Grow A Spine
In one of several public lectures recently given in the city by Dr. Larry Beasley — a world-leading expert on city planning — he went out of his way to heap praise on the work being done by the City of Saskatoon. Pointing to city planning initiatives including Saskatoon Speaks, North Downtown Master Plan, Integrated Growth Plan, Infill Development Guidelines and the design for the yet-be-built Holmwood neighbourhood, Dr. Beasley saw Saskatoon punching well above our weight compared to other cities across North America.
The praise is well-deserved — but here’s betting Dr. Beasley likely never set foot in the neighbourhood of Stonebridge during his visit. Originally planned over a decade ago, well before any of our cutting-edge planning exercises lauded by Dr. Beasley had seen the light of day, Stonebridge will never be used as an example of a modern, well-planned neighbourhood.
Isolated from the majority of the city, with traffic funnelled through only a few small entrances, and home to the city’s largest big box mall development, Stonebridge is Saskatoon’s homage to the slowly dying car-oriented neighbourhoods that have defined North American cities for the past five decades.
Despite these flaws, city planners have attempted to salvage parts of the neighbourhood that have yet to be built. This includes working with developers to reconfigure the street layout from cul-de-sacs to a more grid-like pattern, which will ensure a more efficient movement of people and more economical delivery of services. Additionally, in a decision unprecedented for Saskatoon (but the norm in most major cities), city planners recommended denying a rezoning application by North Ridge Developments that would have changed a mixed-use, walkable, development to yet another big box mall complex.
In recommending that the application be denied,city planners highlighted the significant traffic problems it would create and its close proximity to the big box mall less than a kilometre away. After initially attempting to pressure the City into reversing its decision, North Ridge quietly withdrew its development plan shortly thereafter.
But earlier this year, North Ridge returned to City Hall with a scaled-down version of its big box development — which features a grocery store, gas station, and a number of restaurants. Both the developer and city planners worked to sell the new design to residents as pedestrian-friendly. Much like putting lipstick on a pig, these claims were laughable, given the sprawling parking lots that dominated drawings submitted by North Ridge in their application to the city.
While still falling significantly short of the plans that were previously set out for this area of Stonebridge, both city planners and City Councillors chose to approve the development in early April.
On their own, individual decisions that move away from official City plans may seem inconsequential. But every compromise made by decision-makers to developers reluctant to meet ourofficial plans leads to a dilution of the effectiveness of Saskatoon as a whole. This holds true even when those compromises occur in neighbourhoods such as Stonebridge.
Now is a good time to take a step back and put these kinds of actions by our decision-makers into context. Up until a few years ago, Saskatoon was actively seeking developers to build something — anything — to help encourage growth, so maybe our past decision-makers can be forgiven if best-laid plans were lost when dealing with developers from such a position of weakness. But economic forces, fueled by Canada’s resource boom, have sustained unprecedented growth within Saskatoon since 2006 — growth that is widely predicted to continue for years to come.
So now is the perfect time for a new mindset amongst our decision-makers, as the tables have turned and developers regularly approach the City looking to build a wide variety of projects. While they should always work with developers and residents to improve their designs to meet the City’s vision, they should also not be afraid to say “no” if needed.
Asking developers to honour the vision of our City and follow well-laid-out plans for a neighbourhood doesn’t make decision-makers anti-development or anti-business — but it does mean that the status quo that has guided development in Saskatoon for the last few decades must change, and change quickly.
When asked how Saskatoon can move from a city with great plans on paper to a city that fully implements those great plans, Dr. Beasley put the responsibility on the shoulders of City Councillors to take a stand and show leadership. I couldn’t agree more. It’s easy to talk a good game about denser neighbourhoods and mixed-use developments, but the politician is separated from the leader in how they respond when angry developers and misguided residents resistant to change demand that neighbourhood plans be diluted.
This is the test that Saskatoon faces. We can have politicians who continue to compromise, or we can have leaders who ensure that our vision is implemented properly. Yes, even in neighbourhoods like Stonebridge.