Victoria Park Redesign

Mayor Pat Fiacco and posse announce City Square project

Big changes are in store for Victoria Park as the city takes the first step in its long-awaited and much-anticipated initiative to revitalize the downtown by transforming the park into a City Square that will serve as a focal point for community activity in the downtown. Together, the feds, province and city are ponying up over $7 million to realize the vision first articulated by Office for Urbanism during public consultations to develop a Downtown Neighbourhood Plan (DNP).

Progress on the DNP has lagged somewhat in recent months. In August, the plan is expected to go before the Planning Commission and City Council. But with a municipal election set for October, critics are worried that further delays are inevitable. Still, the tri-partite commitment to the City Square project is definitely a step in the right direction. Under the plan, 11th and 12th Ave are to be converted to two-way streets, with the latter capable of being closed to traffic between Lorne and Scarth to accomodate festivals and other special events. Steps are also being taken to curtail summer turf wars in the park.

As well, the Scarth Street mall might be opened up to traffic. Sacrilege? Not really. Unlike now, downtown Regina is to become uber-pedestrian friendly, so vehicle speeds will be limited to the 30 k.p.h. range, sidewalks will be widened and plenty of safe and convenient pedestrian crossings will be established.

Further details (albeit of poor graphic quality) are available here (City of Regina). Look for more in our July 2 issue.

The public discusses proposed changes. Some are excited, others complain about downtown parking.

Model of the new-look Victoria Park.


The Imperiled Municipal Policy Puzzle

Monday night's council meeting taught me one thing -- and it's something I've suspected for a while -- no matter how carefully and wisely drafted a municipal policy is, without constant vigilance (and occasional outrage and fury) from the community, politicians will happily allow developers to rewrite any parts they find inconvenient.

In the case of condominium conversions (backgrounder here), we have a policy that says they shouldn't be approved when the vacancy rate falls below three per cent. An exception clause is provided which says that the three per cent provision may be waived if 75 per cent of residents support the conversion and none of the residents feel they will suffer hardship as a result of it.

By passing so many condo conversions, council will argue (and has argued) that they are adhering to this policy. With each new conversion, they carefully make certain that they have the needed tenant support and that there are no outstanding letters of outrage from them. Fair enough. And yet, no one seems to recognize that the policy says that they "may" approve a conversion under certain circumstances. Not that they "must" or "will" or even "should." The suggestion in this language is that when the vacancy rate gets perilously low, conversions should be an occasional thing that happen only under extraordinary circumstances. Meanwhile, the stronger language in the policy is used to refer to the council's power to deny a conversion, saying that if the vacancy rate as determined by CMHC falls below three per cent, "a conversion application is to be denied" [my emphasis].

Can't get clearer than that.

And yet, while we have had a vacancy rate well below three per cent for the last two years at least, all but one condo conversion has been approved over that time.

Seems that in the mind of council that "may" and that "is to be" have been swapped around.

Be that as it may, in light of council's failure to protect Regina's rental stock, a community has gathered to oppose these conversions. Angry citizens have appeared before Regina Planning Commission and city council to express their concerns about affordable housing and the loss of rental suites to the tide of conversions sweeping the city's inner neighbourhoods. The opposition has even become more organized of late as the Regina Anti-Poverty Network has struck a housing subcommittee, its first order of business being to raise the alarm about condo conversions.

And while all this activism has only managed to stop one conversion, it has succeeded in improving the lot of those tenants who live in buildings that have been converted. To assuage the troubled conscience of council by mitigating any possible hardship their tenants could suffer, developers have been encouraged to include ever more progressive provisions in their tenancy agreements. To get to that magic "75 per cent of tenants approve of this conversion", they are now regularly offering lifetime tenancy to residents 70 years of age or older, three or five years of guaranteed tenancy, and -- remarkably -- rent controls ensuring tenants won't have to pay more than 85 per cent of market rent for a comparable suite. Lately, developers are being expected to guarantee that 75 per cent of their units will remain rentals. And a few developers are even offering rent-to own schemes and lifetime tenancy for long term residents.

There are problems with all this, obviously (and they're fodder for another blog post) but without a doubt, the tenants who face condominium conversion today are far better off than those who went through this a year ago.

Council and RPC can likely take some of the credit here for waving their power to deny a conversion in the face of the development community. And I've heard council repeatedly give credit to certain developers for coming forward with such generous residency packages.

But none of this would have happened if community organizers like Christina Luberti, Peter Gilmer and all the people who've protested and spoken out hadn't been constant thorns in the side of council.

So, while the condo policy isn't succeeding -- as written -- to protect the rental supply, it has been put to good purpose in protecting tenants.

Meanwhile, more than four hours into the same meeting, after most of the gallery had (understandably) emptied, council approved a 70 unit apartment building on E Quance Street.

Sounds swell. More rental stock on it way. Councillor O'Donnel even said of this development "this is wonderful, this is the way it should be."

As we blogged before, city administration had recommended denial for this apartment because it was planned for a commercially zoned area. They pointed out that putting a residential development there violated the Official Community Plan and that area's neighbourhood plan.

It has been argued (in this Leader Post article) by Garth Frederickson, the Bison Properties developer behind this apartment plan, that this is the "right project in the right place." He said that he doesn't adhere to "the old view that here's where this stops and this starts, and it's going to be homogeneous until we get to that point."

He makes the OCP sound like some kind of antiquated, social engineering document. But there are good reasons for zoning the east of the city the way it is. Not only does it protect the interests of businesses along the highway who set up shop expecting the area to be a commerical zone busy with car traffic lured off the highway, but it also serves to discourage the sprawl of residential out to the fringe of the city.

In their report on the Quance proposal, city staff even note, "there is not a current shortage of lands appropriate for high density residential development.... Vacant lands framing the downtown are specifically identified for such high density residential development in the draft downtown plan. Within various built-up communities there are various areas in transition where high density residential re-development would aid in revitalization of aged housing stock and mitigate population decline."

Mayor Fiacco, during discussion of this application, noted, "It would be different if we had ten applications before us... then we could be a bit more picky about which areas we want apartment's built, but that's not the case here."

Of course, one could argue that the whole point of having an Official Community Plan that outlines where residential developments should and shouldn't be built is so that when developers are casting their eyes about Regina and looking for lots on which to build apartments, they'll choose places that the city feels are more desirable while avoiding places that don't fit with our vision of what kind of city we want to become.

If it were to deny applications such this one on Quance Street, council would be telling the development community that we do not want Regina to become one of those cities that sprawls off ad nauseum toward the horizon. That we want to increase our density and build up population in areas that are already served by infrastructure.

Instead, at the end of discussion on the Quance Street development, council directed city staff to look into rezoning the area around it to accomdate more residential.

A perusal of apartment applications that have come in over the last 11 months suggests that developers have been trying to build such apartments on the eastern fringe of the city since 2003 at least. Now, thanks to a rental squeeze that makes any proposal to build apartments look apetizing, not only have they been granted their wish to build there, but the OCP will be changed so that no future applications of this sort will be breaking the rules. In essence, the developers have been allowed to rewrite the Official Community Plan.

And all this happened because of a lack of media scrutiny and community activism against such actions.

But don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming anyone in the community or the media even. It's hard to get upset about new rental units being built in the city, no matter where it is. But that doesn't change the fact that, thanks to projects like this one being encouraged, more and more of Regina's lower and middle income renters will be shunted off to the fringe of the city. And, more ominously, council has demonstrated that they are unwilling to enforce plans and policies that, when the chips are down, become inconvenient for the development community.

If you care about the vision for this city that's being laid out in things like the Downtown Plan and the Core Community plan, then this should be a worrying development. In the draft Downtown Plan, for instance -- and especially in the Built Form Framework -- there are many provisions that over time may be seen by developers as too restrictive.

One wonders if this council will have the stones to hold developers to the high standards this plan is trying to set.

Six In The Morning

1 WE HAVE TO BUILD A NUKE PLANT. HAVE TO. I MEAN COME ON, GUYS Cameco's Jamie McIntyre says Sask's gotta go nuclear. The uranium company's vice-president of environmental leadership, speaking at a Regina Chamber of Commerce meeting, says Saskatchewan's uranium is too important not to develop. "In fact, nuclear power may be the quintessential sustainable development technology,'' the Leader-Post quotes him as saying. Editorial comment: you know, more than a few people whose companies DON'T stand to make money from the Saskachewan government's atomic boner have different ideas on that "sustainable" stuff.

2 NURSES AGAINST NUKES The province's nurses don't want a nuclear reactor and they've got the research to prove it's a bad idea. But they also don't want an isoptope reactor, which I'm not sure is a wise political position. "Our concern is for Saskatchewan, and let other countries take on that development," said Rosalie Longmore, head of the Saskatchewan Union Of Nurses. A little too NIMBY for my tastes. (CBC)

3 CONTROVERSIAL UNION LIKES CONTROVERSIAL LAW The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) gets behind Bill 80. (The StarPhoenix)

4 CITY CENTRE PLAN ON PARADE The City's Centre Square scemes will be unveiled today in Victoria Park. The public is invited to attend the viewing, which goes from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the park's east side. The Leader-Post has a two-sentence story on its website about this here--in case you think I'm LYING and you want verification. (Also a nice lady e-mailed me a press release, so it's all for true--for reals you guys!) now hopefully the event won't be crashed by gangs, assholes or other hyper-testosteroned malcontents. (CJME)

5 IRAN CLUSTERFUCK SHAMBLES ALONG And onward march the thugs and thiefs. They're killing prostestors. They're arresting political opponents. They're even scapegoating soccer stars. Plus, a report I heard on CBC this a.m. but can't find a link to at the moment said the government is bringing in a notorious torturer--implicated in the case of a raped and murdered Canadian journalist a few years back--to extract "confessions" from demonstrators. See? See? Supreme Leaders and religious governments ARE ALWAYS A BAD IDEA.

6 BUSINESS IS BOOMING Canada is a top supplier of ecstacy, says the United Nations (Globe And Mail). And apropos of that, here's Lily Allen's thoughts on drugs, from the awesome album It's Not Me, It's You: