Building up, not out needs to be done right in Saskatoon
Facts important in debate over Saskatoon’s growth to 500,000 people, argues former chief planner
In 2018, three 'd' words are going to emerge as key subjects in the public discussion about Saskatoon's growth and development: density, design and dollars.
The city's future plan — to grow the population to half a million — was adopted in June 2016 and starts to come into sharp focus in 2018.
Thanks to matching dollars from the Federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund, the city is now reaching out to the public and designing the main elements of the new Rapid Transit System.
With the unanimous city council approval of the recent and contentious Meridian Development project in Nutana last month, council sent the message that it is prepared to support well-designed projects that bring density to Saskatoon's city centre.
There are a lot of reasons to expect much more infill in the downtown.
Some of the more major opportunities on the horizon include:
- University of Saskatchewan lands offering 1,000 acres of new development inside Circle Drive.
- A potential new downtown arena.
- A potential new central library.
- A new Bus Rapid Transit System.
- New "transit villages."
- More mixed-use and residential growth on major streets.
Why is infill and density important anyway?
It has mainly to do with dollars. As the Hemson report on financing growth in Saskatoon (April 2015) indicates correctly, "infill and redevelopment can be very cost effective if existing infrastructure has unused capacity."
Saskatoon has existing unused capacity. Excess capacity exists on roads, sidewalks, bridges and in water and sewer lines to name a few.
We also have vacant land available, making infill very attractive from a municipal financial standpoint. Any resident or business concerned with future property tax increases should be a huge proponent of more infill.
Problem is, many people get emotional about density and have little patience for rational facts which don't agree with their notions of density.
What about design?
Coun. Cynthia Block recently told a gathering of urban planners that if developers are going to propose more density in established neighbourhoods, it better look good.
This is a very reasonable request and one which developers need to pay heed to.
Think of it as a price to pay for bringing new projects into established neighbourhoods. Much of the support for the recent Meridian seven-storey church site redevelopment was due to the attractive and sensitive design which, obvious to many, was an improvement over the existing church.
On the other hand, poorly designed and insensitive development can do long-term damage to any positive perceptions of infill development.
And finally, the dollars. This is where the debate needs to focus on facts and less on politics.
Here are some facts:
- Rapid Transit is expensive to build, but not as expensive as continuing to subsidize the current transit system and building and maintaining more roads.
- Infill development is financially beneficial where excess capacity exists.
- A low-density city is more expensive to operate and maintain than a city with a blend of intensified new neighbourhoods and intensified city centre.
- Infill results in more property taxes to maintain existing aging infrastructure without needing to build new infrastructure.
- More infill results in greater patronage and revenue for restaurants, shops, galleries and transit in the city centre.
- Higher density, especially in infill locations, is required for effective transit.
Who knows, with more infill, even the ever-elusive downtown grocery store may result one day with more people living and spending money near the core.
Some people are going to say that single-family dwellings and high car use is a fact of life, so stop trying to improve transit. What they seldom realize is that over $25 million a year is being spent subsidizing just four per cent ridership and the property tax increases resulting from more and more roads is now costing $65 million per year to maintain.
The City of Saskatoon is taking bold steps forward in 2018 toward positive change.
The city's growth plan notes that "our plan for growth creates a stronger social, environmental, economic and financial future for all residents."
In 2018 we will start to see specifically how things will change, where that change will occur, and what it will cost.
It is important to be armed with facts to have an effective voice.