July 17th, 2024

‘Strong Towns’ folk look to make strong case in the Hat

By COLLIN GALLANT on June 15, 2023.

Norm Petersman, a consultant with the Strong Towns program, discusses urban planning with an audience at the Medicine Hat Public Library on Wednesday afternoon.--News Photo Collin Gallant


Medicine Hat’s downtown packs more financial potential than outlaying development, and even outperforms today, is the assertion of “Strong Towns” consultants in town this week to further the urban planning “community action lab.”

The U.S.-based advocacy group keys in on municipal revenue projections of development and defines most “suburban-style” development as a long-term loss for municipalities when long-term infrastructure maintenance costs are compared to revenue they generate.

Canadian urban planning advocate Norm Petersman told an audience at Medicine Hat Public Library that loosening some restrictions in older residential neighbourhoods will also add value and affordable housing at the same time.

Tackling housing to address homelessness, maintaining streetscape and offering business incubation space, improves activity and relative taxation value of city centres where municipal costs are lowest, he says.

“There are really very modest investments you can make in downtowns and see value escalate dramatically,” said Petersman. “Even though they’ve been undervalued for decades, they are still more valuable (than newer built commercial strips).”

“The majority of downtown is more valuable on a comparative basis.”

That lines up with analysis done by the city’s planning department five years ago when it stated the cumulative tax assessment of the city core was larger than the Medicine Hat Mall’s, despite covering a similar amount of area.

Petersman also took in meetings with business groups Wednesday morning, following a public meet-and-greet at a downtown patio Tuesday night.

City Hall staff met with Strong Towns officials over the two days, and about three dozen took in an public address in the library theatre, which included Mayor Linnsie Clark.

She said work with the group is progressing.

“We’re taking a really close look at the city’s structures and finances, and the next phase will be more about what we’ve learned about our community and how we can leverage some of those insights,” she told the News.

Attendees heard that on a cost recovery basis, most residential and commercial properties in most cities fail to break even covering municipal city services and eventual road and utility maintenance, according to Petersman.

He said large projects with high assessment value are obviously attractive, but rarely cover long-term costs, and should be evaluated differently.

As an example, he stated that the Salvation Army location on Third Street has a tax-assessed value of $543,500 and sits on 0.3 of one acre, leading to a value per acre rating of $1.8 million.

At another building three doors west of the Arcade Plaza (two storefronts and residential on a second storey), the value per acre rises to $5.2 million.

Across the street, a Dairy Queen and sizable parking lot shows $4.4 million, while the calculation for a similar business block on Kingsway Avenue plunges to $1.8 million – about the same as the Maple Avenue Tim Hortons, located on one of the busiest corners in the city.

That is also about the per acre value of the Northlands Point development at the end of Division Avenue in Crescent Heights.

That regional commercial park includes a vacant bank, drug store, liquor store and commercial bays, and is valued for tax purposes at $14 million in total, but sits on about seven acres.

That puts it at $1.9 million per acres, less than half the rating of a downtown corner lot, despite it requiring more city services, having higher frontage and infrastructure replacement costs.

“Is that fair?” he asked.

Petersman, a native of Lethbridge who now lives in the lower mainland of B.C., encouraged the city to ease the process for residents to go ahead with business conversions, home additions, secondary and backyard suites to increase population density in older, central communities. As well, new infill housing should see minimum requirements such as setbacks, and maximums, like lot coverage, should be relaxed. Up-sizing from single-family homes to duplexes and small multifamily should be an approved use in planning, he says.

“We’ll never need a 20-storey building in Medicine Hat, especially if you can institute incremental changes like these,” he said.

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