This Week at City HallI don’t know what I was expecting out of council when they voted last Monday to allow a temporary parking lot on 1755 Hamilton Street.

A bit of remorse, maybe?

That was absent.

Also absent was any mention of what once stood on that site.

In fact, in introducing the parking lot proposal, Councillor O’Donnell described 1755 Hamilton this way,

This is a current vacant area, people will remember that there were some structures that were torn down a while back.

Some “structures,” eh?

Seeing as council was uncomfortable reminding everyone of what 1755 Hamilton used to be, allow me. Again.

It used to be the site of the Black Block, an apartment building containing 46 units of affordable rental housing — some of the most inexpensive rental in central Regina. Tenants there included many low income families, many new immigrants and some people with mental health problems. They were evicted from their homes last winter.

And yeah, I think it would have been nice for council to at least express some regret last Monday over the fact that they could only stand by and watch as that building was torn down. Maybe they could’ve mentioned that with their Downtown Plan passed as a bylaw now that they’ll do better next time.

But they didn’t.

And needless to say, it makes me angry that the people of 1755 Hamilton were made homeless during a housing crisis. And, that the site of their former home will now be used for parking — no matter how temporarily — only compounds my anger.

(And I have written about all the details in this deal elsewhere but am going to skip many of them now to focus on other matters. You can find a list of other articles on 1755 Hamilton here.)

And that is why I felt the need after the meeting to ask Mayor Fougere if, by allowing Westland Ventures to build a parking lot on 1755 Hamilton, council was rewarding them for demolishing housing? Mayor Fougere responded, visibly angered by the question,

I don’t see it that way at all. I think that’s completely wrong. It’s absolutely wrong. Absolutely wrong. I don’t agree with that at all. We’re not rewarding anybody for knocking down housing. I just don’t agree at all with that.

But a surface parking lot was the original plan for that site and Westland will now get to build one, I pointed out.

“They’re going to develop that [lot] in future. But they’re not being rewarded,” the mayor countered.

To be fair to Mayor Fougere, before all this I did ask him if perhaps allowing Westland to rezone their downtown lot as “contract zoning” so that they could sidestep prohibitions in the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan perhaps took away the plan’s teeth. He responded quite civilly about how this is a one-off situation.

No. I think this is a unique circumstance. This addresses a huge issue that businesses have downtown about the lack of parking near where their businesses are. This is a temporary, only for three years at the most, then it goes back to a development after that. So this is unique. I wouldn’t see this as a precedent or anything other than some innovative thinking by the owners of the building who are building it and plus some other owners downtown that want to help them out.

So I guess this being a one-time deal is supposed to reassure me. And I guess I’m also supposed to be mollified by the idea that if this contract zoning were turned down this lot would just sit idle.

I guess it should be obvious, seeing as I’m writing this blog post, that I’m neither reassured nor mollified.

I find it extremely unfair to the people who were made homeless last year that Westland is being shown so much latitude by council here. We have a bylaw in place that could indirectly take away any financial incentive to demolish downtown housing, but instead of letting the consequences of our bylaws play out, we’ve decided to show this landowner mercy.

I doubt the people made homeless by Westland last year would think our city as forbearing, flexible and sympathetic as Westland must consider it right now. Why, I suspect those former Black Building residents think Regina rather merciless.

And if we imagine there’s a wee Fairy of Justice inside my head, she has withered a little because of council’s decision.

I honestly believe that the long-term health and vibrancy of our downtown would have been best served by turning down the contract zoning and leaving this lot empty. Not only would its example then act as a disincentive to any other downtown landowners who’re contemplating demolishing a productive building without a site plan, it would also serve as an incentive for the current landowner of 1755 Hamilton to either get cracking on developing that lot with something council will approve or sell the lot to someone with the vision to develop it appropriately.

That’s how restrictions in downtown plans work, people.

Instead what we’re getting for three years is a 56-stall reminder that all the requirements in our Downtown Plan can be circumvented with some fast talking, a drawing of a building on a cocktail napkin, and a contract zoning application.

Now, you may be thinking those last six paragraphs were some seriously uncompromising assholery.

But you know what, I’ve got a confession to make. There’s a compromise on 1755 Hamilton that I would have accepted at this point. Here it is: Two words: Extort money.

Westland was in a difficult spot when they tore down their apartment building. They had an empty lot, property tax bills and a Downtown Plan bylaw that said, unequivocally, that they couldn’t use their lot as surface parking. So, until they could either sell that lot or find an architect and construction firm to help them develop it, the carrying cost of that empty piece of land was all on their head.

Meanwhile, up the street, we have Hill Tower III which has a step back (which is too complicated to explain right now, just roll with it, okay?) that doesn’t quite conform with the Downtown Plan. To get around that complication, Harvard is making contributions to a city fund that supports public amenities in the downtown. Their contributions total $416,000 over ten years.

So, using the Hill Tower III example — dare I call it a “precedent” — why not say to Westland, you can have your parking lot for three years, but to offset the negative impact on downtown vibrancy that a surface parking lot causes, you have to make annual cash contributions to a city fund for as long as that lot is there?

The money could be added to that public amenity reserve that Harvard is contributing to. Or, it could be added to a fund the city has which it will be using to address parking problems in the downtown.

Or — and this appeals to my withered Inner Justice Fairy — the money could go into the Social Development Reserve. That’s used to fund Regina’s affordable housing programs. Seems appropriate seeing as the affordable housing problem is something Westland has only exacerbated.

Perhaps we could have asked for $150,000 over three years. That’s how much money bylaw enforcement estimated it would cost Westland to fix up the Black Block. That’s the sum Westland balked at and drove their decision to tear their building down.

Yeah, withered Inner Justice Fairy really likes that idea.

Okay, I guess this This Week At City Hall has turned into a Last Week At City Hall. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I do have lots to say about the comprehensive housing strategy that executive committee is going to be considering. And everything I wrote above about the situation on Hamilton Street actually relates directly to that — that’s why I started writing about this in the first place.

So, anyway. I guess the exec committee stuff will have to wait. Maybe consider this This Week At City Hall just a Part One for what I wanted to write about.