Starving Calgary's inner city to build empty suburbs doesn't make sense: Woolley

Coun. Evan Woolley says it doesn't make sense to cut inner-city services and facilities while the city builds infrastructure in unoccupied neighbourhoods.

Tough decisions lie ahead as council must find new ways to shave costs

Coun. Evan Woolley says the city should re-examine its spending priorities in light of new economic and political realities. (Genevieve Normand/CBC Radio-Canada)

Is now the right time for Calgary to be investing in new suburbs?

The city is facing a $56.9-million shortfall across utilities, transportation and community services over the next three years. 

And in its quest to stretch dollars, it's placed police funding, the Inglewood and Beltline pools and other community services on the chopping block. 

That has a few Calgary councillors uneasy about the city's ongoing commitment to pour money into 14 new neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city.

This chart shows the progress made so far on Calgary's 14 new communities. No development has started and the first occupants are expected in 2021. (City of Calgary)

"In the significant budget constraints we're under, does it make sense for us to be building infrastructure in new communities, in some cases where nobody even lives, while at the same time cutting services in communities that are full and established?" asked Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley on the Calgary Eyeopener.

His answer is no. 

Woolley believes the city should be spending dollars where it will see a return on its investment, i.e. inner-city neighbourhoods with residents.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Coun. Druh Farrell asked if it was possible to hold some of the new communities back in light of the city's financial situation. She was told that, as council had already granted the land use, it's too late; the land is now in the hands of developers.

Earning infrastructure

Woolley says it's not a matter of the city reneging on its agreements with developers, but rather reconsidering the extent to which it builds infrastructure and capital projects in those new neighbourhoods.

"In a brand new community, should you get full bus service? Should you get all of those interchanges? Do you get everything when the first house is built? Or is that infrastructure earned over time?" Woolley posited.

"Because it doesn't make sense to me for us to be cutting services to established communities where everybody already lives at the expense of building new fire halls and transit to places, frankly, where not a lot of people live," he said.

Woolley said it's a conversation that council must continue to have, if only to safeguard against this kind of situation in the future.

Calgary left 'out in the cold'

Council approved the 14 new neighbourhoods last summer. But it made those decisions in a different economic and political context, said Woolley, pointing to the new provincial budget. 

"Premier [Jason] Kenney talks a lot about Alberta, and equalization and our place in federalism," Woolley said.

Those conversations could just as well be had in the context of Alberta and its relationship to its municipalities, he suggested.

"For every property tax dollar that we collect in this city for Edmonton, we get very little of it back in return. And particularly this provincial budget leaves Calgary out in the cold in a lot of different ways," he said.

It's thrown the Green Line project into jeopardy, and it's given council a bit of an uneasy feeling about the new BMO Centre and arena projects.

This rendering of a proposed arena in Victoria Park shows how it would fit into the streetscape planned for Olympic Way. This is the view from 14th Avenue S.E. (Rossetti/Calgary Flames)

"I don't think that this council would have any intent, or there would be much appetite, in backing off on that," Woolley said, referencing the city's agreement to fund half of the $550-million Calgary Flames arena.

"But remember that the pie of money is a finite pie. And so for the $275 million that council has put in to build this new arena, that means other stuff isn't getting built."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.