Rollin Stanley

How a vocal visionary is challenging assumptions and changing Calgary

By Jeremy Klaszus

Last fall, Rollin Stanley, chief planner for the City of Calgary, took his 88-year-old aunt from her home in the city’s southeast to the Peace Bridge downtown. Like many Calgarians, Stanley’s aunt considered the bright-red $25-million span, designed by Spain’s Santiago Calatrava, a waste of money. Stanley, a charismatic and provocative urbanist in his mid-50s, saw something different: a strong piece of visual marketing that conveys the city’s energy and creativity. Together they watched as runners passed and families posed for photos. That same weekend, the New York Times highlighted the bridge—“a futuristic spear zooming right at the heart of [the] city”—in a travel piece on Calgary’s accelerating cultural evolution. That got Stanley really jazzed. “Things like the Peace Bridge are what put us on the map,” he says. “Not only is it a boon for our residents, it’s a boon for the city internationally.”

Stanley is an outspoken agitator for urban densification and renewal in a city that grew by nearly 40,000 people in 2014. As Calgary’s general manager of planning, development and assessment, Stanley leads a department that has historically directed growth toward the city’s edges while existing neighbourhoods hollowed out. That’s now starting to shift, thanks to a long-range growth blueprint that aims for a “compact city”—balancing growth between the city’s fringes and developed areas. The aim is to shift one-third of new growth into existing neighbourhoods by 2039 and half by 2069, while densifying everywhere. Stanley is tasked with implementing this plan at a time when unprecedented growth is straining the city’s budget and services, pushing municipal debt to nearly $4-billion. “As a fast-growing city, to capture the true cost of growth now is critical,” he says.

Stanley has taken his message on the costs of growth and the benefits of densification far beyond city hall. A prolific blogger and dynamic public speaker, he’s been on a visible mission to animate public dialogue since he arrived in 2012. “What Rollin Stanley brings to the conversation is helping people understand what we need to change and why,” says community activist and city hall observer Cheri Macauley.

At a time when politicians and bureaucrats alike speak of community engagement while making their doings as obtuse as possible, Stanley is of a different school. To him, the public dialogue on urban issues in Calgary is encouraging but not sufficiently broad; he wants to go beyond the usual suspects who show up at city council meetings. He wants to engage the unengaged. “When you get them thinking about outcomes, it’ll change the discussion and help balance competing interests,” he says.

Stanley arrived at a critical time of transition for both the city and its government. Naheed Nenshi, an outspoken proponent of density and a purveyor of what he called “politics in full sentences,” had been elected as mayor in 2010. Before that, Nenshi was a regular in council chambers, advocating for Plan It Calgary—the aforementioned blueprint to curb sprawl and shift growth into existing neighbourhoods. The plan was in keeping with IMAGINECalgary, an extensive consultation with 18,000 Calgarians that centred on sustainability.

Still, Calgary’s old guard opposed Plan It. Guided by homebuilder lobby groups, the Calgary Herald editorialized that the plan made “no sense” and “violated all of the important steps of viable planning.” (The Herald’s publisher at the time, Guy Huntingford, went on to become CEO of the Urban Development Institute, a homebuilder lobby group, in 2013. He declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Council approved Plan It in 2009, creating two new master documents: the Municipal Development Plan, which guides future growth, and the Calgary Transportation Plan, which emphasizes transportation choice, including walking, transit and cycling.

The Plan It process broadened public dialogue. “Previously most of that conversation was going on between city council and city administration and the development industry,” says Macauley. “Those were considered the stakeholders. The citizens didn’t really have a lot of voice.” Plan It represented a landmark victory for engaged urbanists. They now had a voice, one with some clout.

Rollin Stanley is an outspoken agitator for urban densification and renewal.

With key bureaucrats in city administration nearing retirement, Calgary needed new leaders to implement the new plans. Like many governments, the city has a history of creating big plans with so-so follow-through. “We had visionary goals, and yet were having difficulty maintaining them,” says long-time inner-city councillor Druh Farrell.

For years, Farrell had warned about the unsustainable costs of growth. New communities cost more for the city to service than they generate in taxes and developer levies—fees charged to developers by the city to pay for such things as sewer pipes, buses, fire stations and traffic interchanges. In 2011, under Nenshi’s leadership, the city more than doubled these levies from one-quarter of growth costs to half (an average of $310,000 per hectare), but taxpayers are still left with the bill for the rest. Nenshi has repeatedly said Calgary’s subsidy is unfair to future generations, and growth should pay for itself in full.

By 2012 Calgary’s debt had risen past $3-billion—having doubled in five years—to cover growth costs, including new water infrastructure and projects such as the West LRT. “We recognized that we couldn’t continue doing things the same way, but hadn’t come up with a solution,” says Farrell, who was on the hiring committee for the city planner position.

Enter Rollin Stanley.

By the time he was recruited, Stanley was something of a rock star in the world of urban planning. A native of northern Ontario and graduate of Ryerson University, Stanley spent the bulk of his career as a senior planner in Toronto, where he helped transform an inner-city industrial area into what is now known as the Entertainment District. In 2002 he jumped at the chance to lead the planning department in St. Louis, Missouri, a city with neighbourhoods plagued by poverty, crime and vacant buildings.

“Our big job was to convince people that the resources there could be cobbled together in a different way,” he says. Stanley touted historic preservation as a key tool for repopulating St. Louis’s neighbourhoods with residents and services. Through a combination of federal, state and local historic tax credits, his department found a way to offset the cost of redeveloping old buildings. “All of a sudden, these abandoned 12-storey shoe factories become attractive investments,” says Stanley. “Rather than tearing them down for a parking lot, we could turn around and make them something.”

In 2008 Stanley took the job as planning director for Maryland’s Montgomery County, adjacent to Washington DC. Stanley says he wanted a new challenge and liked the prospect of managing a larger department (over 150 staff) in an urban/suburban setting. He quickly made a name for himself. The Washington Post dubbed Stanley “the brash bad boy of Washington regional planning” for his provocative style. He was a polarizing figure, pursuing his vision of densification in a county where half-hour commutes (one way) were the norm. He panned large parking lots and praised high-rises as fine places to raise kids. Traffic is good, he famously said—it forces people to slow down and consider alternative transportation. As well, he noted, the great cities of the world are known for their congestion.

At a chamber of commerce breakfast, Stanley said “many people think [large houses] are the next slums. They are too big and people are having trouble selling them.” The way of the future, he predicted, is smaller homes near public transit.

As a planner, he worked toward this future. In one of his department’s most ambitious accomplishments, a languishing, car-dependent White Flint Mall was transformed into a massive transit-oriented development with 10,000-plus units of housing, along with retail, bike paths and plazas. Phase I of the project was completed in late 2014.

In Montgomery County, Stanley’s approach got some residents excited—and others infuriated. On the plus side, his department held a speaker series on urban transformation to engage citizens in planning issues. He did regular walkabouts with residents, assembling groups to stroll through neighbourhoods and talk about what worked, what didn’t and what outcomes they would like to see. “What happens in cities is people become too immersed in the process and the rules,” says Stanley. “And far too often the rules tend to be counterproductive to what people really want.” The walkabouts, and Stanley’s public presence overall, made an impression. One Washington-area blogger noted Stanley’s “ability to make good planning and design relevant to ordinary, politically uninvolved people.”

On the flip side, Stanley was harshly dismissive toward critics of his vertical vision and had little patience for NIMBYism. In a magazine interview conducted months before he took the Calgary job, he labelled a group of his critics “rich white women” who spread fear at his public appearances. That set off a political firestorm. Calls for his resignation followed and local officials distanced themselves from Stanley’s comments. He apologized publicly.

Calgary had not been on Stanley’s radar since he left Toronto. When he was approached about the Calgary gig, he was intrigued. The successful candidate would lead a department of about 800—overseeing not just the planning department but also the development and assessment departments. Stanley met with Nenshi before his interview and viewed the mayor as a smart leader open to new ideas: a key factor in his decision to accept the Calgary role. (The city refused to disclose who sat on the hiring committee, citing HR policy, but Stanley says there was representation from council, senior administration and HR.)

New communities cost more for the city to service than they generate in taxes and developer levies.

Stanley also consulted Vancouver architect Bing Thom, among others, for their take on the booming Alberta city. They all told him more or less the same thing: go west. Because Calgary is changing so rapidly, you can make a difference in shaping its future.

Standing at Olympic Plaza across from City Hall, Stanley gives me a crash course on how recent Calgary developments reflect its changing face.

Exhibit A: a newly opened Walmart on prairie farmland at the city’s eastern edge, by the ring road. This gets Stanley riled. “You think that would have happened in Washington?” he says. “No. We were making them multi-storey Walmarts… with 80 per cent of their parking inside. Tenants are coming here saying, ‘Well, maybe Calgary is the last place on the planet where I can get still away with this.’ Up until recently they have.”

Exhibit B: a new Best Buy on trendy 17th Avenue SW, in a four-storey mixed-use building with underground parking. “It’s fabulous,” Stanley allows. “But if there would have been a condo on [top], it would have been even more fabulous.”

Exhibit C: the Arriva 1 condo tower in Victoria Park, a neighbourhood the city has razed for redevelopment over the past decade. This is to his liking: commercial space beneath residences stacked 34 floors high. “When we look at that tower over there, I can tell you that it’s paying about $650,000 a year in property tax.”

On this last point, Stanley is relentless. He advocates for inner-city investment and projects such as the Peace Bridge partly because the core generates the most property tax revenue thanks to its density. In presentations to everyone from city council to the Rotary Club, Stanley—himself a condo-dweller in the inner-city community of Mission—illustrates how denser housing boosts city revenue. One slide shows a 114-unit condo on land that previously had 11 lots with single-family homes and fourplexes. When the condo went up, that land’s assessed value spiked from $5.6-million to $45-million—and as a result, revenue from property taxes grew from $35,000 to $270,000. “I tell [audiences], ‘If you want your residential taxes to stay low, we need to put these kinds of developments where it makes sense.’”

At Olympic Plaza he asks me to look around, and explains why he’s so passionate about urban reinvestment. “We have to understand where the engine for growth is—it’s right here where we’re looking. If you and I got on bikes, within a 15-minute radius of where we are [is] where the money is coming from to finance the city’s growth. We need to reinvest it. All successful businesses invest in themselves.”

Stanley’s arrival gave a lively jolt to the vision articulated through Plan It. His enthusiasm for density also reopened old debates. He’d reference municipalities from Shanghai to St. Louis, driving home the need for cities to grow up, not just out. This made him enemies. “That’s like heresy in Calgary, with our open spaces and single-family homes with big lots,” says suburban councillor Diane Colley-Urquhart, who represents the city’s deep southwest.

In early 2013 Stanley was at the centre of controversy again. The Canadian Home Builders’ Association–Calgary Region interpreted a comment in one of his speeches as proof of a suburban development “freeze.” In response, Nenshi demanded an apology and briefly banned the CHBA from city committees. Stanley said the accusation was “negative toward my staff,” and pointed out the city had 1,640 hectares of serviced suburban land ready for new houses. The CHBA recanted publicly and made peace with the mayor.

Amid the controversy, however, Colley-Urquhart went on the attack. “Stanley has too much time on his hands,” she wrote in a Calgary Sun op-ed. “Since arriving, he seems to have been on the public speaking circuit constantly espousing many of his eastern and American ideas about how great other cities are.” She accused him of being disrespectful of the city Calgarians had built: “Rollin comes across as being the founder of increased density in established communities, while always implying suburban growth and where Calgarians chose to live is over.” Colley-Urquhart told Metro that she would “continue to be one of his biggest challengers.”

It’s surprising, then, to hear Colley-Urquhart now describe Stanley as the right leader for the right time. A number of factors won her over, including his response to her criticism. “He didn’t attempt to marginalize me,” she says. She was also impressed by his community walkabouts, where he went out and listened to residents. And his efforts to preserve historic buildings signalled a respect for the city’s heritage that she didn’t detect early on.

More significantly, Stanley has made a point of emphasizing that the suburbs and inner city need each other, and that denser suburbs and “complete communities” are a balanced way for Calgary to grow. “He sees a place for both,” says Colley-Urquhart. The southwest community of Garrison Woods is an example of the complete community concept, with high-density residential within walking distance of amenities such as grocery stores. Farther out, in the southeast suburbs, Quarry Park is meant to be a place where people can live, work and play (though it’s more car-dependent than Garrison Woods). Imperial Oil is currently moving its offices from downtown into Quarry Park.


A new home in Westgate, 1960. In the 1950s and 1960s Calgary shifted from planning to a costly blind faith in the free market.

Stanley is excited about a developer that’s looking at building over 1,000 rental units north of the airport—a move that would let airport employees live near their workplace. “That’s an opportunity for the future,” he says. “The discussion isn’t about suburban growth/downtown growth. It’s about putting us in the financial position to grow into all segments.”

Colley-Urquhart and others also appreciate that Stanley is a bureaucrat with little patience for bureaucracy. His blog, for example, shows a stack of Area Redevelopment Plans (documents guiding development in existing neighbourhoods)—“most just waiting for a redo based on their lifespan,” says Stanley’s caption. The plans are supposed to be revised ever few years, but, as Stanley laments in his blog, they tend to pile up: “The pile gets so high there is no way the plans can be revisited in a timely fashion and soon 10 years pass. Building trends change, neighbourhoods change. The plans become outdated, yet they are still the rule for new applications to abide by.”

Stanley has reorganized his department to make it more responsive and focused on outcomes. The planning department is piloting a more nimble process to reinvigorate main streets throughout the city, with input from residents and businesses. “In the past we would have taken years and years to come up with the planning documents,” says councillor Farrell. “We hope to be looking at these completed documents within a year and a half. That’s a major accomplishment.”

Some days, Calgary can be a frustrating place for Rollin Stanley. He doesn’t understand local resistance to projects such as the Peace Bridge. “This is one of the surprises about Calgary,” he says. “Because there’s so much here, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about what other cities are doing to maintain their place in the world.”

Bike lanes are another example. In early 2014, city council approved a downtown network of separated bike lanes—but only after heated debate. “You’re sitting here thinking, it’s 2014 and we’re having this discussion that happened in so many other places a long, long time ago,” says Stanley. “This debate has been had enough times, and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour: This helps business. This helps the city grow. You can’t refute that anymore.”

But patience is required, and Stanley always comes back to the importance of broadening public dialogue. He goes about this with a marketer’s flair. Twice he’s led a mini film-festival at the downtown library called Baconfest, screening films by architect Ed Bacon (actor Kevin’s dad) and other documentaries on urban issues, and hosting Q&As afterward. And yes, there’s actual bacon—supplied by Charcut, a popular downtown restaurant. “We have to adapt how we do things to make it interesting to everybody,” he says.

Meanwhile, the effects of the Municipal Development Plan are starting to show. From January to November 2013, new housing starts in Calgary were split roughly half and half between single-detached and multi-family homes. Over that same period in 2014, multi-family accounted for 63 per cent of all new starts. And while many new migrants to Calgary are going to the outskirts, many inner-city communities also saw a population boost in 2014.

Stanley’s department scored a coup last October when city council opened the door to more mid-rise condo projects by allowing six-storey buildings with wood frames, following the lead of Ontario and BC. The building code previously capped wood buildings at four storeys for fire safety reasons. (The new buildings will have extra fire safeguards.) Before, anything taller than four storeys had to be concrete, which is expensive. Developers cheered the move, with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association calling it a win for all.

Developers are also warming to infill development. “I think the biggest shift we’ve seen over the last few years are some of those builders that were primarily focused on new communities have transitioned or are looking at opportunities in infill and redevelopment,” says Amie Blanchette, director of government affairs for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association–Calgary Region. Companies such as Cardel, Baywest Homes and Brookfield Homes have added infill construction to their portfolios in recent years.

The city has warned that each new family coming to town costs Calgary some $44,000 for such things as utilities, transit upgrades and fire services—and that these expenses don’t come with revenue to match. “We can’t sustain this level of growth from the tax base,” city manager Jeff Fielding told council last October. “There’s a delta between what we take in and what we spend, and that’s growing all the time.”

Now city hall is working on hammering out a new deal with developers to ensure the municipality’s financial sustainability. The current Standard Development Agreement, which sets levy rates, expires on December 31, 2015. Nenshi is seeking a “brand new way” of working with developers: He wants full cost recovery. Similarly, Stanley reiterates that it’s critical to capture growth costs now. “The story we’re trying to convey to council is that growth isn’t just a planning problem,” says Stanley. “It’s a finance problem.”

Cheri Macauley has been following City Hall closely, and says Stanley has successfully changed the conversation around the cost of growth. She likens pre-Stanley Calgary politics to the way climate change was discussed in the media for years: Some say this is an issue, others contend it’s not. “Now there seems to be more and more consensus in council and in the media,” she says. “We’re not talking about whether or not we can pay for this—now we’ve figured it out. The tone has shifted.”

All of Stanley’s talk about urban reinvestment may be changing how people see their city. While the Peace Bridge opened amid controversy over its cost in 2012, its downstream sibling, the $25-million St. Patrick’s Island pedestrian bridge, opened with no controversy last fall—just celebration. Stanley praised the latter as a key connection that will create more opportunities in the city. And yes—Stanley’s aunt came to appreciate the Peace Bridge a little more after he gave her that guided tour. No doubt he’ll keep working on her.

Jeremy Klaszus is a weekly civic affairs columnist for Metro Calgary. He’s also a stay-at-home dad and a regular freelancer.


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