Five years ago, when you landed at Calgary's airport, you'd hop in a cab and turn onto the province's busiest highway. Out one window, you'd note another skyscraper going up on the multi-billion dollar skyline; out the other, you'd see tractors and a decaying barn. You were in Cowtown – a nickname that was something of a stigma for this city. Indeed, it felt the need to add the words "Heart of the New West" to its welcome signs.
In 2007, a large Toronto developer read Calgary's prevailing winds and jumped at the chance to develop 260 acres of unserviced farmland at the edge of the airport. Oxford Properties sensed a bigger opportunity than warehouses and parking lots, however.
"We wanted to build a business park," said Kevan Gorrie, Oxford's industrial vice-president. The city had rezoned the land for employment use, and the company decided to build a multi-use development, with multiple warehouse/distribution facilities as well as retail and possibly office space. "It's near the airport, so we saw the opportunity to maybe develop hotels there as well," Mr. Gorrie said.
At that point, Oxford was one of the country's largest office landlords. It had a budding interest in retail and hospitality. It had a limited presence in Alberta but had spent $1.5-billion on seven prestigious Fairmont Hotels, including three in Alberta and two in British Columbia.
Today the $500-million Oxford Airport Business Park is a projected 4-million-square-foot development. It will have 3.3 million feet of industrial distribution/warehouse space, with facilities from 100,000 to 400,000 square feet. The plan calls for about 300,000 feet of office space and 60,000 feet of retail. It will accommodate 350 to 400 hotel rooms, and will take six to eight years to complete.
Oxford is hoping to lease to both multinationals and local businesses, including retailers that need space and distribution into Calgary, and the potential to ship goods to and from Vancouver and Edmonton.
That Calgary is considered a distribution hub is not far-fetched to Beverly Sandalack, an urban design professor at the University of Calgary. The city is serviced by both CP and CN rail; it is a day's travel from Vancouver, and it has the necessary population and economic base.
The evolution of airport "industrial parks" from seas of warehouses, without trees or sidewalks, into more comprehensive employment nodes has been a long time coming, Ms. Sandalack said. A similar airport business park is being developed in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Denver is one of the busiest airport hubs in North America.
"They're good in that they add employment closer to the source," said Ms. Sandalack. "What will determine if they're good for the city is if they have good urban design principles – things like green roofs and bioswales [a landscaped surface water drainage system] These places close to the airport can be viewed as gateways into the city.
"If you can design them so they express a sense of Calgary, then they can be positive things."
Even more intriguing than Oxford's bet on Calgary is its bet on the potential of Calgary's marginalized northeast (N.E.), where slaughterhouses and toxic production plants were traditionally built downwind from the rest of town.
Oxford seems to have found the emerging hub within the emerging hub. Its business park sits directly on the north-south Deerfoot Trail industrial corridor. The airport itself gets so much traffic that a new runway is under construction – the longest in Canada, with a road underneath connecting Airport Trail to the growing northeast.
"With the new CN intermodal (transit terminal) that's going up in 2014, you're going to see more distribution mass around the N.E.," Mr. Gorrie adds.
In Calgary, building tends to be led by developers rather than visionary municipal planners "There are probably four or five major developers," said Mr. Gorrie. "They've done a lot of business in Calgary."
Oxford has worked closely with the city's planners. The first 550,000 feet of construction was undertaken on speculation this fall, and is expected to be complete by the end of the first quarter of 2012.
"In Calgary, it's not enough to say you're going to build it," Mr. Gorrie explains. "People here need to see it and smell it and kick it and drive across it before they're going to believe you."
Living near the airport
Oxford Properties's business park isn't the only new development near Calgary's airport. Ms. Sandalack recently worked on a plan for a 16-acre, mixed-use neighbourhood near the site.
Called Flights, the project will be "a high-quality, mixed-use, medium-rise kind of thing – a Main Street model, rather than a suburban shopping model," Ms. Sandalack said.
The development will be aimed at "people who work for airlines or work at the airport and want somewhere to live that's closer, instead of going all the way downtown," she said.
An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version incorrectly stated the extent of Oxford Properties Group's business in Western Canada in 2007. This online version has been corrected.