Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Keyano Global Address - Ron Taylor, City Centre Action Plan

There are posts I write almost the second after I leave an event or presentation, as they feel so urgent. There are some, though, that I prefer to mull over for a bit, consider, and think about before I write - and this is one of those.

On December 1st I had the pleasure to attend the most recent Keyano Global Address. These addresses are a series of lectures given by individuals from various fields, and have included some fascinating speakers in the past. This time, though, the topic was one close to both the community and my heart - the plan to revitalize the downtown core of Fort McMurray.

When I moved to this community a decade ago one of the first things I noticed was that while the city was rapidly expanding the downtown area seemed to undergo little change. Of particular concern to me was the beautiful and yet vastly under used river front area. I grew up in Saskatoon, a city that is fundamentally built around it's riverbanks, and to see a lovely spot like our riverfront so neglected saddened me.

One of the other concerns I have always had is that as cities expand their downtown core often dies. That's how you end up with boarded up storefronts, and empty streets. Those things combined can attract a less savoury element to the downtown area, and suddenly you have an empty, boarded up downtown and a crime problem, too.

So, when the RMWB began to release information about the City Centre Action Plan I was intrigued. I was, in fact, excited, and when I received notice of the address by Ron Taylor I knew I had to attend to see exactly what was being envisioned for my community, and for the downtown I worried about.

What I didn't realize before the address is that Ron Taylor comes with an impressive pedigree. This is a professional who has worked on some amazing projects, from Canary Wharf in London to Queen's Quay in Toronto (one I am very familiar with), and to Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. Ron comes with impressive credentials, and I was very anxious to hear what he has envisioned for our community - and I was not disappointed.

As Ron said during the address we are seeing a window of opportunity open in our region. There is accelerated growth in the industry, a competitive job environment, a demand for office and residential space, and the desire for an urban quality of life. All of these elements combine to make a unique opportunity for Fort Mac - and for all of us in the community, too.

Now, there are challenges. We happen to be in a region with a poorly diversified economy, and a limited range of affordable housing. There is a perception of the lack of safety, and a lack of services. There is concern over a high carbon footprint, not enough office space, limited public transportation, a private-vehicle oriented downtown core, an under-utilized waterfront, and missed chances to celebrate our cultural pride and diversity. These seem not only challenging but almost insurmountable. However, the only way to conquer the insurmountable is to face it head on - and that's the plan of the City Centre Action Plan.

The goals of the plan are to attract investment, accommodate immediate growth demands, provide a quality urban life, pursue sustainable development, strengthen connectivity/mobility, preserve/enhance the natural environment, ensure safety/security, and secure a vibrant atmosphere that is present year-round. These seem like lofty goals when one considers the challenges I listed above - and yet I think it's achievable, people. In fact I think it's not only achievable, I think it's crucial. I think we have a chance to do something few cities ever do - change the face of our community.

There are several key elements to achieving the goals of the CCAP. One of the most significant is changing how the downtown core is accessed. By lessening the reliance on private vehicles and encouraging the use of public transportation the streets suddenly become not only quieter but more amenable to pedestrians. Then you add in new pedestrian routes - trails to the newly renovated riverfront, for instance, or a foot bridge to MacDonald Island. Suddenly downtown isn't a place of exhaust fumes and traffic jams - it's the community out walking, browsing in shops, and enjoying our natural beauty. It's  an urban core.

The plan is envisioned in terms of "zones" - the Franklin Avenue Re-Vitalization zone, which means transforming this area into an urban style pedestrian paradise, the Neighbourhood Stabilization Zone, which means the existing neighbourhoods in which the character will be preserved, and the Recreation Zone, which will include MacDonald Island and the waterfront area.

I think we all know change is not easy, people. It can, in fact, be downright painful. The CCAP is ambitious, and there is an immediate need in this community. The question becomes how do we achieve the goals that the CCAP has set? How do we achieve the future?

According to Ron Taylor we start with "catalyst projects". I find this an intriguing idea as small things can become catalysts for large changes. The change can start with several small projects that then coalesce into a cohesive whole, and that appears to be the plan with the CCAP. It will start with things like developing a Franklin Avenue Transit Way, making it into a model of public transit efficiency. It will start with developments like a public square on Franklin, a place where arts and culture can be showcased. It will begin with a waterfront park development on the Snye and Clearwater, and it will include things like a new Civic Centre on the Snye. There will be a pedestrian bridge to MacDonald Island, and a new sports arena. It will include new housing, multi-level parkades, new retail space, and new office space. There is no doubt this is ambitious. There is no doubt it will be challenging. And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is both necessary and achievable.

Since the Keyano Global Address I've thought about this topic a great deal. I've thought about the needs of our community, our goals, and our abilities. One of the things I've thought about most is our ability to dream big, and to aim high. I've met more people of passion, vision, and drive in this community than anywhere else I've ever lived, and I think we are quite unique in that way. We are a community of "why can't we?" instead of "we can't". We are a community who believes in the possibilities. We are a community who can do anything, I think, including taking this crucial turning point in our development and turning it into something amazing. What I know for certain is this - we cannot do nothing. We need to take action, and we need to do it now. And that's why I'm in love with the City Centre Action Plan. It's pro-active, it's exciting, and it has the word "action" right in the title. It's what we need to do, and we can do it. There will be some grief, and bumps along the way. There may be times it feels like we have taken the wrong path. There may be times we think we should just give up. But the future of this community is dependent on us - and that's why we need to pursue this. The time has come - to take action.

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