Calgary·Opinion

Oh ya?! Says you! Or, how Calgary's development system leads to conflict

How drawn-out debate and disagreement can lead to higher home prices. Richard White on the struggles between neighbours, city officials and developers as they try to hash out a vision for Calgary.

Rethinking our approach to redevelopment

Navigating the redevelopment process in Calgary can be exhausting for community leaders, residents, developers and city planners alike, even when everyone enters the discussions with the best of intentions, writes Richard White. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Have you ever driven into an inner-city neighbourhood and thought, "Wow, I'd like to live here?"

All the trees create a nice canopy. There's a nice mix of housing styles, old and new. Everything looks well thought out, with parks, playgrounds and even some neighbourhood stores. 

The city's vision is to infill our older communities with new housing options and more shops and services that will attract hundreds of thousands of Calgarians to live in existing communities, rather than creating more far-flung suburbs.

There is, though, a big hurdle that our city needs to get over.

It's the Area Redevelopment Plan. Also known as an ARP.

The ARP is a master plan for your neighbourhood. It's the agreement that your community (or a group of neighbouring communities), the city and developers share on what should, and perhaps more significantly, shouldn't, happen in your community. Not every neighbourhood has one, but many do. And those that don't have something similar. 

Not everybody wants to see a four-storey condo in their backyard. Or a 10-storey building with restaurants, pubs and shops at street level, bringing more traffic in front of their house. No, no. We like our community just the way it is, thank you very much.

A non-profit has applied to rezone the land so that a multi-residential complex with an affordable home ownership program can be built there. 0:31

Trouble is, communities change. Times change. Expectations and living patterns change. Our rather famously unwalkable city is growing, and different people want different things in their neighbourhoods.

But many of Calgary's ARPs and community development plans are matters of great debate — and even when everyone enters into the discussions with the best of intentions, those plans can put people into opposition with each other.

The various visions

There are currently about 44 Area Redevelopment Plans in Calgary. But it doesn't stop there.

There are also a number of non-statutory local policy plans in different neighbourhoods. These go by names like design briefs, master plans and area structure plans. Add 'em all up and factor in ARPs, and you find we have something like a hundred "visions" for our city, all of which have to be reconciled with each other. But for now, I'll stick to ARPs.

ARPs, like this one for the East Village, outline different land use designations for the neighbourhood and can restrict building height and design. (City of Calgary)

I spoke about all this with David White (no relation) at CivicWorks, an urban planning consulting firm that specializes in advising developers how to work with the city and community to get projects approved. He described some of the frustrations.

"Dated ARPs are often littered with aggressive and limiting policies," he said.

Such policies, he added, can dictate everything from building height to population density, and even include "bizarre one-off rules about setbacks and materials palettes that don't match any of the contemporary city-wide policy and bylaws."

"These ARP policies can wreak havoc on best practice design and even current building standards, and this can negatively impact a site's pro forma to [the] point of leaving some projects and sites unbuildable," White said.

"Armed with their 15-year-old ARPs, communities will sometimes do battle with developers all the way to the Subdivision Appeal Board over an ARP rule relaxation of only three or four feet."

The SDAB approved the Inglewood project that was a few metres over the approved ARP height. But this example shows the complexity and nuance of the process.

So, we have plans on top of plans. Some are out of date; some just aren't workable. And every time we go to build something, the process of communication and consultation gets complicated.

This can lead to acrimony.

And as we all know, there's nowhere for acrimony like twitter.

Go tweet yourself

Let's look at one example from Twitter in November of last year. A bit of a dust up. 

Community leaders Erin Joslin (Ramsay Community Association) and Ali McMillan (Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association) and Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra all aired their frustrations around the city's attempt to update some outdated ARPs. We're coming halfway through the conversation here, but it'll give you an idea.

Ali McMillan tweeted to Carra and others, writing, "Then stop telling me how to feel and how to lead and listen when we say it's not working right now and we are frustrated. I'm not debating. I'm not criticizing you. I'm telling you how we feel right now at this time and place."

Carra responded "Ali, you're a community leader. You signed up, eyes wide open, for piloting this ARP process. It's frustrating as hell. I get that. But saying you're jaded means that you're hopeless about the possibility of getting to where we're trying to get. That's not a leadership position."

Then Joslin wrote, "But what if I feel similar leading @ramsaycalgary ARP process? I think this conversation highlights what we (community leaders) have been trying to say. We want to do great work, but feel like our time and effort is getting nowhere."

Tense.

There was a lot more back and forth. People trying to reach mutual accord. Later, the city appointed a third party to help facilitate. Things got better. And then, just a few days ago, Ramsay was wrapped into the Historic East Calgary ARP — which includes Inglewood. Complicated process.

And this illustrates why the system needs to be streamlined. 

To do that, we need to look at the complaints of community leaders, city officials and developers.

The issues

From the developer standpoint, time is money. And community consultation can go from a nice way to get local "buy-in" on a project, to a money pit.

It currently takes years to get an inner-city project approved, even when it fits with the city's master plan (Municipal Development Plan) for future growth and development. There is the time spent getting interpretations of policies from city planners, then input from the community and then council approval. But even when all of that is secured, many projects are then appealed to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board, which causes further delays and costs.

A sign advertises this property to potential investors as having already been approved for multi-residential development. (Richard White)

This costs developers, but guess who pays in the long run. It is not rocket science to realize the longer it takes for a project to get approved the more expensive buying an inner-city home will be.

I reached out to Alkarim Devani with RNDSQR, a development company, to get his take.

He said his main frustration comes when a developer proposes a project that fits closely with the city's Municipal Development Plan and local ARP, but then the community pressures city council and administration to make changes that just aren't feasible — typically calling for a smaller building with fewer homes. Guess what that means? Yes, higher selling prices for the new homes.

"The developer has to spend a tremendous amount of time and money engaging the community to try and get them onside," he said. "City leaders sometimes just need to make decisions that may not represent views expressed by the loud minority of citizens."

A map showing part of the area redevelopment plan for Inglewood and Ramsay. (City of Calgary)

I know a lot of developers who think the same way, but many are hesitant to criticize city administration or councillors, as they fear that it might slow down the approval of their current project or future projects. Developers need to maintain a good working relationship with city planners and council members. And as we all know, not everyone takes constructive criticism well. 

But while we are all in this together, there are a myriad of reasons projects in our city lag, or stall or get scrapped. 

Devani's newest project is Courtyard 33 in Marda Loop. After two years of community consultation, the developer could not get the community onside. Why? You guessed it. A problem with how the project doesn't fit exactly with the ARP.

And look at Chinatown.

For the past three years, the Chinatown community couldn't get onside with the city and the developer on a design for the conversion of a surface parking lot into two residential towers and a hotel.  

As many as 150 protesters marched to City Hall in December 2016 to oppose a contentious plan to replace a parking lot in Chinatown with several high-rise towers. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

And Inglewood.

Recently some members of the local community actually took to the street, protesting the development of the 16-storey The Grid project, located on a large site of a shuttered gas station right on a Bus Rapid Transit route.

This is what the city's master plan for growth wants to see — higher density development along our transit corridors, where people have the option of transit, rather than being total auto dependent.

But some in the neighbourhood just see it as bad urban planning. Height in the wrong place, which will cause different problems. Again, ARP.

Developers need to maintain good working relationships with city planners and council members in order to break ground on larger development projects like this one in Inglewood, writes Richard White. (Richard White)

And so, it is somewhat understandable some developers have begun to see community engagement, after a certain point, as a lose-lose situation. 

So how does the city see it?

Pursuit of great neighbourhoods

Gian Carlo Carra, councillor for Ward 9, grew up in Manhattan and was a professional planner before getting elected in 2010.

He told me Calgary's planning department, which includes about 200 planners, is in the middle of a fundamental change in how they think about ARPs, the planning process and working with communities. While we were chatting not so long ago, Carra said, "We do a pretty good job of collecting ideas from the community. But we are not as good at sharing with them what gets incorporated into the neighbourhood plans and why we can't use others."

I have heard community leaders say, "Yep, that's the problem," numerous times.

Later, Carra, in a Twitter direct message to me, said, "It's a battle between old and new school practice within admin and a battle at the community level between driving vs resisting change. It's a steep learning curve."

There's a learning curve for everyone. Including community leaders.

So, we have plans on top of plans. Some are out of date; some just aren't workable. And every time we go to build something, the process of communication and consultation gets complicated.- Richard White

Design and defend

I've spent more than my fair share of time in local community meetings. It's a passion. 

Wanting to hear from some community leaders about the whole ARP and consultation process, a couple months ago I set up a Saturday afternoon coffee klatch. Elise Bieche (Highland Park Community Association president), Erin Joslin (Ramsay Community Association's vice-president, external) and Nathan Hawryluk (Renfrew Community Association's planning and development chair). While all three were very diplomatic in their comments, I could feel the frustrations they were trying to contain.

All three told me they were frustrated with what some have called the city's "design and defend" method of development. That's the idea that the city and developers design a proposed new project, present it to the community, and then defend it when the community says it doesn't comply with one or more elements of their ARP or local plan.

On Dec. 10, 2018, dozens of residents in Inglewood waved homemade signs in protest of a proposed condo building they said would overshadow the tiny homes in their historic neighbourhood. (Helen Pike/CBC)

This, many feel, creates a situation in which the local community always looks like they are against projects and development. So how does this happen?

In theory an ARP should tell the city and developer what a community would like to see. But in reality the plans are often out of date. Or the development site has opportunities or restrictions the plan didn't anticipate. Or the developer has some innovative new ideas for the community and needs relaxations from the ARP to make it work. This too leads to problems.

Erin Joslin's ARP experience is that it is just an "up-zoning exercise." In other words, the city wants to change pre-existing zoning to allow for more density, with not enough regard for a comprehensive look at what is needed for a complete community.

The community leaders told me they are exhausted by the numerous meetings and are trying to get information in a timely manner to give informed input on new developments or ARP revisions.  

A 2015 proposal to rezone a vacant piece of land in Brentwood saw residents pack the community consultations with concerns about building-height, traffic and safety. (CBC)

Bieche said, "Too often nothing happens for months, and then all of a sudden there is a rush to meet a city deadline that was set way ahead of time. It is not easy to read a technical report at a moment's notice, set up a community meeting  and prepare the community's comments when given short notice."

While they all said some of the city's planners are excellent, they mentioned there had also been problems with communication and people skills.

Joslin was turned off by, "planners that lecture the community, rather than listen and discuss." She and Bieche added, "We are frustrated by the turnover of planners during the ARP and development process, as we have to start all over again developing a new working relationship."

In this, community leaders are not alone. I've heard those last comments from developers, too.

But pity the poor planners. Pulled in multiple directions and trying to make everyone happy. 

Lessons learned

Breanne Harder and Jordan Furness, senior city planners, say the city has learned some lessons over the past few years that have changed the way it deals with community consultation.

Harder, who has just been appointed to lead the development of a Historic East Calgary Area Redevelopment Plan, told me, "Calgary's older communities like Ramsay, Inglewood and Bridgeland are the MOST complex ARPs to create as they have sensitive heritage issues that need to be addressed. They are also the communities most attractive to developers for redevelopment today, which can be frustrating when you don't have an ARP or yours is out of date." 

Calgarians look over plans for the reconstruction of 17th Avenue S.W. at just one of multiple planned community consultations in 2015. (CBC)

And even where they exist, and they are good, both Harder and Furness say that ARP's can't solve all the community friction that development can bring. That each application has to be judged on its own merits.

They pointed to the new North Hill Local Growth Planning initiated last fall that had a "Discovery Phase" at the beginning. One in which the 32 members of the stakeholder working committee could look at the scope of the proposal. And understand the potential roles of the various stakeholders.

This, they say, should address many of the governance issues community leaders have expressed in the past with respect to ARPs.

The road ahead

The North Hill Communities Local Growth Planning initiative, if it is successful, could be the template for future inner-city redevelopment planning. 

It includes the communities of: Highland Park, Mount Pleasant, Tuxedo Park, Winston Heights-Mountview, Crescent Heights, Renfrew, Rosedale, Capitol Hill and Thorncliffe Greenview (south of McKnight Boulevard). It will, if all goes well, create a new kind of consultation plan to include a population of about 45,760 people. This, as opposed to dealing with the eight communities separately — with eight separate redevelopment plans. 

It's "bigger is better" thinking. I'm optimistic.

Ideally it will get neighbours to think beyond their boundaries to see how they can work together to create new larger community hubs. The consultation and planning process would allow people to see how traffic flows, how bus routes work and how the construction, parks, roads, schools, businesses, homes and condos outside their immediate neighbourhood interact as part of a whole. More of a "we're all in it together" way of viewing development.

On the down side, there are 32 stakeholders involved in this process, and that could bog down the consultation process, as everyone tries to have input. It could mean fewer headaches for developers and city folks, but potentially replace small debates with one big one.

Kudos to the city for trying something different. It's definitely worth trying.

If the current council does one thing in 2019, it must streamline the development approval process and get everyone working together to make our inner-city communities more attractive and affordable for the average Calgarian.  

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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About the Author

Richard White

Author Everyday Tourist blog

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, The Calgary Public Art Board, and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about our city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

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