A mid-rise for Marda Loop

Amodern, mixed-use development proposed for a prominent corner lot in Marda Loop has divided the rapidly densifying community with some claiming its intended six storeys is too high, while others praise its architectural ambition.

RNDSQR says it has been developing in Marda Loop for a decade and, they believe, the site — which is identified in current policy as a gateway site — needs “more than just another mid-rise.”

“It’s the first intersection as you enter Marda Loop, which is the reason we want this development to be interesting; somewhere that people will stop and hang out, a community hub that people can use as a meeting place, a landmark for the community,” RNDSQR owner Alkarim Devani says.

The site, on 33 Avenue Southwest and 22 Street Southwest, is within the Marda Loop Area Redevelopment Plan boundary and, as such, has been earmarked for densification; it is currently zoned for four storeys and houses a seven-plex apartment and two rented single-family homes.

Mr. Devani is hoping to have rezoning approved for the $20-million development, called Courtyard 33, by next spring with construction taking approximately 18 months. It would be his company’s biggest development in the city to date.

“We didn’t set out to create a six-storey building; we set out to create a space that would bring real benefit to the community,” he says. “We feel we have a development here that allows us to ask for greater height and to push the envelope a little more because of that benefit.”

Community engagement efforts, undertaken by Calgary-based CivicWorks Planning + Design, suggest that opinion is divided over the development with those opposed citing the height as their №1 concern, followed by traffic and congestion.

“We’ve looked at the net urban design impacts of moving from a four-storey to a six-storey. We’ve done a shadow study and a traffic impact study — both of which showed no significant impact — and we feel that any small impact is minimal in comparison to what we’re giving back to the community,” Mr. Devani says.

“Currently, there’s one very poor example of a six-storey mid-rise nearby and, as soon as that was approved, policy was amended to reduce the allowed height,” he adds. “But the problem with that building is much greater than the height; it’s the form itself. That development wasn’t viewed as a win for the community and it has become a real challenge for us now. We’re trying to change the community’s perception of density and we’re working with an Area Redevelopment Plan, which isn’t evolving to keep up with architectural progress.”

The third concern raised by local residents was whether the proposed architecture fulfills its ambitions of public engagement and community space.

Designed by Winnipeg-based 5468796 Architecture, the proposed building features a large public courtyard on the first floor, which is framed with commercial space and accessed from street level by a 15-metre-wide Spanish staircase. There are further commercial edges at grade on 33 Avenue Southwest and 22 Street Southwest. Above the courtyard are 70 residential units, ranging from studio to two-bedroom. The courtyard is linked to the rear laneway via another staircase.

Architect Johanna Hurme says the courtyard design is based on multifamily buildings from parts of Europe, where multifamily housing is “a real and sustainable option for lifelong living.”

“I’m originally from Helsinki and my business partner [Sasa Radulovic] is from Sarajevo. These are both cities where the majority of people, families included, live in multifamily buildings. These buildings are often connected via shared courtyards or public space, like a yard,” Ms. Hurme says. “In Helsinki, the yard is a place where kids would forge lifelong friendships and where one’s family extends to include the entire community of the condominium. In fact, in the Finnish language, kids say they’re from the same yard rather than building; that’s how important the space is.”

“It’s intimacy and scale is perhaps rather foreign to Calgary,” she says, “but it is well tested in many other cities.”

Ms. Hurme believes the design of Courtyard 33, which she considers to be “a substantial upgrade to a solid building block,” will help Calgarians become more acquainted with the concept.

“The 15-metre-wide steps ease the transition from the street to the courtyard, providing a place to pause and take in the activity on the street. The steps provide a public amphitheatre to the street and due to their width and larger platforms, where one is invited to sit, they hold a cue that the courtyard above is publicly accessible,” she says.

“The expectation is not for the courtyard to behave like a street, but rather like a semi-public space; a space that is open to the Marda Loop community through its commercial use and public events like movie projections or outdoor yoga. In winter, it could offer a perfect spot for a snow sculpture display, enhanced by a hot-chocolate offering from the commercial unit,” she says. “The large vertical elevator core wall is intended as a canvas for public art, something that could be produced in collaboration with local artists and change over time.”

Community members have expressed worries over the safety of the lane to the rear of the development, concerns that, Ms. Hurme says, have been addressed.

“As a result of the public engagement process and discussion with the City of Calgary planning department, we’ve added three microunits on the laneway at the corner of 22 Street Southwest. This is an attempt to explore the viability of lane activation and offer something other than surface parking to benefit the community. The intended uses would include pop-up shops, artist studios, bike-repair shops or other needs that the immediate community might have,” she says. “It’s a test initiative for us and we’re excited to see how it could work.”

As for the height of the project, Ms. Hurme is a firm believer that six is the magic number when it comes to the number of storeys for mid-rise developments.

“Studies show that the ideal building height to create density and maintain connection to the street is six storeys. Think of Paris, London or Copenhagen, for example, cities that feel very comfortable to walk in, but are a minimum two or three times denser than cities like Calgary,” she says.

“I’m hopeful that pushing the architectural agenda forward in this neighbourhood will have long term benefits to the community and setting a standard that would demand better from other developers in the future as well,” she says.