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There seems to be a disconnect of late between City of Calgary administration and the citizens it serves. The decision to cancel Canada Day fireworks, charging fees for residential parking permits and the recent recommendation from the Housing and Affordability Task Force to eliminate single-family zoning city-wide have all received significant grassroots opposition, forcing council to act. Something is amiss.
The task force’s proposal to blanket up-zone residential neighbourhoods throughout the entire city, in particular, seems a bridge too far. This move would allow for rowhouses, townhouses, duplexes, semi-detached and cottage house clusters on virtually any residential plot of land in the city.
One can fathom reasonable objections from residents; it looks less like thoughtful urban planning and more like a free for all – build whatever, wherever.
Is this what a majority of Calgarians want? While I’d be inclined to say no, I’m hardly a pollster, and the city has conducted no poll on the matter. But why shouldn’t it? Why not hold a plebiscite and ask residents if they want to say goodbye to single-family zoning for good? Because once the change is made and the bulldozers have come through, there’s no going back.
The city has held plebiscites in the past on fluoride in drinking water and whether to host the Olympics; surely a decision to change the zoning of every single residential neighbourhood – a “transformative” change as described by the task force – should be put to the people.
The rationale for the change is to increase housing availability and, more importantly, affordability. The logic goes that densification equals affordability; increase supply, prices come down. Yet it’s difficult to find where this has actually happened.
Calgary attracts people largely because it is more affordable. Interestingly, this attraction is also under threat as the proportion of single-family homes has declined over the last five years by almost 29 per cent (to roughly 40 per cent of all homes). At the same time, affordability is declining. Single-family homes are clearly not the issue.
There is an important difference between affordability (not clearly defined) and affordable housing. Everyone agrees that affordable housing is needed. The task force provided some reasonable suggestions on how government might stimulate ‘non-market housing’.
While this might be workable in larger projects, when a developer knocks down a single-family home in Altadore, for example, the rowhouses or townhouses built in its place often exceed the $600,000 range. The result is more available, though not more affordable, housing.
To label concerned citizens with the pejorative NIMBY is an insensitive attempt to discredit their legitimate concerns. For most people, their home is their largest investment. They buy single-family homes, typically in single-family neighbourhoods, because they want quiet streets, yards for family play and relaxation, trees, and some privacy.
Unbridled multi-family development – contrary to what some say – changes neighbourhoods. I grew up in Capitol Hill, at a time when yards and trees were big and you could always find parking on the street. Today, it is a different community. Large swaths of the canopy are gone, as are privacy, yards and street parking.
This is not to say density, per se, is bad. Increasing density is good when done in a rational and thoughtful manner, taking into account the existing community context. There is a place, in all communities, for multi-family development. But it should be placed where it makes sense, such as along major transportation corridors, near LRT stations and on vacant or underutilized parcels.
In new communities, for example, there is a predictable and well-planned mix of single-family, multi-family and commercial development.
Calgary is a world-class city and we need to keep it that way. Housing availability and affordability are big, complex issues that require thoughtfully planned solutions. A blanket re-zoning of the entire city carries many risks, not least of which is the fundamental alteration of the communities and homes Calgarians love. The issue affects all neighbourhoods and citizens.
If city administration wants this, they must obtain the approval of Calgarians before proceeding. A plebiscite is in order.
Melanie Darbyshire is the editor of Business in Calgary magazine.
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