The City of Brandon and Renaissance Brandon have unveiled their long-awaited Secondary Plan — a detailed blueprint to downtown Brandon’s revitalization.
The draft plan, created out of years of focus groups, public meetings, research, and a considerable number of discussions with business and community leaders, lays down a comprehensive set of guiding principles and an over-arching vision of what the city’s downtown could be and should become.
That is, if the proposed bylaws are given the green light by city councillors.
But before that happens, Brandon residents, developers and merchants will get a chance to wade into the conversation and provide some much-wanted feedback to city planners during two open house forums in the city hall foyer tomorrow.
"I think the piece that has been keeping people from investing downtown has been the uncertainty about what’s going to happen down there," Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst told the Sun during a recent interview.
"Now we’re laying it out on the table for everyone to see. And that should now encourage people to be part of this."
The plan, which was from the start a Renaissance Brandon initiative, lays down a comprehensive set of guidelines and policies that detail everything from maintenance of character buildings, new construction and street design, to the creation of green space, bike paths and housing. At the same time, the document is, in essence, a vision statement by Renaissance Brandon and the city for the next 20 to 30 years.
That vision, says Decter Hirst, is based on three characteristics that Ren Brandon and the city want to "capture" with the implementation of these new bylaws and zoning changes: The diversity of buildings, people and culture of the downtown, the heritage and legacy of often fragile buildings, and the uniqueness of the downtown compared to any other part of the city.
"Our downtown shouldn’t look like 18th Street," Decter Hirst said. "It shouldn’t look like the Corral Centre. It shouldn’t be like the Shoppers’s Mall. It’s our downtown.
"It should be the place that, when we’ve got visitors coming to town, they say ‘Hey, let’s go downtown and hang out.’ How do we protect what we’ve got and build on it in the future?"
We do that, says community planner Ryan Nickel, by giving city planners the tools they need to direct development downtown and steer it toward an achievable goal.
"By having these policies in the plan it will give us the ability to work with developers and ensure a certain product is delivered that adds value to the downtown," Nickel said.
The Secondary Plan is a 30-page document that is specifically devoted to the downtown geographic area as defined by the boundaries of Renaissance Brandon.
Among the most notable policy changes for downtown is the introduction of guidelines for new construction — commercial or residential — that say any new development built adjacent to designated heritage buildings or architecturally significant buildings should be "complementary to the character, design and massing, and should not detract from the heritage character."
At the same time, the document calls for "direct restoration investment" for those character buildings that are currently or have the potential to be listed as heritage buildings.
These policies have become especially important, Decter Hirst said, following the partial collapse of the Brown Block on 10th Street last March. The fact that the city and the property owners had allowed the structure to deteriorate to such an extent, made the completion of a secondary plan for downtown not only necessary, but urgent.
"The Brown Block languished because there was no momentum to do something with it," Decter Hirst said. "There was nothing in place that forced the owner to fix the roof and board up the windows. It was not a loved building.
"It provides a sense of urgency about what happens when we allow our downtown to fall down. If we don’t have that passion to look after it and rejuvenate it and redevelop it, that’s what will happen with the rest of those buildings. It’s iconic for what we want to avoid."
Both Decter Hirst and Nickel admit that this kind of policy will increase construction costs for any developer looking to build in downtown locations. However, they maintain the purpose is not to drive away development, but to encourage the right kind of development, and at the same time protect the character that already exists.
"You can imagine what it would look like if right next to the train station we put up a Super Thrifty," Decter Hirst said. "It’s jarring. It doesn’t add anything. In fact, it detracts from the train station.
"So trying to make sure that should Super Thrifty want to build a drug store down town, it complements and adds value to that street."
By having these policies in place — and sticking to them — Nickel says the city can give those developers who do decide to build in the area some confidence in their investment.
"What that will achieve is giving developers confidence that when they invest money in the site, it’s not just going to be a metal strip mall next door," Nickel said.
"That result will be the same, so that will add value to their site. It will give them that certainty when they’re investing in an area, that around it is going to be a similar quality."
Though construction costs would rise in the downtown under the Secondary Plan, the city would provide new grant programs and other incentives to make the downtown an economically viable location in which to invest.
"That’s a huge part of the plan," Nickel says.
Some of the potential incentives the city may adopt include:
• The relaxation of off-site/redevelopment levies;
• Establishing a tax increment financing zone (TIF);
• The relaxation of fees associated with encroachment agreements and the permitting process;
• The enforcement and contribution to the demolition cost of unsafe buildings within the Hub;
• Assistance in hiring professional architects to design certain prominent sites;
• Establishing alternative equivalent compliance standards for character buildings that will allow owners to meet building codes and life safety criteria, while maintaining the integrity of the building; and
• Providing assistance for the relocation of businesses to the character area that are "most reflective of the use."
Through the use of tax incentives, grants and other assistance programs, Decter Hirst says the city will in turn benefit by increased development downtown, which will grow Brandon’s tax base.
"What we’re doing is priming the pump and making that investment so we get it back again," she said.
"There is a very good business case for making them. It’s not grant money, and it’s not free money. The city needs to expand its tax base."
ENTERTAINMENT AND SHOPPING
At the heart of the downtown, the secondary plan calls for the establishment of a unique entertainment and shopping district that builds upon existing heritage structures in the area.
Essentially, it would become a "pedestrian-first" shopping and dining area with a vibrant streetscape, meaning vehicle traffic would be limited, much like it was during the city’s experiment with creating one-way streets and angled parking on Ninth and 10th streets over the summer.
The first floor in any building that falls within this zone, whether new or old, would be restricted to a mixture of entertainment and specialty shopping uses, including dance studios, theatres, specialty retail stores, restaurants and cafes — things that encourage pedestrian movement downtown.
Anything above the first storey would be for office/business and residential use, with renovation on these higher floors encouraged through soon-to-be-established alternative equivalent compliance standards.
"It’s essentially bringing common sense to how we build second and third floors," Renaissance Brandon board chair and Rosser Ward Coun. Corey Roberts told the Sun. "(Until now), second and third floors have been left vacant because of costs to bringing them up to code."
The pedestrian mall area would provide weather protection with awnings and canopies through the zone. The city would also encourage festivals, sidewalk patios and street vendors, with the focus on Rosser Avenue between Ninth Street and 19th Street.
The city would also tap Brandon’s burgeoning newcomer communities, encouraging them to start up unique businesses downtown to add to the atmosphere.
It’s Decter Hirst’s hope that the entertainment and cultural aspect of downtown will become the "heartbeat" of the city, with the various amenities complementing each other, and attracting new people downtown.
City planners say this new Secondary Plan will prevent the construction of any new large surface parking lots, most notably within the entertainment and shopping zone.
New construction in the character areas will have parking in the rear of the structure or on the street, as new developments will have to be built right up to the sidewalk to keep in character with the existing street.
"There will be no surface parking at all in that area," Nickel said.
"It’s the journey that makes downtown appealing. Places that we love, that have that sense of place ... (Winnipeg’s) Osborne Village for example, that’s the point, to walk down the street."
These parking guidelines are also meant to ensure that new construction does not detract from the character of the downtown. For example, large box store construction would not be a good fit downtown, Decter Hirst said, as that business model requires sprawling parking lots.
"If you need acres of parking because you’re the Home Depot, you shouldn’t be downtown anyway," she said. "Home Depot will find the spot that’s it’s going to fit that business model."
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING
If the downtown is going to flourish, it will require more available housing within walking distance of some of the major points along Rosser Avenue, according to Renaissance Brandon.
While that includes the redevelopment of second and third-stories of character buildings, it would also include encouraging housing for all income levels downtown. Decter Hirst points to the ongoing development of the Massey Harris building as low-income housing, and the renovation of the former McKenzie Seeds building into high-end condo units, as models to be imitated.
But in order to increase the number of people who live downtown, Nickel says it’s important to create a vibrant downtown where people want to live. This will include the creation of new bike paths, small but aesthetically-pleasing pocket parks, and business clusters that create an attractive atmosphere.
"If you facilitate that type of growth, you have to provide the amenities associated to provide those people the type of lifestyle they’ve come to expect."
The Secondary Plan also expresses an intent to drive new development to the downtown area by amending the city’s main development plan, and introducing policies that would inhibit the construction of such things as theatres, government offices and "gaming centres" from being constructed outside of The Hub’s boundaries.
There are also plans to work closely with Brandon University to find ways of expanding its campus into the downtown region.
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Members of the city’s planning department, councillors and Renaissance Brandon members are visibly animated about what the new Secondary Plan will do for the downtown region.
It’s an enthusiasm that they hope will spread among city residents, developers, and downtown merchants alike.
"It is exciting," Roberts said. "This will be a renaissance change for the city. So many corporations judge the vibrancy of a community by how they take care of their downtown.
"We want this to be Brandon’s version of The Forks."
The public is invited to drop by city hall’s main foyer at 420 Ninth Street tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. or from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Renaissance Brandon and the city have created several conceptual drawings that provide some insight into what Brandon’s downtown could look like by 2030, provided councillors adopt the plan over the coming weeks.
Also available to the public will the Renaissance Brandon’s recently released Vision Plan, which outlines, among other things, the organization’s branding as The Downtown Hub, the creation of grants and incentives to attract and re-locate business and real estate investment into the area, and the funding of seasonal concerts and privately operated arts and culture events.
"They’ll be able to visualize everything we’ve been talking about," Roberts said. "It gives us a chance to explain the concepts."
The Secondary Plan as it exists today is only a draft plan, and Nickel says he wants the public to know that nothing in the plan is set in stone.
The whole purpose of the open house tomorrow is to invite constructive criticism, and even suggest other ideas that could be incorporated into the plan.
"I don’t want anyone to think that this is a final product that’s not changeable," Nickel said. "If people come out, we want lots of input.
"I’m actually expecting to make many changes to this document as a result of the open house. It’s not just something to show off. We really want to take input."
Many public and private groups have also been invited to attend the open house, including various developers, seniors groups, organizations that work with housing, and the Construction Association of Rural Manitoba.
"We’re trying to make it as broad as possible," Decter Hirst said.
"I’m hoping they will be as excited about it as we are."
For a complete downloadable PDF copy of the Secondary Plan, visit brandon.ca.