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. 

Condo Design: Lobby Appeal

When it comes to buying a house, we often hear about the importance of “curb appeal” i.e. first impression. When it comes to buying a condo, it’s all about “lobby appeal.”  It often surprises me how little attention some condo developers and designers give to the lobby of a multi-million dollar building.

Disclosure: While I have not done an extensive survey of condo lobbies in Calgary, I can say there are very few that strike me a really memorable.  What would it take to add some good art, with good lighting and a couple of designer chairs?

However, recently I have encountered three relatively new condos where the developer and designer recognized the importance of the lobby as a key element of the design of the condo - Mark on 10th, Pixel and Ven.

Pixel's entrance glass reflects the tree across the street to create an engaging entrance.

Coupland Lobby

Kudos to Qualex-Landmark for commissioning a painting by world-renowned Canadian artist Douglas Coupland for the lobby of their latest Beltline condo, Mark on 10th. I was a bit shocked when I first heard Qualex-Landmark was commissioning an artist of Coupland’s stature to create an artwork for a private lobby space of the condo. Silly me, I thought it would be outside where everyone could enjoy it.

Parham Mahboubi, Vice-President of Planning and Marketing informed me that given Mark on 10th location the busy corner of 10th Ave and 8th St SW in the middle of Calgary’s fledgling Design District, the company felt it was important to do something artistic to add to the character of the community.  However, given it is a painting and not a sculpture the piece had to be inside.  Yes, everyone can peek-in and have a look. 

The piece titled “Interpretation of Calgary, Alberta in the 21st Century” consists of four rows each with five cheerful, colourful, candy-like circles that look a modern version of the “house” in curling or perhaps archery targets.  Given the diversity of colours, it is not hard to imagine the piece represents the diversity of people who call Calgary home. Did you know….Calgary is the third most diverse city in Canada?

Douglas Coupland's artwork makes a visual statement that most visitors will have to think about. 

Douglas Coupland's artwork makes a visual statement that most visitors will have to think about. 

Disco Lobby

I only discovered the Pixel lobby while I was flaneuring along 9a St NW next to the LRT tracks in Sunnyside.  While I had always liked its quirky yellow patio boxes, I had no idea the lobby windows were translucent-coloured glass that looked like the entrance to a hip New York or London disco.  I immediately had to take a picture and tweet it out saying this was the coolest lobby in the city.  Indeed, it was the coolest thing I had seen in a long time. 

I love urban surprises and thanks to Battisella Developments I had one of my more memorable urban surprises of the year.

Entrance to Pixel is surreal. 

Living Wall Lobby

Recently, friends moved into Bucci Developments’ new Sunnyside condo Ven, a hidden gem tucked at the base of the McHugh Bluff where 7th Street becomes 5th Avenue NW. While the lobby is very modest in size, Bucci’s designers created a lovely lobby with a 20-foot high by 7-foot wide living wall as its centrepiece.  This green wall or vertical garden is made up of hundreds of plants creating a vibrant abstract-like green painting with hints of colour. 

As you move to the main floor hallway Ven has several photos that pay homage to the fact that in 2013, before Ven was built, the nine houses and three garages on the site were turned over to artists to create a temporary art installation and performance space that was visited by 10,000 people over nine days.

Ven's living wall creates a dramatic entrance for such a small space. 

Last Word

I challenge all condo builders and architects from here on it to make their lobbies special places where people want to meet visiting family and friends. It doesn’t have to be expensive to add a “WOW” factor, just some creating thinking.

Note: An edited version of this blog was commissioned for Condo Living magazine. 

Lobby of 1741 condo by Truman Homes is playful and colourful. 

Lobby of 1741 condo by Truman Homes is playful and colourful. 

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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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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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Group Think Or Good Urban Planning?

Visually it is eerie how similar Austin’s 2nd Street District and Calgary’s East Village look.

On a recent trip to Austin I was amazed at how similar their 2nd Street District’s recipe for urban renewal is to Calgary’s one for East Village.   The 20-block includes numerous high-rise condos, mixed with a few mid-rise, and dashes of - a new library, city hall and signature pedestrian/cycling bridge over Lady Bird Lake (aka long narrow reservoir on the Colorado River).

While Calgary’s East Village has an old Simons Mattress building as its signature historic building on the river, Austin’s 2nd Street has the historic Art Deco Seaholm Power Plant, currently being transformed into a mixed-use building with condos, offices retail. 

Austin's downtown skyline is dominated by condo towers.

City of Austin Power Plant that is being repurposed as part of the mega makeover of their downtown next to Lady Bird Lake. 

The Simmons Limited warehouse building has been transformed into multi-tenant restaurant, cafe and bakery on RiverWalk next to the Bow River. 

Austin’s 2nd Street District, like East Village, is still a work in progress. But it is perhaps a five year head start as it already has two grocery stores (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and boasts 50+ upscale places to sip, savour and shop – East Village has three.

From a housing perspective, 2nd St. District has several completed high-rise condos including The Austonian a 56-storey currently the tallest building in Austin. There are also several condos under construction including The Independent, a funky chunky tower, that surpass The Austonian by 2-feet.

Calgary’s current tallest building The Bow, office tower, is 58-storeys.  And though technically in East Village, in reality it faces southwest into the downtown central business district and turns its back on East Village.

The major difference is that Calgary’s East Village has direct access to the Bow River, while Austin’s 2nd Street District is cut off from the Lady Bird Lake by a major highway (Cesar Chavez Street).  However, Austin’s 2nd Street District has much better connectivity to it’s neighbouring districts than Calgary’s East Village which is cut off from its neighbouring districts by the Municipal Building and CPR railway tracks.

Austin's 2nd Street District is cut off from the waterfront by a major highway. 

Road connecting Austin's 2nd Street District to major road along the river similar to Calgary's Memorial Drive. 

Calgary's East Village condos this summer. Residents are now moving in and new mixed-use projects are commencing construction. 

Calgarians have direct access to the Bow river from East Village.  

Fostering Urban Vitality

Interestingly the streets of Austin’s 2nd Street District were devoid of urban vitality weekdays and weekends despite thousands of residents. It was only around the James D. Pfluger pedestrian bridge and the reservoir pathway that we experienced Austin’s urban vibe. 

Like Calgary, the pathways along Lady Bird Lake were packed with people of all ages - running, walking and cycling.  I dare say they are used even more than Calgary’s. Austin’s pathways are literally just a wide “bare ground” path that weaves its way naturally along the heavily treed shoreline. There is no separation for different users.  This is very different from Calgary’s expensive, highly designed, hard-surfaced Eau Claire and East Village pathways.

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

James D. Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge doesn't feel like a bridge, more like a promenade. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

East Villages George C. King bridge links East Village to St. Patrick's Island. 

As well, Lady Bird Lake has much more use than Calgary’s Bow River - there was always someone fishing, kayaking, rowing, paddle boating or paddle boarding. Though Austin’s warmer climate certainly has something to do with the increased river usage, the fact you can rent watercraft right in the City Centre makes it easy for locals and tourists to enjoy the river.

Austin's river pathway near 2nd Street District on the weekend.  

Lady Bird Lake is very animated with canoes, kayaks, fishing boasts and other water craft creating a colourful and animated sense of place. 

St. Patrick's Island in East Village is quickly becoming a popular hang-out spot for families in Calgary. 

Calgarians love to stroll along the Bow River near downtown. 

St. Patrick's pathway along the Bow River in Calgary's East Village also offers passive places to sit, think and reflect.

Too soon to judge

One can’t help but wonder if there is a real urban planner group think when it comes to creating early 21st century urban villages as they all seem to have the same formula – lots of high-end, high-rise condos for young professionals and empty nesters with a smattering of grocery stores, retail and restaurants at ground level and anchored by major public spaces and one or two mega public buildings.  

Rendering of Austin's new public library located in the 2nd Street District. The library is under construction.

Rendering of Calgary's new public library in East Village, which is also under construction. 

Austin's 2nd Street retail streetscape. 

East Villages street retail is just starting to take shape. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

View of Bow River and East Village RiverWalk from roof-top patio of the Simmons building. 

Billion Dollar Experiments

I am reminded of some of the lessons of Jane Jacobs community vitality activist and author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities that has become the bible for many urban planning. She warned, “beware of planners and urban development plans that try to encourage orderly city planning.”

I hope these billion-dollar experiments in city building in both Calgary and Austin work as planned. Only time will tell.  Calgary’s East Village experiment is looking good now, but it won’t be until 2040 that we will really know if the East Village master plan has resulted in an attractive, sustainable, vibrant urban community.

Calgary's East Village emerging skyline from St. Patrick's Island. 

Austin's downtown condo skyline at night.

Last Word

The time to judge the success of any new master planned community, urban or suburban, is about 10 to 15 years after it has been completed.

An edited version of this blog was commissioned by Condo Living Magazine. 

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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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