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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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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