Ajay Nehru says he’s sick and tired of being portrayed as the “big bad developer” amid controversial plans to redevelop Calgary’s Highland Park golf course.
His development, Highland Village Green, was finally given the green light at council on March 20, after a long and bitter feud with the local community association over green space, a storm-water creek, urban design and a city process which Councillor Druh Farrell labelled “a hot mess.”
“The biggest issue by a long way is that the community has come to regard Highland Park golf course as a public park,” Mr. Nehru says, “and that’s partly my fault. I’ve kept the grass mowed in summer, I removed all the barriers and allowed the public to access it. But it’s not – and never has been – a public park.”
“I’m hearing the catchphrase, ‘We’re losing the park in Highland Park,’ and it’s absurd,” he adds. “Instead of thinking of it as gaining a nine-acre park, they look on it as losing a 50-acre park.”
Elise Bieche, president of the Highland Park Community Association, which has rallied against the development, says that’s not the case.
“The park proposed for the development isn’t nine acres; it’s 6.72 acres. And the community doesn’t consider the golf course to be a public park but we do feel it could be developed in a way that gives us better green space. With the current plan, we can’t even get a full-sized soccer pitch on the site,” she says. “It’s not a usable, quality park.”
Mr. Nehru, a Vancouver-based developer who has undertaken condo projects in Mount Royal and the Beltline, bought the 50-acre golf course in 2013 – a purchase he says was “a huge risk” due to the complex terms of the sale.
“I’d been outbid for the land twice but both times the buyers dropped it. The problem was none of the utilities had been mapped; there was a huge amount of work required to even know if the land was developable. The sellers wouldn’t give interested parties enough time to do that work, you’d need months,” he explains.
In the end, Mr. Nehru was offered the land at less than half the original asking price of $20-million but would have just five days to undertake due diligence.
“It was a huge risk,” he admits. “The cost to prepare the land for development will be north of $20-million; that’s before you even put a shovel in the ground.”
But, Mr. Nehru says, getting to the point where he’s even allowed to put a shovel in the ground of his billion-dollar development hasn’t been easy.
“When I bought the land, I went to the community and asked for their input. We re-opened the club house in the evenings and we invited people to come and talk to us,” he explains. “They told us that they didn’t want traffic directed to the new community through the existing neighbourhood and that they wanted public green space. So the plan we presented to council, which had been voted for by the community, had a large public park and not a single road allowing vehicular access to the new community through the existing one.”
So far so good. But it’s at this point that Mr. Nehru admits that “relations started to go off the rails with the community.”
“The plan went into a black hole of communication at the city for a very long time and in that time things changed,” he says. “The Green Line LRT was approved. The community association members changed. Residents became used to having a large area of parkland they could access.”
The approval of the Green Line LRT station on Centre Street and 40 Avenue NW, immediately southeast of the development, meant a new access road was added to the plan by the city.
“The addition of the road makes logical sense. The city is trying to ensure they don’t end up with orphaned parcels of land when the new train line goes in. But there’s been no attempt on the part of the city to convey that to the community, so they assume I’m to blame.”
Ms. Bieche says neither the existence of the road nor the lack of public green space is the main issue the community has with Mr. Nehru’s development.
“This site is a big part of the city’s storm-water management solution for north-central Calgary. Developing it means the city will have to foot the bill to tear up nearby parks and create dry ponds or they’ll have to twin the existing storm-water trunk. The lowest estimate I’ve heard for that is $22-million,” she says.
A water study has been commissioned by the city to establish which solution will be required; the study will be complete early in 2018.
“To accommodate the twinning of the storm-water trunk, the developer is proposing a 26-metre-wide road through the development, which is totally inconsistent with this being a transit-orientated development,” Ms. Bieche continues. “It’s also unnecessary. We don’t even know what the results of the water study are yet. But the city went ahead and approved it anyway.”
Mr. Nehru says his trunk road is “essential to minimizing auto-connectivity through the existing community; which is what the community told us they wanted.”
Ms. Bieche says the community also fears the proposed development, consisting of 2,070 residential units, won’t be sensitive to the topography of the site.
“This is a coulee and yet the developer has proposed no slope-adaptive design. The mix of housing units isn’t varied and we don’t believe it will attract the next generation of residents to Highland Park. It’s just a huge disappointment really.”
Mr. Nehru defends the proposed design for Highland Village Green. He says the design guidelines “were put together in collaboration with the city and the community,” although he does admit it’s been a difficult site to work with.
“The site is criss-crossed with immovable utilities, which means we have multiple parcels of developable land rather than one large site. It’s been challenging to produce a plan that’s coherent and it’s taken a lot of work and study to come up with that.”
One thing Mr. Nehru and Ms. Bieche do agree on is that the city has to bear some responsibility for the “hot mess” from which the controversial approval of Highland Park Village has finally emerged.
“The city process has dragged on interminably and I believe that’s contributed to the community’s anger at what it considers to be the loss of public park space,” says Mr. Nehru. “Councillor Farrell actually requested a postmortem be done on the whole project and the inefficiencies within the process but the motion failed, which I think is a real shame.”
Ms. Bieche agrees the city has to shoulder some responsibility.
“The city had the opportunity to purchase the site and they didn’t because they didn’t think that anyone would ever buy it for development,” she says. “They could have bought it for $8-million but instead it’s likely to cost more than $20-million to deal with the storm-water and that bill is going to get passed on to Calgary taxpayers.”