Plan It finally set to hit the streets

By Jeremy Zhao

What will Calgary look like in 60 years? That’s the question Calgary’s city council tried to answer last Monday when they unanimously voted in favour of Plan It, a combination of documents that will shape how Calgary will grow economically, socially and environmentally. All stakeholders were generally happy to see Plan It passed, but for various reasons.

Mary Axworthy, Director of Land Use Planning and Policy, was encouraged to see Plan It voted through and stated that “all members [were] supportive.”

She noted that while some were disappointed by certain amendments, the most important thing was that this was a real shift in approach for the city.

The most contentious amendment was to lower the density threshold from 70 residents per gross developable hectare to 60 residents and jobs per hectare in new communities. Despite this change, Axworthy noted there will still be more intensification in developed areas, and none of those goals were amended.

Tom Howard, president of the Urban Calgary Students’ Association, had mixed feelings about Plan It.

“On the one hand I’m cautiously happy that Plan It was passed,” Howard said. “On the other hand, I’m very concerned with the precedent this sets for future development and future citizen participation in the planning process.”

Howard criticized council for holding a private meeting with key developers to lower density thresholds as part of a compromise on Plan It. He thought it was “pretty disastrous” and that “students [would be] disheartened by the process.”

Grace Lui, senior development manager of Carma Developers, disagreed with the assertion that this gave developers an advantage over other party stakeholders.

“That particular meeting was no different than the electorate meeting with aldermen,” said Lui.

She said that while industry is much happier with some of the changes, there were still reservations regarding Plan It’s implementation. One of them includes densification near corridors and major activity nodes in communities.

“I think it’s really good to have a vitality of activity centres and corridors,” Lui said. Developers were not adverse to the concept, she said, but goals such as complete streets are hard to achieve due to problems like heavy traffic.

One of the biggest proponents of the plan was local advocacy group, the Better Calgary Campaign, but they have since pulled their support.

Naheed Nenshi, a Mount Royal University professor and BCC volunteer, said that there was “a very big problem” and it was a content issue that caused the group to pull its support. He noted that the closed door deal was unacceptable because city council and the developers “could have done it two years ago” if they wanted to.

Nenshi also pointed to the amendment as being “incredibly ambiguous.” He said the wording could allow developers to build communities with lower densities than existing communities.

“We can’t build a primary transit network if there’s no density on the edges,” Nenshi said.

Richard Priest, chief operating officer of Apex Limited Partnership, had a different opinion on Plan It. Priest pointed out that while developers didn’t get everything they wanted, the amendment was a good compromise. He noted that the density thresholds were still too prescriptive.

Priest acknowledged that students did not want to live on the fringes of the city, but that developers still want to make a positive impact for the community and students.

“We are trying to make sure there is affordable housing,” Priest said.

Priest was one of the participants who met with Mayor Dave Bronconnier and city council to discuss the amendment, and thought it was important that the developers had a voice at the table.

“We’re the guys that have to risk millions of dollars,” Priest said. “We are the main stakeholders.”

However, James Schwinn, president of Aixecar Incorporated, argued that while mixed-use urban development is more complicated, there is actually less risk involved.

He also noted that the distribution of density was important.

“When you loosen the boundary conditions, you can radically change the outcome,” Schwinn said.

Schwinn added that city council is not an expert on development, and the input of sociologists, community leaders and urban planners should be sought on top of that of developers.

Urban Development Institution executive director Michael Flynn was pleased with the final version because it allowed for a business perspective. He said developers had a different role to play because they had capital to consider.

Flynn was also happy that an implementation team will be created to oversee Plan It. He noted the density threshold set was realistic, and that single family units are still the most preferred and valuable product.

Aldermen were generally content with the direction of Plan It.

Ald. Joe Connelly said it was “a pretty good plan at the end of the day.”

He thought Plan It created a bipolar council and was glad the mayor stepped in to make a compromise.

Connelly was quoted by the Calgary Herald saying that Calgary did not have an urban sprawl problem, but a transportation problem. He pointed to Crowchlid Trail failing every rush hour, and said Calgarians still want smaller cars or electric hybrids.

“Plan It will not result in cheaper housing,” Connelly said, and elaborated that students will want single family housing units in the future because it is stressful to raise a family in a condominium.

Ald. Druh Farrell was disappointed in the lower density thresholds, but thought it was a step forward and signified a shift for Calgary.

Farrell said an urban lifestyle has more benefits, and believes students may not necessarily want to move into a single-family house.

Brentwood resident and CivicCamp volunteer Cheri Macaulay thought Plan It had come a long way, noting that transit-oriented development around her community, for example, will benefit both students and the general population.

“Change is not always easy in any established community, [but] the more they know [about it], the more they are willing to embrace it,” Macaulay said.


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