede and eventually became a Senator, purchased the house.

After Burns passed away in 1937, family members lived in the house until the early ‘70s. In 1973, the Alberta government purchased the entire Bow Valley Ranch site as part of the establishment of Fish Creek Provincial Park. Today it is a popular restaurant.

It was the Bow Valley Ranche’s porch that seemed to impress wedding attendees the most on a lovely sunny afternoon in early September.  I have always loved porches. Our house has a front porch where I often sit and read or watch the world go by.  But I didn’t before appreciate how much others also love them even if they don’t hve one or use the one they have. I have often noticed on my frequent walks, that seldom is anyone sitting on the porches despite them being adorned with comfy chairs and side tables.

This also got me thinking about Calgary’s other historical homes and have huge porches like the Bow Valley Ranch home.  The two I am most familiar with are Riley Lodge (that used to be on Crowchild Trail at 7th Avenue NW, a pitching wedge from my house and is now located three blocks further west) and the Colonel James Walker House (at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary).  

Bow Valley Ranche's grand front yard makes it a perfect spot for weddings. 

History: Riley Lodge

In 1910, Alfred Riley,   son of prominent Calgary pioneer  of prominent Calgary pioneer Thomas Riley, built a farm house of brick and sandstone. Known as Riley Lodge, it was occupied by Alfred and his wife Ada Marie until Alfred’s death; after which Ada continued to live in the house until 1934. It remained in the Riley family until 1968.
In 1987, the house was moved to 843-27th Street NW to allow for the transformation of 24th Street NW into Crowchild Trail. According to City records, it is the last known Riley family residence still standing.

The veranda, which had to be demolished for the move, was reconstructed based on a drawing from a book of house plans, circa 1910.  However, when an old photograph of the house was discovered at the Glenbow Archives in 2007, the veranda was rebuilt and is now an accurate representation of the original.  Future plans include a wrought iron gateway and stone columns at the end of the driveway.

Riley Lodge is built in the Queen Anne Revival style, with some of the key features including the wrap-around veranda, hipped roof, third floor dormer windows and the turret at the corner of the front façade. 

Riley Lodge's porch creates a wonderful sense of grandeur. 

Original entrance to Riley Lodge (photo credit: insomniac's attic)

Source: Calgary Public Library, Community Heritage & Family History

Link: Riley Lodge Story

 

History: Colonel James Walker House

 In 1883, Colonel James Walker settled the land that is now occupied by the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. In 1910, the current brick house - named Inglewood - was built, and the surrounding area was then named for the most prominent property in the area.

In 1929, Colonel Walker's son Selby applied to the federal government to have 59 acres on the west side of the Bow River designated as a Federal Migratory Bird Sanctuary. His request was granted and the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary was born.

When Selby died in 1953, Ed Jefferies, owner of a large contracting firm, acquired the property and leased it to the Alberta Fish & Game Association for their new headquarters. In 1970 the City of Calgary purchased the property and has been managing it as a natural reserve ever since.

In 1996, the Nature Centre was built and grassland restoration projects began. The Colonel Walker House is currently both a private residence and serves the administrative and educational activities needs of the Nature Centre.

  Colonel Walker house literally sits in the middle of a sanctuary. 

Colonel Walker house literally sits in the middle of a sanctuary. 

Heritage homes remind us of the importance of decorative details. 

The front porch helps to create a welcoming entrance.

Source: City of Calgary website

Link: Century Homes In Calgary

 

Front Porch Culture

Even modest cottage homes had porches in the early 20th century. 

The origin of the front porch is most often thought of as an element of southern American homes -both luxury and modest homes - starting in the mid 19th century.  It was a place where the family could retire to as the outdoor air provided a somewhat cool alternative to the summer heat and humidity.  In most houses, the porch was an extension of the living room taking up the entire front of the house and sometimes wrapping around one or both sides.

Before TV, the porch was the place where parents and grandparents would tell stories. It was also a place where parents would meet or say hello to other parents who were out walking waiting for the house to cool off. It was a place where neighbours could catch up on the news from the community and plan events (there were no phones, no texting or emails).  The porch was the community meeting place!

It was also a place where adults could keep an eye on their children who commonly played in the front yard and street, i.e. pre community playgrounds and parks days.

The porch started to fall out of fashion in the ‘50s with the advent of TV and the introduction of the attached front garage.  By the ‘60s, the fenced-in backyard, commonly included a deck (complete with BBQ and patio furniture), as well as a lawn area (which used to be a vegetable garden, but became space for private swings, slide, sandbox and sometimes a pool). Houses (and people) turned their backs on the street. The backyard became a private family playground!

  Can you believe this school built in 1911 had a porch?

Can you believe this school built in 1911 had a porch?

Can we bring back the porch?

By the late 20th century, more and more houses had air-conditioning, which further reducing the need to sit outside at night.  

In Calgary, although most new infills in established communities with back alley garages do in fact have front porches, however, in new communities smaller lots and attached front double garages make it almost impossible to have a porch. 

For the past 50 years, urban living in North America has become more and more private vs public.  People have abandoned public transportation for the privacy of the car, live in larger homes that are more backyard than front yard focused.

Indeed, the porch, which fostered a sense of community and neighbourliness in North America since the middle of the 19th century, is sadly missing on many streets in new communities today.

And, if newer houses do have a porch, it is often “for decoration only” or perhaps a place to store bikes, strollers and lawn mowers, rather than a place to sit and interact with the neighbours.  

Typical suburban home of the late 20th century in North American cities with no front yard and no welcoming entrance.

Over the past decade, developers have been introducing front porches at street level and also overtop of the garage where possible. 

Last Word

 

Pity!

 

  My front porch! My favourite place to sit!

My front porch! My favourite place to sit!

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Calgary: Empty Nesters Find New Nests In City Centre

For many, their 50s and 60s are like a second adolescence in that they are free again to decide, “what do I want to do with my life.” After 30 years of family and/or career commitments, the kids are gone, their careers are over (or winding down) and they just want to have enjoy life, which usually means travel and more “me/us” time.

Though for some that may mean moving to a new city or town, for many Calgarians it means moving to the City Centre where they can enjoy fine dining, theatre, live music and art galleries just blocks away, festivals almost every weekend or lovely river walks. It means no more grass cutting, fence or deck painting or snow shovelling. In addition to travel, more time can be devoted to golfing, hiking, fishing, quilting, knitting and spending time with friends.  

Today, about 100,000 Calgarians between the ages of 50 to 70, (there are about 300,000 Calgarians in the age bracket, but many are content to stay in their homes, some have already moved to City Centre and some will move to other cities) who are prime candidates to sell their family home in the ’burbs and move to the City Centre.

View from the Brekke's tree house of the downtown skyline on a cold winter day.

The Tree House

Richard and Debbie were in their early ‘50s when they realized they didn’t need their 3,200 sq. ft. 1950s Elbow Park home they had totally renovated, lived in and raised their family for 22 years. If they were going to stay in the house, it would need new windows and another major update. Richard was also tired of looking after the yard and the three crabapple trees that “dropped tons of apples every year – there’s only so much jelly a person can eat!”

They liked the idea of condo living. It fit their minimalist lifestyle. They also enjoyed the European lifestyle experienced when travelling.

They looked for two years before they found the right place.  They wanted to stay close to the Elbow River and ideally wanted an older condo with good bones, a good reserve fund and a good view.

They found an 1850 square foot condo in Riverstone, a 1981 red brick condo on the Elbow River with floor to ceiling windows that provided a spectacular view of downtown.  They quickly nicknamed it the “Tree House.”

Debbie, an interior designer immediately recognized the potential of the space and after a complete makeover, they now have a home worthy of an Architectural Digest feature.

Their new home wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan or London. 

The great room (24' by 32') with its 12' by 36” vein cut Travertine tile from Italy is very European chic - no trendy hardwood, no rug here. The Poggenpohl kitchen cabinetry from Germany with its LED backsplash is uber cool. The upper cabinets are white matte lacquer, while the bottom cabinets are titanium. The countertop is white Caesarstone, with an induction cook top on the island (the building wasn’t fitted with gas). Appliances include a sub-zero fridge and Miele dishwasher both fully integrated so they aren’t “visible."

The lighting throughout the condo was redone with recessed LED spotlights, a Mooi pendant in the kitchen eating area and 5 MP rail pendants over the Le Corbusier glass dining table. All doors are custom slab doors, including the closet doors, with contemporary chrome horizontal hardware and were lacquered in a mid-tone grey.

Debbie also designed the custom openings at the top of the den’s millwork to display Richard’s vintage radio collection with overhead lighting. In addition, three display “boxes" were created in one of the walls of the great room to highlight their vintage collections of Barbie dolls, Sherman jewelry and more radios.

It wasn’t without its trials and tribulations - labour costs are higher for condo renovations due to hauling everything up and down an elevator and limited working hours due to condo rules. 

It was also challenge for Debbie to not only be the designer, but to have her husband as the client. But they both agree, “it was totally worth the end result! We love our view in our first brand new home, as our two previous homes were used.”

26th Avenue SW in Mission along the Elbow River is a millionaire's row.

  Mission's Main Street (aka 4th Street) is home to a wonderful array of cafes and restaurants and the annual Lilac Street Festival each spring. 

Mission's Main Street (aka 4th Street) is home to a wonderful array of cafes and restaurants and the annual Lilac Street Festival each spring. 

The Grand Piano Home

Roger and Janet were tired of driving along MacLeod Trail several times a week to downtown; they wanted the “excitement of living downtown” and the freedom to “lock and leave.”  The kids were gone, their three-story Lake Sundance house (5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, den, dining room, living room, family room and large kitchen) was too big and they were tired of its maintenance, so they started looking for a new home. 

  The Concord is a two building condo located at the south side of the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Calgary's Eau Claire community. 

The Concord is a two building condo located at the south side of the iconic Peace Bridge in downtown Calgary's Eau Claire community. 

They found what they wanted in the currently-under-construction Concord, the uber luxury Eau Claire condo designed by iconic Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.  Blown away by the amenities, Barbara says, “I LOVE the pool and the gym is going to see a lot of use.” Other amenities include three car wash facilities, golf simulator and their own skating rink in the winter.  They were also completely taken by the views, and access to downtown and Kensington.Their new nest is a 1977 square foot condo with 3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths that is part of the “Private Residence” option, which includes private elevator access and private garage door. 

Empty nesters in Eau Claire get to enjoy the St. Patrick's Island oasis. 

Their nest also includes luxury finishings including Italian marble countertops, a Poggenpohl kitchen and high-end Miele and Samsung appliances.  Their northwest corner suite, with sliding doors from each bedroom allowing access to their private outdoor space, offers expansive views of Prince’s Island, the mountains and evening sunsets.  

Roger and Janet looked seriously for a year and a half to find the right condo building, in the right location and with the right unit design.  They knew they wanted about 2,000 square feet with at least two bedrooms, as well as an office/den AND room for the grand piano. “To be honest, the process was a bit stressful because even though we both wanted the same thing, we couldn’t find it. Also it took us some time to figure out which downtown community we wanted to live in,” says Janet.  

Roger thinks “it is fun watching the excavation of the condo, knowing the ‘Hole’ as we call it will soon be our home.”  It is anticipated their Grand Piano Home move in will happen in spring 2018.  

Roger's pit (aka the Concord parking garage). 

Last Word

When it comes to luxury City Centre condos, there are really only a handful to choose from in Calgary, most being clustered into two areas - Eau Claire Avenue SW along the Bow River and 26th Ave SW in Mission along the Elbow River.

Both are vibrant urban neighbourhoods offering spectacular views, pedestrian- oriented streets with shops, restaurants, pubs, patios, cafes and river pathways nearby.  Both host a signature festival - Eau Claire has the Calgary International Folk Festival, while Mission has the Lilac Street Festival.

In Calgary, though downtown living is still in its infancy, more and more Calgarians are embracing the vibrancy of urban living. Janet says, “most of our friends are considering doing the same thing i.e. moving downtown, so we have had a lot of support for our decision.”

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned for Domus Magazine's summer 2016 edition. 

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Truman Homes Gone Wild?

Truman Homes has been so busy building condos in Calgary over the past 10 years that Bruce McKenzie, VP Business Development at NORR Architecture who were designing most of their condo buildings introduced Truman President George Trutina to Calgary’s S2 Architecture to help carry the load. Introducing a client to a competitor NEVER happens in the architectural world – well almost never!

Trutina is the classic Calgary entrepreneur story.  He immigrated to Toronto from Croatia in 1971 with no money and limited education, where he learned the building trade through hand-on experiences.  Then he hears about a frontier city called Calgary with its“can-do” attitude and the Calgary Stampede and decides to move to there in the middle of the ‘70s boom where he starts building estate homes in Chestemere and never looks back. 

  Quirky lobby of 1741 condo on the corner of 17th Ave and 26th St SW. 

Quirky lobby of 1741 condo on the corner of 17th Ave and 26th St SW. 

Truman is building everywhere

Over the past 30 years, Truman Homes has evolved from an estate homebuilder to a suburban condo builder to an established community infill condo builder. Today, he has projects in various stages of development in several suburban communities - Aspen Woods, West Springs, Springbank Hill, Mahogany, Skyview, Savana and Cornerstone as well as several established communities - West Hillhurst, Beltline, Hillhurst-Sunnyside, Brentwood, Killarney, Shaganappi, Westbrook and University District.

Despite the growth, Truman Homes is still very much a family business with George and his four sons taking a hands-on approach to the design and construction of each building. 

They are just as comfortable in works boots as in a shirt and tie.

Engagement Hub? 

  Engagement Hub building/cafe

Engagement Hub building/cafe

I first became aware of Truman Homes when they announced the opening of the “EngagementHub” on the 700 block of 85th Avenue SW for their 96-acre all-condo West District master planned community (for some context, East Village is 113 acres) in summer 2014. This 2,000 square foot building that looked like a hip café, was in fact a purpose-built building to engage the neighbours in discussion about Trutina’s plans to develop an urban living community in the middle of Calgary’s newest millionaire communities on the west side. 

I had never before - nor since - seen this kind of commitment to community engagement from a developer.
  Kensington Legion site redevelopment

Kensington Legion site redevelopment

Then Trutina rescued the Kensington Legion site redevelopment after failed attempts by two developers to make the numbers work. His two building (a four-storey office and eight-storey condo with retail along the street) was definitely ambitious. Some might say visionary; others may say crazy.  But the Truman team developed a comprehensive engagement program that included several open house weekends at the Legion as well as a bulletin board on the street where anyone could see the plans and comment. While everyone didn’t embrace the project, enough did and it was eventually approved.

A day later, site preparation began.  Trutina is a man of action.

“The City of Calgary has lots of good policies; you just need to analyze them and develop strategies to capitalize on them,” says Trutina. The Legion is a great example as it fits perfectly with the City of Calgary’s “Main Street” program, announced in December 2014.

Today, Truman’s Kensington Legion project is the poster child for the program aimed at creating an old fashion shopping street in several of Calgary’s established communities.

New Kensington Legion building. 

Last Word

Trutina is a passionate guy. When talking about his projects, he will often quip, “it is not just about the numbers, you have to be happy in your chest.”  He is also a stickler for detail with comments like “the project is not complete if you don’t shine your shoes.”  Trutina takes great pride in his projects which he feels “stand out” wherever they are built.

What’s next for Truman Homes? If I had to guess, they will become Calgary’s premier mid-rise (under 12-stories) condo builder in Calgary.  It was not surprising Truman was chosen as one of the first two developers to build in the first phase of the mega University District project along with Calgary’s Brookfield Residential (North America’s largest residential developer). 

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned for the August issue of Condo Living Magazine.

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Community Engagement Gone Wild

Are Chinatowns still relevant in the 21st century?

Across North America, Chinatowns are struggling to be relevant to not only their modern Chinese community, but also to the community-at-large.

Calgary's Chinatown lives in the shadows of the mega office towers of its central business district. 

In 2012, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a three-year Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy. More than a decade in the making, the plan focused on economic revitalization by encouraging new residential development that would attract younger people of all backgrounds, to ensure Chinatown is increasingly relevant to a more multi-cultural Vancouver.

Fast-forward to 2016. A controversial proposal for a new 13-storey condo in Chinatown may or may not get approved after being re-designed for the third time. The building with 127 market condos, 25 affordable seniors’ homes and street level shops would seem to be an ideal revitalization project. However, many people from the Chinatown community feel the building is too high and big for their community (note my Herald column inaccurately reported this project had been approved).

In Calgary, a recent application for a Land Use change to increase the density of a surface parking lot across the street from Sun Life Towers (three 28-storey office towers) to allow for a tower up to 27 stories resulted in an immediate “Save our Chinatown” from some of the Chinatown community. They felt the change in land use would allow buildings that are too high and dense to fit with the traditional image of Chinatown as a rabbit’s warren of small buildings and narrow alleys.

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot surrounded by large office and residential buildings.  It sits empty on weekends and evenings. 

Wrong Focus?

What was missing from the protesters (both in Calgary and Vancouver) was what the new development would likely bring to their Chinatown. 

They should be asking questions like:

  • Does the design of the proposed buildings have the potential to enhance Chinatown’s retail and restaurant offerings?
  • Does it create lots of small spaces for new restaurants and retail at street level, or perhaps a larger space for a modern Asian-focused grocery and/or fashion store?
  • Will the condo unit sizes and designs attract young professionals and young families to the community - Chinese and non-Chinese?
  • Does the site support a building of this size?
  • Can the towers be set back from the sidewalk to make it pedestrian-friendly?
  • How does the building act as a link to the downtown office core?
  • Could the new development be a catalyst for revitalization?

Examples of older residential buildings that lack the amenities and design qualities to attract young professionals and empty nesters or the commercial spaces for modern retailers.

Generational Differences

Dai and Yang, both in their early 30s, who arrived in Calgary from Mainland China six and three years ago respectively, frequent Chinatown restaurants a couple of times a week, but never shop in Chinatown.  “Everything is for old people,” chuckles Dai. They both would love to see new more modern restaurants, shops and a movie theatre added to Chinatown. 

They also point out when Chinatowns were created 100+ years ago, China was a poor country and the people immigrating to Canada were poor, couldn’t speak any English and had no education.  They needed a Chinatown in every city to survive in the new world.

Today, Chinese immigrants are middle-class, professionals, speak English and have a global sensibility. They can easily buy a house and fit into any Calgary community.

They acknowledge Calgary’s Chinatown should continue to serve the needs of the Calgary’s elderly Chinese community (currently 60% of Calgary’s Chinatown population is over 65 years of age), but it also should be an attractive urban living community for young, educated Chinese and non Chinese also.

In fact, in our conversation, the idea of Calgary’s Chinatown evolving into more of an Asiatown appealed to them, as there is much overlap with Japan and Korea.  Dia and Yang suggested, “if Chinatown wants to appeal to young Asian professional it will need to attract international Asian retailers like Meters/bonwe, Uniqlo, E.Land, Muji, Suning, Huawei and restaurants like 85Cafe Yoshinoya and HaiDi Lao Hot Pot.”

  Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

  Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

   Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with   Apple  ’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with Apple’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

  Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Perfect Site

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot in the middle of the block from Centre St to 1st Street, from 2nd to 3rd Avenues SW; this means there is no loss of “mom and pop” shops.  Rather, the development has the potential to add much needed modern retail and restaurant space that Dai and Yang suggest on the lower floors, with residential above.

The site is already surrounded by residential buildings 15-storeys high to the east and west and office towers 28-storeys to the north, so the addition of three towers in the 20 to 27-storey range is not without precedent.   The site would also support a +15 bridge to Sun Life Plaza, meaning that anyone living there could walk to work downtown without a car, coat or umbrella!

It would be a perfect “live, work, play” block for young professionals and empty nesters – Chinese and non-Chinese.

Many blame the lack of parking in Chinatown for its decline yet there are over 600 heated underground parking spots just a block away that are available in the evening and weekend. 

Catch 22

Calgary’s Chinatown can’t attract modern retailers and restaurants until it has larger, modern buildings for them to locate in, as well as a younger population who will support them.  At the same time, Chinatown can’t attract young professionals (Chinese and otherwise) until it has modern condos (with amenities), as well as modern restaurants and retail.

Ironic

Calgary’s Hon Family has owned the site for decades. So it isn’t as if an outsider has come into the community looking to make a quick buck.  The Hon Family, long time homebuilders in Calgary, has only recently entered the high-rise development business with the handsome twin Guardian condos in Victoria Park, next to Stampede Park.  The high-rise division is being managed by the millennial generation of Hons, i.e. the exact demographic who should be the target market for their new Chinatown development.

Dragon City Mall in Calgary's chinatown is a ghost town every time I visit.  The streets of Chinatown are devoid of people other than at lunchtime on weekdays and dim sum time on weekends.

chinatown, calgary

Chinese Decentralization

Harry Hiller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary thinks Chinatowns in cities across North America are losing their role as residential, retail and restaurant centers as the Chinese population decentralizes to multiple suburban locations.

However he thinks there might still be a role for Chinatowns as a central gathering place for family and community celebrations. He points out to the increasing popularity of the Vancouver’s Spring Festival Parade in celebration of the Lunar New Year that attracts 100,000 spectators.

Similarly, John Gilchrist, CBC Calgary Eyeopener restaurant reviewer thinks, “Over the past couple of decades, as Calgary grew, new Chinese restaurants opened in many suburbs, drawing attention away from the classic Chinatown restaurants. But since the flood of 2013, Chinatown has seen an influx of new owners, many of whom brought investment and new culinary ideas from China. So Chinatown looks fresher and has more to offer these days.”

Last Word

Calgary’s Chinatown is definitely not going to survive as a seniors’ ghetto.

Now is the perfect time to begin reinventing our Chinatown into a 21st century Asiatown that will add a new dimension to our downtown and reflect the new global world we all share.

The unintended consequences of City Council’s delay of their decision on the land-use amendment until December 2016, to allow for more community engagement could be to further divide Calgary’s already fragmented Chinatown community.  What is needed is decisive decision making by Council, landowners and businessmen that will allow Chinatown to evolve into a thriving 21st century urban village.

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Banff Trail Flaneuring Postcards

It all started with the need for an oil and filter change!

As I drive a Nissan Altima and Stadium Nissan is five minute drive away and they had just sent me an email saying I could get an express oil and filter change for $49.99, I headed out for what I thought would be a 30-minute uneventful trip. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately depending how you look at it) they found a cracked belt of some sort and said they could fix it but would take an hour.  I said, “Go ahead and fix it. I will go for a walk and be back in an hour.”

Stadium Nissan is aptly named as it is beside Calgary’s McMahon Stadium home of the Calgary Stampeders.  My first stop on my walkabout was the pedestrian bridge over Crowchild Trail.  I am a sucker for taking photos of bridges and this one has a lovely blue tower in the middle that harmonizes nicely with the blue sky (regular readers will know that I have an obsession with Calgary’s blue skies). 

McMahon Stadium pedestrian bridge Calgary

A sense of place

After taking a few photos, the Banff Trail LRT station grabbed my attention. Immediately I was struck by what looked like several Stampede football players hanging out in full uniform at the station, or at least that is what it looked like from a distance.  I knew this couldn’t be true as they were in Winnipeg that night for a game.  However, the vinyl silhouettes looking very real from a distance, added an intriguing sense of place to the quaint station that looks a bit like a mountain hiker’s hut.   

Banff Trail LRT station design appropriately looks a bit like a hiking hut or shelter. 

From a distance these cutouts look like real players. Kudos to those responsible for this initiative.  I love the hashtag "whatever it takes" and think it could be expanded to apply to Calgary in general. 

I loved the playfulness of the light caused by the trees and the gate. 

Ghost town

Continuing walking into the community I was stuck by the huge mid-century, flat-roofed ranch style duplexes on the corners and how different they are to the two-storey infills being built today.   In fact the entire community felt a like a walk back in time.  It was also strange as it felt like a ghost town – there was nobody walking along the sidewalks, playing in the huge playing fields or playgrounds. In fact, there weren’t even any cars on the roads; it was deserted despite it being mid-afternoon on a beautiful July day.

 

I was soon struck by how on many of the corner lots there were this bungalow duplexes, which got me thinking about how housing design has evolved in Calgary over the past 50+ years. 

In this collage you can see mid 20th century duplexes that are dotted throughout Calgary's established communities. On the right you can see the two-storey duplexed that are replacing single homes in almost every Calgary community. 

Anywhere Anytime

For me, it was a lovely Thursday afternoon in July for flaneuring.  What I love about flaneuring is you can do it anytime and anywhere and you’ll almost always are rewarded with a few fun surprises.  You also don’t need any special clothing or equipment.

You just need to do it!

PS...Yes my car was ready when I got back to Stadium Nissan almost exactly an hour later. 

Found this mysterious grotto-like garden at the entrance to the Ecole St. Pius X School at the corner of 23rd Ave and 18th St. NW (technically in Capitol Hill as 18th Street is the dividing line)

Inside is a wonderful, eerie perspective on the outside world. 

This mural on the side of the Banff Trail Community Centre intrigued me to wander up for a closer look which is when I discovered their lovely community garden complete with an orchard. 

Community gardens are becoming the new yoga in Calgary. 

Wouldn't this make a great postcard?

Across the street from the community centre I noticed a new, hip, urban, window reflection and had to take a picture.  While it was closed, Jay's mom was in the store and she let me in for a tour.  I must go back to sample the pizza (both Greek and Neapolitan style dough) and perhaps pick up a charcuterie plate. Note: there is no seating takeout only.

I was almost back to Stadium Nissan when I discovered this calf wandering out of a backyard. I always love a surprise. 

Affordable Housing Can Also Be Attractive!

Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation (AHCC) has engage some of Calgary's leading contemporary architectural firms - NORR, Sturgess, Nyhoff and Hindle to designing affordable and attractive homes for Calgarians. 

The Courtyard designed by Sturgess' for Attainable Homes' condo in Mount Pleasant creates a playful shared space for residents, as well as enhancing the amount of light into the homes. 

NORR Architecture

In the established neighbourhood of Glenbrook, AHCC teamed up with Truman Homes and NORR architects to build Glenbrook Park, a 60-unit apartment and townhome condo project.  Yes this is the same developer, Truman Homes who is currently responsible for the funky Kensington Legion project in West Hillhurst.  NORR one of Calgary’s largest architectural firms, it is a leader in residential design with projects like Savoy in West Hillhurst, Ezera at Riley Park in Hillhurst and Aura I and II in the Beltline. 

Glenbrook Park’s unique exterior combines deep red, tan, white and dark grey vinyl siding in horizontal and vertical profiles, with bold white balconies that combined with cultured stone accents and a flat roof create a contemporary design.  “The biggest difference between this project and other infill condos is there is no underground parking which saved about $30,000 per unit, significantly enhancing the affordability,” says NORR’s Vice President, Business Development, Bruce McKenzie.

NORR's Glenbook condos for Attainable Homes.

Sturgess Architecture

Architect Kevin Harrison at Sturgess Architecture, Calgary's leading boutique architectural firm, designed AHCC's Mount Pleasant project.  The building is composed of 31-units arranged in two linear blocks, consisting of a two-storey townhouse base with two floors of apartment above with an internal courtyard.  

At street level, the townhouses front doors opening to the sidewalk creates a compatible street edge with existing homes.  The courtyard facilitates increased sunlight and views from both the street and alley units and creates a greater sense of community via the shared space. 

In addition, by recessing south facing patios and extruding north facing patios, residents have with natural shading for the former and sunlight for the later in the summer months, as well as create more visual interest.

Nyhoff Architects

AHCC’s Varsity 4818 is a 26-unit townhouse development in Varsity designed by Nyhoff Architects, who have a reputation for creating quirky designs.  Their projects include the King Edward School transformation into an “Arts Hub and Incubator” and the redevelopment of the St. Louis Hotel in East Village. 

For Varsity, Nyhoff had created a very contemporary design that allows the rectangular shapes of the white balconies, dark windows and entrance with just a hint of lime green play off each other to create a bold contemporary statement that could fit into East Village.  Nobody would suspect this to be an affordable housing complex. 

Varsity 4818 is Nyhoff Architects uses bold colour to create a contemporary townhouse development for Attainable Homes. 

Hindle Architects

In Bowness, AHCC’s newest project is on a site originally slated to be used for the Sarcee Trail expansion. Architect Jesse Hindle (yes, the same architect Brookfield Residential used for their Altadore 36 and Henry in Parkdale condo projects) took inspiration from the distinctive jagged rooftop of nearby Sunnyside Greenhouses to create 50 fun and funky new homes.

Hindle explains “the architecture of the project is inspired by the form, rhythm and materials of the neighbouring nursery greenhouses to create a buffer between the busy commercial/industrial activity to the east and the residential neighbourhood to the west.  The townhouse's sheet metal facades introduce a colour scheme for each home (composed of burgundy, orange and red panels) that link the buildings to the site's landscape and the continuous flow of CP Rail cars that give the site its unique character.”

Hindle's ARRIVE at Bowness creates a lovely visual rhythm that reflects both the roof of the nearby Sunnyside Greenhouses and that of a long line rail cars. 

Attainable Homes 101

Attainable Homes (a wholly owned subsidiary of The City of Calgary) partners with builders and developers to obtain homes at a discount and then passes on the savings onto the homebuyers, the caveat being when you sell your home AHCC gets part of the appreciation. For example, if the home is sold in 1 to 2 years, the owner keeps 25% of any appreciation; after 2 to 3 years, the appreciation is split 50/50 and after 3+ years the homebuyer keeps 75%.

To date AHCC has sold over 500 homes that have enhanced and diversified the housing stock in 19 Calgary communities.

Last Word

“I think we’ve been successful in engaging a variety of architects who have brought creative approaches to finding ways to make interesting building that can be priced at a point that makes the homes affordable to hard-working Calgarians” states Jamie Findlay, Development Manager, AHCC. 

An edited version of this blog was published in Condo Living Magazine's July Issue. 

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Sunnyside's containR site ideal for affordable housing

Everyday Tourist looks at Calgary's efforts to provide affordable living options in one of its most expensive City Centre communities. 

Our City Councillors continue to talk about the need for more affordable housing but nothing seems to happen. The latest rant came from Councillor Woolley who was invited by CBC News to write a New Year’s message to Calgarians as part of its “Calgary at a Crossroads” series of guest editorials. Woolley’s, piece “Why we need to work our asses off,” focused on the City’s need for more affordable housing.  He stated that over the past two years, the City of Calgary had not put a single new subsidized home on the market, adding “On Council, we commission dreamy reports that are long on process but short on action.”

Okay the, its time for Woolley and his colleagues to start walking the talk.  I challenge Council and Administration to design and approve a residential development for the unique city-owned containR site in Sunnyside at the corner of 2nd Ave and 9th Street SW by the end of 2016.  It is my understanding the site has been earmarked for a mix of affordable and market housing for years.  I also understand the immediate neighbours and community are more or less on side, subject to seeing actual design plans.  So why has nothing happened?

I also challenge Council and Administration to make this Calgary’s first large-scale sea-container building, knowing Sunnyside Councillor Farrell has suggested in the past that container construction has many advantages for affordable housing. Surely it can’t be that difficult to make this happen.

containR site is used for a variety of art events.

Container Construction 101

There are many benefits to container construction for residential development. The biggest being it is very cost effective. It is cost-effective because 80% of the on-site activities are moved indoors, meaning optimization of materials and labour, reduction of theft and fewer lost hours due to inclement weather.  As well, because it is metal, it is non-combustible, making it safer.  Also it doesn’t warp or shrink and has the capacity for superior sound-insulation between units, making container buildings quieter.  They can also be constructed to heights of 12 storeys, making them ideal for affordable housing projects on larger sites.

And when it comes to infill development, neighbours and communities will love the fact that on-site, container-based construction happens 30 to 50% faster than conventional construction, meaning a significant decrease in the inconvenience of road and/or sidewalk closures and noise. Container construction is also environmentally-friendly given the repurposing of surplus shipping containers.

Backstory: Calgary, as one of North America’s largest inland ports, has a surplus of sea containers.   Yes, literally thousands of sea containers arrive in Calgary every month via rail or truck from China and other countries full of everything from electronics to furniture. With nothing to send back many become surplus. 

From a design perspective, container buildings don’t have to look significantly different than current new multi-family residential buildings, both in their exterior or interiors.  From the street, they can have a funky, colourful, industrial urban look or they can be clad with vinyl siding to fit with neighbouring suburban homes.

In a nutshell, container condos are “cheaper, faster and better” than conventional wood or concrete multi-family residential construction. This makes them very attractive for affordable housing construction.

Ladacor is a Calgary company that is becoming a leader in container construction. 

Economic Diversity

Calgary-based Ladacor has developed an “Advanced Modular System,” a proprietary modular construction method that allows for high quality container construction, which meets if not exceeds all Canadian Safety Approval standards. Ladacor is on the leading edge of container construction in North America, having already built the largest container hotel in Canada.  A local demonstration container project could be just what Calgary needs to create more jobs and become North America’s leading contain construction headquarters.  What’s holding us back?

containR site would add much needed density and diversity to the nearby Kensington Village

containR site is ideal for an affordable housing project with a Safeway just a block away, as well as an LRT station, meaning owning a car is optional. 

Last Word

It is almost too good to be true that Sunnyside’s temporary containR park (with several containers already on site) is the perfect location for Calgary’s first affordable housing project in a few years and our first container building. 

My plea to Council, Administration and Sunnyside community - please fast-track the design and approval of the “Sunnyside Container Village” as model affordable development by the end of 2016, with people moving in by early 2018.  Let’s be “short on process and get those asses working.” 

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Austin & Calgary: Sister Cities?

By the numbers, there are some amazing similarities between Austin and Calgary.  Both are young highly educated cities – Austin’s average age is 31 with 46% of Austinites having a postsecondary degree.  Calgary’s average age is 36, with 60% having postsecondary education.

Austin’s is a rapidly growing city. Its current population of 912,791 is growing by 150+ people a day.  Calgary with a population of 1,200,000 was the fastest growing city in Canada according to Stats Canada – growing 13% (from 2006 to 2011).

Like Calgary, Austin is young and active.  This is the pedestrian bridge over the Lady Bird Lake, aka Colorado River with Austin's 2nd Avenue condos in the background that look very much like Calgary's East Village. 

Like Calgary, Austin has a downtown skatepark, not as large as Calgary's but it definitely attracts some talented athletes. 

Calgary's Peace Bridge, designed by world famous bridge architect Santiago Calatrava is a popular playground for Calgary's young and restless. 

Love Their Rivers

Both Austinites and Calgarians love their rivers - the Colorado River and Barton Creek in Austin and the Bow and Elbow Rivers in Calgary.  Both cities have very busy river pathway systems packed with walkers, cyclists and runners when weather permits (not too cold in Calgary and not too hot in Austin). 

Austin's river pathways are very popular on weekends. 

It is very common in Austin to see boats of all types in Lady Bird Lake...in the distance is a fishing boat. 

Calgarians love their green beaches like this one in Stanley Park. 

Fishing on the Bow River in Calgary.  

River surfing on the Bow River. 

In the summer, thousands of Calgarians raft on the Elbow and Bow Rivers in Calgary. 

Party Towns

Austin’s infamous SXSW, a huge 10-day film, music, interactive media technology festival / trade show / conference generates $411 CDN million into the city’s economy in 2015 and attracted 140,000 participants.

By comparison, the 10-day Calgary Stampede annually attracts over 1 million (350,000 being out-of-town visitors) for concerts, rodeo, chuckwagon races, grandstand show, midway rides and agricultural exhibition.  Its annual economic impact is estimated at $350 CDN million.

Austin's Kite festival is an amazing site and a fun family party. 

Look carefully and you will see that most of the people are dressed up as they have just participated in Calgary's POW - Parade of Wonder as part of Calgary Expo aka Comic-Con. 

Music Cities

Austin bills itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” with 100+ live music venues and its world famous Austin City Lights music program.  Everybody gets into hosting live music in Austin from grocery stores to the airport.

The City’s historic music district is downtown along East 6th St. a grungy street resembles Calgary’s Electric Avenue (11th Ave) back in the ‘80s.  Home to numerous loud and seedy bars, as well as the 1929 Ritz theatre, it is more a tacky tourist street than a serious music district.  Today, the best music venues are in neighbourhoods outside of downtown.

Calgary is in its infancy as an emerging international music city boasting an International Folk Festival, SLED Island as well as numerous smaller emerging music festivals. Calgary has only a handful of live music venues and only a few that offer live music 7 days a week.  (Some of Austin’s venues offer 3 acts a day - happy hour, headliner and midnight band.)  The opening of the National Music Centre will definitely enhance our city’s reputation internationally.

Stephen Avenue is Calgary’s equivalent to Austin’s East 6th Avenue as downtown’s primary pedestrian oriented street.  However, Stephen Avenue is a more attractive and diverse street with its mix of shops, restaurants, concert and performance theatres, art house cinema and restored historical buildings. 

Just one of hundreds of live music venues in Austin offering a plethora of genres of music. 

Calgary's Tim Williams at the Blues Can. Williams won the International Blues Competition in 2014. 

Urban Living

Urban living in Austin is booming.  Although the current downtown population is only 12,000 it has been growing rapidly with 6,832 condos and apartments built since 2000 and another 2,000 currently under construction.  

However, this pales in comparison to Calgary’s 36,000 urban dwellers.  Urban living is also booming in Calgary with almost 15,000 new residential units since 2000 and 2,200 under construction.

Austin’s budding 2nd Street urban village, looks amazingly similar to Calgary’s East Village with several shinny new high-rise white condo towers, a new library and City Hall and sprinkling of shops, Whole Foods and Trader Joes grocery stores and a signature pedestrian bridge over the river. 

Austin’s 82,000 downtown employees work in 9 million square feet of office space (1.3 million square ft. under construction), 7,800 hotel rooms (2,140 under construction) and hundreds of restaurants, retailers and bars in 1.9 million square feet of commercial space.

By comparison, Calgary City Centre (downtown and Beltline) roughly the same size as Austin’s downtown) has 150,000+ employees occupying over 40 million square feet of offices, 4,000 hotel rooms (500 under construction) and 1,000+ retailers and restaurants in whopping 6.4 million square feet.

Downtown Austin has no department store, indoor mall or shopping street; shopping is scattered all over the place.  Austin has nothing to match Calgary’s historic Bay Store, Holt Renfrew or the stunning The CORE shopping centre. 

Austin also lacks a contiguous historic district like Stephen Avenue or Inglewood. However, Austin does a much better job of animating its downtown corners with outdoor patios, rather than the banks and office lobbies dominating Calgary’s corners.

A view of downtown Austin from South Congress aka SoCo.  SoCo is a an eclectic pedestrian street (despite being a major road) with shops, restaurants, music venues, great patios and numerous permanent food trucks on empty lots. 

Austin's 2nd Avenue District is blooming as an urban village with new condos, two grocery stores and shops. 

Austin's condo skyline. 

The Core in downtown Calgary is a three block long indoor shopping mall with 1 hectare indoor garden.  

Stephen Avenue is Calgary's downtown Main Street and a National Historic District linking the Olympic Plaza Cultural District with the Financial District.  Austin has nothing like Calgary's iconic Hudson Bay department store. 

Urban Street Life

Austin’s hip street is SoCo (South Congress Avenue), which, like Calgary’s Kensington Village, is on the other side of the river from downtown.  Even with South Congress Avenue’s six lanes of traffic, it supports a vibrant street life with a great mix of shops, restaurants, bars and live music venues.

What makes SoCo outstanding is its outdoor culture.  Austin’s climate allows Austinites to play outdoors year-round – there are patios everywhere, live music is played on the front lawns and empty lots and food trailers occupy what would be surface parking lots in Calgary.   Every weekend SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere!

Kensington’s container bar and a few outdoor patios pales in comparison. On the other hand, Kensington boasts a better café culture and more infill residential development.

While, SoCo provides Austinites with a vibrant street culture, it is the only game in town, with nothing to match Calgary’s 17th Ave, 11th Avenue or Inglewood.

On weekends Austin's SoCo takes on a festival atmosphere. 

Gueros on SoCo is famous for its free live entertainment. 

SoCo has numerous quirky shops. 

Austinites love their Tacos. 

Calgary's 17th Avenue is popular urban playground even in the winter; this photo was taken in February. 

Cafe Beano on 17th Avenue is perhaps where Calgary's cafe culture began back in the '80s. It is popular with both artists and CEOs. 

Analog Coffee on 17th Avenue the new kid on the block. 

Calgary's Kensington Village offers lots of urban surprises given its proximity to the Alberta College of Art and Design and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. 

One of the best surprises in Kensington Village is the Container Bar. 

Kensington Village is also home to Calgary's year-round flea market and summer farmers' market. 

Big Differences

The biggest difference between Austin and Calgary is in transit use.  We never saw Austin’s LRT and bus service is limited.   Thank God for car2go, which allowed us to explore Austin’s outlying business revitalization zones by day and music venues by night.

We stayed in a lovely Airbnb in the upscale Clarksville community, which we thought would be convenient for walking. We quickly discovered sidewalks in poor condition (or non-existent), and very few streetlights making walking at night treacherous.

While there were some lovely homes, Austinites’ pride of home ownership seems much lower than in Calgary’s inner-city communities – even desirable neighbourhoods have lots of unkept properties, weed-infested lawns and gardens and crumbling sidewalks.

Calgary has one of the busiest Light Rapid Transit systems in North America. 

Austinites love to dance - as soon as the music starts people get up and dance. 

Austin condos have above ground parkades like this one, whereas Calgary condos and office buildings have their parking underground. 

Downtown Calgary has 40 million square feet of office space, making it one of the top 10 in North America, compared to Austin's 10 million square feet. 

Last Word

In my humble opinion, after visits to Austin and Portland (considered by many urbanists as two of the best emerging urban cities) Calgary offers as many - or more - urban amenities.

Unfortunately, Calgary continues to fly under the radar with planners and tourists as an emerging urban playground. 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled "City Scenes: Austin vs Calgary," June 11, 2018

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Calgary's Chinatown Postcards

Chinatowns are fun places to flaneur in any city. Recently, I found myself near Calgary's Chinatown on a sunny spring afternoon with some time to wander so thought I'd check it out. 

I am sad to report it was like a ghost town - no street vitality, shops were empty (many vacant) and many of the building were looking very tired.  For example The Opulence Centre, with HSBC as its anchor, should be an embarrassment for both the bank and the building owner. 

Calgary's Chinatown lacks the hustle and bustle, clutter and chatter that is commonly associated with a healthy chinatown.  

Below are photos of Calgary's Chinatown - the good, the bad and the ugly!

Racy dolls found in Dragon City Mall shop window.

Flickering spring sun on Chinatown's Golden Happiness Plaza and Bakery. 

Archway to Chinese Seniors Centre provides a wonderful vista of the Centre Street Bridge and its iconic lions. 

Chinatown's bilingual culture. 

Chinatown's street vitality includes cars parked on the sidewalk, while street parking spots sit empty and only seniors on the sidewalks.  

One of Chinatown's many lions, with office tower looming in the background. It looks angry!

This fun dragon cut-out that can be found on the railing of Chinatown shop is just one of the many urban surprises. 

Another dragon adorns the entrance to the indoor Dragon City Mall. 

Another fun urban surprise. 

Next to the Bow River, this fish wall is yet another surprise.  

Dragon City Mall has been empty every time in have visited for over a decade. 

Who knew Calgary's Chinatown has a street art alley? 

A Chinatown alley waiting for a couple of murals? 

Super Hero Window in Dragon City Mall.

Colourful Chinatown retail display. 

   Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese Cultural Centre with downtown office towers looming in the background

Last Word 

It would be a shame to lose Calgary's Chinatown as it has been part of our downtown for over 100 years and has the potential to add so much charm and character next to our central business district.  

It should also be a vibrant fun urban playground, not only for those living in Chinatown but all of Calgary's City Centre residents. 

Learn more about Calgary's Chinatown: Link to Calgary's Chinatown History 

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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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The rise of the wood frame condo!

 

Everyday Tourist looks at how Calgary's Centre Street N could become the showcase for how wood frame condos can revitalize established neighbourhoods, not only in Calgary but other cities. 

Not only in Calgary, but across Canada, cities and provinces have revised their building codes to allow for wood-framed condo construction up to six-floor from the previous four.   British Columbia was first in 2009 and now has hundreds of five and six storey wood-framed condos.

Proposed Tigerstedt Block on Centre street with retail at street level and condos above. 

Why is this important? 

Because it allows for increased density of on infill condos urban sites that previously would have had to use more expensive concrete foundations. Championed by Rollin Stanley (City of Calgary’s Planning, General Manager) Calgary changed its regulations in November 2014 with the hope it would foster slightly larger and lower price point infill condos in established communities along transit corridors, as well as greenfield projects in new communities. 

In an email response to an inquiry to Stanley asking about the city’s development community’s uptake and lessons learned on the new development opportunity he indicated:

One of the challenges for six-storey wood as for any six-floor building is the parking requirement.  If the requirement drives a second level of concrete underground parking, the economics of any six-storey building is challenging. 

We need to address our parking requirement, which is high by most other cities.

We have had lots of preliminary discussions for six-storey wood framed condos, but mostly in the greenfield areas where large sites with one storey of underground parking make it feasible.

We are looking at promoting five and six-storey condos at as part of our Main Streets initiative.  Makes sense given good transit on those routes

To date the City has received two condo applications under the new building code ironically both on Centre Street North – Centro (5-storeys) and Tigerstedt Block (6-storeys).

Centro condo under construction at the corner of Centre Street and 20th Ave. 

Educate, Educate, Educate

In addition, Jayman Modus is currently working on Westman Village (a high-end, 6-storey, 900-unit urban village project) in Lake Mahogany.  In chatting with Wallace Chow, VP Development at Jayman Modus, he enlightened me that one of the key issues for developers to move from four to six-storey buildings is to educate Calgary’s workforce on the new techniques and code issues associated with this type of construction.  “You don’t build a 6-storey wood-framed building the same way you do a four-story” he emphasized. 

Another challenge Wallace and his team face is educating the public about wood-framed condos. For example, the biggest fire issue for wood framed condos isn’t after the condo is constructed, but during construction. He noted that new sprinkler regulations, fire-rated drywall and construction techniques have resulting in significant improvements in fire safety for wood-framed condos.  

Another challenge is people’s perception wood frame condos are nosier than concrete. Jayman Modus has noise tested their new wood building construction with concrete and it is the equivalent of an 8” concrete wall.

For their Lake Mahogany project, he has hired Integra Architecture out of Vancouver as they have the most experience with six-story condos.  If all things go as planned people will be moving into Westman Village in Q4 of 2017.

Last Word

The Tigerstedt Block (named after the 1930s photo studio that was located in the building with the Art Deco neon sign) is what the City had in mind when they approved increasing the height of wood framed condos.

Currently Leaseco Certus Development Inc. (LCDI) has submitted an application for a development permit. If approved, it will transform an entire block of Centre Street into an attractive (white brick with black steel industrial balconies and trim) human scale (6-storeys) building with retail at street level and condos above. Residents will be able to walk, cycle or take quick transit ride downtown. 

Tigerstedt Block could be the revitalization catalyst for Centre Street North as a vibrant pedestrian street with shops, cafes and restaurants.

LCDI has two other properties on Centre Street that are ripe for redevelopment, if their first one succeeds.  Lets hope it does

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The rise of the mid-rise condo!

It seems like in every major North America city these days the mid-rise is becoming the most popular built-form for infill condos in established communities.  In Calgary, once you get out of the City Centre (17th Ave SW to the Bow River, from Stampede Park to 14th St. SW) the mid-rise is the dominant condo type. 

Pixel condo is now complete and its sister condo Lido is under construction in Kensington Village.  

Calla condo next to Lougheed House gardens, is surrounded older mid-rise residential development from the '80s in Calgary's trendy Beltline community.    

Allowing development of more mid-rise condos along transit corridors in the GTA would open affordable home-ownership options and help revitalize commercial "dead zones," a new report says. (Toronto Star) Avenues and Mid-Rise Study City of Toronto Report

What is a mid-rise? 

Well there are a multitude of definitions out there but the most common is a five to 11 storey building.  The reason for five is until recently most building codes allowed wood frame buildings to be a maximum of four storeys, above that it had to be concrete.  It was convenient to make the break between low-rise and mid-rise at four storeys the same as the transition from wood to concrete. 

I am not sure why the division between mid-rise and high-rise is at 11-storeys.  My theory is mid-rise buildings are often marketed as being human scale; meaning humans walking along the street don’t feel dwarfed by them as they do with highrises, but I don’t see what is the magic in 11-storeys vs. 10 or 15 depending on the site.

Mid-rise office buildings are also important for creating vibrant urban communities. Meredith Block Edmonton Trail at Memorial Drive. 

Benefit of a Mid-rise

Today in Calgary when a mid-rise is proposed in an established community next to a single-family homes, city planners and developers try to convince the neighbours a mid-rise has minimal impact when it comes to shadowing, traffic and parking issues.

Try telling that to the neighbours of the Kensington Legion site redevelopment or the Ezra condos at Riley Park (5th Ave and 13th Street NW) where proposed 8-storey condos were/are being vehemently opposed by the neighbours.  In Inglewood, the neighbours protested the AVLI condo that was 2.5 meters above the allowed height.  Obviously height matters!

There are many benefits of a mid-rise to the city, developer and the community. 

Kensington Road Legion site is currently being redeveloped with a low-rise office building on the left and mid-rise condo on the right. It is a good example of a developer willing to employ some enhance design elements to create a less box-like condo. 

From the city’s perspective a mid-rise creates more density, more quickly i.e. one mid-rise can have two or three times the number of people as a low-rise condo. This creates more immediate utilization of transit, bike lanes, parks etc.  It also means the city only has to spend time with one development application instead of three.

From the developers point-of-view a mid-rise means can be develop on sites that are too large for low-rise and two small for high-rise buildings.  They also don’t need to sell as many units in advance before construction can start and construction can take half the time as say a 20 or 30 storey high-rise. This means they can take advantage of shorter windows of opportunities in the market.

  An example of impact of mid-rise condo on the neighbouring properties in Marada Loop.  In this case these houses have become incubators for small businesses. Altadore and South Calgary are good example of evolving established community. 

An example of impact of mid-rise condo on the neighbouring properties in Marada Loop.  In this case these houses have become incubators for small businesses. Altadore and South Calgary are good example of evolving established community. 

From the community’s perspective, they get increased density in one building rather than three or four, which means the roads and sidewalk disruption time is reduced.  Also the increased density can mean better bus service, improvements to parks, school enrollment, new restaurants, cafes, medical services and increased the viability of existing small businesses.

Mid-rise condos are ideal for transit-oriented development next to Calgary’s LRT station.  The twin 10-storey Renaissance Towers at North Hill Mall, next to Lions Park are a good example of creating good density in an established community.  The same could be said for 9-storey The Groves of University at the Dalhousie Station.

One of the things I love about mid-rise buildings is that they offer more opportunities for creative designs than low-rise and high-rise condos, which seem to all look the same i.e. variations on a rectangle.

In My Opinion

I don’t know what is so magical about four-storeys condos, but many Calgarians seem to think is the absolute maximum height for any condos near single-family homes.

Rather than focusing on the density and height of new infill condos, I think we should be focusing on the quality of the design of the building and the overall impact it will have on the entire community and city - not just the immediate neighbours.

St. John's condo on 10th Street NW in Kensington Village.

Mid-rise Madness

Currently in Calgary, there are many mid-rise condos recently completed, under construction or nearing final approval.  In Inglewood, AVLI a 7-storey condo is starting construction across the street from the funky Art Atlantic building.  Bridgeland has two mid-rises; Bridgeland Crossing (8-storeys) is nearing completion and Radius (7-storeys) it getting ready for construction to start.

Casel condo with ground floor retail and second floor office is locates on 17th Avenue SW at the entrance to Crowchild Trail.  It is pioneered mid-rise condo development west of the City Centre

In Hillhurst, Battisella recently completed Pixel (perhaps one of the coolest entrances for a condo I have ever seen) and Lido is currently under construction. Across the street from Lido, is Bucci’s Kensington condo that comes in at 6-storeys and then there is Ezra (named Ezra Hounsfield Riley who once owned all of the land that is today Hillhurst/Sunnyside) at Riley Park (5th Ave and 13th St SW) which will be 8-storeys.

In West Hillhurst, Truman has submitted a proposal to the City to rezone the huge Kensington Legion site for a 4-storey office and 8-storey condo (reduced from 10-storeys due to neighbours’ protest) that is very contemporary design that could be a new benchmark for urban living Calgary’s northwest quadrant. (Note: since this blog was written the Kensington Legion site redevelopment has been approved). 

Bridgeland Crossing is a good example of a mid-rise condo adjacent to an LRT Station and within easy walking and cycling distance to downtown. 

University City at the Brentwood Station includes two high-rise condo buildings, then transitions to mid-rise and  then town homes as it connects to the Brentwood community. This is phase one of a larger plan to create a transit-oriented village at the Brentwood LRT Station. 

Note: This blog was commissioned by Source Media for January Condo Living Magazine. 

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Calgary's NW quadrant is coming of age!

Surfing the realtor.ca website (which I am prone to do every once in awhile), I wondered how the economic downturn is impacting the sale of luxury homes in Calgary and area.  Plugging in a lower limit of one million dollars while keeping the screen the same size, I scrolled over the inner city communities immediately north and south of the Bow River and to quickly find how many homes met those criteria.

No surprise that Mount Royal, Roxboro, and Elbow Park resulted in the most hits (61). But what was surprising was West Hillhurst, Parkdale, St. Andrew’s Heights and Briar Hill (WPAB) got the second most hits (53).

SAIT campus expansion has resulted in some of Calgary's most interesting contemporary architecture. 

University City playful condos at Brentwood LRT station. 

Why is WPAB Booming?

The University of Calgary's campus has also added several architecturally significant buildings as part of their expansion. 

Calgary is segregated into four quadrants, each with its own economic engine.  The SW communities’ vibrancy is linked to downtown and the oil and gas engine, the SE neighbourhoods serve Calgary’s thriving warehouse/distribution engine, while the NE communities thrive on the every-expanding airport engine and the NW neighbourhoods support the city’s mega education and medical campuses. 

While downtown gets most of the attention as Calgary’s major employment centre, (as does the airport with its multi-billion dollar expansion), Calgary’s NW quadrant, aka The Learning City, has also experienced significant growth. In the past decade, SAIT and the University of Calgary have undertaken huge expansion programs, as has the mammoth Foothills Medical Centre campus. As well the Alberta Children’s Hospital moved to the NW in 2006 into a new mega building.  

Since 2001, SAIT has added four major new buildings including the opening of the 740,000 square foot Trades and Technology Complex that can accommodate 8,100 full and part time students.  Today SAIT has 2,600 faculty and 15,311 students (a 9% increase since 2012).  Similarly, student enrollment at the University of Calgary has grown from 24,000 in 2006 to 31,000 today, with a faculty of 1,800.

Alberta Children's Hospital will become part of the University of Calgary's new urban village called - University District (6,000 multi-family homes, 245,000 sf Main Street retail and 1.5 million square feet office).

These expansions bring with an increase in high-income earners. Sure, the doctors and professors don’t have the stock option plans of the oil patch, but their salaries and reasonably secure jobs are sufficient to support a strong luxury home market.

A quick check of the city’s website shows the median annual household income for a couple with children in WPAB ranges from Briar Hill’s $181,167 to Parkdale’s, $132,276, compared to the city average of $115,908. 

Today, custom homebuilders’ signs are commonplace in WPAB.

St. Andrew's Heights infill home. 

Location Location Location 

Beach volley ball fun at Parkdale Community Centre (ice rink in the winter)

WPAB is perfectly situated for a short commute (walk, bike, transit or vehicle) to all NW post-secondary and medical campuses; as well Mount Royal University is just a few minutes south on Crowchild Trail (except at rush hour). In addition, downtown is also minutes away for those oil patch employees, bankers and lawyers who want more bang for their housing buck.

WPAB is not only great for families with kids attending post-secondary schools, but also for those with young children.  There are literally playgrounds every few blocks; including Helicopter Park (named after the STARS helicopter that often flies overhead on its way to the Foothills Medical Centre and yes, it does include a helicopter climbing apparatus) one of the most popular playgrounds in the city.

When it comes to skating rinks, WPAB is charmingly old-school - several outdoor skating rinks exist and it is not uncommon to see dad out flooding the rink next to one of the playgrounds just like it was the 1950s all over again.

Residents of WPAB enjoy easy access to the Bow River Pathways, making for a short and easy bike ride to downtown for work or pleasure, or a nice, walk or run year-round.  From a recreation standpoint, the old-school West Hillhurst Recreation centre offers an arena, gym, squash courts and an outdoor pool and tennis courts.  As well, many amenities exist at SAIT and the University of Calgary, especially if you work there.

Culturally, a 10-minute drive in the evening gets you to downtown theatres or live music venues, the Jubilee Theatre as well as the University of Calgary and Mount Royal theatres and concert halls.  You can walk to McMahon Stadium for Stampeder games.  And if you want to get to the Rockies for skiing, boarding, hiking or biking, it is just 6 stoplights or less until you are out of town. 

Notable restaurant patio in northwest's Montgomery community.

Luxury Home Evolution 

West Hillhurst's historic Main Street includes Dairy Lane established in the '50s.

 Full disclosure: yes, I live in West Hillhurst and have lived there since the early ‘90s. When I first moved here, almost all of the infills were “skinnys,” i.e. houses on 25-foot lots.  However, about 15 years ago things started to change and more often than not these new infills were either large luxury homes on 50-foot lots, or attached duplexes that looked like mansions. 

Who would have thought 25 years ago that you could sell a duplex in West Hillhurst or Parkdale for over a million dollars? 

For over 20 years, I have observed new infills of all shapes, sizes and styles being built on almost every block in WPAB. Yet there are still many cottage homes from the 30s, 40s and 50s on almost every block in West Hillhurst and Parkdale.

The same phenomenon exists along the St. Andrew’s Heights and Briar Hill ridge, where multi-million dollar, multi-level, Architectural Digest - worthy homes are interspersed with what were luxury ranch homes in the 50s and 60s.

WPAB is testament to how healthy communities evolve slowly over time. I expect in another 20 years, my early ‘90s home will be ready for the next generation to move in and renovate or build something new that better meets the needs of mid-21st century families.

Roberto Ostberg Gallery Bee Kingdom reception in northwest's Capitol Hill Village. 

Kensington Village's Container Bar. 

The University of Calgary's West Campus Development Trust is planning to create Main Street as part of their University District that will be similar to 10th St and Kensington Road NW.

Last Word 

While some may think the infilling of Calgary’s inner city communities is happening too quickly, in fact, it is happening gradually over decades – there are still lots of older homes on most streets.

Healthy communities evolve over time in a manner that will attract new families who will keep them viable and vibrant.

Calgary's inner city northwest communities are becoming very cool urban places to live, work and play. 

Note: This blog was commissioned by Source Media for their Domus Magazine in January 2016. 

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Container Condo Coming Soon to Calgary?

For decades one of the key decisions for savvy condo buyers has been “Do I want to live in a concrete or wood building?”  Concrete buildings are quieter, fire-resistant and can be built higher thus offering better views.  On the other hand, wood-framed multi-family buildings’ biggest benefit to the purchaser is that they are cheaper. For the developer, the biggest negative of wood-framed buildings was they could only be four storeys high; this has been increased to six storeys recently. 

Ladacor massive warehouse workshop.

However, there soon may be a new kid in town - container buildings. Around the world, reusing heavy steel sea containers as building blocks (think Lego) to create multi-family buildings is all the rage. It is only a matter of time before it happens in Calgary.

In fact, Calgary could well become a leader in contain construction for two reasons. First, as one of North America’s largest inland ports, we have a surplus of sea containers.   Yes, literally thousands of sea containers arrive in Calgary every month via rail or truck from China and other countries full of everything from electronics to furniture. With nothing to send back they become surplus. 

Second, Calgary-based Ladacor has developed an “Advanced Modular System,” a proprietary modular construction method that allows for high quality container construction which meets if not exceeds all Canadian Safety Approval standards and can be used to construct buildings up to 12-storeys high.  Ladacor is on the leading edge, having already built the largest container hotel in Canada, are currently in discussion with developers to pilot a multi-family residential building in Alberta. Will it be Edmonton or Calgary?

  Containers for hotel under construction.

Containers for hotel under construction.

There are many benefits to container construction for condominiums.  Perhaps the biggest being it is very cost effective - 10% less than wood-framed.  It is cost-effective partly because 80% of the on-site activities are moved indoors, which means optimization of materials, labour and reduction of theft and lost hours due to inclement weather.  Because it is metal, it is non-combustible making it safer and it doesn’t warp or shrink and allows for superior sound-insulation between units, container buildings are quieter.

When it comes to infill development, neighbours and communities will love the fact that on-site, container-based construction happens 30 to 50% faster than conventional construction, which means significant decrease in the inconvenience of road and sidewalk closures.

Container construction is also environmentally-friendly given the repurposing of surplus shipping containers. From a design perspective, container buildings don’t have to look significantly different current condos both in their exterior or interiors.  From the street they can have a funky colourful industrial urban look or they can be clad with vinyl siding to fit with neighbouring suburban homes.

In a nutshell, container condos are “cheaper, faster and better” than conventional condo construction. This should make them very attractive to purchasers and developers.  In addition, from a developer’s perspective the buildings are occupied sooner than conventional construction, which means a quicker return on investment.

  Sunnyside's Container Park is an ideal site Calgary's first shipping container condo building. 

Sunnyside's Container Park is an ideal site Calgary's first shipping container condo building. 

Last Word 

Calgary, for all of its talk of entrepreneurship and innovation, is still a pretty conservative market when it comes to home buying.  It is only in the last decade that Calgarians have really embraced the idea of condo living.  Could the next step in Calgary’s urban living evolution be to embrace container living? 

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Calgary's 10th Ave Renaissance

While most of the talk about the urban living renaissance in Calgary has revolved around the neighbourhoods of Bridgeland/Riverside, Eau Claire, East Village, Inglewood and Mission, Calgary’s warehouse district along 10th Avenue SW has been quietly flying under the radar.  For decades, 10th Avenue has been the wrong side of the tracks from downtown; a no man’s land between downtown and trendy Uptown 17th. 

The Canadian Pacific Railway's main line travels through Calgary's City Centre, dividing the central business district on the north side and the Beltline to the south. 

10th Avenue 101

The heyday for 10th Avenue was in the early 20th century when it was lined with bustling warehouses that stored goods being shipped to Calgary by the Canadian Pacific Railway.  For the first half of the 20th century, 10th Avenue served as the main distribution hub for all of southern Alberta.  Gradually, this role eroded away with the shift to truck transportation and the north side became overflow parking for downtown office workers.  Today it is home to two of Canada’s largest above ground parkades - City Centre Parkade, with 1530 stalls and Tower Parkade, with 1,398 stalls.

A view of the massive City Centre Parkade along north side of 10th Ave from 2nd to 4th Streets. 

I expect few people realize the current renaissance in urban living in Calgary actually started on 10th Avenue in 1993. That was when the 1909 Hudson Bay warehouse building at the corner of 10th Avenue and 5th Street SW was converted into the Hudson Loft condos (Calgary’s first warehouse loft conversion).

Today, 10th Avenue, from Macleod Trail to 11th Street is in the midst of a mega makeover into a mixed-use street with new office, retail, restaurant, residential and social service developments that rivals what is happening in East Village, albeit without all the fanfare and $500+ million of public realm improvements (library, museum, parks, plazas, underpasses, pedestrian bridges, designer sidewalks).

10th Ave surface parking lots next to the tracks. 

One of the many old warehouse buildings along 10th Avenue still remaining. 

Recent 10th Ave Developments

Strategic Group has approval to build a 32-storey mixed-use tower at the corner of 1st St. SE and 10th Avenue that will include 100,000 square feet of Class A office space on the bottom floors and 227 condo units above.

Kitty-corner is Aspen Properties’ 19-storey Palliser South office completed in 2009 on 10th Ave at Macleod Trail. The all-glass building’s strange upside down “L” shape was created by cantilevering the building overtop of the Tower Parkade, allowing the floor plates to increase in size from 10,785 square feet on the 3rd floor to 21,767 on the 19th.  The shape of the building is further enhanced by the fact that the light green glass on the east façade cantilevers over the sidewalk. Designed by Calgary’s Gibbs Gage Architects, it is one of my favourite buildings in Calgary.

A few blocks further west is 1010 Centre, the Mustard Seed’s 12-storey, 224-unit apartment tower that opened in 2014 after much controversy about the potential negative impact it would have on the livability of the surrounding blocks.  Time will tell if this is true.

Continuing westward, the south side of the 200 and 300 west blocks of 10th Avenue are the only blocks that have retained the warehouse character of 100 years ago with their timeless brick façades.  Today they home to some of Calgary’s best bars, restaurants and retailers – Briggs Kitchen + Bar, Craft Beer Market, HiFi Club, National on 10th, Roche Bobois, Rodney’s Oyster House and Thai Sa-On.

Cross over 4th Street SW and you will discover the work of Centron Group, who single-handedly changed this block of 10th Avenue with two massive, horizontal, shiny glass office buildings from 4th to 5th Streets – Centre 10 (completed in 2013) and Place 10 (scheduled to open in 2017).  Collectively, these buildings will add one million square feet of office space, enough for about 5,000 workers, as well as retail/restaurant spaces at street level for the likes of Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse.

Lamb Development Corp and Fortress Real Development are currently building the 31-storey, 6th and Tenth condo (named after the corner it is located on) that will have 230 units (about 400 new residents) right next to the busy and somewhat seedy Uptown Bottle Depot.

Construction has begun on GWL Realty Advisors’ mega makeover of the old Alberta Boot site on 10th Avenue west of 5th Street SW, right next to the tracks. When it is completed probably by 2018, it will include a block-long 4-storey podium of retail and restaurants with two towers, a 37-storey, 303-residential tower and a 33-storey, 390-room hotel.

Then there is Qualex Landmark(the unofficial king of the Beltline, having built more condos in the Beltline than any other builder) who is nearing completion of its sold-out 34-storey, 270-unit Mark on 10th condo tower at 8th Street and 10th Ave SW. This project not only includes street retail, but also a major public art work by internationally-acclaimed artist Douglas Coupland.  Right next door sits WAM Development Group’s 440 unit, 17 and 34 storey residential complex, with a series of small retail/restaurant spaces at street level. 

Last but not least, is Calgary Urban Project Society, which offers a variety of services to low income adults and families. It moved from its in 7th Avenue SW to its current home (three times larger) on 10th Avenue at 9th Street SW., in 2012, as a result of the Bow tower development.

Mark on 10th Tower is just one of several upscale condos currently under construction along 10th Avenue. 

10th Ave Improvements

Complementing these developments, 10th Avenue is getting two refurbished underpasses at First and and 8th Streets SW. that will provide enhanced pedestrian connections to the downtown, 7th Ave LRT corridor and Bow River parks and pathways.

The 8th Street underpass linking 10th Ave with downtown's 9th Ave is currently under construction to create a more pedestrian friendly connection.  

Computer rendering of what the 8th Street underpass will look like after renovations are completed in 2016. 

This rendering illustrates how cool the renovated First street underpass will look when completed in 2016. 

What is also great about living on 10th Ave is that there are four grocery stores easily accessible – Sunterra Market at Keynote, Safeway, Midtown Co-op and Community Natural Foods.  It will be a long time before East Village, Kensington or any other Calgary community can match that.  An added bonus is 10th Ave is home to MEC, which as one of my outdoor enthusiast friends likes to say, “If MEC doesn’t have it, I don’t need it.”

 

The Mountain Equipment Co-op store is the anchor for 10th Avenue retail that includes upscale private gallery, restaurants, bars, cycle shops and other outdoor stores. 

Last Word

Urban living is all about diversity - the mixing of people of different social/economic groups all on the same block enjoying an array of different activities. It is about sharing the sidewalks, back alleys and parks.  It is about embracing the differences that define us as a city, rather than letting those differences divide us.

Many in the past might have questioned, “Who would want to live, work and/or play next to the railway tracks?”  While others questioned, “Who would want to live next to the Uptown Bottle Depot, Calgary Urban Projects Society (CUPS) or the Mustard SEED homeless shelter?”  

The answer:  thousands of Calgarians are excited by these new urban living opportunities being created in the Beltline, Eau Claire, East Village, The Bridges, Inglewood or Kensington.  By 2020, 10th Avenue alone could have over 2,500 new people calling it home. 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald titled: "Warehouse District is being revitalized" January 2, 2016.

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