Britannia's 21st Century Transformation

Calgary’s urban transformation is not exclusive to the city centre. It is happening in many established communities as well.  In fact, one of the more interesting places is along Elbow Drive on the boundary between Britannia and Windsor Park at 50th Avenue.  (Did you know… 50th Ave SW was Calgary’s southern boundary from 1910 to 1956?)

There is speculation within the urban planning community and media that older wealthy communities are anti-development. Yet Britannia residents, with a median age of 46 years (the City’s is 36 years) and median household income of $227,000/year (the City’s is $81,000) have accepted three major new developments in recent years – Maison Senior Living, Britannia Crossing and The Windsor Block

The Windsor Block was just a big hole in the ground this summer - soon it will be a contemporary midrise office building.

The Windsor Block was just a big hole in the ground this summer - soon it will be a contemporary midrise office building.

Rendering of Windsor Block, designed by Ron Poon and the team at NORR architects in Calgary.

Rendering of Windsor Block, designed by Ron Poon and the team at NORR architects in Calgary.

NORR Corner / Poon Place

Given all three projects have been designed by Calgary’s NORR Architects Engineers Planners, this corner could be nicknamed NORR Corner or perhaps Poon Place (Ron Poon served as the lead architect for all three).

Completed in fall 2013, the Maison Senior Living complex (70 units for individuals wanting assisted living or help with memory loss) is located on the northeast corner of Elbow Drive and 49th Ave SW. Bordered by a school to the east and residential to the south, Poon decided to utilize a flat roof and traditional materials to minimize shadowing and create an articulated façade to look like several different buildings, making it compatible with the school and homes.

Next came Britannia Crossing for Opus (completed in summer of 2014) a mixed-use building that includes medical, office, retail and restaurant space.  This project required significant community engagement as it backed onto estate homes.

The solution was to terrace the building from five storeys at Elbow Drive to just two storeys next to the homes.  Poon and his colleagues also incorporated wood and stone into the façade, reflecting the materials used for homes in the community.  The block is anchored by the popular Brown’s Social House restaurant.

The third development Windsor Block, is currently under construction (completion in Fall of 2017). It is also five-storeys with retail at street level, offices on the upper floors and three townhomes on the southeast edge where the building intersects with other homes.  This project, the most contemporary and colourful of the three, will include two public art features, giving the street it a more urban appearance.

Britannia Crossing by Opus.

Britannia Crossing by Opus.

Maison's facade has a variety of materials in warm colours, as well as seating and patios to create a pedestrian friendly sense of place.

Maison's facade has a variety of materials in warm colours, as well as seating and patios to create a pedestrian friendly sense of place.

Britannia Plaza

The popular Britannia neighbourhood-shopping plaza, which opened in the summer of 1953, was the first, purpose-built shopping centre in Calgary and literally adjacent to NORR Corner.  In the 1950s,new suburbs at the edge of the City accelerated the transition from the traditional downtown shopping experience to suburban plazas. Post-war suburban consumerism in Calgary and the development of new roadways led to robust residential construction and retail plazas like Britannia.

The plaza is surrounded by condos and apartments with quaint names like California, Marlo and California Manor (the Calgary Golf & Country Club entrance is also at 50th Ave SW).

Michael Kehoe, Broker at Fairfield Commercial Real Estate cites “the charm of the Britannia Plaza is not only its simplicity, but that it is easily accessible by car, as well as by pedestrians. This retail gem enjoys high levels of occupancy and above-industry average sales. The key to Britannia Plaza’s enduring success is the adjacent affluent neighbourhoods that are amongst the highest income residential districts in Canada.”

There is one parcel of land left to develop which used to be a gas and serve station. It would be a great site for a mid-rise condo (with retail at grade) to add to the community’s diversity of uses and be an anchor for the City’s vision of 50th Avenue being transformed into people friendly urban corridor.

Surrounding the Britannia Plaza shopping block are these mid-century condos and apartments. 

Surrounding the Britannia Plaza shopping block are these mid-century condos and apartments. 

Last Word

The integration of old and new developments along Elbow Drive between 49th and 51st Avenues to create a mini urban village could easily serve as a model for redevelopment of several old commercial corners in established communities across Calgary. 

The traditional linear Main Street with shops on both sides of the street will not always be the best solution or even practical for established community revitalization.

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the October 2016 edition of Condo Living magazine.

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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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