What’s Involved In Developing a New Calgary Neighbourhood

We take an in-depth look at Calgary’s development process to better understand how a new community evolves.

Livingston’s vision for the new look of Calgary’s neighbourhoods.
rendering courtesy of brookfield residential

Despite the economy, Calgary is growing. Between 2014 and 2015, we welcomed almost 36,000 new people, all of whom needed somewhere to live. The obvious solution for many new Calgarians is to find a home in a new community.

Although it may seem like new communities spring up to meet the demand of our growing population, the truth is, even Calgary’s newest suburbs have been in the works for many years. Developers often hold land for decades before the vision for a new community is even introduced to City Council. Once the development process begins, it can take close to another decade, sometimes longer, before the first home is built, and years more before the neighbourhood’s first grocery store opens.

A new community is like a living thing that continues to evolve, and there’s no definitive time that determines when that community stops being “new.” It is due to the lengthy and complex process of developing a new community that newer areas are not included in Avenue‘s annual Best Neighbourhood survey. Comparing new neighbourhoods to established communities isn’t fair until the data about each is roughly the same.

This lack of new-neighbourhood data got us curious about what we could learn, specifically how and why new communities get built in the first place. So, with the help of developers and city planners, we decided to start at the very beginning of the development process.

With the soon-to-develop community of Keystone Hills in Calgary’s far north as a case study, we dive deep into permits, approvals and outline plans to break apart the current development process. Thoughtful city building takes time, and we offer an inside look at the procedures and people who are passionate about building a better city today.

There’s nothing quick about building a new community

The approval process is systematic by design, says Scott Lockwood, manager of Community Planning, Centre-West, with the City of Calgary. “Whether you’re applying for a building permit for your deck or a large outline plan for 3,000 acres, there are definitely a range of steps to go through,” Lockwood says.

The first step is drafting an area structure plan (ASP). An ASP is a high-level proposal that includes an overview of the natural features of a piece of land, like hills or valleys, natural drainage courses and the proposed range of densities, including commercial and residential, across the area. An ASP is driven and drafted by the City collaboratively with developers. Think of the ASP as a road map for a new community, says Jamal Ramjohn, manager of Community Planning, North, with the City.

“The ASP is driven by the municipality and adheres to dozens of policy and guideline documents that we have at the City, be it planning or engineering, or fire, etcetera,” Ramjohn says.

Once an ASP has been approved, developers drive the next level of planning. A developer divides the land into manageable phases, or stages, and crafts a land-use application and outline plan for each chunk. So, if an ASP covers 3,000 acres, an outline plan may only need to cover 100. The outline plan becomes more detailed and includes connections to major roads, school and park sites. “As we go through the planning process, you go from a large area to a small area with much more fine-grain detail,” Lockwood says.

The next step is the tentative plan, which includes individual lot size, street layout and street names and, finally, the legal plan, which includes land titles for each lot. Each step requires approval from the relevant City department. The process is methodical, says Maribeth Janikowski, communications manager at Qualico Communities, a long-standing Calgary land developer. “We don’t just get all of our permits at once and build. We have to get approval for the utilities and the pipelines, everything that goes into the community.” she says. “It gives us a chance to assess the market and what the market needs, and it also gives the City a chance to keep up with demand. Once we get that entire infrastructure in place, we’re ready to sell the lots to the builders.”

Builders enter the picture as early on in the process as possible, says Brendan McCashin, senior development manager at Brookfield Residential. “We start with our vision for the customer and what we think the market for that area is, and we decide on what products we should be offering as a result of that. We talk to the builders we think will deliver those products the best,” he says. “From there, we determine how many lots each builder will get and work with them in terms of design and sale.”

On average, the whole process from the ASP stage to the first home sold can take seven to 10 years.

Why do we need new communities?

In 2015, Calgary was the fastest-growing Canadian census metropolitan area at more than 2.5 times the national average, and the City projects that, by 2076, Calgary’s population will have nearly doubled from 2006 numbers, growing to 2.2 million people. New communities matter because people need homes.

Luckily, according to the latest report by the City’s department of geodemographics, Calgary Snapshots, 2015, the city’s current supply of available suburban residential land should last between 35 and 39 years.

“As much as this recent downturn has obviously taken everybody by surprise, Calgary is still growing at a furious pace, and, in the last three years, it has grown at an exponential pace,” says Guy Huntingford, co-CEO of the Calgary Home Builders’ Association – Urban Development Institute Calgary Region Association. “New communities are absolutely vital for housing all of the people who are coming here because, physically, there is just not enough room in established areas.”

New communities also offer better bang for your buck, Huntingford says. “It would be fair to say, on average, suburban homes are relatively better value for the consumer, mostly because distance really does save you money, ” he says. “When someone is looking for a new home, the most important thing is often what they can afford. There’s an old saying in our industry that you drive until you qualify.”

New suburban communities are relatively more affordable and, as they continue to meet increased density targets, there’s also an increased amount and range of housing options. Suburbia is no longer the land of cookie-cutter single-detached homes, but a careful balance of detached and attached homes, townhomes and condos.

Building better neighbourhoods

In 2009, the City approved its new Municipal Development Plan (MDP). The MDP, together with the Calgary Transportation Plan, sets a sustainable vision of growth and development for the city for the next 30 to 60 years. Thec documents provide a series of policies land developers must meet when developing a new community.

“We’ve created policies that every developer is subject to equally and consistently in any quadrant across the city,” says Lockwood. “The MDP speaks to placing an emphasis on mixed-use development, increasing density, developing along transportation corridors and transit lines and placing priority on the pedestrian.”

The new MDP means all of Calgary’s new and future developments will be master-planned or complete communities. “The new Municipal Development Plan said if we’re going to build new communities and make the suburbs attractive, then they need to have all of the facilities,” says Huntingford. “People in the suburbs know they can walk to their neighbourhood store or they can go to the rec centre – you’ve got all the amenities you need.”

After the introduction of the MDP, new communities at various stages of development went on to meet the MDP’s targets. For example, Qualico’s northeast community of Redstone was already past the approval process in 2009 but incorporated the MDP’s policies when it began to build in 2011.

“We were looking at a much higher density model than Calgary has seen before,” says Janikowski. Specifically, the MDP requires new neighbourhoods have a minimum density of eight to 10 units per gross residential acre and encourages higher density wherever possible. In comparison, communities built in the 1960s such as Lake Bonavista have a density of about four units per acre. Higher density means more homes and more options for homebuyers.

Start at the beginning

Great neighbourhoods begin with a great plan, and the Keystone Hills development was shaped by the MDP from the very beginning of its development process. The Keystone Hills ASP, a big-picture blueprint for development drafted collaboratively by the City and developers, was the first one to be approved under the new MDP.

The 2,669-acre parcel of land sits between Stoney Trail to the south and 160th Avenue to the north, 14th Street N.W. to the west and the Canadian Pacific rail line to the east and will house more than 60,000 residents and employ more than 19,000. The parcel is divided into three separate communities, Livingston, Carrington and a third in early development, and includes an industrial/employment area. In 2014, Brookfield Residential announced it had set aside land at the corner of Centre Street and 144th Avenue for a potential north hospital. The future Green Line of the LRT is also expected to eventually link to Keystone Hills.

Keystone Hills is unique in another way because multiple developers own the land. That means the process has to be collaborative, says Marcello Chiacchia, vice-president – Calgary Communities at Genstar Development Company. Genstar owns a parcel of land in Carrington and is collaborating with Brookfield Residential, Mattamy Homes and the Hong Family to open up the new community.

“The collaboration served a few purposes,” Chiacchia says. “It made sure our planning tied together so that the school sites are evenly distributed, for example, and also in terms of infrastructure. We had to work closely together to cost share the infrastructure in order to advance Keystone Hills.”

In 2014, the City approved a proposal that allowed the developers of Keystone Hills to pay for infrastructure costs in order to begin the development process. Without the financial help of developers up front, the infrastructure costs of servicing an area the size of Keystone Hills was too cost-prohibitive and would have added years to the development timeline.

How else has the MDP helped shape Keystone Hills?

We know the City’s MDP promotes density, which means more multi-family buildings, townhomes and attached homes, along with standard single detached homes in the suburbs. But, in Keystone Hills, that density also means more compact lots.

“Gone are the days of the 50-foot lot format – you’ll see more of a 25-foot lot,” says Chiacchia. “An estate home may be sitting on a 36- or 38-foot lot. You’ll see the size of the lots going down to 28- or 24-foot, semi-detached lots. There’s going to be more multi-family, which also adds to the density.”

Even with the new density targets, homebuyers in Keystone Hills will have lots of room. To compare, the development will be on par with or slightly less dense than the successful redevelopment of Garrison Woods in the inner city. Chiacchia says the variety of housing options will be thoughtfully laid out.

“You’ll still have large pockets of single-family homes and pockets of multi-family centred around green spaces and along the urban corridor,” he says.

The new urban neighbourhood

rendering courtesy of brookfield residential

Livingston’s vision for the new look of Calgary’s neighbourhoods.

The largest portion in the Keystone Hills ASP is Livingston, a 570-acre chunk owned by Brookfield Residential. Named after early Calgary pioneer Sam Livingston, the community has the Urban Corridor and Major Activity Centre within its boundaries. Genstar also owns a portion along the lower west side. The Urban Corridor will run along the future LRT line and feature higher-density residential, condos and townhomes, as well as a mix of retail and employment. Imagine shops on the main floor with condos above.

The Major Activity Centre is like Livingston’s town centre and will offer the majority of the community’s retail and employment and eventually be home to a large institution, such as a hospital. McCashin says the vision for Livingston is to be a mirror image of the community of Seton, which is built around the South Health Campus in the deep southeast.

“This is a transit-oriented development where the town centre and the Urban Corridor really are the heart of the community and tie the whole neighbourhood together,” he says. “Like Seton in the south, Livingston will become a major hub for North Calgary.”

Livingston will have six distinct residential neighbourhoods within its boundaries and each will have its own Neighbourhood Activity Centre. “The city’s definition of a neighbourhood is basically a grouping of homes and retail that’s about walking distance, so a five-minute walking radius area that works out to about 160 acres, a quarter section,” McCashin says. “A Neighbourhood Activity Centre is made up of higher-density homes, an open space and amenity of some sort like a daycare or church or retail.”

Gone are the days of auto-focused suburbs with dead-end cul-de-sacs carved up by highways. Instead, Livingston’s retail, green and open spaces are pedestrian-focused and interconnected. “There was a lot of thinking behind where the school sites are located and where the ponds are located,” McCashin says. “We made sure there are pathway connections between all of these things so you can walk or bike through a community without having to cross a bunch of major roads.”

rendering courtesy of brookfield residential

Livingston street-scape rendering.

Who pays for the development a new community?

Developers pay for every part of the development of a new community. Costs include water and storm sewers, utility connections, roads and sidewalks, parks and school sites and more. Developers may even pay for street cleaning and snow removal for a period of time following the final sale. Ultimately, the costs of development are rolled into the price of homes for sale.

When is a new community no longer new?

The timeline of development planning, from the approval of an ASP to the first lot sold, can take close to a decade. But we know a community is much more than a collection of housing. The MDP has made sure all new communities are built to include retail, employment and transportation. Developers often have a separate commercial wing that plans for future retail and commercial sites.

So how long does it actually take to build a complete community? “The idea of a new neighbourhood really is a relative term,” says Janikowski. For example, Qualico has been building in the northwest community of Evanston for more than 10 years. In 2013, Evanston Towne Centre opened with a variety of retail including a Sobeys grocery store.

“Since 2013, we’ve really starting to see momentum pick up,” Janikowski says. “A little art studio has opened up, there’s a yoga studio. You’ll also see two schools in Evanston that are opening this fall. The community has really started to take shape.”

According to McCashin, there is a formula to when a new community can support retail. “The research has stated that typically you need about 3,000 rooftops before you can support any significant retail centres,” he says. Three thousand homes sold can seem like a lot, but McCashin says that, because of high demand, it can take as little as three years to reach that amount.

So, is 10 years from when the first lot sold the magic number for when a community becomes established? Well, it depends on who you ask. According to the City, for a community to be considered fully built, a lot needs to happen. “From a complete-community perspective, including residential, which may be built sooner, we’ve got all the amenities and non-residential uses that need to go into that, and some of those need the critical mass of people to support the retail and office components.” says Ramjohn. “So, in some cases, we’ve got 40 to 50 years for a full build-out, which is a long time.”

At Avenue, it’s all about access to data. A new neighbourhood is included in our Best Neighbourhood’s survey when we have the data to compare it accurately to developed neighbourhoods. Typically, that means it’s at least 10 years old.

What are levies?

Developers pay the City a fee called a levy that connects new communities to the infrastructure of the rest of Calgary. These “off-site levies” include things like protective services, such as fire and police, and water treatment. Before 2011, the City paid for the entire waste and water-treatment infrastructure cost in new communities, and, between 2011 and 2015, developers paid for 50 per cent of it. The City hasn’t been able to keep up with the cost of water and wastewater treatment with Calgary’s rapidly growing population.

This past January, the City introduced a new Off-Site Levy Bylaw. One of the biggest changes is both new and established communities must pay a levy for water and wastewater treatment plants. Previously, established communities weren’t charged. By 2018, developers will pay 100 per cent of the cost for treatment plants. The levy rate has risen from $286,692 to $342,508 per hectare in new (greenfield) communities to $422,073 to $464,777 per hectare.

For new homebuyers this means the cost of suburban homes will rise slightly by around one per cent.

A snapshot of development: Keystone Hills

1989: The City annexes land from Rocky View County.

1990s: Brookfield Residential begins to purchase land in the area. Other landowners include Genstar, Mattamy Homes and the Hong family.

2007: The City annexes additional land from Rocky View County to create Keystone Hills, nearly 2,700 acres that sit between Stoney Trail to the south, 160th Avenue to the north, 14th Street N.W. to the west and the CP Rail line to the east. The area will include three separate communities as well as an industrial/employment area. The largest parcel, at 570 acres, is the community of Livingston owned by Brookfield Residential.

2010: The City-led ASP for Keystone Hills is initiated. The plan will manage and shape the growth in the area, which will eventually be home to more than 60,000 people, or a population two-thirds the size of Red Deer.

2012: The Keystone Hills ASP is approved by City Council.

2013: Brookfield hosts a design charette with participants including City staff and development professionals. The event explores the factors that help make a residential neighbourhood successful.

The City begins the Major Activity Centre and Corridor Special Study. The study establishes the type and density of development that will be built through the centre of Keystone Hills that includes a future Green Line LRT station.

Brookfield submits an Outline plan and Land Use Redesignation for the first stage of Livingston. Stage 1 is to the east of Centre Street.

2014: City of Calgary’s Planning Commission approves the Stage 1 Outline Plan.

Brookfield submits the Outline Plan and Land Use Redesignation for Stage 2. Stage 2 is west of Centre Street. Throughout Stage 1 and Stage 2, Brookfield hosts virtual public open houses so Calgarians can view plans and provide feedback.

City Council approves a plan where developers will pay for infrastructure costs, including water and storm sewers, to service the area of Keystone and kickstart the development process.

2014-ongoing: Earth is moved and lots are graded and levelled in the approved stages. Developers apply for engineering permits to start constructing sewage and water connections, as well as roads and sidewalks. Once each lot is fully serviced, the construction process begins.

2017: Brookfield plans to begin selling homes in Stage 1 of Livingston.

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