On Christmas Eve, 2012, an application was received for the consolidation of three lots at 2224 Hope St, 643 Hillcrest Ave and 638 Hillcrest Ave, creating a parcel of land of more than an acre, for the purpose of building a single-family home. The application also included the subdivision and purchase of parkland adjacent to 638 Hillcrest Ave. Comments from the Cliff Bungalow and Mt Royal Community Associations were due by January 7, 2013. Despite the strong objections of both communities, the application to subdivide parkland was approved by the City of Calgary Corporate Planning Applications Group.
The next step in this process is a review of the application by the Land and Asset Strategy Committee, which at the time of this writing on January 15, 2014, is expected in February or March 2014. Following that review, the matter goes to City Council.
The MRCA Board held an information meeting on December 9, 2013 to share the facts available at that time. Despite the holiday season, fifty people attended, including a friend of the applicant who spoke on his behalf. This was the largest turn out seen since the days of traffic calming issues. As a result, community opposition to the sale of parkland escalated with more penetrating questions surrounding the lack of transparency and early community involvement and consultation.
There is an agreement in place between the applicant and the City for this sale of the parkland, which is contingent on approval by City Council, but this approval has not yet been obtained. It has proven difficult to get full disclosure from the City regarding the agreement, the negotiation of which transpired prior to any notification to the affected communities.
The most asked and worrisome question is, “how can inner city public parkland, including an iconic viewpoint under the protection of a restrictive CPR caveat, be subdivided off from the rest of the parkland and sold into private ownership?” Though the application seeks to wall off the parkland from public use, the application stipulates that the proposed purchase will retain its current zoning as parkland. This has the effect of avoiding the requirement for a public hearing associated with a zoning change, but with the practical result of it becoming the equivalent of privately owned parkland.
Documentation from 2006 and 2008 show that the City refused to support the proposed sale of parkland, but by 2010, the City’s position reversed. The agreement appears to have been pushed through despite the initial objection from the City’s Parks Group. The City indicated in 2006 that the communities of Cliff Bungalow and Mt. Royal would at least need to be neutral for a proposal of this nature to go through, but that requirement was not enforced. Whether you care about the sale of parkland or not, you should at least care about the process!
A recent letter in support of the sale of this parkland included the following comments:
- The owner of 638 Hillcrest was surprised to discover that the subject parkland that he had been using was not his property
- The subject parkland can never be incorporated into the remainder of the parkland
- The owner of 638 Hillcrest participated in the cost of the retaining wall for the benefit of neighbouring properties
- Opposition to the sale of the parkland is mean spirited
- The owner of 638 Hillcrest has donated millions of dollars to the benefit of the City of Calgary, so the request to buy parkland should be honoured
- Opposition to the sale is an attempt to humiliate and vilify a wealthy person
- Future donations from the owner of 638 Hillcrest may go elsewhere
- The owner of 638 Hillcrest has been very fair in dealing with the City of Calgary to acquire the subject land.
The following is the letter of response from the MRCA Development Review Committee to the letter writer:
“Thank you for sharing your strong views on the sale of the parkland with the MRCA Development Review Committee. We have had very few residents contact us to support the sale of the parkland, so we appreciate your perspective.
The parkland in question is an historic viewpoint that was used by generations of Calgarians prior to the encroachment by the adjacent property, 638 Hillcrest Ave., and it comprises most of the flat, useable parkland at the top of the escarpment. It needs no incorporation. It has always belonged to the park. We would respectfully suggest that you check the facts on this and your other arguments. For example, documents show that this landowner needed the retaining wall as much as his neighbours at the top of Hope St., and was made aware of this as early as 2006 when the Golder Slope Study revealed instability in the slope adjacent to 638 in addition to the properties that had already experienced collapse. All of the affected properties lost substantial development potential due to the set backs now required because of the unstable slope.
The affected property owners contributed to the retaining wall based on the linear meters of their individual frontage. We have not seen documentation that indicates that the owner of 638 contributed more than his share. We have seen documents showing the request made by the landowner to angle the retaining wall away from his property, a request that increased the overall cost. The angling of the wall benefitted only 638 Hillcrest Ave. with or without the ownership of the parkland, as it meant that the retaining wall anchors and the building restrictions associated with them, were under the parkland and so intruded only half as much under 638 Hillcrest. Documents show that the owner of 638 Hillcrest opted out of financial participation several times throughout the process. We can only assume, therefore, that the final cost and product was satisfactory to him. We, of course, remain open to correction on this if there is supporting documentation.
Also we wish to point out that every map of the community that we have ever viewed, be it historical, taxation, community boundaries, etc., shows clearly that the rear property lines of the Hope Street properties as well as the eastern boundary of 638 Hillcrest, run in a straight line. The owner of 638 Hillcrest has been using a property that deviates significantly from this straight line. The redevelopment of this property has required the landowner to acknowledge the correct property line. Documents show that he was advised in 2006 that he would need to ensure that the communities of Cliff Bungalow and Mount Royal were at least neutral on this purchase of parkland. Otherwise the land would remain parkland and be again available to all Calgarians. There is no evidence of any consultation with Cliff Bungalow and Mt. Royal by the landowner prior to the application to subdivide the parkland in December 2012. It is also worth considering that the landowner has an ongoing dispute with the neighbours to the north regarding a boundary line, so it is surprising that the east property line was not clear to the owner of 638 Hillcrest.
Another point to consider is that the proposed purchase of the 3,743 sq. ft. of parkland, which you suggest is a small amount of land, would allow 638 Hillcrest the de facto control of an additional considerable amount of parkland due to easements associated with the retaining wall. In a city where lots of 3,500 sq. ft. are common, just to give you your perspective that is a lot of parkland lost.
This very complex situation was first brought to our attention on December 24, 2012, when we received the application to amalgamate the three lots at 643 Hillcrest Ave., 638 Hillcrest Ave., and 2224 Hope St. as well as subdivide the adjacent parkland. We supported the amalgamation of the three lots. Both Cliff Bungalow and Mt. Royal did not support the subdivision of the parkland, given the feedback we were getting from both communities. There were also concerns in the community about the low property assessment, for taxation purposes, on 638 Hillcrest Avenue. All of the landowners were given a break on their taxes to offset their retaining wall costs. The assessment on 638 Hillcrest was much, much lower than the other affected properties for several years ($49,500 in 2012). We were told that this was because the landowner had paid cash for the retaining wall as opposed to paying for it over time, which was the choice that the other landowners made. We asked Alderman Mar to bring clarity to the situation, and a year later we are still working on it with Councillor Woolley to get the facts, as we do not understand the math.
There is nothing mean spirited about Mt. Royal and Cliff Bungalow residents, as well as other interested Calgarians, wanting to protect and preserve this unique parkland that includes, arguably, the crown jewel of all viewpoints in all of southwest Calgary. There is nothing wrong with Calgarians asking for answers about arrangements being made behind closed doors. The optics on this are so bad that the landowner and the city should expect questions. There is no attempt to humiliate or vilify, but Calgarians should not be forced to give up heritage parkland especially since they now have an opportunity to enjoy it again. We can only assume that you are suggesting that any opposition to this sale is viewed as humiliation and vilification.
The owner of 638 Hillcrest deserves and, we believe, has the enormous gratitude of the community as he has donated generously to projects that are meaningful to him. There are other ways to honour him that do not involve the sale of irreplaceable inner city parkland for the purposes of enlarging a consolidated property of over an acre in size and with an already magnificent view. Your letter seems to suggest that charitable donations entitle a property owner to a preferential deal with the City. The message we are getting is that the community wants to keep philanthropy and parkland separate.
We are told that the agreed sale price on the parkland that the community does not want to sell is $150,000, obviously a bargain. Interesting to note that a buyer in Mt. Royal has offered the City $200,000 for this property. The purchase of this parkland is complicated, but the point of preferential treatment is being made by this second buyer.
Our overriding concern is the lack of due process, transparency and consultation applied to a very valuable piece of parkland by the City. The big picture here is the loss of this heritage parkland forever.”
Community Development, MRCA