South of the border there is much gnashing of teeth over the impending “fiscal cliff” on which the United States economy teeters. Meanwhile, here in Calgary, a proposed plan to avoid our very own fiscal cliff — a tsunami of infrastructure spending and maintenance that will bury us if we continue business as usual — is under siege.
On December 3, in a legislative showdown to determine if we will pull up short of the metaphorical cliff or continue galloping toward it, council will consider a proposal put forth by developers to neuter the city’s growth management strategy.
This story begins a long time ago, as recounted in great detail by local historian Max Foran in Expansive Discourses: Urban Sprawl in Calgary, 1945-1978. In the 1950s, the City of Calgary essentially handed the responsibility for residential planning to the private development industry. Since that time, developers have delivered the suburban, sprawling, car-worshipping and fiscally unsustainable city we have today.
There have been attempts to turn the tide, most notably in the 1980s when city planners presented a new vision of a more sustainable, walkable city that would tame the automobile. That didn’t work out so well for many of the planners. They were unceremoniously run out of town by then-mayor Ralph Klein and a chill settled over city planning for years.
It wasn’t until January 2005 that the city recovered from that trauma and, with the leadership of aldermen such as Joe Ceci, embarked on an unprecedented citizen engagement to chart a new course. That effort culminated in 2006 at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver, where then-mayor Dave Bronconnier unveiled the imagineCalgary 100-year vision.
Eighteen-thousand Calgarians had a hand in crafting that vision. The citizen panel that led the process included Naheed Nenshi and Brian Pincott, who later became mayor and alderman, respectively, as well as the CEOs of both the United Way and Glenbow Museum. In July 2006 at a special hearing of city council, dozens of organizations presented letters of support for the document, including Sustainable Calgary, Calgary Economic Development and the Calgary Region Homebuilders Association.
Between 2007 and 2009, with the participation of thousands of citizens, and the unanimous endorsement of council, a 60-year road map on how to achieve the imagineCalgary vision was given legal weight in the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and the Calgary Transportation Plan. Change is sometimes excruciatingly slow, but the planning process plods along. In December 2011, council endorsed the continued development of a growth management strategy that would give teeth to the MDP.
The strategy establishes criteria for deciding where new residential development should occur. The point is to grow the city in places where providing infrastructure — transit, roads, water and sewer, and emergency services — is least costly. In the old system we said yes to developments with little concern for the long-term cost to taxpayers, or the impending fiscal cliff.
ImagineCalgary, the MDP and the growth management strategy represent the long road to fiscal prudence and sustainability for our city. The problem is that the road to fiscal prudence diverges from that of profit maximization for the development industry, and they are not amused.
The industry refused to endorse the imagineCalgary vision, they challenged the MDP process every step of the way and, in the final analysis, diluted the plan during a closed-door 11th hour deal with mayor Bronconnier. In the winter of 2011 they were successful in lobbying council to institute a 40 per cent taxpayer subsidy of infrastructure costs for greenfield suburban development — over $80,000 per hectare — rather than absorbing all the costs themselves. Prior to this, the city was on the hook for 55 per cent of suburban infrastructure costs.
On December 3, council will consider another proposal from developers — this time that they will pay the cost of drawing up Area Structure Plans (ASP). This is the first of a series of statutory planning stages that culminates in the building of a new community. It sounds like a generous offer, but the industry’s motivation is anything but altruistic. The existence of an ASP allows the developer to move forward to a stage of the development process where they are in the driver’s seat. In effect, developers want to position themselves, with ASP in hand, to jump the land development priorities queue that the growth management strategy will establish.
It is sad but true that over the past decade of a renaissance in city planning, the development industry has been consistently obstructionist. They appear offended by the notion of citizens having a place at the table when decisions are being made about the design of the neighbourhoods and communities where we will raise our families. They have profited handsomely from the back-room, closed-door development process and they are loathe to see it change.
But a new day has dawned for the planning of our city and it includes citizens. Our mayor was elected on a promise of more openness at city hall. Over the past decade, thousands of citizens have responded, in good faith, to the city’s invitation to participate in various planning processes.
Election season will soon be upon us. Aldermen are already hard at work soliciting the development industry — their major donors — for money to help them contest elections. This is all quite legal, but easily abused.
I would suggest that to balance the playing field, aldermen need a gentle reminder about whom they work for as they consider this crucial decision. We place our trust in them to represent the common good, rather than a small but powerful private interest group.