Our struggle to build a new Church in Calgary

On a bright March morning in 2017, by the elevator in the City Hall atrium I met up with our upbeat, no-nonsense engineer Averil.  We were about to attend our first of several meetings with the Calgary planning team. Excited and optimistic we chatted as we waited for the meeting to start. We sat in an open space overlooking the atrium as the team of 5 planners gradually gathered around us. Looking back, this meeting forewarned us of the challenges we would face over the next three years.

The meeting progressed and my heart slowly sank as it dawned on me that this team did not like our application.  They explained reason after reason, 10 in all, why we could not develop a Church on our property. They talked about lifting a growth overlay and S-Fud zoning.   At the end of the meeting one planner seeing my bewilderment, waited behind to encourage us not to give up. He said there is a Mosque in the area with the same issues and they got approved.

The Islamic Center of South Calgary is an ambitious 10-acre project. Their planning process began in 2009 and mirroring ours, it was arduous. According to their website, they were just beginning to clear the site with volunteers last fall as they prepare for construction.

Our journey began with an idea and an opportunity.  The idea was to relocate our Church to the booming and under served new burbs of East Calgary.  The opportunity came when Hope Mission from Edmonton moved into Calgary and were looking for a facility to launch their ministry.  Our warehouse Church in the “hood” crossed all the T’s for them and a deal was struck in the fall of 2015.

We found our future home on Kijiji.  Four acres on the east edge of the new ring road in an area called South Shepard.  The land was part of a 12-acre parcel, formerly owned by the Province but annexed by the City when Stoney Trail was built.  To us it was the perfect gift from God for our future Church home.

Calgary is home to some of Canada’s finest award-winning building designs.  Downtown there is the geometric Studio Bell with its curves and inclines that incorporate the historic King Eddy. Straddling the C-train the swooping boat shaped new Calgary Central Library with is warm wood finishes is an amazing space.  It has won a dozen or more architectural awards.  Outside of downtown there are many beautiful structures like the Shane homes YMCA in Rocky Ridge.

In comparison, our project is a modest stylish and necessarily practical building.  At about 12 thousand sq feet, it is designed with distinctive roof lines, open and bright meeting spaces and thoughtful interior flow. Nevertheless, as Averil mused, the amount of engineering required on our project would rival some small housing developments she worked on.

Zoning Day

One of the best days for me in this journey was in March 2018, when we had our chance to share our vision with mayor Nenshi and the city council.  The day began with our chief architect, my sister sitting we me watching the City council live stream. We watched intently as the council deliberated on the 35 proposals before ours.   The council was moving quickly through the agenda and we had to race to City hall to meet Averil and our other architect Michael for our presentation. We finally all arrived just minutes before we were called.  The reception from council was so positive they did something unusual, the wrote us a by-law that very day.  They broke for lunch and when we came back with our zoning request it was approved almost unanimously.

We walked out of City Hall and down Steven Ave that day feeling a sense of optimism and accomplishment.  The folks at the planning department didn’t say much as this was not the outcome they had recommended. They were just following the City rules but an exception had been made.

The councillors had wondered about our community centre design because there was currently no community near us.  “That is where faith comes in,” I said, prompting a few chuckles. Three months later those same councillors would approve 14 new communities for the City of Calgary. The last one approved was Hotchkiss, a Hopewell community across the road from our new property! God is up to something.

Detailed Team Review

In the late fall of 2018 as winter was closing in, we gathered again in the upper halls of the planning department for what is called a detailed team review.  This was our chance to hear the planning department’s response to our initial Development Permit application.  When we submitted the application, I hopefully asked our planner what kind of time frame we could expect.  His standard reply turned out to be a gigantic understatement.  “We try to get DPs approved in 120 days,” he said, but added that the complexity of the application plays a role.  A month later he would further qualify that statement admitting that, there are challenges, with the application.

We had been forewarned that this first review would be ominous and Averil cautioned me. “The best approach is not to be alarmed about anything and listen to what they propose to do to allow this through,” she said. One planning officer also conceded that, “it looks daunting.”

This first review was a 20 page list of 70 prior to decision conditions.  It included such recommendation as planting native grass around the proposed soccer field because of the wetlands nearby.  The most expensive parts of the review were the requirements to turn our driveway into a City road and to upgrade a provincial intersection 5 kilometres away. The intersection upgrade is a cost we will share with the Mosque.  We paid for the traffic study that suggested the need for the upgrade.  We created the proposed design for the intersection upgrade and will pay for half its cost. Our information was used to decide how much we owned!  It reminds me of when Pharaoh forced the Israelites to pick the straw they’d use to make the bricks.

The conditions on storm water management were surprising.  The wetlands near our property caused a major landscaping revision.  “Surface ponding should be designed to contain all the flow generated from the 100-year storm events.” it stated.  Yes 100 years! Do we need a DeLorean time machine to go into the future, I wondered?   We would be digging a run-off pond and planting enough tress of various sizes to absorb rainwater not captured by the pond.  The building and parking lot were to be at least .3 meters higher than the proposed flood zone. We eventually ended up buying the topographical map for the whole area.  Nevertheless, the planning department did make several concessions which would save us over a million dollars on the project.

Within a month of this meeting our engineer submitted a request to increase our engineering budget.  Our architect too would require a budget adjustment as the number of drawings far exceeded their initial estimate.  All that winter our engineers and architects worked hard to complete these various requirements.

Ironically, it was on April fools of 2019 that we received our second team review from the city but this was no joke.  It contained another 18 pages and 60 prior to decision conditions. So, more revisions and calculations; moving a parking spot over a few centimetres and an entrance back a meter.  There were more drawings and more paper, lots of paper.

A builder once told me the City of Calgary has a department for the design of garbage enclosures.  I do not know about that, but our garbage enclosure will be amazing! The cost estimate is likely more than a double car garage. Hopefully, we can cut that cost down.

Conditional Approval

On July 5, 2019, I was sitting in my car in the Rona parking lot when my phone rang.  It was Michael, our diligent and humble Calgary architect.  I have some good news, he said, our Development Permit has been approved. A wave of relief swept over me as I realized we had made it through the worst of this struggle.

At times in this process, I felt like Moses going against Pharaoh and declaring “let my people go that they might worship me!” This day I just quietly offered a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord and called my wife Sandra with the good news.

Throughout those years our congregation experienced a wilderness wandering of our own. We had to relocate to a rental spot in a senior’s club in the community. We set up and packed up equipment each week had a small basement room for the kids and time limits.  Eventually, we were invited to merge with Avenue Church in Ogden. This was like a homecoming. It was just so good to be back in a building we could call our own.  This journey has stretched us but faith untried is like a muscle without exercise.

As I write this it’s a warm April day in Calgary.  People are shaking of the hibernation of the Covid 19 shut in.  Our public Church meetings now are cancelled and we do Church online. Some are wondering if we even need a building but I know this season will end and people will return to normal. Families will go out together, seniors will gather for brunch and young people will need a place to hang out.

We still have 4 prior to release conditions left of the 47 on our approval.  Our team plowed through the rest like they were playing football. They kept moving the ball up the field 10 yards at a time.  We are within scoring range now. Once those last conditions are met and our DP is released and I will be free from the world of conditions.  That is, until we get to work on the next permit.   Living with conditions is like driving downtown on 9th avenue when all the light keep turning red.  It can sound like a whisper in your ear saying, “you do not belong, you are doing it wrong.”  Conditions are a power play but in the end all power belongs to God.  No amount of restrictions can stop what he approves for all the promises of God in Christ are yes and amen.

I’m so grateful that God’s love is unconditional!  In a world governed by endless by-laws it can be hard to understand grace that is free.  Our relationship with God is not conditioned on our performance! This grace once grasped changes us from the inside out as God gives us a new heart and a desire to please him.

Life Goes On

Our neighbours to the east of our lot have now moved into their new house.  Their approvals were much simpler than ours.  A wonderful couple who are also engineers and are helping us with our building permit.  Averil is retiring in June, a little later than planned partly to help us finish our project.  Life goes on and we still have hope that one day soon our community centre Church building will be filled with the happy noises of children in the day care and families gathering on weekends for Church.

Our property will be fully developed, I am confident of that.  The street value of empty developed land in Calgary is a million dollars an acre. Ours will have cost a fraction of that.  We are blessed.

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. Psa 37:5