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Opinion: Back to square one on Calgary suburban growth and development

This week, my frustration with Calgary City Council overflowed as they discussed Calgary growth.

Since leaving Council I’ve, for the most part, avoided commenting on what the council-of-the-day is doing and concentrated more on the specific issue.

This week, the discussion around the budget challenges pushed me to the brink. When they started talking about new development and the 14 new communities they approved, well, I tipped over. I even uttered a minor Twitter swear!

In 2018, Council approved 14 new communities for development. This was against the recommendations of city planners and resulted in a property tax increase. Councillors were told this would increase taxes, at the very same time that they were considering significant service cuts in order to provide tax relief for Calgary businesses.

Counterintuitive, at cross-purposes, bizarre – whatever you call the decision – it just made no sense.

This week, those chickens came back to roost.

How we got here

A bit of background on how we got here. In 2007, the City began a process to update the Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP) and the Calgary Municipal Development Plan (MDP). These documents essentially guide city growth over a 30-year period.

The process was informed by the ImagineCalgary engagement of over 18,000 Calgarians to develop a long-term vision for Calgary. A big driver of the update work was the recognition that we just couldn’t grow our city in the same way.

At the time, Mayor Dave Bronconnier worked very hard to express the fiscal realities of continued unfettered outward growth. We had 33 new communities under development. Building the infrastructure was killing the budget, both operating and capital. The approach had been to treat all developable land as equal. If a developer came in with a plan, it would be approved, regardless of where it was or how much it would cost the City to service it.

At that time, 105 per cent of our population growth was happening on the edges. People were leaving established communities for the suburbs.

Reversing 105% Calgary suburban growth

The MDP was approved by City Council in 2009. The goal was to reverse the trend of emptying established communities and reduce the number of new communities being built. Basically a shift to building up not out. The MDP targets were modest, in recognition that this was a big shift for the City.

Brian Pincott, former Calgary city councillor. LIVEWIRE FILE PHOTO

Mayor Naheed Nenshi, then a private citizen, presented to Council that he felt the MDP didn’t go far enough. I agreed with him, but also recognized that it would take time and we could revise Calgary growth targets as we went along. There we had it, the Mayor Bronconnier and Citizen Nenshi understanding that we just couldn’t continue on the same path.

On top of being environmentally and socially unsustainable, it was financially unsustainable. Suburban growth was financially killing us, one new community at a time.

Of course, the development industry was opposed. They argued against the vision of ImagineCalgary, they vehemently argued against the goals of the Municipal Development Plan. They accused Council of picking winners and losers. And we were. We had to move away from the principle that all lands be treated as equal. They simply aren’t.

A new community on the east side, seven kilometres from downtown, close to facilities and services, just isn’t the same as one in the deep southwest, 25 kilometres from downtown, surrounded by empty fields.

Strategy to manage Calgary growth

One of the strategies put in place to address this was the creation of the Growth Management Overlay. This places restrictions on lands by saying they couldn’t proceed to development until the cost of servicing was known and the source of funding was identified. In this way, lands closer to existing services would be developed first.

This tool allowed the City to get costs under control, ensuring that the cost of new communities was paid for by the new community and not the rest of Calgary’s taxpayers.

That’s where we ended up in 2009. A recognition that 33 new communities developed concurrently was too many, that we needed to take greater advantage of existing infrastructure. We needed to build up more and out less.

Over the next few years, the City renegotiated the development levies with the development industry to get them to pay more of the upfront infrastructure costs. The eventual goal was 100 per cent cost recovery.

The Calgary Growth Management Overlay appeared to be working; fewer new communities were coming online and redevelopment of existing communities was happening. The ratio of growth shifted to below 100 per cent in the suburbs.

Adherence to Calgary MDP was eroding

Then, political pressure began. It started with the 2013 municipal election and has continued since. Erosion of the MDP began happening bit by bit. City Council was approving new developments that had no business being approved, such as Providence in the deep southwest. Bit by bit, Council was ignoring city planners’ recommendations and moving away from the targets, to the point where the MDP was becoming relatively meaningless.

This week it became too much to bear. A decade ago we knew that 33 new communities was way too many. Now, with the addition of the 14 approved last year, we are at 41 new communities!

This week, a Councillor proposed eliminating the Growth Management Overlay system, all in the name of being “open for business.”

Currently, the city has more than 25,000 dwellings approved, subdivided, and waiting to be built. Current absorption rates are about 5,000 units per year. That is a 5-year land supply fully approved.

The Calgary Growth Management Overlay and approvals process is not impeding business. If there is a demand, the City has already done the work.

Back to square one on Calgary development

Fifteen years ago, the City and City Council recognized we were an unsustainable city. Our sprawl was killing us. Calgarians recognized it as well. Everyone did the work to figure out a new way to grow our city, and to prosper. We created a good plan to change the course for Calgary.

And here we are today, back to square one, with a Council ignoring that work, ignoring the fiscal realities of the impacts of unimpeded development on the taxpayers. They are knowingly making changes that will continue to have existing community taxpayers subsidizing the suburbs.

At the time of cuts, it’s the existing communities that are feeling them more. Even more galling, is that some on Council feel that we need to go even further down the rabbit hole of fiscal foolishness.

I fear for the Calgary I love as we head into the budget.

Erosion of services affects those on the margins more than others. The subsidizing of the suburbs is picking up even more steam. I wish Councillors would go back and look at the plan the city developed a decade ago when we were in the same spot. Reinforce it rather than discard it.

City Council should think of everyone in our city as people and citizens, rather than categorizing them as taxpayers, ratepayers, and businesses.

That’s the vision Calgarians agreed upon – what “a great place to make a life” means.

We have lost the thread and we need real leadership to get it back.

  • Brian Pincott spent 9 years representing Calgary’s Ward 11 on City Council. He’s now the interim executive director of Velo Canada Bikes.