From parking lot wasteland to urban paradise: transforming Calgary's local malls

With sprawling parking lots and shops already in place, there is a kind of land bank in the city, ripe for redevelopment and density.

'Hostile for pedestrians and lacking a positive sense of place,' city looks to tap its land bank

Some of Calgary's old car-centric malls are in for a facelift as the city pushes density and mixed-use development. (Dialog)

If you wish to get along with someone, the old advice goes, avoid any discussion of religion or politics.

In Calgary, one might also eschew the topic of density.

A controversial and often misunderstood subject on which most everyone has an opinion, density is likely to be a defining issue for 21st century Calgary, with as many as one million new residents expected in the next 50 years.

City planners know that expanding low-density, car-oriented sprawl would only exacerbate traffic congestion and the public costs of emergency services, utilities and infrastructure.

But if many Calgarians can't bear the thought of their neighbour having a secondary suite, putting a new apartment building with shops on their block is a non-starter.

It seems a quandary without a solution.

Fortunately, we've been saving for this rainy day for decades without realizing it, and our low-density building habits of the past might actually hold a major key to our future.

Enter the land bank

A key feature of suburban planning in the mid-20th century was the regional mall.

In keeping with suburban ideals, these sites were designed with automobiles in mind, complete with a vast sea of free parking.

Even successful malls designed for automobile primacy have an inherent limit: Only so many people can or will drive to them. Those seas of parking are more like desert wastelands from a pedestrian's perspective, a hostile landscape dividing community from commerce.

What these spaces represent are opportunities. They are "land banks" in the sense that they hold untapped value, particularly for a city facing a density battle.

The idea is simple: Erase the designs of old like a draft sketch and create mixed-use community nodes with new housing options, public spaces and parks, thereby adding density while preserving and reinvigorating established and ageing neighbourhoods.

This shift is already taking place.

Northland Village mall is slated for big changes in the hopes of making it more welcoming to pedestrians. (Evelyne Asslin/CBC)

Brentwood Village redux

University City, a multi-tower complex at Brentwood Village, stands as the first phase of a long-term full-scale makeover of the Brentwood LRT station area.

Similar plans exist for Northland Village, North Hill mall, and Stadium Shopping Centre, all of which are envisioned to become urban villages with new housing, shopping and offices that will transform northwest Calgary over the coming decades.

"While growth on the outskirts of the city is still part of the city's plan, it's recognized that there's a need to grow within to a larger extent to minimize the traffic, to maximize opportunities, to take full advantage of existing infrastructure and reduce the need to provide new infrastructure," says Paul Donker, coordinator of community planning for the City of Calgary.

Of course, these sites are privately owned and the incentive to massively redesign them must have a business case attached to it or the owners would simply shrug and carry on.

"Access to shops and services, to transit, without necessarily always needing to get in a car is something that's becoming more desirable in Calgary and generally in North America," says Donker.

"People like a high street, or main street experience with their shopping."

From the mall to the urban village

The futures envisioned for each of those northwest malls strike similar notes: storefronts on streetscapes, public plazas to encourage community events, mixed-use development and multi-storey parkades rather than sprawling surface parking.

Brentwood Village is already undergoing changes, with the University City towers looming in the background. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The shift will take decades, and each site is in various stages of planning and design — Brentwood station has an area redevelopment plan (ARP), while designs for Northland and Stadium are being finalized after community consultation; North Hill has yet to enter the design stage.

The ARP for Brentwood station, which was drawn up in 2009, describes the problem and gives an indication of the type and scale of change.

Right now, the site has "acres of asphalt parking lots and no normal urban streets or blocks" with "low-density inward-looking buildings", the current situation as assessed by city planners is "hostile" for pedestrians and lacks a "positive sense of place."

The plan for the future holds "vibrant pedestrian friendly streets" with mixed uses and building types, parking structures hidden behind buildings or underground, a "critical mass" of density, and prioritized modes of transportation in line with city planning policy.

Pedestrians and bicycles at the top of the hierarchy, personal automobiles at the bottom.

Northland Village's future looks much the same.

"It's not helping anybody in the community," said Susan Carter, a principle at Dialog, the firm contracted to design an updated model for the site at Crowchild Trail and Northland Drive.

"It's not enriching their lives."

The final design, yet to be finalized, will change that.

Carter says the site will be converted into an outdoor mall with a pedestrian-focused streetscape and large public plaza to be used for community events such as farmers' markets.

A six-storey parkade will help mitigate the loss of surface parking, and the design will accommodate a potential future Red Line LRT station. Sixty-five residential rental units will be built "to test the market" and more are likely to follow.

There won't be one big ka-boom moment for the mall's removal.

Rather, Carter says, the process will happen in phases, beginning with the northern segment of the site. Construction could start by next spring.

This rendering imagines a very different future for Northland Village mall. (Dialog)

The great debate

Both the Brentwood Village and Northland Village redevelopments are situated in the community of Brentwood, an established neighbourhood that is more in favour of redeveloping malls than might be expected.

"I think the community really understands the need for densification," says community association vice president Kirk Osadetz.

"It's not a case of trying to build two separate communities. We really do see this as drawing people from the new periphery in and drawing people from the old community out."

Today, these malls primarily serve people who drive to them to shop and then leave, and they become ghost towns in the evening.

But a mixed-use development would ensure people are always there, be they workers, shoppers, residents or event patrons. Parking lots would become a lively community of its own that would integrate with and serve the surrounding established neighbourhoods.

"Shopping malls that were auto-oriented were a product of their age," says Druh Farrell, councillor for Ward 7 where the Brentwood, Northland and North Hill sites are located.

"Perhaps it was flawed thinking, but it was thinking of the time. Now they're evolving to create more complete communities close to transit."

Rather than empty spaces and low-lying buildings, Northland Village envisions a dense, vibrant future. (Dialog)

There are, of course, local opponents of the plans. 

"It's always hard to convince people who are immediately affected of the wider public good," says Donker.

"There's usually a hardcore number of people who, no matter how you explain it, they won't be convinced. That's just the reality of the process."

Or as Osadetz puts it: "You'll hear the most from the people who have the greatest objection."

But both men believe that most residents are supportive of the concept. After all, replacing old malls and parking lots with large public plazas and new neighbourhood-focused business spaces are things a community can easily get behind.

While emphasizing the importance of meaningful public engagement and learning from mistakes along the way, Osadetz makes it clear that the mall makeovers could be a boon for Brentwood.

"We're a very enviably constructed community," he says, noting the proximity to Nose Hill Park, and the schools, library and community pool.

The trick, Osadetz says, is to find ways to preserve the quality of life for existing residents while creating "equitable and complimentary" opportunities for newcomers to join the community.

Farrell points to the need for seniors' housing as another motive for creating new housing options close to transit and shops.

The Brentwood redevelopment, for example, "provides options for the residents of Brentwood who don't want to live in a single family home on a 50-foot lot any longer," she says.

"They'll be able to move within their own neighbourhood, so it's providing housing choice within an ageing community that's losing its population."

Urban philosophy

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is part of the New Urbanism planning philosophy that emphasizes walkable, mixed-use areas to more efficiently use space and transportation infrastructure as well as reduce crime and encourage community.

Northland and Stadium both have development permits, and North Hill could begin the planning phase soon.

The northwest quadrant might have the first major wave of mall makeovers, but Farrell and Donker both see TOD and New Urbanism in general as the path for the future.

"The northeast has tremendous potential," says Farrell, "and communities that need some reinvigoration."

The land banks scattered across the city could look very different in 20 years as we cash them in to invest in the city's future.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.