West District: Community Engagement Gone Wild?

Richard White, September 15, 2014 

It wasn’t that long ago that suburban developers in Calgary created a new community master plan, presented it to city planners, got comments, made changes, held a one night community open house (if there was another community close by), integrated the community’s input and then got the  “go ahead” from the city. But no longer is one, or even a few open houses sufficient to get the City and the community’s approval for new developments – large or small.

In 2003, the City of Calgary adopted a community engagement (CE) policy called “Engage” that governs how both the City and developers must work with citizens (stakeholders) to ensure they are informed and engaged in all developments that impact their quality of life. Over the past 10+ years, community engagement has become more and more complex.  The City even has an “Engage Team” with a director and manager to ensure the proper engagement protocol has been followed not only by the private sector, but also by City departments.

The EngagementHub aka EngagementHug along 85th Street in the community of West Springs. 

The EngagementHub aka EngagementHug along 85th Street in the community of West Springs. 

EngagementHub  (EH)

At first, developers were hesitant to embrace the idea of CE, but today most developers understand the need to get community support before you go to City planners, not after.

I recently learned Truman Development Corp. has embraced the idea of CE to an extent never before seen in Calgary and I expect Canada, maybe North America.  This past April, they launched an information-rich website announcing plans for creating a new 96-acre urban village community called West District in the new community of West Springs.  (For comparison East Village is 113 acres in size.)  

Then in June they opened a purpose-built “EngagementHub” building on the 700 block of 85th Avenue SW.  This 2,000 square foot EngagementHub that looks like a hip café from the street, was open for four weeks in June/July to talk to the community about “neighbourhood building” principles, then for another four weeks in August/September to share visuals around a proposed vision based on previous input.  The plan is for it to be open again in October to present even more detailed information. That is a total of over 200 hours of pre-application open houses - and, this doesn’t include all of the private meetings that have taken place with individuals and the community associations!

Is this an example of “community engagement gone wild?” Have developers finally abandoned the 20th century “design and defend” model of community planning i.e. the developer and consultants spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars developing a master plan and then defend it to the public and planners.

The EH is full of large concept renderings of sample streetscapes with shops, restaurants and patios, as well as concepts for modern, Paris-scale condos (six to eight floors high) and park spaces.  There are also worktables and lots of urban design books for the public to leaf through and share their ideas on what West District should bring to their community.

While some would say Truman’s vision for West District is like Calgary’s Kensington shopping district, in fact, it is the other way around - West District is what Kensington is trying to become as it starts adding more condos into its mix of existing shops and single-family homes.

Perhaps a more fitting name for Truman’s EngagementHub might be the EngagementHug as Truman has totally embraced the idea of community buy-in upfront, not at or near the end of the approval process. 

I can’t help but think the developers who so clearly seek community input should be rewarded with an accelerated approval process.  If the community supports the development, why should the City delay its approval - especially given it won’t cost the city a penny to service the land. This is in fact a mega infill project.

Inside the Engagement Hub is a massing model of the proposed community, along with lots of display boards with facts, figures and pictures. 

Just a small section of the post-it board full of ideas and concerns left by visitors. 

Just a small section of the post-it board full of ideas and concerns left by visitors. 

A works station with survey questions and interactive presentation screen.

A works station with survey questions and interactive presentation screen.

Just a few of the resource books available for looking up ideas. 

Just a few of the resource books available for looking up ideas. 

Interactive video screen with all of the key information at a touch.

Interactive video screen with all of the key information at a touch.

West District At A Glance

West District is a 96-acre, master-planned new community in West Springs, at the corner of 85th Street SW and Old Banff Coach Road.  Truman’s vision is to create a new walkable, mixed-use community with 3,500 residences (that could house 7,000+ people), as well as 500,00 square feet of street retail (think Kensington Village) and 1.2 million square feet of office space employing about 5,265 people. This is significantly different than the 700 residences (for 1400 people) and about 200 jobs that the current zoning allows for. 

Truman’s vision fits perfectly with the City’s vision of walkable suburban development. In the past, new communities might have 3 to 5 units/acre. West Springs and nearby Cougar Ridge (WSCR) has a current density of only 3.1 units per acre.  West District’s plan calls for 36 units per acre, which, while 10 times the current density, would only increase the overall density of the WSCR to 5.3 units/acre, well below the City’s 8 units/acre benchmark for new suburban development.

You would think it would be difficult to sell the idea of a modest density, mixed-use community in the middle of an existing upscale, suburban single-family community like West Springs.  However, to date, while some have questioned the idea of an urban village in the suburbs, everyone seems to have appreciated the opportunity to participate in shaping the future of their community. It will be interesting to see how the vision evolves as it enters the final stages before submission to the City later this fall.

Kudos to Truman Development Corp., Intelligent Futures and CivicWorks Planning + Design for establishing a new benchmark for community engagement in Calgary. 

Conceptual condo rendering with ground floor shops and seven floors of residential. It should be noted that Truman is both the developer and builder so what you see should be what you get.  In most new communities, the developer creates the vision and then sells parcels of the land to builders who interpret the vision and often make changes from the conceptual drawings. 

Conceptual condo rendering with ground floor shops and seven floors of residential. It should be noted that Truman is both the developer and builder so what you see should be what you get.  In most new communities, the developer creates the vision and then sells parcels of the land to builders who interpret the vision and often make changes from the conceptual drawings. 

Proposed land use map for West District. Not how streets link with existing community to the east. 

Proposed land use map for West District. Not how streets link with existing community to the east. 

Map of the fragmented ownership of the West District site.  One of the issues the City has for development of the land on the west side of the city is fragmented ownership, which doesn't allow for comprehensive community planning. Truman has been able to get development agreements with all of the landowners, which then allowed them to develop an integrated community vision. 

Map of the fragmented ownership of the West District site.  One of the issues the City has for development of the land on the west side of the city is fragmented ownership, which doesn't allow for comprehensive community planning. Truman has been able to get development agreements with all of the landowners, which then allowed them to develop an integrated community vision. 

Last Word

More and more Calgary is seeing development of urban villages outside of the inner city – including Brookfield’s SETON in the southeast and Livingston in the far north. Traveling out to West Springs area is like traveling to a different city for an inner-city guy like me. Who knew that 85th Street is the new 4th Street with Mercato West, Vin Room West, Blue Door Oil & Vinegar and Ohh la la Patisserie? Maybe they will even host the Lilac Festival in the future!

With the predicted average of 20,000+ people moving to Calgary each year for the foreseeable future, the City and developers must find a way to work together to facilitate the approval of one of these urban villages every year, in addition to developments in new suburbs and inner-city communities.  

And although I realize planning approval resources are tight, the City must find a way to expedite projects like West District that help fulfill the City’s vision of creating walkable new communities. It must not be delayed it in a heap of red tape.

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to create better communities

Intelligent Infilling or Living in a bubble

West Campus: Calgary's first 24/7 community