While much of the attention on Saskatoon’s new growth plan has focused on a controversial proposed bridge, city councillors raised concerns Monday about downtown office growth.
The overall focus of the plan aims at increasing density in core areas and shifting growth from new suburbs, which would require an improved transit system.
However, several councillors wondered about the city’s stagnant downtown office market at Monday’s growth plan summit.
“We’ve seen considerable growth in our suburban office market … while we see very little growth in our downtown market,” Coun. Zach Jeffries said.
Alan Wallace, the city’s director of planning and development, said city hall staff are preparing a report on office development in the city and possible incentives to encourage more downtown.
While Mayor Don Atchison stressed the need for a “healthy and vibrant downtown,” he suggested to reporters that placing restrictions on suburban office development, as Regina has done, could backfire.
“We need to see some long-term thinking here as opposed to knee-jerk reaction,” Atchison said.
Three west-side councillors continued to voice opposition to a bridge to connect 33rd Street on the west side of the South Saskatchewan River to an extension of Preston Avenue on the east side.
The bridge is estimated to cost $129 million (in 2016 dollars) as part of $1.4 billion in road infrastructure spending needed over the next 30 years.
Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill stressed that no decision has been made on the bridge, despite some residents’ impression that it is a “done deal.”
“I’m relieved we’re going to get a lot more detail before we’re asked to make the final decision on issues like this,” Coun. Mairin Loewen said.
Ward 4 Coun. Troy Davies questioned building a bridge that would add traffic to 33rd Street when the city has spent years trying to rout traffic away from the east-west roadway.
Coun. Pat Lorje repeated she is “unalterably” opposed to a bridge for private vehicle traffic, but suggested if a bridge has to be considered for that spot it should be only a pedestrian-cycling span.
“I believe we are going to see major changes in how people move around in the future,” Lorje said.
The additional bridge is seen as necessary in the growth plan in order to implement the bus rapid transit system that forms the plan’s centrepiece.
Council heard bluntly from Portland, Ore.-based transit consultant and author Jarrett Walker that the goals of high bus ridership and total city coverage contradict each other.
Coun. Randy Donauer expressed concern about abandoning some bus riders with changes to the system. He also wondered whether Saskatoon’s climate requires wider consideration.
“Our winters are so cold, they’re dangerous,” Donauer said.
Walker said frigid winters offer another argument in favour of density to reduce walking time; he suggested cold weather is not generally a factor in determining walking distances to bus stops.
“Most people have made peace with (their) city’s climate and have learned to function in it,” Walker said.
Saskatoon Transit director Jim McDonald said the system’s long-term plan involves decreasing coverage to increase frequency and improve ridership. Saskatoon Transit aims to increase ridership from 9.5 million rides a year today to 31 million by 2045.
Several councillors stressed the need to plan neighbourhoods properly to accommodate services like transit.
Walker suggested Saskatoon may want to consider a covered downtown bus station — conjuring up images of the downtown dome suggestion over which Atchison was mocked years ago.
“An atrium,” Atchison said, laughing. “That’s music to my ears. I’ve been tarred and feathered for that in the past.”
The $1.76-million plan aims to guide growth, based on an expectation that Saskatoon’s population will increase to 500,000 over the next 30 years.