City councillors heard presentations Monday on a growth plan meant to guide Saskatoon to a population of 500,000 people.
The final draft of the plan was presented to the public last week. On Monday, the regular meeting of the city’s governance and priorities committee was used as a forum for administration and experts to present to councillors on various aspects of the plan
Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant who has worked with cities around the world, told councillors that they would have difficult choices ahead.
The growth plan calls for a focus on providing frequent bus service along key corridors, like 8th Street, College Drive and 22nd Street. The idea behind these moves is to increase overall ridership by making the bus more convenient in areas where it’s most likely to be used. With limited resources to distribute, Walker said a more compact, higher-frequency bus service in the core could mean scaling back service in farther-flung areas.
Walker pointed to routes in suburban communities that might only see hourly bus service. He said such service is too slow to really be a viable alternative to cars for most people. But, he acknowledged that for people in those communities with no other way to get around, any cuts to service would be hard to accept.
“Every bus with two people riding on it means an awful lot to those two people,” he said.
Councillor Randy Donauer said he was concerned about how he’d pitch a better core transit system to suburban ratepayers. He asked Walker what a good response would be for people whose taxes would go to pay for a bus service that might not serve their community directly.
Walker said there are many areas where core-dwellers subsidize suburbanites. He pointed to roads as an example, suggesting people who live in the suburbs likely use more dollars per capita worth of road services than people living in denser areas closer to the city centre.
Expressing similar concerns to Donauer’s, Councillor Tiffany Paulsen asked administration for a report measuring the increased costs, if any, of suburban commuters compared to people who live in denser areas.
Public, stakeholders given chance to weigh in on plan
The second half of Monday’s summit was devoted to hearing from speakers representing various stakeholder groups, as well as an open forum for members of the public who wanted to speak.
With many of the city’s plans for infill development relying on land from the University of Saskatchewan, planners were no doubt relieved when U of S president Peter Stoicheff took to the podium to express the school’s approval of the plan.
Stoicheff said the U of S’s own long-term plan calls for development on 1800 acres of land the school owns within the city. He said there was also excitement around the transit pieces of the plan, as students, faculty and staff are major transit users. He said the school also looked favourably on plans for a development corridor off Preston Avenue, as well as the use of College Drive as a transit corridor. He said both would help the school’s own College Quarter development off Cumberland Avenue.
Stoicheff said he expected to see continued cooperation between university officials and city planners going forward.
Kent Smith-Windsor, executive director with the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce was next to speak. He said the chamber was broadly supportive of a taxpayer subsidized mass transit system. However, he said the chamber was pleased to see plans for more cost recovery as the service gains ridership.
On the issue of office space, Smith-Windsor said he hoped to see the city give better incentives for people to develop in the central business district.
Chris Guérette. CEO of the Saskatoon and Region Homebuilders’ Association, was the first speaker to voice objections to the plan.
She said her members had serious concerns about developer levies that could be used to finance services for new communities. Pointing to over $800 million worth of new homebuilding in 2014 (the last year she had figures for), she said it was important to recognize the industry’s role in the city’s economy. She called on the city to be very cautious about raising fees for developers, saying the costs would ultimately be passed on to homebuyers through higher prices.
Keith Moen with the North Saskatoon Business Association warned council that several factors that helped drive previous growth are gone. He pointed to lower costs for land and lower wages as having helped drive investment during the latest boom cycle. Now, he said land prices and wages have gone up dramatically, eroding the advantages for businesses looking to locate in Saskatoon.
Moen urged council to keep taxes and fees to a minimum in order to help drive investment.
On the transit said, Moen said business could certainly benefit from having a better bus network, but he said the big transportation priority for his members remains the perimeter highway proposed by the province. He encouraged council to keep lobbying for that project.
The growth plan still has to come back to a full meeting of city council for final approval.