I voted to deliver.
Over the past few months, my office has received many questions about Minto Communities’ redevelopment plans for the former Viscount Bennett High School site (file number LOC2023-0359). I am grateful for the opportunity to have spoken with dozens of residents and Richmond Knob Hill Community Association representatives to talk about what could happen on this site. Our collective task–as City Administration, Council, current residents, and the applicant and landowner (Minto)–is to work together to shape a vision that serves Calgarians now and in the future.
In almost all of my conversations, there is a solid understanding that the site should be redeveloped. So many have reached out to express support for redeveloping the site, knowing that it is a great opportunity to build more homes for Calgarians — in a neighbourhood that is a walk, bus, or bike ride away from community hubs like Mount Royal University, parks, schools, and hundreds of nearby businesses. For some, redevelopment is an exciting opportunity, and the proposal raises a number of technical and policy questions. Some questions that have been asked are:
- What is a reasonable amount of housing when redeveloping an 11.5-acre school site in the inner city, especially one that is expected to take a decade or longer to fully realize after all the planning applications are approved?
- What is the capacity of the City of Calgary’s servicing and utilities network (water, wastewater, electricity)?
- What impacts will redevelopment have on the existing mobility network (roads, sidewalks, transit)?
- How can residents contribute their perspectives to help shape the final vision?
- How can redevelopment of this site advance The City's policy objectives for housing, climate, and social wellbeing?
For others, strong opposition has been levied against the proposal. Most relate to the above listed questions. Some of the opposition to the proposal calls for a different process.
I believe there is a path forward to reconcile these many perspectives.
Some residents have emailed requesting outright rejection of this application, which is not something I can do at this time. This is not because I don’t share many of the concerns presented by residents. It is simply because I do not have the authority or legal right to do so at this stage, as my decision can only be made at Council after a Public Hearing. Landowners have the right to submit planning applications on their property for the City to review. The City is responsible for reviewing applications, guided by a variety of statutory policies, technical requirements, and input from many parties, including the public. The process for reviewing an application this size takes time as it is comprehensive and very rigorous — a process we are only in the early days of.
I have shared my questions with the City team reviewing the application, with Minto, and with dozens of community members. Almost all of them echo the questions listed above. I want to know the impacts this will have on mobility including cars, bikes, and pedestrians. I want to know the required capacity of infrastructure to serve this site and the existing community around it. I want to see a formal outline plan for the site that identifies what types and where development could happen, where utilities, servicing, and mobility connections must be, and where publicly accessible open space could be. An outline plan can better support conversations with community on how best to provide specific and relevant feedback related to heights of buildings, transitions between current housing and the future development, and most importantly, parks and open space.
I recognize that residents have suggested Minto engage in a similar way to what the City does for City-led projects. This level of engagement is not a requirement for privately-owned and funded applications. However, applicant-led public engagement is an expectation of the process. In-depth, meaningful and fulsome public input is needed on this site for several reasons: its unique conditions and technical challenges, its location in the community of Richmond, and the potential scale of redevelopment. Minto will be embarking on their next phase of engagement in the coming months and I am advocating for it to better meet the expectations and outcomes of all interested parties.
My focus during the application review period is to ensure all involved in the future of Viscount Bennett are building a site that is responsive to the needs of Calgarians today, while reflecting a vision that understands needs of Calgarians tomorrow.
A Brief History of the Site
The Viscount Bennett High School operated as a junior and high school from 1955 to 1985, closing due to low enrolment. In 1995, Chinook Learning Services operated out of the building until the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) closed it permanently in 2018. The building has stood derelict and vacant since. In 2023, CBE sold the school site to Minto Communities, who has submitted an application to rezone the site and prepare it for future redevelopment.
At its peak, over 2000 students went to school here in the 1970’s and 1980’s before Ernest Manning High School and Central Memorial High School opened, resulting in the student population decreasing steadily until closure.
A few important points to remember:
- The site was owned by the Calgary Board of Education and sold to Minto in 2023. The site was never owned by the City of Calgary.
- The former school is in very poor condition and must be demolished and any contamination must be mitigated by the landowner prior to any development.
What relevant planning policy applies to this site?
The site is identified in the Westbrook Local Area Plan as a Comprehensive Planning Site (section 2.2.5, page 42).
Comprehensive Planning Sites identify and provide direction for sites that will require additional planning or supplementary site design to support future planning applications.
The former Viscount Bennett school site was identified as a Comprehensive Planning Site because of its size and location, and the anticipated complexity and time required for redevelopment of a site with existing buildings, infrastructure, and potential contamination. Additionally, there were no known development plans available during the writing of the LAP, so the policies were written in a way to set expectations and requirements for what and how redevelopment should occur, when and if it does.
Per the LAP, redevelopment of Comprehensive Planning Sites should are also intended to include a "master planning exercise." This process is not specifically defined, but usually includes a vision for the site plan, an outreach strategy for community, and a good understanding of how the design and development vision fits within the surrounding communities.
This exercise should seek to identify:
- transitional areas between current neighbours and future development on the site
- identification of streets and pedestrian routes throughout the site
- phasing for future development
- how it builds in climate resilience in both energy consumption and resiliency
- site design and landscaping, and open space
- how transit integrates into the site
What has happened so far, what happens next, and what can I expect?
What happens next?
This application is undergoing a technical review by City Administration, which will outline what is required for this application to proceed in accordance with the policies of the Westbrook Communities Local Area Plan and the Municipal Development Plan. The City will share their technical review comments with Minto.
This means that the City is reviewing traffic patterns, utility capacity, road networks, transit access, and they’re assessing the application’s alignment to all the policies that apply. Applicable policies include the Local Area Plan, the Municipal Development Plan, and the Calgary Transportation Plan.
Following the initial review, the application is revised, likely multiple times. With every revision the community will be invited to review and comment on the most current iteration of the process.
What can you expect?
Expect the application to change as more information becomes available. With every iteration, the application will get closer to a proposal that addresses the concerns raised throughout the process. There are lots of opportunities to provide feedback and expect new information to come out after each review.
When the application is ready to proceed — meaning Administration has made a recommendation to approve or reject it — the first stage-gate is Calgary Planning Commission (CPC). CPC will review this site on its technical planning merits. This involves considering site transitions, mobility, density, and open space planning, among other factors.
Depending on the decision at CPC, the file would then move to a public hearing at Council where a final decision is made on the Land Use for the site.
But this isn’t the end. Once the Land Use is in place, the applicant must move to a comprehensive permitting process called the Development Permit and Building Permit processes. These are extremely technical processes that determines what actually gets built, and what technical adjustments need to be made to the physical structures – essentially, this is where the engineers and architects get to work.
The development permit process also includes opportunities for public feedback once the designs are public. This will help the final decisions by the experts in City Administration.
If those designs are approved and the permits issued, then and only then would you start seeing construction.
This is not a simple process and it is essential for everyone involved (City administration, Minto, and community members) to be patient, collaborative, and responsive to the process.
I have feedback I would like to provide. Where can I send it?
Questions about this process?
Send my team an email at [email protected] and we'll do our best to answer and make any additional resources available.