It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Calgary doesn’t care about you

Calgary-Dawn-Szmurlo

Photo by Dawn Smzurlo

Back in 2008, a friend of mine lived in a nice apartment with not-so-great neighbours on a bit of a sketchy corner. Still, the two-bedroom, 1950s-era space was big, relatively nice and relatively cheap at $800 per month. Six years later, that same apartment is up for rent, listed on rentfaster.ca for $3,000.

That represents a rise of $26,400 per year compared to six years ago, and I’d be willing to bet that number skyrocketed in one year. It’s a clear indication of just how insane, frustrating and financially debilitating our rental market is. Sure the city fathers/mothers can talk about attracting and retaining the “best and the brightest” from around the world, but what about us? What about those who can’t afford to drop half a million dollars into a mortgage, or pay $1,500 per month to share an apartment on a sketchy corner with the scent of KFC wafting through the windows?

At first glance, this city is maturing and it’s wonderful. There’s better architecture in our skyline and over our rivers, there’s a robust public art program that has mostly survived backlash from a loud and largely ignorant segment of the population, there’s an eclectic and talented arts scene, there are bike lanes coming and there’s a lot of talk about creating the kind of city so many of us want to see.

But those of us who don’t work in oil and gas or trades, those who are responsible for that art scene, for example, are falling behind and getting frustrated. We’re not even talking about those who don’t have a home or deal with subpar living conditions in subsidized housing. Who hasn’t seriously thought of leaving Calgary to find a more hospitable home?

We are bombarded with gushing reports of low unemployment, bursting bank accounts and high GDP. We are bombarded with the notion that the market will sort it out. We are bombarded with the message that interference in the workings of the economy will only hurt us.

At best these arguments centre on the notion that things like rent controls will contract the rental supply because no landlord would want to be in the market if that were the case. Accepting that argument, of course, means ignoring the huge number of cities across North America that get along just fine with rent controls in place. Rent control doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit on a home, it just means you aren’t allowed to be an asshole.

At worst, these arguments come in the form of rants against the unwashed masses — the ne’er-do-well hordes waiting to invade any community as soon as secondary suite zoning is enacted. We hear of how renters will destroy communities. We hear of parking armageddon should renters move into a basement.

We all know this is outsized hyperbole, the kind of empty rhetoric that ignores evidence to the contrary and only serves to demean those who can’t afford a house of their own, or don’t want to be saddled with a massive mortage. More fundamentally, it ignores the very real crisis in housing in the most unequal city in the country.

Some councillors — Ward Sutherland, Joe Magliocca, Jim Stevenson, Sean Chu, Ray Jones, Richard Pootmans, Andre Chabot, Shane Keating and Peter Demong — have consistently knocked down proposals to legalize secondary suites across the city, ignoring their role as leaders and hiding behind the “wishes of constituents.” It’s about as logical as turning off police sirens while racing through intersections because it bothers the neighbours — some things are important and have to be done, no matter what some malcontents have to say.

Even if we could get secondary suites approved throughout the city, there’s no guarantee it will solve our housing crisis. Will there be a flood of people building suites, saturating the market and bringing prices down? Unlikely, at least in the short term. It certainly can’t hurt, but the fact we can’t even get this Band-Aid solution through council demonstrates just how far this city still has to go in order to live up to its hype as a great place to live. Because the truth is, for vast swaths of the population, this isn’t a great place to live; it’s a place to scrape by while praying your landlord doesn’t up the rent. It’s bullshit and we all know it.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Jim Prentice’s flood of words

Jim Prentice

Although the calendar reads September 2014, some Calgarians would be forgiven for thinking it was June 2013.

Since Jim Prentice was anointed as this province’s new leader, the latest in the 43-year Conservative dynasty, there has been a flood of promises and policies, including sudden decisions on flood mitigation itself.

The government is going to work on a water management agreement with TransAlta and is planning to dam a section of Springbank for a dry reservoir, which has residents a little miffed and garnered one hell of a passive-aggressive response from Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “With respect to the two flood mitigation measures for Calgary that were announced by Premier Prentice today — namely the dry reservoir in Springbank and the direction to negotiate a permanent water management agreement with TransAlta — it is difficult for us to comment in detail since the City of Calgary has not yet been consulted with respect to either proposal and our experts have not yet seen any engineering studies,” wrote the mayor.

In addition to pointing out the possible failings of the plan, due in large part to other elements and agreements not being in place, Nenshi’s posting highlighted the continued maltreatment of cities by a paternalistic provincial government that still governs as though we’re an agrarian society. This does not bode well for the much-discussed city charters that I’ve heard are effectively dead.

But the flood of words isn’t just about shoring up the banks of Alison Redford’s old riding of Calgary-Elbow, where residents are still fighting with the government for flood relief, and where Gordon Dirks, the so-far unelected minister of education, is running for a seat.

The torrent from the premier’s office is reaching biblical proportions — something preacher Dirks can understand — with Prentice desperately trying to prove to a skeptical public that the PC party has changed and that all those promises of accountability and openness will totally happen this time. Swear. Starting with not giving away sole-source contracts to friends to deal with communications during events like the flood.

The premier has outlined five priorities that someone should fact check to make sure they weren’t plagiarized from any of the hundreds of conservative campaigns fought across North America in a given year. Conservative fiscal policies? Check. End entitlements and restore public trust? Roger that. Maximize value for our natural resources and respect property rights? Yup. Quality of life, including leading in health care, education and skills training (but not something silly like social sciences)? That’s there too. And then down at the bottom, hey what’s that? Oh, “establish our province as an environmental leader.”

It’s worth digging into that last outlier. Fortunately, it’s just a click on the Prentice website before we read: “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.” That’s under the “environmental leader” banner. His whole rationale for environmental protection is to get more oil to market. Other harmful activities appear not to exist in Prentice’s world.

Like a tailings pond breach spewing its toxins into a waterway, we can expect a strong push from Prentice to get our oil out the door. He mimics his old boss Stephen Harper, calling for Alberta to be a global superpower in energy, which should prove challenging given rising global stockpiles, U.S. supply increasing exponentially, forecasted increases in Mexico, and no efficient way for our glut of production to reach the markets.

Prentice’s first weeks in office have produced the same flood of words we hear whenever a new Progressive Conservative takes the provincial reins, and all these years later people are starting to tire of the debris built up from the empty words. Our access to information is a joke, and so too is the treatment of our cities. Dissent is considered dirtier than a barrel of bitumen and there’s never really been a plan to wean us off the oily teat. We’re wholly dependent, locked in to a volatile market at a time of profound societal shift. Just look to the treatment of our colleges and universities if you want any indication of how the government views education outside of science and technology.

But here’s the thing: floods aren’t all bad; they flush a system. Last year’s flood cleansed the Elbow and the Bow of the rock snot clinging to our waterways’ pebbles and stones, providing a hopeful metaphor for the upcoming byelections and eventual provincial contest. There’s no telling just how a flood will play out, but we all know there’s plenty of muck to get rid of in this province, and after 43 years it’s pretty easy to see who’s to blame.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Cycling outside of Calgary’s inner city

NEWS Suburban cycling

While cries of social engineering and a war on cars echo off the sides of skyscrapers and condos, the city is busy turning Calgary into a bike-friendly city in newer communities and suburbs without much fuss.

Although there has been at least one councillor bemoaning the separated bike lane being built on Northland Drive in the city’s northwest, there are multiple projects that have been completed or are in the works with little to no opposition. That may change, however, with new “complete street” regulations that will first crop up in committee after the summer.

Complete streets essentially mandate certain features on roadways in order to make them amenable to walking, cycling and driving, rather than focusing on cars alone.

“The stuff that’s going to be greenfield development [new communities], the goal is to have a complete streets policy that says when the developers are building these roads, they provide the right accommodation for cyclists and for pedestrians,” says Tom Thivener, the city’s cycling co-ordinator. “Once that’s in place, if a road is a certain classification, it automatically gets the treatments. So then I don’t have to worry about petitioning, lobbying the developers each time to try and get a facility in. That’s very much a piecemeal approach that we’re trying to avoid, so as soon as we have council’s approval on the complete streets policy, that’ll kind of take care of the greenfield.”

New communities already accommodate cycling, but usually in the form of regional pathways that are more geared towards leisure than commuting. In the southeast community of Mahogany, for example, the developer Hopewell is building 22 kilometres of pathways that will link up to the greenway project — a sort of cycling ring road that will encircle the city with 138 kilometres of pathway.

Darren Bender, a Tuscany resident, cyclist and a former director of Bike Calgary, has nothing but good things to say about the pathways in his suburban northwest community, but takes issue with the connections between communities and the links to the inner-city — and is thankful not to live in the southeast or northeast.

“Yeah, the connections between the communities in the suburbs are not great, especially when you’ve got suburbs that butt up against a major road,” he says, before listing off the veritable car walls that box in Tuscany. “A lot of these communities are quite isolated unless you live by car.”

For Bender, the connections have to be made between communities, and activity centres like the University of Calgary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the downtown network. “You’ve got to get the destinations linked in and then build your way outward,” he says. “The city’s doing that really well, I think.”

Doug Leighton, the vice president of planning and sustainability for Brookfield Residential says they recognize the importance of walking an cycling to ehnhance quality of life.

“We’re currently designing several new neighbourhoods to plug into the Seton town centre, health campus, regional park, schools and recreation facilities,” he says over email. “These will feature an inter-connected grid of pathways that will make it very easy to get around on foot or by bike.”

For the older communities stuck between the inner city and the outlying communities, cycling infrastructure mostly comes as roads are repaired and rebuilt, or tied into major projects. For example, the West LRT brought bike lanes and a new pathway to its surrounding area, and this summer, Northland’s painted lanes for buses and bikes are being replaced with the aforementioned separated lane during asphalt repair.

In Bowness, the main thoroughfare is going on a diet during construction, reducing four lanes to three and adding bike lanes. The road was large considering the 13,000 cars travelling its route on a daily basis. The project has the support of the community and the area’s councillor, Ward Sutherland, who opposed the cycle track network.

Thivener says his department is busy planning what they’re going to do once the downtown pilot wraps up, and co-ordinating with the roads department on construction projects and how they might line up with cycling routes.

So why don’t these projects elicit the same level of contempt as the downtown lanes?

“I mean, we do a good job of engaging the public — much improved, I would say, from some of the early projects that Calgary went through,” says Thivener. “We make sure that the community’s aware that these projects are coming and aware of the benefits and trade-offs before we proceed. But by and large, yeah, they don’t get as much interest because they’re isolated on corridors that probably not everyone sees — it’s more neighbourhood type concerns that we deal with. There’s some good projects that are going to be installed this summer that are going to be exciting.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

City of Calgary to tackle affordable housing crisis

NEWS-Affordable-2014-03-05T21-03-51-002093

There is at least one thing that almost everybody agrees on: there is a housing crisis in Calgary and we need more affordable housing. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The mayor has made the issue a priority and now the city is taking its first tentative steps towards creating an affordable housing strategy. A report was presented to the priorities and finance committee on March 4 outlining some of the issues in Calgary and some possible strategies to address them.

“Today’s report was really about starting us off on a process…. I hate to say community-wide discussion because it will be more than that, but to really examine the whole affordable housing system, the relationship between the federal, provincial and city governments, as well as the role of the private sector and the role of non-profits,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the committee meeting.

While all members of the committee appeared to agree that steps need to be taken to address the current lack of housing, and voted unanimously to move forward with a strategy, the concern centred on finances — no one wants to be left with responsibility without the dollars to back it up. This is of particular concern with both the provincial and federal governments scaling back funding for affordable housing.

“It’s disappointing that we see no interest at the federal level, because cities can’t go it alone, and the issue is larger and requires a more complicated solution than what we can provide with property tax,” says Coun. Druh Farrell in an interview the day prior to the meeting.

The issue will be brought up with the province during negotiations on creating city charters.

The city and the agencies that provide housing are not able to keep up with demand. The combination of high rents, the flood, continued migration to the city and an aging population are all taking their toll, with over 3,000 applicants on the Calgary Housing Corporation’s waiting list.

The city’s exact role would have to determined, but the main thrust of the report places the city as a facilitator between the various housing organizations and developers to ensure that Calgary’s affordable housing stock grows in a way that best serves the community.

The city would likely resort to a combination of tools to grow the stock, including tax incentives, inclusionary zoning and mandated minimum affordable housing units in new developments.

Farrell, who appeared frustrated at Tuesday’s meeting with the lack of momentum on this topic over the years, says it’s time for more radical solutions to address the crisis. She would like to see rules around condominiumization (where lost rental stock would have to be replaced elsewhere), discussions about rent control and mandated affordable housing in new developments, but says the city would need provincial approval for such moves.

“We’re committed to affordable housing,” she says. “What we’re not seeing, we’re not seeing the market provide affordable market housing and that is one of the big struggles in Calgary.”

Of course, when dealing with issues of housing and homelessness, it’s not as simple as throwing up affordable units and walking away. There are various levels of need under the umbrella of affordable housing, from those working and unable to afford Calgary’s sky-high prices, to those who require services and support in transition from homelessness.

Judy Lapointe lives in a Calgary Homeless Foundation building operated by the YWCA in Lower Mount Royal. The former computer programmer, who now lives on AISH, is stressed at the moment because her building is transitioning to a more secure facility housing people with greater needs, and essentially forcing those tenants already in the building to move. This has left her suffering from anxiety.

“About three weeks ago, they gave everyone in the building notices that they have to move,” says Lapointe. “Our worker was on vacation at the time, so you just traumatized trauma victims and provided zero support whatsoever.”

She is critical of the foundation, accusing it of not listening to tenants, not providing enough warning for evictions or building changeovers, and for programs she says set you up for failure. “I’m so sick to death of being told that I’m mentally ill, when my behaviour is a reaction to mentally ill programs,” says Lapointe, who lists delusion, schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar and personality disorder as her diagnoses. “Nobody would be acting normally and healthy if you’re in a box that says you’re set up to fail.”

Louise Gallagher, communications manager for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which supports the city’s move to a housing strategy, says all those currently in Lapointe’s building will be provided housing and that the organization tries to work with all residents to address their concerns.

That level of complexity in dealing with individuals is just one aspect of the housing issue, highlighting just how long it might take to muscle through details at city council. But with more people moving to Calgary, a rental market with approximately one per cent vacancy and the average price for a single family home sitting at $482,529 in February, this is a problem that is going to continue to grow.

“Like it or not, this is a democracy, and when the problem affects the majority, the majority will create the change, but not until it reaches the majority — and we’re nowhere near that yet,” says Lapointe. “But the rate and speed at which it’s happening, it won’t take long.”

Public art I can’t wait to see

Council recently voted to have city administration review the public art policy. One suggestion was that the public should have more say in public art installations. I couldn’t agree more. We should do away with the jury and those people who “claim” to know about “art.”

Here are some sculptures that I’m really excited to see pop up in Calgary after being selected by ordinary folk who just want to see good art.

1. Just like that funny head in front of The Bow that you can go inside of, but more Calgarian, because this one has a cowboy hat and it’s chewing straw!

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2. It’s best to keep it simple. Plus, the lack of work or thought put into this one will ensure that it doesn’t cost us honest to goodness taxpayers as much fancy money for fancy things that we really don’t fancy need anyway.

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3. I like this one because it represents cows and mountains. Those are two things that we have here, so they should be represented in public art by cows and mountains.

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4. I like this one because it has the cow, but also the horse. It also has a cowboy hat and a native headdress, both of which honour our western heritage. It represents our western heritage, but showing a horse and a cow with those hats on. No need to overthink this stuff, amiright?

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5. Well, duh. Pilsener dude.

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6. I’m not necessarily endorsing this one, I’m just saying that it’s a statistical fact that this will happen if we let people vote for public art. Open any textbook, look at enough graffitti, or just peer into the mind of most people and this is what you’ll see. ‘Cause it’s funny. Actually, this one I’d actually vote for.

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UDI’s facts on segregating Calgary

UDI post2008

You know what’s uncomfortable? Living next to tattooed lesbians, or gays or just straight dudes with tattoos. Especially if they shop at Safeway alongside more respectable members of suburban society. I mean, yes, you have to come across them from time to time when you work downtown, but these people should really stay down there (haha) and leave the suburbs to us straight, white folks. Or the northeast to other people. It’s just the way things should be.

Thankfully the Urban Development Institute, a collection of Calgary developers headed by former Calgary Herald publisher Guy Huntingford, have thoughtfully put this notion of a segregated city to print as the first (and now deleted) post in their Just the Facts campaign.

After correctly pointing out that Calgary is not New York City, this brave document goes on to highlight why it’s not New York City and how great that is. You see, it’s about “comfort capital,” ensuring that those who live in our city never have to step out of their comfort zone and associate with “others.”

Let’s let the UDI do the talking:

“It’s not a subject of much discussion, but research suggests residency location choice is strongly linked to how comfortable a person feels in a place where no one is like them. And it doesn’t just apply to visible minorities searching out the diaspora,” reads the document.

“It can be the guy with tattoos, feeling on display every time he shops at the Safeway on the city’s periphery.

“Or the gay couple in a world of heterosexual suburbanites.

“And yes, the person who is a member of a visible minority community.

“It can be even more basic than that – having the hippest nightspots close by isn’t important to the woman who wouldn’t know what to wear anyway. Even if she wanted to go clubbing, which she doesn’t.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve been shopping with my white wife  (who totally doesn’t know what to wear to one of those fancy downtown elite nightclubs) at Safeway, minding our own business when some young guy with tattoos nervously pops up in the produce aisle to grab some apples before quickly snaking away. If we could just figure out which house he’s in, we could probably get a mob together to demand he go back downtown. It’s unnerving for all involved. He’s not happy. We’re certainly not happy. Really, tattoos in the suburbs!? I never.

The folks who ensured that Calgary is dominated by rows upon rows of single vision neighbourhoods have it right on this one. Again, their words:

“But what the research highlights is that people go where they feel comfortable, and diversity of a city – the ‘comfort capital’ index – is a large part of its livability. Shoe-horning everyone into mandated, single-vision neighbourhoods won’t work.”

You can read this brilliant call for a segregated city below because nothing really disappears on the Internet. I, for one, would like to salute them for their brave stance, ignoring any notion that sexism, racism, homophobia or classism is inappropriate in today’s day and age. Cheers to diversity (in its proper place)!

(Oh and that awesome map at the top? That’s mine, not theirs, just in case someone gets all confused and legally.)

JTF Worldclass Comfortcapital

** Update **

UDI has apologized for the post. According to CEO Guy Huntingford, “The article used examples in a good-will effort to illustrate how some Calgarians might view themselves within the context of their neighbourhoods.”

Laneway living in Calgary

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Behind the facade of Calgary’s inner-city neighbourhoods is a largely dusty area of garbage cans, bottle pickers and garages. It’s the perfect place to build a home.

While there’s been a lot of rhetoric as of late around suburban versus urban growth, there’s a wealth of unused land in Calgary. In other cities that same land is being gobbled it up in the name of higher density while still maintaining the character of their neighbourhoods. You may initially scoff at the idea, but living in an alley is more appealing than you think.

Matthew Kennedy has spent a lot of time thinking about alleys and community, specifically in Calgary. He wrote his masters of architecture thesis on the subject and is keen on pursuing the idea in the real world through his work at Studio North, along with partner Mark Erickson.

“The idea is not transforming the urban fabric of the community,” says Kennedy. “The empty nester could potentially build a laneway house or have a secondary suite that they could rent out to university students or a young professional, where the urban fabric is maintained but there’s just a new layer added on top of it, a new social intricacy that wasn’t there before. It’s just adding a richness to a community as opposed to just bowling it over and putting up a new condo.”

Both men say it’s a good middle ground for those who want to live urban but have their own space with a yard. It also has the potential to make inner-city living more affordable, not only for those living in the laneway house, but also for those living in the larger, original home.

“Maybe it doesn’t make it easier for a family that makes $35,000 a year, but what I think it will do is free up the rental market where people who make more money, who can afford $1,200 a month in rent, can live in a laneway house,” says Kennedy in reference to Calgary’s dismal rental situation and rising costs.

Of course, this isn’t a new concept — laneway housing has existed for a long time in many cities around the world. In our densest neighbour, Vancouver, it’s an increasingly popular planning option. Since 2009, that city has seen over 800 permits issued for laneway housing in single-family neighbourhoods, with 500 already built.

In Calgary, where there’s a palpable fear of rental properties in many communities, and where the words “secondary suite” send some screaming for cover, this concept hasn’t really taken off and certainly faces a battle from NIMBY neighbours.

“I think a really provocative way to think of zoning would be to allow people to subdivide — you see it a lot in Ramsay where lots are subdivided front to back,” says Kennedy. “Think if everyone is able to subdivide their house between front and back, all of a sudden everyone has, like, $200,000 potentially. They could sell for someone to develop a small laneway house. For a working professional, building a small dwelling on a small piece of land puts you in the same market as a condo, but then you have your own house.”

It’s the reliance on relaxed zoning regulations, rather than drawing up a master plan, that most appeals to the Studio North partners. Though they have designed concepts for what laneways could look like, including tree canopies and informal courtyards between houses, their ideas tend to the anarchic rather than the prescriptive.

“It would be homeowners and architects and different builders, with all these little cottages in the backyard,” says Kennedy of his vision for Calgary’s alleys. “The thing that was really great about Kyoto [when I was there researching] is there wasn’t a defined street edge, it was really rough where there’s all these little pockets where plants would be growing, bikes would be parked and people would be sitting in the shade. It was that roughness along the edge that really kind of animated that area and created a kind of framework… that people could fill in themselves.”

For both Kennedy and Erickson, great cities develop in a piecemeal fashion, adding layers and mixing demographics to create a more interesting whole.

What also appeals to them about the concept is the need for smart design, not only of the dwelling proper, but also it’s more confined interior — space at a premium is space that needs to be well thought out.

“In terms of design, it’s very interesting for us because it forces us to really be smart with space and make space that’s very versatile and that can transform,” says Erickson. “Space, you can design it so it’s massive. In a suburban home, because there’s so much space, it’s often misused.”

“Or not used at all,” adds Kennedy.

Calgary’s slow but steady cycling plan

Photo by Josh Naud

Photo by Josh Naud

Calgary is the poster child for the poetic notion that things end not with a bang but a whisper. It’s the lead up to that silent, accepting conclusion that causes all the problems. Need proof? Look at the Peace Bridge, or the bike lanes on 10th Street N.W. Infrastructure changes don’t come easy to Calgary, but once they’re complete, so too are the complaints. Usually.

There are more changes to come.

After adopting the cycling strategy in 2011, the city is moving forward in its goal to make Calgary more amenable to two-wheeled transportation. Three staff have been hired — a planner, an engineer and an education co-ordinator — and new lanes have been set down, including the controversial separated bikes lanes opening soon on Seventh Street downtown — the first separated lanes in Calgary. The strategy covers everything from a public bike rental system, to showers and lockers at businesses, to paint and concrete on city streets.

Tom Thivener, the city cycling co-ordinator who’s responsible for overseeing the implementation of the strategy, says he’s pleased with the progress made so far despite the challenges associated with each project.

“Right now we don’t have a whole lot of Calgarians out bicycling — I mean, we do, we have thousands of cyclists, but it’s still a small proportion of the overall traffic situation,” he says. “As that increases, as we build more facilities and more people come out, it certainly will make it a lot easier to get these projects out.”

The project that has caused headaches for the city and for Thivener recently is the Seventh Street cycle track, a dual lane separated bikeway that leads from the Peace Bridge into downtown. Business owners have expressed concerns over access, some people complain that such a relatively small piece of cycling infrastructure costs around $1 million, while others see the lanes as unnecessary when busier and more dangerous routes need infrastructure.

“There’s some well-defined rules as to where you put physically separated, where you put a line, or where you put nothing,” says Gary Beaton, president of the Tour de Nuit cycling advocacy organization and no stranger to doling out harsh criticism. “And obviously, one of the roads where you do nothing is Seventh Street, where we’re blowing a million bucks on a useless bike lane.”

Beaton, who says the cycling strategy is merely a document “meant to pacify loudmouth cyclists,” would rather see the city investing in busier traffic routes along main arterial roads, including Macleod Trail, to better accommodate commuters and get more people on bikes. He laments the fact that the city passed over the opportunity to include bike lanes on Elbow Drive when it was recently redeveloped, and his group has been pressing for separated lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the downtown core for years.

On the other side of the debate in Calgary’s cycling community is Bike Calgary, another advocacy organization that is in frequent communication with the city. Kimberley Nelson, a board member with Bike Calgary, says her group is “definitely happy” with the progress in cycling in Calgary although they’d like to see things happen a bit faster — highlighting the fact that the Seventh Street lanes took almost two years to build.

“They look great, I’m really excited about them,” she says. “They open the first week of July, they’re on time and they’re on budget, so we’re excited about them, but there currently are no connections at the moment. They’re coming, but they probably won’t get done for another year and a half or two years because they’ll follow that same engagement process.”

According to Nelson, the city is looking at several options for those elusive east-west connectors downtown, including the Fifth and Sixth Avenue lanes that Beaton is so focused on. Thivener highlights the fact that the 10th Avenue South lanes aren’t working and that the city is looking at options south of the tracks as well. Nelson, however, is right to be worried about the length of the engagement process.

“The cycle track network is big news and a lot is going to be happening over the next few months,” says Thivener. “Lots of engagement.”

Leah Gardner, a commuter cyclist who works at The Bow building downtown, is excited for the coming changes, but like most she’s impatient. “I’m under the impression that we should just bike lane the whole thing overnight and let everyone cry for a couple of weeks and then get over it,” she says.

She, along with Nelson, point to the quickly subdued controversy over the Peace Bridge as an example of Calgarians needing to see the finished product in order to accept it. “Car2Go it,” says Gardner. “One day they weren’t here, the next day they were all here. It’s not like people are going to move, it’s not like people are going to leave the city if there are separated bike lanes.”

“Calgary is a show-me city,” says Nelson, adding that “once you give people the proper infrastructure and give them a way to utilize it properly and effectively, I think you’re going to reduce that animosity.

It’s easy to see why people are frustrated. Calgary has long been a dead zone when it comes to cycling infrastructure, lagging far behind Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Although there has been some positive progress, including the lanes on 10th Street N.W., there have been some failures, like the “floating lane” that’s only open during rush hour on 10th Avenue South, which even Thivener admits doesn’t work.

Although the change is likely to be slow for the foreseeable future, there is hope in terms of results.

“We have 17 projects going on so there’s lot of things in motion,” says Thivener. “A lot of it is clean-up work, honestly, from last year’s projects. Trying to make sure the projects are installed right and make sure if we’re putting down a bike lane that it’s a common-sense bike lane and not get too tricky with it. Have it be straightforward so that bicyclists can just pull up and understand what it is and how it should operate. Same from the motorist’s point of view.”

With so many pokers in the fire, the pressure is on for Thivener and the city. Outstanding issues include bike racks on city transit, co-ordination with parks on pathways connections, implementation of new lanes and, according to Beaton, a cultural shift in the city’s transportation department.

“The problem’s not council,” he says. “The problem’s the bureaucracy.”

Others are more optimistic. Nelson points out how much things have improved over two short years. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The level of engagement we have with the city, the fact that they’re inviting us to the open houses and actually actively seeking out our participation is just so much better than what it used to be.

“Even just two years ago when the 10th Street lanes went in and it was like, ‘surprise!’ That’s not happening anymore and that’s just leaps and bounds already ahead of what we used to do.”

GET INVOLVED

Do you want to get involved in cycling on a community level? Bike Calgary is looking for neighbourhood representatives to gather information on cycling issues and pass them along to the organization’s representative in each ward. It’s part of a strategy to cover issues in every corner of the city and relay those to bureaucrats and politicians. If you want to get involved, contact Bike Calgary at connect@bikecalgary.org .

If you want to follow the progress of the city’s bicycle program, like their Facebook page at facebook.com/CalgaryBicycleProgram for updates.

Pennies for culture: Transformation Calgary wants to build a better city

Illustration by Julie McLaughlin

Illustration by Julie McLaughlin

George Brookman isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be advocating for a sales tax. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, the typical Calgary businessman who’s, well, all business. Down-to-earth and direct, he realizes that he and his organization, Transformation Calgary, have a lot of selling to do in order to win over this city’s tax-averse citizens.

Transformation Calgary wants to see one per cent added to the GST within Calgary in order to develop and fund new recreational and cultural facilities, or fix up the ones that are crumbling in our midst. The group estimates that in four years, the city could collect $1 billion to help create the kind of city that attracts and retains what Brookman constantly refers to as the “best and brightest.”

In other words, it’s not quite as improbable as it seems that Brookman, along with Brian Felesky, the vice-chair of Credit Suisse Canada, are pushing for a new tax. It’s not fair to say it’s all about business, but that certainly plays a role. Both men understand that you need to have strong quality of life in a city if you want to grow.

“That’s always been the thing with me,” says Brookman. “You really want to build community here, and community involves a lot of things. You’ve got to cater to little kids, you’ve got to cater to old guys, you’ve got to cater to young guys, you’ve got to cater to people who want hard bodies, you’ve got to cater to people who want to sit and listen to the philharmonic. You’ve got to cater to everybody and you’ve got to invest in that on a regular basis.”

There is also a lack of vision around what we can accomplish. Brookman points to past projects — the Jubilee Auditorium, the Centre Street bridge and old city hall — and says we have lost our foresight and innovation. We build with small budgets and no thought to the future. “This is going to be a city of two million people not that long from now,” says Brookman.

The idea for a one per cent bump in the GST came after Brookman attended a dinner at the Epcor Centre three years ago. The management was unveiling its plans for a $600-million retrofit and Brookman realized there were a few high-profile projects on people’s wish lists — a new central library, the National Music Centre, a new building for the Glenbow, to name a few — and that the same bunch of wealthy Calgarians were always asked to contribute. There was no planning. No priority list. There was no direction and very little in the way of citizen input. “Everybody has the same 25 people on their list,” he says of local fundraising activities.

He and Felesky started talking with Casey Vander Ploeg from the Canada West Foundation and started looking at Oklahoma City, which implemented a one per cent sales tax that transformed the ailing city. Transformation Calgary was born.

Ron Norick, the former mayor of Oklahoma City — a self-described conservative Republican — had managed to convince his own tax-averse citizens that they should vote in favour of the tax because it was the only way the city was going to be able to build a place that would appeal to tourists and locals alike. They needed investment and they needed to keep young people from moving away.

The first Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) tax was narrowly approved in a plebiscite with 53.9 per cent approval. It had a lifespan of five years. The city accumulated the funds and laid the groundwork for development before earning enough money to start building. The first round of tax, which built a new ballpark, a new library and revitalized the river, among other projects, was so successful, and popular, that a second tax used to fix the area’s schools garnered about 70 per cent approval. A third tax term was approved by almost 80 per cent of voters.

“When people could see their dollars at work, they did not miss that penny,” says Norick during a recent trip here at the invite of Transformation Calgary.

For Brookman, the idea is a no-brainer. The city doesn’t have enough money and doesn’t have any stable funding from either the province or the federal government. When it does have money, it has to make tough decisions between competing infrastructure needs. Culture falls by the wayside. Or, even worse, according to Brookman, we are forced to borrow to pay the costs. “The city is borrowing $250 million to build these four rec centres,” he says. “Well I really believe we want the rec centres, but I really don’t want the city to borrow that money.”

If Transformation Calgary has its way, the money would be there without the need to borrow, and there would be a certain percentage set aside for operational funds as well.

While Brookman described the task ahead as “pushing water uphill with a rake,” he’s positive that Calgarians will see the wisdom in self-financing a great city, with minimal cost to taxpayers. Now he just has to get the politicians on board.

So is there political will for something like this?

“The answer is no. And yes,” he says. “Essentially what our political masters are saying to us is we can’t start this, but if you can get a parade going, we’ll join you.”

Brookman realizes the challenges — public perception, political will and the hatred people have for the words tax and sales tax — but returns to Norick as a source of inspiration.

“I loved Norick when he says to me, ‘You think you guys are tax averse here? We got people in Oklahoma City that say we don’t need a fire department.’”