New downtown plan unveiled at open house

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Okotoks: Proposed document to guide redevelopment in coming decades

A new public plaza, new buildings up to four storeys tall and a market in the riverfront area are part of a plan to guide redevelopment in Okotoks’ downtown.

A draft of the Okotoks Downtown Urban Design Master Plan was unveiled at an open house in town council chambers on Feb. 20. Okotoks senior planner Colin Gainer said the plan is intended to guide redevelopment and new downtown development over the coming decades.

“It’s design guidance for redevelopment of the downtown, for public improvement projects,” he said. “It’s setting a holistic design vision for downtown for the next 25 or so years.”

The plan was presented to town council in November and then put out for public input. Gainer said the Town will take feedback from the meeting and see whether additional changes can be made before it goes back to council for endorsement.

The plan calls for the eventual transformation of the Elizabeth/McRae/North Railway Street corridor.

“We heard a lot of feedback, even through past sessions and different projects, that there’s no clear vision or look of guidance to Elizabeth Street,” said Gainer. “One of the things this plan is doing is setting a new design concept for the downtown.”

Under the plan, downtown buildings could get taller as it would allow for up to four storeys. New developments would not be allowed to be more than one storey taller than heritage buildings when built immediately next door.

The plan also calls for the creation of a new plaza in the downtown area. He said the existing Olde Towne Plaza will be too small for the Town as it grows.

“That’s the thinking we’ve heard quite a bit now, especially out of the original work that Roger Brooks (a tourism consultant hired by the Town for previous studies) did,” said Gainer. “It doesn’t have the size.”

No specific location is recommended, but the document outlines that anywhere in the McRae Street area east of the Town office or along the riverfront could potentially be home for a plaza. Gainer said it’s possible the Town could look at potential properties for a plaza as they come up for sale. The intersection of Elizabeth Street and Northridge Drive is considered the main gateway into downtown and the plan calls for a prominent gateway structure or building at the site. Public art is also recommended for other main entrances into the downtown, such as North Railway Street and Veterans Avenue. He said it’s important the gateways to the downtown area make a statement.

“This is downtown,” he said. “You can turn left here, don’t drive through town. That’s what we kept hearing over and over again, a gateway is important but it needs to be scaled right for the area.”

Other elements include creating better pedestrian links between the downtown and the riverfront area, as well as creating a public market. The plan also calls for the eventual transition of Elma Street East into a higher-density area with mid-rise buildings up to four storeys. Meanwhile, the new “sensitive infill” buildings would be allowed in the Elma Street West area to preserve heritage buildings and homes.

Jared McCollum, president of the Olde Towne Okotoks merchants group, said he likes the plan overall.

“The ideas are fantastic,” he said.

However, McCollum is concerned that there are no concrete plans to do anything at this point.

“This is like a vision board and it’s another paid study,” he said. “We’ve had three in the last 10 years and they’ve been talking about ever since I started my business here 10 years ago.”

McCollum said no major improvements or projects have been done downtown since the plaza was built in 2008.

McCollum said the Town also needs to ensure any housing built in the downtown area is affordable.

“Their idea of putting multiple homes on some of the lots on Elma and more high density downtown, I love that; but it has to be affordable housing,” he said.

McCollum said the Olde Towne group wasn’t consulted and the Town should have met directly with businesses. He said the Town needs to have a way to get landowners and businesses to redevelop that is both to their benefit and to the broader community.

“That’s why they should consult the businesses more because they have to rely on them to make all the difficult decisions to move forward on this,” he said.

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