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The frustrations of North Hill housing

Google Street View image of medium-density housing on 18th Street North.

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Google Street View image of medium-density housing on 18th Street North.

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.

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