Will Regina stick to its Official Community Plan?

by Rick Pollard

City Council has approved Design Regina, an Official Community Plan (OCP) intended to guide development in the city over the next 25 years. Many of the policies laid out in the OCP address concerns that many city residents have had for years, and if followed, would likely avoid a repeat of some of the city’s worst planning mistakes of recent years (Victoria East big box retail hell, I’m looking at you).

Unfortunately, the final version of the plan adopted on Dec. 16 appears to give Council the discretion to ignore their own policies — and the views of Reginans who helped shape them — whenever they feel like it.

Design Regina has been in the works since 2009. It plans for an increase in Regina’s population to 300,000 people by 2040 while setting aside enough land to accommodate an eventual population of 500,000.

The 2011 Census pegged Regina’s current population at just under 200,000.

The City believes that at least 30 per cent of Regina’s population growth can be accommodated by greater density within existing city neighbourhoods, including at least 10,000 new residents in the “city centre”. Further growth, it says, will require expansion, including the development of new neighbourhoods like SomerSet in the northeast or Coopertown in the northwest.

The OCP envisions “complete neighbourhoods” with access to shopping, services and recreation opportunities. There will be a mix of housing types to ensure that people from all income levels, backgrounds and stages of life can live side by side. New pedestrian and bike paths will accommodate people who want to walk or ride their bike and neighbourhoods will be designed around a centrally located hub.

Other elements include policies to better preserve the city’s built heritage, hardly one of Regina’s strengths in recent years.

But is it all just words?

Wilma Staff served on Regina City Council from 1979 to 1985 and is a former municipal administrator who has written community plans and zoning bylaws in the past. She points to  amendments allowing Council to waive any OCP requirement that the City deems necessary, including land uses, density targets, housing objectives, and much more.

“The Council wants the right not to conform to the OCP,“ says Staff. “But if you say that these are your policies, and you enshrine them in a bylaw, then you have to be consistent. You can’t give yourself the right to waive them.”

Sadly, it seems Council isn’t ready to surrender the right to give developers carte blanche to develop new neighbourhoods however they see fit.

One of those new neighbourhoods will be SomerSet in the northeastern portion of the city, in a triangular parcel of land north of Uplands and Kensington Green, accessible mainly by Winnipeg Street North. The neighbourhood is adjacent to the Co-op Refinery, and many Regina residents have expressed serious reservations about air quality and the potential impact on human health that may result from prolonged exposure.

On Dec. 16, the debate over whether to approve SomerSet culminated in a rare split decision by Council, with the plan being adopted by a margin of just 6-4.

Opponents pointed to reports from Sask Environment, Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region and even the Co-op Refinery advising against further residential development in the area, and argued that Council should be guided by these expert opinions.

Mayor Fougere and other supporters of the proposal argued that SomerSet will be no closer to the Co-op Refinery than Uplands or Kensington Green and noted that there have been no reported problems with air quality in those neighbourhoods. They also suggested that people in every part of the city have to tolerate nuisances of various kinds, and this is no different.

Council members on both sides of the issue agreed that the basic design of the neighbourhood is solid.

Ward 3 Councillor Shawn Fraser voted against SomerSet.

“When this was first reported in the media, a lot of people thought it would be a toxic island for poor people. There’s been a lot of work done here, and I don’t think that’s the case,” he says.

“But I think it’s up to Council to decide how to manage this growth that we’re experiencing and to decide where that growth should occur. And the air quality issue here continues to trouble me.”

Fraser understands the arguments put forward by SomerSet supporters that there is no record in Uplands of any negative impact from the refinery, but thinks they miss the point.

“All Canadian cities live with this type of heavy industry. But these types of developments predate our understanding that cigarettes are bad for you, much less our greater understanding of the impact of pollution on human health,” he says.

“The fact that we’ve built near the refinery before is not, in and of itself, enough of a reason to do it again.”