Chinatown Makeover: You can’t please everyone!

Does Chinatown get swallowed up as the downtown highrises (office and residential) creep northwards toward the Bow River.

Or, does it become a pedestrian oasis that celebrates Calgary’s 135-year old Chinese culture?

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Let the debate begin

 Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Parking vs Towers

That is the question Calgary’s City Council will debate on Nov 12th, 2018 when they are asked to approve a Land Use change and Development Permit for a huge mixed-use development that includes two-28 storey residential towers, a 12-story hotel and street retail.   

There are at least two sides to the El Condor Land debate – “El Condor” referring to the company that owns the land in question. The site encompasses almost the entire block from 2nd Street to 1st Street SW and from 2nd Ave to 3rd Ave SW.  

 Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

A bit of context…

Calgary’s Chinatown has been stagnant, some might argue even in decline - for the past decade or more. The 2013 Calgary Flood hit the business community hard. The cost of recovery was significant for the many “mom and pop” businesses and Calgary’s current downtown economy is not contributing to revitalization.

Additionally, many property owners and merchants, now in their 60 to 80s, are actively considering selling their property and businesses and retiring. 

Chinatown At A Glance

  • 49 retail shops

  • 46 restaurants

  • 10 grocery/butcher/seafood

  • 11 personal services

  • 16 medical/pharmacy/Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • 16 salons

  • 6  business services

  • 23 corporate offices

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Change is in the wind…

“Chinatown needs private investment and development plus a relaxation of municipal bylaws (esp. parking) to revitalize the commercial/retail sector of this community,” says Terry Wong, Executive Director of the Chinatown District Business Improvement Area (BIA). 

The BIA, now three years old, has been working diligently with the City, businesses, property owners and various community groups to create a shared vision and plan to help Calgary’s Chinatown thrive in the 21stcentury. The vision is to enhance Calgary’s Chinatown as an iconic and cultural placevalued locally and nationally for its heritage, vitality, streetscape and architecture.  The goal is to create a walkable, accessible and livable community, a thriving authentic small-business district, an intergenerational social and community hub, and a tourist destination. 

The mega mixed use development being presented to City Council for approval could be the catalyst to make this happen, or it could be the end of Calgary’s historic Chinatown.  It depends on who you are talking to. 

El Condor Land Development at a glance:

  • 524      residential units

  • 150      hotel rooms

  • 23        commercial units

  • 470      parking stalls

  • 466      bike stalls 

 Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

The BIA says…

“The BIA and other Chinatown stakeholders have worked with the City to establish eight guiding principles for future Chinatown development and the planned establishment of a ‘Cultural Plan for Chinatown’ and a ‘Culturally-based Local Area Plan’ as directed by City Council in 2016. A ‘Made in Calgary’ Cultural Plan will define what should be the culturally distinct characteristics (i.e. social, economic, environmental) of Calgary’s Chinatown” says Wong. 

 He adds, “This would then lead to defining how this 9-square block community should be developed and revitalized through land development, the new or renovation buildings, transportation and pedestrian streetscape, recreation and public spaces.” 

“The BIA and Chinatown community are generally in favour of new development as a path to Chinatown renewal, but they want to be sure it is designed in a way that will benefit everyone – other property owners, business, residents, community and visitors who are there to shop, dine or be entertained,” states Wong.   

Currently Wong says the community is not in favour of the proposed development, however, they would be if three key amendments are made. 

Changes Needed 

First, there should be no entrances or exits for the underground parkade on 2ndAvenue. That’s in keeping with the vision for 2nd Avenue SW is that it will become their pedestrian oriented Main Street from 2nd St SW to Riverfront Avenue with the Chinese Cultural Centre in the middle.

This makes good sense given the Green Line will have an underground station at 2nd St and 2nd Ave SW, making the area ideal for a pedestrian oriented shopping and dining promenade linking Eau Claire to Chinatown and ultimately, to East Village. 

Second, they are concerned the current development permit has commercial space (retail/restaurants) only at street level and doesn’t allow for a major anchor tenant needed to make Chinatown a more attractive city-wide destination. If the new development is going to be the catalyst for the revitalization of the Chinatown, it will need to provide quality retail and restaurants space not only for today, but into the future. A two-floor commercial space (of higher) would allow for +15 connection to Sun Life Towers.

The current plan has no +15 connection to the Sun Life Towers across 3rdAvenue, which they feel is critical to the success of the development and will provide a much-needed link to tens of thousands of downtown office workers just a few blocks away.

 I must agree with this. One of the failures of Eau Claire Market was that it didn’t have a +15 link, in effect “isolating” the shops from the downtown workers during Calgary’s long winters. I also think having a +15 link to the downtown would be a huge differentiator for the residential towers, given there are very few residential towers in the City Centre with a +15 connection to downtown. Imagine not having to put a coat on in the winter to go to work every day; this would be a huge selling feature. 

Finally, the fourth concern of the BIA is that the hotel tower is in the wrong spot. The BIA supports a right-sized, quality hotel placed on 3rd Avenue and 1st Street SW where there is mid-point access to downtown, the Green Line LRT plus the existing 7th Avenue north-south and east-west LRT lines, the Chinese Cultural Centre, Chinatown retail, and the riverfront park and pathway system. This placement would also preserve 2nd Avenue as the pedestrian-oriented ‘linking promenade’ Main Street while allowing current multi-residential tenants the comfort of knowing roads and sidewalks are both comfortable and safe to walk on.

All reasonable requests you would think! 

It should be noted Wong is a former manager at The City of Calgary and fully understands land use, transportation, and community neighbourhoods. Additionally, having grown up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 60s and 70s, he is fully aware of Chinese community and retail culture and does not want to see the loss of Calgary’s culturally distinct Chinatown like has already happened in Vancouver.

  Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Community Engagement Consultant says…

Lourdes Juan, an urban planner with strong ties to the Asian community (note Chinatown is more of an Asian town these days with the last three new restaurants being Korean) was hired by the developer in May 2018 to help work with all the stakeholders to understand their concerns and listen to their ideas and help the community understand how the proposed project links with the community’s vision while also meeting economic and urban design realities.  

The developer has spent $100,000 and the City over $400,000 in community engagement initiatives since the proposed Land Use change and project design was unveiled. Literally thousands of hours have been spent working with the stakeholders to explain the development and why it is designed in the manner it is.  Translators were at every meeting and all documents were translated into Chinese to make sure everyone understood what was being said and being proposed.

Juan told me that each of the above issues have been addressed with the community but unfortunately not everyone was prepared to accept the rationale for why the City and/or the developer wants the projects developed the way it is being proposed.

First, the City is not interested in additional parking at the site, as it is adjacent to the new underground 2ndSt LRT station for the Green Line and only four blocks from the 7thAvenue Transit corridor.  The focus of the development will be on transit-oriented development, not auto-oriented.  

The developer’s research indicates that second floor retail doesn’t work in Chinatown today, and that the proposed development doesn’t have a commercial podium at its base, like office buildings downtown.   Rather, the project is designed with a mid-block mews from 2nd to 3rd Ave SW that will allow pedestrians to wander 23 small independent shops and restaurants along the mews, rather than national franchised shops.  

They did indicate that provisions will be made for a potential +15 connection from Sun Life Plaza at a future date.  

The hotel location also makes sense when you understand how the mews works and other restrictions of the site that is too complicated to explain here.

It has been very frustrating from both the City and the Juan’s perspective as they have tried very hard to communicate how the project’s design (by Perkins + Will’s Calgary office) will benefit the community.  

It should be noted that Juan is a young, independent urban planner who is uniquely connected not only to Calgary’s Chinese community, but also Calgary at large. Despite working very hard to document and communicate how the proposed project fits with the community’s eight principles, she couldn’t get the BIA and some other community leaders to support the proposed project.

Next Step    

Now it is up to Council to make the final approval. Council can’t make any amendments to the project, they can only approve it or reject. If rejected, the developer would have to continue to modify the project to get community and Council support. If approved, the community could appeal this decision to the Development Appeal Board.

I do know Councillor Farrell’s and her Dale Calkins her Senior Policy & Planning Advisor have been working with the community, applicant, and City planners on this project for the past 3.5 years. And that it has been incredibly challenging, as everyone wants to ensure Chinatown is a vibrant, resilient, and complete community.

“They just disagree on what that exactly looks like and how to get there.”

  The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

Last Word

I always say “no plan is perfect. You can’t please everyone.” And the old saying “there is more than one way to skin a cat” might apply here too.  

This is a huge development that will shape the future of Chinatown for decades, so yes, it is important to get it right. But right for whom!

While some in the community will lament the loss of their surface parking lot, the reality is the best thing that can happen for Chinatown is the parking lot gets developed. Surely, the addition of a 150-room hotel, 500+ new homes and 20+ new retail/restaurant spaces will add much needed vitality our struggling Chinatown.  And hopefully, spur on other property owners and shop keepers to up their game.  

That’s my opinion after chatting with both sides.  And it hasn’t changed from when I first wrote about this proposal back in July 2016 in my Calgary Herald column.

Link:What is the future of Calgary’s Chinatown”  

 Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

Canada: A Country Of Prosaic Cities - Toronto!

I love flaneuring through the books in thrift stores and used bookstores to see if I might find a hidden gem.  That is exactly what happened recently at J.H. Gordon Books on King St. E in Hamilton, Ontario. 

Often, I find books I didn’t even know existed, like Jan Morris’ “City to City” which is subtitled “through the eyes of the greatest travel writer of our day.” I have a couple of Morris’ books in my collection but had never seen this one.   

A quick check found it was published in 1990 and the cities ranged from St John’s and Saskatoon to Yellowknife and Vancouver, as well as a few cities in between. I thought it would be interesting to see how an outsider saw Canada and our cities almost 30 years ago (a generation). Needless to say, I bought the book.  

  This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

This is the image Jan Morris and most of the world had of Canada and Canada cities in 1990. (photo credit: Tourism Toronto).

Jan Who?

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Jan Morris, born in 1926, is a Welsh historian, author and travel writer who has written extensively about cities around the world since the ‘60s. She has an amazing ability to observe, ask questions and articulate her thoughts on the underlying character of a city – good, bad and ugly. These are not fluffy travelogues, but urban character studies.   

She first visited Canada in the early 1950s, getting to know its cities and its people better than many Canadians ever do.

Her comments about Canada and Canadian cities are often not very flattering and sometimes I wonder how, in such a relative short visit, she can feel so confident about her ability to capture the pulse and sense of place of a city accurately.  Perhaps I am jealous?

By the end I was amazed at how many times she used the word “prosaic” to describe Canada, and our cities. However, that being said, she does make some very thought provoking observations.

Over the next few months I will share excerpts from her essays that were commissioned for Saturday Night magazine.   

Toronto the capital of the Ice Kingdom  

Morris’ Toronto essay was written in 1984 when she visited the city for its sesquicentennial. She acknowledges the city has become more metropolitan now (i.e. 1990) more Americanized and more assertive as evidenced by….wait for it… “the increasing number of jay-walkers!” 

In her opinion, Toronto is one the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cites of the Western World.  Morris also notes she had never heard of the word “multiculturalism” or “heritage language” until she visited Toronto.  She writes “Far more than any other of the great migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite.”

She thought the word multiculturalism is to Toronto, what “ooh-la-la” is to Paris, “ciao” to Rome, “nyetto” Moscow and “hey you’re looking great” to Manhattan. 

But she also noted “Toronto was not all brotherly love and folklore, saying wherever she went she heard talk of internecine (destructive to both sides) rivalries, felt a darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism and that one could easily stumble into cafes in which plotters organized distant coups.”  

  Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Toronto Caribana Parade (photo credit: Caribana Toronto)

Hinterland 

One of the main themes of the essays is the role of the transcontinental train as Canada’s iconic experience, as evidenced by this paragraph:

“And best of all, early one morning I went down to Union Station to watch the transcontinental train come in out of the darkness from Vancouver. Ah, Canada! I knew exactly what to expect of this experience, but still it stirred me: the hiss and rumble of it, the engineers princely in their high cab, the travel-grimed gleam of the sleeper cars…the grey faces peering out of the sleeper windows, the proud exhaustion of it all, and the thick tumble of the disembarking passengers, a blur of boots and lumberjackets and hoods and bundled children, clattering down the steps to breakfast, grandma, and Toronto, out of the limitless and magnificent hinterland.”

Oh, how Toronto and Canada HAS changed. The transcontinental train is iconic no more, and Union Station is filled with day commuters, with briefcases, backpacks and coffee cups from edge cities, not people from the hinterland.

Hard to believe the west was still thought of a Canada’s hinterland in the mid ‘80s by outsiders.

  Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Union Station is best known today as the hub of Toronto’s edge cities commuter system, not at the hub of the transcontinental train.

Destination

I love the strange and insightful questions Morris asks of cities. In the case of Toronto, it was “What were the intentions of this city?” She then links this question to her observation of the “mural sculpture on the wall of the stock exchange ‘Workforce” by Robert Longo and she begins to contemplate its significance. The mural has eight figures, ranging from a stockbroker to what seems like a female miner, none of which look happy.” Whereupon she exclaims, “the pursuit of happiness, after all is not written into the Canadian constitution.”   She also notes, “Nor do they look exactly inspired by some visionary cause…. they are marching determinedly, but joyously, arm-in-arm, upon an undefined objective. Wealth? Fame? Security?”  Interesting contradiction here, as earlier she says they don’t look happy but later they are “joyously, arm-in-arm.”

Morris then poses the question, “Do cities have to have destinations?” And answers with “Perhaps not, but most of them do, if it is only a destination in the past, or in the ideal. Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city. It is not, like London, England obsessed with its own history. It is not an act of faith, like Moscow or Manhattan. It has none of Rio’s exuberant sense of young identity. It is neither brassily capitalist or rigidly public sector. It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are.”

Morris also perceived, “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past. In Sydney, in Melbourne, in Wellington, even in Capetown, not to mention the cities in India, where the imperial memorials remain inescapable, sometimes even dominant…

Nobody, could possibly mistake this for a British City now.” “There is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either….it is not a free-and-easy, damn Yankee sort of city – anything but,” she adds later.

  Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

Will Alsop’s addition to the Ontario College of Art is just one of many buildings that shout out “Toronto is a creative city.”

  Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

Frank Gehry’s addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario enhances Toronto’s image as futuristic city even if the streetscape is harsh.

  Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Royal Ontario Museum’s bold new addition by architect Daniel Libeskind was inspired by the museums gem and mineral collection.

Nuclear Attack

Morris observes that while government authority is strong and respected in Toronto you could hardly call it “Orwellian – it seems without malevolence; but at the same time nobody can possibly ignore it, for it seems to have a finger almost everywhere (she hates the Liquor Control Board stores).”

She notes how public art is not only the work of the artist, but has to be authorized and approved by several government bodies before it is installed, or how it is the government that sells you a bottle of scotch and how well-mannered we are addressing criminals in course as “sir.”   

She postulates that if a nuclear bomb was to go off nearby, Torontonians would wait for the lights to change before running for cover.

Later she notes “Only in Toronto, I think, will a streetcar stop to allow a pedestrian to cross – surely one of the most esoteric experiences of travel in the 1980s? (Hmmmm, in Calgary cars stop all the time to let pedestrians cross the street, I wonder what she would make of that) Only in Toronto are the subways so wholesome, the parks so mugger-less, the children so well behaved.” 

She also recognizes Toronto isn’t a “provincial city” describing it as a huge, rich, splendid city, a metropolitan in power, a money centre of universal importance.

“Toronto is Toronto and perhaps that is enough….it is a city clean, neat, and ordered, built to a human scale, unhurried and polite. It has all the prerequisites of your modern major city – your revolving restaurants, your Henry Moore (today, that might be a Santiago Calatrava Bridge or a Jaume Plensa sculpture or a Norman Foster or BIG building), your trees with electric lights in them, your gay bars, your outdoor elevators, your restaurants offering deep fried pears stuffed with ripe camembert on a bed of nutmeg-scented spinach.”

Yet, by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism. 

  The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

The Flatiron building built in 1891 by architect David Robert has perhaps Toronto’s most popular piece of public art. The eye-catching mural by Calgary artist Derek Besant was painted in 1998 and consists of over 50 panel attached to a steel frame mounted on the wall.

  Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

Today more and more Canadian cities have scramble intersections for pedestrians like this one in Toronto.

  The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

The Henry Moore sculpture outside the Art Gallery of Ontario is a popular place to play for children.

Futuristic

She adds later “Everywhere has its galleria nowadays, Singapore to Houston, but none is quite so satisfying as Toronto’s Eaton Centre – just like one of the futuristic cities magazine artists like to depict in the 1930s.”

Morris says “Only the greatest of the world’s cities can outclass Toronto’s theatres, cinemas, art galleries, and newspapers, the variety of its restaurants, the number of its TV channels, the calibre of its visiting performers. Poets and artists are innumerable.” 

“What has not happened to Toronto is as remarkable as what has happened. It ought by all the odds to be a brilliant, brutal city, but it isn’t. Its downtown ought to be vulgar and spectacular, but is actually dignified, well proportioned, and indeed noble. Its sex-and-sin quarters, are hardly another Reeperbahn, and the punks and Boy Georges to be seen parading Yonge Street on a Saturday night are downright touching in their bravado, so scrupulously are they ignored.” 

  Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre with its Michael Snow artwork of Canadian geese opened in 1977 and quickly became an iconic urban shopping centre internationally. It has been copied by most Canadians cities with poor results.

  Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Toronto’s new City Hall opened in 1965 and was the beginning of the city’s transformation into an international design city.

Escape Tunnels

Morris is not a big fan of the city’s street life, “Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive. The Walkman might be made for it. It swarms with clubs, cliques, and cultural societies, but seems armour-plated against the individual. There are few cities in the world where one can feel, as one walks the streets or rides the subways, for better or for worse, so all alone.” 

She likes Toronto’s underground PATH walkway better than the streets saying “Among the innumerable conveniences of Toronto, which is an extremely convenient city, one of the most attractive is the system of tunnels which lies beneath the downtown streets, and which, with its wonderful bright-lit sequences of stores, cafes, malls and intersections, is almost a second city in itself. I loved to think of all the warmth and life down there, the passing crowds, the coffee smells, the Muzak, and the clink of cups, when the streets above were half-empty in the rain, or scoured by cold winds; and one of my great pleasures was to wander aimless through those comfortable labyrinths, lulled from one Golden Oldie to the next, surfacing now and then to find myself on an unknown street corner far from home, or all unexpectantly in the lobby of some tremendous bank.” 

She adds, “But after a time, I came to think of them as escape tunnels. It was not just that they were warm and dry; they had an intimacy to them, a brush of human empathy, a feeling absent from the greater city above our heads.” 

  Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

Toronto’s underground PATH system is used by over 200,000 people daily.

  Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

Toronto’s 30 kilometre long PATH system is recognized as an important element fo the economic viability of the city’s downtown core which is one of the strongest in the world.

No Joie de vivre

She later says, “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit – those interminable suburbs stretching away, the huge plane of the lake, those long grid roads which deprive the place of surprise or intricacy. Sometimes I think it must be the climate, numbing the nerve endings, or even the sheer empty vastness…Could it be the underpopulation; ought there be a couple of million more people in the city, to give it punch or jostle? Could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.” 

When Morris asked immigrants what they thought of Toronto they said the “people are cold…they just mind their own business and make the dollars…neighbours don’t smile and say hullo (sic), how’s things…nobody talks.” 

To this she adds her own observations “in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment…even the most naturally merry of the immigrants, the dancing Greeks, the witty Poles, the lyrical Hungarians seem to have forfeited their joie de vivre when they embrace the liberties of this town.”

In the end she concludes, “Your heart may not be singing, as you contemplate the presence around you Toronto the Good, but it should not be sinking either.

Cheer up! You have drawn the second prize, I would say, in the Lottario of Life.” 

  Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

Indeed, Toronto has added over a million more people since 1990. The city centre is being transformed from a place to work to a place to “live, work and play” with the addition of hundreds of new residential buildings.

  Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

Sidewalk patios are common place in Toronto and Canadian cities today; this was not the case in 1990.

  Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Cycling and urban living is become more and more common place in Toronto and Canada’s other major cities.

Last Word

Toronto the “Capital of the Ice Kingdom” is Morris’ term, not mine. However, it would seem to capture her view of Canada and our cities as cold, conservative and controlled places with little merriment. Hence the prolific use of the word “prosaic.”

I have to admit I have never been a big fan of Toronto, but then most Canadians other than those living in the metro Toronto area seem to despise the city that thinks it is the “centre of the universe.”  I am probably even more anti-Toronto than most as growing up in Hamilton we hated “Hogtown!”  I was surprised on a recent visit to Hamilton how much the anti-Toronto sentiment still exists.  

While reading the essay I couldn’t help but wonder what she might think of Calgary with our indoor +15 walkway, our brutally cold winters, beautiful icy rivers and huge parks.  What would she think of Stephen Avenue, the Calgary Tower or our iconic recreation centres? I got a sense of what she might have thought in her essay on Edmonton, entitled “A Six-Day Week!” 

  Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

Despite all the changes in Canada’s cities over the past 30 years I expect this is still the view most people outside of Canada have of our cities.

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

City Travel: Canada vs USA

Canada: The Foundations of its future


 








Does Calgary have too many neighbourhoods?

Calgary has 185 neighbourhoods and counting. But can we afford all of these neighbourhoods, each with their own Community Association and Community Centre? Many of which are chronically struggling for volunteers and funding. Is there an opportunity to merge some of the neighbourhoods to create more logical, viable and vibrant communities?

I'm torn. So I checked with Jane Jacobs the grandmother of modern urban thinking and harry Hiller, urban sociologist at the University of Calgary. Hiller thinks neighbourhoods are possibly irrelevant in the modern world. Jane thinks bigger is better. 

Let the debate begin...

 Calgary has 185 neighbourhoods and counting. Traditionally, the City has been divided into four quadrants, however, in reality there are at least eight different districts.

Calgary has 185 neighbourhoods and counting. Traditionally, the City has been divided into four quadrants, however, in reality there are at least eight different districts.

Small town = Small Minded?

Creating great neighbourhoods is critical to our City’s present and future prosperity as they attract young people to want to live here. It is young people with new ideas and new energy who are the future of any city. A good neighbourhood fosters social connectedness, economic diversity, well-being and civic pride.

One of Calgary’s urban living advantages since the ‘60s has been how it has fostered small town neighbourhoods of about five to ten thousand people. From the new Legacy in the far south, to Cliff Bungalow in the core – our city has kept our communities relatively small even as it grew from 250,000 to over one million.

These small town-like neighbourhoods of about 10,000 people made it easy for hundreds of thousands of Canadians who moved here mostly from small towns to assimilate into the big city. It also psychologically makes us feel more connected to people around us. On a personal level, I know I have come to love my neighbourhood – West Hillhurst - because of its idiosyncrasies. 

However, Jane Jacobs, the legendary writer on cities and urban design, always maintained that small communities are a sentimental longing for the past. AND that we should be fostering larger more urban districts of 50,000+ citizens. She even suggests that small-town size neighbourhoods foster NIMBYism. Something we all know Calgary is plagued with.

Jacob's argued that bigger neighbourhoods are better. And as our city continues to grow, the temptation to create 'bigger' neighbourhoods looms.

Certainly there would be a cost saving in duplicated resources, and larger communities might hold more sway with city council and developers. But I think good things come from small neighbourhoods. 

  The recreation centre and park in the foreground is in West Hillhurst, while the Queen Elizabeth School and fields across the street is in Hillhurst. Does this matter? (photo credit: Ross Aitken Re/Max Real Estate Central)

The recreation centre and park in the foreground is in West Hillhurst, while the Queen Elizabeth School and fields across the street is in Hillhurst. Does this matter? (photo credit: Ross Aitken Re/Max Real Estate Central)

Jane’s Logic

In 1960, Jacobs wrote the definitive book on creating great neighbourhoods – “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Note: I have been re-reading this book over the summer.

It has become the bible for many of today’s urbanists – planners, politicians, architects and other urban influencers. You’d think someone who fought to preserve mid-century neighbourhood life, would love small neighbourhoods. But, you'd be wrong. Here’s what she said in her chapter “The Uses Of City Neighborhoods”

Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine. As a sentimental concept, ‘neighborhood’ is harmful to planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with the sweet intentions in place of good sense.”

Well, Calgary certainly has suburban life – imitation or not. And we've even tried to create a vision of 19th century 'towns' – think Mackenzie Town.

Later she says: “In its pure form the ideal is a neighborhood composed of about 7,000 persons, a unit supposedly of sufficient size to populate an elementary school and to support convenience shopping and a community center.”

But, then Jacobs goes on to say the focus should be on creating districts of about 50,000 to 100,000 people.  This, she argues, would create a critical body of voters which could in turn influence politicians.

Ironically, this fits nicely with Calgary’s 14 Wards, with populations ranging from 70,000 to 105,000, each with their own schools, major park, library, recreation centre and shopping mall. But, it's probably fair to say most of us don't identify with our Ward. We are still stuck on community.

And maybe there is something to this. Maybe it is time to stop thinking of our neighbourhoods as pristine little imagined communities. Maybe we need to relax a bit when it comes to our community associations trying to gobble up resources so we can each have our very own little library or pool, school or soccer pitch, dog park or city contribution to some cultural event.

I have to admit Jane’s logic makes more sense now than perhaps it did in the ‘60s. Today, urban living means a home in one part of the city, while working in another and playing in yet another. We are just as connected with someone on the other side of the city, as we are someone on the other side of the street.

Most kids don’t grow up in their neighbourhood anymore– their daycare, schools and extra-curricular activities are rarely in their ‘hood. Recreation centers, libraries and churches are mega regional facilities that attract people from all over the quadrant.  Few walk to the library, playing field or recreation centre anymore.

Knowing this, should we plan our cities differently?

  Calgary's Ward system corresponds nicely with Jane Jacob's suggestions that a city should be divided into districts of about 50,000 to 100,000 people.

Calgary's Ward system corresponds nicely with Jane Jacob's suggestions that a city should be divided into districts of about 50,000 to 100,000 people.

  Interestingly, Paris is divided into 20 neighbourhoods, each with about 100,000 people.

Interestingly, Paris is divided into 20 neighbourhoods, each with about 100,000 people.

CALGARIANS LOVE THEIR NEIGHBOURHOODS

Humans have lived in small towns for millenniums. We like it when we see people we recognize at the dog park, playground or at the store. Even if we don’t know their name we will say “Hi” if we see a person frequently enough. Living in small neighbourhoods is in our DNA.

I don’t have any empirical data but based on my 35+ years of living in Calgary, I believe most Calgarians like living in their small town-like neighbourhoods. Living in West Hillhurst for over 25 years, I have come to enjoy the diversity of my community and I expect that is true for most of Calgarians.

  From Avenue Magazine's 2018 ranking of Calgary neighbourhoods.

From Avenue Magazine's 2018 ranking of Calgary neighbourhoods.

  Avenue Magazine's top five neighbourhoods.

Avenue Magazine's top five neighbourhoods.

Why I love West Hillhurst….

West Hillhurst was originally part of the massive 146,000-hectare Cochrane Ranch owned by the Riley family. Over the years the land has had names like Grand Trunk, Upper Hillhurst, Westmount, Parkdale Annex and Happyland.

Today it is home to 6,500 people, with the heart of the neighbourhood being West Hillhurst Park and recreation centre. It may not have all of the bells and whistles of the new mega million-dollar recreation centers on the outskirts of the City but it is works just fine.

I love that West Hillhurst is more than just a sea of luxury infill homes. Even though there has seemingly been a new infill being built on every other block for 25+ years, there are still lots of tiny cottage homes and single-story mid-century homes. I love how the past and present intermingles.

It's a bit of a jumble – schools, parks, homeless shelters, affordable housing, an abortion clinic, an ENMAX transformer, senior centres, a Lion's club, churches, a river, roads, rec centres, playgrounds, shops, and a hundred other 'things'. All of which form 'community'.

I love the social cohesion that exists in my neighbourhood - how people of all ages and backgrounds mix. I doubt West Hillhurst is unique, I expect all of Calgary’s 185 communities have their own charm and appeal.

In a big city you need a spectrum of communities that will appeal to the diversity of lifestyles from highrise living to estate homes, from co-op housing to affordable housing. A city’s richness come from the diversity of its neighbourhoods. Calgary is blessed with such!

But, it may be time for some of this wonderful uniqueness, to merge.

  This early 20th century map indicates that there were several neighbourhoods in what is now Hillurst and West Hillhurst.

This early 20th century map indicates that there were several neighbourhoods in what is now Hillurst and West Hillhurst.

NEIGHBOURHOODS MUST EVOLVE

Today West Hillhurst is divided east and west by the Crowchild Trail Divide (most people think the west side is actually Parkdale).  Most people think West Hillhurst ends at Crowchild Trail and Parkdale starts on the west side of Crowchild Trail, but in fact it doesn’t start until 29th St. in fact there is are three churches that are named Parkdale but are actually in West Hillhurst.  Crowchild trail is a natural boundary / barrier between those who live on one side and those on the other of Crowchild trail.  

I will probably be tarred and feathered for saying this but perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our boundaries. They are only imaginary anyway.

Should West Hillhurst and Parkdale amalgamate? Or should West Hillhurst become part of larger Hillhurst/Sunnyside community. Maybe we should even think bigger and create a North Hill community that would combine Hillhurst/Sunnyside, West Hillhurst, Parkdale, St. Andrew’s Heights, Briar Hill and Hounsfield Heights. Should Sunalta be part of the Beltline? Should Renfrew be part of Bridgeland/Riverside? Should East Village, Downtown Commercial, Eau Claire, Chinatown and Downtown West become one downtown neighbourhood?

Many inner-city community boundaries don’t make any sense anymore. Most of them were established based on city and homebuilders’ subdivisions that are 50 years out-of-date. We just don't live that way anymore. We use our city differently.

Indeed, amalgamations have already worked for some neighbourhoods. In 2004, the communities of Connaught and Victoria Park (two of Calgary’s oldest neighbourhoods) merged to become the Beltline.

This has allowed for better planning and development. Now unified, the city was able to devised a “Blueprint for the Beltline” that charted a much more practical vision for the area. A better use of land and limited resources.

The Northern Hills Community Association is another example of where six ‘90s suburb neighbourhoods - Harvest Hills, Coventry Hills, Country Hills Estates, Panorama Hills Estates, Country Hills and Panorama Hills have come to think of themselves as one big community. Even while they keep their names, they've found collective action can bind them to each other. Thus, their recent 850m mural project - the longest in Canada.

So, perhaps it's time to stop playing the Freudian civic game of, 'who has the biggest YMCA', and start thinking about how we can better share our shiny new civic toys within the content of macro neighbourhoods. Certainly the folks at city hall, trapped in seemingly endless rounds of 'consultation' on every darn project with a near endless list of concerned citizens from 'the local neighbourhood' might, just might, find it easier to get stuff done if they had to deal with fewer folks.

Yet I think we must temper this ambition.

SIZE MATTERS?

While Jacobs thinks fostering small town living “warps” cities, I beg to differ.

I don’t think wanting to live in a small town is “a sentimental longing for the past,” but rather an intrinsic part of human happiness and well-being. So, do researchers from McGill and the Vancouver School of Economics who published a paper in May 2018, documenting that Canadians who live in small towns are happier than those living in big cities. 

Lucky for Calgarians, despite the endless sprawl, we all continue live in small towns. Perhaps that's why we are generally happy and satisfied with our quality of life.  A 2015, Stats Can study found Calgarians’ life satisfaction is higher than Vancouver’s or Toronto’s. A 2017 City of Calgary Citizen Satisfaction survey found 85% of us rated our quality of life a good. Obviously, Calgary is doing something right. Whether it's an itty bitty place like Mission, or a bigger lake-community in the south. Vive la difference!

What's critical is fostering a sense of community, a sense of belonging and personal happiness.

Perhaps we don’t need all 185 neighbourhoods. Perhaps there should be some amalgamations, but for the most part Calgary has been, and will continue to be, well served by fostering a sense of small-town living in an ever-bigger city. 

  This map was posted on Twitter recently, indicating that Inglewood Ramsay was once 12 different neighbourhoods.

This map was posted on Twitter recently, indicating that Inglewood Ramsay was once 12 different neighbourhoods.

Last Word

I asked Dr. Harry H. Hiller, professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, a macro sociologist and urban sociologist if he thought Calgary has too many neighbourhoods.  He responded with:

The most important thing to know is the distinction between community of place vs. community of interest.  We often assume that community is a geographic or place based phenomenon.  While that is true, it is also a phenomenon that people create community based on mutual interests where place is irrelevant.  

We build subdivisions using principles such as walkability and community associations because we assume that people create community based on proximity of residence.  But that is no longer true.  People now may drive all over a city to find people with similar interests to their own.  This is also heightened by the creation now of digital communities where geographic proximity is totally irrelevant.  

One of my best examples of this was the old notion that every subdivision had to keep a double lot for the establishment of a local church that may have serviced 200-500 people.  Now that is not done any more as mega-churches have been created that people travel from all over to attend (e.g. Centre Street church), or people may choose to attend a church or model railroading club or lodge that services a quadrant of a city or just the city as a whole.  Community then occurs based on common interests and is not related to a local sense of community.  

We have a friend in Calgary who has become quite fascinated by a church in Dallas which I looked up and I discovered that they tell people that they can become an e-member.  So community might be local or city-wide but it can also be virtual.  

The ultimate point is that community based on place requires a much broader interpretation and geographic location might even be totally irrelevant.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Calgary news as part of their "Road Ahead" feature. on Saturday, Sept 8, 2018.  

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

West Hillhurst: Portrait Of My Neighbourhood

Calgary's Million Dollar Neighbourhoods

Altadore: A Model 21st C Neighbourhood?

Condo Living: Too Many Amenities? 

There seems to be a bit of “one-upmanship” happening, these days in Calgary when it comes to condo amenities. Bruce McKenzie, Vice President, Business Development, NORR Architects Engineers Planners tells me they are working on a project that will have luxury guest suites in a prime location looking out onto the Elbow River, a jogging/walking track, a large garden also overlooking the Elbow River and a solar cell phone charging area. It will even have its own dog park. 

Could it be that new City Centre condos in Calgary have too many amenities?  Why is that a concern? Read on.....

  Imagine this is your communal living room! If I lived at Qualex Landmark's Mark on 10th condo, I don't think I would ever leave the building.  

Imagine this is your communal living room! If I lived at Qualex Landmark's Mark on 10th condo, I don't think I would ever leave the building.  

  Bucci's Radius condo in Bridgeland will have a community garden on its rooftop. What a great way to meet your neighbours without leaving the building.

Bucci's Radius condo in Bridgeland will have a community garden on its rooftop. What a great way to meet your neighbours without leaving the building.

BBQs to Bocce Courts 

He also notes their University District’s Rhapsody condo will have a huge rooftop deck with everything from cabanas and BBQ stations to bocce courts. He said, “It seems like everyone is trying to outdo the next guy!” 

This may well have started in about 2014 when Concord condo was announced with its all-season garden (i.e. garden in the summer; private skating rink in the winter), two story garages so you can store all of your four and two-wheel toys and even have your own work bench. There is also a golf simulator, luxury pool area with its own resort-like lounge, as well as an upscale workout/yoga studio.  

  This could be all yours if you lived at the Concord....why would you want to leave?

This could be all yours if you lived at the Concord....why would you want to leave?

Not to be outdone Qualex/Landmark did away with the penthouse suites in their Mark on 10th project, replacing them with amazing rooftop amenities for all residents. This includes an outdoor BBQ area with a large hot tub with spectacular mountain views and a huge lounge area with kitchen floor to ceiling window overlooking downtown.

  Who needs to go to the spa when this is your hot tub at Mark on 10th? 

Who needs to go to the spa when this is your hot tub at Mark on 10th? 

Bikes / Beer / Zen

  N3 condo's roof top offers amazing views of the downtown and sunsets while you cook up dinner on the BBQ. 

N3 condo's roof top offers amazing views of the downtown and sunsets while you cook up dinner on the BBQ. 

Even the “no parking” N3 condo project in East Village, has a spectacular outdoor roof-top amenity with great views of new Central Library, the National Music Centre, Stampede Park, downtown, Bow and Elbow Rivers and the Rockies.

It also has an attractive indoor roof-top exercise room and the BBQ area has become the communal living room for residents.

Right outside their front door is the funky Brewer’s Apprentice offering 48 beers on tap that you can take home and just around the corner is Tim Hortons. No need to venture very far. 

Parham Mahboubi, Vice President, Planning & Marketing, Qualex Landmark tells me “When we design building common areas and amenities, we are thoughtful of how these spaces contribute to bringing neighbours together. For example, in Park Point, about 9,000 square feet of amenity areas offer homeowners a place to converge, whether it is the outdoor Zen Terrace, the infrared sauna, gym, yoga/pilates spaces or the outdoor lounge and BBQ area." 

As I was writing this piece for Condo Living Magazine,  I happened upon Minto Communities’ Annex project in Kensington designed by Calgary's Nyhoff Architecture. I learned they will have a multi-use roof-top that will include dog run, a fire pit area, BBQs and what looks like a shuffleboard area.  

  Minto Communities' Annex condo rooftop in Kensington will offer spectacular views of downtown, as well as a private urban playground. Who needs noisy street patios? 

Minto Communities' Annex condo rooftop in Kensington will offer spectacular views of downtown, as well as a private urban playground. Who needs noisy street patios? 

Last Word

The trend to building in-house amenities in new condos may well be counter-productive, as the whole idea of increasing the number of people living in the City Center was to create more street life.  

In theory the new urbanites would live in their condos but leave them to mix and mingle in their neighbourhood cafes, lounges, bistros, yoga/fitness studios, parks and pathways - be that Beltline, East Village, Eau Clare, Downtown or Mission.  

Who is going to do that when you have your own lounges, fitness areas, pools, hot tubs and park-like spaces in your own building. 

I wonder what is next!

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

Importance of Comfort, Convenience & Privacy 

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary

21st Century: Century of the condo?

Inner City Communities: Future = Past?

While many urban planners are quick to criticize Calgary’s inner-city communities for their lack of walkability, I think some rethinking is in order.

Why? Because these communities were built in the ‘50s ‘60s and ‘70s when urban living and homebuyer expectations were very different from those today. 

Also because the future of urban living could look at lot more like the mid-20th century with home delivery of almost all of our everyday needs. 

  Wander any Calgary established neighbourhood and you are likely to find several new infill residential developments.  

Wander any Calgary established neighbourhood and you are likely to find several new infill residential developments.  

Walkability

One of the major criticisms of Calgary’s older communities is the lack of walkability to everyday amenities like grocery stores, cafes, drugstores, pubs, restaurants, boutiques and fitness studios.  

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 1.07.08 PM.png

However, back then “essentials” like milk, bread, eggs and butter were often delivered to the home.  

And a corner convenience store also supplied other everyday essentials which often included cigarettes.  

And then there was the Fuller Brush Man and Avon Lady….it was a VERY different time.  

There was no need for organic grocery store or farmers markets - many city dwellers used their mid-century big backyards for their own garden; some even had family or friends living on nearby farms who’d share their big garden harvest.

  Marda Loop's farmers' market is just one of the ever increasing number of weekly neighbourhood markets in Calgary. 

Marda Loop's farmers' market is just one of the ever increasing number of weekly neighbourhood markets in Calgary. 

Neighbours often shared the extra tomatoes, cukes and zucchini with those neighbours who didn’t have gardens.

No need for the fancy community garden so popular today.

However, the economics of food distribution, home delivery and corner stores changed dramatically in the ‘70s.  There was also the introduction of the mega-store chain store mentality – grocery stores, drug stores and hardware stores were no longer small, independent neighbourhood stores. 

Ironically, we seem to be returning to mid-century urban living with home delivery of not only of groceries, but almost anything you need. Is marijuana replacing cigarettes? Perhaps we should allow the new marijuana stores to become the new corner store offering all kinds of convenience items.

  Is the future of grocery shopping home delivery? 

Is the future of grocery shopping home delivery? 

Home Entertainment

In the middle of the 20thcentury, meeting a friend for coffee didn’t mean going to a trendy café shelling out $4 for a coffee and $3 for a muffin, but rather going to someone’s home for homemade coffee (often instant) and home baked goods.  

So, there was much less of a need for a neighbourhood café.  In fact, even today’s neighbourhood cafés are less a place to meet friends and more a workspace given tiny condos are too small to “live, work and/or play.” 

The same is true for the neighbourhood pub.  When our inner city communities were built, meeting up for a beer or a drink meant going to someone’s home, often to the basement’s rumpus room that had a bar.  Interestingly, there is a return to the basement rumpus room/bar, but now it is called the “media centre.”  

A costly craft beer at a fancy pub with multiple TVs broadcasting sports from around the world didn’t exist when the focus was more local than global.  

Going out to a restaurant for dinner was also not a common activity in the mid 20th century. Rather most families, it was something they did a few times a year, on very special occasions.  

This is why there aren’t a lot of neighbourhood restaurants in our inner-city communities.

  Is the patio the new basement? The new back deck? 

Is the patio the new basement? The new back deck? 

  Will the next generation of Calgarians be so focused on going out to eat and drink versus eating at home.

Will the next generation of Calgarians be so focused on going out to eat and drink versus eating at home.

Playgrounds & Fitness

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 2.45.06 PM.png

The big mid-century backyards were often used as the children’s playground - two swings, a slide and sand box (maybe even a tree fort in a real tree).

No need for those $250,000+ mega community playgrounds.  

In the winter, someone on the block had a backyard ice rink that everyone used.  There was an elementary school within a 5 to 10-minute walk that provided the neighbourhood playground equipment and playing fields.  No need to duplicate school and community amenities. 

  Queen Elizabeth Elementary School playground is just one block away from the West Hillhurst Park playground. 

Queen Elizabeth Elementary School playground is just one block away from the West Hillhurst Park playground. 

Having a local fitness, cycling or yoga studio nearby was also not an issue 60 years ago. I don’t recall my parents or parents of my friends ever working out, doing yoga or wanting to cycle like a maniac to music. Similarly, the need for community fitness centres was non-existent, people were happy with an arena and curling rink nearby. 

  Tuesday morning yoga in the park with kids. You would never have seen this in the '60s. 

Tuesday morning yoga in the park with kids. You would never have seen this in the '60s. 

Besides, fitness for men 60 years ago was cutting the grass, gardening and doing odd jobs around the house. It was a time when the workshop was the man cave, a place where Dad could (and needed to) fix and build things.

It is what we now call “active living.” 

And the same for women. The daily tasks, like cooking, cleaning, canning and laundry (which meant taking the clothes outside to dry) was all the fitness they needed.  Hence the adage, “A women’s work is never done!” Especially when the average family was 6+ people. 

Will the current interest in paying to going to a gym continue or will it be a generational fad?  Will parents get tired of driving their kids all over the city for extracurricular activities?  

Will our mega regional recreation centers become a thing of the past as people return to playing on the street, family walks and playing in the neighbourhood park?   

  Helicopter Park in West Hillhurst is just one of hundreds of funky new neighbourhood playgrounds in Calgary.    Calgary has something like 1,200 city playgrounds for 185 neighbourhoods and that doesn't include school playgrounds. 

Helicopter Park in West Hillhurst is just one of hundreds of funky new neighbourhood playgrounds in Calgary.  Calgary has something like 1,200 city playgrounds for 185 neighbourhoods and that doesn't include school playgrounds. 

Shopping wasn’t a hobby

There was no need for lots of clothing shops in the mid 20thcentury. Have you seen the tiny closets in those mid-century houses! Moms often sewed dresses for themselves and their daughters. There was less shopping for kid’s clothes “hand-me-downs” came from family and friends. Less of a need for consignment and for thrift stores as well.  

Moms would also repair clothes (I wore a lot of pants with iron-on knee patches) and darn socks with holes in them rather than throw them out. Today’s online shopping is not that much different from the Eaton’s and Sears catalogue shopping in the 50s and 60s.  What is old is new again?

  For many the shopping mall is the new Main Street i.e. a place to stroll with friends and doing a little window shopping.

For many the shopping mall is the new Main Street i.e. a place to stroll with friends and doing a little window shopping.

  In the early 21st century, the shopping mall became a second living room with soft seating that often exceeds anything we have at home.

In the early 21st century, the shopping mall became a second living room with soft seating that often exceeds anything we have at home.

Saving vs Spending?

Will the next generation realize they could save a lot of money by adopting the home entertainment culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s? By my calculations, a coffee a day cost about $150/month, drinks and/or dinner once a week could cost another $150/month per person, so by entertaining at home you could easily save $250/month which if applied to a mortgage would make inner-city living more affordable.  

  Trendy cafes like this one in Banff Trail are popping up in every established neighbourhood.

Trendy cafes like this one in Banff Trail are popping up in every established neighbourhood.

Community Garden vs Backyard Garden

Will the next generation wake up and realize they could have their own garden, thereby saving significant dollars on buying pricey organic food at the farmers’ market?  

This is already starting to happen with Calgary’s plethora of community gardens (there are almost 200 community gardens in Calgary).

  A backyard vegetable garden in a mid century house in Parkdale. This garden has existed for decades, it is not a trendy new backyard garden. 

A backyard vegetable garden in a mid century house in Parkdale. This garden has existed for decades, it is not a trendy new backyard garden. 

  Parkdale community garden just across the alley from the house in the previous photo.

Parkdale community garden just across the alley from the house in the previous photo.

Death of the grocery store?

Is the mega grocery store destined for extinction, like the department store? soon to become extinct? Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy and associate dean at the College of Management and Economics, University of Guelph said back in 2014 that “the days of the typical grocery store are numbered.” Since then, online grocery store shopping in North America has grown significantly, US online grocery shopping is expected to grow from 7% of the market to 20% by 2025. Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods in 2017 could well signal the beginning of the end for the mega grocery store. 

Link: Death of grocery store

Link: Why Canada is wary of online grocery shopping.  

  Urban grocery store in Bridgeland.

Urban grocery store in Bridgeland.

The same could be true for other bricks and mortar retailers. Department stores have been dying for decades,  Sears being the latest victim.  While some say the death of retail is premature. Warren Buffett says “that in 10 years, the retail industry will look nothing like it does today.” In May 2017, he sold all of his Walmart shares.  Who would bet against Buffett, one of the most successful and respected investors in the world since the 1960s? 

Link: Death of retail as we know it.

Will there be support for a traditional “main street” in the future? The City of Calgary’s planners are currently focused on how to create or enhance 24 traditional main streets in Calgary’s older communities.  Many of Calgary’s new urban villages are planned around an urban grocery store as its anchor.  

One has to wonder - are we planning for the future or the past? 

Link: City of Calgary Main Street Program

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 1.41.32 PM.png

Futurists?

Planners and politicians need to be futurists. They need to envision the future and build a city with a variety of different communities to meet the diverse and changing expectations of its citizens and market.  

Have we replaced the sea of cookie-cutter single-family houses with cookie-cutter town homes and condos?  

Will the master-planned communities being built today, meet the needs of Calgarians 20 years from now when they are fully built-out? 

  Brookfield Residential's Livingston is just one example of many new master planned communities that employs 21st century urban design principles for creating mixed-use neighbourhoods at the edge of the city.

Brookfield Residential's Livingston is just one example of many new master planned communities that employs 21st century urban design principles for creating mixed-use neighbourhoods at the edge of the city.

Last Word

Calgary’s inner-city communities are in fact much loved by those who live there today - as they were 50+ years ago. They have not become rundown and undesirable communities like in some cities.   They are an oasis for many Calgarians. Hence, the strong desire to preserve rather than develop them. 

Too much of today’s city building is about imitation - planners, developers and politicians borrowing ideas from other cities without understanding the unique nature of their city.  

Calgary is not Vancouver. Nor is it Toronto or Montreal.  And we are VERY different from European and US cities. 

Calgary’s inner-city communities may not require as much change as many planners think given the return to home delivery for food, clothing and other everyday needs. The UPS and FedEx trucks arrive on my street almost every day; often more than once.  Our everyday needs are being delivered to us, rather than us walking, cycling or driving to pick them up.  

Perhaps we should just let them evolve naturally based on economic, technological and market changes with a dash of good urban design. 

  A typical street of mid 20th century homes in West Hillhurst. 

A typical street of mid 20th century homes in West Hillhurst. 

  A typical street of new infill homes in West Hillhurst.  These two streets are literally side-by-side. 

A typical street of new infill homes in West Hillhurst.  These two streets are literally side-by-side. 

  19th Street NW is a good example of a mid 20th century main street evolving slowly into the 21st century.

19th Street NW is a good example of a mid 20th century main street evolving slowly into the 21st century.

  Marda Loop's 33rd & 34th Ave SW are both undergoing mega makeovers with new mixed-use buildings and condos.  

Marda Loop's 33rd & 34th Ave SW are both undergoing mega makeovers with new mixed-use buildings and condos.  

Urban Sprawl: Who wants to live way out here?

I really do need to get out more. Specifically, to the edges of the city, to see what is happening in Calgary’s new frontier.  Recently, I was reminded of this when driving some buddies (inner-city boys) out for a round at Canals of Delacour golf course, which meant we had to drive past the airport.  Who does that?

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 10.32.50 PM.png

Our immediate reaction as we passed the airport was to marvel at all of the development happening east of the airport.  After a bit of chatter, one buddy said “Who would want to live out here?” My response, “That is exactly what people said when Lakeview, Lake Bonavista and Dalhousie were built at the edge of the city 40+ years ago.”

He smiled and sheepishly admitted that when he moved to Charleswood in the early ‘60s, it too was treeless, there was no University of Calgary, no Brentwood Mall or LRT station and indeed, people asked him “Why do you want to live so far out?”  The other buddy agreed that it was the same for him when he moved to Calgary 40+ years ago and chose to live in Beddington before moving to the inner-city. 

When I pointed out people living in these new northeast communities have easy access to Stoney Trail, the airport, CrossIron Mills (shopping and cinema), Lowe’s Home Improvement and the New Horizon shopping centre opening this summer – and of course, Costco.  

I then hit them with buddy’s motto “If Costco doesn’t have it, I don’t need it,” which resulted in agreement all around.  I also reminded them that with the popularity of online shopping for groceries, clothing, electronics and other everyday needs, having stores nearby isn’t as important as it once was.

Both admitted living out here might not be that bad after all and that getting a bigger home by living further from downtown was one of the reasons they chose to live on the edge of the city when they moved to Calgary and had young families. One even said, “who needs to live near downtown.  I never go there anyway.” Ouch!

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 10.30.30 PM.png

Not your parent’s suburbs

However, what is different about these new suburbs, compared with those 40 or 50 years ago is they are not a sea of single-family homes on huge lots, but a diversity of housing options including, single-family homes, duplexes, row houses and mid-rise condos (4 to 6 storeys high). 

Two days later, when heading out to play another round at Canal at Delacour, (yes, I love the course) I decided to leave early to explore these new communities and see for myself what was happening. 

I was gobsmacked by Truman’s Orchard Sky project with its cluster of seven condo buildings totalling 423 new homes within walking distance of a school, park and pathway in the new community called Skyview Ranch.  I also saw what looked to be a large, 6 storey wood frame residential building nearby, as well as other four-story residential buildings along the main corridor.  While it might not be the Beltline or East Village, it is certainly not the low-density suburbs of the mid to late 20th century. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 10.31.48 PM.png

Name Game

It can all get a bit confusing when you read the marketing information and learn there is a new community in the northeast called Savanna that is actually in the community of Saddle Ridge.  Or, when there is both a Cornerstone and Cornerbrook community in the northeast. I think one might be within the boundaries of the other, but it wasn’t clear.  As if the naming of the streets wasn’t confusing enough with all of the street names looking the same, now the community names also overlap.   

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Last Word

It is not only at the northeast edge that Calgary’s condo invasion is happening. It is also in the southwest, southeast, west side and directly north up Centre Street.  A quick check with the City of Calgary and there are currently 23 condo construction sites in new communities creating 2,693 new homes for Calgarians. 

Condo living is not only just starter home for young Calgarians in the suburbs. It is a lifestyle option for people of all ages and backgrounds in in the 21st century.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the July 2018 edition of Condo Living Magazine. 

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

80% of Calgarians must live in the suburbs!

Everyday Tourist's Road Trip to the 'burbs!

Not Your Parent's Suburbs!

Do Homeowner/Resident Associations create two-tiered communities?

Are you confused by what the difference is between a Home Owners’ Association, Resident’s Association or a Community Association?  You aren’t alone.

  Arbour Lake, Calgary

Arbour Lake, Calgary

In Calgary we use the term HOA (Home Owners’ Association) and RA (Residents’ Association) almost interchangeably as both maintain green spaces and amenities established by a developer, have a volunteer board of directors and operate under the registered by-laws of a non-profit organization.

Often in Calgary we identify HOA for non-profits that mange the beautification of pathways and entrances in communities, while RAs manage a community "building" or "feature" amenity (i.e. lake or water park).

The board of each HOA/RAs sets the fees annually.  The fees can range from as little as $50 to about $880 (lake community) per year. These fees are mandatory so 100% of the homeowners have to participate or legal action is taken against non-compliant homeowners.  Homeowners who fail to pay their HOA/RAs fees can be sued.  Some also charge credit card rate interest fees (18%+) putting a homeowner experiencing hard times in a very difficult position.

Interestingly, there is no master list of how many RAs or HOAs there are in Calgary.  Nobody seems to know what the first one even was, but the best guess is Lake Bonavista in 1967.

Community Associations (CAs) differ from HOA/RAs in that they have no mandatory fees or membership.  They may or may not operate a building, but they do manage various year-round community activities and programs. They too have a volunteer Board of Directors and most of their activities are managed by volunteers.  There are over 200 Community Associations in Calgary, with the Federation of Calgary Communities (FCC) providing support.

I checked with Leslie Evans, Executive Director of the FCC to get more insights on how HOAs, RAs and CAs work - or don’t work - in Calgary.

  Yoga on the Lake? Lake Bonavista, Calgary (photo credit: carpediem.cd)

Yoga on the Lake? Lake Bonavista, Calgary (photo credit: carpediem.cd)

Q: Does an HOA create a two-tiered community system in Calgary?  

A: It depends! Sometimes the developer creates an HOA for a specific piece of land, while others might create an HOA/RA for an entire community they are building, whose boundaries might or might not align with the City’s community association boundary.  This causes confusion and can result in frustrations between HOA/RA and CAs.

When the relationship between the HOA/RA and CA is good, you have the best of both worlds. The HOA/RA's amenities combined with the CA's ability to provide social, recreational and educational activities creates a vibrant community.

However, the relationship is sometimes strained, or can vary year-to-year with changing board volunteers on both side.  It is most often strained because the HOA/RA is a "have organization" with funds and an amenity while the CA is often perceived as a "have not organization" with only a volunteer membership.  So, yes sometimes HOAs/RAs can create a two-tiered community.  

For example, in Tuscany, the developer for Tuscarora (a small sub-section of Tuscany) did not wish to contribute to the Tuscany HOA/RA so the homeowners of Tuscarora were not allowed access to the Tuscany community building or waterpark.  However, new home buyers didn’t realize this and it became a huge source of controversy. So, Tuscany’s HOA/RA board decided if Tuscarora residents wanted to belong they could, however, they would have to pay a premium fee and have (at their expense) a caveat added to their land title forever committing that home to be a member of the Tuscany HOA/RA.  This definitely creates a “have” and “have not” situation.

Q: How are renters affected by HOA/RAs?

A: When renters rent in HOA/RA communities they may or may not have access to the HOA amenities.  Some have policies that restrict use to the "homeowner." Some "homeowners" don't provide their key to the renter so they have no access to community amenities that their neighbours have.  HOAs, in many ways, are private homeowner clubs.

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Q: What are the good things about an HOA/RA? 

A: HOA/RA amenities are in place when residents "buy" so the water park, lake or hall can be enjoyed as soon as they move in. HOAs are financially sustainable assuming the board manages it well, as have a steady source of revenue to carry out the mandate.

On the other hand, Community Association buildings often take decades to build because residents have to fundraise for the building, negotiate land from the City and struggle to operate the building with no mandatory fees.

HOA/RAs are usually heavily supported by the developer until build out – allowing time for volunteer boards to learn what their role is.  In addition, the funds usually cover a paid staff person or two which really adds continuity to the organization.  

As well, HOA/RA’s amenities are built on private land; this means there is still another 10% of the development allocated to parks, schools and a CA site within the community.  

HOA amenities are not "gifts" from the developer. Rather, they are mortgaged amenities to the HOA homeowners i.e. homeowners pay for the entire development, maintenance and life cycle of these amenities through the annual fee system. 

Q: What are the not-so-good things about an HOA/RAs? 

A: They are confusing.  Multiple HOA/RAs within the same CA causes mass confusion. Developers don't always work together especially when multiple landowners develop the land side-by-side. 

For example, in West Springs/Cougar Ridge, there is one CA with but more than 25 HOAs.  There are 25 boards all trying to enhance the entranceways and green spaces, which is an incredible waste of volunteer time that takes away from other possible community building activities. 

The volunteers are also potentially paying more for maintenance contracts because they are contracting small jobs without collaborating together.  What is worse is the CA has no idea how to contact them to try to collaborate on community building activities.  That’s because there is no HOA/RA registry.  Lawyers doing individual homeowner title transfers but do not know who to call.  They often call the Federation of Calgary Communities because they think we can help, but we can’t.  Some lawyers and real estate agents don’t even know the difference between a CA and HOA/RA.

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Q: Do all new communities have HOA fees?

A: This is definitely the trend, but not all new communities have HOA fees. It is the developer’s decision.  The City likes HOAs because they don’t have to maintain the green spaces and entranceways.

Last Word

Jason Palacsko, VP of Calgary Communities for Brookfield Residential, one of North America’s largest home builders, agrees with Evans that while HOA/RA can be confusing, they are important in fostering a sense of community and thus why all of Brookfield’s new communities in Calgary have a HOA/RA.  He strongly feels “HOA/RAs create places where people play, connect and experience belonging which is important in a world where people are feeling increasingly isolated.”

So, there you have it.  I hope this clears up the confusion.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's on June 16, 2018.

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

Community Associations & Urban Development

Not All Community Associations Are Created Equa

Urban Living: Importance of BIAs

Calgary: At The Forefront Of North America's Urban Densification Revolution?

For 50+ years Calgarians have watched numerous master-planned communities get built at the city’s edge. Only recently, have we begun seeing them pop up our inner-city neighbourhoods

 The Bridges is master-planned community created a new heart for Bridgeland/Riverside one of Calgary's oldest communities.  It has become a haven for young families with its access to major parks, schools, downtown and its own main street.

The Bridges is master-planned community created a new heart for Bridgeland/Riverside one of Calgary's oldest communities.  It has become a haven for young families with its access to major parks, schools, downtown and its own main street.

First there was The Bridges on the old General Hospital site in Bridgeland/Riverside in 2005, followed by the development of East Village, where its first condo was completed in 2015. Both projects were City of Calgary-led initiatives and both are in the City Centre.

  The N3 condo in East Village built with not parking sold out in a weekend.  It is part of the mega makeover of East Village that will become home for 12,000 people by 2025.

The N3 condo in East Village built with not parking sold out in a weekend.  It is part of the mega makeover of East Village that will become home for 12,000 people by 2025.

Today, there are three master-planned, urban villages (low, mid and high rise condos) reshaping Calgary’s older suburbs – Currie by Canada Lands Corporation (CLC) on the old Canadian Forces Base: University District by West Campus Development Trust on vacant University of Calgary lands; and West District by Truman Homes on the western edge of the city ,in the community of Wentworth.

What is a master-planned urban village?

It is a community with a comprehensive land use plan that focuses on predominately mixed-use, multi-family buildings with significant office, retail, restaurant, recreational and other uses where most of the residents’ everyday needs are within walking distance.  They also offer accessibility to enhanced transit, bike lanes, multi-use pathways and a central park. Urban villages are often part of, or next to, a major employment centre allowing residents to walk, cycle or take transit to work.

Currie

Currie, a 400-acre mega infill project that includes Garrison Woods and Garrison Green, will transform the historic Canada Forces Base that straddled Crowchild Trail at Richard Road/Flanders Avenue into a city within a city.

Currie’s 15 mews (i.e. side yards between buildings won’t be dead space but activated with small cafes, shops and bistros) when added to the street retail, restaurants and urban grocery store, will make Currie’s town center a pedestrians’ paradise.  Currie will also offer the most diverse housing types of any new Calgary urban village, from estate homes to high-rise residential towers, from townhomes to mid-rise condos, all within walking distance to 23 acres of parks and plazas

Currie is within walking distance to Mount Royal University and Lincoln Park Business campus. Ultimately, the SW BRT and several existing bus routes will provide residents with several transit options. Cyclists will enjoy the Quesnay Wood Drive dedicated cycle lanes.  

A strategic partnership between CLC and Embassy Bosa will see the later build approximately 2,500 condo homes and the majority of Currie’s retail in 2019.

Currie received the Charter Award for Neighbourhood, District and Corridor by the Chicago-based Congress of New Urbanism for its application of new urbanism principles.

  Artist's rendering of one of the 15 mews that will make Currie a pedestrian paradise. 

Artist's rendering of one of the 15 mews that will make Currie a pedestrian paradise. 

  Artist's rendering of Currie's Main Street.  

Artist's rendering of Currie's Main Street.  

University District

University District (UD) is a new inner-city community surrounding the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Unlike other master-planned communities where the land is sold to developers who then build the homes, UD land will be developed based on a 99-year prepaid land lease, based on the successful UBC Properties Trust  model in Vancouver.

UD’s townhomes and mid-rise residential buildings, will be designed to appeal to families, seniors, young professionals and empty nesters.  Already under construction are townhomes by Brookfield (Ivy) and Truman (Noble). Construction begins later this year on Truman’s Maple condo for independent seniors’ living and Brenda Strafford Foundation’s Cambridge Manor, an assisted living and long-term care facility. As well, Avi Urban launched its August condo project in March. Just over 1,000 residential units will be under construction by fall of 2018, with the first residents moving in beginning late 2018.

Also under construction is Gracorp’s Rhapsody, a six-storey mixed-use building with a Save-On-Foods grocery store on the main level and residential above. Rhapsody will anchor the nine-block main street designed to create a “Kensington-like” pedestrian experience.

University District will become the heart and soul of Calgary’s second largest employment hub that includes University of Calgary, Foothills Medical Centre, Alberta Children’s’ Hospital, Market Mall and University Research Park.

UD is a LEED ND Platinum certified community, the first in Alberta and the largest in Canada. 

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West District

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While Currie and University District have government affiliations, West District is a legacy project for Truman Homes a private Calgary developer.  The inspiration for West District was the human-scale, walkable neighbourhoods of Portland’s Pearl District and Vancouver’s False Creek.

West District will be a mid-rise community with a diversity of mixed-use residential and commercial buildings from 6 to 9 storeys (aka human scale.)  Led by Calgary’s CivicWorks Planning + Design, it will be a model for “smarter growth” showcasing how walkable, dense and diverse communities can be achieved without high rises.

The 7-block long main street, will not only integrate shops, bistros and cafes, with office, financial, recreation and medical hubs, but also enhanced sidewalks and a dedicated bike lane to maximize pedestrian and cycling accessibility.

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Central Park, its 8-acre public space will include a 500-seat amphitheater, skate park, skating rink, spray park, basketball court, playground, dog park and a large amenity/event building will be a year-round, all ages urban playground.

West District won Calgary’s 2015 Mayor’s Urban Design Award for City Edge Development. 

  West District's Central Park also features a major water feature. 

West District's Central Park also features a major water feature. 

  West District's skate park and basketball courts is part of Central Park.

West District's skate park and basketball courts is part of Central Park.

  Model of West District "main street" with retail at ground level and separate cycling lanes in the West District sales centre. 

Model of West District "main street" with retail at ground level and separate cycling lanes in the West District sales centre. 

Last Word

The biggest challenge facing North American cities today is how to reshape their older residential dominated, auto-centric suburbs into mixed-use, multi-modal (driving, transit, cycling and walking) 21st century communities.  

In November 2017, I blogged about why I think Calgary is the infill capital of North America when it comes to inner-city single-family, duplex and row housing.

Link: Infill Capital of North America: Calgary vs Nashville

Currie, University District, West District and their two forerunners - East Village and The Bridges, as well as projects like Quarry Park, SETON, Medicine Hill and Greenwich - put Calgary at the forefront of North America’s current urban densification revolution.

  SETON by Brookfield Residential is a mega new 300-acre urban centre under construction at the southeast edge of Calgary.  It will include 1.5M sf of office space, 1M sf of retail, 6,000 to 7,000 new home (towns and condos), South Health Campus, high school and largest YMCA in the world.

SETON by Brookfield Residential is a mega new 300-acre urban centre under construction at the southeast edge of Calgary.  It will include 1.5M sf of office space, 1M sf of retail, 6,000 to 7,000 new home (towns and condos), South Health Campus, high school and largest YMCA in the world.

  Trinity Hills at Canada Olympic Park by Trinity includes 670,000sf retail, 125,000sf office and 2,355 homes (towns and condos) is currently under construction.

Trinity Hills at Canada Olympic Park by Trinity includes 670,000sf retail, 125,000sf office and 2,355 homes (towns and condos) is currently under construction.

  Greenwich by Melcor is under construction across the street from Medicine Hill. It includes 200,000sf office, 120,000sf of retail and 1,200 townhomes and low-rise condos. 

Greenwich by Melcor is under construction across the street from Medicine Hill. It includes 200,000sf office, 120,000sf of retail and 1,200 townhomes and low-rise condos. 

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's May 2018 edition of Condo Xtra. 

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

Currie: Calgary's newest historic district

West District: A model mid-rise community!

University District: My final resting place?

 

 

Community Associations & Urban Development

Recently a former neighbour who moved to Sunnyside shared with me a copy of the Feb 2017 Hillhurst Sunnyside Voice (community bulletin) thinking I would be interested to see all of the new development projects in the community. 

Indeed I was!
  One of the many sites in Hillhurst/Sunnyside that is a potential new development site. 

One of the many sites in Hillhurst/Sunnyside that is a potential new development site. 

I was surprised to see a two page spread with summaries of five major projects at various states of development:

  • Royal Bank, 413, 10th St NW
  • Former CBC site, 1724 Westmont Blvd NW
  • Russell Red “Glo” Project, 916 – 926 2nd Ave NW
  • Sunnyside Grocery, 802, 2nd Ave NW
  • Truman Condo, 922, 926, 928 Memorial Dr.

This got me to wondering! How does the Hillhurst Sunnyside Planning Committee must be spending with developers, City and community to gather information, listen to presentations, discussing how City policies and plans are being followed, understanding the short and long-term the community-at-large implications and then respond to the application.

Then I thought - this is just one community!  What about all the other inner city communities where new infill projects are routinely being proposed.  Do they all have Planning Committees and how do they find qualified volunteers who are willing and able to spend the time to do all of this volunteer work?

Having served on the City of Calgary’s Planning Commission for two years I know first hand how hard it is to understand all of the City’s plans, policies and zoning regulations, as well as how detailed the development application documents can be. 

A quick check of the Hillhurst Sunnyside website revealed they have full-time staff member to help with urban planning issues and communications.  Hmmm…now I am wondered how many other communities have a paid urban planning position?

So I checked with Lisa Chong, Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s Urban Planning Coordinator since 2013 to learn more about what she and the volunteer Planning Committee do.

  Everyone has a different idea of what is important to them and the future of their community.

Everyone has a different idea of what is important to them and the future of their community.

Q&A with Chong

What is the role of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside’s Planning Coordinator?

I coordinate all the community’s education and engagement activities with respect to planning issues – infill developments, heritage, safety, public spaces and public realm.  This includes not only coordinating Planning Committee meetings, but numerous guest presentations to the community on development and other issues. I also spend significant time on planning communication by way of community newsletters - Voice, monthly e-newsletters and social media posts.

We also do our best to engage with the community and make sure their feedback is discussed and incorporated into our formal feedback to developers and the City of Calgary.

  The new Ezra condo on 5th Avenue next to the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community centre was opposed by some community members. 

The new Ezra condo on 5th Avenue next to the Hillhurst/Sunnyside community centre was opposed by some community members. 

How many people are on the Hillhurst/Sunnyside Planning Committee? 

Approximately 16. But people come and go depending on their interest and what is on the agenda. At one time I had 60+ people on the email list. Typically, we have about 10 members at each meeting and anywhere from 2 to 50 interested guests. At max, we’ve had 65 people attend one of our guest presentations.

We also have folks we consider community leaders who we ask for input on specific issues.  In addition there are volunteers who help with the distribution of leaflets to households immediately adjacent to proposed developments.

  The approval of St. Johns on Tenth condo was delayed for several years to meet the community and neighbours' concerns before approval was granted.

The approval of St. Johns on Tenth condo was delayed for several years to meet the community and neighbours' concerns before approval was granted.

Can you share with me the qualifications of committee members?

Members are not required to have specific qualifications but are required to keep up with planning education (Federation of Calgary Communities’ “Partners in Planning” courses, newsletters and other forms of communication).

Some are long-time residents others have lived in Hillhurst Sunnyside for a few years. We have a mix of homeowners and renters and from single-family homes and condos, with ages ranging from 30s to 60s.

The planning committee team draws from a pool of members with professional in  architecture, planning, engineering, development, heritage, local business, law, oil and gas, arts, education and entrepreneurial.

As this is just one of 151 community associations in Calgary,  I wondered what does the citywide picture look like.  I contacted the Federation of Calgary Communities (FCC). Turns out the FCC has two full-time urban planners on staff to help community associations with planning issues and to coordinate education programs. 

Carrie Yap one of the FCC planners was more than pleased to answer my questions.

  This fun house now has a development sign on the front yard. 

This fun house now has a development sign on the front yard. 

How many CA’s have standing planning committees?

There are approximately 95 communities with standing planning committees that actively participate in the planning process. Participation in the planning process is different with each community association depending on their capacity and the magnitude and controversy of developments in their community.

She confirmed Hillhurst Sunnyside is the only Community Association with a full-time Planning Coordinator.

  The old CBC site on Memorial Drive NW is slated to become a major residential development. 

The old CBC site on Memorial Drive NW is slated to become a major residential development. 

How many volunteer hours are contributed each year by Planning Committee members?

We estimate the 95 Planning Committees members contribute a total of about 12,000 to 15,000 hours of per year performing the following tasks:

  • Reviewing development applications,
  • Preparing formal responses back to the city,
  • Researching applicable policies, meeting with developers or builders,
  • Attending engagement sessions on local or city wide projects,
  • Getting acquainted with new policy or land uses
  • Notifying neighbours or residents of new developments
  • Hosting engagement sessions or open houses for residents
  • Writing articles for the community newsletters, website, or social media 
  • Building relationships with their Councilor and Project file managers
  • Attending Council or City of Calgary Committee meetings
  • Attending and preparing for appeal boards
  • Being a community representative on external committees
  • Leading community-planning exercises.  
  • Educating themselves on the planning process through Federation courses

I don’t know about you but I am intimidated and exhausted after reading this list.  No wonder many CA Board and Committee members suffer from volunteer fatigue.

Note: I misinterpreted the original information I received from Carrie Yap as 12,000 to 15,000 volunteer hours per Planning Committee vs the number being the total of all 95 Planning Committee members.  Unfortunately this misinformation was published online by the Calgary Herald.  I am now thinking this number is conservative given what I know about how much time it takes to do all of the above activities. 
  Truman Homes placed with Sounding Board in the Legion Parking lot on Kensington Rd NW so anyone walking by could leave comments. Information on the proposed development was located on the other side. 

Truman Homes placed with Sounding Board in the Legion Parking lot on Kensington Rd NW so anyone walking by could leave comments. Information on the proposed development was located on the other side. 

How many project per year are reviewed each year? Which communities are the busiest?

The Federation does not track how many projects per year are reviewed by each community. However, we have seen a direct correlation between policies the City is working on and a community’s lifecycle with how active a community is with planning issues.

The busiest planning committees are the ones dealing major redevelopment projects or major City of Calgary planning initiatives like the Main Streets Initiative and Green Line Corridor.

Based on the information on the city website, for the month of January 2018, alone 467 applications (development permit, land use amendments, or subdivision applications) were circulated to our community associations.

Leslie Evans, Executive Director of the Federation of Calgary Communities thinks, “Planning committees and community associations are one of Calgary’s hidden gems. They are the people that help build community character, advocate for your neighbourhood needs and they do it without any recognition but simply because they love their community and this city.

  Proposed redesignation signs like this are popping up more frequently in Caglary's inner city communities. 

Proposed redesignation signs like this are popping up more frequently in Caglary's inner city communities. 

Last Word

In reality not all Community Association Planning Committees are created equal. Not all have broad representation from their community like Hillhurst/Sunnyside.  In some cases the membership on the Planning Committee doesn't represent the diversity of opinions with respect to development of the entire community.  While many of the members of the 95 Planning Committees are educated professionals, few are fully versed on the complexities of City's overall planning policies and how they impact their community. 

Former City Councillor, Brian Pincott says "while some Community Association Planning Committees are very well managed and representative of the community, in some cases it is whoever shows up." 

With that being said, a follow up blog will examine the experience Pincott and others have had in working with Community Associations positively and negatively.

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

Urban Planning Is Not A Science

Group Think or Good Urban Planning

Urban Planning: The Power Of Observation

Calgary: West District: A model mid-rise community!

An urban oasis in a sea of suburbia has begun construction on Calgary’s west side in the community of West Springs.  Currently called West District, it will probably be renamed, hopefully to something like Broadcast Hill, in recognition the area’s history as home to CFCN, Canada’s first independent television station.

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West District is a very ambitious project by Truman, a family-owned Calgary developer and builder who, to date, has invested over $100 million in assembling the land, developing the master plan and managing the complex approval process.

It has taken 5+ years to get to the construction stage which included a four-phase community engagement process (April to November 2014) which resulted in 1,200+ ideas from the community that were then evaluated and where feasible included in the first draft of the master plan. Truman then participated in a City-led engagement process to complete the final plan Council approved in late 2017.

When completed West District will have approximately 2,500 new homes (98% of them condos or townhomes) for 4,500 people. As well, 825,000 square feet of office/institutional and 300,000 square feet of retail will employ approximately 3,600 people. 

It is the perfect balance of live, work and play.

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Perfect Park

West District’s crown jewel will be its unnamed $15.5 million central park (my vote goes for Buck Shot Park, in recognition of the popular CFCN children’s show Buck Shot enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of children from 1967 to 1997) that took over a year to get approved in principle.

Why so long? Because it the first park of its kind in Canada that incorporates an integrated storm water pond with a public park (normally storm water ponds have no public access). 

The 8.4-acre park will also include a 500-seat amphitheatre, skate park, skating rink, spray park, basketball court, playground, great lawn, pathways and a large amenity/event building – think East Village’s Simmons Building on steroids. 

The park will be a hybrid between Olympic Plaza and St. Patrick’s Island Park.

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Active Main Street

It will also have a seven-block long main street lined with shops at street level and seven floors of residences above. The feel will be one of a modern Paris streetscape. In fact, nearly 80% of the buildings in West District will be between 5 and 8-storeys high, creating one of the highest densities of mid-rise buildings in Canada. The master plan doesn’t include any highrises  (above 12-storeys).

Another unique feature of West District’s Main Street will be its “activity centre street,” classification which includes a wide sidewalk for pedestrians and patios, a dedicated bike lane and two traffic lanes each way.  In the future, it will be home to a transit hub connecting the community to nearby amenities and LRT. 

There will be no surface parking lots in West District.

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Rise of the Mid-rise

Jennifer Keesmaat, Canada’s current urban planning guru and former chief planner for the City of Toronto has been advocating the advantages of mid-rise buildings for infill projects for years.  

The rationale - mid-rise buildings have the ability to synergistically connect with existing suburban development as their human scale integrates better with single-family homes while still creating the density needed to offer better transit service.

The mid-size buildings also accommodate larger tenants like, grocery stores, family restaurants, recreation, health and office buildings which complement the smaller boutique shops, cafes and bistros.

Diversity of scale is also important to creating a vibrant urban community.

Last Word

Truman, working with Calgary’s CivicWorks Planning + Design, are creating a model mid-rise community that could well serve as a model - on a smaller scale - near LRT stations across Calgary.

West District is the legacy project for George Trutina, President of Truman, who has devoted 30+ years building communities in Calgary, Chestermere and High River.

Trutina is a huge fan of the mid-rise and aspires to become Calgary’s “master of the mid-rise.”

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the March 2018 edition of CondoLiving Magazine. 

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

The Rise of the Mid-rise Condo

21st Century: The Century of the Condo

West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild

 

On-It: Calgary Regional Partnership's Legacy

When I first heard (October 2016) that the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP) had negotiated an agreement with SOUTHLAND Transportation Ltd and several communities south of Calgary to pilot a commuter transit service, I immediately thought, “wow this is forward thinking.” 

As a member of the advisory board for the Richard Parker Professorship in Metropolitan Growth and Change, I am keenly aware of the importance of regional transit as part of any long-term strategic tourism and economic development initiatives.  Colleen Shepherd, the CRP’s Executive Director also sits on the advisory board and we have had numerous discussions about CRP’s leadership role in managing the growth of the Calgary region from a  different perspectives.

  With much fanfare Colleen Shepherd (brown jacket) and others launched On-It Regional Transit in October 2016. 

With much fanfare Colleen Shepherd (brown jacket) and others launched On-It Regional Transit in October 2016. 

Love Pilot Projects

I am a big fan of pilot projects vs. the “paralysis of analysis” that often happens in the public sector.  You can do numerous market studies, look at “best practices” in other cities and survey the public about what they want (or rather what they think they want) but eventually you have to test your vision in the real world. 

To me, On-It’s two-year pilot was an appropriate timeframe to understand the demand, make adjustments, re-test the market and then make a decision regarding the current demand for a niche transit service for our region’s southern communities.

I was also pleased Southland Transportation was part of the On-It partnership, as they would bring a different “value for money” perspective to the pilot from the municipalities.  

I also thought the CPR was wise to launch On-It with a comprehensive website, an on-line ticketing reservation system and luxury coaches giving the pilot every opportunity to succeed. 

But wait, the CRP wasn’t done yet.

Their entrepreneurial and opportunistic spirit resulted in them teaming up with Parks Canada, and the towns of Banff, Canmore and Cochrane to offer a Calgary/Banff weekend transit service last summer.   

The Calgary/Banff service turned out to be wildly successful (in part due to Canada 150’s free park admission) with sold out buses starting in the second week of operation and by the end of the summer several buses were sold out each day.

  Ettore Iannacito, Regional Transit Program Manager, Calgary Regional Partnership was the master-mind behind On-It.

Ettore Iannacito, Regional Transit Program Manager, Calgary Regional Partnership was the master-mind behind On-It.

Private Sector now in the driver’s seat

I was not surprised to learn the voluntary Calgary Regional Partnership made up of 11 municipalities in the Calgary region is winding down its operations, as it has been known for a while, that the Provincial Government was creating something called the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board (CMRB). What we didn’t know was what its mandate would be. 

Turns out the CMRB will take on most - but not all - of the CRP’s roles and responsibilities for growth management in the Calgary region.

One of the responsibilities the new CMRB isn’t mandated to take on is regional transit.  Rather than let the On-It pilot and all of taxpayers investments just disappear, Shepherd worked with her Board and the SOUTHLAND Transportation executives, to transition ownership of the On-It brand, operations, research and collateral materials to SOUTHLAND Transportation Ltd.

SOUTHLAND has agreed to:

  • Merge the On-It south leg pilot into its own commuter service which will lead to some minor modifications.
  • Negotiate with Parks Canada, Banff and Canmore to operate a Calgary/Banff service again this summer and perhaps even expand it to other months. (If I were a betting man, my money would be on YES there will be Calgary/Banff weekend bus this summer.)
  • Evaluate with Strathmore and Chestermere Council's the option to pilot a commuter service for those two communities.

In addition, SOUTHLAND will also be rebranding its direct to downtown Calgary service from Cochrane and Okotoks with the On-It brand and look for ways to merge all of its commuter services into a bigger and better integrated transit system for the Calgary Region.

  People all ages and backgrounds used On-It to get to Banff in the summer of 2017.  

People all ages and backgrounds used On-It to get to Banff in the summer of 2017.  

Does Calgary need regional transit?

Calgary is unique in that it doesn’t have large satellite cities. In Calgary, 89% of the region’s 1.4 million people live within the City of Calgary.  The City of Vancouver represents only 26% of its regional population, City of Toronto 51% and the cities of Edmonton and Ottawa come in at 71% each.

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The Calgary region has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in Canada for many years.

However, since 2011 Cochrane has had a population increased of 47% since 2011, Airdrie, 42% and Chestermere 34% means some of our satellite cities are growing significantly faster than the City of Calgary’s 13%.

The need for regional growth management is increasing every year, so now is the perfect time to be developing innovative projects like On-It.

In some way Calgary’s LRT system functions like a regional transit system bringing people into the city from suburban communities which would be independent cities in many metropolitan areas. 

It should be noted that both of the On-It pilot programs were integrated with Calgary Transit. The south pilot’s terminus in Calgary was the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station so passengers could access both the LRT and connecting buses. Similarly the Calgary/Banff service linked into Calgary’s LRT system at both the Crowfoot and Somerset-Bridlewood stations.

Having a regional transit system is critical to the recruitment of major corporation to locate in Calgary.  Amazon’s HQ2 bid document specifically requested detailed information on the applicant’s regional transit system as they recognized their employees would want a diversity of living options from urban to suburban, from small town to rural.

Creating a regional transit system is about enhancing the quality of life for everyone living in the Calgary region.  At 626,000 people Calgary was an early adopter of LRT, why not regional transit at 1.4 million.   

  Mike was just one of the thousands of happy users who tweet out about how great it was to have weekend transit service to Banff and Canmore from Calgary.  

Mike was just one of the thousands of happy users who tweet out about how great it was to have weekend transit service to Banff and Canmore from Calgary.  

Last Word

While I am sad to learn the Calgary Regional Partnership will be no more, I can’t think of a more appropriate legacy for the 13-year voluntary partnership than the continuation of the “0n-It” brand as a memory of their forward thinking.

It will also be interesting to see how SOUTHLAND Transportation capitalizes on this opportunity to expand its role as a transportation leader in the Calgary Region.

It would be amazing if the private sector, rather than government were to successfully manage the next phase in development of a regional transit system for Calgary. 

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

Calgary/Banff Transit: It is about time!

Calgary Regional Transit: On-It Love In!

On-It Canada 150 Calgary/Banff Weekend Transit

16th Ave N Urban Corridor: What went wrong?

Back in 2011, with much fanfare, the City of Calgary completed the expansion and enhancement of 16th Ave NE from 6th St NE to 10th St NW. Originally budgeted at $20M, the project more than quadrupled to $89M as the project evolved from a simple addition of an addition land east and west to creating an “urban corridor” that - in theory - would attract new mixed-use developments with commercial at street level and residential above. 

In fact, a key reason for the increased cost of the project was the City’s acquisition of several sites to allow for immediate road expansion and future mixed-use development.  Unfortunately, now five years later, the new developments haven’t happened resulting in several huge vacant lots along what should be a showcase for Calgary’s new urban sense of place.

  There are several long vacant lots on the south side of 16th Avenue N that should have been developed by now even in the recession. 

There are several long vacant lots on the south side of 16th Avenue N that should have been developed by now even in the recession. 

  16th Avenue N is still very auto-focused.  

16th Avenue N is still very auto-focused.  

Why no new developments?

The City wants wider sidewalks while still retaining large right of ways on the remaining land, resulting in development sites that are too shallow for cost effective parkade designs that meet city standards.

The City’s Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) zoned several key sites for major redevelopment, without considering how property lines or ownership were impacted. Some sites owned by one entity were split into two zonings with different densities and heights, but still the City wants to see one building. This makes development complex and therefore costly.

The ARP on 16th Ave N also lacked input from experienced mixed-use developers, critical to understanding the complex financial considerations associated with creating viable zoning, heights, site access and uses for viable mixed-use development.

Some areas of 16th Ave N still have huge by-lawed setbacks that sterilize key corners for viable pedestrian-friendly development.

The City went out of its way to expand 16th Ave N to six lanes for vehicular traffic, recognizing its importance as a crucial east-west link, but then prohibited vehicular access except from rear lands. 

The City left key pieces missing from expansion plans (e.g. former gas station at 16 Ave and 11 St NW) where they didn’t expand sidewalks or address access leaving the costs to the developer - and ultimately new residents - which in effect rules out competitively priced mixed-use projects.

Large sections of 16th Avenue N on its south side are isolated, unpleasant and very noisy with giant sound walls reflecting traffic noise back at the pedestrians.

Chris Ollenberger, Managing Principal at QuantumPlace Developments Ltd. (and mastermind of the East Village master plans) thinks, “that while 16th Ave expansion was a vehicle transportation-focused project, it is plagued by some questionable planning regulations that haven’t worked. It hasn’t realized the development the City planners were hoping for due to fiscal, physical, market and commercial considerations that didn’t have the voice needed during the planning process.”

Today, Ollenberger’s office is right on 16th Ave N at 10th Street and he has been working on three projects along the corridor. If anyone could make a project work on 16th Avenue, it would be him.  He has observed that locals often use the back alley on the north side between 16th and 17th Ave as their east-west pedestrian corridor, avoiding 16th Ave sidewalks all together.

(see response from City Planner, Jordan Furness re: changes made in 2017 to 16th Ave Area Redevelopment Plan at the end of this blog)

  16th Ave N has wide sidewalks but no pedestrians. 

16th Ave N has wide sidewalks but no pedestrians. 

Rise of 17th Avenue NW

Ironically, while 16th Ave N has struggled to attract development, 17th Ave N has been booming with new major residential developments on almost every block from Centre St to 10th St NW.

One of these is the recently completed and sold out Attainable Homes’ 31-unit Mount Pleasant 1740 at the corner of 9th St and 17th Ave NW.  A bit further east under construction is Trico’s Delaney, a 44-unit condo (12 units being affordable housing of which 10 are wheelchair accessible). It is interesting to note the Delaney is oriented to the alley between 17th and 16th Avenue as per Ollenberger’s observation.

Further east, Castle Mountain Developments have dug the hole for Elm on 17th and two newer condos have also been completed and occupied.

The good news - this increased 17th Ave N residential development will ultimately make the 16th Ave N more viable for commercial developments as they will provide the patrons needed to help make pubs, cafes, restaurants etc. viable.

  Mount Pleasant 1740 condo project

Mount Pleasant 1740 condo project

  Delany condo is oriented to the alley between 16th and 17th Ave N

Delany condo is oriented to the alley between 16th and 17th Ave N

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Good News For 16th Ave NW

The Calgary Co-op, in conjunction with Quarry Bay Investments, have submitted a combined development permit and land use redesignation (re-zoning) application for their existing 16 Ave N site. The development proposes five buildings containing a new supermarket, liquor store, financial institution, office, gas bar, car wash, and 115 residential units.

The Marquee Group, a hotel developer turned condo developer, has also recently completed Marquee on 16th a nine storey 138-home residential development on 16th Ave at 1st St NE. Located near the Calgary Co-op site, these two developments could mark the beginning of a vibrant 16th Ave urban streetscape. 

Several interesting businesses along the north side of 16th Ave N – Aquila Books, Earl’s, The Cat’n Fiddle Pub, Turn It Up Records & HiFi, Guitar Works, Phoenix Comics, Namskar Fine East Indian restaurant and White’s Flowers – could become important building blocks for future pedestrian-oriented blocks.

As well, the City is working on making 16th Avenue N a major cross town BRT route which should result in more pedestrian traffic on 16th Ave (i.e. transit users getting off and on the bus) and remove some of the cars, helping with some of the noise.

Councillor Druh Farrell admits, "the ARP was overly complicated and restrictive and has since been simplified drastically." Ollenberger thinks it is great the City has acknowledge the ARP flaws.  He adds, "the best thing the City could do is sell the remaining land it has quickly and  then collaborate with the development and investment industry to enabling viable new developments to happen." 

  Calgary Co-op site could become anchor 16th Avenue transformation. 

Calgary Co-op site could become anchor 16th Avenue transformation. 

  Marquis on 16th condo from back alley. 

Marquis on 16th condo from back alley. 

Last Word

While in the past 16th Avenue N as part of the Trans Canada Highway was car-oriented, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be pedestrian-oriented in the future.  For example, Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue is a wide car-oriented street yet also a popular pedestrian destination. The same goes for South Granville in Vancouver.

Ironically, 16th Avenue N is no longer the TransCanada Highway. Signs at both the east and west entrances to the City no longer direct drivers to take the 16th Ave N but rather the ring road, bypassing the City altogether. 

City's Response:

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, titled "Roadblocks stall City's Vision for 16th Avenue N,"on January 20, 2018.  On January 23, I received the following email:

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I would like to thank Jordan for taking the initiative to contact me with this information which indicates that the City is trying to address the problems associated with 16th Ave N redevelopment and that there is still a need for improvement. 

I am optimistic that as the City finalizes plans for the Green Line LRT along Centre Street that further improvements will be made to help transform 16th Avenue into a vibrant urban street. 

As I like to say, "it takes decades for urban transformations."    

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

Flaneuring The Fringes: 16th Ave N

Calgary: TransCanada Highway's Motel History

Mean Streets, Main Streets, Pretty Streets