A Suburb Too Far?

City and RM clash over plans for future growth

by Paul Dechene

sherwood

Regina is set to expand its borders now that city council has passed its Sustaining Long-Term Growth plan at its June 10 meeting. It will now begin the process of annexing significant parcels of land outside its current boundary — primarily in the northwest and southeast — thus laying claim to the space needed to accommodate a future population of 500,000.

It sounds like an ambitious plan considering Regina’s current population is only 193,000. But as city staff point out, the annexation plan is long term, and the goal is to protect territory that will eventually be needed for development decades down the line.

That said, several delegations, such as John Hopkins, Regina & District Chamber of Commerce CEO, and Blair Forster, vice-president of development for Harvard Developments, stated that they see an immediate need to open up serviceable land.

Forster also pointed out the danger of not undertaking an ambitious annexation plan now: developments will begin to spring up outside city limits and Regina won’t have any control over how they’re built. And even if they look nothing like the walkable, sustainable, mixed-use communities being discussed in the Design Regina process, we’ll still have to provide services and infrastructure for them.

In late May, the Rural Municipality of Sherwood unveiled an Official Community Plan that contemplates significant development on Regina’s borders, much of which would occur on land city council intends to annex. Sherwood also announced plans to develop a residential community on Regina’s southern edge called Wascana Village with a population of 14,000.

It’s exactly the kind of announcement that should set off alarm bells for anyone concerned about uncontrolled suburban sprawl outside the city.

You’d almost think council timed their annexation* report to throw cold water on Sherwood’s OCP and Wascana Village plans. However, in an interview before the council meeting, Mayor Michael Fougere denied that was the case.

“It’s not a response to their OCP. It’s a well thought out, strategic, long-term discussion that’s been provided to the RM of Sherwood and council for some time.”

When asked if Wascana Village represented the kind of undesirable sprawl that council would like to discourage, Fougere said it was difficult to comment on the project when so little is known about it.

“We didn’t learn about it until the media conference. We were not informed of that. And our staff was asked to leave the room when the media conference took place. [So] we’re still analyzing what this means,” he says.

“We never anticipated seeing this. This is an urban development. [Wascana Village] is just under the size of Swift Current. It’s another city attached to our city.”

Then again, with Regina growing quickly and in need of housing, maybe it’s time to say “Long-term planning be damned!” and get behind Wascana Village. How much harm could it do?

To answer that question I spoke with Jeff Speck, a city planner and co-author, with Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, of Suburban Nation. He’s also the author of Walkable City.

Speck says the first thing to examine when evaluating a project like Wascana Village is the economics. “What are the costs going to be to the city of the many services that you maybe haven’t thought about that you’re going to be providing? And how can the city be compensated for those costs?” he asks.

“The experience in most of America is that when new suburbs are built, the developer fees and then the taxes from the residents might create a short term financial gain. But [in the] long term, the costs of eventually repairing and potentially replacing the infrastructure outweigh the cash coming in.”

At the same time, Speck notes that while he is a critic of suburban development, he’s also spent much of his career working on developments similar to Wascana Village. But, he says, they were all mixed use, walkable, complete communities.

If a city is currently building unsustainable, car-focused sprawl, Speck says, a properly designed new town built outside its traditional borders can make sense.

“If you’re building no sprawl, then there’s less justification for a positive model of suburban expansion,” he says. “[Also], is there ample opportunity for a similar project closer in? Does the city need to grow in this way? And can a person who wants to buy a free-standing single-family home find one at a reasonable cost within city limits, and ideally towards the centre of town?”

If a greenfield community can be justified on those grounds, the next question is whether the new town is actually going to be walkable and mixed-use.

“From the size of the lots, to the width of the streets, to the setbacks of the homes, to the density of the dwellings, to how different densities are organized with respect to each other, to the location of parking, to the provision of transit, that all will cause it to be a principally walkable or principally automotive community,” says Speck.

And while he says we’re lucky that this new development will be built at a time when urban design is trending towards re-urbanization and not suburbanization, he also says there are only a handful of designers in North America with the skills to do a development like this properly.

“I’ve learned that the typical skill of a contemporary land planner is so low that it’s hard for these to turn out well unless they’re done by a maestro,” he says.

It all comes down to this: whom do you trust to build the best Regina? Do you trust city hall when they say their soon-to-be-released Official Community Plan will promote walkability, density and complete neighbourhoods? Do you trust Blair Forster when he says all of Harvard’s future greenfield developments will embody those ideals as well? Or do you trust the RM of Sherwood when they jump on the bandwagon and claim Wascana Village will be a healthy, live/work community?

Or do you trust nobody — and hope that when the dust settles 20 years from now that things haven’t been irreparably cocked up?

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* Annexation is not expropriation. With annexation, the city merely works out agreements with landowners and the RM to expand its boundaries. The city then provides services to the properties that now fall within its new border while taxes collected from those lands go into the city’s coffers. The city does compensate the RM for the property tax it will forego from losing this land, however. So far, the city says, it’s received notice from 17 RM property owners who want the city to annex their land. For many, the motivation is that Sherwood simply can’t provide the necessary services to develop their properties.

2013-06-13