Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities starts with the iconic line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Though much less tumultuous than the events that frame Dickens’ novel, Calgary is today faced with the paradox of a resource boom making Calgary the country’s wealthiest city, and unwelcome development pressures that are threatening the sustainability of our city and its neighbourhoods.
The 2009 Municipal Development Plan, known as Plan It, forecast a doubling of Calgary’s population in the next 60 years — 1.2 million new Calgarians. The big question is where to put all of these newcomers. Plan It’s compromise is to put half of them on the edges of the city in new suburbs (greenfield development) and half of them in established communities.
At the edge of the city it’s relatively straightforward. City council has already approved area structure plans and community plans for hundreds of thousands of newcomers. Greenfield developers are well practiced at building suburbia.
Meanwhile, Plan It envisions most of the growth in established communities to occur along transportation corridors. Calgary has a long-standing Transit Oriented Design (TOD) policy that supports that vision, calling for more density, mixed-use development (homes, shops and offices), and improved public realms (plazas, wider sidewalks, bicycle infrastructure).
It makes sense, but the devil is in the details. When the plan becomes a reality in a particular community, that’s when the second-guessing starts. Everybody thinks it’s a good idea in somebody else’s community.
A good example of how this policy plays out is the community of Hillhurst-Sunnyside. In response to the TOD policy and in anticipation of development intensification, the city spent three years working with residents to remodel the Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) to accommodate higher density urban development.
Very soon after the new ARP was accepted by council, and faster than almost anybody imagined, Hillhurst-Sunnyside is experiencing an extreme makeover. There are two eight-storey mixed-use condominium towers well under way. There are at least another 13 major projects at some stage of the development process — from first explorations with the community, to actually making their way through city hall approvals. These projects total over one million square feet (half the size of The Bow tower) and 843 dwellings (1,517 people) — an 18 per cent growth in the community’s population.
And the community is feeling the heat. One of the promises of the ARP-TOD was that redevelopment would come with aggressive public space enhancement — a key feature of the TOD policy. That promise has hit a glitch in recent months. Just as development is heating up, city hall lawyers have deemed the development levy envisioned to pay for public realm improvements unenforceable under the Municipal Government Act. Developers are balking at paying it and the city is scrambling to introduce an enforceable alternative.
At the same time, the old adage “give them an inch and they will take a mile” is evident in the development process. Most new development proposals start by maximizing the allowable square feet of space on a given piece of land. From there, almost invariably, developers make an argument for why they should get more.
Meanwhile, as development plans roll in, very little uptake is evident on all of the coulds, shoulds and if-you-feel-like-its of the ARP. Things like green building design, car-sharing programs to reduce auto density, and affordable units are conspicuously absent.
Plan It, and imagineCalgary before it, made an unassailable case of why we need to intensify development in existing communities, and Calgarians support the vision. If done well, intensification will make for better communities, but it could go sideways fast if the pace of development overwhelms city hall’s finite planning resources. But nobody wants that. With 600,000 new people coming to existing communities, these first makeovers, in places like Hillhurst-Sunnyside, have to get it right or else the Plan It strategy will be dead in the water.
One solution is for the city to assign and locate city planners in the community long term — not unlike the idea of a beat cop — to get to know the community, its residents and the development realities in intimate detail. Another solution is allocating more power to the people. In Hillhurst-Sunnyside, the innovative and wildly successful Bow to Bluff initiative demonstrated the capacity of citizens to engage the community in the planning process. So why not give communities a bigger role? Communities deserve to be at the table with the city and the developers every step of the way.
There is a lesser-known phrase in that opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” The city made a wise decision when it adopted Plan It. To not back up the decision with diligence, adequate resources and attention to detail would indeed be foolish.