A vote in favour of downtown redevelopment next week will be the ruin of St. Albert taxpayers who will be forced to pay through the nose for empire-building projects designed to stroke the egos of vain city councillors bent on spending public dollars like drunken madmen.
By only holding three rounds of public consultation on the downtown in the last 18 months council is ignoring the will of residents who have been shut out of the process. Anything less than a plebiscite this fall is an insult to democracy.
Oh, did I mention the sky is falling?
There’s certainly no shortage of rhetoric about the city’s proposed downtown area redevelopment plan. DARP has indeed become a dirty four-letter word in some circles, like the St. Albert Taxpayers Association, which recently launched a petition to put the plan on the ballot this fall. The tax watchdog believes the downtown is just fine the way it is and doesn’t need some 17 capital projects that could cost in the hundreds of millions — all on the taxpayers’ dime.
DARP isn’t perfect, but it’s far from a disaster in the making.
It’s true that DARP does identify a slew of potentially costly capital projects that likely require public funds. There’s the proposed civic plaza in front of St. Albert Place that could host new and larger festivals and special events, the redevelopment of Millennium Park to include a square and outdoor amphitheatre, parkades, the realignment of St. Anne Street and gateway signage to mark the entrance to downtown, to name just a few. The plan also recognizes several civic and cultural facilities are in need of expansion, replacement or relocation, opening the door for new city offices, an art gallery expansion and a new, larger public library.
While none of these projects is cheap, a vote for this bylaw does not give the city the green light to spend $100 on the downtown let alone $100 million. DARP is a vision with a 25-year shelf life, plenty of time to make some of the dreams a reality or not, if that’s the public will. That’s been the case for the library and city hall expansion, two big-ticket projects that to this point have little public support. Every project proposed through DARP will have to undergo similar rigour and given how tight the capital budget is today, don’t expect piles of cash thrown at the downtown any time soon. In all likelihood the first action from DARP, if approved, would be zoning changes to promote more street-level retail and restaurants to liven up the area — hardly an exercise in monument building.
Another misconception is that high-rises will suddenly dominate every vista in downtown St. Albert, creating a new ‘metropolis.’ DARP does propose a few high rises, but only in specific areas where it makes sense — along a future LRT corridor (St. Albert Trail) and across the street from another potential high-density development (Grandin mall). Densities elsewhere won’t be too far off the three- and four-storey structures that currently dot St. Thomas Street and Perron Street.
One point that’s not in dispute is that DARP represents a significant change to the downtown, but change doesn’t have to be scary. DARP is about enhancing what’s unique and enjoyable about downtown and making it a year-round gathering place for the public, a place to shop, dine and work and a desirable area to call home for an aging population and younger demographic looking for more options. DARP offers the potential to make our downtown a truly special urban core befitting a city of St. Albert’s size. It shouldn’t be a dirty word.
Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Join him at 5 p.m. on Aug. 16 as he blogs live from the DARP public hearing at www.stalbertgazette.com.