A community spat over high-density development spills into a new forum

A community spat over high-density development spills into a new forum

Sure, they believed in housing. And sure, they agreed with adding denser development as an alternative to Calgary sprawling endlessly.

With those sentiments out of the way, the concerned residents of Bayview, Pumphill and nearby neigbourhoods delved into the real points they wanted to make to city councillors this week about a proposed condo tower project at the Glenmore Landing shopping centre.

Traffic would be snarled. Parking would overflow.

Precious green space would be ruined. Nearby seniors would be endangered. The adjacent Glenmore Reservoir might be threatened, and half of Calgary’s drinking water supply with it.

Some community denizens who genuinely emphasized the public benefits of more new homes over feared local impacts came out to speak, too. But they were vastly outnumbered at Wednesday’s committee hearing, and by 2,692 to six in written submissions to the city.

Councillors listened to these qualms for hours, then nonetheless voted 8-3 to sell city-owned parcels of adjacent lawn to the complex’s owners as a prelude to the residential highrise project.

It’s largely similar to the way many other highrise proposals have played out at city hall, almost any time a development threatens to bring more cars and cast shadows onto an established low-density neighbourhood.

What’s different in the ongoing Glenmore Landing saga is how this debate unfolded in private in the community hall — and then spilled over in an usually public way, in the pages of the local community association’s newsletters.

The newsletter wars

Huh? The newsletter?

That normally harmless monthly mailout with some blithely season-appropriate cover art, notes about upcoming casino nights or mural projects, and realtor ads?

Yes.

One mild evening last November, nearly two dozen residents strongly opposed to the Glenmore Landing project elected a slew of like-minded neighbours to the board of the Palliser-Bayview-Pumphill Community Association (PBPCA).

Days later, the existing members of what was until then a more development-neutral community board crafted their resignation letters. And just before the December newsletter’s publication deadlines, they rushed in their parting shots at the new board crew they cast as one-issue naysayers.

image of a newsletter cover page of anti-development signs hanging at a community hall's entrance.
As they were resigning, outgoing officials from the community association for the Glenmore Landing area published a newsletter full of criticism of the incoming board’s more intense stand against a proposed highrise development. (mycalgary.com)

On the issue’s cover, they digitally superimposed over an image of the community hall an “under new management” sign, and images of two “stop the towers” lawn signs distributed by Communities for Glenmore Landing Preservation, an upstart activist group that had pressed the community association to voice firmer opposition.

Inside its pages, the association’s staff coordinator, John Kipp, criticized some of the pushback against the project and expressed fear the new board would be overly focused on this single priority to the neglect of other community efforts, and “will not advocate for reasonable development for the greater good and growth of our communities.”

A few board executives announced their departures, including Cal Melrose, the 93-year-old longtime maintenance director and community hall’s fix-it guy.

“As a renter myself, I am personally offended that, in this time of housing crisis where families (and seniors) are finding it difficult to find reasonable accommodations, our new board refuses to allow much needed residential development in the city to ease the housing crisis and bring rents down,” Melrose wrote.

The new board directors were surprised by the swipes and accusations in those pages. “I think the ‘unreasonable’ part of it was really wrong,” new president Harris Hanson said in an interview.

But they make no bones about the fact that their protests of the highrise project brought them into the community association fold.

Lesley Farrar, the association’s new secretary — her husband joined the board, too — is also the co-founder and spokesperson of the Glenmore Landing Preservation group.

“As a new board, we’re fairly confident of the feelings of our community,” she told CBC News.

The old group wasn’t even planning to fight at this past week’s council committee meeting, which wasn’t directly about the development itself. It was regarding the prerequisite sale of city-held green space that served as a 50-metre-deep grass buffer between busy 90th Avenue S.W. and the plaza’s parking lot.

To some, it’s a lawn with little use but for portable signs advertising baseball little leagues and daycares; to others, an extension of a cherished park and ecosystem. To project opponents, this was an opportunity to raise their protest about traffic and density, in hopes of thwarting the project well before council’s final decision.

January’s issue of PBP Matters, needless to say, took a different tone than December’s. It included a note declaring that Kipp’s article did not reflect the current board, and included a message from Hanson that took aim at the “perceived apathy by the PBPCA, as efforts marched forward to rezone parkland for high-density residential development.”

Here again, the newsletter cover arguably provided the most dramatic punch. It depicted a Hong Kong-like field of towers at the Glenmore Landing site, with “see disclaimer inside” in large letters. That disclaimer clarified that this image wasn’t prepared or approved by developer RioCan or consultants, but the anti-project preservation group designed the rendering based on the proposal’s maximum heights.

Two renderings of a proposed series of towers at 14th Street S.W. and 90th Avenue S.W.  The developer's is theoretical and uses opaque blocks. Not so the other.
At left, RioCan’s rendering of how tall new residential towers could be in its redevelopment of Glenmore Landing. At right, a protest group’s own depiction of the scenario they are trying to fight. It ran on the cover of the latest newsletter from the Palliser-Bayview-Pumphill Community Association. (RioCan/Communities for Glenmore Landing Preservation)

The image figures prominently on that group’s website, albeit not the community association’s (yet).

“They’re plunking a highrise mini-city next to our precious reservoir parkland and our drinking water,” says Farrar, the member of both organizations.

Kourtney Penner, this southwest ward’s councillor, says she had been pressured by residents to get the old community association to take a more rigid stance — but she has no sway over local groups, she says.

She’s drawn heat herself from the project opponents for her own support for this development next to a major southwest busway stop. Penner says the critics stress “the need for uncongested commutes over the need for housing.”

Penner expresses a worry of her own: that the community association board has gone from one interested more broadly about community hall management, gatherings and neighbourhood public spaces to one that’s all about one project whose fate could be settled at a hearing later this year.

“My worry is what happens after this issue goes away: are those people still sticking around to do the best for the community?”

a woman with long dark hair stands in front of microphones
Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner doesn’t want the new Palliser community board to be overly preoccupied by a single development issue (about which directors and their councillor disagree). (CBC)

Jay Nelson, the now-former vice-president of PBPCA, agrees with one point from Hanson, the new president. For years, the community association suffered from a lack of neighbours interested in pitching in or joining the board. The spectre of development stoked people’s desire to get involved.

We’ve seen this in other realms, too, as the conservative activists of Take Back Alberta got Albertans riled up about COVID issues, and later LGBTQ rights, and persuaded them to flock to elect fellow travellers to the United Conservative Party board, for director elections that party members typically pay little heed to.

And there as well, the status-quo members wondered how much interest there would be in the more humdrum operations of that board.

Another parallel exists between these hyper-local community tensions and the provincial fray: just as Premier Danielle Smith’s UCP has opted for a more combative approach to federal relations on the climate and energy file, the new Palliser community board has pushed more forcefully to outright block the development.

The former team, meanwhile, was more interested in negotiations and potential trade-offs with the developers, and got RioCan to reduce the proposed maximum tower heights from more than 30 floors to the mid-20s.

There must be reams of political science literature debating what sort of public tactic is more beneficial.

“It’s still arguably too dense,” Nelson says of the proposal. “These were the sorts of negotiations we had hoped to have with the city and RioCan, if we could stay at the table as a mature group of residents.”

Farrar, who might take issue with the “mature” remark, has refrained from much talk of compromise in her “stop the towers” group’s communications. But when pressed, she says further density reductions would ease anxiety about traffic and so much else. 

“A lot of the concerns would be diminished by a significantly smaller footprint,” she says.

Shorter towers means fewer new housing units, and perhaps less potential financial upside for the developer or desire to build at all. It’s unlikely that any of it will be sorted out in future monthly issues of the community newsletter.

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