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The redevelopment process for the Viscount Bennett School site begins

It’s still very early days for an 11.49-acre development at the site of the Viscount Bennett School in southwest Calgary, but the intrigue is beginning to burble under the surface.  

Minto Communities submitted a new land-use redesignation for their project – 2501 Richmond, the official street address of the mostly vacant site along Crowchild Trail – on Nov. 15, after purchasing the remnant land from the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) in May 2023.

The Viscount Bennett School opened in the 1950s as a junior and senior high school before closing in the 1980s. It later continued as a continuing education centre and Chinook Learning Services for the CBE until it was permanently closed in 2018.

Greg Mills, president, Minto Communities – Western Canada, said he drives by the site all the time, and he’s proud that they’re going to have a crack at revitalizing the area and removing the building that’s become a neighbourhood eyesore.

There are a lot of things that appealed to Mills about the site, not least of which is how close it is to a major transportation node, including the BRT along Crowchild.

“First and foremost, it’s really tough to find a site that you can plan out a master community on in the inner city,” he said.

“This site is a big site; you drive by on Crowchild, and you may not appreciate how big the site is, actually, but it’s like 11-and-a-half acres and that’s a lot of land. So, it takes some special planning.”

While they’re just at the land-use redesignation stage, Mills said they envision up to 2,500 units, with an eye on hitting a variety of size needs – from studios to multiple-bedroom homes – that meet a variety of budgets. Mills also said that they believe there’s a potential needs for seniors’ housing in the area.

“What was great about this site – it makes me so excited – we’ve got the ability to do that here,” Mills said.

Richmond CA Slide Deck Nov 14 2023 Updated Nov 13 2023 OPT 1 by Darren Krause on Scribd

Special planning is required

The Viscount Bennett School site was carved out of the Westbrook LAP as a special study area. That meant it required further work to determine the best use for the area, and greater community engagement.

The land use for the area right now is R-C1 (single family, low density) and the idea is to change that to allow for much greater density.  The land hasn’t been given an urban form category, according to the Westbrook LAP, or a scale modifier, as the future of the site was undetermined.

Minto is holding public information sessions in the coming weeks to gather community input on their plans.  There is a virtual session on Nov. 29 from 6 to 8 p.m. There’s also an in-person information session being held on Nov. 30, the website shows, but are asking people to sign up for registered time slots.  

Mills said they’ve already been meeting with community members about the project. Richmond / Knob Hill Community Association has a site set up to document the Viscount Bennett development journey for the community.

“Our planning group said last night that we will respond to every individual question verbatim,” he said.  

“Whether people like the answer or not, I don’t know. But we are going to respond to all the questions.”

The former Viscount Bennett School (left) is set to be redeveloped into multi-unit homes and green space in the community of Richmond. November 15, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Some of the questions posed by the community involve the protection of the green space in the area. In an Oct. 23 update, the community outlined some of their primary concerns. Of the nearly 12 acres, nine are included in the community’s greenspace count – 25 per cent of the community’s allotment. They want to ensure space is kept, especially with more people expected in the area – including a toboggan hill in the southwest corner of the site.

The residents even suggested the use of greenspace at Crowchild and 33 Avenue SW, owned currently by the City of Calgary’s Transportation unit.

Mills did say their preliminary designs show 40 per cent of the site would be kept as green space in the area.

Community members are also concerned about site access, and direct control zoning, which would allow for specific control of building heights, density and parkland.

High-density community

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said it’s tough to find such a big site in the inner city that would allow for a comprehensive development. Most of the time you find a pocket here and a pocket there, he said.

“I think it’s a great news story that we’re finally actually looking at this massive leftover school site and trying to put some people there and kind of trying to turn it into something that’s got such potential to be something cool versus being an abandoned school site at the moment,” he said.

“That part is really exciting.”

The Viscount Bennett location is along major transit corridors in Calgary. SCREENSHOT / RICHMOND 2501

Walcott said community input was going to be critical for the success of this project. With that said, he also recognized that in an area predominantly made up of single-detached homes, there’s going to be some major hurdles to jump.

“The question is always whether or not the concessions provided, or the compromises made, is enough,” he said.

“That’s a reality that is often with any type of larger developments. It’s never going to be exactly what anybody wants.”

He also mentioned traffic in the area. Richmond Road isn’t the best street to handle the potential increased volume of cars, Walcott said. The community pegged a Richmond Road redesign as one of their offsite concerns – particularly from 29 Street to Crowchild Trail.

Walcott said while the city likely won’t mandate it, he expects part of the development will have an affordability component to it. He did say the city in encouraging that type of inclusion in many new developments.

Mills said offering non-market homes was in the conversation. He pointed to a program like Attainable Homes, as an example.

Several-year build-out

Walcott said he was going to hold off on sharing his vision for the area until he sees the project concepts later in November. He said he’s excited to hear what the community has to say, and further how the development evolves after residents weigh in.

“I think that the community has been very aware that something like this was going to happen,” he said, noting some restlessness over what a potential plan might look like, given its special study area status.

“I think there’s been a concern and an expectation and curiosity of what the intention is, and I look forward to hearing about how people react to what they see.”

Mills said they’ve currently eyed up a seven-year build-out from the south part of the site to the north. That’s all dependent on market demand, the approvals process, and how they design the phasing.  He said the spine of the infrastructure could go in earlier – greenspaces, pathways and integration with the area.

Right now, Minto has begun early-stage site prep; there’s signage with security information and hazards at the location. Playground equipment deemed unsafe has been removed and most of the windows have been securely boarded up. There’s also a full-time security presence, including cameras. Streetlights have been repaired and overgrown landscaping has been cut back for safety.

It’s just the start of a years-long effort.

“I think we’ve got a long process with the community to go through, and the city specifically,” Mills said.

“I think they’re excited that something’s happening there. We haven’t heard the feedback whether they think it’s good or bad, but we’ll hear in a couple of weeks in open houses.”