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July 01, 2013

Calgary’s condo evolution

Are Calgary’s inner-city condos meant for singles?

Richard White

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Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of Richard White’s two-part feature on the development of Calgary’s condo market in the inner-city. This time he discusses who has been buying condo units downtown.

Some people have said that if we had more amenities for families in the City Centre, we would get more families living there. (My definition of City Centre being from 17th Avenue S.W. to 16th Avenue N.W., from Sunalta to Inglewood, Hillhurst to Bridgeland, which from a square kilometre point of view is on par with how Toronto defines their City Centre or downtown).

Sorry, I don’t buy that. There are already lots of amenities for families in our City Centre — workplace school, daycares, elementary, junior high and high schools, a zoo, museum, science centre, major recreational facilities (YWCA/YMCA/Talisman Centre/Skatepark), two libraries, two river pathways and an indoor garden with playground. Everything a family could want is a short drive, walk or bike ride away including grocery stores.

One reason larger, higher priced condo units don’t sell well in Calgary, I expect, is that once you get into the $800,000 range, you can get an 1,800-plus-square-foot infill house with basement and two car garage in West Hillhurst, Parkdale, Bridgeland, Inglewood, Ramsay or Killarney, all of which are just a short drive, bike ride or even walk away from downtown. You can’t go one or two kilometres out of downtown Toronto or Vancouver and get a large modern single-family home for under $1 million!

When given the choice, most Canadians will still choose a house over a condo.

In chatting with Parham Mahboubi, VP at Qualex Landmark, a company which has built four condo buildings and is starting on their fifth, all in the Beltline, he told me their focus is totally on singles and young couples in Calgary. In many ways, I think the condo is the new “starter home” which, when you think about it, makes sense. The downtown condos are mostly one- and two-bedroom suites and about 650 to 900 square-feet — exactly what starter homes were in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

There is great debate on whether the current crop of Yuppies will adopt urban living as a lifelong lifestyle and raise their children in the inner-city … or if they will migrate to larger homes in the suburbs as their incomes increase; and follow the cycle established by previous generations.

One of the trends we are now seeing in Calgary’s downtown condo market is the move to build more mid-rise (five to 15 floors), rather than high-rise condos. All of the new projects in Kensington are less than 10 floors — St. John’s, Ven and Pixel. Even in the Beltline we are seeing “shorter” condos in the mid-teens like Calla and Drake.

Bridgeland has always been a mid-rise condo community which has helped keep the community more pedestrian-friendly since high-rises often shadow parks and sidewalks, cause wind tunnels and are out of scale with the existing, single family and walk-up apartments in the community. Mid-rise developments are more like infilling and are a natural evolution from the four-floor, low-rise condos that were built as part of The Bridges redevelopment of the old General Hospital site.

STEPS, a new, six-storey condo designed by Jeremy Sturgess, was recently announced — it has the look of a stacked townhouse massing with funky box units at the top that will add some fun and charm to the community.

Over the past 20 years, condo developers, both local and out of town, have learned and continue to learn (sometimes the hard way) what sells and what doesn’t in Calgary. We are learning that Kensington is different than the Beltline, and East Village different than Eau Claire. Watch out for Sunalta to take off now that they have their own LRT station. It will also be interesting to see how the next phase of mid-rise condos at University Village sell.

As with any industry, condo developers must constantly adapt to an ever-changing market.

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