Business or pleasure?

BRZs have been so successful we think we live there

People often call Kensington “trendy” but if there’s a consensus about this adjective there’s less agreement about the noun — it’s variously referred to as an area a district and a village. It’s less often described in contrast as a neighbourhood since it’s part of Hillhurst-Sunnyside. So why did Fast Forward Weekly readers choose it as the most livable one in Calgary? (We changed it to Hillhurst/Sunnyside.)

It may have something to do with the Kensington BRZ (business revitalization zone). Admittedly “business revitalization zone” isn’t a term used in casual conversation but it’s probably not a coincidence that the choice for third most livable neighbourhood Marda Loop is also a BRZ one that straddles South Calgary and Altadore. (We changed that one as well.)

Calgary got its first BRZ along 17th Avenue S.W. in the Beltline in 1984 and has since become home to nine more. Funded by a special levy added to business taxes and governed by a board comprised of local business owners and the area’s alderman the BRZs give businesses the chance to work together to improve and promote their respective areas.

Although the BRZs themselves may be little known to the average Calgarian the work they’ve done is highly visible. Street festivals such as Marda Loop’s Marda Gras and Kensington’s Sun and Salsa streets lined with hanging baskets and a wide array of shops and services and lively but clean sidewalks create a perception of livability. And marketing says University of Calgary business professor Debi Andrus is all about perception.

“Communities need to pay attention to how their communities are perceived” says Andrus. “What it is that makes a specific community attractive not just to residents but to the people outside.”

Kensington and Marda Loop certainly share many of the qualities commonly associated with livable neighbourhoods. Free of the urban sprawl found elsewhere in Calgary they’re places where shops and services are close to each other and residents in terms of both proximity and relationships.

“We’re in a very walkable livable thriving community” says Marda Loop BRZ’s executive director Michelle Rhode. “We have a number of great shops that you can walk to bike to. A lot of the communities in the area support those businesses which we appreciate especially because a lot of them are independent smaller businesses that offer a really unique shopping experience.”

While you can still find a Starbucks and a Shoppers Drug Mart in both Marda Loop and Kensington there are more obscure offerings as well. There’s an artisanal cheese shop located in the former while the latter plays home to a tea boutique. Indie movies meanwhile are sometimes available on screen at Kensington’s Plaza Theatre and for rent at Marda Loop’s Casablanca video. Some call this trendy or less charitably yuppy. But the Kensington BRZ’s executive director Annie MacInnis prefers another term.

“Kensington it’s a cool place to hang out. It’s very eclectic. And I think we have a real good mix of businesses and services there.”

Hanging out in Kensington of course costs far less than living there. Like Marda Loop it’s experienced considerable gentrification in recent decades raising concerns about a lack of affordable housing. MacInnis acknowledges Kensington’s a more costly place to live than suburbia but maintains one has to look at both sides of the balance sheet.

“There’s advantages and disadvantages to living inner city. You are going to pay a little bit more for maybe for the place where you live but you’re going to pay less for gas and you’re going to have the convenience of just a vibrant neighbourhood around you. And everything’s close everywhere is just one transit or bus ride away if it’s not walking distance.”

Indeed it’s hard to think of any essential ingredient of a neighbourhood that either Kensington or Marda Loop lacks except that they’re not labelled as such on a map; and it’s easy to think of places called neighbourhoods that lack many of the features they contain. But Rhode for one isn’t going to brag about Marda Loop’s success. All of Calgary’s BRZs in her eyes have helped create livable neighbourhoods.

“I think that as Calgary continues to grow these core areas are maintained by these BRZs” says Rhode “the business zone anyway. We do all work very closely with our community associations we wouldn’t survive without them. We’re doing our best to enhance the streetscape and make it a very positive shopping experience and a place to live and work.”