Looking west over Calgary rooftops. Photo: iStock.com/jewhyte

Sprawlcast: Six mayoral hopefuls on growth — and the Green Line

Here’s what each candidate had to say.

Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Calgarians who want more than the daily news grind. An edited transcript of this episode is below.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): It’s a chaotic time in Alberta. Federal election, best summer ever—whoops, not actually the best summer ever, turns out. Anyway, with everything that’s been going on, you’d be forgiven for not having given much attention to the municipal election that’s coming up. But it’s coming up fast. On October 18, people in Alberta’s cities and towns will head to the polls to elect new mayors, councillors and school board trustees.

In Calgary, we have an extremely crowded mayoral field. More than 20 people are running. That’s what happens when you don’t have an incumbent, as Naheed Nenshi isn’t running again. And there are some… interesting people on the list, let’s just say.

As we get into debate season, some forum organizers are making a point of including as many mayoral candidates as possible. But others are being more selective. And on September 14, the Calgary Real Estate Board—the association of local realtors—held a forum with six mayoral candidates. They were Jan Damery, Jeff Davison, Jeromy Farkas, Brad Field, Jyoti Gondek and Grace Yan.

We’re going to listen in to some of that forum, where candidates were specifically asked about the city’s growth and urban sprawl. But first let’s do a quick recap here.

Where we're at on urban sprawl

Twelve years ago, in 2009, city council approved a new blueprint for how the city grows. The idea was to curb urban sprawl and shift growth into existing neighbourhoods—with the goal of splitting growth 50-50 between new neighbourhoods and existing neighbourhoods by 2070.

But we’re already behind on that target. The city hoped to shift a third of new growth into existing neighbourhoods by 2039. But city admin has acknowledged this likely won’t happen. Meanwhile city council has made decisions that undermine both the city’s growth plan and the city’s climate plan. It’s important to remember that two-thirds of carbon emissions in this city are from buildings, and the other third is from transportation. Urban sprawl is a huge driver of emissions.

In the summer of 2018, council infamously approved 14 new communities on the city’s outskirts, when admin had initially recommended only eight. Council took some pretty serious heat for that decision. And council has also struggled with inner city redevelopment. The Guidebook for Great Communities faced some pretty stiff opposition when it came before council in March, and council voted against it becoming a statutory document to shape growth in existing neighbourhoods.

We’ve also gone backwards on some other key metrics over the last 12 years—for example, cutting transit service hours instead of increasing them. And that was well before the pandemic. Transit hours per capita went down between 2012 and 2017. And in 2018, Calgary had the same service hours per capita as it did in 2005.

The long and short of it is that Calgary has continued to sprawl outward, despite most everyone recognizing that this kind of growth is unsustainable.

Okay, so now let’s listen in now to that forum. Here’s the question that the moderator put to the six mayoral candidates who were there.

MODERATOR: What are your thoughts on the approval of new communities in the city—and how such approvals should be handled in the future? Are you happy with the relationship that has existed between the city and developers? Or should more of the financial cost of new communities be passed on to developers?

KLASZUS: It’s a good question—not least because developers are some of the largest donors to municipal campaigns. We’re going to hear the candidates in the order that they responded. First up—Brad Field, who’s a local business owner.

Field: 'Council has to get out of the way'

BRAD FIELD: There's no question it has to be about balance here in the city of Calgary. We saw through the Guidebook for Great Communities, the debacle that was arranged by current council members. And they talked about having meaningful dialogue, meaningful consultation with the stakeholders in the city of Calgary, but I beg to differ. There was a lineup outside of city hall looking to air their grievances when the discussion came up. So having meaningful dialogue with all Calgarians that have a stake in this community.

At the end of the day, families that are looking to make the single largest investment of their life—both financially as well as emotionally—it's serious stuff. And for city council to dictate where and how we live in the city of Calgary I think is out of balance. The market will dictate that. City of Calgary council has to get out of the way, get out of the business of being in business and allow the market to dictate where we're going to live in the city of Calgary.

Not everybody wants to have a backyard, or some people want to have backyard, or some people want to live in the downtown core. That's fine. It's up to city council, once we've made that decision, to figure out the next path forward around having maybe sometimes some tough discussions around property taxes. But we cannot continue to social engineer the city of Calgary. We have to get out of the way of private sector business. And housing will dictate that within the city of Calgary.

Again, it's about finding balance. The developers and home builders in the city of Calgary provide jobs in the city of Calgary, they create revenue in the city of Calgary, they pay taxes in the city of Calgary, so we have to learn to respect that work with them as partners. Let's have all the stakeholders at the table right from the get go. It's efficient, and it's the right thing to do. Thank you.

Gondek: Need to mitigate risk of new communities

KLASZUS: Here’s Jyoti Gondek’s response. Gondek has been on council representing Ward 3 since 2017.

JYOTI GONDEK: I just want to clarify for anybody that might not know. When it comes to new communities in this city, there's something called an offsite levy, which requires the private sector to pay for all of the water and wastewater infrastructure. They contribute to community services, they pay 70% for the major transportation infrastructure, and they pay for all of the roadways that are in the community. So council back in 2015, passed this process to make sure that growth was paying for itself.

I would argue that the risk has not been mitigated effectively. What we tend to do is when we approve a community, the city will go in as the leading infrastructure partner and spend the money that's needed for infrastructure. However, we are not partnering with the private sector to find out when they're ready to go. So the difference between when we put infrastructure in the ground, and when the market is ready to absorb that cost is missing. So I don't think we have a strong enough relationship to understand the financial implications of one partner doing infrastructure and the other waiting on the market. So that needs to be better managed.

But when it comes to that 50-50 growth that's promised in the Municipal Development Plan—the issue with we have with redeveloping communities and established neighborhoods is that we simply did not invest enough capital to give them the public realm improvements, the sidewalk improvements, better roadways, all of the things that should accompany a community that's willing to take on growth. We simply don't have that type of a capital process.

So I think the budgets that we create need to reflect where we wish to make investments so we can get matched dollars from the private sector. Established communities deserve to have improvements to public transit and public realm. But we simply haven't been budgeting appropriately. I started that process in 2020, with a $30 million commitment, and we will continue to grow those funds.

Yan: 'It's really about engaging Calgarians'

KLASZUS: Next up is Grace Yan. She’s a local realtor.

GRACE YAN: I've talked to various communities, and they don't feel that they are properly engaged with their requirements. So I think it's really important, as mayor, that the future councillors really engage with their wards and find out what the issues are, and find solutions that produce positive results. And when we sprawl out, that does cost money, just like Jodi indicated. It costs money like services, electricity. So we really have to focus on development where it exists around LRTs right now. I mean, the Green Line. I support infrastructure projects, if it makes sense.

But it's really about engaging Calgarians and and the communities and hearing and listening and taking action [on] what they need. And I think, you know, with the Green Line, yes, we do need more effective and efficient transportation. And it's all about where it is, where people will use it, which will really help Calgarians. And what Brad said: Calgary needs to focus. The government needs to focus on governing and let businesses run businesses. And that's what's important. And we do have to work with developers and really engage with them and work together. So that we all achieve success in Calgary. Thank you.

Damery: It's not an either-or question

KLASZUS: And here’s Jan Damery, an economist and former VP at the YWCA.

JAN DAMERY: I was in Cornerstone, which is a new development, actually, way in the northeast, on the east side of the airport on Saturday, talking with [the] neighborhood. It's amazing to watch, right, new families moving in. But what has not caught up, even at this stage, is infrastructure. There's no transit that they can rely on. They're actually asking about where their playgrounds are, that were promised. So I think there is actually a real challenge and a gap and how we are planning holistically with the partners in these developments.

It's also not either or. Sprawl, or inner city or densification. It is an and argument. And these are competing choices. As we [become] the future city that we all dream and aspire to be, we also have to look at how we're maintaining our carbon footprint. And as we also sprawl out, as Grace has referred to, it costs us more money in terms of reliable services that we all rely on. Both the fundamental, in terms of sewage, water, but also fire and police in terms of emergency response times. So again, I think we've got actually understand there are some competing choices here. And what do we collectively [do] through a robust public consultation where we're actually listened to people.

And I'm hearing from developers and builders too, they're viewed or vilified at city hall. They're not looked at as partners in this process. And the role of government is to provide certainty so business can do what they do best. And this is what I'm aspiring [to], bringing this fresh perspective and understanding governance at city hall, which has not existed in the last number of years. Thanks very much.

Davison: City should provide certainty for investors

KLASZUS: Here’s Jeff Davison, who was elected in 2017 as the councillor for Ward 6.

JEFF DAVISON: It's incredibly important to get this balance right. Because Calgary is a growing city. We will move towards being a city of two million people. And so we really have to take the right approach to thinking about what those new communities and different types of offerings look like across the city. Number one, I think, our growth management plan is flawed. I think we need business plans to be better time with city financing, so that we ensure that partnership grows faster. I think it's about moving development permits and situations faster as well.

We have to learn how to compete differently here in the city. Remember, a lot of these big development companies have pulled out 80% of their capital out of the Calgary market. That's a problem for us in a world where we're about to grow at a rapid rate again. But we have to be able to give people a reason to want to be here. And that's where product offering becomes an interesting balance. We know young people want to live in a vibrant downtown, but we know young families want a backyard. And we should be able to balance that choice and that offering to our citizens to ensure that this is the place people want to be—not need to be.

Remember, talent and capital are extremely mobile these days. And so we need to also think about in a world where we need to advance our growth, how do we set the right environment, the right business environment that is secure and certain for investors, because right now we have a system where developers will come in, spend millions and millions and millions of dollars. And it all hinges on a potential of maybe getting something moving forward. We need to set that environment properly, partner better, so that we can deliver better product offering to all Calgarians.

Farkas: 'I believe strongly in market choice'

KLASZUS: And finally, here’s Jeromy Farkas, who has been the councillor for Ward 11 since 2017.

JEROMY FARKAS: The pendulum has swung too much in one direction, and some developers are just completely locked out. And some developers are completely locked in. So look, for example, this debate around the community guidebook, where one set of investors was given absolute certainty, basically carte blanche to support blanket rezoning measures. Whereas the community was locked completely out of the process. I think it's the job of city hall to respond to Calgarians in terms of how they want to live their lives.

So again, I agree that it should be up and out. And we should make development pay for itself. It seems very simple on a practical level. If a new community is being proposed, there's a certain amount of costs for services like transit, for policing and fire and so on. We know what that cost is. So I believe that we should be crystal clear with the industry in terms of what the cost is, and say that you must reach a certain threshold—money that you need to be able to recoup through property taxes—and as long as you can meet that threshold, it should be completely up to the developer and the builders themselves to be able to decide how they want to go to market and bring forward that choice. But I believe strongly in market choice.

And I believe the council's efforts to do things like undermine development covenants are very misguided. It's costly. It's causing a lot of issues between pitting neighbours against neighbours through legal battles. And I also think that the pendulum's swung too far and some of the development pressures like starting to sell off city parks—so council recently voted to sell off a portion of Richmond Green Park. And I think that's completely the wrong direction to go. I think that we should be providing stability and certainty for residents and businesses alike. And this kind of direction, I believe, undermines what makes Calgary so special—a place where no matter how you want to live your life, what you want to do for work, and where you want to live, how you want to get around, that you have the choice to make that choice for yourself.

KLASZUS: Just a fact-checking note—you heard Farkas reference the community guidebook, and he said that a set of investors were given carte blanche for blanket rezoning measures. The Guidebook itself actually wouldn’t have rezoned anything. Farkas himself acknowledged this before the Guidebook went to council in March. You also heard him say that the community was completely locked out of the process, but it’s important to remember that a number of people and groups also spoke in favour of the Guidebook. Alright, let’s keep going.

Candidates asked about the Green Line

At this forum, candidates were also asked about the Green Line. And oh, where to start with this one. I’ll do my best to give a very brief recap here.

The Green Line is a new north-south LRT line that’s been mapped out in earnest since 2015, when the Harper government first announced funding for it. The big plan for the Green Line is for it to run from far north central Calgary, north of the ring road, to the far southeast. But right now, the part that’s scheduled to be built runs from 16 Avenue in the north to Shepard in the southeast. So the north part of the Green Line is still in limbo at this point.

The project has had a rocky four years, to say the least. Most recently it was held up for months by the provincial government, which pressed pause on the project in December because it said it wanted to review the plan. The province un-paused the project in July, more than half a year later, after Trudeau came to Calgary to reiterate the federal government’s funding commitment. And now construction is supposed to start this fall.

Here’s what the moderator at the forum asked candidates about the Green Line.

MODERATOR: Where would you rank the importance of the proposed green line to the city? And how would you move forward on its development, given the project's complicated history?

Davison: New line 'helps us attract and grow'

JEFF DAVISON: The really important thing to remember here is that when you think about opportunity, and everything going on in our city, people are our greatest commodity. And attracting people to a great city is one of the world's biggest challenges right now. We have to create a city where people want to be, not need to be, and we need to recognize that. We need to compete differently. And COVID has really highlighted that.

I think when it comes to the Green Line, this is not just a simple train line that we're trying to build. This is not just about a serious cost that we're trying to endeavour down to figure out if we can do. The Green Line is critical to the success of our economy, it is critical to the success of our downtown, and securing the future of our overall transit infrastructure network is incredibly important when it comes to talking to those new companies about opportunities in Calgary, and talking to people about why we want them to move here.

This is an arterial line. Remember, it's not a simple train line. It's about creating that network that really broadens our accessibility across the city. Because accessibility of a good transit network is ultimately accessibility to opportunity. And that's what people are looking for. So yes, it creates 20,000 local construction jobs. And that's important, but it also helps us attract and grow. And remember, if, if my economic strategy is correct, in the next 10 to 15 years, Calgary will be a city of two million people. We need to think differently about how we're going to move that many people in and around our city while thinking through the ideas of being environmentally friendly, and ultimately providing the most efficient use of people's transportation time.

Gondek: 'Continue pushing for the north'

JYOTI GONDEK: In terms of the Green Line, it needs to maintain its priority status at the city. We have not only done it officially, through the RouteAhead process, as well as giving it its own committee and having its own governance board. But I think you have to remember what the Green Line intends to do. First off, you can't have what we would call a world class city that doesn't have a north-south rapid transit spine. And that's what we're missing right now.

It's unfortunate that the entire line will not be built at once, but we need to continue pushing for the north, which is in fact where the ridership is. If you talk to anybody in north-central Calgary communities, they will tell you that their quality of life would greatly improve if they had access to rapid transit like the Green Line. That's why it was an absolute privilege to be able to fund the planning stage to ensure that we transition to bus rapid transit and then to train eventually over time so that people in north-central Calgary are actually getting something out of the Green Line project for now.

And don't forget that the Chamber did some research into the Green Line and an overwhelming number of businesses in Calgary are saying that that rapid transit project is critical to their success. When you think about the number of care workers that rely on the train to get to their multiple jobs, in providing care for our seniors and within our healthcare sector. It's very important that we understand the role of public transit in creating quality of life and access and equity for all Calgarians. It needs to remain a top priority.

Field: Reconsider downtown tunneling

BRAD FIELD: If we're going to build a world-class city, we have to have world-class transportation. So there's no question that the Green Line's important to the city of Calgary. But it was an election issue in 2017. And fast forward four years and select an election issue here in 2021. I really have to question what council's been doing over the last four years. We have the southeast leg that's ready to break ground, we could be creating jobs right now in the southeast leg. The land is acquired, it's ready to go. It's flat, there's no real surprises.

We continue to talk about the downtown core and the tunneling process. Two billion of the $5 billion budget is dedicated to tunneling under downtown Calgary and even the supporters of tunneling say they have no idea what they're getting themselves into once they break ground into a tunnel. So we guarantee that we're going to run over budget on the tunneling side. If you think of a 10% overrun on a $5 billion project. That's $500 million, that would almost pay for a new Event Centre. So we have to take serious consideration around whether or not we're going to continue with the discussion around tunneling downtown.

And we have to talk about servicing as many Calgarians as possible. And that's making sure that we get that line north of the river in as quickly as possible so we can service all Calgarians. And then I also want to talk about why we have continued not to have the discussion about connecting our international airport to downtown Calgary. That would be an absolute game changer for the city of Calgary around tourism, trade shows, conferences—not to mention moving employees around the city of Calgary and up to a major industry sector up by the airport.

So I think there's we should be breaking ground as quickly as possible on the southeast leg, I think we should stop talking about tunneling under downtown, making sure that we can finish this project on time and on budget and reach as many Calgarians as possible.

Damery: 'Fundamental to us managing our carbon footprint'

JAN DAMERY: Really, the Green Line is number one priority. It's about connecting the city. And as as several on the power have already admitted, it's integral to actually connecting these neighborhoods and giving accessibility. In fact, when we sited the YWCA,Calgary in Inglewood, it was premised on the Green Line coming because the vulnerable women that we were servicing needed to have that access. And we need to be able to actually build it on time. And there have been nothing but delays on this project, because also inability to get to get together and relate to other levels of government.

I am a candidate who actually has built large infrastructure projects on time and on budget, with YWCA and also in my pipeline days. And so we need this oversight, and we have to be able to move with the market. Because if we can't lay off the risk of overruns for that tunneling project that Brad has talked about, we're going to have to have different options to be able to move quickly. I'm pro moving north because we've got to follow the ridership that also connects us with jobs and people in the north. The airport is integral to this.

And that's one of the reasons you'll find on on my detailed platform the interface between the train project from the airport downtown out to Banff, which also would interconnect actually with a northern connect on the Green Line. So this is also having ability to look at this systemically. Remember, I started my opening remarks today about my 24 year old. One of the reasons he's not living in the city is because he can't get around in the city without a car. Our young people, because of their view on green and climate change, want to [be able to] get around this city. And so the Green Line and public transportation is also fundamental to us managing our carbon footprint.

Farkas: City hall over-promising and under-delivering

JEROMY FARKAS: Given Justin Trudeau's approval, Jason Kenney's approval and city council's approval, the Green Line as proposed by council is proceeding. So whether you like the alignment or not, this train is coming. I felt that it was is very unfortunate to see some community members out there with some very, very significant engineering and infrastructure delivery experience, essentially being vilified by some of the members of council. Really coming to the table trying to bring forward some very thoughtful alternatives that could actually de-risk the line. And to provide more certainty for taxpayers.

One issue that I have is current members of council including the mayor—their scorched earth policy toward relationships with the provincial government. If we are going to be in a situation where the Green Line is going to cost more, which I believe that we will be, we're going to need to be able to work collaboratively with our provincial government to ensure that there's the funding that's required. Secondly, I reject this north versus south debate, it makes zero sense. We are all Calgarians, we're looking for something that's going to be able to shape our city and serve Calgarians—every single Calgarian—for decades and probably centuries to come. So I think that we need certainty to be able to build both both north and south.

But beyond that, I'm advocating for a legislative long-term infrastructure plan. So that Calgarians can have certainty about when, where and how various expansions to the transit system will occur. Right now, I would not blame Calgarians for feeling like there's been some cruel bait and switch. Many people out in the far north or the far south feel that council's betrayed them in terms of promising something and never delivering. And I think that that is really what we're seeing in this current Green Line proposal, over-promising under-delivering. A half shortened line for much more than the original cost. I have significant concerns about whether we can execute. But again, in terms of this being an issue for voters, I believe it's up to Calgarians to decide, in terms of their next mayor and council, who has the credibility, who has the experience, to be able to hold the team accountable and hold them on budget.

Yan: Re-engage Calgarians to make sure route is best

The Green Line. It's 20 kilometres, $5.5 billion. So—seems a little heavy. Right now it's starting in Shepard industrial. I think we need to have this line where Calgarians will utilize it. And speaking with Calgarians they're saying well, it should start at south health clinic. We should have a central station, like most successful cities, [that] then branches off to various areas north.

And right now where it's going north is right through Centre Street, where I know Chinatown businesses are very concerned. So it's really important that we engage again Calgarians to make sure that it works for all Calgarians. Yes, we need a north line. I mean, it only makes sense to start where people will use it. South health clinic. Just like the west line—why didn't it go through Mount Royal? Just logical questions like this. And at 20 kilometres, at $5.5 billion, Calgarians just want transparency.

KLASZUS: Alright so there you go—hopefully that gives you a sense of some of the candidates who are running for mayor. And that was just one forum - there will be plenty more over the next month, so stay tuned!