Every single morning my daughter and I walk past the site of a former Dairy Queen on Centre Street on the way to her bus stop. We often talk about the fire that ended its life. One day it was there, the next there were fire trucks and the next it was a burned-out husk of a building. A few months later we watched it being torn down, and for more than a year we’ve walked by the empty lot and talked about what could be there, what the owner of the lot is thinking about, or why nothing has been built yet.

Yesterday the news broke that the owner wants to rebuild but their application has been denied by the City of Calgary. Why? Well, the application is reportedly to rebuild more-or-less what was there before and it meets the specified land use for the site. And yet it was denied because it does not meet the City’s Main Streets Plan. If you think that makes no sense, you’re right.

Let me first say I agree with the goals and spirit of the Main Streets Plan. As someone who lives only a few blocks from this site, we want places and businesses to be able to walk to. (I remember when our community association worked with University of Calgary environmental design students to brainstorm possibilities for Edmonton Trail the number one request was: a coffee shop. “Just give us a coffee shop to walk to, please!” That’s it. They could have had anything they could dream of and that was their biggest wish, and it felt a world away from ever happening.) The plan has many wonderful ideas in it, I am supportive of it and glad we have it to help guide future development of these Calgary streets. I can’t wait to see the transformations that occur because of it.

Transformations do not occur during planning exercises, however. They occur through individuals choosing to align to the plan and that’s why the owners of this site find themselves at a frustrating cross-roads. But here’s the rub: the Land Use Bylaw says the owners are allowed to build a drive-through restaurant.  

“The plan says ‘no’ and the bylaw says ‘yes’?” Yup. “But that’s stupid.” Yup. When I worked at The City this is a classic example of what Administration is dealing with. Over time City Council has created many of these confusing, bureaucratic chicken or egg scenarios. (I remember after Council approved the City’s Digital Strategy I was the rain on the parade at the governance committee meeting where the directors were celebrating its passing when I said, “but you know it’s not worth the paper it’s written on, right?” We had a plan that said one thing but policies that said something else. They promptly tasked me with updating the policies to create a better balance between transparency and privacy, which I was able to do while learning more about how the City works than you can possibly imagine, but that’s a story for another day and I’ll return to the main point.)

The Land Use Bylaw also sheds some additional context on the plight of this Dairy Queen that I think is critical to know: every development starts and ends with what the owner of the land wants to do with it. It’s their land and they have the right to do with it as they please. (Within reason.) The bylaw states what is allowed on that site and if the owner wants to do something that aligns with that the City can’t stop them. It doesn’t matter what the plan document says. (See the Guidebook for Great Communities’ much ado about nothing brouhaha from last month.) If you want to see what the strategy or plan calls for become a reality you have to change the policy/bylaw to allow it. And in this case, that has not happened. They can build a drive-through and should be allowed to build a drive-through. What the City planner or ward councillor thinks about drive-throughs is utterly irrelevant despite their ability to deny what the owner wants to do. If the planner or councillor wants to enact the plan, then they should update the bylaw. Until then: back off.

A personal favourite example of where the desire of a landowner and The City’s visionaries have come into conflict can be found nearby this Dairy Queen on the 400 block of 31 Avenue NE. The road was created around 2005 and the landowners on 30 Avenue were allowed to subdivide their lots. This undeveloped land, right across from a school, was deemed a perfect place for medium density development and was codified as such in the local area redevelopment plan which was approved by Council in 2006. The neighbours didn’t all like the idea of higher density next to them however and one resident took action. As lots were subdivided, he would buy one, build a single-family home, sell it, then use the funds to buy the next one once it was subdivided and came on the market. Just last month our community association’s planning review committee supported his development application for the final lot on the block. It was an incredible act of patience that took him almost 15 years to accomplish – he probably lost out on an extra million dollars in the process all to ensure his parents didn’t live near an apartment building. I applauded him for it at the meeting. The City found a perfect spot for higher inner-city density, the majority of the residents of the community supported it in the ARP process, but he put his money where his mouth was and made his vision a reality. The result is not what the City or neighbours originally expected but we now have a street of million-dollar homes with amazing views, adding to the diversity of our community.

The owner of the Centre Street site is similarly leaving a boatload of cash on the table by wanting to build a drive-through rather than a multi-use five-storey building (for example). That may not be rational to you or me but that is their choice. It’s their land and they should be supported in their choice. My opinion on their choice – or yours, or the City planner or the ward councillor’s – should have no bearing. Let them build their Dairy Queen.

My daughter and I will be there for a chocolate-dipped cone in its first week of operation.