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Community engagement should be constructive not divisive, but it never is.

I have often wondered, “Should the city of Calgary forget about conducting public hearings, as they are the most divisive and rarely result in any new information?” I was reminded of this when the city’s infrastructure and planning committee hosted a public hearing about the sale of city-owned land next to Glenmore Landing shopping centre to support a proposed major residential development.

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Yes, I know the city is required by the Provincial Municipal Government Act to conduct public hearings regarding land use bylaws, rezoning and so on or on any other matters council deems appropriate. Perhaps it is time to change this antiquated requirement.

Like most public hearings, most of the citizens spoke out against the selling of city owned land to Rio Can, the owner of Glenmore Landing, to create a comprehensive transit-oriented development next to the bus rapid transit station. Of course, council subsequently approved the sale (it always does), which will allow the developer to move forward with a more detailed proposal to add six residential towers for about 2,700 people. But not before another “public hearing” when the developer asks council for a change of land use to allow for the residential development uses. And, of course, the change of land use will be opposed by the same people.

A similar reaction happened in November when Minto Communities announced its proposed massive redevelopment of the Viscount Bennett High School site at an open house — too much density and too much additional traffic. Several public hearings will have to happen before it gets approved and you can bet each one will be hotly contested, but in the end the city will approve the redevelopment, perhaps with some minor changes.

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The same happened when the Shawnee Slopes golf course was sold to a residential developer in 2007 and when the Kensington Legion site was sold in 2017. In 2020, the Banff Trail community was up in arms over several low-rise developments proposed along 24th Avenue N.W.

There will always be a group of people in every community who will oppose almost any new development.

Community Association Upheaval

In the case of Glenmore Landing, Banff Trail and Kensington Legion, some of the neighbours were so “up in arms” they decided to throw out the existing community association board and got themselves elected so they would be in a better position to lobby against the new development.

But in each case, the projects were ultimately approved by the city, which further infuriates the protestors and results in the popular opinion that the city isn’t listening.

The city is listening, but it must weigh the pros and cons of each development not only for the neighbours but for the city at large.

Public Hearings Waste of Time

Public hearings are a waste of time for citizens, as council is rarely influenced by their presentations, possibly because there is rarely any new information presented.

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It is a waste of city staff time as there are dozens of planners, general managers and other senior staff sitting at the hearing or on call if needed to provide additional information.

The developer’s team of professionals — planners, engineers (traffic, civil, environmental and geotechnical), architects and urban designers — also must sit through the hearings in case they are needed. The total cost in staff hours for a one day public hearing could easily be $100,000 for the city and another $100,000 for the developer (not just for the day, but in preparation for the hearing). These costs are then passed on to the taxpayer and to the future new home prices.

The city knows with each infill project there will be a group of people who will lobby for less density because it will result in more traffic and increased parking issues. But in the end, the city will approve the infill project with minimal changes as it is city policy to ultimately have 50 per cent of new homes constructed in established communities to limit urban sprawl.

FYI: Today about 40 per cent of new homes are being built in established communities, so we are not there yet.

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Proposed new public engagement process:

1. The developer after consultation with ward councillor, city planners and the community association board, present their proposal to the community at a public open house.

2. Citizen’s concerns and ideas for improvements at the public open house are documented.

3. The developer’s team, city planners and ward councillor prepare a joint community input review report within six months on what changes have been made to the proposal based on community input and/or why some of the community’s ideas are not valid or viable.

4. Report shared with the ward councillor and community association board for comments and perhaps some revisions.

5. Open house hosted by the community association and ward councillor to present to the public the updated proposal with rational for what changes have been made and those that have not. No further community input.

6. Proposal presented to planning commission (representation from city, professionals and community) for discussion and possible further changes.

7. Council makes its decision without a public hearing, based on the merits of the proposal to meet city policy, planning commission recommendation and on public comments collected in the community input review report.

This isn’t perfect, but nothing ever is. But it will streamline the engagement and approval process and not waste so much time with public engagement that is not constructive.

Last Word

If the city wants to create more affordable and more available housing, it will need to cut the red tape. It will need to provide opportunities for public input in a strategic manner that is constructive and not divisive.

Let’s stop wasting time and money by eliminating public hearings. As the saying goes, you can’t please everyone. So, let’s stop trying.

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