Council celebrates a former mayor and scraps a decade of urban planning

City Hall | Paul Dechene | July 28, 2022

The morning of July 13, the City of Regina gathered to celebrate the dedication of our downtown plaza to former mayor, Pat Fiacco.

It is now — officially — Pat Fiacco Plaza. I’m sure there’s a street sign in case you forget.

I didn’t attend. To me, the Plaza, whatever it’s called, is a reminder of everything that went wrong with the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan and is a reason to be deeply suspicious any time city councillors come to your door pitching new mega-projects.

The plaza was supposed to be the first step and the centre-point of a downtown revival. But as its difficult construction unfolded, I knew people who were saying, “Yeah right. They’re going to finish Pat’s Patio and forget about everything else.”

I was naive enough to be skeptical of their skepticism — I was Team Downtown Plan — but sadly, it turns out the naysayers were right.

Sure, the plaza is a lively space when it’s hosting the Farmers Market or some other event, but the only reason that’s true is because Regina’s Downtown BID busts its ass to activate the space, and a few downtown true believers in city administration support them.

Nobody should have to work that hard to make a downtown active. If the promise of the Downtown Plan to create a busy, vibrant core had been brought to life, the Plaza would activate itself. Instead, we have two blocks of German pavers and none of the downtown life those pavers were supposed to support.

So no, I do not see the dedication of the Plaza to a former mayor as a cause for celebration. Instead, it’s a time to reflect on promises unfulfilled* and pour one out for all the awesome plans collecting dust on shelves at city hall.

Making Downtown Desolate

In her role as deputy mayor, ward four councillor Lori Bresciani represented council at the Plaza dedication where she honoured former mayor Fiacco for his accomplishments — including ushering in the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan.

This looked pretty ironic when, later that same day, Bresciani argued hard in favour of allowing a property owner to demolish two houses to make way for a 13-stall, surface parking lot. That’s not exactly in keeping with the spirit of downtown revival.

The lots in question, 2158 and 2160 Scarth St, are actually slightly outside downtown — less than a block — and are subject to the Transitional Area Neighbourhood Plan (TANP) which, like the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan, prohibits new surface parking lots.

The loophole allowing this to even be considered is a 19-year-old exemption written into the TANP to accommodate an earlier attempt to build parking there. Administration argues the exemption still applies even though the zoning approval is long expired.

The rationale offered by the property owner for why this surface parking lot is necessary is that they own a nearby building and are having difficulty renting office space as potential tenants desire parking right outside the front door. They referenced a firm that considered renting with them but was uncomfortable with the lack of adjacent parking because, in the property owner’s words, “The female contingent of that group is afraid of downtown.”

This was convincing for Councillor Bresciani. “It’s the safety piece that stuck out for me as a woman… If I could not have parking, I would not go [downtown]. We always say we want to get our downtown vibrant, we want to get people down there, if we continue to buck this [parking], it will be empty.”

Councillor, downtown is already empty. Precisely because so much of it has been bulldozed for parking.

Even before 2158 and 2160 Scarth are paved over, the block they sit on is currently more than 45 per cent surface parking.

And as we learned from an administration report last January (CR21-3: Temporary Downtown Surface Parking Lots), if you walk just one block north, you find the downtown is nearly 34 per cent surface parking while another 13 per cent is structured parking. Add that up and throw in on-street parking and more than half of downtown is devoted to car storage.

It’s baffling, then, that administration knew this information and still recommended adding to the core’s surface parking over-supply. — They should understand how an excess of surface parking contributes to making our downtown feel bleak, abandoned, and yes, unsafe.

It’s well understood among urban planners that neighbourhoods feel safer when there are more eyes on a street. Empty lots and parking spaces don’t provide those eyes. They’re dead spaces.

Parking lots don’t make places safer. They make them seem more dangerous.

But council didn’t consider that.

And by capitulating to a story of 13 terrified drivers who race between their office, their cars and their homes in the suburbs, council only succeeded in making Regina’s downtown more desolate — and more of a place to be feared.

Council Finds A New Shiny

You’ve probably already heard that a subcommittee struck to consider a replacement for the Brandt Centre has recommended we spend over $100 million building a new arena in the downtown. Not in the Yards. Not in the REAL District.

Right downtown.

And the recommended site is currently confidential to prevent land speculation driving the price tag up.

With that subcommittee’s work done and their recommendations in hand, council voted to strike a new committee led by Councillor Bob Hawkins that will decide where, exactly, this new arena should go, and to consider the arena alongside other “catalyst projects” (council’s new It-phrase).

Those catalyst projects are a new aquatics facility to replace the Lawson, new artificial-turf baseball and soccer fields and potentially a new library.

At present nothing has been officially decided about any of this. The next step is to wait for the Catalyst Project Committee to come back with a report at the end of the year that maps out the scope of their work.

But even before we know any details about these new catalyst projects, there are already good reasons to be very suspicious of this entire, very expensive undertaking — not the least being that this Catalyst Project Committee represents a dramatic retreat from so many promises council has failed to fulfill.

The vibrant central community with new housing and a grocery store we were promised in the Downtown Plan? Never happened. The pedestrian connection between downtown and Mosaic Stadium? Doesn’t exist. The housing on the old Taylor Field site? Forgotten. The concept plan for the Yards neighbourhood? Evidently abandoned.

In fact, even though they named a plaza after him, Fiacco’s much ballyhooed Regina Revitalization Initiative looks pretty much dead. And the Downtown Neighbourhood Plan is regularly ignored to allow for demolitions and parking lots.

Council has a lot of work ahead of them. But it isn’t in drafting new plans and scoping out projects. It’s rebuilding trust.

Because at present, there is no reason to believe their new Catalyst Project Committee will turn out any less broken than any of their previous promises.

* This column only covers two recent items but so much more could have been included: Council gave themselves the power to ignore the OCP’s neighbourhood density targets under certain circumstances — a power I’m sure they’ll never abuse. Harvard will be allowed to dismantle the Burns Hanley Building brick by brick. And to top it all off, there have been two complaints lodged with the integrity commissioner against ward seven Councillor Terina Shaw over things she has said during meetings.