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North Hill plan: The long process and lingering discontent

The North Hill Local Communities Area Plan (NHCLAP) has created a divide among citizens in the areas it covers, with ongoing calls of ‘blanket densification’ and lack of public engagement.

The NHCLAP will come to Calgary city council Monday. It will do so without a public hearing on the revisions. Multiple amendments were made to the 125-page document, following the debate over Calgary’s Guide to Local Area Planning and after feedback from the prior public hearing and engagement sessions.

The document was available to the public June 1. Three weeks will have passed for further community review before it appears at council June 21. Still, the consolidated timeline has many citizens frustrated by the familiar refrain of lack of proper engagement.

It’s a process that began in the Fall of 2018 with ongoing public sessions on the future of the North Hill area communities. Three years of work culminated with the document’s appearance before Calgary city council on April 12, 2021.

There, it was sent back to city admin for revisions.

Both the Guide for Local Area Planning and the NHCLAP received rough rides in their public hearings. Dozens of people came to the extended public hearings.  The concerns were mostly the same: Lack of proper public engagement, concerns over the notion of blanket density and the elimination of prized single-family dwellings and character in many neighbourhoods.

Those concerns still exist.

Similar to the ad campaign prior to the Guide hearings, a door hanger effort has been conducted in these areas. It talks about ‘blanket densification’ and delaying the North Hill Local Area Plan.

Now, citizens have submitted a letter citing legal concerns with the Guide acceptance and the process around the NHCLAP.

Back to administration

Troy Gonzalez, senior planner with the City of Calgary and lead on the North Hill Local Area Plan, said the document before council this week incorporates the initial vision and policies of the document presented in April.

They’ve had to add the changes recommended through the public hearing and other engagement. It also included the council mandated amendments. Gonzalez said they transitioned the Guide policies over to the NHCLAP.

“The document is going to get a bit bigger, which obviously is because of that, but in terms of the overall kind of intent and what the plan was trying to do and the types of policies we had in there, that remains relatively consistent,” said Gonzalez.

Overall, Gonzalez said this plan isn’t substantially different than the original document. It’s embodies the same vision they’ve been working on for the past three years.

The primary changes that have been made in the NHCLAP have been captured and clearly laid out on the city’s North Hill engage page.  They also have a link to all of the council-mandated amendments.

“You don’t have to jump back and forth on each of these. People can do that, but we wanted to make it as easy to digest as possible,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said they’ve delivered the information in a timeline prescribed under the Municipal Government Act.

Timelines still a concern

Simonetta Acteson, board member with the Crescent Heights Community Association, said three weeks wasn’t enough for communities to take in the changes in the document.

Acteson also said the timeline for the Guide for Local Area Planning (GLAP) and the NHCLAP made the process more difficult for communities to navigate.

“The document (GLAP) that was supposed to inform and populate that North Hill plan should have come first,” she said

“It should have been ratified, accepted, etc, and then you work on a local area plan using the accepted policies and practices that were included in the guidebook.”

Those documents were brought forward together in early 2021.

When the GLAP was “buried” at the city’s Planning and Urban Development meeting earlier this year, Acteson said, the NHLAP moved forward.

“As a community representative, I’m incredibly frustrated with the process, which has been challenging at the best of times, but now they are proposing that they will bring many of the policies from the guidebook, which hasn’t been ratified or approved, put them into the North Hill plan, and they’re going to push it through to council on June 21,” she said.

She’s concerned there will only be two weeks to review before they need to have a submission in to the city.

“We have no time to engage residents. And really, I don’t think that’s our job. I think that’s the job of the city,” she said.

Acteson said the city bears the responsibility to ensure that those affected by the plan details should understand the impact.

Ideally, Acteson said the city should have gone to each community to talk with Calgarians.

Connecting with communities

Gonzalez said since the beginning, they’ve had active engagement with all of the community associations involved in the North Hill plan.

Even after the confusion around the guide, its impact and the changes to the North Hill plan, the city went to the communities to explain. 

Gonzalez reference a call with folks from Capitol Hill residents, to go over the changes. They covered the guide and the NHCLAP – plus outstanding concerns they may still have.

The city’s has held virtual town halls over the past month with different communities. They were holding them right up to last week with one scheduled for Mount Pleasant.

“Certainly, we did hear the theme, as we put this plan together, that there was a concern that some communities feel like their voices may be getting lost in terms of this multi community planning approach,” Gonzalez said.

He said that’s something they’ve also taken back to administration.

Gonzalez also pointed out that this is the third set of recommendations that’s come back from council and the communities. That’s going back to March 2020.

“A lot of that stuff was to address this concern of communities feeling their voices are getting lost a bit,” he said.

Residual development concerns

While public engagement is one side of the debate, application of the policy is another.

There’s a splinter group of residents in Renfrew, outside of the area’s community association, who aren’t happy with the potential changes.

“It has been a challenge to try and really get across to communities and the city at large just how impactful this plan is, and how grave our concerns truly are,” wrote Kelly Page and Megan Waldie with the Renfrew Residents Association.

In their five-page letter, Page and Waldie describe four examples of the negative impact the North Hill Plan would have by allowing up to six storeys on particular areas of the community.

One is the site of the former Renfrew United Church. It’s been designated in the plan as an area that would allow for six storey buildings. It’s an area surrounded almost entirely by bungalows on a double tree canopy street ,they said.

They’d learned this development is next to a resident that has lived and volunteered in the community for years.

“Is this the thanks she gets for years of giving generously of her time to build stronger community ties,” the pair wrote.

The letter describes another family, recently moved to Calgary who chose to settle in Renfrew. Now, the letter says they’re also faced with the prospect of six storey building on that street.

The image of what a potential large scale development could look like in these areas, say Waldie and Page. CONTRIBUTED

While Waldie and Page say they’ve written letters, spoke at public hearings and heard that there is little opposition to the North Hill plan, they beg to differ.

“The rhetoric from city council continues to be that communities and citizens support this plan,” they wrote.

“We argue that this is an incorrect generalization, and that silence does not equal support; a great majority of the city is uninformed and those that are simply don’t have the channels to have our voices heard.”

(Note: Under the current planning rules, applicants can already put forward a plan for these types of development – without the NHCLAP or the Guide. The concern is that this paves the way for the ease of their approval through council.)

A lot of work done’

Chris Ollenberger, who lives in one of the North Hill communities, but participated in the process from the developer side, said he feels as though the city went above and beyond in the engagement process.

“Lots of input, lots of people were super respectful of everybody’s different ideas and objectives and goals and things like that,” he said. Ollenberger was so impressed, he supported the city’s application for an engagement award on their North Hill work.

Ollenberger said recent changes have limited the density in many of the corridors. He knew some community members wanted the greater density, but there was a compromise.

“I think there’s been a good middle ground balance found there with the amendments that council directed to be put in, to kind of bring some of those thought processes down in some of those areas,” he said.

The one hitch that Ollenberger said exists is the lingering Guide for Local Area Planning. Those planning principles were included in the North Hill Plan without being council endorsed.

“If the Guidebook had gone through, I’d say yeah, you probably don’t need another public hearing, we’ve all had our kick the cats and it’s looking like it’s in a good place,” he said.

“I think the equation does change when there’s no Guidebook approved.”

He understands the city’s position that it’s been consulting on the Guide for the past several years. They incorporated feedback and worked with citizens on it.

“Well, the problem with that, in my view, is the feedback on the Guidebook resulted in its death,” he said.

Another approval process for NHCLAP

There’s also the added pressure of this document needing the approval of the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board.

That body must now approve all planning work done in the region.

If first reading of the NHCLAP is given on June 21, it would then go to the CMRB. If it receives a recommendation from that body, municipalities are given 28 days for a review and a chance to challenge, according to city administration.

If there is no challenge, the document returns for second and third reading at council.

According to city administration, the estimated return of the document for its final readings would be September 2021.

There’s a municipal election on October 18. There’s a blackout period to deal with where council decision making may be limited. With more delayed, the NHCLAP could be put over to the next council.

Many issues facing city council are somewhat postponed at this time. The Events Centre, the Green Line – with many wondering if political will, and a potential change of the council makeup, is behind the push.

If approved, what’s next for communities?

The city has said on numerous occasions that the NHCLAP is a pilot project. There are already working groups struck for other multi-community plans.

Terry Wong with the Hounsfield Heights-Briar Hill community association questioned what an approved NHCLAP would mean for future planning groups. His area is part of the Riley Communities LAP being rolled out later this year.  

Wong is also running for the Ward 7 city council seat in November.

Wong said he too is concerned with the expedited process. There’s a lack of a robust public engagement after 62 Guidebook amendments and the changes to the NHLAP, he said.

He’s said those changes will already be embedded into the NHLAP, if approved.

“Again, these 62 amendments, if they’re embedded into the other plan, then becomes a template for our plan, and doesn’t allow our communities to provide the input itself,” he said.

He thinks instead of using the NHLAP, they should be going into communities and asking what’s important to them. What needs to be kept and how the community identity needs to be included in the next plan.

Gonzalez – who is not a part of the Riley Communities plan – said each plan is unique, drawing on the feedback from a variety of stakeholders and variables. Essentially, what’s right for one plan, may not be right for another – this won’t be a one-to-one application, he said.  Each plan has a prescription of community feedback.

The city recognizes that the area residents are the community experts.

“They’re ultimately the experts and all this stuff, so we really do rely on them to be able to provide us with some of that on-the-ground expertise,” he said.

“I think you’re going to have very different conversations because each part of our city we know is a little bit different.

Lessons from the process

Gonzalez said they’ve got a large book of what they’ve learned through this entire process. Whether that’s public engagement or the application of principles on the ground. The intention, he said, was for the North Hill Plan to be a pilot project. Gonzales said they would be learning and changing and applying that to future working groups.

“I’ll just point out to you a lot of what we’ve heard is coming from some very specific kind of pockets in this plan area,” he said.

The goal is to make the process as transparent and open as possible. Hindsight is always 20/20, Gonzalez admits.

“Some of the feedback that we’ve gotten, even to date, for the North Hill Plan is already funneling into those projects to help kind of inform what they look like from the engagement perspective moving forward,” he said.

The plan will be debated in council June 21.