Chinatown Makeover: You can’t please everyone!

Does Chinatown get swallowed up as the downtown highrises (office and residential) creep northwards toward the Bow River.

Or, does it become a pedestrian oasis that celebrates Calgary’s 135-year old Chinese culture?

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Let the debate begin

 Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Rendering of the the two residential and one hotel tower that is proposed for the Chinatown parking lot above.

Parking vs Towers

That is the question Calgary’s City Council will debate on Nov 12th, 2018 when they are asked to approve a Land Use change and Development Permit for a huge mixed-use development that includes two-28 storey residential towers, a 12-story hotel and street retail.   

There are at least two sides to the El Condor Land debate – “El Condor” referring to the company that owns the land in question. The site encompasses almost the entire block from 2nd Street to 1st Street SW and from 2nd Ave to 3rd Ave SW.  

 Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

Rendering of the proposed pedestrian mews with shops, cafes and restaurants at street level with hotel and residential above.

A bit of context…

Calgary’s Chinatown has been stagnant, some might argue even in decline - for the past decade or more. The 2013 Calgary Flood hit the business community hard. The cost of recovery was significant for the many “mom and pop” businesses and Calgary’s current downtown economy is not contributing to revitalization.

Additionally, many property owners and merchants, now in their 60 to 80s, are actively considering selling their property and businesses and retiring. 

Chinatown At A Glance

  • 49 retail shops

  • 46 restaurants

  • 10 grocery/butcher/seafood

  • 11 personal services

  • 16 medical/pharmacy/Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • 16 salons

  • 6  business services

  • 23 corporate offices

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Change is in the wind…

“Chinatown needs private investment and development plus a relaxation of municipal bylaws (esp. parking) to revitalize the commercial/retail sector of this community,” says Terry Wong, Executive Director of the Chinatown District Business Improvement Area (BIA). 

The BIA, now three years old, has been working diligently with the City, businesses, property owners and various community groups to create a shared vision and plan to help Calgary’s Chinatown thrive in the 21stcentury. The vision is to enhance Calgary’s Chinatown as an iconic and cultural placevalued locally and nationally for its heritage, vitality, streetscape and architecture.  The goal is to create a walkable, accessible and livable community, a thriving authentic small-business district, an intergenerational social and community hub, and a tourist destination. 

The mega mixed use development being presented to City Council for approval could be the catalyst to make this happen, or it could be the end of Calgary’s historic Chinatown.  It depends on who you are talking to. 

El Condor Land Development at a glance:

  • 524      residential units

  • 150      hotel rooms

  • 23        commercial units

  • 470      parking stalls

  • 466      bike stalls 

 Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

Note the project has almost as many bike stalls as vehicle ones, I am not aware of any project in Calgary that has equal bike/car parking.

The BIA says…

“The BIA and other Chinatown stakeholders have worked with the City to establish eight guiding principles for future Chinatown development and the planned establishment of a ‘Cultural Plan for Chinatown’ and a ‘Culturally-based Local Area Plan’ as directed by City Council in 2016. A ‘Made in Calgary’ Cultural Plan will define what should be the culturally distinct characteristics (i.e. social, economic, environmental) of Calgary’s Chinatown” says Wong. 

 He adds, “This would then lead to defining how this 9-square block community should be developed and revitalized through land development, the new or renovation buildings, transportation and pedestrian streetscape, recreation and public spaces.” 

“The BIA and Chinatown community are generally in favour of new development as a path to Chinatown renewal, but they want to be sure it is designed in a way that will benefit everyone – other property owners, business, residents, community and visitors who are there to shop, dine or be entertained,” states Wong.   

Currently Wong says the community is not in favour of the proposed development, however, they would be if three key amendments are made. 

Changes Needed 

First, there should be no entrances or exits for the underground parkade on 2ndAvenue. That’s in keeping with the vision for 2nd Avenue SW is that it will become their pedestrian oriented Main Street from 2nd St SW to Riverfront Avenue with the Chinese Cultural Centre in the middle.

This makes good sense given the Green Line will have an underground station at 2nd St and 2nd Ave SW, making the area ideal for a pedestrian oriented shopping and dining promenade linking Eau Claire to Chinatown and ultimately, to East Village. 

Second, they are concerned the current development permit has commercial space (retail/restaurants) only at street level and doesn’t allow for a major anchor tenant needed to make Chinatown a more attractive city-wide destination. If the new development is going to be the catalyst for the revitalization of the Chinatown, it will need to provide quality retail and restaurants space not only for today, but into the future. A two-floor commercial space (of higher) would allow for +15 connection to Sun Life Towers.

The current plan has no +15 connection to the Sun Life Towers across 3rdAvenue, which they feel is critical to the success of the development and will provide a much-needed link to tens of thousands of downtown office workers just a few blocks away.

 I must agree with this. One of the failures of Eau Claire Market was that it didn’t have a +15 link, in effect “isolating” the shops from the downtown workers during Calgary’s long winters. I also think having a +15 link to the downtown would be a huge differentiator for the residential towers, given there are very few residential towers in the City Centre with a +15 connection to downtown. Imagine not having to put a coat on in the winter to go to work every day; this would be a huge selling feature. 

Finally, the fourth concern of the BIA is that the hotel tower is in the wrong spot. The BIA supports a right-sized, quality hotel placed on 3rd Avenue and 1st Street SW where there is mid-point access to downtown, the Green Line LRT plus the existing 7th Avenue north-south and east-west LRT lines, the Chinese Cultural Centre, Chinatown retail, and the riverfront park and pathway system. This placement would also preserve 2nd Avenue as the pedestrian-oriented ‘linking promenade’ Main Street while allowing current multi-residential tenants the comfort of knowing roads and sidewalks are both comfortable and safe to walk on.

All reasonable requests you would think! 

It should be noted Wong is a former manager at The City of Calgary and fully understands land use, transportation, and community neighbourhoods. Additionally, having grown up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 60s and 70s, he is fully aware of Chinese community and retail culture and does not want to see the loss of Calgary’s culturally distinct Chinatown like has already happened in Vancouver.

  Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Proposed entrance to mid-block mews that would connect 2nd and 3rd Avenues SW with shops and restaurants.

Community Engagement Consultant says…

Lourdes Juan, an urban planner with strong ties to the Asian community (note Chinatown is more of an Asian town these days with the last three new restaurants being Korean) was hired by the developer in May 2018 to help work with all the stakeholders to understand their concerns and listen to their ideas and help the community understand how the proposed project links with the community’s vision while also meeting economic and urban design realities.  

The developer has spent $100,000 and the City over $400,000 in community engagement initiatives since the proposed Land Use change and project design was unveiled. Literally thousands of hours have been spent working with the stakeholders to explain the development and why it is designed in the manner it is.  Translators were at every meeting and all documents were translated into Chinese to make sure everyone understood what was being said and being proposed.

Juan told me that each of the above issues have been addressed with the community but unfortunately not everyone was prepared to accept the rationale for why the City and/or the developer wants the projects developed the way it is being proposed.

First, the City is not interested in additional parking at the site, as it is adjacent to the new underground 2ndSt LRT station for the Green Line and only four blocks from the 7thAvenue Transit corridor.  The focus of the development will be on transit-oriented development, not auto-oriented.  

The developer’s research indicates that second floor retail doesn’t work in Chinatown today, and that the proposed development doesn’t have a commercial podium at its base, like office buildings downtown.   Rather, the project is designed with a mid-block mews from 2nd to 3rd Ave SW that will allow pedestrians to wander 23 small independent shops and restaurants along the mews, rather than national franchised shops.  

They did indicate that provisions will be made for a potential +15 connection from Sun Life Plaza at a future date.  

The hotel location also makes sense when you understand how the mews works and other restrictions of the site that is too complicated to explain here.

It has been very frustrating from both the City and the Juan’s perspective as they have tried very hard to communicate how the project’s design (by Perkins + Will’s Calgary office) will benefit the community.  

It should be noted that Juan is a young, independent urban planner who is uniquely connected not only to Calgary’s Chinese community, but also Calgary at large. Despite working very hard to document and communicate how the proposed project fits with the community’s eight principles, she couldn’t get the BIA and some other community leaders to support the proposed project.

Next Step    

Now it is up to Council to make the final approval. Council can’t make any amendments to the project, they can only approve it or reject. If rejected, the developer would have to continue to modify the project to get community and Council support. If approved, the community could appeal this decision to the Development Appeal Board.

I do know Councillor Farrell’s and her Dale Calkins her Senior Policy & Planning Advisor have been working with the community, applicant, and City planners on this project for the past 3.5 years. And that it has been incredibly challenging, as everyone wants to ensure Chinatown is a vibrant, resilient, and complete community.

“They just disagree on what that exactly looks like and how to get there.”

  The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

The site is currently a surface parking lot, which is full during the week with office workers parking all day, but empty most evenings and weekends as are lots of parking lots in the downtown.

Last Word

I always say “no plan is perfect. You can’t please everyone.” And the old saying “there is more than one way to skin a cat” might apply here too.  

This is a huge development that will shape the future of Chinatown for decades, so yes, it is important to get it right. But right for whom!

While some in the community will lament the loss of their surface parking lot, the reality is the best thing that can happen for Chinatown is the parking lot gets developed. Surely, the addition of a 150-room hotel, 500+ new homes and 20+ new retail/restaurant spaces will add much needed vitality our struggling Chinatown.  And hopefully, spur on other property owners and shop keepers to up their game.  

That’s my opinion after chatting with both sides.  And it hasn’t changed from when I first wrote about this proposal back in July 2016 in my Calgary Herald column.

Link:What is the future of Calgary’s Chinatown”  

 Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

Calgary’s Chinatown needs to attract more young people to live, work, play and invest in the community.

2018: The Summer of Murals (Northern Hills Mural Project)  

While NHMP isn’t as catchy acronym as BUMP (the Beltline mural program I shared with you last week), it has more community buy-in than any public art / mural program Calgary has ever seen.  The idea for the mural came from Kim Walker an artist living in the community who saw the 850 meter six-foot high blank residential fence along several blocks of Country Hills Blvd as a blank canvas.  

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History of Calgary

Walker thought what if the fence, instead of being a barrier, brought the community together and became a source of community pride?  

Working with the City of Calgary and 40 individual homeowners who each owned part of the fence, she and another volunteer Laura Hack, were able to get everyone onside to create what would become Canada’s longest outdoor mural.  

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A Northern Hills Mural Project Committee was formed to manage the project and conduct extensive community engagement.

They obtained funding to allow them to hire an experienced artist to help create the design based on the theme “History of Calgary.”

Local artist, Mark Vazquez-Mackay was chosen from an open request for proposals, based on his painting expertise and teaching skills. Vazquez-Mackay’s role was to develop the mural design and paint a template (think huge colouring book) of the various icons and images identified by the community to trace Calgary’s history from the glaciers to the present in small sections along the along the 850 meter fence.  

Walker and Vazquez-Mackay then organized volunteer artists to oversee 150 foot sections the fence to help guide individuals and families in painting specific section based on their interests, to paint in the details of Vazquez-Mackay sketch.

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The fence was painted in 3 days over the August long weekend as hundreds volunteer muralist mostly from the community, but with some help from Calgarians from other communities and even outside the Calgary.  

Most had little or no painting experience but that didn’t deter them.

And finally, with a little touch up by Vazquez-Mackay, Walker, Makenna Millot and Josh Chilton the mural was completed and unveiled on Sept 22, 2018 at a community celebration.  

Images range from Calgary’s first train to the 1886 fire, from Fort Calgary to the ’88 Olympics, from the Stanley Cup to the Grey Cup, from VIVO Centre to whiskey traders. 

The community raised a total of $63,000 in cash and in-kind donations in three months to pay to repair the fence (some boards were rotting) and to scrape and pressure wash the fence.  Then approximately 415 gallons of paint products (paint, three coats of UV protection and one coats of anti-graffiti protections) were used to ensure the mural stays looking fresh for at least the next eight years.

Everyone is invited to come and see the, bring visiting family and friends to learn about history of Calgary and or our city’s amazing community spirit.   

  It truly was a community effort.

It truly was a community effort.

Last Word

Indeed, the summer of 2018 will be remembered as the “Summer of Murals,” not only for the Beltline and Northern Hills projects but for several other mural projects.  

The Downtown West community also initiated a mural program with two provocative pieces on the side of buildings (two more are in progress) and Calgary Municipal Land Corporation commissioned a mural for the 4th Street SE underpass linking East Village to Stampede Park.

It will be interesting to see how all of these murals age. Will they become valued community icons or will they just quietly fade away.  

If so, perhaps that is OK, public art doesn’t have to be permanent. 

While some public art has received a negative reaction from the public, all of the murals have been well received by their community. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here i.e. let the community initiate and manage the public art program.  

I truly hope the Beltline, Northern Hills and the Downtown West mural projects meet a better fate than previous attempts in Calgary to use murals and public art to create a sense of community.  

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

2018 Summer of Murals: Beltline

Vancouver: Mural Festival Fun & Fantasy

Doug Driediger: Public Art That Is Uplifting!

2018: The Summer of Murals (Beltline)

Do murals enhance neighbourhoods?   Do they foster community pride? Do they make people stop, look and ponder? 

  Natalie Nehlawi’s playful mural is meant to “activate the imagination about a species vital to our ecosystem.”

Natalie Nehlawi’s playful mural is meant to “activate the imagination about a species vital to our ecosystem.”

 Mikhail Miller and Rachel Ziriada’s playful mural reminds me of Matisse’s cut-out artworks.

Mikhail Miller and Rachel Ziriada’s playful mural reminds me of Matisse’s cut-out artworks.

Do we expect too much?

This summer two major mural projects were undertaken in Calgary - one in the Beltline, the other in Northern Hills (a coalition of four communities), both with the goal of enhancing their community.  The Beltline Urban Mural Program (BUMP) was the more traditional model where professional artists were selected to create murals on blank walls throughout the community. The Northern Hills Mural Project (NHMP) was more community-based with hundreds of community members, as well as others from across the City and beyond helping to paint an 850 meter fence along a section of Country Hills Blvd. 

Both were successful in generating lots of social media and community attention, but how long before the thrill of the new murals fade, just as the murals themselves will?  This is not the first time and won’t be the last where murals and public art have been used to try to enhance a neighbourhood. 

Do we expect too much from public art to transform ugly, boring urban spaces into something fun and attractive?

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  Faith47’s BUMP mural

Faith47’s BUMP mural

  Jill Stanton’s mural pays homage to Calgary’s upscale cowboy culture on the side of Gravity Pope one of the city’s best fashion boutiques.

Jill Stanton’s mural pays homage to Calgary’s upscale cowboy culture on the side of Gravity Pope one of the city’s best fashion boutiques.

BUMP

“Our vision is to use powerful, awe-inspiring, whimsical, thought-provoking and stunning art to create beautiful places, invoke dialogue, challenge ideas and foster connections,” says the BUMP website. Link: BUMP website

Those are lofty expectations for the 15 murals which range from the decorative to narrative, mysterious to indigenous and fantasy to illustrative.  There was even a BUMP Festival, Aug 30 to Sept 1stwith tours of the murals, artists talks and an alley party.  I participated in two of the tours which attracted about 100 people each and heard only positive comments about the murals and the project.   

One of the murals that stood out for me was Los Angeles, artist Faith47’s huge cougar with the words “Fortes et Liber” on the side.  Not sure I understand the context of the cougar which appears to be ready to pounce on an unsuspecting pedestrian, however, the Latin words for “strong and free” make some sense given Canada’s national anthem. The mural’s scale (10 storeys) and its monochromatic brownish wash gives it a dream-like quality that looks like it is already fading away.  

Montreal’s Kevin Ledo’s mural on the west side of the Calgary Parking Authority’s City Centre Parkade at 10thAve and 5thStreet SW was also well received.  This artwork, with its huge indigenous figure staring into the Beltline community has a look of contemplation. Only later, when I checked the website did I learn the title of this piece is “Sohkatisiwin” Cree for “Strength/Power.”

An interesting choice given Calgary is located in the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Nation, not the Cree and the artist is from Montreal. Nor did I realize the figure is a real person - Angela Gladue, an internationally recognized dancer in both aboriginal and hip hop genres.  Not sure how this all relates to the Beltline or Calgary.

Although, BUMP’s website has a complete list of the murals and info on the artists, I found most of the jargon-loaded text not very helpful in understanding the context of the work to the Beltline’s sense of place.

There is a printable map of the murals, which would make for a fun walkabout on a nice fall or winter afternoon.  

The funding for the murals came from the Beltline Community Investment Fund, City of Calgary Parking Revenue Reinvestment Program and mural sponsors - Battistella Developments and Hotel Arts. 

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  Kevin Ledo mural on 4th St at 10th Ave SW

Kevin Ledo mural on 4th St at 10th Ave SW

  Kalum Teke Dan’s mural in progress on the side of 17th Ave Framing. It is intended to “develop understanding and foster reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.”

Kalum Teke Dan’s mural in progress on the side of 17th Ave Framing. It is intended to “develop understanding and foster reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.”

Last Word

This is not the first time Calgary’s City Centre communities have tried to use public art to make them a more interesting place to live and visit. 

In the ‘90s, the Uptown 17thBusiness Revitalization Zone (BRZ) organized a series of murals created by well-known Calgary artists on the side of buildings to create an outdoor art gallery.  Unfortunately, after many years, they were removed as “mother nature” had gotten the better of them.

The 4th Street BRZ commissioned sculptures to be located along the street also in the 90s. While many of them are still there, I doubt anyone would say they have become valued community icons.  

I hope the BUMP murals will indeed become an attraction for more people to want to live and visit the Beltine. 

Below are some other murals in the Beltline….

  In the relatively new Thompson Family Park there is a decorative mural with the words “The Readiness is All” embedded in it. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Hamlet debates the meaning of life….

In the relatively new Thompson Family Park there is a decorative mural with the words “The Readiness is All” embedded in it. The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Hamlet debates the meaning of life….

  Found this mural while on the BUMP tour in someone’s backyard. Interesting mix of nature and indigenous elements.

Found this mural while on the BUMP tour in someone’s backyard. Interesting mix of nature and indigenous elements.

  I love the series of paintings along the fence of playground next to Connaught elementary school that speaks to issue of “belonging.” They have aged well, and are perfect message for the Beltline one of Calgary’s most diverse neighbourhoods, including many new Canadians.

I love the series of paintings along the fence of playground next to Connaught elementary school that speaks to issue of “belonging.” They have aged well, and are perfect message for the Beltline one of Calgary’s most diverse neighbourhoods, including many new Canadians.

University District: A Community For All Ages

It is amazing how successful James Robertson, CEO and President West Campus Development Trust has been quarterbacking the development of University District (vacant land west of University of Calgary, next to Alberta Children’s Hospital) community in the midst of a major economic downturn.  

It is impressive how he has developed a game plan totally different from East Village and Currie, Calgary’s other inner-city, master-planned urban villages. 

  University District site

University District site

  University District site construction

University District site construction

  Early concept rendering of pedestrian streetscape. 

Early concept rendering of pedestrian streetscape. 

Touchdown! 

He has completed “passes” to several condo developers for touchdowns, early in the game, just like East Village and Currie.  But he has thrown touchdown passes much earlier in the game with the players like Save On Foods (grocery store), Brenda Strafford Foundation’s Cambridge Manor (seniors housing) and most recently, the ALT Hotel. 

How he convinced Save On Foods to be part of the first quarter of the game is remarkable. Usually, a grocery store wants to see a critical mass of residents before they commit. Given University District is only minutes (by car) from three Safeway stores (Market Mall, Montgomery and Brentwood) and a Calgary Co-op (Brentwood), this was a long bomb completion. 

Construction has begun of the 38,000 square foot Save On Foods as part of a mixed 288-unit residential development.  The building - to include a coffee shop, restaurant, pet store and wine merchant - will be the anchor for University District’s main street. 

It is scheduled to open in 2020 at approximately the same time as many of the University District’s first residents move into their homes. In comparison, residents in East Village had to wait several years before they got their grocery store and to get their own retail/restaurant, while Currie residents are still waiting.

 Save On Foods residential development concept rendering. Currently under construction.

Save On Foods residential development concept rendering. Currently under construction.

 All Ages Welcomed

While most master-planned urban villages start with mid to high-end condos as a means of creating a market for signing-up the retail, shopping and services players. University District committed to housing for seniors (not known to be big spenders) at the outset.  

Construction of Cambridge Manor, a 240-unit assisted and long-term seniors’ care facility has begun. It is set to also open in 2020.  Developed by the West Campus Development Trust in partnership with Brenda Strafford Foundation, the goal is to engage the entire University of Calgary campus in a multi-disciplinary approach to aging in place.  How innovative and mindful is that?

By design, Noble (by Truman Homes) and Ivy (by Brookfield Residential), University District’s first two residential projects include larger townhomes as a means of attracting families to live and stay living in the district as their families “grow and shrink.” Robertson has heard and responded to the criticism that Calgary’s inner city condo development lacks larger units more suitable to the needs of families.  

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  Concept rendering for Alt Hotel / Residential development under construction.

Concept rendering for Alt Hotel / Residential development under construction.

  University District Discovery Centre

University District Discovery Centre

 Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

 Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

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Parks

Work is also currently underway on University District’s three-acre Central Park led by Denver-based Civitas and Calgary’s Gibbs Gage Architects, with an anticipated opening in 2021.  But beforehand, the two-acre North Pond and dog park will open this summer

 Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

 Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

Still from "MyUniversityDistrict" concept video (photo credit: West Campus Development Trust) 

Last Word

Robertson believes the reason he has been successful in attracting developers in a recession is the “mindful integration of different lifestyles, combined with a remarkable location and community-based planning which has resulted in a complete community. The strong multi-generational community vision is what our development partners have been attracted to. Creating multi-generational homes offers major benefits for residents of all ages and might be the housing shift Calgary needs as a changing city.”

Robertson respects “the city we live in was built by seniors. It's important to us that there's a place for them in University District.”

While the game isn’t over yet, Robertson and his team are off to a fast start.

Link: MyUniversityDistrict Video 

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the May edition of Condo Living Magazine. 

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Not All Community Associations Are Equal

In my March column on the role Community Associations (CA) play in shaping our City, I promised to follow up with a piece about how not all CAs are created equal.  To do this, I chatted with former City of Calgary Councillor, Brian Pincott.

Pincott served as Ward 11 Councillor from Oct 2007 to Oct 2017.  During that 10-year period, he worked with 19 CAs on a variety of contentious issues including the River Park/Sandy Beach/Britannia Slopes redevelopment, SW Ring Road and Southwest BRT (SWBRT), as well as smaller projects like parks and playground improvements. 

  A new fence dividing River Park into an off-leash and on-leash area was part of the controversial renovations to the park. 

A new fence dividing River Park into an off-leash and on-leash area was part of the controversial renovations to the park. 

What are the challenges facing Community Associations in Calgary today? 

The biggest challenge is the unrealistic expectation placed on CAs by the City to do community programming, building maintenance, comment on development issues and fundraise. In addition, community members expect CAs to fight for their community and often their individual personal interests. Residents often forget the board and committee members are volunteers.   

A second challenge is the uncertainty of their role as a CA. They often make comments on a new development or policy not specifically related to the project or planning issues. The result: their comments are not taken into consideration, which then causes some citizens to say “why bother?” and creates a cynicism towards the City.

What are the challenges facing City Council and Administration in working with CAs?

The key challenge Councillors and Administration face is to ascertain whether or not the CA’s comments and positions truly represent the entire community. Do the 10 people on the CA’s board really understand and represent the 7,000 (more or less) people in the community, given they are often elected by a mere handful of people who show up at the AGM?  While they are called CAs, sometimes they represent the opinion of fewer than 50 people! 

A second challenge is determining the competency and knowledge brought to the table by volunteers. While in some cases, the individuals are very professional and informed with a view to the “common good”; in other cases, the individuals are only interested in their personal agenda and special interests.

Because of all the uncertainty as to who is actually at the table with you, who they represent and how they form their opinions, it is impossible to treat all Community Associations equally. This is where the Councillor’s knowledge and relationship with each CA is critical in providing clarity at Council meetings. 

  SW BRT route. The dedicated transitway (red) is the controversial section.  (photo credit: City of Calgary)

SW BRT route. The dedicated transitway (red) is the controversial section.  (photo credit: City of Calgary)

What are your thoughts on Calgary’s "community engagement" process?

Community engagement is a bit of a punching bag for everyone. If a small group of people want to disrupt it, they will and they can. It doesn’t matter how good it is. We see that in project after project, the SWBRT being the latest.

Over my 10 years on Council I feel we tried everything when it came to engagement and there were always a few people who said “they weren’t engaged.” The redevelopment of Britannia Slopes/Sandy Beach/River Park is a great example.

This regional park was identified as needing a lot of work. So, the Parks department identified the stakeholders, i.e. CAs, dog walkers and environmental groups and asked them to appoint people to a steering committee. Over a course of a year, this group identified problems within the park and came up with solutions. They reported back to the groups and a couple of open houses were held.

When the final plan was then presented at an open house, all hell broke loose. People loved the park just the way it was and were upset any changes were being considered. Then a huge letter writing campaign to Council ensued which resulted in more consultation at a cost of another $250,000.

This time, we used every tool available: online, in person, town halls, flyers and newsletters - the works. In the end, 2,000 people participated in the engagement. When it came to Council, very few people came to speak and many said the engagement process was the model for the future! Those who were unhappy with the plan had participated, so while they didn’t get what they wanted, they at least understood the compromises made to accommodate all users. It was approved unanimously by Council.

Being it was a $6 million project, it took a couple of years to get the funding. When construction started, “all hell broke loose” again. People were outraged they hadn’t been consulted, they knew nothing about it.

Same thing with the SWBRT. We had nine open houses over five years, newspaper stories, community newsletters, updates from the Councillor, yet people said they didn’t know about it.  I think the underlying issue is the people who demand more consultation are not actually interested in engagement. They are interested in killing the project by any means necessary. The noise and vitriol they produce drives away those who wish to learn more and want to truly participate.

Unfortunately, there is a loud minority in every community, individuals who are generally not positive people and they hinder engagement for everyone. 

  The City of Calgary and developers are both looking at different ways to inform and engage the public about proposed developments.  This was near the sidewalk and bus stop at the Kensington Legion. On the other side of the information booth was information on the proposed development.  

The City of Calgary and developers are both looking at different ways to inform and engage the public about proposed developments.  This was near the sidewalk and bus stop at the Kensington Legion. On the other side of the information booth was information on the proposed development. 

What has been your most positive experience working with a CA?

I love Haysboro! Their CA is working to build a community for everyone. When Haysboro came into Ward 11 in 2010 after some boundary changes, the CA was mostly “fighting city hall!” They were opposed to any changes in their community. But, over a couple of years, Board Members retired and new people came onto the board who were truly interested in understanding community needs and finding ways to engage neighbours with each other.

The CA looked for ideas to achieve exactly that. So, they had parades and other events, built community gardens, natural parks and promoted cycling - all with the goal of building community pride.

They worked to understand where the community came from and where it could be going in the context of a growing and changing city. They studied things like the Municipal Development Plan so they could direct the change, rather than fight it. They have been successful on every front.

The community is welcoming more families who are more active and want more participation in the community. And developers are willing to come and talk to them about vision and how they can be a part of it. Today, the Haysboro CA is advocating for increased pedestrian and cycling connectivity, more transit – and sustainability embedded into everything. They are doing all this for their kids, and their kids’ kids.

They truly are an inspiration!
  Open House to share information on the proposed development for Currie Barracks.  There are hundreds of these open houses each year in Calgary's inner city communities. 

Open House to share information on the proposed development for Currie Barracks.  There are hundreds of these open houses each year in Calgary's inner city communities. 

How does role of Calgary’s CA differ from that of other Canadian cities?

Calgary has more CAs than anywhere else in Canada and our system is a foreign idea to many who move here.  Calgary gives more responsibility to CAs than most other cities. We expect them to comment on Development Permits, maintain their buildings, do community needs assessments and business plans. All this with little financial support from the City.

It is a lot to place on volunteers. 
  Calgary Real Estate Board's map of Calgary's communities. (photo credit: CREB)

Calgary Real Estate Board's map of Calgary's communities. (photo credit: CREB)

What advice for Calgarians or CAs when it comes to the role of citizens in reshaping their communities for the 21st century?  

Think about how you build community. Neighbourhood change is inevitable. I like to remind people downtown Calgary and the Beltline used to be mostly single family residential communities.

Think about how to make things better for people of all ages, abilities,  and backgrounds in the community; not just you and your friends. Build on the community’s existing assets and embrace opportunities to try new things.

Look at what other communities are doing - not only in Calgary - but around the world. If there are things you would like to add to your community, then find a way to do so.

Communities can’t thrive without leadership, open mindedness and honest communication. You need to foster your leadership, honesty and communication they don’t just magically happen.

What other thoughts would you like to share with Calgarians re CAs?

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The membership of a CA Board or Planning Committee can change in a matter of months, which can then significantly change their position on development. 

Just look at the recent upheaval in Lakeview where the CA radically moved from a thoughtful participatory process to one of building walls. It is shocking; good people are resigning.

The direction and position a CA takes on an issue often depends on who shows up to the meeting as communities are made up of people with a diversity of ideas on what is “good” for their community. Consequently a community’s position can change dramatically from one meeting to the next depending on who shows up.

Last Word

Indeed, the diametrically opposed ideas of Calgarians on what makes a good city/community is what makes it challenging for the City of Calgary Administration and Council to make the tough decisions needed to redevelop our city for the future.

Note: An edited version of this blog titled "It's A Lot To Place On Volunteers" was published in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on Saturday May 5, 2018.

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

Community Associations & Urban Development

Community Engagement: The Community's Perspective

Calgary: The Dog Park Capital of North America