Finding a place to live in Banff, Alta., is becoming increasingly difficult for workers, whether they’re seasonal or permanent, as the constraints imposed by Parks Canada to ensure environmental conservation in a national park townsite limit the availability of developable land and challenge redevelopment.
With an area of just under four square kilometres, Banff’s fixed boundaries were set by Parks Canada in 1990, when the town incorporated. “Banff has a very limited land base,” says Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno, adding that most of the developable land in the town has already been allocated.
“That means that any development happening is redevelopment, and that takes more time and more cost than greenfield development,” Ms. DiManno says. “We are fortunate we don’t have urban sprawl, and that we can maintain very high standards for infrastructure – but that also means that we can’t expand to build new houses.”
“Assumptions were made in the 1990s, when we were doing incorporation, that had to do with our future residential needs,” Ms. DiManno says. “Parks actually removed a pretty significant amount of developable land, and now, in hindsight, we’re realizing that’s really affected our ability to build new housing.”
Banff’s housing shortfall is especially challenging for residents fleeing domestic violence, trauma, or those with a disability, explains Ebony Rempel, CEO of YWCA Banff, a non-profit organization whose programs and resources support women in the Bow Valley, and the provision of affordable housing is key to their mission.
The completion of Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place in August expands YWCA Banff’s capacity to provide safe and stable housing to more than 70 residents. In 2021, the organization housed 103 individuals.
“The real crux and reason why we opened this building was because within our current inventory we didn’t have any spaces that were suitable for families,” Ms. Rempel says. “We wanted to be able to offer that continuum of supportive housing to many different types of individuals and families.”
The grand opening of Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place was scheduled for Sept. 15 [Thursday], but it’s been postponed in observance of the 10-day mourning period for the late Queen Elizabeth.
Designed by LOLA Architecture, a Calgary firm, Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place is a 33-unit, multi-family building. Its innovative structure is made up of 62 recycled shipping containers that contribute not only to layout flexibility and adaptability, but also to achieve net-zero energy efficiency and long-term affordability.
“[Sustainability] was really important to almost all parties,” Ms. Rempel says, noting that this building was part of the Sustainable Housing Initiative, a pilot project led by the Alberta Rural Development Network to develop affordable and energy efficient homes using recycled shipping containers.
Rental rates at Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place are between 10- and 20-per-cent below market, providing Banff residents and families with a yearly household income of up to $75,000 with access to housing alternatives ranging from studio apartments to four-bedroom units, as well as barrier-free options.
Upon completion, the 33-unit building received more than 100 applications, Ms. Rempel says. “Folks that identify as having a disability were prioritized in terms of getting access to the building. Folks that have children were also prioritized, and folks that have identified trauma in their life.”
The location of the 24,425-square-feet building, in the courtyard of an already existing facility on Banff’s Spray Avenue, spared YWCA Banff from some of challenges related to land availability and cost in Banff – but redeveloping the property was not a smooth process.
In national park townsites such as Banff, the availability of land isn’t the only challenge to developing new housing. In the name of environmental and character preservation, the town’s management plan also mandates the protection of wildlife corridors, native vegetation and lines of sight.
“We’re building in a tourism community, so there’s protocols in terms of what your building looks like,” Ms. Rempel says, acknowledging that these requirements aren’t unique to Banff. “But this adds another extra layer of complexity.”
In the case of Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place, Parks Canada’s concerns regarding ground squirrel habitat on the site had to be addressed prior to construction. “We [had] to make sure we were not disrupting any of the wildlife pathways and breeding habits,” Ms. Rempel says. “And right on our property we have ground squirrels, so [Parks Canada] made an assessment that the mating of the ground squirrels was happening outside of our property line.”
Moreover, redeveloping a property in a national park requires an extensive approval process.
“There’s different layers and different forms of government that we had to go through for approvals,” Ms. Rempel says about requiring permits from both the Town of Banff and Parks Canada. “Because we’re in a national park, and preservation and sustainability is a main goal of Parks Canada and Banff National Park, there were lots of hiccups along the road.”
Having broken ground in August, 2020, Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place’s biggest challenge were the delays caused by supply chain issues and inflation, Ms. Rempel says, which extended construction by 10 months and cost the organization an additional $5-million over the initial budget of $9-million.
To overcome the housing shortfall, the town of Banff requires more than 720 new housing units be built by 2027 and reach a healthy vacancy rate of 3 per cent. To achieve this, the town has implemented policies requiring staff accommodation in all new commercial developments (or cash in-lieu), and building below-market housing themselves.
About 10 per cent of Banff’s housing stock has been constructed since 2013, Ms. DiManno says, including a 131-unit below-market rental apartment building developed by the Banff Housing Corporation in 2017 with funding from local and senior levels of government.
“If Parks Canada allocates any type of land under their control in the townsite to us, we try to use it for the purpose of housing,” Ms. DiManno says, noting there’s only two parcels left to be developed.
One of these sites is on Banff Avenue, where The Aster, a price-restricted condo building of 33 units is currently under construction. The very last parcel, located on Cave Avenue, is on preliminary design.
By contrast, in the municipality of Jasper, a national park townsite of 4,200 residents, few rental units have been created in the past decade, despite a seasonal population that’s twice as large as that of Banff’s – and a housing gap that exceeds 1,000 units. Currently, a proposal for a 32-unit apartment building in Jasper faces community opposition.
“A big piece of affordability and financing, is that we really want the federal and provincial governments to help support Banff in our housing strategies,” Ms. DiManno says. “The Aster has not received any funding from other governments.”