Per­spec­tive spawns in­sights from read­ers

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - New Condos - RICHARD WHITE

Who says no­body reads the news­pa­per any­more? If the re­sponse to my re­cent se­ries on the City of Cal­gary’s Plan It pro­posal is any in­di­ca­tion, many peo­ple are not only read­ing the pa­per, they’re read­ing it care­fully.

Dur­ing the past month, I have had nu­mer­ous e-mails from every­one from plan­ners, uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors, de­vel­op­ers and com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion groups, to an al­der­man and cit­i­zens at large.

Some con­grat­u­lated me, while oth­ers ques­tioned what “planet” was I on.

All of the com­ments were in­formed and in­sight­ful. It is en­cour­ag­ing to know that Cal­gar­i­ans are pas­sion­ate about the fu­ture of their city.

In this fol­lowup col­umn to my se­ries, I want to share some of their in­sights, and also make some cor­rec­tions and clar­i­fi­ca­tions on in­for­ma­tion I pre­vi­ously shared.

The city’s per­spec­tive

First off, af­ter meet­ing city plan­ners Pat Gor­don and Mary Ax­wor­thy — both of whom have been cham­pi­oning Plan It from the city’s side — I have to make some cor­rec­tions.

First, the city will con­tinue to an­nex land to meet the mar­ket de­mand for sin­gle-fam­ily hous­ing dur­ing the next 60 to 70 years.

There is no change to the ex­ist­ing pol­icy to have a five-year sup­ply of ser­viced land ready for res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment, a 15-year sup­ply of land with ap­proved plans for such de­vel­op­ment, and a 30-year sup­ply of land for fu­ture res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment.

They also in­formed me ad­min­is­tra­tion must pre­pare a com­pre­hen­sive re­port for coun­cil ev­ery three years to de­ter­mine how city hall is do­ing rel­a­tive to key bench­marks, as well as make rec­om­men­da­tions for up­dat­ing Plan It to ad­dress cur­rent mar­ket con­di­tions and

in­te­grate new in­for­ma­tion.

Gor­don and Ax­wor­thy also ex­pressed that Plan It has been a pos­i­tive cat­a­lyst for de­bate — both in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally — re­gard­ing Cal­gary’s fu­ture.

They noted that the doc­u­ment has been sig­nif­i­cantly re­vised based on in­put from the pri­vate sec­tor and the pub­lic.

One of the key achieve­ments from their per­spec­tive was the align­ment of think­ing be­tween plan­ners and the trans­porta­tion en­gi­neers within city hall.

When projects pro­posed more den­sity, for the past sev­eral years they were of­ten op­posed or de­layed by the in­abil­ity to rec­on­cile in­creased den­sity with the im­pact on road or tran­sit ca­pac­ity.

The three key mes­sages from city hall re­gard­ing Plan It are:

Sin­gle-fam­ily homes will still be the dom­i­nant hous­ing form in Cal­gary, which cur­rently has a 10-year planned sub­ur­ban land sup­ply avail­able to ac­com­mo­date 185,000 peo­ple in sin­gle-fam­ily and semi-de­tached homes.

Pri­vate au­to­mo­biles will con­tinue to be the prin­ci­pal means of trans­porta­tion, but a fun­da­men­tal shift is needed in the com­ing decades.

The Cal­gary Trans­porta­tion Plan pro­poses to in­crease the choices peo­ple have for mov­ing around the city more quickly and eas­ily. This will help re­duce the im­pact of fu­ture pop­u­la­tion growth on trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture.

Ev­ery as­pect of Plan It is aimed at mak­ing the best pos­si­ble use of pub­lic re­sources to main­tain eco­nomic, en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial well-be­ing for all Cal­gar­i­ans.

The pri­vate

sec­tor’s per­spec­tive

I have also been in­vited to meet with sev­eral of Cal­gary’s lead­ing pri­vate sec­tor plan­ners and de­vel­op­ers — who have ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing not only in Cal­gary, but across West­ern Canada.

I was amazed at the thou­sands of hours (prob­a­bly amount­ing to nearly a mil­lion dol­lars) th­ese firms have in­vested looking at the Plan It doc­u­ment try­ing to find win-win so­lu­tions.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing bits of in­for­ma­tion the pri­vate sec­tor plan­ners shared with me was the re­port of David Bax­ter, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ur­ban Fu­tures In­sti­tute.

Com­mis­sioned by the city, the re­port out­lines the de­mo­graphic changes he pre­dicted will oc­cur in Cal­gary dur­ing the next 60 to 70 years and how this would af­fect the hous­ing mar­ket.

This re­port is the back­bone of the Plan It doc­u­ment and it is based on how Van­cou­ver and Toronto evolved as they grew from one mil­lion to more than two mil­lion peo­ple.

Many of the peo­ple I talked to ques­tion the va­lid­ity of the re­port, given that Van­cou­ver and Toronto have dif­fer­ent growth op­por­tu­ni­ties than Cal­gary.

Van­cou­ver’s growth is re­stricted be­cause of the ocean and moun­tains, re­sult­ing in only 25 to 30 per cent of the land around it be­ing avail­able for de­vel­op­ment, which leads to a much more dense de­vel­op­ment pat­tern.

In Toronto, only 50 per cent of the land around the city cen­tre is de­vel­opable due to Lake On­tario.

In Cal­gary’s case, 90 per cent of the land around the city cen­tre is avail­able for de­vel­op­ment.

It was also pointed out Van­cou­ver and Toronto evolved from one mil­lion to two mil­lion in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury, while Cal­gary will be do­ing so in the mid­dle of the 21st cen­tury.

It a safe bet Cal­gary will not evolve the same way as Van­cou­ver or Toronto and as such, we should not be us­ing them as the sole model for Cal­gary’s growth.

An­other as­sump­tion in Bax­ter’s re­port and Plan It is that baby boomers will re­tire in large num­bers to smaller homes in the in­ner city com­mu­ni­ties.

In the Novem­ber 2008 is­sue of Cana­dian Real Es­tate Mag­a­zine, Boom Bust Echo au­thor David Foote in­di­cated boomers will hold on to their houses un­til into their 70s.

Such peo­ple want space for their grand­chil­dren to visit and they now have time to do such things as gar­den­ing on their prop­erty.

He also in­di­cates that boomers who do move into down­town con­dos will want larger units, not the 800-to 1,200-square-foot ones that cre­ate higher den­sity.

In ad­di­tion, boomers liv­ing down­town will only be part-time res­i­dents, of­ten be­ing away at their sec­ond home or trav­el­ling.

For­mer city plan­ning com­mis­sioner Bob Holmes, a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive with more than 30 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in city plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment, points out that be­sides hav­ing two of the largest ur­ban parks in the world, Cal­gary also has an in­ter­na­tional air­port and a large wa­ter reser­voir within its city lim­its.

Such things sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease Cal­gary’s foot­print com­pared to cities like Ed­mon­ton, Van­cou­ver or Toronto.

He agrees that com­par­isons with other cities dis­tract from a made-for-Cal­gary so­lu­tion.

He also pointed out the 1995 Trans­porta­tion Plan and 1998 Mu­nic­i­pal De­vel­op­ment Plan al­ready call for the kind of den­sity and de­vel­op­ment Plan It is propos­ing — and were al­ready pro­duc­ing the in­tended re­sults, par­tic­u­larly with multi-fam­ily hous­ing de­vel­op­ment.

In an e-mail, Holmes says: “City plan­ners have tra­di­tion­ally turned to draft­ing by­laws and detailed reg­u­la­tions as the prin­ci­pal means of im­ple­ment­ing poli­cies. This can cre­ate an ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship, par­tic­u­larly when the pri­vate sec­tor is tak­ing all the risk.

“The re­sult is more bu­reau­cracy and de­lays. Sim­ple projects that com­ply will pro­ceed.

“But com­plex re­de­vel­op­ment projects in es­tab­lished and in­nercity neigh­bour­hoods get de­layed and miss the mar­ket cy­cle e.g. Bridges, East Vil­lage and Belt­line condo projects.

“Reg­u­la­tions can­not cre­ate a mar­ket, and it’s mar­ket de­mand that cre­ates de­vel­op­ment. Pre­scrip­tive reg­u­la­tions pro­duce me­di­ocrity and pro­longed ne­go­ti­a­tions that re­sult in in­creased cost and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“The in­ter­pre­ta­tion of pub­lic pol­icy will need to be more pre­dictable. Plan­ning ap­proval pro­cesses will need to be­come more ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with com­plex projects.

“Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties will need to learn to work more in part­ner­ship with the pri­vate sec­tor to ac­com­plish shared goals. “

He and many oth­ers ex­pressed con­cerns about city hall cre­at­ing spe­cific 30 and 60-year tar­gets without even test­ing if they can be achieved with a best-case sce­nario.

There are ma­jor con­cerns the new plan will re­sult in much longer ap­proval times be­cause new lo­cal area plans for ev­ery com­mu­nity will have to ne­go­ti­ate with each com­mu­nity.

It is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile the goal of Plan It to “pre­serve, pro­tect and main­tain ex­ist­ing com­mu­ni­ties” while en­cour­ag­ing den­si­fi­ca­tion at the edges of th­ese com­mu­ni­ties.

In the fu­ture, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties like Cal­gary’s will need to adopt a broader range of more so­phis­ti­cated strate­gies for im­ple­ment­ing de­vel­op­ment poli­cies. There needs to be a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how de­mo­graph­ics and the mar­ket in­flu­ence de­vel­op­ment.

The pub­lic’s per­spec­tive

One of the most com­mon com­ments I re­ceived from the pub­lic was that we must in­crease Cal­gary den­sity — and that de­vel­op­ers were at fault for lob­by­ing for more sin­gle-fam­ily hous­ing de­vel­op­ment. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

Every­one, in­clud­ing de­vel­op­ers, wants to see Cal­gary be­come a denser, more com­pact city. In fact, this is al­ready hap­pen­ing, though maybe not fast enough for some.

The is­sue is: do we need a plan with pre­scrip­tive poli­cies to make it hap­pen, or will nat­u­ral forces, such as hous­ing costs, fuel costs, com­mute times and de­mo­graphic changes, make it hap­pen nat­u­rally dur­ing the next 60 to 70 years?

Many peo­ple I talked to felt that the next 10 years were far more im­por­tant in Cal­gary’s evo­lu­tion and should be our fo­cus.

One of the more in­ter­est­ing re­sponses I re­ceived was from Harry Hiller, an ur­ban so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­gary.

“His­tor­i­cally, Cal­gary’s growth was pri­mar­ily from ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties of the West where hav­ing a house with grass on all four sides was akin to the agri­cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing with lots of space on the farm or small town,” he says. “Fur­ther­more, Cal­gary’s mi­gra­tion has been pri­mar­ily of young adults, who then be­come young par­ents and then want to have sin­gle-fam­ily homes to raise their chil­dren.

“As a re­sult, we should not be sur­prised Cal­gar­i­ans to­day, and in the fu­ture, will con­tinue to show a bias for sin­gle-fam­ily homes.”

He re­quested I re­mind Cal­gar­i­ans that “we have al­ready made a ma­jor shift away from sin­glede­tached sprawl over the last 20 years — com­pare Charleswoo­d with Rocky Ridge.

“This has hap­pened for var­i­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing the in­crease in Asian and big city mi­grants to Cal­gary who are used to liv­ing in higher den­sity com­mu­ni­ties.

“As well, there’s been a ma­jor shift in the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of high-den­sity liv­ing by North Amer­ica’s mid­dle class.

“In the past, high-den­sity liv­ing was usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with poverty, low in­come and the in­abil­ity to af­ford a mort­gage. To­day, condo own­er­ship is seen as a very de­sir­able life­style and a good in­vest­ment for mid­dle-class young pro­fes­sion­als and empty nesters.”

Hiller’s re­search in­di­cates there has been a slow cul­tural shift to­ward ac­cep­tance of higher den­sity liv­ing in Cal­gary dur­ing the past 40 years — and no one forced it to hap­pen.


While the re­vised plan is bet­ter organized and writ­ten, there are still fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences be­tween the per­spec­tives of city hall, dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the pub­lic, and the de­vel­op­ers.

City hall strongly be­lieves that pol­icy should di­rect de­vel­op­ment dur­ing the next 60 years, while the pri­vate sec­tor strongly be­lieves mar­ket forces — in other words, pub­lic de­mand — should shape the evo­lu­tion of our city.

The pub­lic sits in two camps. Some want city hall to cre­ate poli­cies that will re­sult in more den­sity (but not in my neigh­bour­hood), while oth­ers want to main­tain the sta­tus quo. In the end, it is still very con­fus­ing for the av­er­age Cal­gar­ian to fig­ure out what “planet” the plan­ners, politi­cians and de­vel­op­ers are on.

If Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, then maybe Plan­ners are from Mer­cury, Politi­cians are from Jupiter and De­vel­op­ers are from Saturn.

I hope some­how we can all get back to work­ing to­gether on planet Earth as this de­bate is cost­ing us mil­lions of dol­lars.

Cal­gary Her­ald Archive

The city will con­tinue to an­nex land to meet de­mand for sin­gle-fam­ily hous­ing dur­ing the next 60 to 70 years.

Cal­gary Her­ald Archive

Au­thor David Foote says ag­ing boomers will be fore­go­ing the 800-to 1,200-square-foot con­dos in favour of a more spa­cious units, such as this 6,286-square­foot, two-level va­ri­ety in south­west Cal­gary.

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