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Calgary redevelopment aims to build community 'where people are present'

The rejigged plan for Currie Barracks has reached the development permit stage, but at least one critic says the emerging neighbourhood is short on homes that most buyers can afford.

At close to 80 hectares and just seven minutes south of downtown Calgary, Currie Barracks, now known simply as Currie, is one of Canada’s largest urban redevelopment projects and one of the biggest master-planned, inner-city communities in North America.

It’s the final part in a three-phase redevelopment of a Canadian Forces base that was closed by the federal government in the mid-nineties. Phase one, Garrison Woods, commenced in 1996 with phase two, Garrison Green, commencing in 2006.

Now, 20 years later and with a revised plan approved by the city in May, 2015, developers are finally submitting permit applications that will transform the former military base into a dense, urban village, which, over the next 15 years, will become home to 12,000 Calgarians.

Calgary’s Currie Barricks neighbourhood is the final part in a three-phase redevelopment of a closed Canadian Forces base.

But Councillor Brian Pincott, who has represented Currie, Garrison Woods and Garrison Green for the past eight years, says the new neighbourhood is still skewed toward higher incomes and needs more affordable options for both renters and buyers.

“There’s great diversity of product, yes, but not much affordable product that I can see. Much of it is still high end and we need Calgarians of all incomes to be able to live in Currie. That’s what Canada Lands are hearing from me right now.”

Diversifying the buyer demographic has been one of the focuses of Urban Design Associates, the Pittsburgh-based planning consultancy specializing in implementing new urbanism design principles that was brought on board to implement to revised developmenty plan.

“The original plan for Currie Barracks was approved back in 2007 and development was to start late in 2008, but the city was changing dramatically around that time and the plan very quickly became outdated,” says Chris Elkey, senior director of real estate for the site’s owner and developer, Canada Lands Company.

Between 2006 and 2011, Calgary’s population grew by 12.4 per cent; the biggest five-year population growth of all of Canada’s census metropolitan areas.

“The real drive to update the plan came from the city’s desire to change policy around urban densification to slow urban sprawl,” Mr. Elkey says. “Our plans for Currie had to support that.”

The plan was revised to diversify the buyer demographics by adding more affordable housing.

“Currie was originally conceived on a much smaller scale,” Urban Design Associates chairman, Rob Robinson, says. “But the growth trajectory of the city and that area specifically meant the original density plan had to be increased dramatically.”

He continues, “Looking at the landscape, we decided to reconsider Calgary as a polycentric city where multiple urban centres could thrive. The emerging success of areas such as Beltline and the East Village proved that model works in Calgary. Garrison Woods and Garrison Green were developed before new urbanism came to Canada and as such they’re sort of loosely stitched into the surrounding neighbourhoods. We wanted Currie to be able to stand alone.”

Unlike the preceding phases, Currie was always planned to be a mixed-use development, however, in the updated plan, the ratios of building types were radically changed.

“We took the residential units from 3,200 to 5,700 and we doubled the office space to 615,000 square feet,” Mr. Elkeys says. “Those residential units are a wide mix of urban estate homes to condos and everything in between. Retail remained the same to ensure we don’t oversupply the market and those businesses thrive.”

Mr. Elkey describes the revised approach to Currie’s development as “less organic and more direct. We looked at the end vision and built the zoning and policy rules around that.”

Mr. Robinson defines that end vision as “a community where people are present.”

“We didn’t want to end up with a high-end community which is largely absent during the day because everyone commutes to work. By having a multitude of housing types from rental to seniors, single-family homes to condos, we attract a more diverse range of businesses and employers; small to medium sized businesses will be key. When we attract a wide range of businesses and employers, we create a community which works on an 18-hour clock, which in turn attracts people to live there.”

Originally conceived on a smaller scale, the plan for Currie Barracks was updated to accommodate higher density, as Calgary's population grows.

This month Currie won a prestigious Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Award; described as the world’s preeminent award for urban design, placemaking and community building.

Currie is now zoned for 30 stories instead of the original zoning for 12. This intensity of densification, Mr. Robinson says, will create “an urban centre, not a suburban expansion. Currie will be a fully-baked neighbourhood, not a half-baked suburb.”

Mr. Robinson explains communities with greater diversification are also better protected from Alberta’s notorious boom and bust cycles.

“Rather than just going for the upper end of the residential market, we’ve made diversification an ethic. If we wire this up correctly we serve many more markets so when one market goes down, the impact isn’t devastation. We’re firing on all cylinders.”

Mr. Pincott says he’s watched the evolution of all the Canada Lands developments and considers them to represent a maturation of the city’s planning thinking.

“The planning process for Garrison Woods was like pulling hen’s teeth. It took five times longer than normal, back then the city wasn’t even speaking the same language as Canada Lands. Thankfully because they’re a Crown corporation, they’re patient money. If it had been a private developer they’d probably have scrapped the plan and just given us a cookie-cutter development.”

Mr. Pincott says one of the biggest lessons learned from both Garrison Green and Garrison Woods was around community transit.

Between 2006 and 2011, Calgary’s population grew by 12.4 per cent.

“There’s no transit for these communities, transit just skirts the outside. The importance of connectivity is something the city is finally understanding when it comes to urban communities.”

Mr. Pincott is also championing Currie’s new bike infrastructure, saying “the new downtown bike lanes upset some people because people don’t like change but in the past 10 months more than 700,000 journeys have been chalked up on those bike lanes, they’re a huge success and they will be in Currie too.”

While he’s excited about the direction plans for Currie have gone in the past two years and the fact that, “living in Currie, owning a car will be a choice, not a requirement,” Mr. Pincott remains disappointed that the community won’t be on the city’s LRT line.

“That’s a battle I fought and lost eight years ago,” he says, “but I hope there’s potential for the future, it makes sense.”

Urban Design Associates’ other major Canadian development, which Mr. Robinson claims isn’t unlike the community of Currie, is West Don Lands in Toronto where the 2015 Pan Am Games took place.

“That community is currently at build-out stage and there are certainly analogies between the two in terms of our approach and also the identified priorities of future residents.”

Health and wellness is one such priority which has shaped Currie’s blueprint.

“There’s extensive bike infrastructure and a pedestrian-only system which complements the vehicular system,” Mr. Robinson says. “Outdoor spaces are extensive, the retail district opens into a European style piazza. There’s also going to be a network of raised, outdoor public parkways in the core which will be accessible to everyone, very much like the High Line in New York.”

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