March 13th, 2007

Calgary’s Urban Renaissance?

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Nick Wellington

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In January, I wrote about Calgary’s seemingly unstoppable sprawl into the countryside. Although I outlined some positive developments, it was by and large a negative portrayal of what’s happening in this city of just over a million inhabitants.

Thankfully, the story is a bit different in the inner city. Given the age in which Calgary has grown, its inner areas mostly lack the rich urban fabric possessed by older centres. Indeed, there are only a handful of true “urban” neighbourhoods in the city. Recently, though, these areas have seen an unprecedented wave of development, adding new vibrancy to central Calgary. But this boom is not without its downsides: the inner city is becoming increasingly unaffordable.

While Calgary’s business district is seeing high levels of construction, the epicentre of the boom is focused in an area known as the Beltline. Located immediately south of downtown, this community is Calgary’s traditional high-density mixed-use neighbourhood. Comprised of a mix of modern and historic buildings, interspersed with an unfortunate number of parking lots, the Beltline was long seen as a vaguely undesirable area.

This is changing drastically, however, as the boom alters the built form and demographics of the community. Most evident is the construction of dozens of condominium projects, including several new high-rises. These range from the massive block-spanning development next to the Stampede/Victoria Park light rail station, to Arriva, Alberta’s tallest residential tower, to smaller, more unassuming buildings. When taken as a whole, all of this has the potential to radically change the Beltline, adding thousands of new residents that may otherwise have moved to the urban fringe.

Coming with these residents is a multitude of new retail and office opportunities, adding an unprecedented level of street level vitality along major retail strips such as 17th Avenue and Fourth Street. Thanks to the work of city planners, who have imposed increasingly strict design criteria for new developments, architectural standards are increasing with each project. While Calgarians were formerly content with stucco facades and poor street level treatment, glass curtain walls and ground-level retail are gradually becoming the norm.

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An almost equal level of change is occurring throughout other inner areas. This may not be as outwardly evident as in the Beltline, where the scale of new construction projects tend to be larger, but it is nonetheless making an impact. New developments range from large-scale brownfield redevelopments to single family housing on subdivided lots—with the occasional highrise condo thrown in for good measure.

The Bridges and Garrison Woods are the two biggest infill projects. The Bridges is an award winning development comprising of three- to six-storey mixed-use buildings, all within walking distance of a light rail station. With its human scale and varied architecture, it is garnishing attention in the planning world as a glowing example large scale redevelopment. Garrison Woods, built on the site of a former Canadian Forces base, takes a different approach, more traditionally New Urbanist approach. While having a relatively high density and incorporating features such as at-grade retail and laneways, it has been criticized as being faux-traditionalist, if not downright suburban in its atmosphere. Indeed, the development employs housing vernaculars that are not native to Calgary and its transit service is limited to a handful of bus lines. Nevertheless, the development has spawned new infill in the surrounding area and has revitalized a nearby retail strip.

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New development in The Bridges

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The latest phase of Garrison Woods

On the smaller end, the character of almost every older—which in Calgary terms means pre-1955—neighbourhood is in a state of flux. Lacking the rigid zoning laws of more contemporary subdivisions, these areas are open to further subdivision and infill developments. To this end, the ubiquitous 1950s-era bungalows that dominate these areas are being torn down at an astonishing pace to be replaced by new housing. Fortunately, this housing is almost always at a greater density than what was replaced, and arguably of better architectural quality. Indeed, many streets are filled entirely with three-storey houses, two or three to a lot where single houses formerly sat. This intensification of the bungalow belt will likely for greater retail opportunities to form along major streets, which in time may effectively extend the urban core of the city.

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Older bungalow with new infill in the background

But all is not well. The mass migration of people to Calgary has caused an unsustainable increase in housing costs and it’s the inner city that has been hit the hardest. Stories of rents almost doubling and of formerly middle-class homes selling for millions are troubling for longtime residents, who are in danger of being priced out of their own neighbourhoods. Almost every new condo project in the Beltline is targeted at the upper-middle-class or luxury market; very few rental or affordable units are being built. Some projects have even demolished older affordable apartment buildings while leaving nearby parking lots untouched. In more outlying areas, the older houses that are being demolished, while unattractive, provide middle class living space that is simply not being replaced. This of course begs the question: where will lower income residents relocate? If current trends continue, Calgary may end up seeing a more attractive inner-city , but one that is almost solely populated by the upper classes. While this may stabilize in time, it is certainly a troubling prospect for the future.

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Contrasts along 17th Avenue, the Beltline’s main retail strip

It is clear that the current boom is changing the face of Calgary citywide, both visually and in demographic terms. It is providing new opportunities in many areas, but at the same time marginalizing a segment of the population that cannot handle the increased costs of living. If there is one thing that is clear, it is that Calgary will emerge from this boom a much different city then it entered, and that planners have their work cut out for them to make the best of these changes.


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3 comments

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    I really like that first photo. Reminds me of those scenes of Las Vegas or Dubai: skyscrapers rising out of the desert.

    March 13th, 2007 at 10:52 pm

  2. Ken Gildner says:

    Great read, Nick. I didn’t know that Garrison Woods was a faux-urbanist development — the giant garage that you managed to capture in your photo kind of taints the house’s “TND” aura.

    - Ken

    March 16th, 2007 at 8:39 pm

  3. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Actually, I’ve been to Garrison Woods many times and with only a few exceptions, it lives up to many of its New Urbanist ideals. It’s an infill development that is pretty well-integrated into the surrounding neighbourhood, which is mostly early 1950s suburbia, except for an older area to the north. The architecture is not native to Calgary but the dwelling density is at least fairly high and there is a decent variety of housing types.

    The site’s previous incarnation as a military base actually gives it some gravitas, too, since many streets already existed before development began. Streets are narrower than the Calgary standard and they have real names like Ypres St. or Vimy Ave. and not the made-up sound-alike names of suburban Calgary (Sierra Morena Way, Sierra Morena Drive, etc.).

    March 17th, 2007 at 2:55 am

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