A Tale of Three Cities
Three cities with different building stocks and histories tackle urban renewal with equally different approaches.
Regina: building it up
“Regina has never had a master plan before,” says Mayor Pat Fiacco. “Before this, everything was done on an ad hoc basis.”
What’s so great about a plan? For starters, it’s hard to put a budget together without one. “Most municipalities attempt to be strategic, but budget pressures make that very hard,” says Fiacco.
Two years ago, the City brought in Toronto-based Office for Urbanism to start creating a master plan for the downtown, a process that engaged councillors, the city planner, civil engineers, and members of the business community.
One of the plan’s many proposals is a $386-million entertainment facility that would be built across the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in a space currently filled with shipping containers. New public spaces would be developed around the entertainment facility. The area would link to the downtown via three new pedestrian connections, including one bridge that could become a destination itself. The intention is that the area would be busy every day, not just event days. The report notes opportunities for mixed residential and commercial development near the facility.
“This has so much spin-off for other redevelopment,” Fiacco says. Already, the master plan has prompted developers from outside Regina to come to the City with plans for residential towers and commercial space. Office for Urbanism’s Jennifer Keesmat says Regina’s master plan took the city from having a very weak regulatory framework to a very strong one, something that actually attracted developers, rather than turned them away. The city has had interest from Vancouver and Toronto developers because they see the promise of an environment where quality will be expected.
The interest came, according to Fiacco, because the City has a plan that shows developers what the outcomes are going to be and why they should invest. The City saves developers time and money by telling them what’s expected of them in the areas that are open to development—and what they can expect in return. Namely, quality neighbouring developments that have been held to the same standards.
Fiacco says, “Council has to have the courage to create that partnership with the developers—to work with the developers and collectively come up with a solution knowing the rules of engagement.”
It also takes courage to put a price tag on all of this growth. Fiacco says council has to make a decision on where the financing comes from for various projects. Some comes from the taxpayers, and some come out of new development fees. For example, a development on South Regina’s Harbour Landing is generating revenue that will go towards the downtown redevelopment.
Brantford: tearing it down
Recently, the city of Brantford, Ontario announced its plans to demolish and remove 41 structures from the south side of downtown Colborne Street. The structures themselves date from 1850 to 1915 with the section stretching from 115 to 139 Colborne comprising one of the longest surviving collections of pre-confederation buildings in Canada. You can almost hear Toronto architect Les Klein saying, “Think of the embedded energy!”
Can the buildings be salvaged? An environmental assessment is currently underway as a condition to getting $1.38 million from the federal government for the demolition. That may provide some answers.
Certainly, something needs to be done in this dying—or possibly dead—neighbourhood. As of August 2009, vacancy rates along Colborne Street are more than 40 per cent, with the southeast corner around Queen and Colborne Street supporting the greatest number of vacant buildings. Official records from a recent meeting chaired by Brantford Mayor Mike Hancock say, “Although vacancy rates in downtown Brantford are high (approximately 20 per cent) relative to the rest of the city, it is particularly apparent along Colborne Street. Where at-grade vacancies exist, the overall perception created is one of blight, which is a discouraging sign for potential future [development].”
The feeling among city staff is that the high vacancy rates and deteriorating condition of the buildings set for demolition undermines the city building efforts and financial commitment of Harmony Square and its adjacent buildings and is a “major impediment” to the redevelopment of the downtown.
And the expropriation is part of an official downtown master plan—a plan that won the OPPI’s Award for Planning Excellence in 2009.
In March, the City ran a design workshop for that section of Colborne Street. Sandra Lawson with the City’s engineering and operational planning department says part of the public meetings and workshops was deciding what new developments would best fit in the soon-to-be vacant spots. Options include a YMCA, a sports complex in cooperation with Brantford’s two university campuses and a local college, and a residential development proposed by Wilfred Laurier University. There’s also speculation about a riverside corner lot being filled with condos.
Lawson says the planning department will put out a request for proposals once all the public consultation is done. She, along with other city officials, seems certain that developers will jump on the opportunity to build on open land that’s in the downtown core and overlooks the river.
Fiacco says vacant land will be developed as long as a city has a thoughtfully developed plan. “You have to know what kind of a downtown you want first,” he says. Years ago, a number of vacant buildings in Regina were demolished with the same intention to attract new development. They stayed as surface parking lots.
Keesmat, who worked on Regina’s master plan, adds that an area plan needs to take adjacent areas into account. “The trap with planning is to think on a site-by-site basis without considering context or connectivity to larger things like transportation.”
Lawson says Brantford’s master plan has taken context into consideration. “There’s already excellent transit in Brantford’s downtown,” she says, “and a [class] environmental assessment is currently underway to look at taking Colborne and Dalhousie from one-way to two-way streets to promote more business in the downtown.” Philips Engineering (recently merged with AMEC) is doing that study and should have a good idea by this summer of whether a two-way road conversion is feasible and, most importantly, what it would cost. There are also plans to expand inter-city transit with new GO buses by 2012.
Detroit: autos to agriculture?
If Waterfront Toronto can return marshland to the West Donlands, Detroit can go from urban to semi-rural. The rumour circulating is that the City, which plans to demolish 10,000 residential structures by 2014, will convert 140 square miles (363 square kilometres) of land from empty buildings to fruit trees and vegetable farms. The city that once defined industrial land as an auto industry hub would become pockets of urban space in a green, semi-rural landscape.
Don’t get too excited. A spokesperson for the City says a land-use plan is in the very early stages of development and, while they are “open to hearing proposals from any group,” no official plan is in place.
The City certainly can’t exist in its current state. Detroit has 78,000 vacant houses (nearly one in five), and with population likely to be down around 700,000 by 2020, it doesn’t look like they’ll be needed.
Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing, has been lobbying Washington for support, and in January, Detroit was awarded $40.8 million for renewal work. The federally funded Detroit Housing Commission supports Bing’s plan.
In his March 23 State of the City Address, Bing said the plan to demolish 10,000 “dangerous residential structures” is the first step in a process to work out a better use for those 140 square miles. “The harsh reality is that some areas are no longer viable neighbourhoods with the population loss and financial situation our city faces. This is about determining what areas of our city are best suited for residential use, commercial and industrial businesses, parks and green space.”
While they’re considering proposals from park space to urban food production, the City is nowhere near ready to go rural. A spokesperson for the city says, “Private companies [like Hantz Farms] that are trying to work with the City to develop farmland are using the media to get the word out about their ideas.”