Calgary embraces mid-rise innovation – sort of

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A rendering of Courtyard 33, developed by RNDSQR.

Alkarim Devani thought a lot about how to bring life to the street-level area surrounding his new mid-rise infill project, Courtyard 33, in Calgary’s upmarket Marda Loop neighbourhood.

Mr. Devani designed the six-storey, 63-unit, multiuse walk-up to focus on an inner courtyard, which he refers to as a “neighbourhood living room.” Yet, where RNDSQR – the development company Mr. Devani heads and operates with two members of his family – has broken new ground is who the private building’s courtyard is intended for.

“A lot of the criticism we got along the way was, ‘Well, how do you activate that courtyard?'” Mr. Devani says. “Well, we activate that by making it public.”

It’s an innovative idea in a city that’s finally starting to see more of them – especially at the magic “missing middle” density size that urbanists say is so crucial to vibrant cities.

The 4,000-square-foot, open-air space within the walls of Courtyard 33 is intended to allow anyone on or living near Calgary’s 33 Avenue to access the commercial shops that will occupy the first floor of the building, from food at the trendy Our Daily Brett restaurant to beers at the Brewer’s Apprentice.

Mr. Devani says the space will never be locked but instead will feature a 50-foot wide staircase that meets the street and invites people to come in. It will also draw the building’s own residents with Sunday brunches and concerts.

RNDSQR’s efforts at creating bustle on Calgary’s streets complement the city’s stated goals to enliven its main streets. But Mr. Devani says his latest project has highlighted the many barriers that remain. “You’ll oftentimes … get asked, ‘Why can’t we have brownstones like Montreal?’” The answer, he says, is mostly hidden in the rules.

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The courtyard at the heart of the development will be open to the public.

For one, setback requirements in Calgary are anywhere from three to eight metres from the street to the building, deadening a building’s interactive potential, Mr. Devani says. In Montreal, by contrast, they’re often zero.

The other big one is parking. And it isn’t just amounts, which are problematic in their own right, but also design guidelines.

For Courtyard 33, the 85 parking stalls in the underground parkade had to exist in a structure that, bylaws stipulated, “had to be wide enough to allow for two [Ford] F-150s to pass each other, because it’s the most perfect vehicle in Alberta,” Mr. Devani says, chuckling.

Building parkades to this size costs a lot of money – and tends to see developers strip other features from projects to keep them profitable.

The overall effect, Mr. Devani says, is that mid-rise infill developers in established Calgary communities have mostly had good intentions – but have not activated the streets as much as people have hoped.

“We’ve seen some really bad main-street style mid-rise developments; your standard, typical four-storey box,” he says. “You could drive all over our city and up and down our main streets and take a look at some of the boxes that were built. If we want to be innovative, oftentimes we have to change policies, we have to change rules.”

Rollin Stanley would tend to agree, at least in principle.

Mr. Stanley is the general manager of urban strategy with the City of Calgary, and worked in Toronto, St. Louis, Mo., and Washington before moving to Alberta’s largest city.

He says he sees Calgary as being in a state of its evolution that’s about 15 years behind Denver, a similarly car-choked city that has come to be something of an example for urban revitalization.

Mr. Stanley also says Calgary has gotten over its high-rise craze. Now, like Denver, he says, it’s focusing on infill at the human scale; mid-rises, with streets and activation placed at a premium over simple density.

But standing in the way of more and quicker innovation in the middle, he says, are some of the remnants of the tower craze, such as expectations on land values.

“People see a tower go in and think, ‘My land’s worth a fortune’ and they start pricing at that amount,” Mr. Stanley says, noting that a large tower in an established neighbourhood can act like a “sponge in a bucket,” sucking away market demand and raising land prices.

“And then that acts to actually deter new development because of land prices.”

Today, however, Mr. Stanley says Calgary has turned the corner and is seeing an influx of “boutique” developers such as RNDSQR target the missing-middle realm.

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Courtyard 33 is replacing three single-family homes in the Marda Loop neighbourhood.

Mr. Stanley says these developers are boutique because they don’t want to build high-rise condos or apartments but instead want to help rebuild Calgary’s inner communities. The challenge they take on, he says, is that the process to do this is long and demanding.

Almost every project will see city amendments to zoning, he says, which slows progress but necessarily acknowledges community input.

“Now you start to involve people who live in the neighbourhood, who are now experiencing change,” Mr. Stanley says. “In a place like Calgary, we’re seeing a rise in community awareness, community activism, and from a development standpoint, you’ll hear people say, ‘That slows me down because I have to do more engagement.’ Yes, you do. That’s a fact of life of working in an established area.”

And what about the parking? Mr. Stanley says the F-150 requirement is just a fact of life in Calgary.

He notes his own mid-rise condo as an example. “My garage looks completely different to what’s in an underground garage in Toronto, what’s in an underground garage in Washington D.C. Because [in those] there’s no pickup trucks.”

Courtyard 33 is replacing three older, single-family homes in the well-established Marda Loop neighbourhood.

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A 50-foot-wide staircase invites pedestrians into the heart of Courtyard 33.

Because it’s part of a push not only to add infill units but to revitalize 33 Avenue, Marda Loop’s main street, Mr. Devani says RNDSQR has made their goal to build the street as much as new units for new residents.

“It’s really just trying to make sure it becomes a community node,” Mr. Devani says. “We have a public easement agreement, so it is public, we’re not locking it off, and really working on the longevity and the life of that building really exists in the heart of that courtyard space. How do we make sure we take an active part in activating it?”

He also says the company has invested more in engagement on this project than others in the past.

“I really believe that these main streets can become these amazing places,” he says. But the main limiter are rules that don’t amplify that desire. “Those are the type of conversations that we really have to have with the city and really stop having now and look at what are the things we can do that are innovative.”