Some Unfinished (Ranty) Business

Tomorrow night, we’ll have a new mayor and a new council. I’m really enjoying covering the election and will be sad to see it end. But as I mentioned on Twitter last night, it would seem I’ve put on some weight while covering this election. I’d like to think that it’s because democracy is fattening. That way, the problem would be out of my hands. But in truth it’s probably because when I’m up late writing I stupidly occupy my body during those stretches when I’m staring at a screen and thinking by eating.

If I was smart I’d swap out the 1 AM raisin bran with ice cream (what? we were out of milk) for gin (if it’s transparent it doesn’t contain calories, right?) but then good luck getting up in the morning to play with the kids.

When you start showing up at the local moms’ group smelling like a distillery, that’s when social services gets involved.

Yeah. If drinking gin at 1 AM in the middle of the week is starting to sound like a rational solution to my paunch, maybe it’s for the best that the election is wrapping up.

Anyway, in addition to noticing a growing democracy-induced bulge forming around my mid-section, it also occurred to me that I have collected all this city hall dross in my head — tidbits and miscellany about issues and projects that bug me — that’s going to be worthless once the new council comes into power. I can’t saddle all these newbs and greenhorns with years-old beefs they know nothing about.*

So I’m going to have to get everything off my chest now. Below the fold because it’s going go on for a very, very long time.

Consider it a system purge so I can approach our next council all bright-eyed and fresh as a new-blossomed daisy.

* * * * *

THAT PLAZA PART ONE: WHERE DID ALL THE CARS GO?

The public explanations for why the plaza was not until recently opened to traffic never sat well with me. When I asked the mayor about it, he said that council’s decision to keep it closed was inspired by feedback from the public. And while I have encountered a lot of people who believe strongly that the plaza should have remained pedestrian-only and communicated that to their councillor, I also know that just a couple of weeks before council decided to keep the plaza car-free pending the results of Phase One of the Downtown Transportation Study, city staff were actively preparing to open the plaza to cars. They were even spending money to get that done.

Then all of a sudden, the original plan was reversed.

That just seemed……… odd.

And it’s worth noting that the vote to keep the plaza closed to cars was not unanimous. And based on some of the contents of an Access To Information request that prairie dog made several months ago, behind the scenes, things were more than just not-unanimous, they were downright contentious.

Here’s an email from October 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm from Jason Carlston, Deputy City Manager of the Community Planning & Development Division, to Glen Davies, City Manager.

Glen,
I don’t know if your BB receives emails while in the REDACTED, but here is the update. Council, through the private meeting, agreed to keep it closed. Nevertheless, it was time for them to express displeasure and I am exhausted from the pummelling. The outcome is the right thing, and that provides some light on this experience, and we will be working on the full communication plan, engaging the properties in the vicinity and the BID before it goes public. I will debrief with you on this when you return (the scheduled Council date is Nov. 8th).
Have fun.
jason

Have to say, this is interesting but really doesn’t shed light on why reversing the plan to open the plaza to cars was “the right thing.” But I do think it’s interesting that staff took it upon itself to convince council that that’s the course of action they should be taking.

(That’s one private meeting I really wish I could have sat in on.)

So, was it city admin deciding to take a pummeling on behalf of Regina’s pedestrians? Or did someone at the “political level” instruct staff to explore keeping keeping the plaza closed?

Impossible to say. Especially since prairie dog requested a whole schwack of e-mails from city hall from around the time this decision was being made and most of them weren’t released. I suspect we’re missing all the best bits of the decision process.

Anyway, the Bakkeli report hints that there may have been more serious reasons for why staff wanted to keep the plaza pedestrian-only.

There are concerns about safety on the plaza due to design changes (e.g. street configuration, removal of bollards and tactile changes to delineate vehicular and pedestrian zones). Concerns have been expressed about the potential impact of vehicles and related maintenance requirements on the pavers and the artistic lights.

But the Bakkeli report gives very little detail as to what those safety concerns are. Nor does it specify what exact design changes were implemented, by whom, and how they impacted safety.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough as cars are on the plaza now — in the most half-assed, useless way — so if there are safety concerns, they’ll be revealed shortly.

Or maybe, people will just get accustomed to how traffic is meant to flow through that space and everything will be fine.

Who knows?

Oh! One last fairly important point on that Bakkeli report before moving on… It is worth noting — as the Bakkeli report itself does — that the Executive Sponsor for the City Square Plaza project — that is, the guy who seems to have led the City Square Plaza project from start to completion — was also the city administration liaison with T Bakkeli Consultants Inc in the preparation of their review of the City Square project management. You can find that information on page 4 of the Bakkeli report which you can find on the city’s open government website.

And who was the Executive Sponsor of the City Square Plaza project?

That would be the Deputy City Manager of the Community Planning & Development Division.

* * * * *

THE GORDON BLOCK IS COMING DOWN

We reported ages back that Harvard has applied to the city to tear down the Gordon Block, the building that used to house Novia Cafe.

We also reported that because that building is in the Victoria Park Heritage Conservation District, it is essentially afforded all the protections of a heritage building. That means it can’t be torn down without council giving the okay. And it can’t even be considered for demolition without the land owner submitting a plan for the site beyond just tearing the building down. Plus, because it’s in the downtown, Harvard can’t just turn it into a surface parking lot.

What we haven’t made a big enough deal out of though is that, because the Gordon Block is in a heritage conservation district, the city has the power to compel the land owner to maintain the building. In other words, that building should have never gotten to the point of dilapidation such that it needs to be demolished. What’s more, if the city wanted, they could force Harvard to get the building back up to a useable state.

But they’re not doing that.

Instead, last we’ve heard, they are waiting for Harvard to complete their development application. Because as it stands, that application is missing some vital element that would allow city admin to pass this application up to council.

In the meantime, the Gordon Block is sitting empty and unmaintained. Perhaps they’ll let it rot long enough it falls in on itself.

On the other side of the plaze, meanwhile, the Mason Temple, which is of a similar vintage, has just been declared in great shape by their engineers. As a result, the Masons decided to continue using their building and not sell it to the library to demolish to make way for a bigger library.

Now, what did the Masons do with their building to keep it in tip-top form that Harvard didn’t do with the Gordon Block? Hmmmmm…. I wonder.

* * * * *

THE STADIUM PART ONE: A STADIUM IS NOT HOUSING

I know everyone just assumes I’m ideologically opposed to the stadium (that ideology being Antifootballtarianism) and would reject any plan that was brought forward. But actually, I’ve been going back and forth on this one.

What really bugs me is that everyone is trying to sell this stadium as something other than what it is. The stadium is not a housing plan. It’s a stadium. It’s a big-ass, stupidly expensive building that is used to host sporting entertainments. That’s it. I don’t care how much you love the Riders, they aren’t the city’s spirit, they aren’t the glue that binds, they’re a football team. And football is a game. A game. It’s Dungeons and Dragons with pads, helmets and cheerleaders. And a worrying number of concussions for the participants.

That’s it.

And I’m okay with spending whacks of cash on entertainment. Games are good. Games are fun. Games are one of the reasons why life is worth living alongside books, movies, music and sex.

But games aren’t houses for the homeless or charitable donations for sick kids. So can we at least keep those separate?

And let’s also acknowledge that no city ever, EVER, makes back the money it invests in a stadium. Not in property taxes. Not in increased economic activity. But every city is squandering huge sums of cash on the things so at least we’re in good company.

Actually, come to think of it, in Civilization (the video game), if you don’t build stadiums in your cities, people start rioting. They’re little pixelled monster truck lovers and football fans, no doubt. But still, if a stadium is the only thing that’s maintaining a semblance of peace in this city, then it’s money well spent.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, housing.

My point is that we keep being told — by councilors, by the chamber of commerce, by football fans — that the stadium is just one part of the Regina Revitalization Initiative and that’s all about bringing housing to the inner city. And the thing is that’s a serious misrepresentation of things.

First off, the downtown housing we’re expecting to see on the CP lands is in no way tied to the stadium deal. I’ve no idea why those projects are still being linked except out of force of habit due to the earlier plan having the stadium going into the rail yards. But now that that deal has fallen through, we can separate those items. CP lands development is one project. Mosaic replacement is another.

Second, if our current council honestly thinks the housing that’s to go on the Mosaic land will help with the housing crisis, that’s a worrying fucking thing. The earliest that housing will go up is after 2017 when the new stadium is built and Mosaic is demolished. Is council really assuming the housing crisis is going to continue for another five to seven years?

Holy crap. That’s pessimistic.

I would hope to Non-Existant Jesus that by the time that housing is being built that homelessness will be solved and there will be new low-income and social housing being built all across the city that’s supported by money earned off developing the Southeast lands the city just purchased. And I hope we’ll have expanded our land bank and be wheeling and dealing in property. And we’ll have negotiated a new funding program with the federal government to cover the cost of infrastructure renewal.

The housing that will go up on the Mosaic land should be the icing on the cake. It should be the culmination, the endpoint, the garnish on that housing strategy city hall just started work on this year, 2012, eight years into the housing crisis.

It isn’t the solution to anything happening right now. It’s something that will hopefully help with a rejuvenation plan for the inner city many years in the future.

Also, how exactly did everybody settle on that 700 units of affordable housing on the Mosaic land anyway? I mean 700? Has anyone seen a report showing how they’ll fit there? Seems awfully speculative, if you ask me.

* * * * *

CONDO CONVERSIONS

I covered the whole condo conversion thing for a very long time, and you know what? I pretty much managed to say everything I wanted to during that time.

But I missed this.

One of the arguments made in favour of converting lots of downtown rental units into condominiums is that the condos would get rented out by the condo unit owners and thus the conversions wouldn’t affect rental availability too much. Plus, by selling condominiums, the property owners would be able to pay for some much needed upgrades to their buildings.

But it occurred to me that what the city was trading was a downtown with lots of rental buildings, each with its own landlord, for a downtown with lots of condo units, each with its own landlord. In other words, we had the same number of buildings, but we’d increased the number landlords by a factor of like 20 or more.

What kind of administrative schlmozzle is that going to turn out to be down the road?

I mean, part of the reason that we wound up with so many shitty rental buildings is that the city couldn’t compel the landlords it had to maintain their properties. But post-condo-coversion frenzy, we could have set ourselves up to have 20 times as many landlords that we have to keep an eye on. The odds of there being negligent assholes in the landlord population has just skyrocketed.

It all just seems really wrong-headed and inefficient somehow to think that by increasing the number of landlords we’re somehow improving the rental market.

But as it turns out, my concern turned out to be pretty much moot.

CMHC is reporting that the number of owner-occupiers in the condo market is rising fast while condo speculators are shrinking.

With real estate prices soaring, more and more condo owners are choosing to live in their suites instead of renting them out. And fewer people can afford to buy an investment suite just to get into the market. And that means, those condo conversions are now, three or so years after the fact, starting to erode rental availability.

Kind of exactly like what city staff was predicting might happen a few years back when they kept recommending to council that they should turn down the conversion applications.

But city council consistently ignored that advice. Nice work!

* * * * *

THE STADIUM PART TWO: TAKING MONEY FROM HOUSING

Okay, one thing that keeps coming up at council is that council feels slighted. They feel like everyone is saying that they’re taking money from housing or taking money from infrastructure to cover the cost of the stadium. So they stand up in chambers and gravely ask staff if any money is being redirected from housing or infrastructure to pay for the stadium. And staff says, oh no, not one dollar is being taken from housing or infrastructure or the water treatment plant fund to pay for the stadium. And then council looks at the gallery all smug as if to say, “There, see gallery? You’re an idiot.”

But that’s not what people are saying.

They’re not saying that money is being redirected to the stadium. They’re saying that the city’s ability to borrow for housing or infrastructure or the water treatment plant is being limited because we’re borrowing so much money for the stadium. They’re saying that by increasing the mill rate a fraction of a percent to pay for the stadium, that’s a fraction of a percent that you can’t raise property taxes to pay for housing or infrastructure or the water treatment plant. What’s more, that’s a fraction of a percent that over the years you’ve been unwilling to raise property taxes to pay for housing and infrastructure and the water treatment plant — not to mention the arts and rec facilities.

So can you please, PLEASE, knock it off with this, “We’re not redirecting one cent from housing to pay for the stadium.” WE GET THAT!! But by buying a stadium, you also have fewer cents available to spend on housing.

* * * * *

THE STADIUM PART THREE: THE ELECTION’S BIGGEST SCANDAL

Okay, I know everybody got their knickers in a twist for an afternoon over claims that Liz Brass’ website got hacked back in the spring. But really, there’s something way more sketchy going on this election.

What’s with all the announcements about progress on the stadium project?

Since the election season got started, we’ve been greeted with concept sketches and a report on how the Public Private Partnership is going work. All this, it seems, is a gift to every incumbent running. After years of back and forth, of deals falling through, of plans made, plans changed, plans revoked, of the press being told “Don’t call it a stadium, we don’t build stadiums anymore, it’s a multipurpose entertainment facility” and back to “Hey, we’re building a new stadium”, after all that, in the final waning days — literally days — of this council’s tenure, we’ve had a flurry of good news announcements.

I get that the work of city hall doesn’t stop just because of an election. But it doesn’t stop for any other level of government either. And this kind of seeding the field with big news achievements for the standing council to coast on, all while there’s an election going on, would not be tolerated at the federal or provincial level.

Actually, I’m not even sure it would be legal.

So, not only do you have the Chamber of Commerce and the Roughriders acting as cheerleaders for the re-election bids of the current council, you have city staff implicitly doing something very similar.

* * * * *

THAT PLAZA PART TWO: THE LOOK OF THE THING

Okay, I have to say it. I really, really don’t like the plaza.

Oh, I think plaza’s are, in theory, a great idea. I’ve lived in places with fantastic plazas that I could spend hours in. Some were pedestrian only, others were shared pedestrian-car plazas as was envisioned for ours.

And, I can concede that our City Square Plaza, as far the layout and provision of lights and benches goes, is pretty functional. I have already spent a lot of time there and expect to spend much more in future.

But holy crap, could they have made it any uglier? I could write an entire book about the many problems I have with it, but Jeannie Mah, in an August 20 address to city council, pretty much hit on most of my issues with the design:

We are now left to cope with the deviations from the original plan: bulky light standards too big for the scale of a pedestrian walkway, and the bases take up too much of the walkable space. The fake lit-up ‘trees’, not aligned, clutter up the once useful sidewalk, and interrupt views of the Heritage Architecture around the Park. This newly created space makes it almost impossible for cars to traverse: cars must suddenly follow a curved path, made even narrower with light ‘sabers’ as obstacles.

It is great to have seating (we could have had shaded and sunny seating with the original plan, too), and the bike racks are elegant and useful. However, bewilderingly, each element on the plaza – the huge ungainly lights, the flashing lights on the ‘trees’, the wooden cabins
at both ends of the plaza – all combine to destroy every vista. A vista is a most precious commodity – it allows citizens to feel spaciousness in living and walking, it allows citizens and visitors to see the beauty of our city and to see each other, which is a pleasure of urban living – to live with others in a public space. This new design clutters up all vistas, and misaligns the straight and clear site-lines and the useful sidewalks we once had. I have heard no explanation for the wooden huts, with their dangerous projecting walkways. For a dynamic downtown, and for sensible downtown traffic flow, 12th avenue, as planned, should be open to traffic.

However, with street lights as huge barriers (rather than functioning elegant lights which would compliment the Victorian Victoria Park), with the ‘street’ now narrowed by the curves, light ‘sabers’ as obstacles, (which disrupt the proportions and grid structure of the street plan for the rest of downtown), and with a surfacing material which is now considered to be too precious for cars to drive on, it seems as if the decisions made AFTER the public consultations did not consider the possibility of cars on the ‘plaza, not to mention the raison d’être of the original plan.

She goes on to wonder about the public consultation on the plaza. And I have to say, that’s one that’s left me perplexed too. I recall a day in Victoria Park where everyone was able to come out, bounce in a bouncy castle, eat a shaved-ice treat and look at a mock-up of the plaza. But by that point, the overall aesthetic seemed pretty much decided. And it diverged DRAMATICALLY from the elegant water colour sketches of the plaza that were in the drafts of the Downtown Plan.

When asked about how the architectural decisions were made on the plaza, staff’s answer is always some gobble-di-gook about the decision was made after public consultation — and often they throw in the word “extensive.” But I was covering the Downtown Plan. I thought I was paying attention and I have to say I was caught completely off-guard by the designs that city hall had settled on.

And, with a public project like this, why wasn’t there a design competition? Why weren’t three architectural firms brought in to present three different visions of the plaza for us to consider?

The public may have gotten behind something a little less “dramatic,” something more in keeping with the Victorian sensibilities of Vic Park, but is that really so bad?

I interviewed Steve Cohlmeyer, founding partner of Cohlmeyer Architecture and lead architect on the plaza project, and when I asked him about his moderinist/brutalist take on the plaza, he talked about how he doesn’t go in for nostalgic, sentimental architecture.

And fair enough. But really, he’s not designing his living room. He’s designing the centre of our city. I’d think his feelings about various aesthetic movements should take a back seat to what the people living here will find comfortable.

Here’s a news flash: architects — though they may think otherwise — aren’t artists. Or rather, they shouldn’t be. Their job when designing public spaces should be to enable the lives of the people who must inhabit those spaces. They shouldn’t be in the business of challenging our ideas of what makes a public space great or livable or beautiful. Artists can deconstruct notions of beauty and art all they like. That’s their job. But architects are entrusted with the places we will live in. Their goal should be to create places that are lovely, comforting and functional. Making things angular and modern, using industrial materials without regard for surrounding heritage architecture and the natural elements in an adjacent park, fucking with typologies and ignoring proportion, saying screw ornament and perspective and history and just all round being weird, is just basically taking a dump on people.

It’s like the plaza is a joke that’s been sprung on the city.

And I know people will accuse me of not having an open mind. That I don’t understand that architecture is subjective and lots of people actually like the plaza. And, what about the Eiffel Tower? Nobody liked that when it went up but it’s synonymous with Paris now.

Yeah. I get all that.

But I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. And the City Square Plaza is no Eiffel Tower. It lacks elegance. It lacks focus.

The various elements — the stage, the large lights, the wavy wind screens, the light sabers, the benches, the “twinkle lights” — are incoherent. Each may be fine on its own, but here they seem thrown together. The main focal point — the stage — seems oddly proportioned, dumpy, and the concrete base fades into the ground and looks more like a protrusion of street rather than an inviting centre of activity.

I seriously doubt that in a hundred years people will look on this plaza as some lovely artifact from the 21st century that’s worthy of protection. I suspect it’ll be lumped in with gas stations and McDonalds and get bulldozed at the first sign of deterioration.

They’ll keep the paving stone because those are nice. But the rest of it? The concrete, steel and plastic? Junk.

But hey, that’s just my take. But man it feels good to finally write all that down.

* * * * *

Okay. That’s it. I’ve gotten most of it out. My brain is clear. I feel refreshed. Empty. Hollow.

I’m all set for a new council.

P.S. A message to James Brotheridge: Oh, you may be kicking my ass for number of posts, JBrot. But just try topping my word count.

——————————————–

FOOTNOTE

* Because as I’ve discovered dealing with those candidate profiles, some of the people who could potentially end up on council have no idea that prairie dog covers city hall. Or that anybody covers city, for that matter. They’re like those 14 year old boys who’ve just discovered Led Zeppelin and go around talking about Led Zeppelin as though they’re the very first people on the planet to notice the genius of Led Zeppelin. Fucking. Annoying.

 

 

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5’10” tall and he was born in a place. He’s not there now. He’s sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It’s “Girl From Ipanema”, thanks for asking.

You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

13 thoughts on “Some Unfinished (Ranty) Business”

  1. The best damn reporter on city politics and urban issues this city has (and perhaps has ever had).

    Thanks Paul, and please keep it up.

  2. Bravo! You’re too good for us. I’m sorry you forgot about the recycling (which if I remember correctly is going to a company that doesn’t have a facility and building it will be rolled into the cost). You can do it, Paul! Two more pounds!

  3. I whole heartedly agree with #3, #4, and #5.
    Paul, you are a one man municipal reporting force of nature. Yours is exactly the kind of thorough, rigorous journalism (albeit with cussing thrown in) that this city needs. (And, yes, the RRI is such rank bullshit – and everybody knows it – it’s more than troubling that no other outlet, besides PD, has pointedly called the city on it). Anyway, your exhaustive coverage of this election has been nothing less than stellar. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.

  4. “Actually, come to think of it, in Civilization (the video game), if you don’t build stadiums in your cities, people start rioting.”

    Um, correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that SimCity, not Civ. Yes I’m a geek.

    Loved the rant.

    Tim

  5. I heard a rumour that Clark Kent has quit the Daily Planet, fed up with the current state of journalism. No worries, Paul; he’ll have to job-hunt elsewhere…;-)

  6. In my iPhone version of Civilization, only temples and cathedrals keep the proles from rioting. The Magna Carta wonder makes courthouses create culture, too. But fucking Napoleon usually builds that before me.

  7. whew, Paul! good rant about the ‘plaza’ and all the unanswered questions!!

    Yes… the concrete stage…!!!! What are we, the Flintstones??!! a tiny stage, but with concrete ramps, taking up all that space, and blocking a street….

    It was funny, in a pathetic way, when a portable stage had to go IN FRONT of the concrete stage!!! well, at least those barriers, with no reflection on them, are gone! No wonder that truck bumped into them, we almost hit them on our bikes that same evening, because they were newly placed, with no reflective markings.

    Now there are division things for the walking bits (WHY???) as well as posts for the driving bits – more and more clutter. worse than ever!

    uh-oh, now you have got me ranting!!! (again!)

  8. Paul! This is brilliant!

    I’ve been grumping and groaning about most of this too! Also, thanks a bajillion for the updates in there as well (i.e. condo conversions).

    I love your coverage of city hall, and I appreciate that you cover it with such colour and candour.

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