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  • The frustrations of North Hill housing

    Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    A short post that sprung to mind after reading Tuesday's story about the need for new housing at Assiniboine Community College's still-in-progress North Hill campus.

    You can read between the lines that both ACC prez Mark Frison and Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell are a bit frustrated by the slow pace of progress in what was once known as ACC@BMHC.

    The transition from vacant former mental hospital to vibrant college campus has been a remarkable success, in my opinion, allowing ACC programs like Culinary Arts to blossom in a way that was impossible at the Victoria East campus.

    I recall covering a Grey Owl event on Victoria East. Although the students were just as eager, and the food just as good, the surroundings and the vibe were light years behind what's available now on the North Hill.

    Not only is the Grey Owl student restaurant now one of Brandon's premier dining events, it's also a hot ticket that sells out in hours. In their new space, ACC students have also managed to add other popular events like an annual wine-and-food pairing, a similar beer-pairing event that morphed last year into a Harvest on the Hill event showcasing a new greenhouse and other locally-produced food.

    It's something that would be fantastic anywhere, and I'm pretty proud that it's here in Brandon.

    But it's not just food and hospitality students. That was Phase 1 of the ACC@BMHC move. Phase 2 included trades and technology students at the new Len Evans Centre.

    While I'm on record as being disappointed by the lack of architectural care given to the new building — I see the need for a utilitarian shop, but it verges on being architecturally disrespectful at a site and location that deserved better — the program itself is paying dividends to a region that is badly in need of trained tradespeople.

    Anecdotally, I know of at least two Winnipeg students who came out specifically to take a two-year course in Brandon: renting a place here, and participating in the local economy instead of Winnipeg's.

    So I think it's obvious that we should be moving forward on Phase 3 of the college's North Hill move.

    In the meantime, ACC staff have been working with Manitoba Housing todevelop student-led family housing on the hill. The first designs call for a 32-unit building with a combination of two-, three- and four-bedroom units.

    That's a good start, but renovating the other buildings up there will take a huge commitment of time and money.

    What interests me is that the planing is clearly for the long-term. Just check out the convoluted drive that you have to take now to come in around from the back, through a traffic circle that was obviously built for decades of expansion. That's great.

    Unfortunately, the same level of attention hasn't been given to pedestrians. Once you're on campus, it's a gloriously treed and grassed expanse. It's really delightful for strolling, and that's clear from the dozens of weddings that arrange photo shoots up there every year.

    But what about walking TO the campus?

    That's what those Winnipeg students thought they'd be able to do. They were renting a basement suite near the hospital and from checking Google Maps, they thought it would be a straight shot up First Street and they could walk or bike. Why, there was even a walkway and bike path most of the way there.

    I think they drove it the first day, and decided that walking or biking wouldn't be worth their time.

    Sure, the college can't be blamed for the very poor pedestrian/cycling connections across the First Street Bridge. And it's not their fault that the trail hooks left at Kirkcaldy, instead of connecting with the campus.

    But they also haven't gone out of their way to build pedestrian connections, either.

    At least two former vehicle entrances from First Street have been closed off to public traffic, and it would have been relatively easy to convert them to pedestrian/cyclist-only, with a couple of bollards.

    Instead, when the province rebuilt First Street, the tore out at least one of the roads and put in a ditch — severing the connection for everyone.

    Of course, with no sidewalk or walkway along there, people would be reduced to using the shoulder, but you have to think that it would have been a minute addition to the roadway plan.

    The worst example of this irks me every time I drive by it.

    The college needs housing, granted. But there's brand-new housing at the top of the hill, just across the street. It's four buildings of medium-density housing. I'm not sure whether it's rental or whether they are condos for sale, but if there was enough demand for student housing, they COULD have been rentals.

    Unfortunately, even though they are right across the street from ACC, there is no way for someone to cross the street without a car. There's no pedestrian crossing, there's no sidewalk, there's only median and ditch and vehicles whizzing by at 80-100 km/h (despite the 70 km/h speed limit).

    And those aren't the only residences, either. Everything north of Kirkcaldy is single-family homes. Surely some of them would like to rent out rooms or basement suites to college students who would like to be able to walk to class every day.

    Unfortunately, the only good place to cross First Street is back down on Kirkcaldy, necessitating a hike back up the hill on the sidewalk-free other side before eventually getting to a college entrance. Past the jail, I might add.

    Although I'm a proud Brandon University alumnus, I'm really keen on the ACC North Hill move, and I think it's been excellent for both the city and for the college. Housing, too, is a smart next move. Not only is it something that obviously helps the college, but it also aids the city, which is grappling with a very tight tenancy market.

    So I welcome the continuing push.

    But maybe some of the time, effort and money can go into better integrating the college with the nearby neighbourhoods.

    Brandon's growing — and the North Gateway Secondary Plan envisions it growing up and around the rest of ACC in the coming decades. Paths and walkways and connections of all types are a lot easier to lay now than they will be in the future.

    I'd also like to note that the Victoria Avenue East campus of ACC is bracketed by a well-used bike path that continues down along Victoria towards the Hydro plant and almost to the dump, or curves along 17th Street East through a very industrial area of town.

    It's almost shocking that there is any kind of pedestrian or cycling amenity in those areas — and yet there are. In fact, I use them all the time. And I'm not the only one.

    If paths past the dump and Koch can be popular, then a path past the jail can be. Especially since it would then lead to the gorgeous North Hill campus, and possibly link up with paths that connect down to the Sportsplex and the Hanbury Hill area.

    0 comments

  • How to make Brandon better, in one by-law

    Wednesday, Apr. 16, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    I just finished reading, with interest, the draft version of Brandon's proposed new Urban and Landscape Design Standards Manual.

    Although it's not yet final, it's pretty close to being done. There have been two open houses for public feedback, and just a few revisions are anticipated before it is made official.

    My colleague Jill Austin did a great overview of it in the paper on Wednesday, and if you're a policy wonk like me, you can read the draft PDF on the city's website yourself.

    To my eyes, it's clear that a huge amount of needed work has gone into refreshing this document. It's been slimmed from a behemoth of 130 pages down to a VERY readable 14 pages, which should encourage a lot of people — developers, planners and just plain interested citizens — to actually read the thing.

    That's great.

    Another great move is that the standards included in the manual have largely been moved from "suggestions" that developers have been free to ignore (to the city's detriment) into the category of "mandatory requirements".

    That is also great. Rules that you're free to ignore aren't rules at all.

    But, of course, these newly streamlined and enforceable rules will only apply to new devlopments. And although recent plans for both the southwest corner, southern approach and nothern gateway to the city predict thousands of new residents and hundreds of new developments, those will take decades (or generations) to fully come to fruition.

    And even then, only new builds will be affected by the new standards. Existing buildings — no matter how ugly or non-conforming — get to stay ugly and non-conforming.

    I have an idea to change that. And all it would take is a single move by city council.

    Of course, it's a move that would take a ton of what they call cojones.

    I would add a single line to the plan, or to the by-law that incorporates it. This line would read:

    "All existing properties must also conform to these standards within 10 years or be subject to a surtax that is equal to their annual property tax bill."

    Yes, give existing buildings a decade to upgrade their look and design, and then double their property taxes until they comply.

    Tough? You bet. Fair? I think so.

    Existing developments are notorious for being pedestrian unfriendly and bare-bones when it comes to look and feel. They're not great even from the perspective of motorists, either, and they often don't fit into any of the city's hopes for safe, healthy and attractive environments.

    The new rules aren't onerous, and many existing developments will just need to be prodded to plant a few trees, to pave a few sidewalks, and to freshen up their exteriors a little bit more.

    The new rules don't apply to single-family homes, nor to industrial plants. And, under the new rules, commercial developments that find themselves in impossible-to-comply situations are still able to apply for variations to allow for that.

    If I had my druthers, the surtaxes would go towards other civic beautification — more walkways, bike paths and pocket parks, for example. But the city could also hold them in reserve like the hotel tax, for special projects. Or they could go as prizes to the best-designed developments in town as a carrot to match the stick.

    But, of course, the real hope is that no surtaxes be collected at all, and that every development in town take a look at these 14 pages of very readbale guidelines, and realize that it wouldn't take very much to upgrade themselves at all.

    And we will all benefit from a better designed city.

    2 comments

  • Brandon’s battered bridges

    Friday, Mar. 14, 2014 at 2:50 PM

    Here's the current Brandon bridge tally, by my count:

    • Pedestrian bridge: Closed since 2011
    • Eighth Street bridge: Closed since mid-January, except to pedestrians
    • First Street bridge: Needs immediate reinforcement (and by immediate, I mean they promise by 2015)
    • Daly Overpass: Needs expansion to four lanes, but that's not coming before 2016
    • Thompson Bridge: So new the pavement is still sinking (lol!)

    Not looking too good, is it? Let's take a closer look:

    First Street Bridge

    It was a surprise announcement yesterday that the province will make the First Street bridge its priority after an engineering assessment found that it was in dire shape.

    "When the engineers tell us a project should be a priority, we listen," Premier Greg Selinger said, in annoucing the project. Pre-construction and design work is slated for this year, with construction to begin next year.

    The mayor sounds like she was surprised, and Drew Caldwell (his constituency includes the bridge) said he didn't know how serious the bridge's condition was until Thursday.

    Well, I'm no bridge engineer, but I'm an East End resident, and I walk or ride over and under that bridge regularly. Its condition is no surprise to me.

    There were public concerns about the bridge being raised four years ago. Although the link now goes to a 404-error on the city's website, then-Coun. Errol Black brought it to city council in 2010.

    At that time, city engineer Ted Snure wrote that a provincial inspection of the First Street bridge had found no problems, but he pledged to stress to the province that there was a need for continued maintenance — even cosmetic maintenance. The First Street bridge had been partially repaved in summer 2010 (it was again in 2012), but concerns remained about the condition of the metal guard rails and the concrete sidewalks.

    Those concerns have definitely not been addressed. In the wake of the 2012 Winnipeg bridge tragedy (where a woman's SUV popped through decaying guardrails before plunging to the ice below) I wondered if there would be a province-wide push to assess and upgrade guardrails, but there's been nothing that I've heard of.

    That's too bad — the metal guardrails on the First Street bridge are frightening in their state of rot. There are places I can put my fist right through. Crumbling cement at their base doesn't exactly spark confidence in my security as a pedestrian, either. And that's not to mention that the "sidewalk" is merely a strip of gravelly cement that runs inches away from high-speed traffic.

    About that traffic — the speed limit is 50 km/h, but you won't find anyone going that slow.

    In 2012, when the province was microsurfacing the top of the bridge to provide a smoother driving surface again, residents again raised concerns.

    At that time, Ruth Eden, a director of structures, design and construction with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, stressed that there were no safety concerns, but she admitted the bridge is in need of work.

    At that time, she said the bridge was already in the province's five-year plan, so getting it now in 2015 is only — at maximum — a couple of years early.

    Eden said in 2012 that the plan then was to re-do the deck completely, to replace the railings entirely, and to get underneath at the girders as well.

    "(We’ll be) looking at the girders … what we need to do to them and any of the concrete under the bridge too, so we go in and re-do the bridge to get another 40 years out of it," she told the Sun more than 18 months ago.

    Sounds like exactly what they're proposing to do in 2015.

    So — what's changed in the last year and a half to turn it from "it's in our five-year plan" to make it sound like an emergency? That's a question the province needs to answer.

    By the way, when they re-do the bridge, they should pay particular attention to improvements for pedestrians and cyclists. There is a ton of residential on the south side of the bridge, and it connects well with both southwest-side sidewalk to downtown and to the city's trail network on the northeast side, where Errol Black Park is. But on the north side of the bridge, where the trail network continues, and where there is substantial recreational space, there is no connection at all.

    On the north side of the bridge, cyclists and pedestrians are suddenly dumped onto the shoulder of what's essentially a highway, with zero facilities to make use of, and no way to get where they are going. It's not just annoying, it's dangerous.

    Daly Overpass

    (above: that is my all-time favourite Daly Overpass photo)

    Once the province has gotten First Street all fixed up (hope it doesn't flood!) they'll be able to focus on the Daly Overpass.

    That overpass, which I'm fond of describing in web updates for the Sun as a "notorious bottleneck," has needed four lanes instead of three probably since it was first built, some 50 years ago.

    But I think we can lay blame for the traffic troubles squarely at the feet of city planners and councillors who allowed massive retail development in a pristine green space that is also a flood plain (cough, Corral Centre, cough) without any forethought about the infrastructure needed to service it.

    The developer deserves some opprobrium as well; let's not forget about the fact that there are two commerical shopping centres side by side (Corral Centre and The Paddock) which are not interconnected. A separate turning lane had to be constructed, post-hoc, to accommodate them, and the traffic is horrendous.

    I won't spend too much time on the fact that pedestrians at the popular Riverbank Discovery Centre have to cross the intersection three (THREE!!) times if they want to cross from the walking trails to the Starbucks, and that there are barely haphazard facilities for non-motorists in the parking lot itself.

    So, it's pretty clear to everyone that the Daly Overpass needs a fourth lane.

    But it, too, needs more than driving space. Although there is moderately more pedestrian protection on the Daly Overpass than there is on the First Street bridge, it's certainly not suitable for cyclists, and it's not exactly accessible for pedestrians, either (the Pacific Avenue crossing is annoying, for one).

    I have a pie-in-the-sky dream that a Daly Overpass expansion could be coupled with a pedestrian walkway that is bolted to the old warehouse at 18th Street and Pacific Avenue.

    Although that old building (used to house a duck processing plant) is currently used for furniture storage, it has great potential. I was lucky enough to have a tour a few years ago, and it's in pretty good shape inside. To my eye, the building could be converted into a Forks-style mini-market, with main-floor access from Pacific Avenue and second-floor access from a walkway that's about the height of the overpass.

    Meanwhile, the province pledges that it's on the five-year plan, which only means that they're promising to start it before 2020. We shall see.

    Thompson Bridge

    The almost-brand-new two-span bridge across the Assiniboine River on 18th Street is, for pedestrians and cyclists, pretty great. There are even great walk/bike facilities on the west side of the bridge, despite there being no access to it.

    It, too, had to be rushed to completion after the ill-planned Corral Centre was built. And, despite delays and overbudget issues, it's lucky it was done before the 2011 flood.

    And yet, years later, we're still dealing with sinking pavement in the bridge approaches. They were shored up in 2012, but you'll note that there are still big bumps before and after the bridge — big enough on one side to require warning signage.

    So yes, it's nearly brand-new — but I'm starting to worry parts of it are a wee bit lemony.

    Eighth Street bridge

    Two months. It's been closed for two months, since mid-January, when a truck took out a lateral support beam.

    At the end of January, the city said that repair work could start "next week" — but there's been zero visible progress since then.

    Now, we're not quite at Brown-Block levels of delay, but it's starting to be more than a brief inconvenience. Bus routes have been rerouted, and residents of the flast have been forced to trudge over the bridge — during the coldest winter in decades — instead of being able to drive.

    Fixing up the bridge is, of course, temporary at best. It has needed a rebuild for years. In fact, at one time, it was slated to have been completely replaced "by 2013."

    There was a flurry of planning, with several options presented to the city, but it's fallen off the radar recently. There have been suggestions that it would be best just to turn it into a pedestrian bridge. I guess the last two months have been a trial of that idea.

    Personally, I think that's better than some of the proposals that would have seen it turned into more of a thoroughfare through downtown, with a realignment of the bridge to line up with Ninth Street or with Fifth Street. Either of those options, in my opinion, would just lead to more vehicles going through downtown — not stopping — in efforts to bypass First Street or 18th Street. More congestion, with no benefit to downtown businesses at all.

    Once again, though, whatever happens with it, the pedestrian and cyclist situation over that bridge is currently abysmal, and that portion of it needs a rethink as well as an upgrade.

    Pedestrian bridge

    Oh yes, the forgotten way to cross the river.

    Once one of the most popular recreational options in the city, the pedestrian bridge on the Red Willow Trail has technically been closed ever since the flood of 2011. There's no one stopping you from making your way down the trail, of course, but it's still mucky and overgrown, with hastily-built dikes meaning you have to scramble up or down a steep clay-and-gravel slope to access the south end. It's easier to get to the north end of the bridge, but there is still a sign that warns that path is closed.

    Three summers it's been closed, which shows you the priority that this once-jewel-in-our-crown currently has in Brandon. I'd be curious to know what kind out outrage there would be if any non-pedestrian bridge had been closed this long.

    Or if a pedestrian bridge had been closed in any other community for this long.

    With progress finally being made over the winter in clearing brush from the affected riverside parks, I'm hoping that the paths will be tackled this summer.

    Of course, if you look back at the Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan from the '90s, we were supposed to have three more pedestrian bridges by now, so holding my breath, I ain't.

    --------

    Whew. That was a lot about the bridges. I can't believe that there is something wrong with ALL FIVE of the bridges in Brandon!

    It might be a tad nit-picky, some of it (sinking approaches are hardly the end of the world), but it highlights the concrete (sorry) effects of the infrastructure deficit that Brandon finds itself saddled with.

    For various political reasons, it's always easy to find money for new roads, and new bridges. It tends to be tougher to come up with the cash for preventative maintenance.

    (As an aside, if I let my lawn get overgrown, the city'll mow it for me, and then make me pay them back. Why don't they try that with the province? Just do the Daly Overpass work ourselves and send Broadway the bill.)

    At any rate, it sounds like we will have an expensive few years ahead of us, rebuilding all our bridges.

    My wallet looks forward to it.

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