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Downtown Rehabilitation Conversations are Back

You may have seen that Downtown Rehabilitation is in the news again. On Tuesday, the Infrastructure and Protective Services Committee voted to have it discussed at Council's November budget deliberations. You can see the slides that were presented to Committee here.

Downtown Rehabilitation [so far] has NOT been about making the streets look nice. There was infrastructure (mostly under gound pipes) that was at the end of its life. While the roads were being dug up and replaced anyways, Council opted to upgrade the streetscape.

Phases 1 & 2 were done before I was on Council. I can't speak to them.

Phase 3 was done during my first year on Council. I voted in favour of it: pipes within it were failing, and they needed to be upsized to allow for new development. You can read about why I supported that phase here.

Last year, Council opted NOT to go forward with Phase 4 in 2019. I was supportive of this action. In retrospect, I'm very glad it didn't happen considering the rain we got this year: it would've made construction a nightmare. However, I didn't know what the weather would be. I voted against moving forward with Phase 4 because: A) I wasn't convinced the infrastructure needed to be replaced due to its condition, B) I wasn't aware of development opportunities which required larger pipes, and C) many businesses in Phase 4 told me that construction in 2019 would put them under. You can read more about my thinking here.

This November, Council will be debating whether to do more work in 2020. This would have a cost of either $16,180,000 (if we only do Phase 4, 100 Ave from Resources Rd to 100 St) or $21,460,000 (if we also do Phase 4A, 100 St from 99 Ave – 101 Ave).

As we discuss this, the main thing I’ll be looking at is the infrastructure.

Our City is facing fiscal pressure. We’re working hard to spend money more efficiently and target it better. We are likely facing big infrastructure cuts from the province. And RCMP unionization is going to lead to massive increased costs in the next couple of years. We need to be incredibly disciplined with spending right now. This year, we cannot be spending millions of dollars on “nice to haves.”

At the same time, underinvesting in basic infrastructure care and replacement is usually penny wise, pound foolish. If infrastructure needs to be replaced today, it is likely to cost a lot more to leave it to the future.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be learning more about the pipes, roads, and sidewalks in Phase 4 of downtown. I’ll support further work in 2020 if I become convinced that they actually need to be replaced right now. I’m very unlikely to support further work in 2020 if I become convinced there are other roads and pipes in worse condition.

One argument I’ve heard about downtown that concerns me greatly: “you should finish what you started.”

I get the sentiment. But the road this thinking can lead to is very concerning to me.

If we do Phase 4, there will still be parts of downtown with aging roads and sidewalks. If we keep on doing Downtown Rehabilitation phases just because we want everything to look the same: that is never ending work. And we cannot keep on putting millions upon millions of dollars into the core year after year.

Our current Council has been talking about downtown piecemeal. We’ve been debating it phase by phase. I think this is a mistake.

We should be having a broader conversation about where we see the future of downtown. How can we best support existing and new businesses? How can we attract increased development? How much upgraded infrastructure is needed, and what financial returns is it likely to bring?

There is a 2015 Recommendation Report which attempts to answer some of these questions. However, I don’t know if our current Council, current Downtown Association, and other community stakeholders still support it. I also think we are in a very different fiscal reality than we were in when this report was commissioned: I don’t know if its assumptions should still hold up.

One of my big barriers to supporting Phase 4 is I don’t know where people intend for the work to end. I’d be much more likely to support this phase of Downtown Rehabilitation if I had a better idea of where it fits into our overall strategy for downtown and for economic development.