Over the past few months, I have done a Q&A with Greg Morrow, an urban growth academic at the University of Calgary and Chris Ollenberger, an experienced Calgary developer about Calgary’s community engagement process. To close the circle, I thought a Q&A with a community leader was needed.
Recently, I met with Elise Bieche President of the Highland Park Community Association who has been leading the community’s response to the redevelopment of the Highland Golf Course. I was impressed with her professionalism - no ranting, no name-calling and no unrealistic demands.
Q: What are your biggest frustrations with the City’s current community engagement process?
The fact the engagement process wasn’t lead by the City’s administration from the beginning. The developer “hosted” some engagement sessions, asked for the community’s feedback on two options and then things went really silent for a long time. We learned, after the fact, what the developer submitted to the City didn’t resemble what the community “endorsed.” Then as the file was being completed to submit it to Planning Commission, the City hosted an “information session.” This gave residents the false belief their feedback would be incorporated into the final submission, but it was too late.
We were frustrated we were never able to easily access the file as it progressed through the City’s approval process. The community wasn’t treated as a key stakeholder.
Q: What changes would you like to see in how the City implements in their engagement process?
I believe the City should own the engagement process from the beginning when big developments are first proposed in established communities. This is a 50-acre site that will radically change our community and the entire north central area of the city over the next 25 years.
I think the City had an obligation to seek feedback from the community early and understand what we valued to ensure the development is complementary to both the topography of the site and existing community. I think the City should be obligated to respect and incorporate the community’s feedback wherever possible.
There needs to be a mechanism in the community engagement process that when major changes have been made to the proposed development after the community has endorsed it, then there must be a re-engagement with the community before it goes to Planning Commission. In our case, the community was presented with slope adaptive buildings, the re-establishment of the buried creek and a density of 1600 in the original plan. All of these were important to the community yet were missing both in the Planning Commission and City Council submissions.
Our community recently participated in a charrette for the Green Line’s 40th Ave North Station (includes the Highland Golf course redevelopment site) organized by the City and lead by Gary Andrishak from IBI’s Los Angeles office. It was very useful. and should be the model for community engagement.
I believe a charrette should be done as early as possible with the community, developer and city to foster a shared vision and key principles to guide major developments in established communities.
Q: What changes would you recommend to developers in engaging with a community where they are proposing a major new development?
Make sure you are doing genuine engagement. The community is not your enemy; we should and could be your ambassadors. I am positive getting community support early would save the developer and City money not only during the approval process but also as the project is being built. Don’t think you can “outsmart” the community - be transparent throughout the process.
It’s really important for there to be integrity in the entire planning process. A developer should not present options to a community and then take something completely different to administration. I think developers have an obligation to ensure they aren’t “falsely advertising” something to the community.
I would highly recommend developers spend more time in the community and get to know the community before they develop their plan. Find out what the issues are and talk to key individuals.
Q: How do you respond to the claims by some that the Highland Park’s community’s protest to the golf course redevelopment is just another case of NIMBYism?
If you look closely, our neighbourhood is very much in favour of the development of the golf course. Our community was also in favour of the Centre Street alignment of the Greenline. We just want quality redevelopment.
Volunteers from our community have literally put in thousands of hours on this issue because we learned early on we could not rely on City administration to represent our interests. Communities are often criticized for being too vehement about their wants and desires, but ultimately the poor engagement process forces communities into this role.
I think the City’s community engagement process fosters NYMBYism by allowing the developer and administration to develop the initial site plan without the community at the table. This means when the draft plan is presented to the community they have a lot of catching up to do and when they question or reject some or the entire proposed plan they are immediately labeled as NYMBYist. That is not fair.
I also think the planning process shouldn’t be just focused on just the proposed project but should look at it within the context of the entire community. You can’t evaluate a 50-acre site properly without evaluating how the proposed development will impact the pre-existing community.
Q: What advice would you give other Community Associations in established communities facing major developments?
- Get involved as early as possible in the planning process.
- Be constructive, reasonable and respectful at all times.
- Accept development is going to happen. Taking a position of “no development” is not a reasonable option.
- Learn as much as you can about the complexities of the City’s development approval process, as well as how the Calgary Municipal Development Plan and Province’s Municipal Government Act apply to the site’s development.
- Ask lots of questions of your community, the developer and administration.
- Communicate clearly and concisely.
- Accept the new development will not right all the wrongs of the past.
- Be prepared to ensure mistakes of the past aren’t repeated, especially when it comes to green space.
- Don’t expect City Administration to look after your community’s interests.
- Be prepared to review and comment on documents on short notice.
- Foster a good relationship with your Councillor.
Something To Think About?
In chatting with Bieche, a couple of new ideas were hatched. What if the City hired third-party professionals to manage all future community engagement so there is no conflict of interests? The City and the developer would share the costs 50/50. Ideally, a standard community engagement protocol should be developed so all communities would be treated equally when a major new development is being proposed.
We also wondered if there may be a role for the Provincial government to play given ultimately some of the development issues are governed by the Municipal Government Act. Perhaps the funding of the community engagement process then should be a third, a third, a third. Something to think about?