Thursday, January 17, 2008

River Landing: Destination Centre Consultation Process too little, too late; Saskatoon city council to rely once again on regressive Open House format

4 years, 1 month, 20 days.

That’s the time it has taken Saskatoon city council from it’s infamous closed-door Gathercole Planning Session on November 25, 2003, at the Western Development Museum, to its regular meeting on January 14, 2008, to come to the realization that maybe, just maybe, it might be a good idea to ask the public what it would like to see built on the former Gathercole site now known as River Landing Phase I.

At its Jan. 14 meeting council resolved to conduct what it believes will be a “genuine” public consultation process regarding the land surrounding the present Persephone Theatre.

The city manager’s report to council (F2 – River Landing Destination Centre Consultation Process) outlines the “objectives” that will “guide the planning and consultation process for the destination centre.”

“The process should provide for genuine community input and help create sense of community ownership for the preferred concept” and the “process should be as economic as possible – limiting initial expenditures until there is confidence in a preferred concept.”

Council intends to appoint a nine person volunteer steering committee comprised of one member of Council, one member from the MVA, representatives from the business community, tourism, arts, cultural and heritage sectors, and First Nations.

“The Committee shall be tasked by Council to make a recommendation on a preferred outline concept for the Destination Centre including uses, size, capital cost and potential funding sources, preliminary operating costs, how the Centre should be operated, and an implementation schedule. The Committee should complete this work within four months of its inception and provide a progress report to Council once a month,” the report notes.

“Rather than starting from a blank sheet and inviting the public to provide any and all ideas that may not withstand the simplest of criteria, City Council could establish a set of preliminary design and operating principles that set minimum standards and parameters that would guide the work of the Committee and the subsequent public input.”

The report states further that, “Council could also add other principles such as those relating to operations and funding.”

The consultation will apparently involve a four-stage process.

Stage 1: This would include an Open House with boards displaying simple site and potential building footprint plans, a site issues and opportunities analysis, and photos and examples of similar buildings from other communities. A questionnaire and interactive web site will also be used.

Stage 2: The Steering Committee will oversee the preparation of up to three concept options for the building, drawing on the Stage 1 public input.

Stage 3: A second Open House will be undertaken – this time over two days. The Open Houses will showcase the three identified options and invite public input. Questionnaires will be handed out plus an online questionnaire will be utilized.

Stage 4: The committee will compile and submit a report with recommendations to city council for consideration.

The final design for the project would be subject to a competitive Request for Proposals.

Unfortunately, what the city is proposing is too little, too late.

The consultation process involves just one piece of land, a small L-shaped parcel adjacent to Persephone Theatre. The 1.20-acre site is a fraction of the total Phase I development and will represent the only part to undergo anything close to resembling a legitimate public engagement process – but given the inferior format the city has decided to go with this might be overly generous.

The location of the Destination Centre is part of the South Downtown Concept Plan that city council quickly cobbled together behind closed-doors in early 2004 with the help of a $1,000-a-day consultant from Victoria, BC. The plan was tabled in draft form at council’s April 5, 2004, meeting. No meaningful public consultation took place during its development.

Open Houses occurred on April 27-28, 2004, from 4 – 9 p.m. to receive feedback from the public on a plan that it had no part in contributing to. The plan remained virtually unchanged and was approved by council on June 21, 2004.

River Landing is often touted as Saskatoon’s most visible and important development but has shamefully been afforded the least innovative, inclusive and accessible citizen engagement process.

Since 2004, the vast majority of ‘public consultation’ concerning the south downtown the city has engaged in has consisted primarily of Open Houses using information boards, questionnaires and staff milling about answering questions.

In contrast to that is the University Heights Multi-District Park comprehensive master planning process that took place a few years ago. More than a year of public meetings went into the process including the day-long Future Park Conference held on April 20, 2002, at St. Joseph High School to help the city develop a vision for the 36-acre project. Much of this work was done prior to any major decisions being made – the exact opposite of what happened at River Landing.

The lone genuine south downtown related public meeting that took place in which the city participated wasn’t even a city function. Due to serious concerns with the lack of citizen engagement a group of core neighbourhood community associations and stakeholders took it upon themselves to organize a Town Hall Meeting at Princess Alexandra School on June 2, 2004. It was well attended and proved very useful. In the end, however, the concerns raised by the community had little effect on the city’s clearly pre-determined outcome.

A more recent example of effective public consultation occurred on Saturday, March 17, 2007, when the city held a Public Input Meeting at the SIAST Kelsey Campus Cafeteria on the future use of the 50-metre pool located at the Harry Bailey Aquatic Centre. The format provided for an extensive question and answer session, breakout groups and follow-up discussion. This too was well attended and resulted in a good deal of quality information being brought forward.

Sadly, the city has chosen to adopt a more regressive approach when dealing with River Landing. No open and direct dialogue with citizens has taken place. There have been no design charrettes, public input, focus group or town hall meetings and no citizen involvement through working committees.

The steering committee envisioned for the Destination Centre Consultation Process leaves something to be desired and appears to be comprised largely of the same select few that have, at some point along the way, been involved in the closed-door planning of the south downtown.

The city’s continued ham-fisted approach to public involvement is most discouraging.


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