The Columbia-Washington debate we never heard: Councillors reveal the reasons behind their in camera design decision

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
May 24th, 2012

Questions continue to linger over the design for the Columbia-Washington renovation and the process that led there, particularly on the contentious issue of parallel versus angled parking, so we approached council for comment.

The debate before the final decision by council to revert to angled parking and a narrower sidewalk on the north side of Columbia between Queen and Washington was held in private to protect the confidentiality of the tender process.

Unfortunately, the lack of a public statement after the in camera meeting has left some residents feeling like the effort put into a long process of public input—from the Official Community Plan (OCP) to the design charrettes last year—was thrown away without explanation.

We approached each member of council with the following questions:

  • How did you vote?
  • What issues were the biggest head scratchers for you?
  • How does your decision relate to the SSP (Strategic Sustainability Plan), OCP, and public input through the design charrettes?
  • Do you feel the process that led to this decision was appropriate?

Coun. Jody Blomme and Mayor Greg Granstrom were not available to comment. Both voted in favour of angled parking, however, and the opinions of the other five councillors, thoroughly consider different angles of the debate.

We have separated council’s responses into two categories: design and process. Here we relate councillors’ comments regarding the design. The question of due process is presented in a separate article.

And we also asked merchants and people in the street what they think. It’s all on video here.

Tim Thatcher voted for angled parking

Thatcher said, “I had a lot of seniors talk to me. For seniors to parallel park is very difficult—I’m talking people in their seventies and eighties, especially in that block there by the drug store and the post office. That’s one area seniors need access to.”

“Winter snow removal was a big issue for me. It’s not only for the city crews, but for the store owners too, who have to take care of the snow.”

“Myself, those were huge, huge sidewalks. I had to question whether we needed sidewalks that large. Wider sidewalks are nice, but I think the angled parking is more important, especially for the seniors.”

“It wasn’t just seniors who approached me, there were a lot of other people who approached me about the parallel parking issue. To tell you the truth, I didn’t have anybody come to me and say they were in favour for it. The only time was that one council meeting where there was that group [led by former mayor Bill Profili] in favour of it.”

“There was discussion on alternatives. You know, can we have two or three angled stalls by the post office, along with handicapped. There was discussion on all that, but we made the decision to get rid of the parallel parking.”

“The goals of OCP are goals, they’re not laid out in stone. This is a varied community. There are a lot of younger people, middle aged people, and a lot of seniors. We have to compromise, we have to take care of our own here. If we have to vary from [the OCP] a little bit, I think it’s up to council to do that.”

“I know there was a lot of discussion prior to this project—charrettes and that—but I don’t think they were far away from the OCP. It’s going to be a pedestrian friendly downtown in the design it is now, I’m positive of that.”

“With the bulb outs it’s going to make the crossings safer for all the kids who have to cross the streets to get to school, and easier for our seniors to cross the streets.”

“Motorists will be able to see pedestrians from a lot further away than they can the way the streets are now. I think the bulb outs will probably cut down the jay walking.”

“And those bulb outs will be fairly large, so they will add to the pedestrian friendliness of downtown.”

“I don’t have any problems with this decision, I think it’s appropriate.”

Coun. Kathy Wallace voted for angled parking.

Wallace said, “There were a number [of reasons.] Certainly, having a petition of 600 signatures in a very short time, it is a democratic representation. I think you have to at least acknowledge that voice.”

“There was a savings of about $100,000 since the concrete and asphalt ended up being different prices. There was a savings in going with the size we have now. It’s not a huge savings, but it is a savings. [The sidewalk] is a little narrower, but not by much.”

Note: Before going to tender, ISL and city staff had said the difference between angled and parallel parking would be “cost neutral,” as we reported. Now city staff report that when the tender pricing came in, the cost of concrete and finishing were “significantly higher than originally estimated.” Staff said that concrete prices have gone up across the province, but particularly in the Kootenays, creating an issue for many contractors and builders. The $100,000 in savings relate directly to the difference in cost between concrete and asphalt.

Wallace continued, “[I voted] recognizing that if the community decides they want to have a wider sidewalk, it is a possibility for the community to do in the future. It is far easier to put in concrete than to take it out. If it ended up being a problematic situation with the wider sidewalk, that would have been a costly endeavour.”

“There were snow removal concerns with the wider sidewalk.”

“There are also options for individual businesses to do something in front of their own shop. They could come to council and ask to lease a couple spaces and put a jut-out, a temporary. It would make a lot more sense for our community.”

Note: City staff responded emphatically that vendors “absolutely cannot put patios out in the summer.” Staff discussed these options in detail with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) at the beginning of the design process, and patios can only be put out on Washington St., not Columbia Ave. “The highway is not ours to manage,” staff said.

Wallace said, “The OCP is in favour of pedestrianization, but tell me where in the OCP it says we have to have a double-wide sidewalk between Queen and Washington on the north side of Columbia? Does it say that in the OCP?”

“It says we want to have pedestrian friendly space, which this design will do—traffic calming, et cetera. This design will fit the OCP. And I completely disagree with your tiny little discussion you’re having online that it is otherwise.”

Note: The OCP contains the following goals for downtown: “establish auto-free areas [that are] pedestrian and bicycle oriented;” “encourage outdoor seating for restaurants, cafés, and bars;” “support capital investments … including  streetscape improvements, street furniture, public art, and landscaping;” “investigate … parking areas adjacent to the downtown core.”

Wallace continued, “The bump-outs will [increase pedestrian space downtown], and we’ll focus on Harry LeFevre Square. He was a well-loved mayor of this community and that park certainly does not warrant [sic.] the appreciation the community has for him. We will make sure that Harry LeFevre Square becomes a meeting place for the community.”

“I do get very frustrated. The dialogue that’s going on between you and Adrian [Barnes, Telegraph editor] and two other people, that’s four people. We had a petition in front of us that had over 600.”

“Angled parking is the best fit for our community, and we had a pretty strong voice saying they wanted to maintain angled parking. It doesn’t change the design to something that is non-pedestrian friendly; it still meets the OCP.”

“Just because you have a design architect say, ‘Well, this is the pretty picture that I see,’ doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s exactly what every member of the community that participated in the input process [thought.] Is that what their vision was? That [parallel parking and wide sidewalks] came from an architectural design person.”

“In the end, council decided this was the best thing for the community in the long run.”

Coun. Kathy Moore was out of town when the final design decisions were made.

Moore said, “Had I been there, I would have voted to keep the design as it had been envisioned by ISL as a result of the community input sessions and the guiding principles of the OCP.”

“I realize this would have been an unpopular decision to some people, and a minority view on council, but a lot of the community was in favor of the design and I believe it is important to follow the guiding principles of our OCP and SSP. These two documents were created with much community thought and input and represent the larger, long term vision. This is what I wanted my vote to represent.”

“Council voted to make the changes, however, and I support the decision of the majority.”

“Overall I think the design, as it is now configured, will improve our downtown. Despite not having all of the wonderful pedestrian-friendly features, the bulb outs will provide interest and safety to our downtown core.”

“Additional parking will alleviate some of the congestion, especially if merchants use the new parking areas and leave the spots on Columbia for their customers. The upgraded sidewalks, new trees, and enhanced park areas will provide some needed improvements.”

“[Leading up to the decision,] I struggled with the number of people who were so adamantly opposed to the parallel parking idea, while those in favor remained relatively quiet—other than all those who attended the various public meetings over the course of the last year, or those who wrote to us.”

“But I was also puzzled why the naysayers had not voiced their concerns earlier in the process. Don’t misunderstand me, certainly there were a number of people who had expressed severe misgivings about the design, but they were a fairly small number overall.”

“I was also persuaded by the idea that ultimately people are extremely adaptable and are often opposed to change until it happens, then get over it and adapt.”

“I heard stories of other communities that had resisted change, then loved the result after a period of adjustment. I had high hopes that this would have happened in fairly short order since Rosslanders tend to be quite flexible. In the big picture, the proposed changes weren’t all that dramatic.”

“My decision would have been counter to the folks who signed the petitions in Ferraros. Many of those people had valid concerns and really understood the design—they had legitimate complaints.”

“But a number of others were signing based on flawed information. I spoke with quite a few signers and, once we’d talked, they indicated that they would not have signed if they’d had more information. Quite a few had not even seen the drawings. They thought the whole town would be parallel parking or that the streetscape amenities was going to be prohibitively expensive and result in a huge tax burden among other myths.”

“I believe there was a lot of misinformation circulating in the community. I regretted that the city had not done a thorough job communicating all the ideas of the design or at least done a better job addressing the concerns as they arose.”

“If the city had done as good a job communicating as it is doing now keeping the public updated in the early stages of construction I think there would have been far less confusion about the design itself.”

Coun. Cary Fisher voted for angled parking

“This was truly a head scratcher,” Fisher said.  

“I actually debated this issue in my mind for several weeks prior to coming to the conclusion that I did. The major thought was the issue of convenience versus creating a more pedestrian friendly city.”

“I thought about whether to listen completely to planners and engineers, or listen to a public voice that was variable depending on who you spoke to.  As my decision evolved, it was not about who was loudest or even the greater number.”

“I went out to Columbia and stood there and imagined both scenarios. The additional bump outs and crossings along with some of the amenities came to mind. I saw both and concluded that angled parking was a better option for Rossland at this time.”

“While we are moving toward a more tourism-based community, we really rely on local people spending in local shops. Locals would really like to park in front of the places they shop and elderly folks and people with young children like the safety that angled parking gives them.”

“Whether this is real or perceived is not necessarily germane. What is relevant is the feeling they get.”

“The best part of the decision is that it is still possible to add more concrete at a later date if we decide to go to parallel parking. If Rosslanders really take to parking in the designated parking areas, we can actually add this back in. Had we gone the other direction, taking the concrete out would have been a far greater cost.”

“I made a point of asking people and shop owners what they thought. While I did not speak to all townspeople, I felt I got a good cross-section and good input, [and] relayed this information to council.”

“The tough job about being a councillor is listening and understanding what people really want when they are silent on an issue. It is sometimes not until a crisis occurs that public engagement can truly be effective.”

“Some can argue that not all pipes needed to be replaced, but when speaking to public works it seemed obvious to me that this was the most important part of the project. [And] the MOTI [Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure] timeline was forcing us to make a decision. MOTI paving is a large cost savings that cannot be trivialized.”

“Some people asked me about tree replacement and adding amenities like benches and other things, so I walked around Rossland and had a look at the trees.”

“I had never actually looked at them closely, but the report was correct they were in tough shape and looked to be dying or, in at least one case, dead. This may have been because of poor design or the wrong choice of species.”

“Benches and other amenities may seem crazy to a long-time Rosslander, but in actual fact they create points of interest, places for people to gather, and historical reference. The deleted items may not always be chosen correctly, but they can be added back as we can afford them.”

“My biggest concern with this project was the price tag and the relationship this has to taxes. Public spending is not something I take lightly. In fact, it is the single most important reason I ran for council.”

“When I looked at the bid price and the value we would be receiving, I realized this is a public benefit that will last 50 to 100 years. The prices we received may not be achieved again in our lifetimes.”

“I am not minimizing the costs or the overall budget, but simply pointing out that because times are difficult, contractors are willing to sharpen their pencils and give really good prices.”

“Had we delayed the project for five years, we would have had to pay to repave and pay at least 20 to 40 per cent more for materials and labour.”

“[I know this] from my experience with building roads and actually paying the bills for the Redstone project. When times were more robust in BC, every road builder was busy.  Prices went up 30 per cent from the time we engineered our project until the time we issued a tender.”

“Armed with this knowledge, I voted to proceed with the project.”

“The balance for Rossland and for me as a councillor is constantly questioning: how much do we invest in our future? What kind of town do we want 50 years from now?”

“If we decide that we want everything to stay the same and patch up the breaks and potholes, can we ever be anything more than a town reliant on a single employer—Teck?”

“I think the risk, while unnerving at times, is worth taking. The investment we make in making our town infrastructure and appearance better should pay off in the future.”

“As a business person in this community, and as councillor, I ask this simple question: If we continue to do the same things every year and we lose our population and our schools—as has happened in the last twenty years—then what will the next twenty years look like in Rossland?”

“I choose to believe that Rossland has a bright future and investing in infrastructure like this project helps give us a fighting chance to be more than what we have been.”

Jill Spearn voted for angled parking

Spearn said, “So, the ol’ parallel parking issue…”

“From the very beginning I questioned the design of the downtown core. It appeared to me to be somewhat ‘urban’ in nature and I worried about creating a design that seemed somewhat incongruent for our small rural town.”

“Originally I felt that we should fix the infrastructure below Columbia, put in new sidewalks, pave the highway and be done with it.”

“I thought the streetscape was too extravagant, very expensive, and not in line with the constant cry that taxes in Rossland are too high—which they are. I have always believed that you live within your financial means, and so we should as a city.”

“I still feel the streetscape design is too extravagant for a population of 3500 folks and not growing.”

“We started with a design that, yes, was in line with the OCP and SSP. Those documents are living and, although they reflect the vision of many Rosslanders, do not reflect it for many, mostly the quiet ones who don’t like change and can’t visualize anything different than is.”

“So, yes, the OCP and the SSP are guiding documents, but they are not the be all end all.”

“Council had an email that charged us with being cowardly and “shame on us.” That is outrageous. Speaking for myself, those of us who do the hard work at council, more often than not [we] only strive to find a balance.”

“Talk to the merchants downtown who were adamantly opposed to parallel parking, the seniors, the mid-agers, the physically challenged, and so on. I was lobbied by more people on this issue than any other, most opposed for many reasons.”

“The decision to keep angled parking came because a compromise was not presented to council from ISL. I asked at more than one meeting if we could find a workable compromise, but nothing came forward from either the planning department or ISL.”

“There were lots of possibilities in my mind: five minute stops for a few angled spots in front of the drugstore or post office, signs for disable-only angled stalls, and so forth. But nothing came back.”

“I personally would have loved for us to create a wider more pedestrian sidewalk with parallel parking, but through deliberations I voted for angled knowing that the sidewalk would now be 4 metres wide on behalf of the citizens who felt otherwise.”

“There are lots of positive aspects about this project because, for the most part, the downtown will retain it’s ease of in and out for those who will always be driving to town, myself included on most days.”

“We can be dreamy and idealistic if we wish. The fact is we live in a snow-laden environment which is difficult enough for snow removal in the downtown core in the winter months.”

“Parallel parking is a skill most people can’t even manage to do anymore.”

“There are pros and cons to all plans. Parallel parking just doesn’t work easily on a provincial highway in a downtown core.”

Note: MOTI has argued consistently that parallel parking is safer and their preference over angled parking where provincial highways go through towns.

Spearn concluded, “How about we all focus on the positive elements and move on?”

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