The Guidebook for Great Communities

There is a major issue we need to discuss, one that will have a profound effect on residents of Ward 8, and one that is flying under the radar for most: The Guidebook for Great Communities. I know Planning & Dev causes many eyes to glaze, but it really is important, as this document will guide dev decisions long into the future. Now is the time to get it right before it becomes a potential source of discord.

Overall, the document is worthwhile and for the most part helpful. Many clever people have worked for years to create a document that will provide the building blocks for realizing the vision contained in the Municipal Development Plan that leads us into the next 60 years. The Guidebook is totally on brand for Calgary – it is ambitious, and so are Calgarians. But in this ambition it over-reaches and sets the stage for a contentious future among both developers and residents. I will explain why based on feedback from the community.

The MDP provides vision. Great! The Guidebook brings in line statutory policies and provides the building blocks. Great! The Guidebook is then to inform Local Area Plans (LAPs) that are to be the area-specific dev rules. A stated purpose (on the CoC website) of these LAPs is to ensure “future growth respects and builds on a community’s unique conditions and environments”. According to Ward 8 residents, there are two problems with this approach as currently structured.

Which takes precedence, the Guidebook or the Local Area Plan?

In section 2.8, the Guidebook assigns general Zones to wide swathes of inner-city communities, and then prescribes certain residential forms to be allowed in those Zones. So, before we even get to the LAP process, a baseline or precedent is set. This opens up a great deal of uncertainty for both residents and developers, and damages the trust each group might have entering into the LAP consultation process.

Can one trust an LAP can preserve a predominantly single-family, detached community when the Guidebook explicitly allows higher density homes? Will the Guidebook zones be used as an argument in land use change applications to override LAPs? One can imagine both unhappy residents and unhappy developers in this scenario.

Painting with a wide brush

The LAP areas are multi-community. Painting several communities with one brush is a mistake. How can we have a single LAP that will reflect the unique conditions of both North Glenmore Park AND Upper Mount Royal? Are the development needs of Mission and Elbow Park the same? Of course not. What does Roxboro have in common with Bankview? You can see the problem. This multi-community approach may be expedient, but it is a demonstrably blunt instrument.

There is some urgency here, folks – this is going to Council for approval on March 22. But here’s a question: What’s the rush? I get that this has been being worked on for years, and the justifiably proud authors want to see it come to fruition. There is A LOT of good in this document, and the authors should be proud. But it is not yet perfect or even close. Given this document will be with us long into the future, shouldn’t we take the time now to get it right?

Why not delay approval to get an appropriate amount of consultation with Calgarians instead of rushing to rubber stamp it? Let’s not forget, much of the consultation has occurred during a pandemic when folks were less than engaged with civic planning issues. Indeed, given the longterm implications of this document, should it maybe be an election issue? On this, Jeromy Farkas and I agree. The risk of delay is minimal compared to the potential cost of implementing a document with baked-in flaws.

Let’s play fair

At this point, I want to address a rebuttal used against Calgarians who say they want to preserve the character of their neighbourhoods. It has been suggested that in this context character is a ‘euphemism for exclusion’. This is pretty underhanded in my opinion. It’s a smear tactic, and we who purport to represent Calgarians should be above it. People buy their homes for many reasons that make up what is commonly referred to as ‘character’. A big part of that is what residential forms will be built in the neighbourhood and whether they will be sensitive to the surrounding residential forms. Painting that as ‘exclusionary’ does all of us a disservice. Please stop it.

Again, I feel there is much to like about the Guidebook for Great Communities. I am impressed by the immense amount of thought and effort that has been invested in it, and I believe it CAN be improved if we keep talking. We have a tremendous opportunity to collaborate with those who know their communities the best – those who live there. It would be a shame to not take advantage of that passion. Council is elected to represent Calgarians, and Calgarians are speaking. By listening to Calgarians and delaying approval on March 22, our Councillors have a chance to really shine and secure the trust of Calgarians. Trust takes time to build, is easily lost, and is very difficult to regain. Let’s ease off the gas and listen.

The Guidebook, like most every other civic issue, is complex. It is not my intention to over-simply, only to crystallize feedback I am getting from Ward 8 residents, and to give all Calgarians time to understand the complexity of the situation. We can work together to make the Guidebook even better, so long as we are given the time.

*UPDATE: I have changed my stance on delay. Good ideas can die on the vine if kicked down the road. Council has a mandate to make decisions, even in an election year. As such, I am not for delaying until after the election. That said, is there a middle ground? The hearings have included some good points for possible improvements.