Megan Squires presented the final draft of the downtown urban design strategy to council last week. The full document is available online at nelsonurbandesign.com. Photo: Will Johnson

Nelson developing downtown strategy

Head planner Megan Squires presented to council last week

Nelson city planner Megan Squires spent a full hour going through the details of the downtown urban design strategy with city council last week, and there was one major theme repeated: residents lack a basic understanding of what the city is doing and why.

Along with introducing the final draft of the strategy document, Squires detailed all of the feedback the city has gleaned, much of it negative, and summarized the community’s reaction to proposals as wide-ranging as the installation of bike racks and public art to changing traffic patterns and new rules for patios.

The fact is, she told them, there have been no significant streetscape improvements to Baker Street and the downtown core since the early 1980s, and there’s aging infrastructure such as sewer systems underground that the city is obliged to replace — which opens an opportunity for them to piggy-back other projects above ground.

“The stark reality is we are going to have to start digging up our downtown streets in the next few years to replace end of life water mains that run down Baker,” said Mayor Deb Kozak.

“With our underground infrastructure only being replaced every 80 years, the city has a unique opportunity to make cost-effectiveness changes now. If we miss that window, it closes for a very long time.”

So projects and additions that some residents may see as frivolous — such as traffic-calming sidewalk bulbouts, and new heritage light posts — can be completed cheaper and more easily than they could’ve been otherwise, according to the city. During the presentation, Squires told the council they would have to be more diligent in getting this point across to residents — as much of the feedback she’d been receiving was based on errant or outdated information.

One big myth she hopes to dispel: that this will cost residents money.

Much of the feedback they received from the residents revolved around the financial burden of these projects, but the underground infrastructure work is already covered under their routine maintenance budget while above-ground projects will be primarily paid for with grants from other governments. Squires emphasized that much of the proposed work is completely dependent on these grants.

She went on to emphasize that the downtown urban design strategy is not something developed by this council. It’s been in development over the past 10 years with input from the Chamber of Commerce, the Nelson and Area Economic Development Partnership, the Cultural Development Committee and local businesses.

According to a city press release, the stated goal of the document was to “up our game” in the downtown, as there was consensus “from all parties that the downtown was looking a little tired.”

But it’s just the beginning of the planning they have to do.

“The urban design strategy is a guidance document and provides a starting point. Council is excited to continue our community engagement process in setting priorities and refining these concepts into real projects,” Kozak said.

“We can’t do this on our own; we will need the business community to take leadership on some key issues like storefront aesthetics and sandwich boards. We also see the opportunity to try out some of these innovative ideas, like the pedestrian scramble or altering amenity spaces, before fully deciding to adopt these changes.”

Kozak said there will be consultation with the business community on the changes.

There is a long list of outstanding items the council has identified that they hope to address with this strategy, including the following:

• Decorative lighting

• Relocation and upgrade of the bus station

• Lack of a police beat officer

• Parking

• Lack of green space

• Tagging of buildings

• Cycling routes

• Sandwich board policy

• Unenforced bylaws

• Incentive programs for businesses to beautify their buildings

•Disrepair of awnings

And as far as the ongoing controversy around Baker Street transients, panhandling and affordable housing, that’s something that’s top of mind for Kozak.

“We heard the community’s concerns about the social issues in our downtown and we are working side by side with leaders in the social and business sectors to develop a made-in-Nelson solution. This won’t be easy and it will take time, but I’m confident we can find workable solutions.”

The council thanked Squires for all her work over the years, as she is now leaving her position, calling her work on the strategy “invaluable” and wishing her the best of luck in the future.

A copy of the strategy can be found at nelsonurbandesign.com.