Developers Protest

Some Calgary developers and builders are voicing frustration over The City of Calgary’s approval process for new communities.

Citing inconsistencies in the time it takes to have projects approved, members of the development community are calling for better communication between the two parties.

Reports have emerged of drastically different approval times for identical projects sent to city planners, including one northwest multiplex that saw one project approved in just three days while another took close to three months.

“On the multi-family builders side we’re seeing excessive wait times in regards to development permits,” said Canadian Home Builders’ Association – Calgary president Charron Ungar. “Particularly as builders, and not developers, we’re seeing that there is some inconsistency on responses to development or issues that come in the process in regards to development permits, specifically inspections and that sort of thing.”

In a recent story told in The Calgary Herald, delays on a single home in southwest Calgary had cost a homebuilder more than $100,000 in applications, appeals and added construction costs.

The comments from Ungar come on the heels of remarks from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi who, following an admission that the City needs to cut “red tape” for developers, advised the city’s development community not to present the approvals board with “crap” projects.

According to Ungar, the inconsistencies in the city’s dealings with the local development community has put some strain on the relationship between the two.

“I’m not going to deny that there are rising levels of tension with the process,” said Ungar, who also serves as the president of Calgary-based builder Avi Urban. “I don’t think that people wake up in the morning hellbent on [aggravating] the development industry.

“I think we’re at a little bit of a crossroads right now in the growth of our city. We’re hitting a pretty sizeable population now where we’re getting different interest groups that are quite vocal (and) that would like to affect change in their own way.”

In Ungar’s opinion, some of that tension comes as a result of a lack of recognition by City Hall of efforts by developers and builders to manage urban expansion in Calgary.

“They’re not recognizing past growth of the city and using terms like urban sprawl when in fact Calgary doesn’t have an urban sprawl problem as far as our new communities go – they’re some of the densest designed new communities in North America,” said Ungar.

As a member of the City’s Standing Policy Committee on Land Use Planning & Transportation and having operated an urban design consulting business prior to his election, Ward 9 Alderman Gian-Carlo Carra is well versed in the approvals process. While Carra admits there are definite problems, he contends the issue is a consequence of a change in thinking at City Hall.

“Our approvals process is a mess, absolutely,” he said. “Part of why we brought in a guy like Rollin Stanley is to totally transform how we do planning. For me, it really boils down to the fact that Calgary did an amazing job of building a suburban city – probably a better job than anyone else in North America, and now we’re talking about building a different kind of city but we haven’t changed our rules and regulations.”

Hired in June, Rollin Stanley, Calgary’s new GM of Planning, Development and Assessment has gone on the record as a fan of “up, not out” growth, arguing against Alberta’s four-storey cap on stick-built (conventional wood-framed rather than concrete) buildings. According to Stanley, while improvements could be made, the delays in the approvals process are hardly unique to the city.

“The things that have been said recently are things that are said in every city – I’ve never worked in a city or seen a city where developers haven’t said the same things. In St. Louis, we approved 85 per cent of the building permits the same day they were applied for and people still complained the process wasn’t fast enough,” said Stanley, who mentions the City’s electronic plans submission as one of the ways City Hall is trying to speed up the approvals process.

“That’s not to say we can’t improve. We can [improve] and that’s what we’re working on.”

While it remains to be seen if the concerns of Calgary’s development community can be lessened with a streamlined approvals process, the sentiment that both sides need to work together to find a solution is one endorsed by Ungar.

“The thing is … our industry has been around since this city was founded and we plan on being around for the future, and we’re going to need to work with everybody, particularly policy makers, when it comes to making sure our industry can do business.”

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