For decades, the section of First Street that descends the North Hill and sinuously winds past the Assiniboine River before soaring over the bridge and into the corner of downtown has been possibly the best way to drive into Brandon.
On your left is the freshly restored architecture of a former mental hospital turned college. On your right, the gleaming surface of the Assiniboine. Parks and fields abound. There are picturesque trees spiking their way into the sky. A retro-styled locomotive and caboose complement the working railway just ahead. Soccer fields and a recreational trail can be filled with athletic pursuit. Motorists can see the distinctive historic water tower in the distance before rounding a corner to see the downtown skyline, reflected in the river.
It’s a classic Brandon drive. But in recent years it has had its share of roadblocks — from dying trees to poorly thought-through architecture to ugly chain-link fences around both the jail and the locomotive in Dinsdale Park.
But perhaps some recent good news may herald a turnaround.
As you’ll read in today’s paper, tens of thousands of dollars will go toward the planting of 60 new spruce trees along First Street to more than replace the ones that were killed in the flood of 2011. That should fill out the boulevard along the S-curve quite nicely. Some will be planted further north to replace those that were cut down during road redevelopment on the hill near Assiniboine Community College.
Some of the money is coming from CN Rail, with the city kicking in cash and labour for an event to make a splashy to-do around the replanting. The tentative date for this event is mid-September, but we propose pushing that back a week. National Forestry Week is slated for Sept. 21-27 this year, and we think this would be a natural fit.
Next up should be a plan to further restore and enhance this greenway entrance to the city. Now that plans to build a subdivision north of the soccer fields have been rejected, there is a civic opportunity to turn it into something recreational.
City planners have done excellent work in conceiving both the Southwest Corner Secondary Plan and the North Gateway Secondary Plan, which will guide Brandon’s growth and development for decades to come.
But perhaps it’s time for a detailed plan for the First Street corridor, from the Trans-Canada Highway to Errol Black Park at Pacific Avenue.
In the future, First Street by the highway will be angled further east, through near-pristine lands that will require a plan. That will do a lot to eliminate the current clutter of unplanned development along service roads at the top of the hill.
Closer to the valley, the ongoing growth of Assiniboine Community College should keep those historic buildings in good shape, but after descending the hill, a few challenges await.
It may be impossible to do away with the necessity of a fence around the jail, but surely we can remove the matching one around the locomotive and caboose in Dinsdale Park. The retro rail cars were a gift from CP Rail in the 1980s, and it’s a shame that Brandonites can only enjoy them from afar. Other communities manage to integrate similar displays into their parks without bowing to vandals and throwing up fences, surely we can do the same.
Now that the province has committed to a complete restoration of the decaying First Street bridge, it is also time to give some hard thinking about what people see as they pull over it into the edge of downtown.
The trees in Errol Black Park may eventually grow into something worth seeing, but for now the green space looks more than a little barren. It could use a little bit of landscaping. Across the street, a vacant lot remains where a tire store burned down. We hope future development for that space is something distinctive and welcoming.
It’s often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. Brandon should take pride in ensuring that First Street gives the best first impression possible.