Calgary’s North Hill Communities Local Area Plan: How did we get here?

A City of Calgary employee cleans the glass of an entranceway at city hall in Calgary, Alta., on June 20, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Following a record-breaking number of public presentations at city council and thousands of hours’ more work done with community associations and citizens, years of work could be lost on the North Hill Communities Local Area Plan (LAP) if city council votes against passing the document at a meeting on Monday.

The LAP is a unified planning document for nine communities north of the Bow River that line Centre Street and 16 Avenue N. It aims to implement strategies accommodating citywide growth from the Municipal Development Plan while using the Guide for Local Area Plans.

Read more: City of Calgary committee hands Guide for Local Area Planning back to administration

The recommendation in front of council is to begin the process of putting the LAP into law through first reading and make amendments to modify allowed density within Renfrew. The LAP requires approval from the metropolitan region board before it can become enacted via a city bylaw.

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Sources with the city told Global News they expect councillors to vote in a 7-7 split during Monday’s meeting. According to council procedure, a tied vote does not carry the matter being voted on.

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The North Hill Communities LAP is an effort to help those areas who had old or no area redevelopment plans respond to market pressures of redevelopment in a comprehensive way.

Currently, proposed developments seeking to build higher-capacity structures have to go through the city’s land-use redesignation process, one by one.

“Everyone who responds to development pressures realizes pretty quickly that, rather than dealing with one-off things, you want to have a big picture of where you’re going,” Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra told Global News.

“So (the LAP) makes the one-offs easier to navigate.”

Guiding redevelopment

That’s a scenario Jeanne Kimber, longtime resident of Highland Park and current president of the Highland Park Community Association, is familiar with, saying “about 15 to 20 years ago, things were starting to change.”

“In some of the older housing stock, the original owners were moving out as they grew older,” Kimber told Global News. “Some of the properties were starting to deteriorate, if they had been bought up by landlords who were not taking really great care of the properties. And it was at a tipping point.”

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A map of Calgary communities included in the North Hill Communities Local Area Plan. City of Calgary

Kimber said redevelopment has been creeping northward from Mount Pleasant and Tuxedo Park into Highland Park and proceeded in an unfettered way.

Development projects were judged on a piecemeal basis, and were not planned in a manner “without overarching vision or guidance,” Kimber said.

“When Highland Park and adjacent communities were built 70 years ago, the social and economic conditions were hugely different from what they are now,” Kimber wrote in an open letter to Ward 4 Coun. Sean Chu, who represents Highland Park.

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A member of her community association’s planning and development committee, Kimber joined the LAP planning process in 2019, focusing on the then-three-year-old Guidebook for Great Communities.

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“We needed the guidebook, or the guide, approved in order to provide the foundation for the (Local Area) Plan to be approved — you couldn’t have one without the other,” Kimber said.

In a March meeting, city council decided to hand the guide back over to city officials to use in guiding the LAP process, a move that Mayor Naheed Nenshi said resolved “a problem of our own making.”

Read more: City of Calgary committee hands Guide for Local Area Planning back to administration

It also allowed the LAP process for the North Hill communities and its 40,000 residents to move ahead.

Another member of the Highland Park Community Association was one of 32 members on the LAP working group. That group included members from each community association, affected business improvement areas, three developers and 19 members-at-large.

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The city also had direct engagement with 20,000 Calgarians throughout the process, which began in 2018.

Through the in-person and virtual meetings and countless correspondences with city officials, Kimber found the process easy to follow and understand, despite not having a professional or education background in planning or development.

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“When they talked about urban form categories, I thought they were fairly intuitive: industrial or commercial or neighbourhood local. For me, those resonate as comprehensible terms,” she said.

Alison Abbott, VP of public service with neighbouring Thorncliffe Greenview Community Association and LAP working group member, said working with city officials and planners has been a “comprehensive, involved process.”

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“The first part started with a lot of education just around planning: land uses, the Municipal Development Plan, goals and strategies,” Abbott told Global News. “And then we got into more working around the plan (including) various exercises we did throughout to help pull together what an overall plan could look like.”

All of Greenview and a portion of Thorncliffe will be included in the LAP that’s going to council. And like Highland Park to the south, Thorncliffe Greenview Community Association wanted to have surety on how impending redevelopment would impact their community.

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“(We were) looking for something that could be helpful for us as a community association longer-term, as you navigate some of the issues we know will be getting as development, especially in the inner city, moves further up Center Street and Edmonton Trail,” Abbott said.

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Abbott said the working group participants worked well together in a long process that went longer than anticipated.

“I think the city was responsive to our concerns and what we needed,” she said. “But I think between the pandemic and then, frankly, when it would get to council and they’d make all kinds of recommendations or things, and then they’d go back and revise it again, and go back to the communities. That’s where I think it became less effective because it just got so muddled.

“It becomes almost a full-time job to keep up with what’s going on with it.”

Four phases of engagement

City officials began public engaging the public in Sept. 2018.

“We called it the ‘discover and discuss phase,’” Troy Gonzalez, senior planner with the city, said. “That was where we really tried to reach as many people as possible and build a little bit of knowledge about what we were doing, give people the opportunity to learn about the project, share and discuss what they love about the area.

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“(We were) doing that initial read of, ‘What are the opportunities here? What are the things you love? What are some of the challenges and considerations or issues that we need to look at as we move forward?’”

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Where city planners previously worked with the planning committee of a single community association, a novel approach was taken with the multi-community area plan: the creation of a multi-stakeholder working group.

“We did a number of sessions with them over the course of the project, but then we also had different opportunities for people to get involved,” Gonzalez told Global News, including online sessions, traditional open houses, and pop-up sessions at community hubs like grocery stores or rec centres.

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City planners and officials took feedback heard in that first phase and had the working group develop core ideas for the LAP.

When opposing views on what should be included in the plan came up, “that was all balanced with the broader engagement input that we got, as well as direction that we get from the municipal development plan and the application of sound planning principles and some of the technical considerations for the plan area.”

When it came to more granular details like scale of buildings, planners leaned on the area expertise of community association members and citizens-at-large.

“Those are really the area experts to help us comb through some of that and help us turn that into what ultimately kind of turned into the plan.”

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With a dedicated team on the LAP project and support from other areas of city administration, Gonzalez estimates city staff spent thousands of hours developing the plan through all stages of the work. He also says members of the working group have spent dozens of hours in meetings with administration and at city council.

More engagement wanted

Some citizens, who appear to be rallied by the same “ad hoc group of concerned citizens” behind a prominent advertising campaign opposing the Guide in March, are calling for more time and more citizen engagement.

Councillors have accused that ad hoc group of spreading misinformation. It’s a group that Calgary businessman W. Brett Wilson admitted to donating “thousands of dollars” to at a previous council meeting, and the same group that’s behind a lawn sign and door hanger campaign emblazoned with “blanket densification” carpeting Renfrew in opposition to the LAP.

Read more: Residents of northwest Calgary ask for delay in council decision on North Hill Area Plan

In a letter sent to mayor and council dated May 21 and signed by hundreds of citizens and members of nine community associations — including two community associations in the LAP — this group called for council to delay its approval of the LAP and have administration consult with the nine LAP communities more.

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“For this plan to be successful, we feel it is imperative that the city facilitate and demonstrate significant awareness, participation, and support of affected citizens,” the letter reads.

At issue is the tight timelines given to review iterations of the LAP and Guidebook.

But changes to the latest version of the LAP, released June 1, were done following a March council meeting in which hundreds of public submissions were heard by council.

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Terry Wong, president of the Hounsfield Heights-Briar Hill Community Association, whose community is among those next in line for a local area plan, has spoken with residents in Rosedale, Crescent Heights and Mount Pleasant about the North Hill LAP.

He says a common theme he heard was that there wasn’t enough due process and heard fears of “blanket density.” But he told Global News that the residents he’s spoken with while campaigning to be the next Ward 7 councillor aren’t opposed to the Guide or the LAP.

“They’re not against density intensification,” Wong said. “They just want to be able to have their voices heard in a meaningful sort of way and being able to collaborate in getting a meaningful sort of local area plan, that sets in place a local area plan for the next couple of decades.”

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A ‘learning process’

Nathan Hawryluk was part of the LAP working group and used to sit on the Renfrew Community Association Board.

He said the LAP doesn’t address all of the concerns he has about the area, but said it does help address a broader problem the city has with growth and infrastructure.

“If we don’t allow any redevelopment anywhere, we get more perimeter growth and we build more infrastructure,” Hawryluk told Global News. “And we’ve reported the City of Calgary requires an additional $7.73 billion to fund its infrastructure, maintenance and operating requirements over 10 years.

“And even without the population growth portion of that — if no children are born and no one moved to Calgary — our capital maintenance and operating funding gap add up to $5.5 billion over 10 years.

“So that means the city needs another half-billion dollars a year to maintain and run the city we’ve already built.”

With more local area plans in the making for other older areas of the city, Carra said what is being learned with the North Hill communities will help the city iterate the process.

“We had to learn what worked and what didn’t work. We had to learn what should be in the plan, what shouldn’t be in the plan,” the Ward 9 councillor said.

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“As we move forward and work with local areas, create local area plans throughout the city, we’ll get better and better about doing this faster and faster.”

Carra said all parties — city council, city planners and communities — have had to go along together in this “learning process.”

“I don’t believe we have it right yet, but I believe that the product that we’re putting forward with the North Hill Local Area Plan is a fabulous starting place.”

Highland Park and Thorncliffe Greenview are among the community associations that support the LAP in the form that is going to council on Monday.

“We realize that it’s not going to be perfect — nothing made by humans ever is perfect,” Kimber said. “We do want to see some kind of a policy plan in place by (city) administration for a refresh cycle.”

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On Thursday, Nenshi acknowledged the possibility that the LAP could see its end at council’s next meeting.

He recognized that there are some councillors who have joined the call to allow for still more citizen engagement.

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“If there are members of council who really want more work, then I would expect that they are working hard on motions to allow for that right now,” Nenshi said. “Because if it fails, it just fails, and that would be a terrible outcome for the communities that have worked on that for so many years.”

Read more: Calgary councillors want community guidebook delayed until after election

A failure on the vote would be a disappointment for Kimber and her fellow community association members who put in hours of volunteer work over the past three years.

“I certainly know that my fellow board member who has been involved in the working group for the last three years would be totally angry and frustrated and disappointed,” Kimber said. “I for sure would be disappointed.”

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