Construction began this week on a new bike lane pilot project that will run through downtown Calgary. And in less than two weeks, council will decide whether to give the green light to the city’s first car-less condo project, a 167-unit tower – and not a parking stall on site.
It’s part of the city’s effort to offer alternatives to the long-standing car culture and move toward more transit-oriented development. There’s a shift to a denser, more walkable city under way, says planning chief Rollin Stanley, even if progress is slow.
“I’ve worked in four major metro areas in North America, and this is the one where it’s still a new idea,” he says. “It’s been a bit of a challenge for some people to understand. They say, ‘Bike lanes will slow down cars.’ But a lot more people live downtown now, and streets are also for people. It’s a mindset change.
“The point I like to make is 52 per cent of the property tax base in this city comes from downtown. Not just the people who live here, but people who work there. That means we have to invest in things like cycle lanes and pedestrian sidewalks.”
Recent studies have shown a drop in millennial car use and desire to obtain a driver’s licence. But Calgary remains true to car travel, with an estimated 87 per cent of its residents living in the suburbs, according to a study by the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University. More than 90 per cent of Calgary’s population lives in single-family homes, according to data supplied by BTA Works. That compares with 70 per cent in Vancouver and just fewer than 50 per cent in Toronto. For many with families, the car is the only way to get around.
And yet, a small but determined movement is afoot to prove dense inner-city neighbourhoods are not only more livable, but more affordable.
Developer Joe Starkman got the idea to build a car-less condo project when he and his wife offered their daughter a car to get around in while at university. She asked him, “‘Why on earth would I want a car?’” he recalls.
Studies have shown that twentysomething millennials don’t care about cars as previous generations have. Mr. Starkman hired marketers to survey Calgary millennials and discovered that about 25 per cent didn’t have driver’s licences, and 50 per cent didn’t own a car. He struck upon an idea – condos targeted to young people who don’t drive.
“We clued in this would be a good project when I mentioned it to my development lawyer,” says Mr. Starkman. “He said, ‘You guys are nuts – no one is going to buy that,’ and that’s when I knew we were onto something. He’s from the boomer generation, and when you’re a boomer, you’re out of touch with what the kids are doing.”
Because the built-in cost of a single underground parking stall is about $75,000, he could construct one-bedroom and two-bedroom units for far cheaper. On May 11, his N3 condo development goes before council, the final hurdle in the approvals process. If passed, N3 buyers will receive a fully furnished unit, a free Biria bicycle, a lifetime membership to car-share service Car2Go, and a $500 credit for the service. Car2Go is hugely popular with Calgarians. Each one- or two-bedroom unit will come with two bike stalls. For visitors with cars, there will be nearby off-site parking.
“We are telling people, ‘If you are car dependent, this is not the place for you,’ ” says Mr. Starkman. “The thing is, in Calgary it’s a new market. I’m not saying it’s a deep market,” he adds.
That said, his company, Knightsbridge Homes, hasn’t even done any advertising or marketing and they have 650 names of buyers interested in the 167 units. The project includes a second-phase tower that will have 200 units.
If N3 gets the green light, presales will launch in September and construction will finish in December, 2016. Because there won’t be any underground parking stall construction, Knightsbridge can finish the development in only 12 months. Prices will range from $199,000 to $299,000.
“I think the city’s concern is maybe every developer now will say, ‘I don’t want to put in parking.’ But it doesn’t always work. It needs a price point if you want to get a certain demographic.”
You also need access to dependable transit. His project is 100 metres from a light-rapid transit station. “It’s got to be walkable community, with the amenities, the LRT, a block or two to the grocery store, parks, all that,” says Mr. Starkman.
Mr. Starkman has gone against expectation before with his University City project, which offered units at around 500 square feet – too small by Calgary standards, he was told. He had hoped to sell 100 units in 60 days. On the day it launched, he sold 100 units in 60 minutes.
“We feel very confident N3 will be a big success story. Touch wood. I hate to say it because you never know, but we think we’re going to get there.
“I think Calgary is on the cusp of transition. In the 60s and 70s, the city zoned residential out of downtown. That’s why it was dead downtown. Now it’s starting to come back.”
Vancouver-based developer Mike Bucci, of Bucci Developments, also thinks there’s a shift under way. He says about 75 per cent of his current multifamily projects are in Calgary’s inner city, within a five-minute walk from the LRT. He says the city is in transition, with tensions between those who believe in development of more single-family homes in the suburbs and those who argue for denser housing close to downtown. He’s seeing young buyers who are caught in the shift, realizing they don’t need a car any more, but not quite prepared to give it up.
“They just don’t use them as much any more, but they haven’t hit that tipping point where they are quite willing to divest of the car entirely,” says Mr. Bucci. “It puts us in a challenging position because they’re buying into multifamily living downtown, but they come with two cars. “To make that jump, they have to sell one or both cars at same time.”
As well, many buyers believe a unit with a parking stall has better resale value.
“It takes time for people to understand this lifestyle, and to say, ‘I don’t need a stall.’ ”
University of Calgary urban design professor Noel Keough says a big incentive to ditch the car is cost. Mr. Keough and his family have not used a car since 1989, although he concedes it’s difficult for most Calgarians to get around without a car.
He did a study that looked at what housing options would open up to a buyer if they used transit even part of the time.
“It was pretty spectacular,” says Mr. Keough, who’s also running as a provincial Green Party candidate.
Based on an average income of $80,000, he found homes in all of the city’s quadrants that became affordable once car cost was factored out of the equation.
“The two highest budget items in your household are housing, then transportation. Research is combining those and saying, ‘What does affordable living look like?’ ”
Albi Sole, executive director of the Outdoor Council of Canada, points out that annual expenses for a depreciating car don’t make sense. “We end up driving those long distances because we think it’s cheaper, but is it? In reality, it costs the average person $8,000 to $10,000 a year to drive, plus all that time driving. At today’s interest rates, that would service a $200,000 mortgage.”
Mr. Sole cycles 10 kilometres to work at the University of Calgary every day, but it’s not for everyone. He says fewer than 2 per cent of Calgarians cycle, although cyclists are growing in numbers. He says bike lanes and pedestrian walkways aren’t designed nearly as well as road infrastructure, which makes it a challenge.
“I think we are in a very awkward phase. We are a low-density city and we have this huge footprint. So very often, the distances people are commuting are very great. That’s a challenge, too.
“But what’s interesting is that [the mindset] is changing. Not that it’s been smooth. But there’s a gradual shift happening.”