Home Profiles University District is Calgary’s Next Urban Village

University District is Calgary’s Next Urban Village

James Robertson, president and CEO of West Campus Development Trust. Photo by Riverwood Photography.

Shakespeare famously asked ‘What’s in a name?’, and in the case of West Campus Development Trust, it contains everything you need to know about this innovative undertaking. Situated west of the University of Calgary’s main campus is a development that is creating an exciting urban village in a coveted part of town. But for James Robertson, president and CEO of West Campus Development Trust, it’s that last word in the name that speaks volumes about the project and the responsibility inherent in bringing the University District’s vision to life.

“The Trust was established by the University of Calgary in 2012 to develop some surplus lands. It was important for the university to make sure that the development and the activities of the development organization were conducted in a manner that befitted the University of Calgary, hence the Trust,” Robertson says. “They trust us to do it in the right way and we have a great volunteer board with significant experience and expertise that has helped guide us through the process.”

Just what the right way of doing things is has been carefully explored in order to create a development that both serves Calgarians and honours the university’s intentions for the land. While the University of Calgary owns the land and will benefit financially from the development, the Trust operates completely independently of the university. It is the sole responsibility of the Trust to infuse the area with a sense of community, attract retail and commercial businesses to set up shop there, and provide diverse housing options. What it has delivered goes far beyond that. It has generated a truly walkable community in the heart of the northwest that is as attractive for businesses as it is for homebuyers.

The Next Urban Village
University District is on its way to becoming an iconic destination community. University Avenue is akin to 4th Street in Mission, 9th Avenue in Inglewood, Kensington Road in Kensington and 33rd Avenue in Marda Loop. Like these streets, University Avenue will be a place where Calgarians want to gather to socialize, work and live.

“In real estate there’s an expression ‘location, location, location.’ We have it. We didn’t create it but it is our responsibility to make sure we maximize the potential of the location,” says Robertson.

The location is prime, and the Trust is tasked with developing the 200 acres that fall on the west side of the University of Calgary campus bordered by 32nd Avenue on the north, 16th Avenue on the south and Shaganappi Trail on the west. Within this area are a myriad of existing amenities including the Active Living recreational facilities and the Olympic Oval at the University of Calgary, the Alberta Children’s Hospital and Market Mall located just across the street.
“There’s not much that’s not already here other than really a place to live in a walkable community, and it’s our job to fill in the gaps,” he says.

Filling in the Gaps
Each of these gaps has been carefully considered and deliberately filled. It was important amenities be included before people began moving into the community. Despite being sparsely populated, U/D is already serviced by Calgary Transit, and the Trust built parks and a playground before the first 200 units were occupied so residents would have immediate access to these beautiful community spaces.

There are more than 7,000 housing units planned for the area over the next 10 to 12 years, and among the residential developments will be about 1.5 million square feet of office space and around 300,000 square feet of retail space. Unlike other developments that wait until the residential spaces are closer to completion to fill the retail spaces, University District is bringing in businesses in the summer of 2020.

“The Trust will own all the retail because we think there is a longer-term financial return to the university but it also allows us to curate the tenant mix in a way that aligns with the vision for the community,” Robertson says.

The Business of U/D
The first tenant signed on for the community was the most important to achieving the objective of a truly walkable urban village: a grocery store. It was also the most challenging. Most grocery stores don’t move in until communities are complete and occupied, but the Trust worked out an agreement with Save-On-Foods to open in summer 2020. On top of this prime retailer, the Trust has attracted great Calgary brands including Analog Coffee, Market Wines and OEB Breakfast Co.

The Trust also wanted to promote a healthy lifestyle so it brought in Orangetheory Fitness and YYC Cycle to complement the University of Calgary’s first-rate fitness offerings.

This first stage of retail includes a Scotiabank, various restaurants, a dental office, a salon and barbershop as well as a 24-hour daycare centre. In addition, the Germain group is opening its boutique 15-storey Alt Hotel, which will include a café and restaurant.

The Trust is striving to provide a community that residents never have to – or want to – leave, having all of their entertainment, health and recreational needs only a short walk away.

“It’s a big statement for us to say it’s a walkable community, and a livable community means you have to be able to get the things you need for day-to-day life. While we’re all unique we have some pretty standardized practices – coffee, wine, breakfast, exercise and groceries are all things we access on a daily basis, so those were really important pieces for us,” Robertson says.

The first of four retail stages consist of approximately 87,000 square feet of space and represents a wide range of businesses. The second stage, opening in 2021, will include attractive amenities including a VIP five-screen Cineplex movie theatre. With the incredible amenities and retail, University District is a homebuyer’s dream come true.

Living in U/D
From young professionals working in one of the 30,000 jobs in the area to empty nesters downsizing their homes to seniors who no longer want to maintain a house, U/D has the perfect living space for every stage, lifestyle and esthetic taste. The community currently has multiple projects for sale that include small, medium and full-sized town homes and a variety of condominium offerings. Brookfield Residential is offering Calgarians an incredible urban feel that meets every need with its one- and two-bedroom condos ranging from 540 to over 1,000 square feet as well as unique estate-level two- and three-bedroom units. These single-level luxury residences boast between 1,300 and 2,000 square feet of living space, semi-private elevators and attached garages. Buyers can customize the space to their tastes and lifestyles, and enjoy a large footprint without the stairs.

“It’s a very unique product offering that I think is going to do very well. It has already been well received in the marketplace,” Robertson says.

Calgary’s top builders have been integral in making University District a desirable place to live. Truman Homes, Brookfield Residential and Avi Urban offer a wide selection of floor plans and design options in their beautiful condos and town homes. For Calgarians not ready or interested in purchasing a home, Gracorp is developing a 288-unit rental complex called Rhapsody in the heart of the community. With one-, two- and three-bedroom units ranging from 529 to 1,149 square feet, an in-suite washer and dryer, and easy access to all the amenities in the district including the grocery store located on its ground floor, this pet-friendly development has something for everyone. Residents will begin moving in to Rhapsody in summer 2020.

University District strives to serve all Calgarians, from first-time renters to seniors who need some assistance. To fulfil this objective, the development has paid special attention to the needs of the city’s seniors.

“You just have to look at the population in the 55 to 70 category to see that as their housing needs change, we don’t have the right supply so we’re going to be challenged to find suitable places for people to live. How do you do that? I think places like University District do that,” says Robertson.

University District features a senior’s independent living residence called Maple and a senior’s facility called Cambridge Manor at the gateway into the community. Having senior’s residences integrated into U/D is key to helping keep seniors engaged and involved in their communities. The two buildings are linked by a plus-30 to allow residents to easily access the programs and amenities offered in both buildings.

These residences allow seniors to age in place, offering à la carte services to ensure seniors receive the level of assistance they need when they need it. Many mature Calgarians acknowledge that with different stages of life comes different needs, and living in the same house for 50 years doesn’t necessarily meet those needs. More and more, people are adapting their living arrangements to those life stages, and developers need to be equally flexible and adaptable.

“Instead of trying to tell people what they want, listen to them and understand what they need and figure out a way to provide it,” he says.

The way West Campus Development Trust has provided what people want has been through collaboration and innovative approaches to development right from its inception.

Leaders in the Field
The first university-related real estate trust in Canada was created by UBC 25 years ago, and the University of Calgary became the first in Alberta to apply the model. It tapped into the potential of the land in an innovative way that didn’t require any human resources or financial investment from the university. The Trust has been self-sustaining since the start, and over the past several years the success of the system has generated interest from other universities to do the same.

“The University of Calgary has shown significant leadership to say this doesn’t just work in a Vancouver real estate market, it can work anywhere. Our success in a very challenged Calgary marketplace is testament to that,” Robertson says.

Its success also came from its approach to development, which involved a great deal of consultation and discussion with its various stakeholders. From the members of the established communities surrounding U/D to the university population to the City of Calgary, the Trust listened to what stakeholders wanted, what they didn’t want and what concerned them about the development in order to deliver a plan that considered every side. Instead of approaching it as a development, the Trust thought about it as a community. To be community builders they needed to be respectful of all stakeholders and accommodate them as best they could. The Trust created a vision of a mixed-use, higher-density walkable community that set a high bar for both design and functionality, and working closely with stakeholders to realize that vision has contributed to its success.

The vision and its execution are unique in the industry and people are taking notice. University District was named New Community Development of the year by BILD Alberta in 2018, which is an honour for the developer and a sign to homebuyers that there is something exceptional happening in the community.

West Campus Development Trust has been guided by its three-pronged accountability mandate – environmental sustainability, social responsibility and fiscal prudence. The development focuses significantly on sustainability, which led to University District earning LEED ND Platinum certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighbourhood Development). It is the first in Alberta, the third in Canada and 13th in North America to achieve this rating. It is the largest in Canadian history to date.

“The Trust focused on creating thoughtfully-designed pathways and green spaces with accessibility in mind to create a truly ‘feet first’ community that would draw people out of their cars,” he says.

With the plethora of amenities right outside residents’ doors, they don’t need to use their vehicles to get groceries, go to the gym, have a night out with friends and in many cases to get to work. It’s a huge sustainability win for the community.

The social responsibility prong is achieved by purposefully ensuring that a range of housing options are provided that promote aging-in-place to occur throughout the development. The Trust is prudent with financial resources, vowing to be ‘leading edge not bleeding edge’ ensuring that the university benefits in the long run.
Looking Ahead
All of that hard work and planning has paid off. Despite the sluggish market conditions, University District has been one of the leading communities for rate of sale since it started selling units two years ago. With the wide array of retail and the full spectrum of residential styles and sizes on offer from the most reputable builders in Calgary, homebuyers are excited about the opportunity to move into the community. And as phases complete and more retailers, offices and residents move in over the next several years, University District will become the heartbeat of the northwest.

“I think people are going to move more and more toward this type of development,” says James Robertson. “We really are Calgary’s next urban village.”