Potential loss of funding for Calgary’s Main Streets program has brought together uncommon allies to advocate for a long-term solution in the city’s established communities.
In city council’s One Calgary budget, funding for Calgary’s Main Streets program is in question, and it’s drawn the ire of not only community associations in established neighbourhoods, but the Business Improvement Areas (BIA) and developers working in these areas.
Nearly 50 groups from a wide spectrum have come together in advance of Calgary’s budget deliberations next week to push for Main Streets cash. The group, called Advocates Into Main Streets, is hoping for a commitment to long-term funding of the Main Streets programs.
The Main Streets program started in 2014 and was funded through the last budget cycle. It provides for various upgrades in the public realm, aiding the lifecycle improvements in aging communities. There are 24 Main Streets in the current program, and they were highlighted because it was expected that most of the inner-city development would happen around these areas.
Ali McMillan, planning director for the Bridgeland Riverside Community Association, said citizens bought into the idea of changing and densifying neighbourhoods under the Main Streets banner in 2014 because they were getting amenities in return.
Now, that’s in jeopardy.
“When it became apparent that the city was suddenly taking a different turn and was not going to fund that anymore, it came as a real shock to communities,” McMillan said.
“Then, we realized we had something in common with our people that are often on opposite sides, which is the development community.”
David White with CivicWorks, a Calgary-based design and planning firm that works with several inner-city developers, said that they’ve had often challenging and animated conversations with citizens living in these communities, but also the BIAs and community associations.
White said those difficult discussions, based on direction that aligned with city development policy, resulted in the acceptance that there would be change and added density, but that the communities would be receiving an investment in the public realm improvements.
“This is basically a breach of that promise and it’s a big deal,” said White.
“If we’re not going to focus strategically on growth in the established neighbourhoods or our main streets, then where are we going to focus growth?”
Businesses in these areas also have a stake in the Main Streets decision, said Bob van Wegen, executive director of the Marda Loop BIA. van Wegen said they’ve had work from an area redevelopment plan prior to 2014 that was folded into the Main Streets initiative. Since then they’ve had seven new multi-family or commercial projects in the area.
“We’ve had virtually no investment in the public realm,” van Wegen said.
“I have this running joke that I don’t have more than 20 feet of matching sidewalks or more than five matching lampposts.”
Pedestrian safety is also a significant issue in the Marda Loop area, but the public realm funding for improvements hasn’t yet come through.
“Our expectation was that moving into the next budget cycle, our Main Streets implementation would be funded. And so, when there was a big goose egg originally, we were surprised,” van Wegen said.
That’s when he began reaching out to other groups, realizing a lot of groups were in the same situation.
In a previous interview, Rollin Stanley, general manager of Urban Strategy with the city, said that until there’s a discussion on these items, no final decision has been made on funding.
“So, it’s not right to say that anything is being cut,” he said.
Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said the idea to eliminate funding for Main Streets was a trial balloon floated nearly two months ago when councillors first saw the draft budget for discussion in committee.
“That poked a lot of bears,” said Carra.
Still, Carra said the city’s come up with a way to fund greenfield development by slapping a 2.14 per cent increase on property tax bills, realizing that they had to help fund this growth out of city coffers. He’s hoping the same can be done for the established communities because the city’s municipal development plan calls for 50 per cent growth in the edge of the city and 50 per cent in the inner city – and right now the inner-city growth isn’t being funded.
Carra said a minimum amount of funding required to move this forward is about $50 million annually. He said current discussions are around “baking in” $60 million over the four-year cycle – or $15 million per year.
“That’s not gonna do it,” he said.
Carra said they’re looking at a variety of ways to fund this long term, including mechanisms like tax capture from the increase in property values with development. He said he’ll be bringing a number of ideas to the budget meetings next week, looking for a plan.
McMillan said a lot of work has been done on this and it would be a shame to see that time and energy go to waste.
“Citizens are expecting that funding and I think people are slowly realizing that, “Oh, it might not be assured like we thought it was,’” she said.
“They want to make sure that promise is kept.”
van Wegen said they’ve had a lot of intense conversation with developers since working on Main Streets and it’s catapulted the area forward.
“There’s lot of momentum and that momentum can turn negative,” he said.
“Main Streets has been a big part of the change from the Plan It (Calgary) document. To abandon that would be in some ways abandoning the direction of Plan It Calgary and the municipal development plan and it would be a big mistake.”