Town forges ahead on downtown development

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Downtown Okotoks could see a plaza, more green landscaping and mid-rise buildings in the future.

A draft of the Downtown Urban Design Master Plan was approved in principle by town council on Oct. 30. The plan would see carefully-planned infill projects and development in the downtown core, as well as more signage on Okotoks’ major roads pointing toward Elizabeth, McRae and Elma Streets.

Colin Gainer, senior planner with the Town, said the master plan was identified as a necessary piece of the puzzle based on work done by consultants on downtown economic development and revitalization, he said.

“It’s really meant to look at the direction of long-term urban design guidelines for both the public and private realm, and kind of establish really a theme and a visions for the long-term development and redevelopment of the downtown area,” said Gainer.

Some key elements include changing land-use bylaws to allow for more multi-use buildings and looking at the physical design of downtown spaces, he said. The plan would ultimately regulate how development would occur, he said.

However, there is no timeline for implementation at this time, he said. The plan will come back to council in February after being reviewed by stakeholder groups and committees, and going out to the public for feedback.

Coun. Tanya Thorn said a few questions rose out of the draft plan, including how parking will be addressed if downtown development is to be expanded.

“If we’re talking about going to two or four storeys, going to those mid-rise buildings, then we need to have a conversation around what we’re looking at and consider parking needs,” said Thorn.

She said it’s a tough subject and will require a lot of discussion. As far as she’s concerned, parking should be on the periphery because the Town should be focusing on active transportation and walkability, she said.

It’s difficult without transit, because some people won’t have a choice but to drive downtown, she said.

However, she said the Town could start making other accommodations to encourage more active transportation for those who can partake in activities like bike riding.

“It’s a pain in the butt to find somewhere to park my bike and lock it up downtown,” said Thorn. “So is that also part of the parking conversation? I think it should be.”

Thorn said she’d like to see this plan be put into action, after years of doing “too many plans, too much consulting.”

However, she said money is the issue. Though the master plan identifies ideal ways for downtown to develop, it does not indicate who will pay for infrastructure and other changes, said Thorn.

There are still some items she said can be addressed immediately.

“There’s some easy stuff, some of that low-hanging fruit we can implement and we can start having conversations around that doesn’t require us to make financial investment, it requires us to make land-use changes,” said Thorn.

If land-use downtown is amended to allow for mid-rise, multi-purpose units, she said some property owners may begin their own redevelopment. It could also bring more investment into the downtown core if more opportunities are available, she said.

“I think we’re going to see some action-oriented movement forward,” said Thorn.

Having the plan come back to council in February allows it to establish a few things in the meantime, such as budget for any downtown revitalization, she said. In addition, council has a strategic planning session in January where the importance of improving downtown will be a topic of discussion, she said.

“If our council as a whole doesn’t believe downtown is a strategic initiative this council should tackle, then that changes this while conversation,” said Thorn.

Coun. Florence Christophers is not a fan of the master plan.

She said it seems unreasonable to look at installing fancy paving stones and plazas without a conversation around the cost and who will foot the bill.

“It just seems beautiful and cool and like some dreamy utopia world of what our downtown could look like,” said Christophers. “My guess is for other people like me who don’t have the history it might hit them the same way it hit me.”

She said some of the next steps might be viable – more affordable options – but much of the plan seemed incomplete without a financial breakdown.

At the end of the day, she said she’d rather see the Town’s money spent elsewhere.

“I would rather take $1 million and donate land to a housing co-op for affordable housing,” said Christophers. “My priorities coming in are so misaligned with the pretty, cute, utopia downtown.

“I think it’s a money pit and a time pit.”

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