Successful redevelopment plan could usher in new era of community planning in Calgary

You get up, go to work, knock off a little early for a quick shower at home before you meet some friends at the pub before heading back home to rest for the next day. Sound familiar?

Here’s the twist: you did it all by walking only a few blocks around the community you call home.

A development plan for Brentwood proposes to enable residents to work, shop, sleep and play all within the range of a few blocks.

The once-controversial plan for redevelopment around the Brentwood LRT station is now being heralded by some people as a major turning point in the way Calgary will grow. The Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) calls for large-scale construction of apartment buildings, office towers, pedestrian-friendly streets, and a vast array of retail shops and restaurants, all within walking distance of the LRT.

This method of community redevelopment has come to be known as transit-oriented development, and has caught on in cities throughout North America.

“Calgary is going to grow regardless of what we do,” said Filomena Gomez, a long-time Brentwood resident. “The question is how we grow.”

At 730 square kilometres, Calgary’s city area covers 100 square kilometres more than Toronto’s, according to the latest census figures from Statistics Canada. But with Calgary’s total population less than half of Toronto’s central population alone, something had to give.

“We have to stop thinking as if we can keep growing until we hit the mountains,” Gomez said. “That’s just not sustainable. That would be saddling the next generation with huge infrastructure costs. Everything we build we have to pay to maintain.”

The costs of urban sprawl are hard to measure precisely, but its effects are unquestionable: most noticeable are the traffic jams that many Calgarians face every day.

Sprawl also takes a large bite out of city coffers in the form of police and fire dispatch, managing schools, and laying down roads and sewage systems to service new suburban communities.

Construction has begun in earnest on high-rise buildings close to the Brentwood LRT station, as part of the Area Redevelopment Plan. Construction is planned to continue over the next few years, with short-term results to be seen starting 2014.

Photo by: Geoffrey Picketts“Now Calgarians are realizing what gridlock really is,” added Gomez, who has lived in Brentwood all her life. “Twenty years ago, you could literally drive from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes on the Deerfoot. There was no real rush-hour traffic either.”

Cheri Macaulay also lives in Brentwood and is an organizer for CivicCamp, a social networking organization for urban activists in Calgary. She praised the Brentwood ARP as the “first large-scale, truly transit-oriented redevelopment plan that is actually now being applied.”

“All new developments [around the Brentwood LRT] have to be people-scaled and pedestrian friendly, not automobile scaled,” she added.

If that type of civic thinking sounds radical, it shouldn’t.

“Transit-oriented development has been a strong planning principle for decades in other cities,” said Kevin Barton, the senior planner for the Brentwood ARP.

“In Calgary, however, the surrounding landscape is easy to develop and it is a city where the majority of people were demanding low-density single-detached homes for a long time,” he added.

While market demand may be changing, the new development plans have not come without its detractors in Brentwood.

“The development is going to bring an injection of a different demographic to the community, and that scares a lot of people,” Gomez said. “They’re used to the status quo and a quiet neighbourhood.”

Barton said that the biggest concerns from residents “were mostly about roads and automobile congestion in the community.”

Gomez explained the issue: “We have a strange relationship with our cars. We want to be able to drive, and drive anywhere we want. But we don’t want anybody else driving down our residential street.”

Barton also dismissed those concerns as hypocritical: “It’s the pot calling the kettle black. They’re driving everywhere to satisfy most of their daily needs, but the new residents [in high-rise apartments] will be driving far less. It’s kind of funny.”

While change is not an easy thing for everybody to swallow, Gomez urged Calgarians to look at the bigger picture.

“Calgarians tend to be insular with their lives and communities. For us, it’s more about how to make this a better community for the next generation, for my kids,” she said, adding that “in the long-run, it will be the best thing not only for Brentwood but for Calgary.”

Barton added, “With more jobs and housing on top of LRT stations, there will be more use of transit and far less people on the road.”

He continued, saying that if the Brentwood project is successful and creates demand, the most likely candidates for the next redevelopment plans would be in communities adjacent to Lion’s Park, Banff Trail, Chinook, and Anderson LRT stations.

gpicketts@cjournal.ca