July 17th, 2024

City going public with growth strategy

By COLLIN GALLANT on January 31, 2023.

Downtown Medicine Hat is seen from Crescent Heights on Jan. 17. City Hall has announced that a planned "Strong Towns" community meeting will take place on Feb. 7 to discuss urban planning and a partnership between the city and the U.S.-based non-profit group.--News Photo Collin Gallant


Hatters will get their first glimpse next week at what might make up a promised remake of urban planning in the city in a so-called “Strong Towns Community Action Lab.”

That’s been described as a community building exercise to “kick start” the implementation of smart growth and urban renewal in the city with community consultation beginning Feb. 7.

“We’re working with the community to help collectively understand the concepts of purposeful growth, so we can get on a strong path at the end of the two-year (partnership),” said Mayor Linnsie Clark, who dedicated a major portion of her State of the City address on Jan. 24 to Strong Towns.

She also set a substantial population-growth goal for the next 20 years, aiming for an increase of 47,000 residents by 2043, to improve efficiency and “sustainability” of city services.

That rate of growth, about 3 per cent per year, would require a massive increase in all housing types, but existing city philosophy, as well as a “Strong Towns” pillar, is to favour redevelopment over expanding to “greenfield” subdivisions on outer edges.

In the United States it also advocates against highway and freeway development, which it argues is costly and of low benefit.

The group describes itself as working to reverse the legacy of America’s “suburban experiment,” in seeming disagreement with what many land developers in Medicine hat have argued is what the local home buying public wants.

Jackie Taylor, president of BILD, formerly known as the local Canadian Homebuilders Association, said her members are very interested in what is proposed.

“We’ve had just a cursory look over or it, but we’re excited about what we’ve seen so far,” she told the News, adding that BILD has been invited to provide high-level input to the process.

She said many new home buyers want major renovations or new builds in central areas of the city, a “mature neighbourhood, but a new home.”

“At this point, we’re open minded; we like infill development and Medicine Hat is in a unique place where many of our builders are also developers. It is a big shift for Medicine Hat, and we’ve seen it in bigger cities, but it’s also exciting.”

On the surface of the Strong Towns literature, planning regulations could be made less onerous.

It argues redevelopment requirements should be less restrictive to more easily allow new constructions, but also advocates to do away with parking requirements, as some cites, such as Edmonton, have done to lessen the burden of providing more housing units.

At the same time, city real estate agents and land developers have often argued the marketplace wants larger lots, meaning fewer homes in the same area, and suburban “estates style” lots.

They also rigorously objected to “whole community concepts the city’s land department wrote into its own subdivision plans to require a mix of housing styles and lot sizes and pricing.

Most recent land zoning hearings typically include some discussion of maintaining the existing character of the neighbourhood, the potential for rental units, or complaints about parking requirements.

“I think that information is always good,” Clark told reporters. “I’m not hearing the same things about urban intensification. Densification is maybe more a hot topic, but when we’re really able to communicate, through Strong Towns and our planning department, we really need to be looking at what our long-term liabilities are when we build.”

Clark won the 2021 mayoral race campaigning on the idea of better understanding the long-term costs of servicing new roads and utility networks to new communities.

That, in part, was also the focus of the previous council’s strategic priority to boosting overall tax base by increasing re-investment and redevelopment of existing communities, while sidestepping costs to add new utility, transportation or service networks.

Such a philosophy was written into the 2019 updates to the municipal development plan, which seeks to provide more regional access to amenities. It also calls for a halt to approving new suburban subdivisions until lot supply dwindles to certain targets, which would pause the need for near-term road and sewer construction.

At the same time however, it left a substantial number of areas in the planning queue, including major tracts of land in the city’s north and south.

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