Within the year, shovels will hit the ground in the largest residential development project Calgary has ever seen. Keystone Hills will consist of 15 neighborhoods, housing 60,000 people and employing 18,000 on 1,000 hectares of land in the city’s far north. The community will be situated along Stoney Trail to its south and bounded by 160th Avenue N and 14th Street N.W. on its north and west edges.
Currently, this is only an Area Structure Plan (ASP), which in itself is not new. ASPs are how the city releases land to housing developers without the risk of a jumbled free-for-all. Tuscany, Seton, Cranston — they were all planned to some degree by the city in conjunction with the companies that ultimately built there.
Keystone Hills is both the largest development and the first to be proposed since the city wrote its current Municipal Development Plan in 2007, which sought to change the way Calgary grows. The 60-year strategy calls for sustainable, dense communities, focused on a variety of transport modes, unlike the expansive auto-centric communities of Calgary’s past. City administration is trying to curb the sprawl that made Calgary a 725 square-kilometre metropolis of only 1.1 million people.
“One thing we have struggled with in Calgary is trying to get sort of more compact development,” says John Hall, Keystone Project Manager for city. “I’m sure people in the ’70s thought they were doing things better than in the ’60s and ’50s. So there’s always sort of an evolution of the mindset in planning; moving forward. But certainly we do think we’re on a better path.”
The city’s goal is to fit a minimum of 20 homes per hectare in Keystone Hills, with more in the high-density “major activity centre” intended to be the area’s focal point. If it sounds like city administrators want to cram people into housing projects, Hall says Calgarians needn’t fear; the density will be similar to other parts of the city.
“Compared to a lot of other North American cities, especially in the western part of North America, Calgary’s densities aren’t actually that low.... If you look at somewhere like Denver, for example, a lot of their suburban areas are hitting five units per acre and we’re quite a bit ahead of that. So we think that the density we’re requiring in Keystone is actually quite easily attainable,” says Hall.
Keystone is only the first stage in an enormous enterprise called the North Regional Context Study, which will house approximately 220,000 Calgarians and be the workplace for 68,000 by 2035.
Calgary will need it. City planners believe the city will continue to swell, hitting 2.5 million by around 2060. Housing strategies such as secondary suites and denser inner-city condominium projects will not be enough to accommodate people even in the near future. Land availability is also tight, leaving the city with little choice but to open land for development on its northern fringe. The North Regional Context Study encompasses 5,700 hectares of land from Country Hills north to Nose Creek, and extending west to Highway 566.
Asad Niazi, the senior community planning manager for Walton Development, says developments in Calgary’s far south and west, such as Seton, are already nearly full. Because of that, investors and home-buyers are already looking elsewhere for a new place to build.
The Keystone ASP has seen constant negotiation between developers, the area’s landowner group and the Calgary Planning and Development Commission, and repeatedly reappeared for debate in council. At this point, the changes to the ASP seem mundane. Niazi says debating the small stuff is necessary because developers need clarity as the city pushes its vision.
“We have new documents all over the place,” says Niazi, explaining that while his company agrees with the MDP in principle, it won’t build without knowing what that vision means in practical terms.
Dennis Doherty is the president of Pacific Investments, another developer that “absolutely” wants a piece of Keystone Hills, but that is also forcing the city to translate its vision.
“Everybody knows that when you develop a piece of land you want to know what will be in your backyard,” he says.
While bureaucrats and businessmen hash out the fine points, Hall admits Keystone Hills has even more unwieldy problems. Most importantly, there is no money in the capital budget to service the area. Roads, sewers and the LRT line that will suck up $154 million of the community’s $282 million infrastructure costs are still not guaranteed.
“In order for any development to proceed, [infrastructure costs must] be identified in a future capital budget, which certainly is a possibility. Or, alternately, developers would have to find an alternative scenario which would allow services to extend into plans without the city having to pay for them.... It’s a real issue and it’s not an issue exclusive to this part of the city,” says Hall.
Along with infrastructure headaches, Hall says the city can’t compel anyone to live according to its ideals. On paper, the heart of Keystone Hills is the major activity centre. This area will contain a major LRT hub, as well as a much higher residential density and small-scale businesses as opposed to big box stores and the associated acres of parking lots, all within easy walking and cycling distance of each other.
Yet, says Hall, “we certainly can’t force people to work in a certain place, or force businesses to locate in a certain place.” In order to make the MDP happen, the city can only “encourage” people to follow its plans by strategically locating transit routes, requiring developers to only build on more pedestrian and traffic-friendly grid street networks, instead of the confusing curvilinear designs that characterize the past 30 years of construction, and even negotiating incentives for developers in exchange for the kind of neighborhoods the city believes are best.
Developers, such as Niazi, say they are on board with the city’s vision, but they are determined not to move ahead before that vision is clear.
“I keep telling the landowners and also the city: I hope there’s no bruises or anything like that at the end,” he says.