N3: No parking! No cars! No worries!

I recently had a chance to tour Knightsbridge Homes’ and Metropia’s controversial new N3 condo in East Village, which has absolutely no parking for residents or visitors. While some saw the lack of parking as a huge risk in a city where most citizens can’t live without a car, Joe Starkman, President Knightsbridge Homes and his team did their research and realized while the market in Calgary for a condo with no parking was small, all he needed was 167 people in a city of over one million to sign up. 

Looking west to downtown...

Looking west to downtown...

Turns out he was correct. The 460 to 620 square foot condos were quickly snapped up. Today, the building is fully occupied with residents who love living East Village where almost everything is - or soon will be - within walking distance or a quick transit ride away.

While the homes are small, I and the two other housing professionals I was with were very impressed with their efficient designed.  While one might think N3’s market would be a haven for millennials, many were empty nesters.   

Communal living room...

Communal living room...

IKEA Connection

What I found really interesting too was that every buyer was given a $500 IKEA gift card to help outfit their condo, a Lifetime Car2Go Membership, $500 in Car2Go mileage credits and a $500 gift card to Bow Cycle. Obviously, N3 was destined to become a haven for walkers and cyclists, who only needed a car occasionally.  I also learned a special weekend IKEA bus (hourly service starting at 11 am) was established not only for N3 but all East Village residents and the City Center at the N3 condo show suite – it still operates today.

Double decker bike parking...

Double decker bike parking...

Top To Bottom Appeal

Calgary’s GEC architects designed a handsome building, which includes a spectacular roof top patio, complete with kitchen facilities and workout space.  The patio has million dollar views of the downtown skyline, as well as great views of the new Central Library, the river and mountains. The rooftop patio was very well used this summer, becoming a communal living room for all residents. It is a view that will never disappear, as all of the surrounding buildings will never get any taller.

Its basement is probably the best bike storage in Calgary.  It comes complete with a bike repair and washing area.  There is direct access to the mews between N3 and St. Louis hotel with a bike friendly ramp and of course state-of-the-art secure storage racks.  The bike room is bright and airy, not a dark and dingy basement.

Rooftop view looking NE...

Rooftop view looking NE...

Rooftop view looking south...

Rooftop view looking south...

Mixed Use

Like all good City Centre condo developments, N3 includes commercial uses at ground level.  Tim Hortons has recently opened along the 4th Street SE street frontage while The Brewer’s Apprentice has opened in the mid-block mews that separates N3 from the historic St. Louis Hotel.  Apprentice is a unique, high-tech concept that offers 48 different craft beers from Alberta and beyond.  They offer tastings and in addition to buying beer in cans and bottles, you can get freshly poured growlers and tallboys.

Kudos to the GEC architectural team who chose to make the entrance to N3 from the mews and not from 8th Ave SE or 4th St SE, thereby allowing for better commercial space at street level and a funky, European-like space in the mews.

Entrance to N3 is from the mews...

Entrance to N3 is from the mews...

View from balcony....

View from balcony....

Last Word

While N3 offered the lowest cost new condo prices in East Village and probably in all of the City Centre, it is by no means a low cost building. The amenities rival those of luxury condos.  I chatted with several residents during my tour and everyone was very happy with their purchase.

N3 has been so successfully Starkman and his team are going to “do it again.” Well, not exactly. They are currently developing plans for the 14-storey Velo, which will have a mix of housing types including mico-suites (under 250 sq. ft.), seniors’ housing and housing for the ably-disabled all in one tower.  And yes it will have some parking but not the typical amount.

As for the significance of the name N3, officially it stands for New attitude, New vision and New lifestyle, my interpretation is No parking, No cars, No worries!

Note: An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section, Dec 23, 2017.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

No parking! No Problem!

Condo Living: More Time For FUN!

21st Century: Century of the condo!

Calgary leads Vancouver in condo design?

Downtown Calgary: The Elephant In The Room?

While everyone seems to be in shock that Calgary's downtown office vacancy rate its 25%  our downtown still has more occupied office space than Vancouver, Portland or Austin. Cities with vibrant downtowns.  

Do we need to panic? Should we offer incentives for companies to move to Calgary? That is the elephant in the room....

Downtown Calgary's central business district has one of the largest concentrations of office buildings in North America. 

Downtown Calgary's central business district has one of the largest concentrations of office buildings in North America. 

The lights are still on, but is anyone still home in downtown Calgary. 

The lights are still on, but is anyone still home in downtown Calgary. 

SWEET DEALS

In 2001, Chicago got Boeing to move its head office from Seattle with a sweet deal - $60 million in tax breaks and incentives. In 2015, General Electric moves its head office from Fairfield Connecticut to Boston thanks to a whooping $145 million in incentives.

There's a general acknowledgement that tax incentives work. That they are a key tool for getting major corporations to bring business to town. But Calgary hasn't used this economic siren song to lure new business.

Is it time we did? Should we offer huge tax incentives to lure Amazon to downtown Calgary? Do drastic times call for drastic measures?

HERE'S THE PROBLEM

Look downtown and you'll see a whopping 10 million square feet of vacant office space.

It's hard to wrap your head around those kind of numbers, but it's the equivalent of 5,000 empty single-family suburban homes, or 10,000 condos, or about seven Chinook Centres.  Yikes.

Now traditionally, Calgary’s oil and gas sector has absorbed an average of 500,000 square feet of office space per year. So, even when (or if ) we get back to the old normal, it could take well over a decade to fill up the existing vacancy.

That being said, I remember planners and politicians in the mid ‘90s saying, that Calgary had so overbuilt, there would never would never be another new office building built in downtown Calgary again.  They were wrong.  We've added over a dozen new towers since then.

Clearly, we aren’t very good at predicting the future.  

This is an old graphic, but I expect the numbers haven't changed much.     Only 7% of downtown's vacant office space is in C class i.e. older properties with low rent that appeals to start-ups.  The A and AA space (63%) demands higher rents and operating costs that only larger corporation can afford.  They are also owned mostly by pension funds who will be very reluctant to offer big discounts, they would rather be patient and wait for the right long term deal. (credit Colliers: Calgary Office Market Report Q4, 2016)

This is an old graphic, but I expect the numbers haven't changed much.

Only 7% of downtown's vacant office space is in C class i.e. older properties with low rent that appeals to start-ups.  The A and AA space (63%) demands higher rents and operating costs that only larger corporation can afford.  They are also owned mostly by pension funds who will be very reluctant to offer big discounts, they would rather be patient and wait for the right long term deal. (credit Colliers: Calgary Office Market Report Q4, 2016)

ATTRACTING NEW BUSINESS

Over the past year, Calgary Economic Development has hosted numerous Real Estate Advisory Group meetings involving Calgary’s most experienced property owners, managers, leasing professionals and city staff. But where have these meeting got us. 

R. Scott Hutcheson, Executive Chair of the Board of Aspen Properties (which owns several downtown towers, including The Edison aka rebranded Pan Canadian building) is emphatic that “we need both Notley and Nenshi at the table, everybody needs to be working together.”  He adds, “a lot of work has already been done analyzing the situation and looking at many different strategies. We have looked at various case studies like converting office building to residential, but it doesn’t work without some sort of incentives.” 

While he and other downtown building owners won’t say it publically, it is going to take some drastically different thinking (i.e. incentives) to fill up 10,000 million square feet of office space.  

The Alberta government has a poor track record of “meddling” in the economy – failures include MagCan (a magnesium plant), Canadian Commercial Bank, Gainers (a meatpacking plant) and NovaTel (the cellular subsidiary of Alberta Government Telephones). 

In 2005, the City of Edmonton lured Dell to set up a call centre (that would create 1,000 jobs) with a 20-year agreement to waive property taxes, a concession worth $1.1 million over the first five years. The company closed the call centre and left 2008.  

One has to wonder just how wise it is to provide huge incentives to win the Amazon Sweepstakes.

Trevor Tombe, an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary, “cautions governments against using scarce public dollars to try and attract individual businesses. Such incentives distort economic activity, lower our productivity and require tax dollars be levied elsewhere to pay for them. Cities are also particularly ill-equipped to lean against business cycles. We would be better served to focus on neutral policies that improve the city overall: ensuring taxes are competitive, ease zoning rules, and maintaining a highly livable city to attract young and skilled workers.” 

He points to the paper “Head Office Location: Implications for Canada” by Head and Ries at Saunder School of Business, University of British Columbia commissioned by the Government of Canada’s Competitive Policy Review Panel in 2008, where they concluded, “While it may be appealing to offer inducements to attract head offices, there is no compelling case for promotional policies. Subsidies are likely to be counter-productive, since they can be subject to misallocation based on lobbying and they are likely to serve mostly to attract away headquarters from one Canadian city to another Canadian city.”

Link: Calgary Economic Development Report: Calgary's Economy In Depth

Given that 80% of the current vacancy space is less than 15,000 square feet is positive as that is the size of space that "start-ups" in various sectors will be looking for.  (credit Colliers: Calgary Office Market Report Q4, 2016)

Given that 80% of the current vacancy space is less than 15,000 square feet is positive as that is the size of space that "start-ups" in various sectors will be looking for.  (credit Colliers: Calgary Office Market Report Q4, 2016)

DOWNTOWN’S FUTURE

What happens if the oil & gas sector doesn’t come back, how do we back fill 10+ million square feet of office space.  Could downtown Calgary become an “innovation district?”  

Yes, the new buzz term in city-building and economic development is “innovation district” but there is no recipe on how to create one. Most happen organically rather than by design.  Usually, two or more synergistic businesses that are on the cusp of new technology locate near each and become huge successes, so others flock to be near them hoping the success will rub off.  

Could downtown Calgary become a green energy innovation district?  Could Calgary attract major Canadian and international solar and wind energy research companies to locate downtown. In fact, Suncor has operated six wind farms since 2002? Alberta and Calgary is rich in solar and wind power opportunities - could this be our downtown’s future.

A hundred years ago, the Robin Hood Flour Mills dominated the downtown skyline where Gulf Canada Square now stands. Perhaps it isn’t too far fetched to think that in the future the names of our downtown office towers might be Alberta Wind Energy Company or the Calgary Solar Power Corp.  

Downtown's 9th Avenue in the 1970s. 

Downtown's 9th Avenue in the 1970s. 

Last Word

Do we let downtown Calgary evolve naturally based on market demand and entrepreneurial forces? Or do we try to manipulate the office market by providing incentives for select businesses like Amazon?

That is the elephant in the room...

The lights are still on and there are still thousands of businesses calling downtown Calgary home.  In fact, more than in Vancouver, Portland or Austin, which all have thriving downtowns. 

The lights are still on and there are still thousands of businesses calling downtown Calgary home.  In fact, more than in Vancouver, Portland or Austin, which all have thriving downtowns. 

Public Art? Rocks, Keys, Dog & Bone?

Controversial public art raised its ugly head again in Calgary recently with the commencement of the construction of the Bowfort Tower artwork on the off ramp of the TransCanada Highway and Bowfort Road NW.  Yes, it is a strange place for public art. Yes, it is a strange name for a public artwork - sounds more like a new downtown condo or office tower. 

And yes, it seems like a strange choice as the NW gateway to Calgary. 

Bowfort Towers public artwork on the Trans Canada Highway at Bowfort Road. 

Bowfort Towers public artwork on the Trans Canada Highway at Bowfort Road. 

Change of heart?

When I first checked the City of Calgary's website to see what information they had posted about the piece, it included a statement about how the artwork referenced Calgary's Indigenous culture however that statement has been removed.  Link: City of Calgary, Bowfort Towers

Also since all of the controversy Mayor Nenshi and Chiefs of Treaty 7 have issued a joint statement saying that the piece was never intended to reference Calgary Indigenous Culture. Link: Nenshi Treaty 7 Chief's Joint Statement

However, on August 3, 2017, CBC posted the following statement as part of their coverage of the newly installed public art: 

The Bowfort Towers on the south side of the interchange were designed by artist Del Geist, who is based in New York, N.Y. Sarah Iley (Manager Arts & Culture, city of Calgary) said Geist drew inspiration from the Blackfoot people, and the towers capture the "essence, personality and history" of the area. "Those four towers relate to the Blackfoot cultural symbolism that talks about the four elements, the four stages of life (and) the four seasons," Iley said.

Link: CBC: Gateway to the City: Art Installation

Sorry I don't think you can just now say the piece doesn't make reference to the Blackfoot culture after saying it was. 

Blackfoot burial platform

Blackfoot burial platform

Calgary we have a problem

As a former public art gallery curator and frequent public art juror, I have often wondered why modern public art seems to be skewed towards the conceptual and minimalist genres, rather than just being fun.  I think this is especially true for what I call “drive-by public art,” i.e. public art that the public can’t get close, or have a chance to take some time to examine it, reflect and ponder its meaning, its concepts, which is critical to understanding and appreciating conceptual art.

When I saw the Bowfort Tower, I immediately knew we were in for another round of public art outrage. I passed by it almost everyday for a week waiting to see how it was going to look, but it just stayed the same – eight iron or wood pillars (hard to tell the difference when driving by) with flat rocks floating in the pillars.  It looked unfinished. It looked like part of the construction site. And yes, is did remind me of indigenous burial sites.

Perhaps, before any public artwork is installed, it should be vetted by a larger public than just a jury and administration. Perhaps, City Council should have final approval of all public art works just like they do all secondary suites. Just kidding!

Obviously, the current open invitation, which is short-listed by administration, with the final decision being made by a different jury of art professionals, community representatives and administration for each piece is isn’t working. In fact, many experienced artists won’t submit to juried competitions because they know the process is flawed. Sad, but true!

However, not all is lost when it comes to public art in Calgary…or is it? Depends on who you are talking to. Read on...

Close-up view of UNLOCKED a new temporary public artwork on 17th Avenue SW.  

Close-up view of UNLOCKED a new temporary public artwork on 17th Avenue SW. 

UNLOCKED 

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 12.13.33 PM.png

While Bowfort Towers was getting all the attention by public art zealots, over the past two weeks, few were commenting on Calgary’s other two new public artworks – Boney, located in SETON at the entrance to the new Medical Professional Building and UNLOCK, in the middle of the sidewalk on the 200E block of 17th Ave SE.  

UNLOCK, while also visually fun, is a more thought provoking piece.  It consists of a wire mesh archway (12 feet long, 6 feet wide and 8 feet high) located on the sidewalk on 17th Ave SE, between Centre Street and 1 Street SE in front of a new apartment block.  Artist Joanne MacDonald sees keys as a signifier of personal memories – first bike lock, first car keys, first keys to your apartment.  In a letter to local businesses along 17th Ave SE, she asked them to donate keys to be installed on the archway.  It is also her intention to encourage the public to participate at upcoming community events by donating keys as well.

In her letter to businesses along the block, she hoped UNLOCKED would “promote discussion on themes like accessibility, opportunity, privilege, employment, ownership and gentrification.” I think this is a big leap to think the keys will be the catalyst to promote discussion, however the archway does create a fun pedestrian experience whether you walk through or around it.   

We visited at twilight and the setting sun sparkled off the metal keys created a lovely ambience while we lingered for a few minutes before moving on.

Unlock could become a very interesting installation in the right location. 

Unlock could become a very interesting installation in the right location. 

Personally, I like the way the artist’s references the wire mesh fences that are used at construction sites everywhere in her arch. I think it is great when public art can connect with its site in some manner. I like the simplicity of the structure and to me, the archway visually creates a pageantry-like experience that enhances the everyday sidewalk experience.

What I didn’t see in the artist’s statement or city explanation is the that artwork is an interesting spin on the world wide phenomena of lovers (often as tourists) placing locks in public places as a declaration of their love for each other.  When I first read about the piece, I assumed the artist and the City were encouraging couples and families to come to the archway and add their keys to the artwork as a symbol of their love of each other – a modern love-in you might say.

I love interactive public art.

Backstory: Unlocked is one of four public art pieces being installed this August as part of a new program called The cREactive Realm developed by Blank Page Studio in collaboration with The City of Calgary. It is seen as a way to support businesses along 17th Avenue while streets are torn up to replace water and sanitary lines, repair and rebuild the road and make public realm improvements – new sidewalks, benches, trees and streetlights. The goal is to create interactive, playful experiences using public art that will draw Calgarians to the blocks while they are under construction.  The total budget for the four artworks is $50,000.
This is another of the four public artworks being produced and temporarily installed along 17th Ave SW during construction as a means of attracting people to visit 17th while it gets new sidewalks and utilities. Budget $15,000.

This is another of the four public artworks being produced and temporarily installed along 17th Ave SW during construction as a means of attracting people to visit 17th while it gets new sidewalks and utilities. Budget $15,000.

The signage says: CONNECT is a project designed to bring an artist workspace into the Public Realm. Working towards the creation of a piece of public furniture Laura and Micheal Hosaluk are designing and developing their ideas as they share their creative process with you.     Using the lathe and the bandsaw to cut and form Red Cedar from B.C. and Milk Paint to add colour this duo will be working to transform raw materials into a celebration of the process.

The signage says: CONNECT is a project designed to bring an artist workspace into the Public Realm. Working towards the creation of a piece of public furniture Laura and Micheal Hosaluk are designing and developing their ideas as they share their creative process with you. 

Using the lathe and the bandsaw to cut and form Red Cedar from B.C. and Milk Paint to add colour this duo will be working to transform raw materials into a celebration of the process.

BONEY 

This bone is perched near the roof-top of the EFW Radiology building in one of Calgary's newest communities - SETON. 

This bone is perched near the roof-top of the EFW Radiology building in one of Calgary's newest communities - SETON. 

Boney is a whimsical 9-foot tall purple dog consisting of nine bone shaped pieces designed by the German arts collective Inges Idee (yes, this is the same collective that brought us Travelling Light, better known as the Giant Blue Ring), fabricated and installed by Calgary’s Heavy Industries, who have been responsible for the fabrication of many of Calgary’s new public artworks.  Adding, to add to the whimsy, the dog is looking up to the top of the building where another bone is on the roof. 

Trevor Hunnisett, Development Manager of Brookfield Residential says, “the response to date has been excellent. Given the piece’s location across from the South Health Campus and at the front door of our new medical building, we wanted something that would put a smile on a person’s face regardless of age and personal circumstances.”  In this case, the piece was chosen and paid for by Brookfield Residential - no jury, no City money and no controversy.  Hunnisett wouldn’t divulge the exact price of the artwork but did say it was less than 1% of cost of the building.

Before the snarky public art purists say something like “Sure, all Calgarians want are fluff pieces of horses and other kitschy art,’ I would like to remind them that Jeff Koons has become one of the world’s most famous artists creating artworks that look like the balloon animals pone would see at a child-oriented event. His work is collected by many knowledgeable collectors and is in the collection of art museums around the world. 

If I had one criticism of Boney, it is that it is derivative; one could even say plagiarizes Koons’ work. It is the polar opposite of Bowfort Towers in that it has no hidden meaning, concepts or social statements.  

It is just plain fun – and what’s wrong with that? In my mind Calgary’s new public art is too skewed to obscure conceptual art; sometimes public art can (should) just be fun!

BONEY looking up at the bone on the roof. I love that BONEY's tail and ears are bone-shaped and the cheerful purple colour. Is it just coincidence that Boney is Nenshi purple????     I also love the simple seating that is all around the piece inviting the public to sit and chat; that's being public friendly. 

BONEY looking up at the bone on the roof. I love that BONEY's tail and ears are bone-shaped and the cheerful purple colour. Is it just coincidence that Boney is Nenshi purple????

 I also love the simple seating that is all around the piece inviting the public to sit and chat; that's being public friendly. 

Another view of BONEY with the South Health Campus in the background. 

Another view of BONEY with the South Health Campus in the background. 

Last Word

Sometimes I think artists and curators expect too much from public art. While it can be a catalyst for discussion and debate, in most cases, the public glances at the art, likes it or doesn’t like it, and moves on. There is not a lot of thinking, pondering and reflecting on its meaning, concepts, social or political statements. 

What it does do in subtle and subliminal ways is make the pedestrian experience more interesting. To me, urban places are often defined by the diversity and quality of their public art, even if we don’t always realize it.

Personally the best NEW piece of public art in Calgary was a grassroots one in the LRT pedestrian underpass from Sunnyside to 10th Street at Riley Park. 

This rainbow was painted to celebrate Calgary's Gay Pride Week.  I love the fact that someone has taken the time to clean up the area around the underpass. After I took this photo they toss the garbage in a dumpster nearby.      I am thinking that if the Bowfort Road / Trans Canada Highway underpass had been painted like this on a permanent basis, it would have been well received.  In addition to adding some colour to a concrete grey underpass, it would also have delivered an uplifting message i.e. Calgary is an inclusive city or perhaps Calgary is a city hope and optimism. Both of which are true and would be very appropriate for a gateway artwork. 

This rainbow was painted to celebrate Calgary's Gay Pride Week.  I love the fact that someone has taken the time to clean up the area around the underpass. After I took this photo they toss the garbage in a dumpster nearby.  

I am thinking that if the Bowfort Road / Trans Canada Highway underpass had been painted like this on a permanent basis, it would have been well received.  In addition to adding some colour to a concrete grey underpass, it would also have delivered an uplifting message i.e. Calgary is an inclusive city or perhaps Calgary is a city hope and optimism. Both of which are true and would be very appropriate for a gateway artwork. 

Community Engagement: The Community's Perspective

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. 

Centre Street is already a busy bus route, in the future it will be home to the new LRT Green Line. 

Centre Street is already a busy bus route, in the future it will be home to the new LRT Green Line. 

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.

Highwood Golf Course tree-lined fairway.

Highwood Golf Course tree-lined fairway.

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.

Highwood development is closer to downtown than many people think...that is the Bow Tower in the background. 

Highwood development is closer to downtown than many people think...that is the Bow Tower in the background. 

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. 

Old multi-family housing on the west edge of the golf course. 

Old multi-family housing on the west edge of the golf course. 

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.
Public Welcome?

Public Welcome?

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?

If you like this blog, you will like:

Community Engagement: The Developer's Perspective

Community Engagement & Growth: The Academic's Perspective

Community Engagement Gone Wild

Why NIMBY's speak louder than YIMBYs

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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