Airdrie: The Drivable City

Unlike Calgary’s other satellite cities - Cochrane, Canmore, High River, Okotoks and Strathmore - Airdrie doesn’t have a traditional downtown Main Street lined with historical buildings that once  were (and in some cases still are) shops, banks, hotels, pubs, post office, City Hall and Court House lining the sidewalk. 

Rather, Airdrie’s downtown Main Street is lined with free surface parking next to the sidewalk. The shops (including a grocery store) and services (City Hall, Library and Medical Centre) are all set back from the sidewalk in suburban, strip mall fashion.  It is a bit like International Avenue along 17th Ave SE in Calgary. 

If you drive five minutes south (next to the lovely Nose Creek Pathway) or north along Main Street you arrive at two new power centers with the classic mix of big box retailers (restaurants, hardware and grocery stories) to meet resident’s everyday needs. 

  In 2007, six handcrafted totem poles were donated to the City of Airdrie by Gwacheon, Korea to commemorate the 10th year of sharing a sister city relationship. They are now located in Airdrie's  Gwacheon Park. 

In 2007, six handcrafted totem poles were donated to the City of Airdrie by Gwacheon, Korea to commemorate the 10th year of sharing a sister city relationship. They are now located in Airdrie's  Gwacheon Park. 

 Creative Airdrie is very active fostering art projects like this mural wall. 

Creative Airdrie is very active fostering art projects like this mural wall. 

Transit Oriented Development

But, if instead you walk a few blocks west from downtown, over the railway tracks and across Nose Creek environmental area, you arrive at what looks like a future Railtown.  Several new low-rise condo buildings sit next to the tracks, while across the street is a power centre with a Sobeys grocery store and other amenities including a Good Earth Cafe.  It is just waiting for a train station to be built to take commuters to and from  Calgary – yes, 25% of Airdrie’s workforce commutes from Calgary.

To help meet commuter needs, Airdrie currently has four very successful bus commuter routes.  One that links Airdrie workers to CrossIron Mills and McKnight LRT Station, two that are express routes to/from downtown Calgary (one from the east side and one from the west side) and an Airdrie to Crossfield route.  The City is also experimenting with a local transit service.

  QEII highway which links Alberta with Mexico divides Airdrie in half. 

QEII highway which links Alberta with Mexico divides Airdrie in half. 

Adapting To Families

While all the talk these days in the urban planning world is about making cities and new communities more walkable, cycleable and transit oriented, nobody is talking about how to make urban places more driveable.  We have walk scores and bike scores that measure a communities proximity to various amenities 5 or 10 minutes away by foot and pedal, but nothing that measures the amenities that are within a 5 or 10 minute drive.

In today’s busy world, of two income families with lots of extracurricular activities (parents and kids), walking and cycling is in reality, mostly a recreational activity, not a form of transportation.  Walking and/or cycling, as a part of everyday living is just not practical for the average family, no matter how close they are.  The automobile is not going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon, no matter what the urban evangelist say.

For Airdrie, it is even more critical that its urban design adapts to the needs of the families with young children - a whopping 24% of the population is under the age of 14 (16% in Calgary).

Having recently driven and walked around Airdrie, it seemed to me everybody lives within a 5-minute drive to one or more major grocery stores, probably the most important amenity to a growing family.  It also seemed the Rocky View School Division has been able to locate schools as needed in its new residential communities.

  Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

  Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Place to play

Kudos to the City of Airdrie and Rocky View School Division for collaborated along East Lake Boulevard on the city’s east side by co-locating the Bert Church High School, Bert Church Theatre and Genesis Recreation Centre (Pool, Gyms, Twin Arenas and Fieldhouse) next to each other so the facilities can be shared.  This should be the model for every high school site in every region- also include a public library.  In the future, all school sites should be community/ meeting places. 

Airdrie boasts an ambitious schedule of annual family festivals - a Santa Claus Parade that attracts over 20,000 people (Calgary doesn’t have one), Festival of Lights (older than Calgary’s Zoolights), New Year’s Eve Fireworks, Canada Day Parade and Spring Music Festival (with over 400 musicians).  The Airdrie Pro Rodeo is one of the top 10 pro rodeos in Canada with $146,000 in prize money.

Today, Airdrie boasts 1,200 acres of parks, 104 km of pathways, 63 playgrounds and 5 off-leash dog parks.  For those who want to walk or bike, Airdrie has lovely pathways and parks along Nose Creek and the many canal communities in the city. Everybody is just 5 minutes away from a park, playground or a pathway.

The city also a thriving Farmers’ Market in Jensen Park, which was the site of the historic Jensen family farm - that’s authenticity.   Every Wednesday from June to Thanksgiving, from 3:30 to 7pm dozens of vendors sell fresh produce, food trucks serve up good grub and artists entertain, creating a fun, family food festival.

“Airdrie goes beyond the typical chain-only style of many bedroom communities. Certainly there is no shortage of chain restaurants in Airdrie but there are many high-quality independent places too such as Thai Charm, Abe’s Restaurant, Sushi Haru and Taj that satisfy a very sophisticated market,” says Calgary food and restaurant critic John Gilchrist.

Genesis Centre, Airdrie's Recreation Complex

Nose Hill Creek creates a pastoral setting in the middle of the city. 

Place to work

While most people think of Airdrie as a bedroom community of Calgary, in reality only about 50% of Airdrites work in Calgary.  Airdrie has over 20 companies that employ over 100 employees - Propak Systems Ltd. being the largest with 1,000 employees. 

One of the biggest employment sectors is the grocery industry (I counted 6 major grocery stores with another under construction - I may have missed one or two) currently employ over 2,500 people.

As well, Airdrie has 1,300 home businesses (out of 21,000 homes) partly as a result of an innovative program that proactively encourages the development of home-based businesses.  It consists of an online course for starting, running and growing a home business, as well as a mentorship program with an existing business leader.

Over that past 10 years, Airdrie’s commercial development has been growing as fast as its residential development as the ratio of commercial to residential tax assessment values has maintained its 17% commercial to 83% residential split.

Airdrie is more than just a bedroom city.

 Good Earth Cafe and patio part of a car-oriented big box power centre, is also walkable from several major condo complexes a block away. 

Good Earth Cafe and patio part of a car-oriented big box power centre, is also walkable from several major condo complexes a block away. 

 Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Airdrie At A Glance

It’s young: The median age group is 30-34 years of age, 83% of the population is under 65 years old with the majority, 64%, under 45 years old. The median age in Airdrie is 32.4 compared to Calgary (36.4) and Canada as a whole (40.2) years.

It’s growing very quickly: Airdrie is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada; population growth for the past sixteen years has exceeded 5.5%. Between the census years of 2006 and 2011, the population of Airdrie increased by 47.1%. The City is projected to grow a further 75% by 2030 to reach a population of 90,000.

It’s recent: Over half of Airdrie residents have lived in Airdrie for less than 5 years. According to 2014 survey, of those who have been at their residence for less than 1 year, 38% moved from Calgary and 32% from within Airdrie.

It’s mobile: Over 90% of Airdrie residents report that their primary mode of travel to work is single vehicle transportation (for Calgary its 72%. While a large number of residents commute to the City of Calgary for employment, 50% work within Airdrie or places other than Calgary.

(Source: Great Places Plan, 2016, City of Airdrie)

Last Word

It is important urban planners adapt their thinking to the needs of the contemporary family life, rather than expecting families to adapt to planner’s urban utopian ideals.

Kudos to Airdrie’s planners, politicians and business leaders for daring to be different, for embracing “driveability” as the key element to enhancing the quality of life for everyday living for its citizens.

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Fall Edition of Loving Airdrie 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 Regional Transit: On-It Love In!

Calgary region’s newest transit service (launching October 11th) called ON-IT could easily be called “LOVE-It.” Why? Because, by all accounts, everyone loves the idea of piloting a regional bus service allowing people in High River, Turner Valley, Black Diamond and Okotoks to get to and from Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station in the morning and evening on weekdays. 

The Mayors “Love It,” Councillors love it and over 2,500 citizens in those communities have signed up for more information and updates. And it is not just commuters who are interested – so are post-secondary students and seniors.

At the ON-IT preview on Monday October 3rd (which I was invited to) citizen Maureen Nelson enthusiastically grabbed a handful of information cards to take back to the High Country Lodge in Black Diamond, certain many of the seniors living there would love taking transit to Calgary for day trips.  “Many residents don’t like driving in Calgary or parking….this is perfect.” In chatting with several other residents the On-It preview, there was a common theme  - “driving and parking in Calgary is no fun.”

  In Okotoks everyone go into the ribbon cutting action.

In Okotoks everyone go into the ribbon cutting action.

Visionary….

ON-IT is a visionary, innovative partnership between Black Diamond, High River, Okotoks Turner Valley and the Calgary Regional Partnership.  It is a two-year pilot project that does not replace private express buses that currently operate between High River, Okotoks and downtown Calgary, but rather is the beginning of a regional public transit system. The ON-IT buses won’t go downtown but rather to the City’s southernmost LRT station where riders can access the Calgary Transit system.

While, currently the service is designed to serve the 60,000 people living in the southern edge of the Calgary region, it is designed to grow with the region, whose population is projected to reach almost 3 million in 2073.  Okotoks alone could have 90,000 people in 50 years.  

As well Strathmore and Chestermere are working together to be ready when the pilot is completed to launch their own regional transit service in 2018, with its link being to the new 17th Ave SE Bus Rapid Transit.

This is long-range thinking…
  All aboard the bus is leaving so get On-It!

All aboard the bus is leaving so get On-It!

Experimental…

Over two years of regional transit research preceded the two-year pilot, information gathered and lessons learned was then applied to the Calgary region. The best routes, stops, fares and size of buses ere then determined for the pilot.  High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass loves the pilot concept saying, “surveys can be misleading as people might say they want a commuter bus, but then don’t use it. This way we will have empirical data on who is using the service and how often. This will allow us experiment with changes as we gather new information and make educated decisions going forward.”

Calgary’s Southland Transportation Ltd. was the chosen service provider for the pilot based on their extensive experience providing unique and specialized bus services in many communities in Alberta and British Columbia. 

Don’t be alarmed! ON-IT will not be using rickety old school buses, but rather 55-seat motor coaches typically used by travel tour operators, which means you will travel in climate-controlled, luxury with comfy seats and an on-board washroom.

On-It will also result is less pollution and free up over 100 parking spaces at the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station. Woo-hoo!

  Ribbon cutting at High River was too much fun!

Ribbon cutting at High River was too much fun!

  Everyone was all smiles for the On-It Calgary Region Transit Preview. 

Everyone was all smiles for the On-It Calgary Region Transit Preview. 

Last Word

You gotta love ON-IT’s slogan -  “the best commutes include a nap!”  With a slogan like that, how can it not succeed? I am going to be very interested to see how this pilot evolves.

Click here for more details about On-It Regional Transit

Click here for more details about the Calgary Regional Part

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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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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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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Everyday Tourist Note: We love getting comments and insights from readers. This week, we received a very thoughtful email about Calgary's urban/suburban divide that warranted a guest blog. 

I keep reading about the urban/suburban divide, the evils of sprawl, and the mismanagement of development. At the same time, I read of the declining importance of downtown, with the majority of employment growth occurring in the outside areas – the industrial parks, the distribution centers, universities and hospital campuses, the airport – and on.

Downtown is an island of high-rises that has less and less relevance to the majority of Calgarians. (photo credit Peak Aerials) 

What is downtown Calgary?

We have dozens of office towers occupied by oil and gas companies, banks, legal firms, investment advisors, and government.  It certainly isn’t representative of the full economy of the city.

And while there is a retail component to downtown, it is certainly not a draw for the majority of people who have much more accessible shopping without any of the hassles and expense of going downtown.

Many of the towers would not exist but for the extravagance of the oil industry in good times, and now that the industry has again fallen on hard times, the downtown is paying a steep price.

Many believe that this is a long term, or even a permanent problem, as the economic structure of that industry has changed.  At the very least, we may again be facing a lost decade, similar to the 1980’s.

Yet employment growth, and economic expansion, continues in Calgary, as does population growth. But despite the fact that the large employment centers outside the downtown are out-performing the downtown, the city remains disproportionately focused on downtown.

We continue with our hub and spoke approach to public transit, our tunnel vision on all things downtown, be it bike lanes, parks redevelopment, pedestrian bridges, and on. And all we hear about are the evils of sprawl.

 

This City of Calgary Land Use Typology map illustrates how Calgary NE and SE have be designed as major industrial employment centres (purple). However, these areas are serviced mostly by road rather than transit.  It also illustrates how most of the residential zoning is on the west side of the city with employment on the east, yet most transit routes are oriented north and south. The City is responsible for the disconnect in Calgary's land uses, not developers. 

Calgary's current and planned LRT routes are all downtown centric. 

Change focus

Where is the focus on the access needs of the industrial parks, the distribution centers and other outlying employment centers?

Who is championing public transit that will service these areas without the inevitable connection to the C Train or routing through downtown. 

Where is the encouragement to better link these employment centers to surrounding residential with the same access that we fund in the core?

Is there any less need for funding of pedestrian access and bike routes in the suburbs, or to these employment centers?  Some would argue the need for bike routes is even greater, given the city’s long standing approach to development, where suburbs are essentially individually walled off communities, and the routes in an out are mid to high speed roadways with no pedestrian or bike access.

SE Inland Port anchors a major employment centre in Calgary with minimal transit service. 

Quarry Park is a major employment centre in Calgary's SE quadrant but has poor transit service as a result of all transit in SE focused on existing South LRT leg service to downtown.

Southeast is booming

Over the past few years, two major employment centers have developed in the Southeast – Quarry Park and Seton (the South Hospital Campus).  These are not centers that were being redeveloped and face the limitations of decisions and designs of decades past. 

They were clean sheets of paper, and could be designed and built to fulfill all of the pet initiatives being touted by council, city planners, and the various special interest groups that arise every time changes are planned in communities.  

But neither development can be viewed as overly pedestrian or bike friendly, transit oriented, or even planned to encourage living in nearby suburbs.

Somehow we have developed this skewed vision of a world-class city, with a downtown full of architecturally significant towers and condos, with these great public areas, art work, parks, etc.  Unfortunately, that is not where the majority of the population is, wants to be, or can afford to live. Nor is it where the majority work.

South Health Campus will anchor a new Healthcare focused city at the southern edge of the city. (photo credit Peak Aerials) 

Urban Sprawl City's fault

Calgary is where it is today because of our city administration and planners.  They annex the land.  

They layout and approve the subdivisions, shopping centers, employment centers, industrial areas, and transportation routes.

They layout the rules for all the development that happens in new communities.

Yet it is the developers who seem to be at fault for the sprawl, the transportation issues, the lack of density, the dependence on cars, and on and on.

Something is amiss.  

Map of Calgary's vision for Rapid Transit routes is still downtown centric, but there are more east west routes.

Out of whack? 

I think the City’s basic priorities are out of whack. The future of Calgary is not in the downtown, nor in the million dollar infills or luxury condos. 

Calgary is a city of young, growing families, most with jobs outside of the downtown, with a focus on raising families with ready access to parks, recreation facilities, neighbourhood schools and shopping.

While the designer bridges and public artworks look great on postcards, they have little impact on the majority of Calgary’ citizens.

Gerry Geoffrey is a retired CFO of a major Western Canadian corporation and a resident of Calgary since the mid 80’s. His sentiments are similar to the feedback received from many Everyday Tourist readers.

Finally, the SE quadrant will be getting not one but two new recreation centres - SETON and Quarry Park.  (photo credit, SETON Recreation Centre, City of Calgary website).

Downtown urban design makes for dramatic postcards, but don't serve the needs of the majority of Calgarians. 

Are downtowns relevant in the 21st century city?

Everyday Tourist Note:

I recently asked Harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary in an email if he would comment on the importance of a vibrant downtown from his urban sociological perspective. His comments may surprise you ….they surprised me.

I have taken his email and with his permission formatted it as a thought provoking blog on the future of downtowns, not only in Calgary but for many cities.

Downtown Calgary Skyline (photo credit: Tourism Calgary).

Downtown & Consumption

The notion of a downtown as the central core of a city is a somewhat outdated concept because many activities - formerly occurring only in the core - now take place in many locations throughout the city. 

Historically, the central core of cities had three functions: trade, worship (e.g. cathedrals) and governance. It was not a place to live. 

Industrialization altered this pattern somewhat primarily because factories and warehouses were built in the city center adjacent to transportation networks such as railroads and waterways.

In the summer at noon hour, Stephen Avenue comes alive with downtown workers and a few tourists. 

Post-industrialization transformed the central core of cities yet again as employment shifted from factories (blue collar jobs) to offices (so-called white collar jobs) in high-rise towers.  This process contributed to another transformation in which consumption through entertainment, shopping, museums, galleries, and dining have become economic engines for downtowns.

These leisure activities (beyond the 9 to 5 pm working hours) opened up the possibility for a very different downtown core, one that is less about workers and more about urban living and playing.

This creates a vibrancy of a different type downtown. But this concept has not caught on in Calgary yet? Why not?

7th Avenue Transit corridor station

Stephen Avenue is a inhospitable place in the winter when it cold and windy.

Barclay Mall or 3rd Street SW, downtown's other pedestrian-oriented street linking Stephen Avenue with the Bow River.

Is downtown still relevant?

17th Avenue sidewalks are full of pedestrians even in February.  Calgary wasted a great opportunity to capital on the Red Mile brand as a tourist attraction. 

The problem for Calgary is the city is still young, suburban and dominated by child-rearing families. In addition there is little incentive for families to come downtown after office hours and most downtown workers just want to "escape" it.

It needs to be recognized contemporary cities are now multi-nucleated, meaning that there are many nodes for shopping, dining, entertainment and professional services away from the downtown core.  Suburban malls or pedestrian streets like 10th Street NW, 17th Avenue SW, 33rd Avenue SW or even strip malls minimize the need for people to go downtown. In fact, many suburbanites never need to visit the central core for any reason at all.

Downtown is less relevant to more Calgarians than ever before.

In fact many want to avoid or "escape" downtown.

 

  Calgary Next would add two major event facilities to our downtown, with the potential to host major events as well as sports teams. 

Calgary Next would add two major event facilities to our downtown, with the potential to host major events as well as sports teams. 

Downtown as a tourist attraction?

This is where the current proposal for CalgaryNEXT needs to be evaluated.  The idea of building new arenas, stadiums, ballparks and convention centres is currently in vogue in many cities across North America because it provides anchors and a site for both residential and consumptive activity.  

Edmonton's Ice District and Winnipeg's downtown SHED (sports, hospitality, entertainment district) is meant to play a role in rejuvenating the downtown. Certainly, sport facilities (BC Place and Rogers Arena), convention facilities, and cultural activities have played a major role in making Vancouver an attractive place to live and play even superseding downtown’s role as an employment center.

But there is another important point to be made.  Great cities always support downtown tourism (e.g. New York or San Francisco) where people (suburbanites or visitors from other places) come to the downtown core for the weekend, stay in hotels, go shopping and dining, and take in cultural or sport events.  

I discovered hotels in San Francisco are busier on the weekends than they are during the week as people come from everywhere to enjoy the options in the downtown core.  If you look at cities with vibrant downtowns, they are almost always tourist hot spots.

Unfortunately, Calgary lacks the 5+ million population within a 2 or 3-hour drive that cities like San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto or Montreal have.  Some argue you need this population base to support an urban playground on weekends.  If just 2% of the people decide to head downtown on any given weekend that is 100,000 people. That's about the population of Calgary’s weekday downtown core workforce!

Downtown Calgary boast many great parks and pathways for recreational activities that are slowing attracting more people to want to live downtown.

Our downtown must become a place “to play”

I was at an event with Ken King recently and told him I believe many people do not understand the potential of the CalgaryNEXT proposal to create a hub of activity synergistic with other consumption activities in the central core along the LRT line.

Alternative sites for CalgaryNEXT (McMahon Stadium site or site adjacent to the Deerfoot) do not acknowledge how the proposed project could contribute to a more vibrant central core. 

Yes the proposed West Village site is complex, but in many ways it is also ideal with its proximity to LRT, major roads, downtown and the river.

Urban development is always complex.

The Core, downtown shopping centre is one of the largest and most attractive indoor shopping centres in Canada, but it has not capture the imagination of suburban Calgarians to come down and shop on weekends. Tourists on the street outside often don't even know it exists. 

Other than Stephen Avenue, the streets in the downtown core have nothing for pedestrians to see or do.  It is a ghetto of office buildings for office workers. 

9th Avenue, downtown Calgary

Macleod Trail, downtown Calgary

Last Word

Much of the current debate about CalgaryNEXT could be improved by greater public awareness and discussion about the role our downtown core should play in the future of the city.  From my perspective, our downtown must become more than just a place to work, which is the current reality. The sooner the better!

Dr. Harry Hiller, Faculty Professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Calgary.

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Inner-City Revitalization: More Than Just Building Condos

Creating vibrant inner city communities is more complicated than just building more infill homes and condos to increase residential density. Equally as important is increasing the diversity of activities that happen in the community - daytime and evenings, weekdays and weekends.  Calgary’s inner-city communities are currently dominated by single-family homes and therefore serve as bedroom communities to the surrounding downtown, post-secondary or hospital campuses.

To become 21st century communities they need to have all three elements of the “live, work, play” equation that makes for vibrant and viable communities.  This means they need new offices buildings, as well as retail, cafés, restaurants and convenience services (e.g. dry cleaners, florists, medical and financial) at key corners and along key streets easily accessible by car, transit, bike and foot.

Marda Loop Revitalization

Construction cranes building Odeon, Marda Loop. 

A good example of an emerging vibrant inner-city community would be Marda Loop with 33rd Avenue SW as its “main street.”  Treo@Marda Loop is a six-storey building that includes 52 condos above street level retail (anchored by a Shoppers Drug Mart which is open 8 am to 10 pm seven days a week and Phil & Sebastian’s first storefront cafe) and a second floor of office spaces.   Across the street, on the northeast corner of 20th St and 33rd Ave SW, sits the currently-under-construction handsome Odeon building designed by McKinley Burkart Design Group. It too has retail at street level but with three floors of offices above.  If 33rd Ave SW is to become a viable 15/7 (7 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week) pedestrian-oriented street, it must become a mini-employment centre.

Treo@Marda Loop mixes retail, office and residential uses along 33rd Ave in Marda Loop. 

And just a few bocks away, the 1912-built King Edward School is currently being transformed into cSPACE, an arts centre that will include a wonderful mix of uses – everything from artists’ studios, performance spaces and offices for arts groups to new residential development.  It has huge potential to continue Marda Loop’s evolution from a bedroom community to a vibrant “live, work, play” neigbourhood.

Schematic of the redevelopment of the King Edward School in Marda Loop. 

Lower Edmonton Trail Revitalization

Another up and coming vibrant inner city district is 4th Street NE and Edmonton Trail couplet at Memorial Drive with its scattering of pedestrian-oriented shops, cafes, restaurants and small office buildings, including the flagship Lukes Drug Mart established in 1951 surrounded.

Remington Development Corp’s new, seven-storey Meredith Block will anchor the lower Edmonton Trail district with its 170,000 square feet of office and 9,000 square feet of retail space will attract hundreds of workers and visitors to the area Monday to Friday when fully leased-out.  This traffic is sure to serve as the catalyst for other developments in the surrounding blocks like the new Whitehall restaurant in the 1910 de Waal Block (one of Calgary Herald restaurant reviewer John Gilchrist’s top new restaurants in 2015).  The revitalization won’t happen overnight; rather it will be a gradual redevelopment of neighbouring blocks, which are all ripe for mixed-use redevelopment.

Just a few blocks away, O2 Planning + Design and Minto Communities have proposed the redevelopment of the 1.5-arcre, Bridgeland School site in a manner that converts the 1921 sandstone school into residential condos along with townhomes along the streets next to it.  If approved (like every inner city development, NIMBYism seem to reign supreme), this development will attract new people to the community, which in turn will enhance existing, as well as attract new small businesses to enhance the districts “live, work, play” equation.

Meredith Block will anchor the lower Edmonton Trail district. 

West Hillhurst Revitalization

This northwest community is also showing signs of evolving from its suburban residential-only roots to a vibrant urban community. If Truman Development’s proposal for a four-storey office and eight-storey condo building on the existing Legion site (18th St NW and Kensington Road) gets approved (yes NIMYism is in full force here too), it would serve as the east end anchor of the community’s new “main street.”  A little further west, sit two school sites - perfect opportunities for development into unique, mixed-use redevelopments that integrate the schools.

Venture Communications’ relocation to West Hillhurst (where Kensington Road meets Memorial Drive) after the flood in 2013 is a very exciting, not-your-average office building and would be the logical west anchor at 25th Street to create a 7-block future West Hillhurst “main street.”  Headed up by Arlene Dickenson of Dragon’s Den fame, the first two floors are the “District Ventures Accelerator, where entrepreneurs can get help to succeed” says Justin Burrows (Chief of Staff, Venture Communications), who goes on to say “it is a place where experienced entrepreneurs, with a new product that already has some sales can get help with branding and venture capital.” What is perhaps most interesting is the Accelerator focuses on new consumer packaged goods, food & beverage and health & wellness, NOT oil & gas opportunities.”

Calgary Co-op has also discovered Kensington Road with its new liquor & spirits store next door to Venture Communications.

Between Venture Communications and the Legion at 19th Street is West Hillhurst’s historic “main street” with several small retailers, restaurants and small offices including the historic Dairy Lane diner established in 1950.  Two small sites are currently being looked at for redeveloped to add new street level retail with offices and residential above adding to the diversity of activities.

At the corner of 19th Street and 5th Avenue is the increasingly busy West Hillhurst Recreation Centre that offers up numerous programs and amenities for people of all ages and backgrounds including the relatively new and funky The Barn Public House overlooking the arena ice.

Venture Communications' District Accelerator adds a new dimension to the West Hillhurst's "live, work, play" equation. 

Last Word

Healthy cities have inner-city communities that are evolving to meet the diversity of new needs of the next generation of families and small businesses. Calgary is very fortunate, all of its inner-city communities have been experiencing continued revitalization for the past 20+ years. 

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday "Inner-City Evolution," Saturday January 16, 2018

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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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