This Week at City HallI have been waiting AGES for an excuse to write about all those vacant lots around town that are former gas stations and thanks to last night’s council meeting I finally have one.

soontobenightclubWhat happened was a report came forward from city administration about a nightclub proposed for 2151 Albert Street (pic at right). That’s a two-storey building next to the Chamber of Commerce that used to house offices of some sort. And the idea of putting a nightclub there raised some hackles among local businesses because the new nightclub doesn’t fulfill the minimum parking standards as laid out in Bylaw 9250.

And by “local businesses” I mean Adam Sperling, the owner of La Bodega and Slow Pub which are restaurants across the street from the proposed nightclub. He came out to address council, saying that he wasn’t opposed to the nightclub as such, just to the fact that city administration is recommending it be allowed despite it lacking sufficient parking.

Which it lacked, there only being three parking spots on the lot while the bylaw calls for a minimum of 12.

Well, John Hopkins, CEO of the Regina Chamber of Commerce, came to the rescue by sending in a letter to council letting them know that his organization has reached an agreement with their neighbour and will be allowing them to use the CoC’s seven parking spots after regular business hours. Combine that with the nightclub’s three spots and they’re up to 10 out of the 12 required. Add on to that the fact that there’s a big o’l Impark lot 75 metres away — and the fact that people really shouldn’t be driving to a nightclub anyway since they’ll probably be drinking — and the nightclub owners were basically there. More or less. Well… I guess technically just “less”. But council figured they were close enough that flexibility was warranted and they voted to approve the nightclub application.

At this point I should note that the headline writers at Newstalk 980 are telling me that this is what constitutes a “parking war.”¹ And I walked by there last night and can attest to the fact that the parking carnage at the corner of 14th and Albert is on a scale we’ve not seen in modern times. I’m not sure what that means exactly but hey, if war is hell then parking war is parking hell and I’m sure glad I don’t own a car.

Speaking of which, I want to remind readers that I begrudge every single second I spend writing about parking issues. Due to my lack of a car, having sufficient space about town to store them is low on my list of things I fret about.

And I can’t say I’m enthused to be writing about a nightclub either because I don’t frequent them so often. Actually I never do and if you ever see me at a nightclub you’ll know it’s only because I’m drunk… and 24. Which would suggest I’ve somehow invented a de-aging ray — while drinking — meaning some nightclub proposal and its inadequacy in the eyes of Bylaw 9250 will be the least of your worries.

So I wouldn’t even be writing about this nightclub application at all — especially since the city’s annual report for 2012, a far more interesting document than this nightclub application, was also on last night’s council agenda — except that Adam Sperling raised some very intriguing questions about the vacant lot just to the south of the proposed nightclub (pic below).

Vacant lotWhy can’t that be turned into a surface parking lot? Mr Sperling wondered.

Why indeed?

Well, as everyone in the neighbourhood of that vacant lot at 14th and Albert knows, it used to be a gas station and is contaminated with petrochemicals. And as the lot is owned by Imperial Oil and they’re worried about any liability issues they’d face were the lot to be developed, they’ve been hanging on to it and letting it rot for a very long time.

How long?

Well, Councillor O’Donnell — who, while a spry and lively councillor, is no nightclub-hopping youngster like, say, councillors Bryce and Murray — stated that it’s been a derelict piece of property for almost all of his life.

I’m going to save myself the embarrassment and not speculate on how long exactly that could be and instead I’ll just say: some tens of years.

This touched off a lively discussion driven mainly by Councillor Flegel who grilled city admin over what tools the city might have to force the development of that property. As it turns out, according to city staff, we have none. As long as Imperial Oil pays its taxes and maintains the lot, the city can’t compel them to do anything with it.

And that fukken sucks — my words, not council’s, nor admin’s, but I think I’ve paraphrased their sentiment on the issue accurately.

During the meeting, Mayor Michael Fougere noted that the question of what to do with abandoned lots is an issue right across the city — there are at least 15 of them laying fallow in Regina right now — and it’s a problem for other Saskatchewan cities as well. As such it’s being discussed by the members of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association. But he concluded his remarks on the derelict lot problem with an argument that’s kind of becoming his catch phrase: this is a provincial issue, not a city issue.

Fougere expanded on this after the meeting:

“These are much larger issues that are beyond the legal capacity of the City of Regina or any municipality to direct what would happen,” said Fougere. “We would want to see these orphan sites that have environmental issues from former gas stations be cleaned up and developed. Do we have the tools to do it? No, we don’t. But we do talk to the province and to the federal government about ways to make that happen.”

But what about those property taxes that oil companies are paying on the lots they’ve abandoned? Can’t the city raise them to the point where holding the land would become impractical?

“For the moment we don’t have a bylaw to do that,” said Fougere.

Okay. But is it even within council’s power to make a bylaw to raise property taxes on those lots?

“Before I say absolutely ‘Yes,’ I want to talk to administration about that,” he said. “But I think there are some impediments to do that directly, there’s some process to go through before we simply add taxes to it.”

Councillor O’Donnell, meanwhile, did suggest that there might be some cause for hope on the horizon where these contaminated sites are concerned. The federal government has provided money to deal with these so-called “brown field” sites through the Green Municipal Fund which is administered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

O’Donnell said that while he wasn’t exactly certain how much money has been provided for this, he reckoned it’s on the order of $350 million.

“So, while sizeable, not enough to get rid of every [former] service station,” he said.

A working group has been put together to figure out how best to get this money distributed and O’Donnell, as Regina’s representative to FCM, has been asked to be a part of that group. He will be involved in a conference call on Friday, May 24 on the brown field issue and it will be a topic of discussion at the FCM conference in Vancouver next week.

O’Donnell noted that as there won’t be enough money to remediate every contaminated site in the country, the fund will only be able to help get the ball rolling.

“We can now go to a landowner and say, ‘We’re going to make it worth your while. So if you remediate, we’ll help you so you can sell the land at fair market value,'” explained O’Donnell. “The idea is to create an incentive.”

Which is great, I suppose. And probably the best way to go forward if we want to see these contaminated, abandoned gas station lots  cleaned up and used for something other than housing for urban bunnies (not that there’s anything wrong with that but come on, rabbits don’t pay a cent in property tax why should they get these prime lots at no cost, goddamn mooching lagomorphs).

Personally, I’d much prefer to see these oil companies punished severely with hefty fines and massive property tax bills for contaminating these lots in the first place and for then leaving them to rot for a generation. They’re a blight on the urban landscape and it’s ridiculous that governments across Canada haven’t moved with an Old Testament fury to solve this problem sooner.

But hey, I’m not in charge and can’t smite any oil companies. I’m just some schmuck who knows that rabbits are lagomorphs.


¹ That article by Pat Book is excellent and worth reading — it contains much more useful news than I’m putting in this increasingly stupid blog post — I’m only making fun of its exaggerated title.