As commercial infill developers begin to mix uses in projects in northern Alberta, the role they are playing in building their cities is being transformed as well.
Margaret Knowles, a vice-president with Mississauga-based Morguard, says her project in Bonnie Doon – a postwar suburb in central Edmonton – is a rare example in her career when a commercial-infill developer in Alberta gets to rebuild an entire city block into an urban village.
Here, just a few kilometres southeast of the Edmonton’s rapidly sprouting skyline and beside a coming street-level LRT that will open in 2020 to connect the area to downtown, sits the neighbourhood’s original town centre, which Morguard currently manages for several pension funds. Built in 1958 as a regional shopping mall and surrounded by a full block of surface parking, over the decades the 490,000-square-foot facility has lost several anchor tenants, most recently Sears and Target, and has slowly been overtaken by dollar stores, weeds and disrepair.
As Edmonton redevelops many of its inner city neighbourhoods with rail transit in its quest to slow its sprawl, Bonnie Doon is the first large-scale brownfield site set to be re-created in a more urban form.
“We think we’ve landed on a real gem,” Ms. Knowles says.
Morguard has advised the property’s pension fund owners to support building mixed uses to make best use of the new transit at its doorstep rather than just build another shopping mall. Indeed, Morguard has proposed up to 3,500 new residential units in condominiums and apartments as well recreating nearly 20 per cent of the site into a public amenity space, including bike and walking paths, and a community garden. This will all mix with several hundred thousand square feet of office space, and an anchor in the form of an educational institution’s health facility that will first occupy the currently empty Sears building before transferring, in about 25 years, into the future 500,000 square feet of enclosed retail on the 30-acre site, Ms. Knowles says.
“You kind of have a lot of boxes ticked on this site that you don’t often get,” she says. “I’ve certainly transformed a lot of parking lots in my time, [but] big city blocks like this are relatively new.”
Beyond discussing the project with the City of Edmonton and gaining the needed zoning approvals and permits, Morguard has also reached out to the wider community by holding several open houses in a campaign called ‘Connect Bonnie Doon’ to guide the project. Ms. Knowles says this is another departure from a standard commercial-infill project.
But in northern Alberta, where suburban development has ruled for the past 60 years and where decaying shopping malls or unused land is plentiful as a result, commercial infill that plays a larger role as city builder is becoming more common.
A bit further to Edmonton’s east, in Sherwood Park, a bedroom community of 70,000 outside the city limits, Cameron Development Corp. is taking on a similar responsibility to Morguard’s, with its The Market at Centre in the Park project.
The 3.5-acre site has sat unused for decades in the middle of an established neighbourhood, but is now part of the municipality’s aim to increase density and walkability, says Cameron Naqvi, the company’s executive vice-president.
Mr. Naqvi says the mixed-use project, opening later this year, will in effect function as Sherwood Park’s first-ever main street, with a farmers’ market and 40,000 square feet of other boutique, street-facing retailers at ground level and 80 rental apartments above, topped off with solar panels and other sustainability features.
“It’s a big bedroom community and it literally doesn’t have a main street,” he says. “It doesn’t really have a downtown so there’s a real opportunity to create a place and identity for it. As Sherwood Park has grown, people increasingly want to stay and have a bit more sense of community. We’re hoping that this will become a model for other suburban neighbourhoods.”
And despite being a car-centric suburb, Mr. Naqvi says the factors pointing to success for The Market are its human-scaled amenities. “We are in the centre [of the community], off of a major transit hub and have a couple of high schools nearby.”
Mr. Naqvi also says interest in the rental units, which are some of the first housing in Sherwood Park targeted at affordability, is strong.
At Bonnie Doon, Morguard set up a store-front in May in the existing shopping centre where people could discuss the future of the site.
On an idea wall and through other channels, the company gathered feedback from residents about what they hope the site will becomes. In its report, the company said the consistent feedback was that the site should not be auto-oriented and should instead be built with flexibility in mind, both for the changing shape of retail as well as people aging and wanting to downsize or find different living arrangements in their home community.
That design philosophy is feeding directly into what will be built, Ms. Knowles says.
“These opportunities don’t come along very often where you have that perfect storm of transit, a 30-acre contiguously-owned site owned by pension funds who want to re-invest in real estate and retool their investment so they continue to be relevant and productive, and also in a city that has recognized this as being a town centre location,” she says. “It’s a joy to work on.”