Spoiler Alert: If you only want to read upbeat, positive content, please skip my first point below. The decision to allow hundreds of apartments to be built in Montgomery put me in a bad mood, and I’m not going to sugar coat it. I know some people believe politicians should always take the high road and accept decisions they disagree with. Well, not on this one. But hey, if you like to read my newsletters to find a reason to growl at me, this is the one for you!
Welcome to the March 12 Edition of Council Matters. I made a commitment to all residents of Ward Two to represent you to the best of my abilities, and one of the ways I can do that is by ensuring that you are kept informed about the decisions your City Council makes. So here’s my pick of the Top Ten decision items from the last Council meeting:
1. Montgomery “in-fill” development: The city of Saskatoon is growing rapidly. Quite properly, City Council is reviewing how best to accommodate that growth without unnecessary urban sprawl. We spend a lot of time talking about “Smart Growth. But until the request for immediate development on what used to be an off-leash dog run area north of 11th Street came forward, there hadn’t been an opportunity to really test just what the Saskatoon principles are for so-called smart growth.
It bothers me that “Smart Growth Saskatoon-style” seems to mean densification and little else. As long as there’s a bare piece of ground, apparently we should stuff in as many apartments as possible. Amenities such as access to parks or shopping without needing to get into a car are irrelevant. Servicing solutions that turn parking lots into big bath-tubs to temporarily hold rain-water is acceptable. Let’s hope for the sake of other neighbourhoods in this city that the decision to increase density in Montgomery, and to dramatically alter the character of the existing neighbourhood doesn’t create a precedent for other in-fill developments.
I feel that it is imperative for City Councillors to listen and respectfully consider the wishes of nearby residents when a dense development is proposed in their neighbourhood. That’s my track record. That’s what I did when I opposed densification in Avalon a few years ago. The reason I first ran for Council, way back when, was because I was fed up that no one was listening to the legitimate concerns of citizens who were worried about dense development at the time. Just look at the social disruption that happened in Pleasant Hill. Small homes were being snapped up for a song. They were demolished and replaced with three-storey walk-up apartments. Meanwhile, in Meadowgreen, a disastrous federal building incentive program resulted in a bunch of quickly-built and poorly-maintained apartment buildings. Is it any wonder I question if history is repeating itself with this decision in Montgomery? Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Almost 200 people from Montgomery came to Council. People suggested reasonable alternatives. Over 350 letters of objection were written. I have never before seen such a large opposition to a development project. They overwhelmingly stated they did not want this development. The lopsided vote left me feeling disillusioned.
The residents of Montgomery asked to have the four-storey apartment buildings scaled back to three storeys. They asked to have the decision delayed by just a few short months until the traffic impact from the new Circle Drive bridge is known. Council had just received a report stating that there is a healthy supply of multi-family lots available in the city, so it was not unreasonable to ask that development on this land be delayed for awhile. Montgomery residents did not say no to apartments. They politely asked for the development to be scaled back to the overall city average of 35% multi units per neighbourhood. What they will be getting is 49%. They asked for a reasonable and appropriate compromise. It was rejected by Council.
2. Borrowing, borrowing, borrowing: Every year, this city has a massive capital construction plan for things like roads, sewers, and various other items deemed necessary to keep this city a good place to live. Some projects are financed through savings, but most are financed through a careful balancing act of borrowing and reserves. On March 12th, Council gave approval for almost $32 Million worth of borrowing (please don’t gasp). That doesn’t mean we’ll rush out and borrow all this money at once. What it does mean is that when the funds are needed, we will be able to finance projects like more reservoir storage capacity for drinking water so you don’t have to worry about turning on your taps; a sewage odour abatement system (yes, it stinks, and the good folk of Silverwood deserve some relief from this); and even a landfill gas recovery project (oh yeah, rotting garbage smells too).
3. The Traffic/Steel/Victoria Bridge: The administration proposed that we start demolishing the bridge, slowly, by chopping down one span on the east side of the riverbank. This death by slow amputation wasn’t palatable to Council. We referred it to committee to completely review the whole bridge issue. Should we demolish it? Yes. It’s a public hazard. Should we replace it? Well, who’s going to pay for it? Should it be a bridge for cars or for bikers and pedestrians only? That remains to be seen. Finally, what are we going to do with those controversial lights?
4. Coffee Drive-throughs: I love the job of City Councillor. I am constantly amazed and learning new perspectives. For instance, like just about everyone else, I was amazed when Councillor Bev Dubois suggested it’s time we ban drive-through restaurants. This was an unusual proposal from her, and an audible gasp went through Council Chambers when she said this. She has since retreated from this position, but meanwhile the administration has been asked to report back on a possible moratorium. I asked for information on potential cost recovery for street modifications needed to cope with these drive-throughs. I don’t think we should have a moratorium, but I also don’t think the taxpayers should have to pay to accommodate them.
The thing I learned from this whole debate was that there’s a lot of cranky coffee drinkers in this city. Several people were offended when I called coffee “brown liquid”. One guy said he plans to run against me in the next civic election. I guess his campaign slogan will be Go-cups for Everyone. I think if you need a cup of joe-to-go, it’s just as well to turn off your car, stretch your legs and buy your coffee at the counter.
5. Healthy City Trees and Environmental Education: We received a report on what’s called “urban forestry maintenance” (no one at City Hall speaks in simple words these days, it seems). The city has a plan to prune each city-owned tree once every seven years. We have an aggressive Dutch Elm Disease watch program, and we are expanding our community garden system. We also received an up-date on the Saskatoon Food Charter. A city is more than just bricks, mortar and pot-holes. We also have to pay attention to the nature around us, and nurture and protect it. One side-bar note- you may have noticed that 10 Elm trees were recently chopped down by the Water Treatment Plant. This is to make way for a major construction project there. Once the intersection at Ave. H and 11th street re-opens, in about 2 years time, 16 Elm trees will be planted as replacements.
Even though we are woefully behind other major cities in North America in establishing a curb-side universal recycling system, we still have several major and important environmental sustainability programs on the go. Composting, community gardens and pesticide reduction are just three that should be highlighted. We have several valuable community partnerships to help encourage us to tread lightly on this fragile planet. One upcoming event that you may want to note on your calendar is the annual Earth Hour observance- a time when people are encouraged to turn out the lights for an hour. Last year Saskatoon Light and Power reported a slight dip in electricity consumption during the hour. Let’s aim for a slightly better, no, a hugely better, result this year! In recognition of the importance of Earth Hour, the city will be offering FREE bus service on March 31st from 6:00 pm to 1:00 am. Take a bus, it’s on us.
6. The Remai Art Gallery: And now on to a serious debate that continues in this community. Council received another report on the new art gallery, including the business plan and operating costs that I have been asking for ever since Council started on this project. The new gallery will be three times larger- almost the size of Taylor field. So obviously there will be additional operating costs. At least 8 new staff will have to be hired. Extra security will also be needed, though we don’t have the cost on that yet. But Saskatoon will finally be able to host the major international exhibits that we couldn’t in the old building. Admission to the general art gallery will still be free. There will be a small charge, likely $8 a person, for special exhibits.
City operating costs for the new art gallery are projected to be $3.9 million. This projection includes extra staffing and inflation. Currently the city pays about 66% of the operating costs of the Mendel. In the Remai Art Gallery, the city will pay about 57%. That’s because the new gallery expects to make more money from things like facility rental, catering, gift shop sales and admission fees for special exhibits.
I was the only City Councillor who voted to keep the Mendel where it is. However, I have been reluctantly persuaded that we need to build a new gallery rather than simply treating the old building like the expensive fixer-upper it would be. We were presented with a comparison chart that I am including with this e-newsletter. To renovate the Mendel would cost $5.6 million more than a brand new state-of-the-art building and it would be 84,000 square feet smaller. For a $21 million investment, we’ll get a $71 million art gallery. It’s hard to argue with that kind of math. In addition, the downtown will be gaining a new and much-needed public parkade. Mind you, that’s an extra $13 million cost, but it will be paid for out of parking fees.
As I said in my last newsletter, I feel that it is now time to accept that we are building a modern art gallery to fit the needs and dreams of the future. The financing is in place, it is affordable and it will not break the backs of property tax payers. Our growing and vibrant city needs a new gallery on the riverbank. The old building will become a Children’s Discovery Museum.
Former Mayor Henry Dayday, perhaps as a run-up to an expected announcement that he wants his old job back again, asked Council to put the art gallery to a plebiscite vote during the October municipal elections. We refused. I think that’s fairly blatant politicking on his part, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. Should he be told to gather the signatures needed to force a public vote if he feels so strongly about this, or do you think Council should hold a plebiscite? Let me know.
By the way, a huge thank-you to everyone who sent me an opinion about the Girl with Cat sculpture at the Mendel. My email ran four-to-one in favour of keeping her where she is. And a big bouquet to former long-time Mendel employee, Bubs Coleman for the background story on the sculpture. Ask someone about it the next time you go to visit the gallery.
7. Roads vs. culture: I know some of you are now likely saying we should fix the roads instead of building an art gallery. I want you to know that I continue working on my goal to bring the city’s road maintenance and preservation budget up to where it should be. We doubled the road budget this year, and by 2015, when the new gallery opens, I am confident that we will have the road budget up to the same proportional level as Edmonton. That city is the envy of Canadian road maintenance engineers. The financing plan for both street repairs and the art gallery is manageable, and with the projected growth in the city, it will not mean run-away property taxes. We can have both.
8. A Building Permit Record: The annual Building Standards Branch report contained good proof that Saskatoon’s economy is robust and strong. Last year, almost One Billion dollars of building permits were issued! That’s quite a record, but it may be topped soon. Already, we are $62 million ahead of last year in the value of building permits issued so far. As we grow, we have more taxpayers to contribute to the costs of keeping a city running. We can’t have growth at all costs, but as long as the pace is manageable and planned, a growing city is generally a strong city. If you don’t agree, just look at the woes of Detroit, where people are setting fire to their own homes because of mortgage woes, but there’s no firefighters to respond. They don’t call it the Rust Belt for no reason.
9. Traffic Calming Report: I get a lot of complaints about too much traffic, or speeding cars in neighbourhoods. We received a report on what was done last year to calm traffic. Traffic calming is a fancy name for things like barriers or curb extensions to narrow the roadway, or partial road closures, or rubber bumpers to divert the traffic, etc. All these measures help to get people to slow down or to stop short-cutting through residential communities. They improve safety. We also occasionally install speed humps or bumps (the technical term is “raised intersections”). We don’t do that on bus or emergency routes since that might pose a significant road hazard. Because speed humps are permanent, and cause vehicle vibration and noise to the surrounding area, we study the traffic and consult with the public before using these drastic measures.
One thing to be aware of is that the traffic calming program is truly a “user-pay” program. We fund it out of the city’s portion of the Red Light camera tickets. So if you get a ticket for running the lights at C and Circle, please know that you are helping to pay for traffic safety in your neighbourhood. If you have any special intersection or traffic problems that you want me to have investigated, please call me or send me an email. Above all, slow down and help save a life.
10. Adult Services Licenses: Well, I started this e-newsletter on a controversial topic and I’ll end with another one. At the last Council meeting, we dealt with the thorny issue of giving Police the authority to check that the people who offer sexual services for pay are adults and are here legally and voluntarily. We will now require that people in the sex industry have licenses. This is a thorny issue because most of what goes on in escort service agencies is prostitution by another name. Most people believe that prostitution is against the law. But repeated legal challenges have resulted in the courts saying quite the opposite. It is sad, demeaning and a sort-of sexual slavery, but it is not illegal. So we passed a by-law to require everyone in the “adult service industry” to get a license.
We are not licensing prostitution. We are, however, giving the Police the authority to check each and every place suspected of offering adult services to make sure that the “staff” are properly licensed. Police will be able to check that there are no under-aged prostitutes in an escort agency, and that everyone is in the country legally. We want to get a handle on the very real problem of human trafficking. This bylaw is not a perfect solution, but if we didn’t have it, we could be faced with becoming the pay-for-sex capital of the country. Almost every other major city has passed similar by-laws, so Saskatoon needs one too. Slowly but surely, we are clamping down on the sexual exploitation of women and children. Now if only we could have a federal law that treats buying sexual services as a crime of violence against women and specifically targets demand, maybe we’d see a real decrease in the oldest “profession”. That’s what they do in Sweden. Their focus is on stopping the “johns”, the sex trade customers. Did you know that research indicates up to 15% of Canadian men purchase sex?
That’s it for this edition of Council Matters. As always, you are receiving this newsletter because you have provided me with your email address. Everything is always sent out on a “blind carbon copy” basis so no one ever gets your email address but me. You can always be removed from this email distribution list by sending me an email with the word unsubscribe in the subject line. One other bit of news- you can follow me on Twitter (@patlorje) or Facebook (go to www.facebook.ca/patlorje and click on “like”). I welcome your feed-back and points of view so please feel free to let me know your opinions, questions or concerns. It’s only by keeping in touch with each other that I can be sure I am representing your needs and views at City Hall. Thank you.