After recently spending a month living in the middle of Vancouver’s City Centre, exploring its different communities and checking out its condo market, I kept asking myself – how can millennials afford to live there?
And, for that matter how can empty nesters retire there?
The cost of a used condo in Vancouver is about $1,000/square foot. Translated, this means a modest 750 square foot condo is going to cost you $750,000. If you want a new 1,300 square foot condo be prepared to pay $2,000/square foot or $2,600,000. That is more than twice the cost of a similar condo in Calgary.
While you expect to pay a premium to live in downtown Vancouver because of its climate and amenities like Stanley Park, beaches and sea wall, that’s still a pretty stiff price to pay.
I came away feeling Calgary’s City Centre communities while not on par with Vancouver’s in the way of amenities are not that far behind in their evolution as urban villages and all of them have significant upside potential.
In chatting with several people in Vancouver and Calgary over the past few months I have often heard Calgary’s City Centre being called a “hidden gem” when it comes to urban living with potential to get even better.
Let’s compare Calgary’s urban communities with Vancouver’s.
Beltline vs West End
In many ways, Calgary’s Beltline is the equivalent of Vancouver’s West End, with its tree-lined streets populated by a mix of old single family homes, scattered amongst small mid-century apartments and new mega highrise towers. The Beltline’s 17thAve is akin to Robson Street but with less shopping and more patios. Tenth and 11th Aves are the equivalent to Davie St and Beltline’s 1st, 4th, 8th, 11th and 14th Street pedestrian corridors are Vancouver’s Denman St. The Beltline’s Lougheed House and Beaulieu Gardens is much nicer than the West End’s Roedde House Museum and grounds.
Calgary’s Memorial Park is very similar to the West End’s Nelson Park in scale but Memorial Park is home to a historic library that includes a very cool musical instrument lending program. But the Beltline can’t match the West End’s amazing Mole Hill community housing block that includes the preservation of several century homes and a quaint garden pathway. Both communities are home to their city’s respective LGBTQ communities.
Where Vancouver’s West End really shines is in its easy access to parks and pathways along English Bay and Stanley Park. While Calgary’s Beltliners are land locked with no direct access to a major park or the Bow and Elbow Rivers.
East Village vs Yaletown
East Village and the proposed new alliance with Victoria Park and Stampede Park could well become Calgary’s equivalent to Vancouver’s Yaletown. Give it time. Yaletown had a head start, its transformation into a funky place to live began in the early ‘90s. East Village’s mega makeover started about 15 years later.
The master plans are surprisingly similar, build highrise residential development next to an iconic new library, along with some major sports and entertainment facilities and a multi-use pathway along the water and people will want to live there.
Eau Claire / Downtown West vs Coal Harbour
Eau Claire and Downtown West combined are Calgary’s equivalent to Coal Harbour with their modern high-rise residential towers lined up along the water’s edge. In this case, the master plans differ. Coal Harbour is home to Vancouver’s mega convention centre and cruise ship terminal making it a tourist hub, whereas Calgary’s Eau Claire/Downtown West is more focused on recreational amenities for residents including the Bow River pathway, Prince’s Island Park, Shaw Millennium Park and Eau Claire Y.
Eau Claire and Downtown West have tremendous potential, especially if you add in West Village which could become a funky innovation campus for start-ups businesses, perhaps even the next Amazon, Google or Apple if we play our cards right.
Across the Water
Hillhurst, Sunnyside, Bridgeland and Crescent Heights being across water from downtown have many parallels to Vancouver’s Kitsilano and False Creek. “No way” you say!
From an urban living perspective Calgary’s northsiders have two islands playgrounds. St. Patrick’s Island (which officially belongs to Bridgeland Riverside, not East Village) and St. George’s Island aka Calgary Zoo offer locals an urban playground for families that is hard to beat.
Granville Island is the urban playground for those living in Kits and False Creek, however, Granville Island is more a tourist attraction than an amenity for residents. You can find fresh food at better prices in lots of places and without the crowds, than Granville’s Farmers’ Market. While Kitsilano’s 4th Street and West Broadway are its two pedestrian streets, Calgary’s north shore communities have 10th St and Kensington Road as their traditional main streets, with budding new main streets along Edmonton Trail, Centre Street and 8th Street.
While Calgary’s north shore communities don’t have the beaches of Kitsilano, they do have some lovely parks with stunning view of the mountains and the downtown skyline.
Mission vs South Granville
Mission/Erlton and 4th St SW is Calgary’s equivalent to Vancouver’s South Granville. Both have a main street with upscale shops, galleries and restaurants, mixed in with some mid-rise residential development.
Mission/Erlton residents have the added bonus of the Elbow River in their backyard and easy access to Stampede Park and Repsol Sports Centre.
South Granville has more in the way of shops and galleries, as well as the historic Stanley Theatre for its residents to enjoy.
Link: Mission is marvellous
Inglewood / Ramsay with its historic main street has many of the attributes of Vancouver’s Gastown, without the hordes of tourist, that make living there a nightmare in the summer. The 2010 completion of the historic Woodward department store site redevelopment was the catalyst for Gastown’s revitalization. It includes a mix of uses from affordable and market housing to SFU School for Contemporary Arts, from the National Film Board office to a grocery and drug store.
Inglewood’s revitalization was the result of Main Street Program in the ‘90s that focused on the façade restoration of the historic buildings along 9thAvenue to create a mixed-use pedestrian street. More recently new commercial buildings like the Atlantic Avenue Arts Block and West Canadian Digital Imaging building become workplace anchors for its main street.
As well, several recent condo developments, co-work spaces and numerous craft breweries have made Inglewood/Ramsay a very attractive place to live, work and play.
Inglewood’s Calgary Brewery site and Ramsay’s Dominion Bridge site and the coming Green Line all have the potential to make Inglewood/Ramsay a model for 21stcentury urban living.
While Calgary’s Chinatown is much smaller than Vancouver’s, it benefits from not having the spillover of undesirable activities from East Hastings.
In My Opinion
As a place to live, Calgary’s City Centre offers as much to its residents in the way of festivals, entertainment, culture, restaurants, bars, shops, parks and pathways as does Vancouver’s.
What Calgary is missing are the amazing array of urban grocery stores - big and small - that Vancouver offers. However, this is gradually being addressed with the opening of Urban Fare in the Beltline this year and City Market in East Village next year.
What really makes Calgary’s City Center MOST attractive as a place to live is its affordability not only compared to Vancouver, but also Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto.
Now is the perfect time for Calgary to attract more young techies from across North America (who can live anywhere) to establish their live/work lifestyles and grow their businesses here.
What is needed is a clever marketing campaign that captures the imagination of young entrepreneurs re: why Calgary is perhaps the most affordable and livable urban playground in North America.
Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald’s New Condos section on May 18, 2019.