Regina’s downtown rebirth: new plan supports walking, biking, living downtown

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 8 | Oct. 29 – Nov. 4, 2009

It’s been in the air for years, but the plan has finally come in for a smooth landing. The Regina Downtown Neighbourhood Plan: Walk to Work, has been in development since 2007, and was finally approved by city council on Sept. 22, 2009. The master plan for the downtown’s future has been the product of extensive consultations with residents, students, business owners, land owners, developers, and various other stakeholders in the downtown’s future.

The plan entails a broad range of initiatives, including public transit, priority for pedestrians and cyclists, and redevelopment of the area surrounding Victoria Park to encourage festivals and other cultural events. However, perhaps the most definitive and ambitious aspect of the plan is its chief slogan, Walk to Work: the drive to develop residential neighbourhoods around the downtown area, in order to make the downtown active throughout the day.

The plan was approved by the city’s planning commission several days prior to its ratification by council. The Leader-Post’s Joe Couture reported that the commission heard from various delegations; criticisms of the plan were mild, focusing on issues such as two-way street conversions and building height restrictions for some areas, parking, and the difficulties of walking to work in Regina’s harsh winters. Most of the delegations supported the plan.

Bob Bjerke, the city’s director of planning and sustainability, is very enthusiastic about the plan’s prospects: “We’ve had a lot of really good involvement from a whole range of people throughout the process, so it’s quite exciting … There’s broad community support behind [the plan], and we look forward to seeing some good outcomes.”

According to Bjerke, the key question we must ask ourselves is: “What is our downtown and how do we want it to be?” The downtown plan will take 20 years to complete, and the policies implemented over the next few years may shape the course of Regina’s social, cultural, and economic development for decades to come.

Walk to Work: housing options downtown

Why walk to work when you can drive? Because when everybody drives to work and nobody lives where the work is, nobody wants to hang around after five o’clock. This leaves a ghost town.

Regina’s downtown is overwhelmingly commercial, says Michael Huber, the executive director of the Regina Downtown Business Improvement District (BID). “20,000 people work downtown, but not many people live downtown.” This state of affairs has produced severe shortcomings in the downtown core, and so the downtown revitalization plan’s main thrust is to promote residential development in and around the downtown area.

The story of downtown Regina’s current crisis begins with the economic exodus in the 1990s. According to Huber, the economic downturn in the ’90s took a heavy toll on Regina’s job market, and the downtown as a result. “Everyone was rushing off to Calgary at that time. People were out of here at top speed.” Demographic outmigration meant that a lot of office space stood empty, and so many of those offices were converted for residential use. However, when the economy recovered, vacancy rates for both residential and office spaces were among the lowest in Canada. According to the CBC, Regina’s residential vacancy rate was 0.7 per cent in April, while the Leader-Post reported earlier this month that the retail vacancy rate is 2.7 per cent. Both represent a stranglehold on Regina’s development. Bjerke hopes that development projects will contribute to solving this crisis: “In the future, we’re looking to see more new construction happening in the downtown.”

While Huber and Bjerke both agree that extensive residential development will not solve this issue, it is a step in the right direction. Bjerke argues that the vacancy issue will ultimately have to be resolved by changes to the tax structure and incentive mechanisms. Huber is in favour of a separate comprehensive plan; he points out that in comparable cities, there is a “housing continuum” that provides a range of options from low-income housing to $300,000 condominiums, but that downtown Regina has few options for the middle class. “What you need to do is resolve the housing continuum and provide housing all the way through; you need to have apartments and smaller condos for artists and young professionals,” said Huber.

Development is already moving forward on a number of fronts. Condemned houses and vacant lots, particularly in the east end of downtown, are being repurposed and plans are being drawn. The Leader-Post reported on Aug. 13 that Westgate Development, a Regina construction firm, has been tasked with the construction of “Westgate Plaza,” an eight-story hotel and a 19-storey condominium tower that will be built on the current site of the Plains Hotel. It is the first design that will fully accord with the requirements and recommendations set out in the downtown plan. In fact, Huber says, the proposal was put forward even before the plan was formally passed; the new development will fully embrace the mixed-use values of the plan, as it includes restaurants and retail on the ground floor, as well as convention space.

However, Huber is disappointed by accelerating residential developments at the edges of the city, which he argues run contrary to the intentions of the plan. “These apartments are built out east of Jysk,” he said, referring to the retail outlet at the edge of the eastern commercial district along Victoria Avenue. “That, to me, is funny, because it goes against your administration, it goes against your official community plan, and in the end it ends up costing the city a lot over the lifespan of those buildings.

“We’d like to see some incentives specifically for downtown to get those apartments located in the area and start increasing the population downtown, because if you have a strong residential population, it starts to attack a number of issues.”

Those issues include security and safety concerns, which are another significant feature of promoting residence in the downtown. While the downtown core is fairly safe, the absence of a residential population means that the streets are often empty after the end of the regular work day, which Huber described as “kind of an eerie feeling.” The hope is that the presence of property owners, who have a vested interest in the neighbourhood, will make people feel more comfortable downtown.

Students living downtown… near a new campus?

While details are still sketchy and feasibility studies have yet to be finished, the Regina downtown revitalization plan has proposed that the U of R establish a downtown presence. While the university has no plans to close the College Avenue campus, it may establish a second adjunct campus downtown.

There are many reasons why the downtown would benefit from an adjunct campus, since increased student residence would bring immediate economic and cultural benefits to the area. Huber argues that “we need young people living downtown. If you have 150 people in the student housing facility downtown, that’s 150 people moving around, going out for dinner and going to bars.” Students would “activate” the streets, since they do not observe the nine-to-five workday. Living in or near the downtown would also make it easier for students to access part-time jobs, which would in turn benefit small businesses in the downtown core.

Life downtown would also benefit the students themselves, who would live adjacent to and become involved in cultural events such as folk festivals and the Farmers Market. As Bjerke pointed out, the downtown can be “a key hub for the whole community” and can provide a broad range of opportunities for volunteering and real world experience. Huber is interested in establishing networking events for mentorship, which would involve students meeting with business representatives, who would work in the students’ areas of interest.

Like the site on College Avenue, which hosts the Conservatory of the Performing Arts, this campus would offer programs that do not require the resources of the main campus. According to Dave Button, the university’s vice-president (administration), the university is “looking very seriously at developing additional space in the downtown core for appropriate University programs.”

Bikes, businesses, and building a new downtown

The Regina downtown plan covers almost 250 pages, ranging from general principles and goals to specific details and procedures. Here are several more aspects of the plan that will likely interest or concern U of R students.

Cycling and public transit

Regina’s spacious city streets and the winding paths around Wascana Lake already make for a strong cycling culture. With incentives for cyclists, such as employer amenities and an Annual Bike to Work Week, the city hopes to encourage the cycling culture.

As for public transit, the plan mostly focuses on enhancing public transit access in the downtown, rather than any radical extension of Regina’s transit system as a whole. However, transit use may increase as a result of more people and students in particular living in the downtown.

Small businesses

While the plan has not specifically focused on promoting small, independent businesses, a number of features suggest that the plan will be benefiting the little guys as well as the big guys. The drive for “vibrancy and activity downtown [will provide] more opportunities for retail activities,” said Bjerke. The plan offers clear support for cultural and artistic venues, and overall is concerned with creating a diverse and viable downtown. The Downtown BID, Huber said, will continue to support small businesses through collective interest; the Downtowner, the BID’s bi-weekly newsletter, provides free advertising for sales and events, in the interests of promoting the district as a whole.

Proposed dome stadium

It’s currently unclear how the recently proposed dome stadium, which would replace the aging Mosaic Stadium with a multi-weather structure, may affect the plan, although Bjerke said that the placement and design of a stadium would be examined “with reference to the plan.” Huber and the Regina Downtown BID are unsure of the proposed stadium’s potential economic impact, and are “a little bit on the fence,” awaiting the results of the feasibility study due in January. Indeed, it seems that while the economic arguments in favour of the stadium have been overwhelmingly focused on potential benefits for the downtown, it’s still not entirely certain that the stadium would necessarily “revitalize” the district.

Immediate challenges

What are the greatest challenges to the plan moving forward? Bjerke pointed out that the plan already has momentum: it has broad community and industry support, and major capital projects are proceeding, as are upgrades to the area around Victoria Park, and changes to the roads. The challenge, he said, is to maintain that momentum and know when to be flexible when some projects and initiatives may deviate.

Huber said that the challenges to implementing the plan are residential development, and hosting events that will draw people downtown. “If you can get 5,000 people living downtown, we’re going to be flying in 10 years. At the same time, we’re going to focus hard on tracking events in our area.” Fortunately, he said, Victoria Park is a “fantastic place,” perfectly suited to functions like the Regina Folk Festival. With larger, more frequent events, the downtown can only get better.

Full Feature Credits
Written by Alex Colgan
Photos by Tyler Dekok and the Regina Downtown Neighbourhood Plan

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