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We are approaching the halfway mark of the Downtown Rehabilitation Project. Underground infrastructure is upgraded, and new streets look great. This is a good thing. However, businesses have suffered. Some have closed their doors, and many others have taken a significant hit to their bottom line. There is no point having a great downtown if no businesses remain. We need to do better with future phases of this project.

Since launching my campaign in April, I have spent many days dropping in on downtown businesses. I went to learn from the dedicated owners, managers, and employees we have working downtown. A thriving core is important to me, and they know what is needed best.

 

THE SHORT VERSION

We need to finish replacing underground infrastructure eventually. But we need to do it at a time that makes sense for downtown businesses. When we do, we need to support businesses to the best of our ability. This means having rigour in our selection and accountability of contractors. It means making sure we undertake the project with an eye to minimizing the time any one business has access impediments. I’d like us to have someone on hand whose sole job is to communicate with businesses and monitor construction progress from a business perspective. We also need better communication with the public while we get creative with attracting people to use back alley accesses.

 

THE LONG VERSION

Downtown Rehabilitation So Far

The point of the work downtown is to replace underground sanitary, storm, and water networks. Since the streets have to be ripped up to do this, surface upgrades are being made as they are re-installed.

This underground work is vital. For example, see the following picture. This is from the 101 Street sanitary trunk line that services downtown and Avondale. The green pipe is a section of 750mm PVC. It replaced a 375mm clay pipe installed in 1938- the orange circle represents the original’s size.

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The work you have seen done so far represents phases 1 and 2 of the project. They are slated to be done this October at a cost of approximately $20,000,000. Phases 3 and 4 involve 100 Avenue from 102 Street to 98 Street. Our next Council will be deciding when and how to proceed with these phases.

When To Proceed?

This work does have to be done eventually. However, it is not urgent- we can hold off on it. Some want to do it right away, some want to wait a few years.

Those who want to do it right away argue that our city is currently used to construction downtown. They say we should just get it over with. They argue that seeing a few years of growth and vibrancy downtown only to have it disrupted again is poor planning. They also point out that work is likely to get more expensive as the economy picks up.

Others talk about construction fatigue. Customers and businesses are sick and tired of the hassle of construction. Worse, some businesses have been hit so hard that they are just barely holding on. These people argue that we need to give a few years of recovery before starting in on construction again.

Right now, I lean towards getting right into phases 3 & 4. However, I would need to see four things before voting to approve continuing work:

  1. This year’s construction finishing in the fall as promised. Administration needs to convince me we have the proper planning and processes in place to finish the next phases on time. If we can’t get this year’s work done on schedule, I’ll want us to spend the time needed to properly prepare for future work.

  2. Committed funding from senior levels of government. Right now, I do not support us taking on the debt needed to fund this entire project.

  3. Requests for contractor bidding being sent out in time for construction to start in the early spring.

  4. Downtown businesses clearly telling me they want to get the next phases over with as soon as possible. We need to move forward in careful collaboration with those who are affected the most.

Regardless of when we proceed, we need to do a better job of working with and for affected businesses. If you work downtown and would be willing to give me some time, I would love to hear your perspective on how to do that. Please reach out so we can set up a time.

Following are some ideas I have for helping downtown survive rehabilitation.

 

Selection and Accountability of Contractors

We need to set out an aggressive completion date when soliciting bids.

This is certainly one project where contracts cannot just be awarded to the lowest bidder. Bid scoring criteria need to include qualifications, references and past City experiences with contractors. This is one area where it is worth paying more to get great service. If an overdue project leads to us losing businesses, it will cost us more in the long run.

Once a contractor is selected, Council needs to hold it accountable through administration. Council should ensure that stiff penalties for exceeding timelines are built into contracts. It should be receiving regular progress updates. It should be communicating with business owners and managers to get their perspective on progress. Council needs to keep a close eye on downtown construction, ensuring that administration has the information, direction, and resources needed to demand accountability from contractors.

 

Limiting Access Disruption

There are different ways to proceed with construction. For example, you can tear up multiple blocks at once to make the entire project go faster or you can go block-by-block. When deciding on an approach, cost and total project length cannot be the only considerations. We also need to consider the average times and the longest times individual businesses will have their access disrupted. We should do everything reasonable to limit these times, even if it leads to a slightly higher total project cost or timeline.

We also need to be aware of the time “nice to have” aspects of beautification are adding to the project. If they are going to lead to significantly longer construction, they may need to be reevaluated.

 

A Business Advocate

As a project is underway, outside engineers are constantly monitoring it. They are making sure the contractor is following designs and accepted standards throughout the project. We should have someone who is giving a similar level of monitoring to the contractor’s impact on business. As part of the budget, we should hire someone whose job is to monitor and advocate for businesses.

We have open houses and other opportunities for owners and managers to interface with project staff. But these are often held at times when they can’t get away from their businesses.

This business advocate would take time to meet with owners and managers individually. They would show up well before the project started, go over plans, hear concerns, and leave a business card. They would drop in again just before breaking ground, and regularly throughout the project. They would personally contact affected businesses when a significant development occurred (ex: if the contractor had to redo some work). They would be the personal point of contact when businesses had questions or concerns.

This person would also monitor the contractor’s plans and progress on a daily basis. I’ve heard accounts of businesses losing all access or having their private parking lots dug up without anyone talking to them. This is because engineers and contractors are just focused on getting the job done, not on its impact on surrounding business. This advocate would be thinking about nothing but local impact. Their job would be to notice when the job was about to disrupt businesses. They would work with the contractor to minimize this disruption. They would also make sure that owners and managers were aware of any changes to planning that impacted them. The advocate's job would be to insure access, minimize disruption, and eliminate surprises to businesses.


Utilizing our Alleys

Even with front accesses remaining open, many customers will go around back. Many businesses will have weeks or months where their rely on `alley access. These accesses need to feel as safe and attractive as possible. Here are some ideas we should explore to make that happen:

  • Cleanup and repair alleys. Fix potholes. Remove garbage. Wash buildings. Ensure adequate lighting.

  • Take a picture of front windows or have an artist create stylized images. Make these into posters for stores to mount on their rear. Let’s embrace the absurdity of “window shopping” in a back alley and add some whimsey to it.

  • Throw “back alley parties” at the start of construction. Bring in some music, entertainment, and door prizes. Give people an excuse to visit. Many people have never been in a back alley downtown. If we can get them in once, they are more likely to come back.

  • Some businesses will need to temporarily move storage off-site to allow customer access from the rear. We should get creative and see if there is a space the City can make available to them free of charge. I would hate to see the cost of a storage locker added onto a business losing revenue due to construction.

  • Security patrols. Whether it is accurate or not, many people have a perception of alleys as dangerous. They will never go in them for this reason, especially in the evening and early morning. We should advertise that they are regularly patrolled.

  • Get people thinking about “alley shopping” at City events. At Municipal Government Day and similar events, find some great door prizes. People can enter a draw if they have a “back alley passport” stamped by five downtown businesses.

  • Provide signage. The Golden Star is a great example of a business making sure customers know how to access it. But a store shouldn’t be responsible for this. As part of our construction budget, I would like to see the City help provide directional signage for businesses.

Alleys are a big part of the footprint downtown. Making them feel more clean, pleasant, and accessible will not just help during construction. It will contribute to a long term impression of downtown as a clean, safe, and pleasant place.


Communication

Many city services suffer from poor communication. This is one of them. There are very informative open houses and email updates available. However, most people I talk to are not aware that these exist. While we are in the midst of any major project, large explanatory signs should be put up. Federal and provincial infrastructure projects are a great example of this. These signs should include the project’s cost, scheduled end time, and a simple web address to access detailed information. The public won’t be as quick to lose patience with downtown if it knows what is going on.

 

We need to support our downtown businesses as construction is underway. I’ve offered some of my ideas to do this. Now I would love to hear yours. Find me on Facebook, send me an email, or stop me to chat when you see me in the community.

-Dylan