Like many of Calgary’s established neighbourhoods, Southwood was seeing its fair share of development applications come forward.
Becky Poschmann, Director of Development for the Southwood Community Association, said there were three in particular: Anderson LRT, Southwood Corner and a vacant lot in the community that were all put forth in a short span. In addition, there were six proposed land use changes in conjunction with other potential development along the LRT and BRT lines.
“There wasn’t really any cohesion happening. It was just going to be random buildings with no connection to anything around it,” she said.
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At the same time, Poschmann saw, in the monthly Federation of Calgary Communities newsletter, a call out for a pilot community to undertake a community vision plan.
According to the city, there are more than 260 documents of this nature for neighbourhoods all over Calgary. They come in all shapes, sizes, names, format and scopes. Some communities have them, some don’t.
Poschmann said knowing they lived in one of the communities in that so-called “second ring” – not the core, not the inner city and not quite the suburbs – they would likely be undergoing significant redevelopment over the next 10 to 15 years. Many Calgary communities, those built from the late 60s through to the late 90s, are in the same situation.
So, they jumped in.
Ben Morin, urban planner with the Federation of Calgary Communities (FCC), said back in 2017 he had been digging through old resources and found this odd collection of vision plans, community context guides, statements of significance, most with the underlying goal of charting the future course of these neighbourhoods.
He said these plans would often be done and filed, maybe be posted on the website and with volunteer turnover, they would eventually disappear.
“There was so many to keep track of,” he said.
“So, I saw an opportunity to create a new resource and pilot it with a few communities.”
He wanted to create a standardized vision document and a process that could be replicated with ease, regardless of a community association’s resources.
“There’s always a bit of a struggle. We wanted to be mindful of different community association capacities,” Morin said.
“We really wanted to be able to create an opportunity that a new community would be able to get involved in and not feel like they’re in over their heads.”
Morin said many of the city’s communities don’t have Area Redevelopment Plans (ARPs), and “you’re seeing development happen in spots and it’s not really coherent yet.”
“What I think can really make things easier is if a community has an idea of what they’re looking for so when developers come in there can actually be a dialogue.”
That’s what Poschmann and fellow contributors Mia Tarras and Travis Davidson had in mind.
Davidson said they tried to make the process as democratic as possible, inviting all community members to take a survey and they received more than 45 responses. They held a session where people could view pictures to determine what best fit their vision of neighbourhood growth.
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“Rather than it being, ‘do you approve of this development, yes or no,’ it’s more like a long form of ‘what kind of community do you want to see in the future?’” Davidson said.
Poschmann said the feedback received was geared toward public realm improvements and accessibility – but focused in on the kind of evolution they hoped to see.
“What you see on 17 Avenue and what you experience, people want to see that here. They don’t want to have to go down to 17 Avenue to get to the nice restaurants because we don’t always want to eat at Jack Astor’s and Montana’s and McDonald, we want to bring in and support local entities,” she said.
VALUE OF COMMUNITY VISION PLANNING
David White, principal with CivicWorks, a Calgary development and planning consultancy, said these community vision plans have a place in the process, but there are a lot of competing perspectives on the future of a neighbourhood.
“There’s something pretty awesome about it, but it’s just how it’s framed and how it’s weighted and is it representative,” said White, noting that in one example, 80 people at an open house were trying to determine the course of future development in one established neighbourhood with a population of 6,500.
“Basically, it was reinforcing a lot of the status quo. The voice of a relatively small minority of people who wanted to be active a part of the process are being touted as a majority position.”
White said some developers may take to heart the community’s vision and, if there’s no current ARP, others may just stick with the current Municipal Development Plan guidelines for a neighbourhood and plan a development. Even if a developer follows the vision, it doesn’t ensure a hiccup-free development.
“The best of plans are still the subject of very frothy debate that can go all the way to the SDAB (Subdivision and Development Appeal Board),”White said.
But, while not always representative of the entire neighbourhood,White, who has encountered these a number of times in his consultancy, welcomes this contribution from community associations.
“They are a voice and they are going to be taken seriously, but they’re not the only voice,” he said.
“I’m just always cautious of how we use it or don’t use it or emphasize it.”
Southwood Community Vision … by on Scribd
One of the questions Morin had in developing and continuing the vision process was how they would be handled by the City of Calgary. He said in conversations with the city, he understood that there wasn’t the capacity to create ARPs for each community as quickly as they might be needed.
“What we’re hoping for is that these community visions would be directly attached into the ARP as an appendix or that the content would be absorbed by them,” Morin said.
“The other idea is that when the city is deciding who to undertake the ARPs with, it’s a huge plus if a community has already done some kind of work like this.”
VISION PLAN INTEGRATION INTO NEW DISTRICT PLANNING
Jordan Furness, senior planner with Community Planning at the City of Calgary, said he too went through the more than 260 versions of local area plans, after he’d been tasked last year with how to prioritize them.
“It was impossible to come up with a logical prioritization of them,” he said, also confirming that the task of creating new ARPs for communities was too big a task.
They conceptualized a different approach based on certain boundaries that brought different areas together. The timing coincided with the finalizing of the Green Line route, the new MAX BRT lines and the ongoing Main Streets program.
Furness said they drew larger district boundaries that were reflective of the communities that interact with each other and “cross pollinate” in terms of their uses and catchment areas. They also took a look at hard boundaries such as major roads, parks, or other geography.
What the city is now piloting is the North Hill Local Growth plan. It’s nine established communities and one industrial area that has four Main Streets and three proposed Green Line stations.
The goal, according to senior planner and project leader Troy Gonzalez, is to create a growth plan that takes into account the community visions and weaves them in with the city’s MDP, and policies around Main Streets and Green Line Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
He said the vision plans, like the one Southwood created (though they aren’t in the North Hill plan), play a role, but there are a lot of stakeholder voices.
“All those visions and ideas that come out of those processes, whether they are community led or city led, we see those as important inputs to the process,” Gonzalez said.
“But that’s not to say that we’re going to just copy and paste the outcomes of those processes. It’s part of a comprehensive set of input policy guidance from MDP, and input from the business and developers side.”
Gonzalez said they’re spending time up front in that process to accommodate discussion around community visions.
One thing they’re trying to do is expand the community representation, something that concerned CivicWorks’ David White. They’ve opened an online feedback portal and tried to draw in a wider range of citizen opinions in these areas.
“It’s a broader framework to capture the voices that may not becoming through the standard or traditional community association channels,” Gonzalez said.
White said the vision plans could have a real impact in the city’s district planning by focusing on defining characteristics of a neighbourhood.
“Talk about what makes the neighbourhood special and unique. The development fabric – a history, some kind of character,” said White.
“It’s that that I think communities could do a lot of great work on. Like what makes Southwood Southwood? What do we want to keep as Southwood?”
THE FUTURE OF COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
The city’s North Hill pilot project will begin defining how they expect to manage established area redevelopment. It may dovetail with work already underway on how to finance some of the public realm and infrastructure improvements.
Furness said communities that are taking the initiative to put together the vision plans, like Southwood, improve the chances they’ll be next in line for the city’s district planning approach.
No matter how it’s used, Poschmann said it was an important exercise in charting the path for their southwest Calgary established community.
“It organizes the community’s ideas. We’re not telling (developers) what we want and we’re not directing them in how it has to be done, we’re providing input on what we’d like to see and what we believe would benefit the community,” Poschmann said.
“We’re the experts of Southwood. The developer isn’t. We understand how people function and flow within the community and we can provide insight to developers in how we use the community.”
She said it’s already been seen and used with success, particularly in the upcoming development at Southwood Corner.
“The fact that we have this vision that they could see – they can use it more to help benefit their vision at the end of the day as well,” she said.
“I think it’s being used and it’s a great resource for us to have.”