Pride and prejudice

Or why developers and builders want to control city hall

So the municipal election season is heating up. Over the past two weeks we caught a rare glimpse into Calgary’s development industry with the release of a video featuring Shane Homes CEO Cal Wenzel picking winners and losers at city hall. Leaving aside the sordid aspects of this affair and the question of illegality the episode sheds light on some fundamental issues about how we govern and grow our city.

Three aspects of this unfortunate incident are particularly informative: self-interest so single-mindedly pursued the presumed infallibility of the market (when it is convenient) and the shorts-in-a-knot bluster at having citizens sit at a table Wenzel always thought was reserved for him and his buddies.

The not-so-subtle message from Wenzel is that the mayor and aldermen have no business meddling in the workings of the all-knowing market. After all they are merely the citizens’ elected representatives charged with steering our city toward the common good. But never mind how dare they even think they have the right to create policy to that end.

Even more galling: how dare they invite citizens to roll up their sleeves and take an active part in shaping Calgary. Wenzel and company will have none of that. They are perfectly capable of deciding how our city grows thank you very much.

Never mind that as they make decisions about where Calgary should grow they oblige the city to raise and spend tax dollars to provide the pipes the police the firefighters and the freeways that give value to their investments.

Most insidious perhaps Wenzel’s actions imply a cornerstone of market thinking that has found its way into democratic deliberation — the virtue of self-interest. Instead of an election being an opportunity for citizens to debate argue educate themselves and come to consensus about what is best for our city market thinking suggests we all just show up at the polls vote in our isolated self-interest and the common good emerges as if by magic from the ballot box.

Then there is the matter of whether these free-market defenders actually believe what they’re saying. One of the most vexing things for the development industry is city council’s slow but steady move towards eliminating the handsome subsidies developers have long enjoyed. The Strategy for Growth and Change makes it abundantly clear that for decades this particular industry has been enriched by billions of taxpayer dollars that help make it oh so profitable.

The market will decide. Really! Then how come the industry finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend its plan to build homes on land it purchased a generation ago? Most of those who buy a home in suburban developments were either yet to be born still in diapers not living in the city the province or even the country when that land was purchased and developers began the process of making sure it would be where Calgary families would live. The industry shapes the market at least as much as it responds to it.

The market is a valuable tool when deployed effectively but it is no substitute for critical thinking moral judgment and democratic deliberation. We need look no further than the tragedy in Bangladesh to see where unchecked market self-interest leads.

The industry claims it should be making the decisions because it is taking the risks when it plans communities and builds homes. Fair enough but as homeowners we have plenty of skin in the game too. We have to live our lives and raise families in these homes and neighbourhoods.

The industry claims that it is the expert. Unquestionably developers possess unique skills and expertise. But they are not public finance economists or public health experts. They have no special expertise in what constitutes quality of life or how to build social capital nor of the environmental effects of alternative ways of building homes neighbourhoods and cities. Every person who volunteers for soccer participates in the river cleanup sits on the board of a community association or arts agency or volunteers with the United Way is a builder of this city. Sadly the industry is loathe to make room at the table for any of this expertise.

To claim that city council is seeking to shut the industry out of city hall is absurd. Homebuilders and developers will be busy for decades to come designing neighbourhoods and constructing homes in suburban communities already approved by the city. What council and administration have been doing since the inauguration of imagineCalgary is making room at the table for diverse voices to be heard and in the process enabling more transparent well-considered decisions about the future of our city.

Developers and builders should swallow their misplaced pride put aside their prejudices and make room at the table with the rest of us.