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Calgary planning and ‘misaligned expectations’

(Editor’s note: THIS PIECE IS FROM SUMMER 2021)

Real estate expert Jyoti Gondek is considered a strong contender to be our next mayor. 

So as debate about densification in Calgary continues – witness opposition to the Guidebook and North Hill area planning – Gondek’s past decisions on the planning commission are coming under scrutiny. And her prior writings should, too. 

Gondek was recently called out on social media for a zoning approval she’d voted for.

I know the file. The lot was undersized for rowhouse development. It had no alley, meaning it would put multiple driveways across a sidewalk across from an elementary school causing a safety issue in violation of the city’s own policies.

Residents spoke against it. That included a pregnant woman who waited hours to speak. 

The upzoning was approved in a scene played out in council over and over. Residents are asked for input and led to think they have a shot to influence planning. But they don’t.

Gondek’s response to the Facebook call-out was a deke; she proposed appointment times for those speaking to public commissions. 

But she’s actually had better ideas as Director of the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies, a developer-funded centre at the University of Calgary. Had she worked to implement some of her earlier ideas, we might not see the frustration of today. 

And we’d learn where she thinks residents fit in the process she called “misaligned expectations.”

Community associations lack planning resources

In 2016, she co-authored a paper on community associations (CAs) for the University of Calgary School of Public Policy. In Calgary, community associations are sent zoning development permit applications for their neighbourhoods. Most CAs mount volunteer planning committees to respond, but as Gondek points out they lack access to professional planning professionals to do their work.

Gondek and her team also pointed out CAs can react with NIMBYism and consulting them on planning can be a form of tokenism. Her paper notes “misaligned expectations” of community association planning response.

She and her co-authors recommended The City of Calgary should: 

  • Clearly outline the level of influence CAs (community associations) have on decision making.
  • Establish a weighting system for stakeholder comments whereby each is aware of the level of influence.
  • Provide a planning and development checklist that outlines scope of feedback may clarify areas where CA (community association) input is requested. The City must clearly state whether CAs simply provide feedback, or if their feedback is able to directly impact decision-making in planning and development matters.

Yes, it would be wise to clarify expectations about what’s happening on the ground.

The struggle to respond

The city wants to retrofit single family neighbourhoods and increase density by 33%. Community association planning committees are struggling to respond. Planning is complicated and once you learn the rules you find the City quickly “relaxes” the rules. 

I’ve been on and off my CA planning community for two decades. When I see a rezoning application, my heart sinks because I know how upset people will be who live beside the development.

Despite the quick-thumb NIMBY insulters on Twitter, things feel different on the ground and in our communities.

We know the people affected. Ask them what it feels like to have your neighbour gone and a rowhouse built to your property line, or a three to 10-storey building go up beside you. Ask what it feels like to find out that sunny rooms in your house will now be shaded and your garden will need shade plants now. Ask what it feels like to hear your real estate agent tell you that the density that will bring profit to others means your home is now devalued. 

Maybe you can sell and leave, too?

Not just old, wealthy fuddy-duddies

And these aren’t just only old, wealthy fuddy-duddies. They’re also young couples who often put in decades of work to rustle up a home downpayment. Small homes are dismissed as ‘tear downs’, because they’re going anyway. 

I’ve watched our very experienced planning committee spend hours and hours on a file, collect and synthesize a range of community comments, and suggest reasonable accommodations such as asking a developer to build one storey lower. We don’t fight secondary suites or home businesses.

Yet, there is increasing inability to influence community planning by the people who will be most affected. 

And if residents are taking one for the team, I ask: who is the team? It seems to be for-profit developers creating units at high price points. For instance, the long-term care workers who work close by don’t live in my neighbourhood. None of this density is for them or other modestly compensated people.

The four secondary suites in the new rowhouse down the street are populated with luggage-toting people getting out of BMWs with plates from Texas and B.C. The short-term rental folks won’t be counted in our density targets. 

To further understand frustration, there’s been a trend to reduce resident and community association planning committee input. Many files are labelled “contextual” and don’t allow input.

Some files come requesting relaxation of rules with no justification for why. The committees don’t receive all the documents that developers produce like traffic impact assessments (we have to make an appt to see them if we find out they exist).

Rezoning applications are separate from development permits so you don’t see what the building will actually look like. Then there’s developer promises of trees, rooftop gardens, wide sidewalks, flashing light pedestrian crossings that seem to evaporate. City “remnant lands” (we thought they were parks!) are sold to developers in a confidential process with the implicit guarantee of upzoning. 

Trust is low.

We see density with little to no improvement in community infrastructure. Our community association building, for instance, is crumbling from construction in the 1940s. A 2015 Main Street consultation with our community sits on the shelf. The promise of a pedestrian bridge over Crowchild Trail? Moved to an ‘unfunded’ phase. Now, the City says ‘trust us’ with a new area plan called the Riley area plan.

But it too is delayed as lots get bought up and upzoning applications flood in.  

Those misaligned expectations

Residents obviously have misaligned expectations. They expect to influence the planning process that’s counter to slavish density goals. 

We see a move to larger area community planning but we know from Gondek’s work that’s a way to reduce community input and elevate decisions above “blockface”.

So how to move forward? 

In this campaign, Jyoti Gondek should take a stand. Either have the courage to weight community association planning input or strengthen CA capacity by funding access to planning professionals.  

In 2016, she said the problem should be prevented from languishing. Six years later, the only change are district planning process which in her team’s mind are to remove neighbourhood “block face” community input.

  • Janice Paskey is a member of her community’s planning committee. Her opinions are her own.