Enhancing Established Community Development: Remove Bureaucracy

This is the last of a three-part look at how the City of Calgary can better work with developers and the community to accommodate 80,000 new homes to be built in established neighbourhoods by 2039. The first suggestion was to make multifamily development a “permitted” use on land already zoned (approved) for multifamily, as opposed to the current policy of making all multifamily buildings a “discretionary” use and therefore subject to endless debate.  The second was to reform the City’s Subdivision and Development Appeal Board allowing the appeal process to be more effective for everyone i.e. a better balance between the needs of individuals and better balance the needs of individuals and the city-at-large.

This blog looks at a third suggestion – remove redundant or ambiguous bureaucracy and policy to enhance the development approval process in existing communities.

Addicted to policies

In talking to various developers over the past few months, one developer stated, “we should eliminate all of the City’s Area Redevelopment Plans (ARP) and let the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) govern all of our development decisions.”  I initially thought this was a crazy idea, but the more I think about it, it may have some merit.

More housing in established neighbourhoods also brings more shops and amenities within walking distance.

The more plans, policies, bylaws, guidelines and rules you have governing development, the more ambiguity you have as every word and statement is open to interpretation and debate. A simple word like “should vs. will” can hold up a new development for weeks, maybe months.

I heard another person say, “The City of Calgary is addicted to policy!”  Currently, there are four layers of City policy governing a new development the Municipal Development Plan, Land-Use Bylaws, Zoning and Area Redevelopment Plans, which is then magnified when each is interpreted sometimes slightly and sometime grossly different by the Council members, administration, communities and developers.

What is an ARP?

The City’s website states, “The purpose an Area Redevelopment Plan is to provide a policy framework to guide the long-term redevelopment of a specific area of the city (usually two or more communities). The Plan provides clear policy direction for key aspects such as the vision, scale, urban form and character for redevelopment.  The Plan is future-oriented and depicts how the Plan area is to be developed over an extended time period. No specific time frame is applied to the Plan although the majority of the proposed development is expected within a 25 to 30 years.”

Shaganappi Area Redevelopment Plan outlining the density and type of development for every block. 

One of the biggest issues with Area Redevelopment Plans (ARPs) is that many of the established communities’ ARPs are out of date with current city planning thinking. So when a new development is proposed, though it may fit well with the City’s overarching growth management principles it doesn’t fit with the specifics of the existing ARP for that community.   This can result in one of two things; either a long debate to justify why the proposed development makes sense given current economic and planning reasoning or the development is put on hold while the ARP is revised.  In both cases, it means the development is delayed for months, even years, which leads to more expensive housing in established communities.

Case in point - The first proposal of the St. Johns condo on 10th Street NW triggered the need for a revision of the Hillhurst/Sunnyside ARP and ultimately a five-year delay before construction could begin.  Changes in the ARP resulted in density than the original plan, which resulted in significant increases in the price of the condos of tens of thousands of dollars as the purchase of the land was based on being able to build more units.  It also increased the cost, as construction costs were much higher in 2011 than they would have been in 2006 when the project was first proposed.

Win-Win-Win

The benefits of making these three changes (making multi-family homes a permitted use on land zoned for multi-family, reform of SDAB and cutting the bureaucracy associated with inner city residential development approvals) for the homebuyer would be more affordable and more varied housing (duplexes, townhomes, small condo complexes) in established neighbourhoods, rather than just large single-family homes, old small bungalows and tired walk up apartment blocks.

New infill housing projects mean more families moving back to established communities which the revitalizes it. 

The benefits to the City would be to achieve its goal of accommodating more of Calgary’s growth in established communities, rather than building new communities with their costly new infrastructure, transit, schools, parks, libraries and recreation centres needs.  It should be noted that significant growth in established neighbourhoods will also result in the need to increase the capacity of outdate infrastructure and City facilities.

With a more streamlined approval process, the City would spend less time and money approving projects that already fit within the City’s growth management strategies, allowing for more time to be spent on innovative projects, which require relaxations and variances from approved policy. 

One of the biggest barriers to established community development is the costs associated with the length of time and expense of redesigns that will be needed to get approval.

One of the biggest debates for any infill multifamily project in established communities is how does it impact the back alley neighbours. 

One of the biggest debates for any infill multifamily project in established communities is how does it impact the back alley neighbours. 

An interesting sidebar - the Municipal Government Act, (which gives the City the authority to govern the planning of the city) states that if the City does not render a decision on a sub-division or development permit application within 40 days, it is deemed to be a refusal.  This would mean any applicant who doesn’t get a decision from the City in 40 days could appeal the “deemed refusal decision” at SDAB and get a decision without having to go through the complex City and community review process.  I am not suggesting this as a strategy to expedite inner-city development, but it is an option.

In Calgary, rarely is a decision rendered in 40 days.  Four to six months is more the norm for a simple, inner-city infill house application and six plus months for anything more complex.   The net result is supply can’t meet demand and when that happen the cost of inner city homes increases and that encourages new community development at the edge of the city where housing is more affordable.

Last Word

Calgary’s motto should be “working together to make a great city better!” I truly hope developers, politicians, planners, urban designers and the public can work together in the future to streamline the approval and appeal process for projects in established neighbourhoods to the benefit of everyone. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Enhancing Established Community Development: Multifamily

Enhancing Established Community Development: SDAB

The Suburbs move to City Centre in Calgary 

80% of Calgarians must live in the 'burbs