E-Newsletter

Anticipation mounts as controversial Mission Road Project comes to council

UPDATE: Council has asked Administration to collect more detailed information prior to making any final decisions on the land use applications concerning Mission Road. As soon as the Council Meeting minutes have been officially published, VoteCalgary.ca will have a more detailed update available on this important project.

What happens when idealistic expectations on urban design collide with the harsh economic realities of redevelopment just as change is rapidly knocking on the door of an established community? Those in the know might say that just describes another day in the trenches as we work towards the implementation of Plan It. The Mission Road Project heading to Council on January 9th is an excellent primer on this perfect storm.

It all began over 4 years ago when a group of landowners requested a land use redesignation to rezone their properties on Mission Road from single family to multi-family allowing for an increase in density. This also seemed to align with City goals as it was initially supported by Administration as an opportunity to increase density within proximity of an LRT station while at the same time providing an appropriate transition to the existing community. In other words, this was Plan It before Plan It was cool.

There is no question this would have made these properties much more attractive for redevelopment investment and therefore of greater value. That may have rubbed some existing residents the wrong way, giving many the idea these owners seemed only interested in selling the newly “upzoned” property for a profit and getting out of the community. While it is an owner’s right to sell or legally redevelop their property, the decision may not always please other owners or residents.

Whatever one thinks about the choice an owner may ultimately make, that should not unduly influence Council or Community involvement when discussing the much more critical issue of settling on an appropriate land use for the site or area. Well perhaps in a perfect world…
Instead of forging ahead with a decision on the land use redesignation in front of them, in February of 2011 a motion was made by Alderman Carra, and agreed to by a majority of Council, to table the matter of redesignation until a comprehensive planning exercise (namely the Mission Road Main Street Innovation Project) was completed.

In fact, this project was really about testing the use of a form-based, or SmartCode approach to planning. For those of us who may not be up to speed on the jargon, the report states; “The SmartCode is a unified land development ordinance for planning and urban design. It folds zoning, subdivision regulations, urban design, and optional architectural standards into one compact document”. As an interesting side note, many in the Industry feel that innovation and creativity often occur in the absence of restrictive regulation or prescriptive design policy.

Regardless, up to $300,000 from the City of Calgary Innovation Fund was made available to examine “the feasibility of creating a mixed-use ‘Main Street’ along Mission Road as an alternative to rendering decisions on individual applications”.
So what can we learn from the report that goes to Council on January 9th? Three things worth noting:

First and foremost it seems the original intent, through the SmartCode approach, was for the mix of acceptable uses within the district to now be considered permitted uses, with appropriate design restrictions to guide form. This can sometimes offer the kind of certainty that provides incentive for investment, leading to the desired redevelopment. If due to the nature of the bylaw and the restrictions under the MGA as mentioned in the report, meaningful uses were to once again become discretionary, or pulled out entirely as some community representatives have requested, then much of the benefit of the form based code that would be embedded into Area Redevelopment Plan would be lost, becoming just another layer in a labyrinth of policy.

Secondly, there is no way to pay for the grand vision that has been presented. The recommendation is that the first development permit received by the city would see the applicant charged with the costs of implementing the infrastructure upgrades as a result of these new urban design requirements. Without any kind of full realization of the total costs this is completely unrealistic.

In fairness, Administration has pointed this out in their report as well, stating that additional funding was not provided to request more detailed costing from the consultant and that “before any form based rules for permitted uses within the Land Use Bylaw are considered, detailed redesigns must occur to public realm infrastructure in order to verify costs and achievability”. Indeed.

Thirdly, be wary of overpromising on a vision. Charrettes and community planning exercises can be beneficial and very productive, often leading to improvements in the final product. That said; the parameters must be realistic to ensure expectations can be met. If the range of uses is either unmarketable or unpredictable, or the costs prohibitive to fulfill the design and infrastructure demands, it simply won’t come to fruition. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the plan may be or how much the community desires it. Expectations won’t be met and participants will only be left frustrated.

This is the very fear of the Mission landowners; that the costs involved to achieve this new vision would be excessive and effectively negate any opportunity to actually redevelop the land into something even resembling the plan. As Chris Ollenberger, Executive Vice President of Opus recently noted on Twitter; if Council decides to move forward with the Mission Road Project, it will “…sterilize the area for decades to come”. Not exactly the outcome anyone is hoping for.

The Mission Road Main Street Innovation Project has been long on consultation with community but short on details surrounding actual costs and input from experienced local developers that could provide some real-life experience and knowledge.

So what do community members think of the proposal? Their submissions on the project run the gamut from staunch opposition to milder objections. Some feel the final vision is a good step in the right direction while still suggesting various degrees of tweaking. Many others feel that any increase in density will lead to increased traffic congestion, parking problems, large building mass, ‘unnecessary’ commercial uses, low quality design and general safety issues. In other words, pretty much the same feedback heard on the majority of redevelopment proposals throughout the city.

Calgarians in most established communities will undoubtedly see changes coming if we are to accommodate 50% of all new population growth within the existing areas in the next 60 years as set out in our new Municipal Development Plan (MDP). That means the City must do a better job of explaining this shift and even more importantly what terms like ‘sensitive intensification’ truly mean on the ground for existing residents. Community charrettes are a start, but we have a long way to go judging by the similar reception redevelopment projects receive across the city.

It is essential that redevelopment opportunities within the City of Calgary are seen to be financially viable in order to attract the future investment needed to realize the goals of our MDP. In order to achieve that, we must create a planning process that can encourage collaboration and innovation while at the same time remaining efficient and productive, leading to real world success. Based on the conclusions coming out of the Mission Road Project, this model is not the answer.