HCG's: Condo Buying Advice

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

#1       Always buy quality. 

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

#2       Always buy the best view. 

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

#3       Do your homework.

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

#4       Visit often before buying.

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

#5       Get to know your neighbours.

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

#6       Get a “statement of occupancy.”

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

#7       Be aware of pending developments.

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

#8       Are you really going to use the amenities?

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

Trend Spotting

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

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

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

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

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

Limo Fun

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

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

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

Battisella: Pioneers & Innovators

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subtle and clever.

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

Urban Pioneers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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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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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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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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Affordable Housing Can Also Be Attractive!

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

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

NORR Architecture

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

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

NORR's Glenbook condos for Attainable Homes.

Sturgess Architecture

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

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

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

Nyhoff Architects

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

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

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

Hindle Architects

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

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

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

Attainable Homes 101

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

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

Last Word

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

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

If you like this blog, you will like:

Attainable Homes: Unique To Calgary

Altadore 36: An Ideal Infill!

Calgary: Putting the Art in Architecture

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.” 

If you like this blog, you might like these links:

Attainable Homes: Unique to Calgary?

Unique Solutions For Affordable Housing

Austin & Calgary: Sister Cities?

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

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

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

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

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

Love Their Rivers

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

Austin's river pathways are very popular on weekends. 

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

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

Fishing on the Bow River in Calgary.  

River surfing on the Bow River. 

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

Party Towns

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

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

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

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

Music Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin's condo skyline. 

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

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

Urban Street Life

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

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

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

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

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

Gueros on SoCo is famous for its free live entertainment. 

SoCo has numerous quirky shops. 

Austinites love their Tacos. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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Group Think or Good Urban Planning?

Why NIMBYs speak louder than YIMBYs?

In October 2015, I wrote about the NIMBYs vs YIMBYs as it related to the Kensington Legion site redevelopment in West Hillhurst.  This February, Jim Brown interviewed me on his CBC Radio show The 180 about my thoughts and experience on the ever-increasing amount of community engagement cities require before approving new development projects in established communities.

Kensington Legion site redevelopment is now underway with the construction of the Legion/Office Building.  

During The 180 I talked about how it seems people who feel negatively about a new project in their neighbourhood are much more passionate and motivated to speak out than those who think it is a good idea.  I then made an off the cuff remark “that if anyone is aware of research that documents that human’s negative feelings are stronger than positive ones’ I love to hear from them.” 

To my surprise I got 10 responses from listeners with suggestions of books and research papers to read and a TED Talks to check out, all relating to how humans process negative and positive impacts on their lives. 

I thought it would be interesting to share my research, given the NIMBYs recently delayed approval of a controversial Land Use change in Chinatown to allow for more community consultation.   

Link: War Over Future of Calgary's Chinatown, Globe & Mail, April 28, 2016

“GSIN Syndrome”

Alison Ledgerwood’s (University of California at Davis, social psychologist) TED Talk “Getting stuck in the negative” gave the best explanation of how humans innately focus more on the negative than the positive.

In a series of very simple experiments Ledgerwood cleverly documents that once humans see something as negative their opinion stays negative, even after they are given some positive new or information.

On the other hand, people who think of something as positive initially can change their thinking and become negative when presented with some negative news.

She even documents humans process negative new faster than positive news. 

Ledgerwood’s take away message is “our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt towards the negative. It is easy to go from something being good to it being bad, but much harder to go from bad to good.”

While Ledgerwood doesn’t coin the term, I think it might be useful to call this the GSIN (getting stuck in the negative) Syndrome.

Link: Ted Talk: Getting stuck in the negative!

Link: 8-storey Hillhurst condo project irks community members, CBC, May 28, 2014

Ezra condo is now under construction in Calgary's Hillhurst community   after more than two years of community engagement and redesigns. 

Ezra condo is now under construction in Calgary's Hillhurst community after more than two years of community engagement and redesigns. 

Losses trump gains

Several of the people who responded pointed out that what I was talking about was “loss aversion.” An existing psychological term the refers to the fact humans feel impacted more negatively by the loss of something than they feel impacted positively by an equal gain. 

Link: Angry Harvest Hills homeowners vow to fight golf course redevelopment, GlobalNews, Nov 5, 2016

Proposed parks and open space for the Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment will give residents more not less public space.   Link: Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment  

Proposed parks and open space for the Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment will give residents more not less public space. Link: Harvest Hills Golf Course redevelopment 

Eureka Moment

So what we have happening when we get a few people, who are adamant that a new development in their neighbourhood is bad, is not necessarily NIMBYism (not in my backyard) but really “loss aversion.” It makes sense. The negative lobbyist are always those who are going to lose something tangible – a park, green space, golf course, quiet street, parking in front of their house, sunlight and/or privacy. 

On the other had, those who are positive about the new development see the future gains in much more abstract terms – maybe increase transit, school enrollment, park improvements, cafés and shops.  They are not as likely to be as passionate.

What Ledgerwood’s research shows is that if enough negative information is presented to those who were at first positive or perhaps even sitting on the fence they have the potential to become negative. 

This is exactly what happens with major projects in established community over and over again. Those who think negatively will come out to meeting after meeting vehemently opposed; send emails to politicians and media and demand that changes be made to fit their exact view of what is acceptable. 

They will rant to their neighbours and anyone who will listen to them about all the negatives, in hope of converting them to the negative side. The longer the engagement goes on the more passionate, frustrated and larger then negative lobby becomes.

Ledgerwood’s work demonstrates those who feel negatively about a new development in their neighbourhood will rarely change their mind no matter how much positive information they are given. This means no amount of community engagement will change their thinking from negative to positive. In fact the unintended consequence of an extended collaboration process could be to create more negativity? 

Link: University Heights residents lose fight over high-density project. CBC, July 30, 2013

Last Word

Perhaps it is time we accept there is no perfect project and that some people will get “stuck in the negative” and no amount of public engagement is going to change that.

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, Saturday May 21, 2016 titled "Some people will always dwell on the gloom." 

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Kensington Legion: NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

Community Engagement: Raising the bar 

Community engagement leads to community confrontation

 

Buffalo vs Calgary / Boom vs Bust Cities

Every city has its heyday! Both Buffalo and Calgary have seen their fair share of good times and bad times. Everyday Tourist dissects these two very different cities. 

Strange looks appeared when I told people “we are going to Buffalo!” Even the USA border guard gave us a second look when we said we were spending three days and two nights in the Queen City. 

While many still have the impression of Buffalo as a city in decline, I had read lots of great things about the NEW Buffalo and wanted to check it out. 

Buffalo City planner Chris Hawley’s blog on “Beer-Oriented Development” first caught my attention, but the tipping point for my decision to go was learning their Canalside outdoor skating rink will attract over one million skaters this winter.

This I had to see!

Ice skating at Canalsie (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Buffalo 101

Buffalo, founded in 1801, quickly grew to become the dominant city of the eastern Great Lakes.  It became a major headquarters city for the grain, steel and automobile industries because of its strategic location on the Erie Canal and railway between the Midwest and the Atlantic coast. It became one of the wealthiest cities in North America. 

Three major factors resulted in the decline of the City’s economy by 1950s.  One was the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a new and the second was the emergence of trucking transportation as an alternative to rail. Thirdly, suburban living became popular, which meant many people and businesses moved to the suburbs and with them, significant tax dollars. But today after 60 years of decline, Buffalo is definitely on the upswing. I thought it might be interesting to do a Calgary/Buffalo comparison.

Urban Design 

Every city has its heyday - Buffalo’s was from 1880 to 1950.  As a result, it has a wonderful legacy of late 19th and early 20th century architecture and urban design matched only by New York City and Chicago. 

Buffalo’s strong economy resulted in several iconic early 20th century architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson and Fredrick Law Olmstead designing signature buildings and parks.  

Buffalo’s city hall designed by John J. Wade is a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture that is still used today, with the 28th floor’s observatory offering a spectacular view of the city’s radial street pattern.

Buffalo City Hall (photo credit: Nancy Vargo) 

Buffalo The Beautiful 

Calgary’s early 20th century booms didn’t produce anything on the scale of Buffalo’s great architecture and parks. And, Calgary’s heyday started in the mid 20th century, only recently resulting in signature buildings by internationally renowned architects like Sir Norman Foster (Bow office tower), Santiago Calatrava (Peace Bridge), Bjarke Ingles (TELUS Sky) and acclaimed artist, Jaume Plensa (Wonderland).  St. Patrick’s Island Park has the potential to become a classic example of early 21st century thinking on urban park design.

The “City Beautiful” movement was popular in North America in the early 20th century with its principles of creating new urban communities that were more park-like with lots of trees, green spaces, non-grid streets and beautiful roundabouts. And while, Mount Royal is the best example of a “City Beautiful” community in Calgary, Buffalo has an entire “City Beautiful” District.

Richardson Olmsted complex, Buffalo (photo credit: Ed Healy) 

Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Heritage Hall, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary

Aerial photo of downtown Buffalo, with Canalside and First Niagara Arena in the background

Downtown Calgary Skyline looking over Stampede Park and Scotiabank Saddledome arena

WOW Factor 

We were fortunate to stay at the Inn Buffalo on Lafayette Street, the home of industrialist H.H. Hewitt in the middle of this district.  The Inn Buffalo includes a library, music room, dining room, drawing room and lower level “Admiral Room” in addition to 9 suites on the second and third floors. 

It is a “preservation in progress” which allows guests to see the layers of history of the 115-year old home - from the gold leaf Persian-inspired ceiling to the silk damask wall coverings.

Walk for blocks in any direction and it is one “WOW” after another.  You could easily spend a day exploring the boulevard streets called “parkways” designed by Olmstead (designer of New York City’s Central Park) and an extension of his iconic Delaware Park.

We must go back in the summer! 

The front porch of Inn Buffalo was inviting even in early January.  The entire mansion was a walk back in time. 

Unicity vs. Fragmented City 

Today, the City of Buffalo has a population of 260,000 but its metro population of 1,135,000. The metro area comprises 6 cities, 37 towns and 21 villages, each independently governed with a separate tax base.

The current City of Buffalo is roughly equivalent in size and population to Calgary in 1961 when Fairview, Westgate and Wildwood were new communities, Bowness was an independent town and Forest Lawn and Midapore where newly annexed.

Unlike most North American cities, Calgary’s urban growth was through a series of annexations resulting in contiguous growth into one mega central city (with 90% of metro population) with only a few small edge cities and towns (i.e. Airdrie, Cochrane, Okatoks and Strathmore).

One of Calgary’s biggest economic advantages over almost every other major city in North America is its unicity government, meaning one major police, fire and emergency, transit, parks and recreation departments. Imagine having 60+ City/Town Councils each competing with each other for developments and each having their own City departments, which is Buffalo’s reality.

The Arts

Buffalo’s downtown theatre district boasts 10 theatre spaces including the iconic 4,000-seat Shea’s Performing Arts Centre, built in 1926 and 20 professional companies. Buffalo has a rich jazz history with the “Coloured Musicians Club” being the equivalent of Calgary’s King Eddy Hotel and its connection to the blues.

When it comes to the visual arts, Buffalo’s Albright Knox Museum (AKM) houses not only one of the best collections of abstract expressionism and pop art in North America, but also a representative collection of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Constructivism art.  AKM’s galleries are a “who’s who” of modern artists – Monet to Motherwell.

Albright Knox Art Gallery is a gem both for its architecture and collection. 

They arguably have the world’s best museum/art gallery front desk receptionist. Gretchen, clearly very proud of the museum and its collection, was friendly and full of insights, like how Seymour Knox was an early adopter of modern 20th century art, noting many of the iconic artworks were added to the collection within a year of being created. She also pointed out AKM has a great bistro.

In addition, Buffalo has the shiny zinc and cast stone clad Burchfield Penny Art Centre (across the street from the AKM) on the campus of Buffalo State College which is devoted to local artists while down the road is the Buffalo History Museum. An Architecture Museum is slated to open later this year at the renovated Richardson Olmstead complex (a magnificent 140-year old Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane) just a few blocks away.

Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Art Commons, Contemporary Calgary, Fort Calgary and new National Music Centre don’t quite match up to Buffalo’s Museum district’s art, artifacts and architecture.

Buffalo's Theatre District becomes very vibrant when Shea Theatre is hosting a major event.

Shopping

Buffalo's Market Arcade Building, 1892

Buffalo has little downtown shopping - all the department stores have closed and they never did build an indoor shopping mall like Calgary’s TD Square and Eaton’s Centre (now The Core).  But they do have three vibrant pedestrian streets – Allentown, Elmwood and Hertel Street would be on par with Calgary’s Inglewood, Kensington Village and 17th Avenue.

While Calgary has Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall as its historic downtown street, Buffalo has the Market Arcade Building. Built in 1892, it is a stunning example of early 20th century architecture with its elaborate terra cotta ornamentation and Corinthian columns.  Calgary’s equivalent is the historic Hudson Bay building with its colonnade on Stephen Avenue.

Calgary's The Core shopping centre, renovated in 2010 boasts a 656 foot long point-supported glass skylight that is the longest in the world. 

Urban Renewal 

Buffalo’s Habor Centre, Canalside and Riverworks redevelopments sites are noteworthy (Calgary Flames might want to look at Buffalo as a model for its Calgary NEXT project in West Village). 

Collectively, this waterfront redevelopment includes a new NHL arena, two new hotels, waterfront parks and pathways and the huge winter ice rink (size of 3 NHL rinks and morphs into paddle boat feature in the summer) as well as four other ice rinks for everything from curling lessons to a college hockey tournaments. Plans for a Children’s Museum are currently being finalized.

The area has many similarities to Calgary’s West Village as it lies in the shadow of the elevated Peace Bridge and major highways at the entrance to downtown.

Canalside Carnival...looks a lot like Calgary's East Village and potentially West Village (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Healthy Food Trucks?

On downtown Buffalo’s east side Larkinville, once home to the Larkin Soap Company’s (the Amazon of the early 20th Century) and many other major warehouse buildings (some 600,000 square feet) has undergone a mega-makeover thanks in large part to the passion of the Zemsky family who formed the Larkin Development Group (LDG) to buy, renovate and lease historical buildings.   Today, over 2,000 people work in buildings redeveloped by LDG.

The Zemsky family also created Larkin Square, a modest public space that they actively program mostly from April to October. Their signature event “Food Truck Tuesdays,” routinely attracts over 7,000 people and 30 food trucks not only from Buffalo, but as far away as Rochester.

Opened in 2013, Larkin Square programming attracted over 130,000 people last summer.  Backstory: I was told the success of the Food Truck and other programming was free parking, liquor licence that allows people to wander the square with their drinks and the corporate sponsorship of First Niagara and Independent Health. And, as a result of Independent Health’s participation, all of the food trucks must provide a “certified healthy” menu option.

Larkin Square's Food Truck Tuesdays (photo credit: Rhea Anna) 

Tower Power 

When it comes to residential redevelopment Buffalo has nothing to match Calgary’s urban tower boom that turns five or six surface parking lots into vertical residential communities every year.  In fact I didn’t see one new condo tower. However over the past 15 years, 58 properties have been renovated to create 880 residential units the equivalent of about 4 condo towers.

And I certainly couldn’t leave before seeing for myself Buffalo’s “Beer Oriented Development” (a tongue-in-cheek analogy to the transit-oriented-development so commonly talked about by urban planners). It all began with Community Beer Works, a craft brewery which opened in 2012 in an area full of abandoned industrial spaces.

Today, the area has a name “Upper Rock” and a growing cluster of hip businesses - Resurgence Brewing Co., two galleries and this summer, an upscale restaurant.  Area homes, which could be had for a little as “one dollar” (no lie!) just a few years ago, now have value and are now being renovated and valued sold at prices over $100,000. 

Today, the City and its urban pioneers are now turning their attention to the redevelopment of their Belt Line, a 15-mile continuous rail loop circling its city centre with its 12 million square feet of largely vacant or underutilized industrial space prime for mixed-use redevelopments.

Buffalo's cement grain elevators have been turned into a unique screen for a nightly light show, that can be viewed from shore or by kayak. (photo credit: Joe Cascio) 

Wall of condos and apartments in the west end of Downtown Calgary. 

Last Word 

There seems to be an incredible sense of community pride in Buffalo. Everyone we met oozed a passion and excitement for their neighbourhood revitalization.

Today, Calgary struggles with some of the same challenges that faced Buffalo 60 years ago with major economic changes wrecking havoc with our prosperity.

If your travels take you anywhere near Buffalo, it is definitely worth checking out.  

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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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The rise of the wood frame condo!

 

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

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

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

Why is this important? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Educate, Educate, Educate

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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

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The rise of the mid-rise condo!

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

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

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

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

What is a mid-rise? 

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

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

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

Benefit of a Mid-rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In My Opinion

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

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

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

Mid-rise Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calgary's NW quadrant is coming of age!

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

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

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

University City playful condos at Brentwood LRT station. 

Why is WPAB Booming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, custom homebuilders’ signs are commonplace in WPAB.

St. Andrew's Heights infill home. 

Location Location Location 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notable restaurant patio in northwest's Montgomery community.

Luxury Home Evolution 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kensington Village's Container Bar. 

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

Last Word 

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

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

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

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

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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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Calgary's 10th Ave Renaissance

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

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

10th Avenue 101

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

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

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

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

10th Ave surface parking lots next to the tracks. 

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

Recent 10th Ave Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10th Ave Improvements

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Last Word

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

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

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

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

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