On May 21st, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), reported on the approval of a new shopping area in the NE community of Cornerstone. As someone who has been following the development of a number of projects in this quadrant of the city, I was disappointed to see that this article lacked any meaningful background information on how this commercial site came to be. Instead, it would seem that this news story’s sole purpose was to provide both the current Ward 5 Councillor – George Chahal and the developer (Anthem United) COO Paul Taylor, an opportunity to praise the commercial space’s design and how this future development will bring more choices to the surrounding communities. As many of you know, I am all about more choice, especially when it comes to public services. However, based on the details surrounding the approval of this commercial site, I can tell you that this future development is the result of a mediocre design, which was approved by the smallest of margins and had next to no community engagement.
The lack of community engagement
As I already mentioned, the CBC article in question provides next to no background information on how the project got to where it is today. One of the development’s biggest shortcomings is the lack of community engagement not only from the City but from the existing Councillor for Ward 5. In order to better understand why this is the case, I want to provide you with a broad overview of how a developer, typically, receives an approval to move forward with such a project. When a developer wants to initiate any new construction, it has to request either a “Land-Use Redesignation” and/or a “Development Permit” from the City. This is to ensure that whatever the developer has in mind will line-up with the standards set by City Hall while also receiving the “blessings” of the community within which that project will reside since these residents will be most impacted.
There are two main ways this community engagement can take place: at the individual level and the community level. At the individual level, the developer and the city places large placards on these new sites that encourages every individual to express their concerns and suggestions by contacting the City. As well, there is a handy online tool that provides somewhat of an overview of both “Land-use Redesignation” and “Development Permit” applications (for this commercial site specifically, see here). Although the website is a bit technical and could be improved upon , it does provide a main source of contact for each file and so far, my experience has been positive when reaching out to these representatives.
The second aspect, the community approach, is where the city forwards the developers’ plans to the local Community Associations (CAs) informing them that this request has been submitted. Ideally, the CAs would engage its members and there would be some back and forth within the community which by extension should result in a more proactive approach to the approval process bringing with it more legitimacy. However, due to the nature of our city’s planning and how it has prioritized the volume of houses over the sustainability of new neighborhoods, many of the newer NE communities don’t have a community association and lack any kind of center for community engagement (see Redstone & Cornerstone). Although these communities have Homeowners Associations (HOAs), these are set up by the developers. Traditionally, it is the Community Association that is the bridge between residents and the various levels of government. Everything related to by-laws , community development, transportation and urban plans should be sent to the CAs, so that in the early planning stages, a group(s) of residents can express themselves with one voice. However, if there is no CA, this level of engagement would be significantly reduced.
As a result of this, one would think that the city and especially the Councillor would want to plant seeds and encourage his constituents to create such an association as soon as possible, especially in those areas that are still in a large scale development stage. This would increase the likelihood of a more active citizenry that would contribute to the creation of urban spaces that are tailored to their needs. Based on Calgary’s past and the many mistakes it has repeated when it comes to its urban sprawl, these checks on both the public and private sector are not only welcome, they are essential.
Outdated plans will lead to outdated results
I’ve talked about some of the flaws in the community engagement process but now I want to discuss how the vote unfolded within the Calgary Planning Commission (CPC). For such commercial developments to move forward, one of the key steps is whether or not it will receive approval from the CPC. This body is formed by elected Councillors, urban planning specialists and city bureaucrats. In order for a project to be approved, it must pass with a majority of votes. Interestingly enough, this particular proposal passed only by a slim margin of 4 to 3 (see the agenda and video here, with the development in question, 7.1.1 , starting at the 17th minute mark and ending at 1 hour and 14 minutes).
There are a number of reasons why some of the commission members voted against the current design of the project. In fact, even those commissioners who had voted in favor of it had similar concerns and questions to those who did not support it. I recommend everyone watch the full segment but for those whose time is more constricted I’ve listed a number of critiques that I found most relevant:
- The commercial site does not meet the density potential of the land use. (27:30 min – 30:00 min ; 46:50 min – 49:30 min)
- Street activation: Why is there a focus on engaging those who use Country Hills Blvd instead of the residents who live on Cornerstone Grove and the other adjacent community streets? (33:00 min – 38:00 min ; 49:45 min – 54:30 min)
- Those urban development policies/guidelines that the City had put in place, in order to build neighborhoods that are more transit, more pedestrian and more community orientated are not reflected in the current commercial design. (43:25 min – 46:00 min ; 55:20 min – 1:01:30 min)
Needless to say, if one watches the whole discussion it becomes clear that the current design is far from a modern solution. Although the developer claims that down the road there is the possibility to address the shortcomings mentioned above, the reality on the ground is much different. In fact, a question worth asking is how many commercial spaces of a similar design have been modernized over the past 10 to 20 years to accommodate more density, more transit focused development and overall better community spaces. If one were to look for such examples, they would find that they are extremely rare since our city continues to spread further out instead of making better use of the land it already manages. Not to mention that west of this site , at a distance shorter than 1 km a similar commercial complex – SkyPointe Landing already exists (minus a proper size, mainstream grocery store). In the end, what the CPC had approved brings nothing new or modern to how Calgary builds commercial spaces in its suburbs. If things stay as they are, all these new NE communities will end up becoming like all the other suburbs at the edges of our city. Places with nice houses, new sidewalks but with a drive-in/drive-out culture.
Setting the bar really low
What is most upsetting about this project, as with many others in the NE, is that the bar has been set very low. There are residents of communities like Redstone that have been waiting for a decade for recreational spaces, public services and many other facilities. This poor planning by the city has lead those “starving” for the most basic elements of a liveable community to adopt the response of “just build it already!” regardless of how it might have been planned and under what conditions it might have been approved. As a result, when something finally does get built, the reaction of many residents is of relief while many local officials engage in congratulatory behavior. In my opinion, for how long our city and our elected officials have made the residents of Ward 5 wait for what should be to most basic of amenities, they should have delivered a much better product.
How can we do better?
There are many things that a resident of this city can do in order to improve its planning and how both public and private institutions engage with the average taxpayer. Here are 4 solutions that I propose:
- Above everything else, the residents of Ward 5 need to be more involved with their Community Associations. In those new neighborhoods that lack such an organization, the first steps need to be taken for a CA to be created. Doing so will provide those residents an opportunity to better organize and to better prioritize those essential needs within their community. As a Councillor, I would champion the creation and improvement of these CAs.
- In those areas where the CAs are absent or are in their infancy, both the City and especially the Councillor need to use their office and the various tools at their disposal (social media, signs, the appropriate city departments, etc) to create a proactive culture and to encourage every single resident to be involved in the community. Local officials should be spending more energy on engaging residents on these key projects/developments in their early stages and not just bringing them to everyone’s attention when they are approved or completed as we saw in the CBC article. Especially when such developments will impact both present and future residents for decades to come.
- Politically, as we get closer to the municipal election (October 18th), it is crucial that you question all candidates on what they plan to do to in order to engage with their local communities, what they plan to do to in order to prevent further sprawl and what they plan to do to make our city’s suburbs more livable.
- Lastly, if you live in an area that lacks a community association and especially, a community center, demand that our Council return to the practice of funding the construction of community centers. The presence of a physical building/space would go a long way towards the bringing together of multiple communities. Without these physical structures, without these tangible starting points, our communities are poorer and even worse, they are less engaged.
Let’s do more, let’s demand more and let’s do it right!