The city has grand plans for the downtown.
Two weeks ago, city planners hosted a development charette – a design meeting – focused on the Downtown South.
They assembled city planners, architects, traffic specialists and other professionals to kick around ideas for developing the neighbourhood.
The public could assess the plans as they evolved, and provide their own input.
“It was one of the most productive charettes that I’ve attended,” said architect Tony Zedda, who was part of one of the working groups. “I think the community is going to be pleasantly surprised by what it proposes.”
The idea is to make the downtown more livable, said senior planner Mike Ellis.
“If the north end of downtown is sort of becoming the commercial hub then the south end of downtown should be the residential hub,” he said.
There are four big ideas that came out of the charette, said Ellis.
The one that has him most excited is the proposed changes for Robert Service Way.
The plan is to take the underdeveloped area starting at Second Avenue, and rezone it to spur mixed commercial and residential development.
“We’re calling it the Gateway Promenade,” said Ellis.
Right now, that stretch of road seems like an extension of the highway, but it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.
“In fact, that is one of the best pieces of road in the whole city,” said Ellis. It’s got a spectacular southern-oriented view to the river, and to Grey Mountain beyond, that really should be a prime development site.”
There are also plans to add a paved escarpment trail running alongside the river, and potential street improvements that would incorporate public art and edible landscaping.
“If we are going to add density then we really want to encourage people to walk,” he said.
They want to add much of that density on the escarpment.
Forty years ago, the city deemed that area unsafe and relocated – some say expropriated – the neighbourhood.
New geotechnical studies of the area show that it’s safe.
“The studies in the ‘70s said one thing and the studies now say something a lot different,” said Ellis.
Developing the area could be controversial.
When the lone holdout from the decades-old relocation, Edith Wienecke, petitioned city council to rezone her land back to its original residential designation, several of her former neighbours argued vigorously against it.
They felt it was unfair.
Many said they would have never moved if they thought they had a choice.
While Ellis recognizes it will reopen some old wounds, he insists the area is the best place to add density in the downtown.
“The city is looking at loosing the height restrictions for some areas, and the land near the escarpment is perfect for that,” he said.
The hope is that by easing the height restrictions developers will be inclined to build more affordable condos.
“We’ve heard developers say that it’s just not economic to build anything other than luxury condos downtown right now,” said Ellis. “If we could allow development to go a bit taller than potentially, it’s helping out the economics for those developers. “They’d love to be able to build $250,000 condos, there’s a real market for those.”
City planners are now going through the process of combing through all the ideas that came up at the charette, and drafting proposals.
They’ll be hosting an open house at the High Country Inn on June 15 to get more public input.
The finalized proposal will go before council on July 6.
Contact Josh Kerr at