Council approves a prohibited lot on the site of the apartments they destroyed

by Paul Dechene

As soon as I started asking questions about 1755 Hamilton St in the press scrum after council’s March 18 meeting, the rest of the media started packing up their gear to leave.

Can’t say I was completely surprised. The report on 1755 Hamilton passed with little fanfare. No one from the community turned out to speak to council about it. And council in turn didn’t ask staff any questions about it.

1755 Hamilton, you may remember, was once an apartment building. Now it’s an empty lot because city administration okayed a request by the owner, Westland Ventures, to demolish the building in December 2011.

As a result, 46 households were thrown out into the worst rental market in the country. The vast majority of those households were low income and many of them were new immigrants to Canada.

It was a despicable decision by council and we’ve been following the fallout pretty obsessively for over a year now.

And at the March 18 meeting, the coda to this piece played out as council granted Westland Venture’s request to convert the 1755 Hamilton site into a temporary surface parking lot. Homes for people officially became a storage site for cars.

It’s what we predicted would happen to the lot back when the demolition application was first made public.

But it seems the big story of the night was the proposal for the Somerset subdivision, a housing development that will lie in a triangle of land at the end of Winnipeg St., north of Uplands and Kensington Greens. Even though this site has been earmarked for residential development since 2004, the arrival of a concept plan at city hall kicked off a storm of controversy.

The cause for concern is that Somerset will sit between the Evraz steel mill and the Co-op Refinery, the latter being the site of two explosions and three fires since 2011.

And not only were Regina citizens calling and e-mailing their councillors to express their concerns about Somerset’s proximity to two heavy industrial sites, the Rural Municipality of Sherwood, the Regina Qu-Appelle Health Region, the provincial ministry of the environment and even the Co-op Refinery itself sent in letters to the city saying they oppose this development.

Council, however, voted to approve the Somerset subdivision.

Central to this decision seemed to be the fact that there are already residential neighbourhoods that are even closer to the industrial sites and they haven’t experienced many negative impacts from their location beyond some noise and odour problems. Parts of Uplands, for instance, are less than a kilometer from the Co-op Refinery.

Also, it was pointed out that several studies have been done indicating that the health risks of Somerset’s location are minimal. And staff’s report indicated that objections filed by the environment ministry and the refinery operator had to do mainly with concerns about nuisance factors and not about any actual dangers posed by the location.

Beyond this, council’s enthusiasm for the project was stoked by how Somerset will help alleviate the city’s housing crisis. According to James Pernu, a senior planner on the project, the goal with Somerset will be to build an innovative and affordable neighbourhood that will be walkable and offer a range of housing options.

And while a fleshed-out concept plan has yet to become public, the ideas being touted by Pernu make the neighbourhood sound pretty idyllic. Whether it will live up to its utopian billing or if it will wind up the industrial dystopia that opponents fear, we’ll have to wait and see.

But the promise of a new neighbourhood wasn’t the only thing to receive council’s hearty approval at that meeting. They also got to give the go-ahead to Harvard’s Agriculture Place. That’s a 10-storey office tower proposed for Hamilton Street that will go up right next to the FCC building.

And thanks to negotiations between the developer and the city that were guided by the Downtown Plan, the building will boast ground floor retail and almost half a million dollars worth of improvements to the public realm around the building.

“It’s fantastic,” said Mayor Michael Fougere after the meeting. “It’s very good news for us. It affirms that the development we have going downtown is strong and that our process for approving them is fine. The investment in the public realm will see a tremendous at-grade street level — it’s a great way for pedestrians to walk around and see what’s happening. But more importantly, it reaffirms the strong economy that we have in our city.”

Before the meeting, the Regina Downtown Business Improvement District and the owner of Loggie’s Shoes expressed concerns though about the impact that the construction of Agriculture Place will have on parking downtown. Apparently, during the construction of Hill Tower III, workers on the building would take up all the prime on-street parking spots and that was causing a problem for local businesses.

They didn’t relish the prospect of this continuing for another couple years as another tower is built.

Well, good thing council said “yes” to that surface parking lot at 1755 Hamilton Street, the one we opened this column with. Turns out, Harvard and Westland recently struck a deal so that the Agriculture Place construction crews would be able to park at the 1755 Hamilton lot.

Lucky bit of symbiosis, that. The lone substantial objection to Harvard’s tower gets offset. And Westland gets a healthy PR boost with council.

And they needed it as not only is their parking lot going to cover over the ruins of 46 units of affordable rental, but surface parking lots are specifically not permitted under the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan.

But if the parking lot is only going to be temporary and if it’s going to help offset parking pressure while a desirable office tower is erected up the street… well, who can say no to that?

And fortunately for council, they never even had to seriously consider it. They voted unanimously in favour of Westland’s surface parking lot.

And everybody was happy.