Seton aims for mini downtown

Solar power has detractors but high-intensity plan earns priase

The phrase “sustainable energy usage” might seem out of place when referring to retail development in the deep south of a sprawling metropolis but the latest project of Brookfield Residential attempts to combine both. The publicly traded company used more than 250 solar panels each composed of 60 monocrystalline silicon solar cells to power the outdoor lighting for both the streets and parking lot in the retail section of Seton (which currently houses Save On Foods Shoppers Drug Mart Bank of Montreal and an assortment of fast-food joints).

“We need to continue to understand emerging technologies” says Garrick Fryklind Brookfield’s commercial construction manager. “Not only what they are and do but how that sustainable energy helps out communities.”

Next on the renewable energy agenda for Seton which is located in the extreme southeast corner of the city is another solar panel system. This time an estimated 450 panels will produce enough electricity to power the parking lot lights of another building.

Solar power isn’t universally celebrated however. Writers such as Ozzie Zehner and James Howard Kunstler have critiqued the technology as being too costly resource-intensive (requiring mining smelting shipping and more) and polluting (manufacturing can create toxic chemicals depending on the cell type) as well as perpetuating — as Zehner writes in Green Illusions — “a productivist mentality.”

Andrew Nikiforuk the Calgary-based author of The Energy of Slaves and Tar Sands notes via email that “using solar energy for lighting in another parking lot is a bit like using nuclear energy to produce bitumen. Renewables should be used to retire fossil fuels: not supplement them with wasteful energy uses.”

However if the use of solar panels doesn’t garner praise there’s another factor that may lend Seton approval from the New Urbanist crowd: it’s positioning itself to be a “second downtown” of sorts. The area has a fully operational hospital and firehall. A Marriot hotel Superstore Cineplex theatre seniors’ residence and high-rise high-density development (1300 condo/apartments) are currently under construction. Future plans include a library recreation centre regional park schools and two LRT stations.

Fryklind notes that all the land east of the Bow River and south of 130th Avenue will potentially house 230000 people — Seton could be the hub.

“The planners of the day began to recognize that we needed to have a sort of secondary downtown in that area where people could work and live and not necessarily have to commute these long distances” Fryklind says.

“Instead they could use public transit or other means of transportation — bicycles walking etc. — to stay within that sector and maybe venture to downtown periodically.”

Francisco Alaniz Uribe an adjunct associate professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of environmental design tentatively agrees noting that Seton has the potential to spread out the amenities and reduce commuting time for some workers.

“Once you reach a certain size of a city you need multiple nodes of activity” says Uribe. “I think right now Calgary is at that point. It’s been there for a few years I would say.

“Calling it another downtown is a bit of a stretch but it would be reasonable to call it another node of high-intensity activity — which means jobs more commercial spaces higher density of residential.”

Seton might not get an LRT station anytime soon due to the cost of the project which the Calgary Transit website pegs at around $2 billion. However city council just committed more than a half-billion dollars over a decade to bus-only lanes to the area which could be transformed into an LRT line by 2029.

Uribe says change in urban policy comes from three sectors: the municipal government industry and citizens. The municipality is already showing some prowess drawing considerable flak from particular developers. Some industrial players such as Brookfield are experimenting too with the solar panels as a prime example. Next Calgarians have to make a move.

“Retrofitting is always much more difficult than just starting from a blank slate” Uribe says. “There needs to be a huge educational component as existing residents will always be a bit worried about what kind of changes will come. It needs to be well consulted and citizens need to be more aware that this city is changing. We can’t remain as we are. We need to intensify these existing communities.”