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Public hearings on community guidebook continue at city hall

Last Updated Mar 23, 2021 at 7:31 pm MDT

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — It’s a document meant to help direct how communities develop over the coming years, but it is also the subject of heated public debate.

The Guidebook for Great Communities is a 131-page plan that is aimed at reflecting the changing needs and desires around Calgary, and while city officials say it won’t automatically change the status of existing communities, there is a large amount of fear coming from Calgarians.

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Public hearings on the guidebook began on Monday after criticism was lodged by some city councillors, with over a hundred people wanting to voice their opinions through the virtual proceedings at city hall. The first day of hearings continued late into the evening and stretched through Tuesday as well.

Initially, there was also a proposal on Monday led by Ward 11 Councillor Jeromy Farkas to have the implementation of the guidebook delayed until after the October municipal election. This was defeated easily, as Mayor Naheed Nenshi criticized the attempt on Tuesday as well, along with other people in the hearing calling for it to be pushed back significantly.

“A terrible idea,” Nenshi said. “What they’re interested in is delaying this so that it dies eventually. Certainly, that is the case of some members of council, I think, who haven’t really come forward with what they would do to change it. We often see more public engagement as an excuse for just not doing anything.”

Nenshi, who has been chairing the lengthy meetings, said they have a tough task by balancing the opinions presented but they are doing their job by hearing people out. Also, he is not opposed to going back to the drawing board and taking some of the suggestions to heart.

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“Perhaps separate the wheat from the chaff a little bit, because I think there are some very interesting ideas in what we’re hearing from some members of the public about how this could become more clear. I mean, the constant thing we’re hearing is ‘I actually don’t have any problem with this guidebook, I just don’t know how it’s going to be implemented,'” he said.

Concerns have been wide-ranging during the hearings, with some people going so far as to call it “Orwellian”, but there has been a focus on how it could affect single-family homes. There has also been an overrepresentation of opinions from certain areas of the city, particularly Elbow Park, and many speakers are homeowners.

“It is quite remarkable that the vast majority of the participants have been from two or three small neighbourhoods, not from the whole rest of the city, and it will be interesting to hear what others have to say. There’s also been an interesting age distinction, by and large, younger people are very much in favour of this. We haven’t seen much demographic distinction among the people who have been presenting so far.”

Critics have been accused on social media largely of being so-called NIMBYs, surrounding the perception that people in some affluent areas of Calgary are not in favour of higher-density housing options that may attract younger or lower-income people. This has also led to some accusations that opponents are promoting systemic racism through their views, including one speaker on Monday evening who likened the guidebook to “blockbusting”, which was a practice in the United States to try and influence white people to sell their homes for low prices and leave communities out of fears that people of colour were moving in.

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Some opponents to the plan said this is not the case and they are being wrongly labelled during this debate, as they are concerned about the status of some more historical areas of the city such as Mount Royal. They are also worried that there has been a lack of public consultation, even though he guidebook has been developed over the course of five years.<

“If we are here truly to sell this as a reference document, then allow the community be able to say this is what a reference document should be, allow the community to say this is how we want it to be, allow the communities to be able to say this is what the benefits would be,” said Terry Wong, president of the Hounsfield Heights – Briar Hill Community Association.

Wong said their opposition doesn’t stem from affluence, but there’s concern around some language in the document that says it is “statutory” even though official channels, including the mayor, consider it to be more like a recipe book that will help streamline the development of future local area plans.

Speaking of local area plans, the guidebook is tied to the release of the North Hill Communities local area plan, which is being opposed by the neighbourhood of Crescent Heights.

But not all of the opinions expressed have been negative, as Nenshi noted earlier.

“I understand that the local area plan that will come forth following this process will actually address many of the concerns that my neighbours have,” said Emma May, who lives in Elbow Park. “Fundamentally, we have to densify this city. It is absolutely fiscally unsustainable for us to continue the way we have been going.”

May also noted that this discussion is a bit like a “nerd festival” and acknolwedges that many of the finer points may be going over peoples’ heads.

The city has also tried to combat misinformation circling around the guidebook, with a specific section on the city’s website detailing what is and is not done through the document. For example, the city says the guidebook includes all housing options and allows for people in communities to voice their opinions on how development should occur. They add it does not eliminate single-detached homes, nor does it promote a one-size-fits-all approach for communities.

But as the discussions drag along, and the goal of the hearings seem to get more muddled as time goes on, Nenshi is hopeful they can be completed in a timely fashion and maybe they can learn something from this whole process.

“We will get through, but the thing is there is no pre-ordained solution here.”