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Marda Loop: Diving into densification

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If there’s an area of Calgary that demonstrates the rapid pace of redevelopment in the inner city, it’s probably Marda Loop.

Though not a designated neighbourhood, residents in and out of the Marda Loop Communities Association will often refer to the area by this name more frequently than they do the neighbourhoods within its borders: Altadore, South Calgary, Garrison Woods, and River Park.

The name Marda Loop is derived from two parts. The first half comes from the moniker of the local theatre, “The Marda,” which is itself derived from a combination of co-owners Marc and Mada Jenkins’ names.

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The second half comes from a bygone era when Calgary used streetcars. The No. 7 traversed a loop around 14 Street and 34 Avenue SW. The oil boom in the late 1940s helped usher in the change to buses, though the No. 7 designation remains in use.

That ongoing evolution continues today, as Marda Loop undergoes a major re-development that city officials said is all part of a bigger strategy aimed at spurring densification and development in planned corridors.

Calgary’s compact urban area plan

A section of the City of Calgary’s 2018 Monitoring Progress Report on the Municipal Development Plan/Calgary Transportation Plan on “Compact Urban Area and Complete Communities” lays out the objectives of the strategy:

  • Create transit-supportive, mixed-use Activity Centres and Main Streets
  • Optimize population and job growth close to transit
  • Foster distinctive, complete communities
  • Support strong, stable neighbourhoods, sensitive infill and redevelopment

Other identified corridors in the plan include Kensington Road, Inglewood’s 9 Avenue SE., and Mission’s 4 Street SW. The plan was approved by Council in 2009.

A look back in Google Streetview’s archive from 2007 compared to a photo in the same spot July 29 confirms that residential densification is active in the area, with multiple low-rise structures dominating the main Marda Loop corridor of 33 Avenue SW.

Data from the City of Calgary’s geodemographics team that captures the area of 33 and 34 Avenues SW shows an increase of 292 residential units between 2008 to 2018 (1528 units to 1820). According to the same data, that’s a density increase in units per hectare of 31.8 to 37.9.

Google Streetview archive image from 2007 of the same 33 Avenue SW shown above. GOOGLE

Mark Sasges, a coordinator, Community Planning at the City of Calgary, said the policy aims to utilize existing infrastructure as part of redevelopment.

“It’s existing public infrastructure – schools, parks, utilities, transit,” said Sasges.

“It’s about ability to tie into existing roads, existing facilities, the things that you need to connect a new residential or commercial building to.”

Sasges added that this does translate into multi-story low-rise structures, but also means making use of end-lot configurations that maximize the usage of neighbourhood space.

Marda Loop growth is good: BIA

For developers and business owners in these areas, that’s all good news, according to Bob van Wegen, the Executive Director at Marda Loop Business Improvement Area.

“We’re supportive of the development of Marda Loop and having more people live in the area,” he said.

“In terms of the commercial development, we have a lot of gaps to fill in the business district. We’d like to make it an even better, pedestrian-oriented shopping district.”

van Wegen said that the City and his organization have worked in tandem on the strategic policy.

“We’ve been advocating for re-investment in the area,” he said.

“We work very hard to make sure that the money from Mainstreets remains in the City’s budget so we can begin to realize those plans.”

The city has also been working with established community developers around a potential long-term funding mechanism that fosters further densification in areas like Marda Loop and other inner-city neighbourhoods.

But in these communities, many sub-surface costs are hidden until a developer gets into the ground. That’s when additional costs could be triggered to deal with infrastructure that needs a capacity upgrade to accommodate additional density. Some developers are looking for help in mitigating those unforeseen costs.

Densification ensures ongoing population growth: Coun. Woolley

For Coun. Evan Woolley, whose ward boundaries include the Marda Loop area, multi-resident units and densification are a vital part of ensuring population growth. Woolley said that multi-unit residential developments are one way of accommodating smaller families within a specific area.

“Family sizes are smaller,” said Woolley.

“The family size in the sixties was much larger. In order to get back population, you need significantly more units, plus growth on top of that.”

Woolley also said that densification is an important part of dealing with the city’s ongoing tax woes.

He said he’s a champion of the Mainstreets strategy as a means to create a larger tax base to reduce the property tax burden on Calgarians.

“We need to make investments in things that create tax base without us having to make infrastructure investments,” said Woolley.

“The more that we increase tax base, that means less property tax for everyone.”

Woolley said he recognizes that the changing face of Calgary neighbourhoods may be of concern to some, but he believes that redevelopment and cultural identity don’t have to work in opposition.

“We need to embrace change without losing those things that we love about our neighbourhoods,” said Woolley.

“A lot of people couch it an ‘either-or’ term, and we don’t have to. We can have both.”