Brookfield Residential senior manager of strategic initiatives Grace Lui said it can take some communities in Calgary decades before the first residents move in. Photo by Michelle Hofer/For CREB®Now

From soup to nuts

Behind-the-scene details of how communities in Calgary come to life

For casual observers, it might appear that new neighbourhoods just sprout from the ground overnight.

In fact, those first show homes only come after years of planning and negotiation.

“When people see the graders out there, people think that’s the start of a community, but it starts long before,” said Brookfield Residential senior manager of strategic initiatives Grace Lui.

In the case of Brookfield’s up-and-coming Livingston development in north Calgary, for example, grading might have started this year, but land acquisition took place 15 years ago. The new community, which will be comprised of 10,000 homes on 514 hectares of land just north of Stoney Trail, will welcome its first show homes in 2017.

Much of the behind-the-scene work on new communities is taken up by developing area structure plans (ASPs) and working with stakeholders like the City of Calgary to come up with a workable design and infrastructure, said Lui.

Greenfield development is the most complicated form of neighbourhood to create because of the scope of approvals and other considerations, said Guy Huntingford, CEO of the Urban Development Institute (UDI), a partner with the Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA) – Calgary Region in the Smarter Growth initiative, which compiles information on the nuts and bolts of municipal development. The two organizations are currently working on From Dirt to Door, a booklet on what it takes to create a new community.

As of April 2015, the City had capacity to add 206,500 housing units (equivalent to 565,400 people) on land under approved ASPs.

“There’s the amount of risk you take when you buy that piece of dirt. You have to imagine you’re looking 15 to 20 years down the road sometimes,” said Huntingford.

“There’s a misconception that it’s just easy to buy a piece of land and get it developed. You have to decide when the market is right. Until it’s right, there’s no point moving forward; you might plan to build X and the market changes and you build Y, instead.”

Developers also have to gauge how much land will actually be available for lots and homes – the stuff that generates revenue.

“If you have a (piece) of land, odds are you’ll lose 30 to 40 per cent of it to environmental reserve, roads, schools, etc.,” said Huntingford. “The actual developable land to put up homes is a much smaller footprint.”

The City of Calgary’s Suburban Residential Growth report for 2015-2019 indicates there’s 17 to 18 years of “planned land supply,” yet only four-five years of actual “serviced supply” – land with infrastructure ready to go.

As of April 2015, the City had capacity to add 206,500 housing units (equivalent to 565,400 people) on land under approved ASPs. Take away unserviced and unsubdivided land, however, and that total drops to 16,521 total units (population capacity 42,500 at full build-out) available on fully serviced, subdivided land.

City of Calgary senior planning specialist Decker Shields estimates about 8,078 hectares of residential land are currently under various ASPs, up from about 5,800 last year. That total includes future areas such as Glacier Ridge in the north, Haskayne in the northwest and Providence in the southwest.

Lui argued if the time between first concept to first show home was less, home prices might actually go down.

“We understand there needs to be enough attention to make sure we have thoughtful design, but I would suggest the shorter the time frame we can make that front part, the more certainty we can ascribe to (the development) and the less expensive housing ends up being,” she said.

“If you have to be planning that far ahead, it’s just escalating the price of what gets brought to market … or for the time spent, you’re not always increasing the value.”

Lui is hopeful the City will work on shortening the process in 2016, “and we’re happy to work alongside them.”

Huntingford said Smarter Growth’s From Dirt to Door document should be out this spring. Previous Smarter Growth Initiative documents can be found at www.smartergrowth.ca.

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