City council’s tormented yes’ to more suburban sprawl

New councillors grapple with a very tough decision.’

The Sprawl is digging into the issue of urban sprawl for the month of September. This podcast episode is the second story in that edition. Subscribe to Sprawlcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. A transcript of this episode is below, for those who would rather read than listen.

COUNCILLOR RAJ DHALIWAL: It's a very tough decision. There's affordability; there's climate change.

COUNCILLOR TERRY WONG: I feel against it, but I also feel compelled to support it, only because I think we're down that path of supporting already.

COUNCILLOR JASMINE MIAN: I know we can do this better. We will do this better. And I think we have the right leadership to do it. I just think we're going to need a little bit of time to hash out the right policy tools to get the job done.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): It was a big test for Calgary’s new city council. It came late at night in one of the first council meetings since the summer—and city politicians had to decide on something that many of them would rather not decide at all. And if the mayor has her way, they won’t have to anymore.

I’m referring to city council’s September 13 decision on whether or not to lift the Growth Management Overlay on five new suburban communities. The Growth Management Overlay is a check on growth—one that city hall is working to phase out, at the direction of the previous council. But for now, that’s the process. And as long as that Growth Management Overlay is there, developers can’t build. Once it’s lifted, they can.

One of this council’s first moves after being elected last October was to declare a climate emergency in November. Council followed that up by approving a new climate strategy in July. But this summer, council also decided to fast-track these five suburban communities—with potentially three more after that. There was a marathon public hearing session in June, in which council’s infrastructure and planning committee got an earful from developers and citizens on what they should do next, for the good of the city.

It’s a very tough decision. There’s affordability; there’s climate change.

Raj Dhaliwal,

Ward 5 Councillor

BRIAN HAHN (BILD CALGARY): Increasing our housing supply will be the key to making housing more affordable for everyone.

RYAN BOYD (BROOKFIELD RESIDENTIAL): And I think as an industry, we're all excited to be at the table to find different ways in which we can be more sustainable, but it truly requires the City to be at the table with us, so we look forward to the future partnership.

KATHRYN DAVIES (CITIZEN): I feel like we're shooting ourselves in the foot over and over again with our ongoing capitulation to suburban development, and I do feel like this kind of growth is incompatible with a city that purports to take both environmental and fiscal sustainability seriously.

BOB MORRISON (SUSTAINABLE CALGARY): Please do not give your blessings to this one-sided and obsolete strategy. It shortchanges established communities. It is an incomplete, misleading assessment of what is best for our city, and it is an unwise investment financially and in terms of climate adaptation. Just say no.

KLASZUS: When all was said and done, both committee and council voted yes. They directed administration to get ready to lift the Growth Management Overlay early for these five new communities, and look further into the additional three. Those are in the works as we speak. The direction to fast-track the five flew in the face of administration’s recommendation to make a decision AFTER approving the next four-year budget in November. You can hear more about that in the previous episode of Sprawlcast.

Now, these approvals of new communities are not particularly unusual. Developers lobby city council members—often motivating council to go above and beyond what administration is recommending for suburban development. What was unusual this time was that climate was in sharper focus. Administration let council know that approving these communities—more car-dependent suburbs—would work against the city’s climate goals and increase net emissions, even if the new communities were well-designed. Admin also flagged climate risks including wildfire and flooding for some of these edge communities.

I really wish the city would see this as an opportunity to take the climate strategy seriously.

Nathaniel Schmidt,

Board Member, Alberta Wilderness Association

The loss of natural areas

KLASZUS: And it’s not just about what’s being built—the roads and homes. It’s also about what’s being lost: natural areas that help mitigate climate change. City admin warned council that if these eight communities went ahead, we’d be losing wetlands, ponds and native grasslands. Even so, administration recommended that the five proceed—in large part to accommodate the 88,000 people that are expected to move to Calgary over the next four years.

In August, while city council was on its summer recess, three of these new communities became something of a hot topic. These developments are called Nostalgia, Logan Landing and Seton Ridge. And they’re in an area called Ricardo Ranch. You can see it when you drive south out of the city. You go past Seton and the new hospital, and as the highway descends into the river valley, the Ricardo Ranch area is immediately to the west.

And Nathaniel Schmidt, a Calgarian and board member with the Alberta Wilderness Association, went for a walk there and documented what he found. He’d spoken out against the developments at the council committee meeting earlier in the summer. And after he posted pictures of wildlife at Ricardo Ranch to social media—it went viral.

Grassland near the Bow River at Ricardo Ranch. Photo: Farkhod Fayzullaev

NATHANIEL SCHMIDT: So I saw basically, like, an intact riparian ecosystem, which is basically a river ecosystem, abutting the ranch, which is, you know, grassland and some intact stuff there. I saw 30 species of birds, a lot of native wildflowers, native shrubs, native trees, lots of different bugs, about four or five different types of butterflies, all just—I mean, I'm no expert, so all just through what I kind of knew from walking around, so just basically a healthy place with lots of life in it.

KLASZUS: And your opposition to these neighborhoods, what is that based in—or what's your argument, I guess?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think it starts at the fact that Calgary is growing, and we know that it's going to grow even more, but we also know that of all the major cities in North America, it has one of the lowest levels of density. So even comparing us to places like Vancouver and Toronto and—I mean, Toronto's, I guess, somewhat comparable, but we could be a lot more dense than we are, and we're not doing enough to change the way that we build the city, and as a result, we're having to destroy the remaining assets—climate assets and ecosystem assets—that we have, in order to build more houses, when we have a ton of space in the parts of the city that already exist.

KLASZUS: When you look around here, it's interesting, because city hall traditionally has treated areas like this—it's regarded as, quote, unquote, undeveloped land, right? Kind of a blank space almost. But when you come out here, obviously you don't see just blank space waiting to be built on.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, I think there's this pervasive view that we have, especially in North America, that land without development has no value, especially if it's not mountains. So I think we tend to look at the mountains here as having inherent value because we see that just culturally as being something beautiful, although I personally think this area is very beautiful out here, especially being so close to our city.

But I would really love to see our perspective change to something where we see the remaining land we have left as having inherent value, which would help us in the way that we plan our cities, especially now that we have a climate strategy. I think it's pretty well established at this point that wetlands are some of the best climate sinks that we have, and they're really hard for us to mimic when we try to restore areas or create new areas. Wetlands take a long time to develop. We can replant a forest; it's not the same either, but wetlands are even harder. Constructive wetlands are very hard to make, and this one right here is healthy and working as it should be right now.

I really wish the city would see this as an opportunity to take the climate strategy seriously, because if we develop this, I think, really, we're essentially saying that the climate strategy is just words and that it doesn't really have a lot of meaning left to it.

Nathaniel Schmidt, a board member with the Alberta Wilderness Association. Photo: Farkhod Fayzullaev

This direction was accelerated ahead of budget to be responsive to development timelines.

Insia Hassonjee,

City Planner, City of Calgary

Decision time for Calgary city council

KLASZUS: Fast forward to September 13. It’s after 10 p.m., and city council has just gone through hours of land use items and public hearings. It’s a beast of a meeting, and up come the Growth Management Overlay removals for these five new communities. And now, council has a decision to make. Here’s city planner Insia Hassonjee.

INSIA HASSONJEE: Enabling growth on these lands helps Calgary maintain a balanced residential land supply while supporting housing choice and affordability.

KLASZUS: This is the last step in opening up these communities for development—a step that council accelerated, as Hassonjee reminds them.

HASSONJEE: This direction was accelerated ahead of budget to be responsive to development timelines.

KLASZUS: And the developers are here to make their pitches one last time. Here’s Arnie Stefaniuk, the general manager of land development for Genesis. They’re the developer for two of these five communities—at Lewiston in the far north, and Ricardo Ranch - Logan Landing in the south.

ARNIE STEFANIUK: By reducing this bureaucratic red tape, we can maximize the full 2023 construction season and hand over the first sets of keys to new homeowners by as early as 2024. Today's new communities are scaled to pedestrians and are designed with environmental sustainability at their core. We are building smarter, more energy-efficient homes with renewable technologies, such as solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations.

KLASZUS: In a twist, Stefaniuk frames these suburban communities as fighting climate change, rather than contributing to it.

STEFANIUK: We are building complete communities where, truly, people can live, work, and play, and these ways with shorter or no commutes and renewable energy infrastructure. It's new-build communities such as ours that will help the city of Calgary meet its net-zero goals and decarbonization ambitions. Other municipalities are accelerating new housing approvals. Genesis invites council to show leadership today and allow Lewiston and Logan Landing to proceed without further delay.

KLASZUS: And now it’s time to decide. Now, if the mayor has her way, city council won’t be in this uncomfortable position again. You can learn more about that in the previous Sprawlcast, but in a nutshell: Mayor Gondek wants administration and not council to make these decisions in future. And while some council members were initially skeptical of Gondek’s idea, it seems like a consensus has formed around her proposal, as you’ll hear.

But that’s a future discussion. For now, on this late Tuesday night, council has to decide: do they remove the Growth Management Overlays on these five communities, following through with their summer vote to get this done before budget time in November? And if they do, how do they explain that? How do they square it with their own climate strategy and climate emergency declaration?

We have massive things we need to reckon with, and we’re going to do that in relationship with industry.

Evan Spencer,

Ward 12 Councillor

First-term councillors in the spotlight

KLASZUS: We’re going to listen in to some of the debate that happened the night of September 13. Some of it was rather anguished, as you’ll hear as we go along. We’ll start with Councillor Andre Chabot, followed by Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra.

COUNCILLOR ANDRE CHABOT: I think we've exhausted our debates around this particular matter.

COUNCILLOR GIAN-CARLO CARRA: Well, I don't know if the debate on this has been exhausted, but it's definitely being preempted, because we're making a major, major, major decision in the middle of the night, when we're all exhausted after, I agree, a tremendous amount of debate at the 20-hour committee hearing. Our whole process was based on the idea that we would engage in this debate and give it full shrift all the way up to the November budget decision. But what we're doing here is we're preempting our processes, and I think we're sending a terrible signal, and that signal is that we're not interested in fulsome debate and working things through, and we're very susceptible to political pressure from an industry that is worth billions of dollars and will cost the taxpayer billions of dollars.

KLASZUS: We’re going to hear now from a bunch of the new councillors. And I’m going to let them speak at length not only because of the importance of this issue, but also because their comments give insight into their thinking on this issue and their approach generally. Here’s Councillor Jasmine Mian, who represents Ward 3 in far north-central Calgary. And one of these five developments, Lewiston, is in her ward.

COUNCILLOR JASMINE MIAN: I think I just want to start—because this sort of came up very quickly—there was an implication that maybe this is somewhat nefarious, passing this at 10:30 at night. And I just want to address that, because I think we would all have been happier to do this during the day, but IT issues and a whole bunch of other things have prevented us from doing that, and that's why we're here.

We're not trying to sneak something through in the dead of night, and this might be the most widely covered topic by the media. We even have an entire media outlet dubbed The Sprawl, who just did an in-depth analysis on this that I haven't had a chance to read yet. So I just wanted to put that out there.

The second thing I think I just want to say is that I do agree with Councillor Chabot that this is a process. This GMO process has been ongoing for quite a long time, and we've allowed that process to proceed. It cost quite a lot of money to go forward with these applications, and then I think to outright oppose them because of a climate perspective, when we passed that climate strategy around after these applications had already been in, is challenging. It's challenging to do that to the applicants.

And I also think from a public policy perspective—and this is, again, in the climate strategy—we need to lead with carrots and better incentives as opposed to sticks and oppositions of developments, although I fully admit that there's a place for both.

I think we actually have a council that is more supportive of climate work than I think any council has ever been.

Jasmine Mian,

Ward 3 Councillor

KLASZUS: I just want to jump in here to add a bit from the climate strategy. The strategy identifies that regulation is the most powerful tool the city has when it comes to reducing emissions - but this is treated almost as a last resort. Here’s a direct quote from the strategy: “Regulations are the most direct way to reduce emissions, but can be politically sensitive to implement quickly. Therefore, The City can use the other approaches to help build support, capacity, buy-in, and increased adoption before introducing regulation.”

Okay, let’s go back to Councillor Mian.

MIAN: I say all this while recognizing fully that the GMO process, in my opinion, is just far too political, and I support—and I think we all do support—the mayor's motion from the last council meeting to reevaluate how we do this, because on the one hand I think we actually have a council that is more supportive of climate work than I think any council has ever been, despite the fact that we are often accused of being very hypocritical.

But I think the reality is, opposing developments as well, on the basis of climate alone—it has disproportionate impacts. And it's very challenging as a councillor in a community like Ward 3, where we have residents who very often have just bought their first home; they're waiting on retail amenity; they're waiting for having enough residents in schools that they think are coming with the area. Lewiston will be a great example of that, coming up into the northern part of Stoney there.

And I think it's just very hard for myself as an area councillor of a suburban community, as well as my residence, to always be referred to as "sprawl." Because these are people who want a great home, like many other people who speak out against these applications already have.

KLASZUS: Now we’re going to hear Evan Spencer, the councillor for Ward 12 in the city’s far southeast. Ricardo Ranch is in his ward, with the three proposed communities of Nostalgia, Logan Landing and Seton Ridge.

I don’t see it as hijacking a process, I see it as expediting it.

Evan Spencer,

Ward 12 Councillor

COUNCILLOR EVAN SPENCER: There’s incredible issues, on both sides, that are at odds. So when I look at this, and this conversation that we're having right now, I'm seeing admin recommendations with industry timeline. I'm seeing a great conversation happening on both sides, and us coming together and not bypassing, but recognizing, what's ahead of us. This amendment to the recommendations that is before us today to vote on for the GMO, I don't see it as hijacking a process, I see it as expediting it; I see it advancing a timeline, because I really do believe that it is meaningful.

We build this city in relationship with our partners, and anything that we can do to help them begin enabling works … Some of these business cases have really capital-rich initial stages of development. This is a meaningful gesture, this short expediting of this GMO removal. We're committed, to a certain degree, in this direction, and slowing down for this without taking the whole picture, I do not think is prudent.

These five business cases, I do not believe, belong in the budget conversation. We will have now more room, hopefully, for the conversation about the climate implications of development and the future of our city. I believe our relationships with industry are important. We have massive things we need to reckon with, and we're going to do that in relationship with industry. If we make enemies of them and throw down gauntlets and continue this narrative of a billion-dollar industry that is—look, yes, we have things to figure out, but we build this city in partnership.

KLASZUS: Now we’re going to hear Ward 1 Councillor Sonya Sharp, who’s been skeptical of city hall’s “climate emergency” language. Sharp was the councillor who initially moved to fast-track these five communities.

COUNCILLOR SONYA SHARP: So there's some points been given this evening about excessive debate or growth in our city. The one thing I'll say with this is that this was a direction of council, and that's what we approved and all followed through with that decision. But it's interesting, because the more we discuss this, especially around 10:30 at night—it's really a contested issue. And I know we're meeting on the 20th to talk a little bit about plans moving forward on the GMO, but the conversation also came around getting rid of the GMO and putting it back in the ASP process where it belongs, which technically depoliticizes everything.

So I think it's just interesting that the more we have these conversations, the more I'm more intrigued in having the conversation around changing this completely. So that'll be it for my debate, but I will be supporting this, because I will follow through on the decision that I made earlier this year.

I feel against it, but I also feel compelled to support it, only because I think we’re down that path of supporting already.

Terry Wong,

Ward 7 Councillor

KLASZUS: We’ll hear now from Ward 11 Councillor Kourtney Penner, followed by Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong.

COUNCILLOR KOURTNEY PENNER: I couldn't support this coming before budget at committee. I can't support it today. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions, and I think there's a lot of uncertainty with respect to budget. And I don't think it is wise for us to step outside of that plan and that process, so, cannot be supporting this today.

COUNCILLOR TERRY WONG: The struggle I have—and I said this back in committee—we had a process, and I'm not sure—and to my colleague here about whether it's hijacking the process or not, we had a process, and it's a process, I think—I'm not sure how a couple months really would've made a difference, except as I've spoken to the development industry that there is things that we can't control, and that things are definitely in their control, and that is around market, that is around financing, that is around confidence and that sort of thing. And as such, when you have to balance their considerations and our considerations, I struggle with that, in terms of which way we go.

The other thing I'll also say, as well, that our commitment to greenfield area growth cannot be without consideration of our established areas, cannot be without consideration of what the investments are of our communities that have been here for hundred-odd years, and the budget commitments we need to make to ensure that those communities are sustainable, both from an infrastructure perspective and a money perspective. And again, that's why I wished these conversations were coming together—the established area conversation as well as this growth conversation.

I think there are a lot of unanswered questions, and I think there’s a lot of uncertainty with respect to budget.

Kourtney Penner,

Ward 11 Councillor

KLASZUS: And now here’s Ward 5 councillor Raj Dhaliwal, followed by Ward 10 Councillor Andre Chabot.

COUNCILLOR RAJ DHALIWAL: We also have climate to fight. Some people say it's impossible, but I always say impossible takes time, and it's going to take time. But then there's an argument of affordability. Like, one of the applicants said pinpointing our newcomers, immigrants, and affordability is a big issue for them. Definitely it is. And some of these houses might help them find that home, that dream, that they came here to build.

It's a very tough decision. There's affordability; there's climate change. It's a message we're going to be sending to our future generations, what are we trying to do here. So I heard all the debate; I still don't know how I'm going to vote, but I also feel there is an opportunity for us to kind of set a precedent here for our future generations, and a message we are sending to Calgarians, that we are serious about the commitment that we made last November.

And I really, really, wholeheartedly feel—and wholeheartedly hope—that if we do end up approving these, that our partners end up being partners with us on that journey to net zero.

COUNCILLOR ANDRE CHABOT: The issue around climate, we did hear from some of these developers that their objective is to try and achieve net zero developments. So, as was pointed out, there's not that level of detail at this stage, but at the outline plan we can address some of those issues and maybe tackle some of those climate initiatives more proactively at that time. This provides us an opportunity to, I guess, provide additional choice, additional competition, which, by extension, can possibly lead to more affordable housing options. And what I think is being identified here is building complete communities that are more sustainable, and let's talk about how we can grow our entire city more sustainably.

I can’t support this, just as I didn’t support it during the previous conversations we’ve had.

Jyoti Gondek,

Mayor of Calgary

KLASZUS: Finally, we’re going to hear Mayor Gondek. Now, the mayor sidestepped the climate issue entirely—as she did when I interviewed her for the last Sprawlcast episode and asked why she voted against fast-tracking these five communities. Instead of talking about climate, Mayor Gondek focused her comments on her frustration with the process.

MAYOR JYOTI GONDEK: I can't support this, just as I didn't support it during the previous conversations we've had. It was my expectation since 2020 that the process would be changed. It's no surprise to anyone that I'm disappointed that we are here at this stage. This is even more politicized than I thought it would be. We're advancing GMO removal and putting into budget an expectation of capital that's needed. So I'm really disappointed. I feel like the direction of council from 2020 wasn't followed.

KLASZUS: Just one point of clarification here. This is a point that Gondek made in our interview as well—that administration didn’t follow council’s direction in phasing out the Growth Management Overlay sooner. That process has definitely been dragging on, but the present situation is not news. In fact, administration gave an update on this in the summer of 2021. Admin recommended that city hall slightly tweak the process for this go-round of suburban business cases in 2022, and then overhaul the process afterwards. In other words, it was clear over a year ago that the process would not have changed by now. And in the summer of 2021, Gondek voted in favour of admin’s recommendation to continue that work.

Okay, enough of that little aside. Let’s go back to the 5 new communities and the night of September 13. In the end, council voted 11-3 to lift the Growth Management Overlays on these five communities and allow development to proceed.

The three council members who voted against were Mayor Gondek, Councillor Penner and Councillor Carra. I should also note that Councillor Courtney Walcott was absent and did not vote on this.

I’m going to give the last word here to Nathaniel Schmidt. When we walked down by Ricardo Ranch, where three of these new communities will be built, we talked about the difference between inner city development and suburban development—and the challenges of each.

KLASZUS: Yeah, there's no neighbours out here who are going to complain about development, right?

SCHMIDT: No, exactly, and that's sort of where the difficult part comes in. Because ideally I might want it all saved, but people need to live somewhere right now,. So, I mean, what can we do to provide adequate housing for people that need it? My hope would be that this is a wake-up call for the city based on the amount of opposition there's been and community support for saving this area even just in the short amount of time, that maybe we can—I mean, there's a lot we can do in a short amount of time if we put our minds to it, I think, and we're not forced to build in the way that we've always built here.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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