In the home stretch of the civic election campaign, candidates in Ward 11 may have thought their toughest questions were behind them, but the crowd the candidates faced was not going to let them off easy at the final forum on Thursday night.
The forum — held at Nellie McClung school by the Palliser, Bayview and Pump Hill Community Association — was attended by more than 200 residents who brought their questions and concerns to all five candidates – Robert Dickinson, Janet Eremenko, Jeromy Farkas, Linda Johnson, and Keith Simmons.
Though a wide range of issues were discussed, two seemed to dominate the night: The Southwest Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project and the issue of densification.
The Southwest BRT— one of four new bus routes planned to provide transit to numerous underserviced areas in the city — was brought up twice over the course of the night, provoking strong audience reaction.
Farkas — who lives in Palliser — was the only candidate who voiced opposition to the Southwest BRT at the forum and promised to halt the project if elected. When he proposed his alternative, a direct bus line from Woodbine to Mount Royal University, the crowd cheered in agreement.
Dickinson, Eremenko, and Johnson all voiced their support for the BRT, while Simmons talked more broadly about transit issues.
A submitted question read out by the forum moderator regarding the cost of the BRT became a source of tension at the forum.
The question revolved around how the cost of the entire BRT project is expected to exceed its $208-million budget, and the stance of the candidates as the BRT moves into the next phase.
However, the question did not cite where the supposed budget numbers came from and when Dickinson said he would need to see the source of the numbers to properly respond, a female audience member rose from her seat and brought him a sheet of paper.
Dickinson responded to the woman by reiterating that he had heard the numbers, but needed to understand their source. The woman went back to her seat, shaking her head as the issue was quickly moved along.
The question of densification asked candidates to defend their idea of a reasonable amount of growth, and explain how they would preserve the character and livability of affected communities during the process of densifying.
Dickinson highlighted the pride he feels residents of Ward 11 have for their communities, particularly those represented in the forum. However, he did note that the ward’s population has been declining and in order to keep communities thriving, there needs to be sustainable and fiscally responsible growth within already established areas.
He also encouraged densification in particular pockets of the ward, such as corner lots at 14th Street and 90th Avenue, Southland Drive and 24th Street, and Southland Drive and Macleod Trail, saying these lots would provide opportunities while maintaining the fabric of the community.
Dickinson’s answers prompted one man in the audience to speak out, shouting “I don’t understand how you can say that.”
Farkas said a councillor shouldn’t decide future community development. Instead, he said residents should have that power.
“I’m running against this top-down, social engineering mentality from city hall that is dictating how we should live our lives rather than responding to our needs,” he said.
Farkas said he wants to make it easier for communities like Palliser to contribute to their own Area Redevelopment Plan, and he wants to revisit the Municipal Redevelopment Plan and Road Ahead Plan.
Eremenko jumped on the chance to use Farkas’s words against him.
“I don’t think planning for the future is social engineering. I think it’s responsible government,” she said, earning a round of applause and some cheers.
As for Eremenko’s ideas on the topic, she said she wants to stop the trend of single-use development and explore multi-use planning. She noted that this would ensure residents don’t lose cherished green space within the community, and will contribute to gentle and modest densification.
Johnson said she wants to learn from the area’s previous experiences when it comes to new development, such as when three high-rises were built in the community of Palliser.
”New development should complement the existing community, [and] should be within the infrastructure that we have…. and any redevelopment has to respect the quality of life of the residents of the community,” she said.
Simmons noted that the area already has a combination of single-family homes, condos, and apartment buildings which contributes to its character and ability to continuously adapt to densification.
He also wants to maintain the balance of schools that he currently sees, “so people can remain in the community that they grew up in, that they like to live in, and that they don’t need to leave.”
Editor: Tyler Ryan | Tryan@cjournal.ca