Council moves a proposed school to a far-flung phantom suburb

CITY by Paul Dechene

It sounds like the intro to an dystopian urban fantasy novel for young readers: a school that hasn’t been built was moved from a neighbourhood that doesn’t exist to another notional neighbourhood.

But the thing is, this shoestring of a plot fairly sums up what happened at council’s July 27 meeting — it was a shuffling around of yet-to-be’s.

The school in question was slated for the in-development Skywood community in the city’s northwest and is one of three joint public/Catholic schools the province is building in the city through a major province-wide Public-Private Partnership (P3) program. And while the other two schools planned for Regina are progressing as expected— one in Harbour Landing and one in Greens on Gardner — the Skywood school hit a snag.

According to a letter from Mark Geiger of Skywood Developments, the cost of building infrastructure service into the area was too high. And since the city was unwilling to cover the servicing costs, the only way to make the suburb financially viable was to convert the school site into residential lots.

This left the city in a bind. The deal they’d accepted from the provincial government stipulated they had to find sites for three schools. If the city failed to meet this requirement, they’d not only be short a school in the northwest — an area home to many young families — they might also open up the province to a damage claim from the P3 contractor.

And so city administration considered several possible sites in the northwest for the new school.

Ultimately, it settled on an area within the proposed Rosewood Park subdivision — which was approved last fall.

Ironically, Rosewood Park was approved over the objections of city administration, who argued the project violated their interim phasing and financing guidelines, which were designed to protect the city from unsustainable and expensive sprawl.

Moreover, Rosewood falls within the much larger Coopertown suburb, a development being aggressively promoted by Dream Developments (formerly Dundee). That project, which is expected to be considerably larger than Dream’s Harbour Landing, falls so far outside of the city’s 300,000 population growth scenarios that it sprawls well outside of the city’s current borders.

When asked if adding a school to Rosewood Park would accelerate approvals for Coopertown, Mayor Michael Fougere replied, “It might. And they’ll have an application that will come forward. This is within the Coopertown area so that might well spur something on there, I don’t know that.”

But isn’t it questionable to build a new school on the very edge of the city in an area that won’t be built out for years to come?

“No area is a complete community until it is built. It just isn’t possible,” said Fougere during his address to council. “Harbour Landing wasn’t a complete community until it was built. So we see the plan for Rosewood, we see the plan that’s around the area that will be taking place soon, I hope.

“We can say it’s five, six, 10 years before we see full development. But the market decides that, not us. We set the rules of engagement but the market decides the timing and pace of all development,” said Fougere.

Chris Kailing, a local architect and cofounder of Regina Advocates for Design, says putting a school on the edge of the city might have made sense back during the height of the housing boom.

Now? He’s not so sure.

“If the city was still growing at a ridiculous rate it might not be a bad idea,” says Kailing. “But there’s the housing slowdown happening right now. And to sort of expect that these neighbourhoods are still going to grow at the speed that people were thinking they were going to grow at maybe two or three years ago…”

“I don’t know if this whole thing is an urban design problem so much as it is a bureaucratic political problem,” he says. “The fact that the province has backed the city into a corner on this and that the whole process around building schools is: okay you get all these schools now and you’ve got to make the decision or you’re not going to get them…”

“It’s like there’s a sale at Walmart and you have to buy all the schools right now and then you just put them somewhere. Yeah, you put them in your basement. That’s not planning, that’s reacting.”

Beyond the way that the provincial government is rushing the city into accepting schools it may not be ready to accept, many on council — the mayor included — raised concerns about how the province is also downloading some of the business and the costs of building schools.

“My first choice is not to go here at all. Period,” said Ward 8 Councillor Mike O’Donnell.

O’Donnell was very concerned about how much time city administration have invested in coping with the northwest school problems.

“It doesn’t please me at all. In the report it basically states that somebody else can’t afford it at this point in time so, ‘Unh, would you look after it?’ So now, I find out that in order for us to have this go ahead, and from what I read, our staff have been running around for weeks meeting with all sorts of people trying to put something together,” he said.

“Are we now funding education? Is this now part of our mandate?”

Arguing that education is a provincial responsibility, O’Donnell put forward a motion requesting that the province cover the cost of the project manager the city will allocate to oversee the Rosewood school project. That motion passed.

“If this is not to cost us money and this is part of education then it should be paid for by the province,” said O’Donnell. “And the timelines are not set by us so the least we can do is ask for this money.”

And so, in this urban fantasy of far-flung Dream suburbs and soon-to-be-schools, I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the province will grant our council its wish.

Or continue draining city staff’s valuable time like a bloodsucking vampire.

Housing Hard-Line Vs School Surrender

“We’re adamantly opposed to the downloading of education,” said Mayor Michael Fougere at a July 27 council meeting.

Sure, council voted to act as a new north-west school’s location scouts, its liaisons with the development community and its infrastructure managers. But it draws the line there.

“That’s why there’s education taxes locally,” continued Fougere. “Property taxes should not be funding schools. I’ve never done it before and it shouldn’t be done now,” he continued.

Maybe not. And yet, compare the city’s co-operative approach on P3 schools to their past actions on housing. All throughout Regina’s housing crisis, council refused to expand their involvement in the affordable and attainable housing market beyond the grants and tax exemptions it already had in place.

The reason? Housing is the responsibility of higher levels of government.

So why did the city take on so much responsibility with these P3 schools?

“We had some long and very direct conversations about what this means and council collectively said we’ll do this because these schools are needed for growth right away,” said Fougere. “But the other conversation about what this means as [the provincial government] changes legislation is a different conversation and our tone will be quite different from that.”

It will be interesting to see what kind of a note that tone will strike with Reginans. /Paul Dechene