Around the world in 35 blocks
By Daina Lawrence
Published: August 25 2007 01:19 | Last updated: August 25 2007 01:19
Calgary's Forest Lawn district used to be a town in its own right before it was annexed by the city, now Canada's fifth largest, in 1961.
Perhaps as a result it still has the feeling of being cut-off from the hustle and bustle of other neighbourhoods, with a small-town style of living and also, for many decades, a less-than-salubrious reputation. But desperation in Calgary's residential property market - in the past 18 months, average housing costs have jumped more than 50 per cent - is causing a change in attitude. Forest Lawn is now regarded not as a sketchy area on the outskirts but as one of the last places in the city limits where young families can buy a starter home.
Stretching just over 35 blocks south-east of Calgary's core, the area offers not only low prices but also views of the downtown skyline and the neighbouring Rocky Mountains. Developers have started to move in, while local businesses gear up to cater for new residents.
Megan Halle, a 23-year-old manager at a popular wireless communications store, is an example of the type of young professional venturing the 15 minutes outside Calgary's downtown to buy a home in Forest Lawn. Two years ago she paid C$128,000 (£60,800) for a 1,000 sq ft, two-bedroom condominium with vaulted ceilings and a fireplace. "For the same type of place in one of the more popular areas I would have paid three times as much," she says.
Halle grew up in Forest Lawn and says she has seen a lot of changes, the majority for the better. "I just like it because everyone is friendly, it's trendy and it is close to everything I need," she says.
Some of her childhood friends are now envious that she has a foothold in the old neighbourhood. "They are kicking themselves because they had these properties here that they sold and are now worth three or four times as much as they bought them for."
Many newcomers to Forest Lawn admit that they ended up there because they couldn't afford anywhere else. But most have found it a pleasant place to live and are excited by recent improvements. Purchases made only a few years ago have been a sound investment. In Halle's building, for example, condos are now worth about C$290,000 thanks in part to the fact that a new development of 90 units is rising right behind it.
The "main drag" of Forest Lawn is International Avenue, also known as 17th Avenue SE. Local groups have been working for years with residents and developers to turn this strip of highway into one of the premier streets in Calgary. And, according to Alison Karim-McSwiney, who works for the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone (BRZ), a group of local businesspeople dedicated to improving the area, those efforts are starting to bear fruit.
ZR Auto, a dealership selling sleek, high-octane, Porsches and Lamborghinis with lofty price tags, is just one of the high-end businesses now on International Avenue, though there is still a pawn shop a few hundred feet away. The area's many ethnic food shops and markets - Forest Lawn was traditionally the first stop for immigrants arriving in Calgary - are now also a draw, with a bus tour of them entitled "Around the World in 35 Blocks" sold out months in advance.
Any day of the week, city dwellers and tourists can also be seen perusing the more than 400 shops that line the avenue and, because there is plenty of parking, business is booming.
Forest Lawn's homey feel is reinforced by the art that lines its main street. This summer local teenagers participated in an initiative called Images for Action, which involved painting the neighbourhood garbage cans with elaborate anti-litter slogans and images. The eye-pleasing results can now be seen outside several of the area's businesses, which "adopted" the cans upon the project's completion.
Walking along International Avenue passers-by are also greeted by eight mammoth murals depicting the cultural distinctiveness of the area. Measuring 20ft wide and 8ft tall, each image was painted by members of an ethnic group from the neighbourhood with faces and scenes illustrating the community's history.
Working with the city and the University of Calgary, the BRZ has developed a design initiative further to improve the look of the street and to encourage redevelopment. "We are going to pretty it up," Karim-McSwiney explains. "We have such an opportunity here and we are making every effort to take advantage of it and bring people to Forest Lawn."
"I think what is so exciting about this area, it does have pretty much every culture represented," says Karim-McSwiney.
Calgarians are known for their outdoorsy ways and Forest Lawn also offers easy access to green space. Elliston Park, situated just off 17th Avenue SE, has a multitude of bike trails that weave through the neighbourhood and also offer access to downtown.
The biggest draw is still affordability, however, helped by an ample supply of homes. "There were a lot of houses for rent in Forest Lawn and I think that, when the market picked up, a lot of landlords realised the benefit in selling," says Tammy Pomper, manager at the Forest Lawn branch of TD Canada Trust, the bank.
The older homes, built decades ago, tend to be small stucco or brick bungalows and many still look sad and run-down, reinforcing the image that the area is trying to shake off. But these properties are now greatly overshadowed by the new homes and condo buildings rising around its streets. Bruce Hall, senior vice president of Cedarglen Homes, says that Forest Lawn is particularly attractive to developers since its sites are classified as "infill" - meaning infrastructure and amenities, such as roads and shops, are already in place, which urban sprawl opponents like - but there is still so much prime vacant property available. Forest Lawn is "the exception to the rule" in Calgary, he says. "Normally you don't have these types of pockets come available unless the areas behind it are infilled," he says. "These types of sites are extremely rare."
When Hall put the first third of his latest project - 42 residences - on the market a few months ago all sold in a weekend. The second batch, released only a few weeks later than the first but priced at a C$40,000 premium, was snapped up just as quickly. Hall expects to put the third group on sale in September at prices from C$500,000 to C$800,000, depending on the size and amenities requested by the buyer. "The early bird gets the worm," he says.
He notes that Cedarglen is targetting two distinct types of buyers: families looking for "bread-and-butter" accommodation, including "a big kitchen and hardwood floors", and singletons and couples looking for modern apartments full of "granite and natural products ringed on a park or with mountain/downtown views".
Pomper, whose in-laws have lived in Forest Lawn for more than 45 years, says she expects many more people to move to the area in the next few years and to switch from renting to owning as Calgary house prices rise. "If you can afford C$1,200 a month in rent you can afford C$1,200 a month on a 40- year mortgage," she says.
She also thinks Forest Lawn can easily overcome its old reputation. Most of the residents she knows are proud to live there and have never had a problem with failing services or crime. "My kids grew up here," she says.
Local resident Victor Lutes agrees. He built his house in Forest Lawn 50 years ago and, while he acknowledges the area is still in need of some revitalisation, "It's no tougher here than any other part of Calgary," he says.