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River and density keys to downtown, say experts

Redevelopment of St. Albert’s downtown should focus on strengthening connections with the Sturgeon River, building taller mixed-use structures and creating a vibrant urban experience.
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DOWNTOWN VISION
Cory Hare

Redevelopment of St. Albert’s downtown should focus on strengthening connections with the Sturgeon River, building taller mixed-use structures and creating a vibrant urban experience.

That was the message city-hired consultants delivered Thursday evening at the first public communication in a process that will rewrite St. Albert’s downtown area redevelopment plan (DARP), which governs development in the core.

“The riverfront is probably the most magnificent of all the assets that you have,” said Mark Reid, the lead presenter. An urban designer and landscape architect with Toronto-based Urban Strategies Inc., Reid said the downtown is remarkable in that it combines buildings with natural areas and maintains a connection to the river.

Some of St. Albert’s downtown buildings, like St. Albert Place, are well connected to the river, he said. Others, like the Bruin Centre (home of Ric’s Grill and Cranky’s), need to be turned around through redevelopment policies that require publicly accessible waterfront and active uses such as restaurants or cafĂ©s at ground level, Reid said.

Other locations near the river, like the legion or seniors’ centre, could partner with private developers by allowing taller buildings to be built on their sites in exchange for space in the new structures, Reid said.

St. Albert’s downtown could effectively double its current size if all its surface parking lots were developed into multi-use buildings, Reid said. These could increase the population and allow for a greater mix of retailers. Both of these are necessary to create a place that draws people, which currently isn’t the case.

“Through our stakeholder interviews, a lot of people have told us that they don’t need the downtown, they don’t come to the downtown,” Reid said, noting this is very common in communities where the vast majority of people commute elsewhere to work.

The major issue hanging over downtown is traffic, with fast and slow traffic in constant conflict, said Mayor Nolan Crouse. The study team suggested that using downtown as a fast cut-through doesn’t bring any benefit to the area and suggested planning err on the side of pedestrian-friendly retail.

However, the group cautioned that completely cutting off vehicle traffic doesn’t yield a vibrant downtown.

“It’s a place that prioritizes pedestrian movement and cycling movement but the retailers need cars,” Reid said. “If you take that away you take away business.”

Malcolm Parker, chair of the St. Albert economic development advisory committee, was glad to see St. Albert finally moving forward on downtown changes. He thought the group made some pretty astute observations. The challenge, he said, will be to regulate the pace of change over the long term and address the affordability question.

“Somebody’s got to pay for it. That will certainly be a concern to the taxpayers,” Parker said.

Downtown business owner Michael Herald noted it will take years for downtown to change but the process seems to be finding a direction.

“Since we’ve been down there in 2001 one of the questions that has plagued us has been the vision and I hope this gives the vision,” said Herald, who owns Wine Kitz.

The consultant group will be back in St. Albert in February with a proposal which will include models of the downtown and several options for discussion. The study process will take until next summer. Sometime after that council will vote on the new DARP.




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