Ollenberger: Developers Do Listen & Make Changes!

As the founding President and CEO of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) in 2007, Chris Ollenberger assembled a “simply amazing” (his words) to develop and implement the vision and master plan for East Village, still being executed today. 

Working with urban designers at BroadwayMaylan (an international architecture and urban planning firm), the CMLC team worked relentlessly to ensure the East Village Master Plan was not only visionary, but attractive to developers and those already calling East Village home. To do so, the team developed one of the most successful community engagement programs in Calgary’s history.

Since leaving CMLC in 2011, he has worked on several infill projects in Calgary from mixed-use office, residential and retail to the controversial Harvest Hill Golf Course redevelopment. 

A civil engineer by training, Ollenberger has hands-on-experience linking vision with reality. While he loves to think outside the box, at the same time, he understands the limitations of economic and engineering realities.

I thought it would be interesting to get his insights into Calgary’s community engagement process.

Q: Calgary’s community engagement is not working, community members feel their concerns and ideas have little impact on what the City approves. Is this true?

A: While I can understand the frustration of community members, I would disagree the public’s concerns have no impact.

Engagement isn’t about continuing dialogue until there is unanimous approval. It is about ensuring viewpoints are heard, explored, documented and either incorporated or explained why they weren’t incorporated into a proposed development. 

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In the case of Harvest Hills’ redevelopment, almost two years of engagement occurred, including in-person discussions, open houses, thousands of letter submissions and a 10-hour public hearing in front of City Council. 

As a result, several changes were made including green space buffers behind existing homes and locating multi-family districts away from existing single-family homes

Many elements of the public feedback were not aligned with the City’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP is a statutory plan that governs the City’s future growth), but were nonetheless incorporated into the plan to reflect resident concerns.  In fact, some Council members wanted more density and commercial. And we convinced Council that in some cases community feedback needed to take precedence over idealistic planning considerations, when retrofitting a ‘90s low-density neighborhood like Harvest Hills.

Q: In some cases the community is frustrated because the proposed project doesn’t meet the requirements of the City’s Municipal Development Plan (MDP). Comments?

A. The MDP provides the broad framework for future growth.  That doesn’t mean every sentence must or can be specifically addressed and met in isolation. The public must understand City Council is responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the entire city, which sometimes are opposed to the interests of individuals near the development site.  It is impossible to satisfy all of the goals of the MDP and the demands of all individuals.   

Some communities are often frustrated with the MDP because it advocates for more density versus low density, car-oriented preferences. 

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Q: Have community members unfairly criticized developers for not changing their development plans to accommodate community concerns?

Though some developers have not done the best job of explaining why - or why not -specific concerns were not incorporated into development proposals, most do. 

Some community members’ comments are simply not viable or rational. For example, we have heard comments like “an increase in density is not desirable or needed, that it will result in more renters and renters are undesirable.”  People also tell us they want more transit, but don’t agree transit needs density to create viable ridership thresholds.

Infill developments are a challenging balancing act between regulations, bylaws, engineering specifications, financing requirements set by banks and other lenders, planning directions and policies, market desires, affordability/market demand, physical constraints of sites, contamination issues, drainage issues, servicing constraints/costs and other factors. 

Q: What changes to the community engagement process are needed to make it work better for the developer, community and City?

It needs to be shorter.  Municipalities tend try to engage through too many open houses which too often become a forum for a few people and don’t engage everyone. No question, engagement needs to be genuine and broad, but length of engagement doesn’t equal quality.  

The people most frustrated are those who just want the City to say “NO!” So when a development proposal isn’t rejected, they blame the City for “not listening” or “siding with the developer.” Neither are true. The City’s approval process is very genuine in every community I have worked in.

Q: If you could share one message with community associations re: infill developments what would it be?

There is a mutual responsibility of developer, City and community to all work towards quality re-development. 

The City needs to realize infill developments often don’t nicely fit with existing policies and attempting to force-fit them to do so leads to both developer and community frustration.

Developers need to bring quality developments to the community upfront, listen to community input respectfully and then explain their decisions.  

Community members often assume all developer decisions are made to increase profit, while true to a point, more often than they think developers are simply following City policy.  For example, in many cases the developer is accused of wanting more density to increase profits, when in fact it is the City who is demanding more density.

Individuals, community associations and special interest groups need to realize the City and developers have constraints on what is financially, physically or practical to deliver.  Communities must evolve if they want to be vibrant attractive to the next generation - it’s the quality of change that’s important.

One project can’t solve the community’s entire problem. 

Q: There has been much criticism of the City’s red tape. Is there some “low hanging fruit” the City could change that would benefit Calgarians?

A. A coordinated viewpoint on development impacts across all City business units.  Far too much time and delays are the result of every City business unit acting in their own silo and not working together – in some cases, they even work in opposition to each other. 

 Q: If you could share one message with City administration, what would it be?

A. The planning review process needs to be far less accommodating of allowing specific business units to hold-up good projects due to their isolated concerns or funding considerations.  If it’s good for the City as a whole, that should be the driver.

Q: If you could share one message with City Council what would it be?

A. Provide direction to the Administration to figure out how to move good development projects forward quickly. The current process stifles the innovation Council is looking for and developers would like to propose.  It is easier to just propose what we know will get approved.

Last Word

“I truly think the vast majority of developers are quite open to input on their proposals, and genuinely work with communities to achieve a good balance of all considerations, but no project can be perfect for everyone,” says Ollenberger. 

In knowing and talking to lots of developers over the past 20+ years, I concur.

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