Airdrie: The Drivable City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transit Oriented Development

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

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

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

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

Adapting To Families

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

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

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

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

Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

Airdrie's Canada Day Parade

Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Airdrie's Festival of Lights

Place to play

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis Centre, Airdrie's Recreation Complex

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

Place to work

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

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

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

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

Airdrie is more than just a bedroom city.

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

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

Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Modern new condo complexes a few blocks from downtown Airdrie. 

Airdrie At A Glance

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

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

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

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

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

Last Word

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

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

An edited version of this blog appeared in the Fall Edition of Loving Airdrie magazine. 

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Brewery Districts: Edmonton vs Calgary

On a recent trip to Edmonton, I was excited to discover they have begun to develop a Brewery District at the old Molson Brewery site at 104 Avenue and 121 Street.  However, upon further exploration, I was left scratching my head, wondering why they would allow a suburban power centre (multiple, stand alone buildings far away from the sidewalk with a big surface parking lot in front) at the west end of their City Centre. 
Unfortunately all of the main buildings in Edmonton's Brewery District area separated from the street by a major surface parking lot, making it less pedestrian friendly. It is more like a suburban power centre design with several independent low-rise buildings each with there own surface parking lot.

Unfortunately all of the main buildings in Edmonton's Brewery District area separated from the street by a major surface parking lot, making it less pedestrian friendly. It is more like a suburban power centre design with several independent low-rise buildings each with there own surface parking lot.

Missed Opportunity

In this prime urban location, one would expect the stores to line the sidewalk with all parking underground (only 66% of the parking is underground) and mid-rise (8 to 15-storeys) retail, residential and office above.  Instead, the site is dominated by a big surface parking lot with low-rise buildings far away from the sidewalk.

There is absolutely no connectivity to the neighbouring Oliver community, a feature contrary to good urban development.  And although plans call for a direct link to the future 120th Street LRT Station, that still doesn’t excuse the lack of connectivity to Oliver.

Sure, they have used brick to link to the old brewery, incorporated some internal sidewalks and added some patios, but the result is most definitely a car-oriented development - in my opinion, a missed opportunity.   

Is Edmonton so desperate for downtown development they felt they had to approve this suburban project in their City Centre?
City Market in Edmonton's Brewery District is a full-scale grocery store that meets the diversity residents' needs.  

City Market in Edmonton's Brewery District is a full-scale grocery store that meets the diversity residents' needs. 

Impressed!

On the flip side, there was one element of Edmonton’s Brewery District that I most was impressed with, Loblaws' City Market with Winners store directly above.

The City Market, at approximately 40,000 square feet (yes, I eye-balled it) is a full-size grocery store, not a boutique store dominated by high-priced organic produce and specialty products.  The selection was great as were the prices; there was even a bin at the entrance with free bananas for kids! Never seen that before!

The City Market concept is what Loblaws has planned as part of the mega full-block development in Calgary’s East Village, development which will also include two residential towers (500 condos within 40- and 23-storey towers) and 188,000 square feet of street and second floor retail space, all branded as 5th & THIRD.  Now that is good urban development i.e. diversity of uses and density.

Loblaws City Market concept borrows liberally from Whole Foods as an urban grocery store.  It will be a welcome addition to Calgary's East Village. 

Loblaws City Market concept borrows liberally from Whole Foods as an urban grocery store.  It will be a welcome addition to Calgary's East Village. 

Arris condos above a retail podium at street level and second floor in Caglary's East Village is under construction which will include a Loblaws City Market. 

Arris condos above a retail podium at street level and second floor in Caglary's East Village is under construction which will include a Loblaws City Market. 

Sharp Edge

How big is 188,000 square feet, you ask?  A little bigger than Eau Claire Market.  With Loblaws City Market and Shoppers Drug Mart as Arris’ retail anchors, East Villagers, by the end of 2018, will have their everyday needs met within easy walking distance. This is essential to making East Village a postcard for North American 21st century urban villages.

The name “Arris” refers to a sharp edge formed by the meeting of two flat or curved surfaces. At this point, RioCan (retail developers) and EmbassyBOSA (residential developer) have integrated, as best as possible, best practices in urban design as possible into Arris. 

And, while the Arris name was originally in reference to the architecture, it could also reflect the sharp edge where retail and residential uses meet the sharp edge between success and failure.

Calgary’s Fledgling Brewery District

Calgary Brewery buildings have lots of character, but are in very poor shape and don't lend themselves to repurposing. 

In the spring of 2015, I toured the Calgary Brewery & Malting Company historic site (Calgary’s potential brewery district in Inglewood) with Eileen Stan, Development Manager with M2i Development Corporation, the company who currently owns this site which has been vacant since 1994. 

This is arguably one of the most complex redevelopment projects in Canada today given the 20+ buildings and various states of their decay. The site also has the largest collection of sandstone buildings in the city outside of Stephen Avenue, creating some interesting preservation challenges and opportunities.  

While Calgary’s current economic downturn has put any major redevelopment of Calgary’s Brewery District on ice (pun intended) for the time being, I am glad there is no hint of creating a power centre development like Edmonton’s Brewery District. 

Patience and strategic development is M2i Development Corporation’s mantra when it comes to developing this historic gem.  Fortunate for Calgary.  

This building is slated to be phase 1 of the site's redevelopment when the time is right. 

The Calgary Brewery site is well treed, which is usual for an industrial site and is both a challenge and an opportunity. 

Eroding sandstone foundations are a huge problem at the Calgary Brewery & Malting site. 

Eroding sandstone foundations are a huge problem at the Calgary Brewery & Malting site. 

Last Word

They say, “Good things come to s/he who waits!” I sure hope that is the case with the Calgary Brewery & Malting site.  

And, I anxiously await seeing East Village’s City Market and the 3rd & Fifth retail complex.

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's on November 26th, 2016 titled "Brewery Controversy: Redevelopment hit and misses. 

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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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East Village: Lust of the new playground

As tempting as it is, one of the key lessons to learn when judging new public spaces, retail developments or communities is not to judge them too quickly.  

Too often when a new playground, park, restaurant or store opens it is very popular for the first few years and then the popularity wanes.

I was reminded of this lesson  one Sunday this summer when I visited East Village in the morning and Eau Claire in the afternoon.

Eau Claire Market when it first opened was very animated with market stalls, cafe, restaurants, patios, cinemas and Calgary's first IMAX.  

Eau Claire Market when it first opened was very animated with market stalls, cafe, restaurants, patios, cinemas and Calgary's first IMAX.  

East Village's Riverwalk has become a popular meeting place. 

East Village's Riverwalk has become a popular meeting place. 

Eau Claire's River Promenade is enjoyed by thousands at noon hour on weekends and all day on weekends.

Eau Claire's River Promenade is enjoyed by thousands at noon hour on weekends and all day on weekends.

Lust of the new playground

It was delightful to see all the families enjoying the pebble beach area of St. Patrick’s Island and the other areas of East Village, Calgary's new urban playground.  The two and half year old I went with loved it as did his parents -  so much so his parents took him back there after his afternoon nap that same day.

East Village's Riverwalk was also animated - people walking, cycling and boarding along the promenade, as well as playing PokemonGo (whose popularity was at its peak). The area around the Simmons Building was literally packed with people.

It is great to see East Village come alive after years of dormancy. However, I wonder will this last, or is it just the “lust of the new?”

What will happen when the marketing and programming funding is no longer available and it become just another of Calgary’s 200+ communities?  Fortunately Calgary Municipal Land Corporation will continue to fund and manage St. Patrick’s Park and all of the East Village public spaces until the end of the Community Revitalization levy term, which is 2027.

East Village's pebble beach.

East Village's pebble beach.

Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Eau Claire's wadding pool.

Test Of Time

I remember when Eau Claire Market and Plaza (with wading pool) opened in the early ‘90s. It was a big hit. Then came the new Sheraton Hotel and Eau Claire Y, as well as a new office building.  Prince’s Island got a makeover with a new stage for the Calgary Folk Festival, improved space for Shakespeare in the Park, River Café, enhancement of the lagoon and redevelopment of the eastern edge of the island as the Chevron Interpretive Trail. 

New condos followed and there was even the creation of Barclay Mall with its wide sidewalk, large flower planters, trees, public art and a traffic-calming, snake-like road design linking to the downtown core and 7th Avenue transit corridor.

It seemed to be the perfect recipe for creating a mixed-use urban village.  In the early ‘90s, everyone had great hopes Eau Claire would become a vibrant residential community on the edge of our central business district.

Sound Familar?  

Fast forward to today - Eau Claire Market and plaza have been struggling for more than a decade and are now waiting for a mega makeover that will totally change the scale and dynamics of the Eau Claire community - for better or worse? Only time will tell.

The good news is Prince’s Island is thriving. As a member of the Prince’s Island Master Plan advisory committee in the mid ‘90s, I am pleased the renovations to the Island have proven very successful.  There are no longer any complaints about the festival noise by the neighbours.  The Island is able to nicely accommodate the main stage, as well as several smaller stages for workshops and a mega beer garden to create a special music festival experience.  And yet, at the same time, the public is able to freely enjoy the eastern half of the island, the lagoon and the promenade.   

So while Eau Claire Market, plaza and surrounding developments have failed to create a vibrant urban community, Prince’s Island has. Our hopes are now pinned on East Village.

Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.   

Eau Claire's lagoon and pedestrian bridge.  

East Village's river's edge and pedestrian bridge. 

East Village's river's edge and pedestrian bridge. 

Eau Claire's other pedestrian bridge is also a playground. 

Eau Claire's other pedestrian bridge is also a playground. 

Eau Claire's proximity and link to the downtown office core makes it a very attractive lunch spot. 

Eau Claire's proximity and link to the downtown office core makes it a very attractive lunch spot. 

Calgary’s best communities may surprise urbanists 

I often say to people “don’t judge a new community until the trees are as tall as the houses.”  It is interesting to look at old photos of some of Calgary’s inner city communities in the early 20st century. The Beltline and Mount Royal look exactly like Calgary’s new communities on the edge of the city today – huge homes with no trees. 

Too often urbanists are quick to criticize Calgary’s new communities for their bland, beige, cookie-cutter architecture and lack of walkability.  However, it takes decades for communities like Bridgeland and Inglewood or Lake Bonavista and Acadia to evolve into unique communities. The old cottage homes of Sunnyside, when they were built, were pretty much all the same but over time each has taken on a unique charm with paint, plants and renovations. Also as the trees have grown taller and broader, the streetscape has become less dominated by the houses. 

It is interesting to look at Avenue Magazine’s Top 10 Calgary Neighbourhoods in 2016.  Three are early 20th century communities – Beltline (#1), Hillhurst (#5) and Bridgeland/Riverside (#9).  Three are mid-century communities – Brentwood (#2), Dalhousie (#3) and Acadia (#4) while four are late 20th century communities – Signal Hill (#6), Arbour Lake (#7), Riverbend (#8) and Scenic Acres (#10).  

I doubt many urban advocates would have Brentwood, Dalhousie, Acadia, Signal Hill, Arbour Lake, Riverbend or Scenic Acres on their list of Calgary’s best communities given they don’t meet the density, mixed-use and walkable benchmarks.

One of the interesting results of the annual Leger (a research and marketing company survey commissioned by Avenue) was in 2015 respondents valued walkability as the most important attribute for a good neighbourhood, but in 2016, walkability dropped to #8.  In 2016, the two most important elements of a good neighbourhood was access to parks/pathways and low crime rates. 

I am often very suspect of survey results, as people will often respond to questions based on what they think they should say or do or what is trendy and not what their actual behaviour. People might say they want a walkable community, but that means different things to different people. For some it might be the ability to walk to the park or pathway; for others the ability to walk to most of their weekly activities. Walkability also depends on an individual’s lifestyle, family situation and commitment to walking (I know too many individuals in my neighbourhood who could walk to the gym or the squash courts but never do).

Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

Eau Claire condos along the Bow River.

New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

New condos next to Eau Claire Market. 

Eau Claire office buildings add a weekday population that is missing in East Village.

Eau Claire office buildings add a weekday population that is missing in East Village.

Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

Eau Claire's Sheraton Hotel.

I would venture to say the Eau Claire Y will attract as many people in a day as East Village's Bell Studio and perhaps the new Central Library. Time will tell. 

I would venture to say the Eau Claire Y will attract as many people in a day as East Village's Bell Studio and perhaps the new Central Library. Time will tell. 

Last Word

So, I plan to head my own advice and not judge new developments to quickly. I will reserve judgement on the success of St. Patrick’s Island, Simmons Building and East Village, Studio Bell and the new library for at least a decade. 

I also am not prepared to judge Calgary’s experiments with creating more urban (mixed-use) new communities like SETON or Quarry Park for at least a decade.  

And, I am also going to wait for a few years to judge if Calgary’s bike lane network is successful or not.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday, November, 12, 2016 titled "Don't Rush To Judgement On New Developments." 

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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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Calgary's Million Dollar Communities

 

Calgary vs Austin / 17th Ave vs South Congress

Great cities have signature streets that capture the imagination of tourists from around the world.  Austin's signature street is South Congress in Calgary it is still up for grabs. This blog compares Calgary's 17th Avenue with Austin's South Congress as a tourist attraction. 

 

Calgary's 17th Avenue 10 blocks south of downtown is a quirky mix of restaurants, cafes and shops. 

To some, the 17th Ave SW shopping and dining corridor (2nd to 14th St. SW) is still Uptown 17, while to others it is the Red Mile and yet others (specifically the 17th Avenue BRZ), it is RED (Retail Entertainment District).  For many Calgarians, the heyday of 17th Avenue was during the 2004 Calgary Flames Stanley Cup playoff run when tens of thousands of Calgarians took over the street after every game.  The impromptu street festivals captured national and international media attention, creating an image of Calgary as a fun city. 

Austin's South Congress Avenue looking north to downtown is a major highway. 

But after the Flames lost in the Stanley Cup finals, 17th Avenue has never really been able to capitalize on the opportunity of becoming one of the great urban streets of  North America. Melrose Sports Bar, the epicenter of the Red Mile, closed in January 2014 after 23 years of operation.  It has recently opened with much fanfare as Trolley 5 Restaurant & Brewery. 

Today, 17th Avenue struggles with its branding.  Is it a restaurant row? Absolutely. It is home to Pigeon Hole, #1 in enRoute Magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants (2015) and Model Milk #2 (2012). It has also become a very popular destination for pizza lovers with restaurants like Una and Cibo.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has a vibrant cafe culture. 

Is it a shopping street? Indeed. Some long-standing destination retailers include Rubiayat, gravitypope (love the new space), Reid’s Stationary and Purr, as well as two of Calgary’s best optical boutiques - Eye Candy and Brass Monocle.   Newer additions include West Elm, Modern Duke, Structube, Steelng Home and Kit and Ace.

17th Avenue's gravitypope shop is dazzling. 

Both 17th Ave and South Congress have fun candy stores....this is 17th Ave's!

Both streets have quirky retail shops...this is one of the Rubiayat's many display cabinets with unique curiosities, home decor and collectables. 

Entertainment a key element for tourists

Is it an entertainment district? In my opinion, a resounding, “No!”  There are no cinemas, no theatres and no performing arts centres. The only live music venue of any renown is the Ship & Anchor Pub.  

When I think of “entertainment,” I think of more than shopping, drinking and dining, I also think of sidewalks full of people, buskers, lots of street vendors and food trucks. This is exactly what we experienced along South Congress Avenue in Austin earlier this year with its Stampede-like atmosphere on weekends as well as Thursday and Friday evenings, despite there being nothing special happening.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has vibrant patio culture. 

Physically, South Congress Ave and 17th Ave are very similar. Both area about a 10-minute walk from downtown. Both are a mix of retail and restaurants about 10 blocks long with lots of patios. However, this is where the similarities end.

Shortly after I got back from Austin, I made a point of visiting 17th Avenue on a nice spring Saturday to check out the action. Yes, there were people on the sidewalk but it was hardly the lively impromptu street festival atmosphere experienced on South Congress.

South Congress Avenue's sidewalks on Saturday afternoon have a festival-like atmosphere.

South Congress has numerous outdoor live music spots that open out to the sidewalk. 

South Congress' corners are animated on Saturday afternoon. On the opposite corner is a lively food truck hub. 

We loved this busker on South Congress who would create a poem on the spot based on the subject of your choice.  We had him create a poem about thrifting...we loved it. 

17th Avenue's Tomkins Park on Saturday afternoon is too often devoid of any vitality. 

Creating Vitality

Firstly, there is a greater sense of spontaneity about South Congress, with buskers performing day and night.  What would be surface parking lots in Calgary were Food Truck lots in Austin. There is even an artisan market on a parking lot one night a week. And the patios are more animated, several offering live outdoor music.  

Speaking of music, the biggest difference between the two streets is that South Congress has several live music venues (indoor and outdoor) that add an additional element of entertainment. Live music is everywhere in Austin, including the airport lobby. Branding the city as the “Live Music Capital of the World” is very appropriate.

The Continental Club one of Austin's iconic live music venues is located on South Congress. 

A third difference is there are few financial institutions on South Congress, while 17th Avenue seems to have one on every corner.  Banks on corners are urban vitality killers – they do nothing to add to the street vitality. I realize they are prepared to pay the high rent for the corner visibility so landlords are quick to lease to them. Perhaps we need a bylaw that prevents (or limits) banks from leasing corners on pedestrian-oriented streets as part of Calgary’s new Main Streets program.  

Too many of 17th Avenue's corners are taken up by financial institutions which create no sidewalk vitality.

ATB Financial, 17th  Ave Calgary

Who needs density?

Something else struck me as unusual on South Congress – there were no highrise condos anywhere nearby.  No mid-rise condos either for that matter.

We are lead to believe by urban planners that density is the key to creating 18/7 urban vitality, yet South Congress is thriving without any significant infill projects.

17th Avenue on the other hand has numerous highrise and midrise infill condos completed over the past few years with more to come. It has also seen numerous new and renovated retail spaces open up, attracting new retailers like West Elm and Best Buy.  It will be interesting to see what impact Embassy BOSA’s new 34-storey Royal tower (223 upscale condos) with an Urban Fare grocery store at street level and second floor Canadian Tire when it opens in 2018.  

FYI: I was hoping for a cinema complex as part of the Royal development.

Calgary's 17th Avenue has several highrise condo towers, while Austin's South Congress has none. 

Streetscape Improvements

What I also found interesting is that South Congress has no significant streetscape improvements or beautification initiatives.  There were no street banners, no fancy benches and few bike racks.  The sidewalks were adequate but nothing special and it certainly isn’t a tree-lined boulevard.  In fact, it is an old fashioned, much maligned six-lane highway.  Yet, at the same time, it remains a vibrant pedestrian street. 

Neither is there a park or plaza space on South Congress for people to gather or events to take place. It has nothing to match 17th Ave’s Tomkins Park and certainly nothing like 17th Ave’s high-tech public washroom installed in the park in 2008 that attracts over 40,000 “visitors” a year.

Calgary’s 17th Avenue is currently receiving a major upgrade - new sidewalks, buried power lines, new LED streetlights, more trees and crosswalks.  While these changes will enhance the 17th Avenue experience I am not convinced they will add significantly to its vitality.  What is really needed is more entertainment – music, theatre, comedy club and cinema venues. 

Last Word

Whatever you call it - Uptown 17, Red Mile or RED – Calgary’s 17th Avenue has many of the ingredients needed to become one of North America’s BoBo (bohemian and bourgeois) streets. It has the “rich and famous” living near by in Mount Royal and the “young and restless” living in the Beltline.  It has a good mix of retail and restaurants too. But what it lacks is the 18/7 street animation and entertainment venues to become a tourist attraction like South Congress in Austin.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "17th Avenue Needs An Entertainment Scene" on September 24, 2016

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Calgary's International Avenue Follows Jane Jacob's Advice

Jane Jacobs, the 1960s guru of urban renewal, once said, “gradual change is better than cataclysmic development.” International Avenue certainly seems to be heeding this sage advice. 

The ten blocks of 17th Avenue SW between 4th Street and 14th St SW currently branded as RED (Retail Entertainment District), is one of Canada’s top pedestrian streets and well known to Calgarians. 

But further east on 17th Avenue, specifically the blocks between 26th and 61st Street SE (aka International Avenue) flies under the radar for Calgarians and tourists.  It is one of Canada’s hidden urban gems. Soon that may all change as International Avenue (IA) is about to undergo a mega makeover – a $96 million transformation to be exact. Starting this September, construction will begin to make 17th Avenue SE a “complete street” i.e. it will accommodate cars, dedicated bus lanes for Bus Rapid Transit, transit stations, bike lanes, new wide sidewalks all graced with hundreds of trees.  

International Avenue is great example of messy urbanism with its multiple sidewalks, angle parking and mash-up of shops and services. 

International Avenue is great example of messy urbanism with its multiple sidewalks, angle parking and mash-up of shops and services. 

Urban Boulevard: A Game Changer

Alison Karim-McSwiney, International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone’s (BRZ) Executive Director since its inception in 1992, started working on this transformation in 2004. Collaborating with faculty and students at the University of Calgary’s School of Environmental Design, a 21st century vision for 17th Avenue SE was created, long before BRT, bike lanes and walkability became hot topics in our city. 

The vision to create a vibrant urban boulevard to accommodate all modes of transportation and foster a diversity of uses – retail, restaurant, culture, office and condos and even live/work spaces - was very ambitious for the modest communities of Forest Lawn, Albert Park and Radisson Heights that are its neighbours.

While it has taken over 10 years to refine the dream and secure the funding and approvals, land use changes are now in place allowing for several mixed-use developments along 17th Avenue SE, which could result in 13,000 new residents and 9,000 new jobs over the next 25 years. 

Chris Jennings, of Stantec Calgary who facilitated the design of new International Avenue told me,  “I love the ideas and vision that have been put forward for this project.  Not all of them can be accomplished during this project, some of them are ideas that will occur on lands not on city property and some of the ideas will need delivered as future development occurs – but man, it is going to be something special in 10 to 15 years.”

Link: City of Calgary 17th Avenue S.E. BRT Project

A conceptual drawing of what International Avenue could look like in the future.

A conceptual drawing of what International Avenue could look like in the future.

Foodie Haven

IA has all of the ingredients for a funky food-oriented urban village. Currently, of the 425 businesses, over 30% are food and restaurant-related.   Since the late ‘90s, International Avenue has been home to the “Around The World In 35 blocks” event that allows participants to sample the eclectic flavours of IA from September to June. 

Did you know that IA is home to an Uzbekistan restaurant called Begim? Have you even heard of Uzbekistan cuisine?  In his Calgary Herald review, John Gilchrist described Uzbek cuisine as “fairly mild with some hot chillies and spices such as dill, cumin and coriander. Kebabs come in beef, chicken, lamb and lyulya (ground beef). There is no pork or alcohol at Begim as the Madjanovs (owners) are Muslim and all of their meats are halal.” 

Gilchrist once told me, ““On this strip, you find food cultures as close as they come to their native lands.  It lives up to its name ‘International Avenue’ with great restaurants like Mimo (Portuguese), Fassil (Ethiopian), Pho Binh Minh (Vietnamese) and many other favourites of mine.”

Love this example of how a modest house has been turned into a restaurant, not just any restaurant but an Uzbek restaurant. 

Arts & Cultural Hub

One of Karim-McSwiney’s 15 goals (yes, the website ambitiously lists 15) is to transform IA into an “arts and culture” hub. In 2013, IA became home to its own arts incubator called “artBox”, a multi-purpose art space located in the old Mill’s Painting Building (1807 – 42nd St SE) with studios and performance space for local artists. Almost anything goes at artBox, from Aboriginal to African art, from concerts to exhibitions.  It has quickly become a meeting place for artists from diverse ethnic backgrounds and as well as patrons of the arts.

So successful, it spawned “Emerge Market,” a retail pop-up shop in a shipping container on the front lawn of artBox.  Its goal is to assist young artisans and entrepreneurs to set up shop to test their products before taking the major step of opening up a permanent shop.  How smart is that?

The BRZ’s website lists six venues in IA that have live music weekdays and weekends. Who knew?

Angela Dione and Angel Guerra Co-founders of Market Collective (a collective of Calgary artisans established in 2011) were at a transitional point in the collective’s evolution when the International BRZ found them space in a former car dealership showroom for their pop-up Christmas Market in 2012.  Market Collective has since gone on to become just one of 17th Avenue’s incubator success stories.

Art box is an old retail paint store that is now a multi-purpose art space.  It has been so successful that a pop-up sea container has been added to allow artisans to showcase their work. 

Gentrification Free Zone

While places like Kensington, Mission, Bridgeland and Inglewood are quickly becoming gentrified, i.e. places where only the rich can afford to live, eat, shop and play, one of Karim-McSwiney’s goals is to foster development without significant increases in rent for retail and restaurant spaces, thus helping ensure the local mom and pop shops don’t have to close their doors or move elsewhere.

She and her Board realize one of the keys to IA’s future is to retain its established small unique destination with its local shopkeepers and restaurateurs. Illchmann’s Sausage Shop and Gunther’s Fine Bakery have both called IA home for 45 years and La Tiendona Market for 21 years.  It would be a shame to lose these icons as part of any revitalization, which is what happens all too often.

I love the fact that there are no upscale urban design guidelines for International Avenues facades.  Love the colour, playfulness and grassroots approach. 

There are also several great neon signs along International Avenue. Love that this one has a phone number not a website address - how retro is that?

There are also several great neon signs along International Avenue. Love that this one has a phone number not a website address - how retro is that?

Last Word

For more information on events and new developments on International Avenue go to their website. Link: International Avenue BRZ 

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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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Are Chinatowns still relevant in the 21st century?

Across North America, Chinatowns are struggling to be relevant to not only their modern Chinese community, but also to the community-at-large.

Calgary's Chinatown lives in the shadows of the mega office towers of its central business district. 

In 2012, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a three-year Chinatown Neighbourhood Plan and Economic Revitalization Strategy. More than a decade in the making, the plan focused on economic revitalization by encouraging new residential development that would attract younger people of all backgrounds, to ensure Chinatown is increasingly relevant to a more multi-cultural Vancouver.

Fast-forward to 2016. A controversial proposal for a new 13-storey condo in Chinatown may or may not get approved after being re-designed for the third time. The building with 127 market condos, 25 affordable seniors’ homes and street level shops would seem to be an ideal revitalization project. However, many people from the Chinatown community feel the building is too high and big for their community (note my Herald column inaccurately reported this project had been approved).

In Calgary, a recent application for a Land Use change to increase the density of a surface parking lot across the street from Sun Life Towers (three 28-storey office towers) to allow for a tower up to 27 stories resulted in an immediate “Save our Chinatown” from some of the Chinatown community. They felt the change in land use would allow buildings that are too high and dense to fit with the traditional image of Chinatown as a rabbit’s warren of small buildings and narrow alleys.

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot surrounded by large office and residential buildings.  It sits empty on weekends and evenings. 

Wrong Focus?

What was missing from the protesters (both in Calgary and Vancouver) was what the new development would likely bring to their Chinatown. 

They should be asking questions like:

  • Does the design of the proposed buildings have the potential to enhance Chinatown’s retail and restaurant offerings?
  • Does it create lots of small spaces for new restaurants and retail at street level, or perhaps a larger space for a modern Asian-focused grocery and/or fashion store?
  • Will the condo unit sizes and designs attract young professionals and young families to the community - Chinese and non-Chinese?
  • Does the site support a building of this size?
  • Can the towers be set back from the sidewalk to make it pedestrian-friendly?
  • How does the building act as a link to the downtown office core?
  • Could the new development be a catalyst for revitalization?

Examples of older residential buildings that lack the amenities and design qualities to attract young professionals and empty nesters or the commercial spaces for modern retailers.

Generational Differences

Dai and Yang, both in their early 30s, who arrived in Calgary from Mainland China six and three years ago respectively, frequent Chinatown restaurants a couple of times a week, but never shop in Chinatown.  “Everything is for old people,” chuckles Dai. They both would love to see new more modern restaurants, shops and a movie theatre added to Chinatown. 

They also point out when Chinatowns were created 100+ years ago, China was a poor country and the people immigrating to Canada were poor, couldn’t speak any English and had no education.  They needed a Chinatown in every city to survive in the new world.

Today, Chinese immigrants are middle-class, professionals, speak English and have a global sensibility. They can easily buy a house and fit into any Calgary community.

They acknowledge Calgary’s Chinatown should continue to serve the needs of the Calgary’s elderly Chinese community (currently 60% of Calgary’s Chinatown population is over 65 years of age), but it also should be an attractive urban living community for young, educated Chinese and non Chinese also.

In fact, in our conversation, the idea of Calgary’s Chinatown evolving into more of an Asiatown appealed to them, as there is much overlap with Japan and Korea.  Dia and Yang suggested, “if Chinatown wants to appeal to young Asian professional it will need to attract international Asian retailers like Meters/bonwe, Uniqlo, E.Land, Muji, Suning, Huawei and restaurants like 85Cafe Yoshinoya and HaiDi Lao Hot Pot.”

Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

Modern Asian stores like Meters/bonwe attract young shoppers who in turn create street vitality in the evenings and weekends. 

Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

Calgary's Chinatown lacks any modern Asian fashion stores.

Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with   Apple  ’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

Huawei’s retail arm had 35,000 of its own stores around the world at the end of May, up 116 per cent year on year. It has 11,000 stores in mainland China, 6500 stores across the rest of Asia, 6200 in Europe and 1500 in South America. This compares with Apple’s 484 retail outlets in fewer than 20 countries.

Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Cafe85 is an example of the new Asian culture that should be the focus for creating vibrant multi-generational chinatown communities.

Perfect Site

The controversial site is currently a surface parking lot in the middle of the block from Centre St to 1st Street, from 2nd to 3rd Avenues SW; this means there is no loss of “mom and pop” shops.  Rather, the development has the potential to add much needed modern retail and restaurant space that Dai and Yang suggest on the lower floors, with residential above.

The site is already surrounded by residential buildings 15-storeys high to the east and west and office towers 28-storeys to the north, so the addition of three towers in the 20 to 27-storey range is not without precedent.   The site would also support a +15 bridge to Sun Life Plaza, meaning that anyone living there could walk to work downtown without a car, coat or umbrella!

It would be a perfect “live, work, play” block for young professionals and empty nesters – Chinese and non-Chinese.

Many blame the lack of parking in Chinatown for its decline yet there are over 600 heated underground parking spots just a block away that are available in the evening and weekend. 

Catch 22

Calgary’s Chinatown can’t attract modern retailers and restaurants until it has larger, modern buildings for them to locate in, as well as a younger population who will support them.  At the same time, Chinatown can’t attract young professionals (Chinese and otherwise) until it has modern condos (with amenities), as well as modern restaurants and retail.

Ironic

Calgary’s Hon Family has owned the site for decades. So it isn’t as if an outsider has come into the community looking to make a quick buck.  The Hon Family, long time homebuilders in Calgary, has only recently entered the high-rise development business with the handsome twin Guardian condos in Victoria Park, next to Stampede Park.  The high-rise division is being managed by the millennial generation of Hons, i.e. the exact demographic who should be the target market for their new Chinatown development.

Dragon City Mall in Calgary's chinatown is a ghost town every time I visit.  The streets of Chinatown are devoid of people other than at lunchtime on weekdays and dim sum time on weekends.

chinatown, calgary

Chinese Decentralization

Harry Hiller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary thinks Chinatowns in cities across North America are losing their role as residential, retail and restaurant centers as the Chinese population decentralizes to multiple suburban locations.

However he thinks there might still be a role for Chinatowns as a central gathering place for family and community celebrations. He points out to the increasing popularity of the Vancouver’s Spring Festival Parade in celebration of the Lunar New Year that attracts 100,000 spectators.

Similarly, John Gilchrist, CBC Calgary Eyeopener restaurant reviewer thinks, “Over the past couple of decades, as Calgary grew, new Chinese restaurants opened in many suburbs, drawing attention away from the classic Chinatown restaurants. But since the flood of 2013, Chinatown has seen an influx of new owners, many of whom brought investment and new culinary ideas from China. So Chinatown looks fresher and has more to offer these days.”

Last Word

Calgary’s Chinatown is definitely not going to survive as a seniors’ ghetto.

Now is the perfect time to begin reinventing our Chinatown into a 21st century Asiatown that will add a new dimension to our downtown and reflect the new global world we all share.

The unintended consequences of City Council’s delay of their decision on the land-use amendment until December 2016, to allow for more community engagement could be to further divide Calgary’s already fragmented Chinatown community.  What is needed is decisive decision making by Council, landowners and businessmen that will allow Chinatown to evolve into a thriving 21st century urban village.

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Sunnyside's containR site ideal for affordable housing

Everyday Tourist looks at Calgary's efforts to provide affordable living options in one of its most expensive City Centre communities. 

Our City Councillors continue to talk about the need for more affordable housing but nothing seems to happen. The latest rant came from Councillor Woolley who was invited by CBC News to write a New Year’s message to Calgarians as part of its “Calgary at a Crossroads” series of guest editorials. Woolley’s, piece “Why we need to work our asses off,” focused on the City’s need for more affordable housing.  He stated that over the past two years, the City of Calgary had not put a single new subsidized home on the market, adding “On Council, we commission dreamy reports that are long on process but short on action.”

Okay the, its time for Woolley and his colleagues to start walking the talk.  I challenge Council and Administration to design and approve a residential development for the unique city-owned containR site in Sunnyside at the corner of 2nd Ave and 9th Street SW by the end of 2016.  It is my understanding the site has been earmarked for a mix of affordable and market housing for years.  I also understand the immediate neighbours and community are more or less on side, subject to seeing actual design plans.  So why has nothing happened?

I also challenge Council and Administration to make this Calgary’s first large-scale sea-container building, knowing Sunnyside Councillor Farrell has suggested in the past that container construction has many advantages for affordable housing. Surely it can’t be that difficult to make this happen.

containR site is used for a variety of art events.

Container Construction 101

There are many benefits to container construction for residential development. The biggest being it is very cost effective. It is cost-effective because 80% of the on-site activities are moved indoors, meaning optimization of materials and labour, reduction of theft and fewer lost hours due to inclement weather.  As well, because it is metal, it is non-combustible, making it safer.  Also it doesn’t warp or shrink and has the capacity for superior sound-insulation between units, making container buildings quieter.  They can also be constructed to heights of 12 storeys, making them ideal for affordable housing projects on larger sites.

And when it comes to infill development, neighbours and communities will love the fact that on-site, container-based construction happens 30 to 50% faster than conventional construction, meaning a significant decrease in the inconvenience of road and/or sidewalk closures and noise. Container construction is also environmentally-friendly given the repurposing of surplus shipping containers.

Backstory: Calgary, as one of North America’s largest inland ports, has a surplus of sea containers.   Yes, literally thousands of sea containers arrive in Calgary every month via rail or truck from China and other countries full of everything from electronics to furniture. With nothing to send back many become surplus. 

From a design perspective, container buildings don’t have to look significantly different than current new multi-family residential buildings, both in their exterior or interiors.  From the street, they can have a funky, colourful, industrial urban look or they can be clad with vinyl siding to fit with neighbouring suburban homes.

In a nutshell, container condos are “cheaper, faster and better” than conventional wood or concrete multi-family residential construction. This makes them very attractive for affordable housing construction.

Ladacor is a Calgary company that is becoming a leader in container construction. 

Economic Diversity

Calgary-based Ladacor has developed an “Advanced Modular System,” a proprietary modular construction method that allows for high quality container construction, which meets if not exceeds all Canadian Safety Approval standards. Ladacor is on the leading edge of container construction in North America, having already built the largest container hotel in Canada.  A local demonstration container project could be just what Calgary needs to create more jobs and become North America’s leading contain construction headquarters.  What’s holding us back?

containR site would add much needed density and diversity to the nearby Kensington Village

containR site is ideal for an affordable housing project with a Safeway just a block away, as well as an LRT station, meaning owning a car is optional. 

Last Word

It is almost too good to be true that Sunnyside’s temporary containR park (with several containers already on site) is the perfect location for Calgary’s first affordable housing project in a few years and our first container building. 

My plea to Council, Administration and Sunnyside community - please fast-track the design and approval of the “Sunnyside Container Village” as model affordable development by the end of 2016, with people moving in by early 2018.  Let’s be “short on process and get those asses working.” 

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Calgary's Chinatown Postcards

Chinatowns are fun places to flaneur in any city. Recently, I found myself near Calgary's Chinatown on a sunny spring afternoon with some time to wander so thought I'd check it out. 

I am sad to report it was like a ghost town - no street vitality, shops were empty (many vacant) and many of the building were looking very tired.  For example The Opulence Centre, with HSBC as its anchor, should be an embarrassment for both the bank and the building owner. 

Calgary's Chinatown lacks the hustle and bustle, clutter and chatter that is commonly associated with a healthy chinatown.  

Below are photos of Calgary's Chinatown - the good, the bad and the ugly!

Racy dolls found in Dragon City Mall shop window.

Flickering spring sun on Chinatown's Golden Happiness Plaza and Bakery. 

Archway to Chinese Seniors Centre provides a wonderful vista of the Centre Street Bridge and its iconic lions. 

Chinatown's bilingual culture. 

Chinatown's street vitality includes cars parked on the sidewalk, while street parking spots sit empty and only seniors on the sidewalks.  

One of Chinatown's many lions, with office tower looming in the background. It looks angry!

This fun dragon cut-out that can be found on the railing of Chinatown shop is just one of the many urban surprises. 

Another dragon adorns the entrance to the indoor Dragon City Mall. 

Another fun urban surprise. 

Next to the Bow River, this fish wall is yet another surprise.  

Dragon City Mall has been empty every time in have visited for over a decade. 

Who knew Calgary's Chinatown has a street art alley? 

A Chinatown alley waiting for a couple of murals? 

Super Hero Window in Dragon City Mall.

Colourful Chinatown retail display. 

Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese chess or xiangqi is basically a board game fought between two armies each with sixteen pieces. This one was found in a window in upper floor of Dragon City Mall. 

Chinese Cultural Centre with downtown office towers looming in the background

Last Word 

It would be a shame to lose Calgary's Chinatown as it has been part of our downtown for over 100 years and has the potential to add so much charm and character next to our central business district.  

It should also be a vibrant fun urban playground, not only for those living in Chinatown but all of Calgary's City Centre residents. 

Learn more about Calgary's Chinatown: Link to Calgary's Chinatown History 

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University District: Urban Format School mindfully planned!

As a long time advocate for the diversification, intensification and integration of both old and new schools sites within the neighbouring community, Calgary's Everyday Tourist is excited by the idea of integrating a new school into a larger building (perhaps a seniors' centre) at Calgary's Urban District. 

The University District (UD) team not only uses the term “mindfully-made” when talking about the new urban village planned for the west side of the University of Calgary campus but they also “walk the talk.”

Indeed, everything about University District (a new community being developed on the west side of the University of Calgary campus around the Children's hospital) is carefully thought-out and all options are looked at in advance and evaluated to determine what is in the best interest of creating a vibrant, inclusive community. 

A great example would be the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that has been signed between the University District and the Calgary Board of Education to explore building an Urban Format School if and when the need arises.

The University District's shopping street will be similar in scale to 10th Street in Calgary's Kensington Village. 

What is an Urban Format School?   

As part of the early planning and design process the University District planning team looked at the South Shaganappi Communities Area Plan (SSCAP) for guidance.  One of the concerns identified in the Plan was that as the communities were getting older, school enrollment was declining and schools were facing possible closures.  University District was seen by neighbouring community leaders as a positive development that would attract more families with school age children to the area. As such the UD planning team, wanting to share community infrastructure like schools did not include a school site in the original University District plan.

However, as planning discussions continued the various stakeholders like the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) it was determined they might indeed require a school in the future, while the Calgary Catholic School District indicated they would not.

Initially the CBE indicated they needed a traditional large 7-acre parcel of land set aside for a new school.  However, the University District team was able to work with the CBE to look at an urban format school, which could place a purpose-build school space within a mixed-use building at a site next to a community park and playground.

Based on research and tours of new urban villages with schools in multi-use buildings in other cities, the University District team and CBE officials were able to identify two sites in the University District’s Land-Use Plan next to land already designated for 1-acre community parks that would be ideal sites for an urban format school.

After further negotiations, a MOU was signed by University District authorities and CBE officials that will allow the CBE to exercise its right to develop a new school at one of the two sites, depending on how demand for classroom space evolves as University District gets built-out and neighbouring communities evolve.

What would an Urban Format School look like?

The building would be designed specially to accommodate a 38,000 sq. ft. school space (built to Alberta Education standards) that could be on multiple floors, with additional floors being available for other uses.  Already one of the possible compatible uses that has been identified is seniors’ housing.

The school would be situated next to a park with a playground that can be easily accessed by the students for outdoor activities, as well as to the University of Calgary and all of its amenities.

Backstory: Since, 1995, the CBE has successfully operated the W.H. Cushing Workplace School a workplace school (Kindergarten / Grades 1 to 3) in the Len Werry Building on 7th Avenue at 1nd St SW in the heart of the downtown core with classrooms in retail spaces along the 7th Avenue sidewalk next to the LRT. Students used a second floor plaza a half a block away as their playground space (until the construction of TELUS Sky) and a church for their gym. The downtown is considered part of their extended classroom (W.R. Castell Library, Devonian Gardens, Olympic Plaza, Glenbow Museum etc.) The school was open to everyone not just TELUS employees.  This workplace school was the first of its kind in Canada.

Len Werry building is a 17 storey office building., until recently the ground floor was home to Canada's first workplace school.  

What are the benefits of an Urban Format School?

Allows for a more compact, mixed-use development of the entire University District site.

Plans have already been discussed to possibly include seniors’ housing as part of the mixed-uses of the Urban Format School building that would allow for innovative multi-generational programming.

Students at the school could have an enriched experience as they can easily interact with the community on field trips be that local artists studios or amenities at the University of Calgary.

Subject to approval by the Provincial Government, the CBE could potentially lease the space as an operational cost, rather than the tradition method of financing new schools as an upfront capital cost.

There is built in flexibility by having two sites identified for a school, if the CBE determines demand isn’t sufficient when the first site is ready for development they can defer to the second site and wait until the community is more built out to determine ultimately if a school is warranted.

The Urban School Format will be a pilot project that could be duplicated in other new Calgary urban villages being planned like Currie.

Computer rendering of the proposed central park plaza that will become the gathering place for the University District residents and employees. 

Last Word

As an champion for the diversification, intensification and integration of both old and new schools sites within the neighbouring community, this MOU is very exciting. 

Kudos to University District team for presenting the idea and for the CBE, the City and neighbouring communities for buying into it the idea.

Also perhaps instead of calling them urban format schools we should be calling them "integrated schools," as the idea of integrating schools into the community, rather than isolating could (should) happen anywhere in the city and we would all be better off for it. 

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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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Inner-City revitalization is more than just building condos.

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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