Oct 26, 2015

A Visit to Airdrie

Last week on a beautiful Fall day, I took a long overdue visit to see Tracy Corbett, the Planning Director for the City of Airdrie. Tracy worked in Calgary awhile back and has been a terrific partner in thinking about the future of the YYC region. She drove me around for almost two hours, during which I saw some great designs underway in Airdrie. Like Calgary, Airdrie has some good and some not so good, but Tracy and her staff are really pushing the envelope on suburban community design with higher densities and new mixed use centres.

To start, the City Administration Building is one of the best adaptive reuse buildings I have ever seen. After the building started as a grocery store in the late 1980's, the city purchased the building and the strip mall next door, which houses a public library, and converted the grocery store into a city administration building. The interior entry is a very welcoming space, with easy access to permitting.
Airdrie civic building is a cool adaptive reuse of a 1980’s grocery store.  They also own the strip mall next door, which houses a public library along with commercial uses.

The variety in home design, densities strategically laid out to build down to the edges, with wonderful park facing homes, certainly shows how Airdrie is really working to connect the new developments through an intricate network of linear green spaces.
If you look closely you can see the little boy riding his bike along one of those linear green spaces connecting through the new blocks. Impressive is the front facing homes onto the green space.  Tracy tells me these spaces have become big amenities for parents letting their small children out to play on their own, just like many of us did 40+ years ago.

My first impression as we drove into a recent subdivision was that the entry was marked by just the type of house I have been touting as the big market not being met in Calgary. Home sizes increased dramatically from the 1970's on, despite a big reduction in the numbers of people living in those houses. I was tracking house versus family size when I worked in the U.S. and it took the 2008 recession to finally reverse the bigger house trend. Unfortunately, it seems to be reversing again. 

But have a look at these places lining the street as we turned into the development.  Really terrific bungalows I wish we could see more of in YYC. Just the size and style a lot of people, empty nesters, single households  or a small family would be interested in if the choice was available.  And a telling point,  the house does not always have to maximize the lot.
Terrific examples of the type of smaller house we see in the Pacific Northwest catering to smaller households and empty nesters, but so rare in our region. It’s certainly less expensive to heat and sized to the average family size. It also allows for mixed age neighbourhoods, with empty nesters enjoying the amenities a family neighbourhood may offer.

Another feature I noticed, which is often hard to find, is to provide great design on corner lots facing both streets. Many planners try to get a front door on both frontages. This is often unrealistic, as who wants two front doors? Have a look at this example in the same subdivision as the above bungalows. The garage door treatment is well designed, the front entry is close to the corner, and the front porch brings the building next to the sidewalk. The shorter setback as well, bringing the home closer to the street on both frontages, is not only more efficient on so many fronts, but it really engages the public space of the sidewalk and the road.

Paying attention to both frontages on a corner lot is critical
to “finishing” a street and a neighbourhood,  kinda like the
coffee shop putting the twirl in the foam on a latte.
It became clear as we visited the developments that a lot of attention has been paid to include a range of housing types in each neighbourhood. Again, this is something we are really beginning to benefit from here in Calgary. One out-of-province developer in particular has really shifted the playing field in this direction, starting in Airdrie and in Calgary.

The staging of townhouse and single family higher density is well done in this example.  Driving along the street, there are townhouses close to the sidewalk. Turning into an interior street, the building form changes
We have turned into the block and we see taller homes, closer together with front garages. This is an interior circulation court, where these higher densities are facing the backs of the townhouses, and the single family homes are just a bit further away.
Here we can see the interior circulation, the close together homes in the middle of the court, the lower townhouses on the edge.
The developments are linked with a series of pathways offering recreation and connections to the commercial areas and other neighbourhoods. These spaces are well used. Certainly the discussion here in Calgary has focused on the maintenance of these spaces and whose responsibility it is to clear the snow.
An example of a public pathway leading through a development
and again, front porches facing the space and really creating
the success of the design.

All communities struggle with the need to deal with storm water run-off.  Taking a broad approach to the problem, Airdrie has one development where creating a redesigned wetland will not only work well for the builder, but also better manage the storm water.

Here is a storm pond used as a marketing feature for the houses
backing onto the water.  Just to the right out of the picture, the
small commercial area with a nautical theme would have to be
considered a tad less successful and leaves one wondering,
particularly the little lighthouse type structure.
It seems all communities are challenged by suburban commercial development, developers saying that tenants must have this and that, leading to challenges for what most of us know is better pedestrian design and more sustainable public spaces. And like Calgary, Airdrie is making inroads. As Tracy told me, if a new condo provides space at grade for a daycare facility, it will be occupied. With the change in building codes that we pioneered a year ago to permit six-storey wood construction, the builders in Airdrie are looking at the cost | revenue ratio the extra two floors, now permitted, would mean if there had to be more underground concrete construction for the parking.

This new condo mixed use building lines a street entering a new development. No problem filling the commercial spaces in Airdrie and as Tracy told me, if the space is there, a daycare will follow. And in fact there is one at the far end.
Like Calgary and so many other cities, not all retail achieves the pedestrian and sustainable design many of us strive to achieve in our communities. And as we retrofit older communities, hopefully we can achieve better design offering not just amenities but options for new housing. Here is a good example of an older shopping strip facility in Airdrie just waiting for a makeover. Across the street, the newer subdivision does a lot better.
It is always a challenge to design the buildings fronting on busy arterial roads that lead to residential developments. Often, the four-lane roads become small freeways, with fast-moving vehicles very unwelcoming to pedestrians. The design below shows how a recent subdivision created a parallel neighbourhood-scale street on which new homes front rather than the arterial.
Well designed to the point where the arterial to the left is hard to see. Taken just after lunch on a workday, one can imagine dinner time with cars parked along the edge of this parallel street providing a sound barrier to the traffic on the busy road to the right. And the townhouse design also provides a good transition to the homes behind.

We talked about regional challenges as my tour ended, including the expansion of retail between the two cities. Complete communities are not just about a new subdivision, or providing more retail in an inner city neighbourhood, they are also about ensuring our regional growth fills in the gaps to better utilize our shared infrastructure. Given the changes in our higher levels of government, clearly this discussion is moving, as it should, to the forefront. 

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