Agenda October 22 here
Stadium Vote: By now you’ve probably heard that my motion to rescind Council’s previous direction and stop work on the CFL stadium proposal was lost. The vote was 8-9. Voting with me were Councillors Mason, Cleary, Smith, Zurawski, Outhit, Whitman, and the new guy from Sackville, Paul Russell. While 8-9 is a close vote, a motion to rescind requires 2/3rds, so I actually needed 11 to carry the day. I was short by three, not one.
What was startling to me was that, during the debate, no one spoke favourably about the proposal. Several councillors who actually voted against my motion said that they didn’t find any of the five financial options proposed by the Schooners acceptable. Several also indicated that they didn’t support the Shannon Park location. The concerns expressed are encouraging because, when the stadium staff report comes back to Council with a recommendation, it won’t be a 2/3rds vote, it’ll be a simple majority. If the eight of us that voted to scrap the Schooners proposal do so again, we will need just one of the other nine to join us. Predicting Council can be tough because there are no political parties. There are no whipped votes at City Hall. We’re 17 independents trying to figure out what’s best and people can, and do change their minds. That said, given the doubts expressed and tone around the room, I have real hope that the Schooner proposal will eventually be rejected and we can get on with the original vision for a redeveloped Shannon Park. This week’s 8-9 vote isn’t the end of this debate.
On the other hand though, the 8-9 result was frustrating because I fundamentally don’t understand how several of my colleagues can not like anything that the Schooners are proposing, but still think it’s a good idea for staff to continue analyzing the submission. Staff time isn’t free! What I find most distressing isn’t so much the monetary cost of the analysis, it’s the opportunity cost. Completing an analysis of the stadium proposal is going to take skilled staff in Parks and Rec, Transportation, Planning, Transit, Legal, and Finance off of other projects, which means other things on the to do list are going to be delayed. Why pull staff off of other priorities to work on something that appears to have so little chance of success? It just doesn’t make any sense to me if you’ve already concluded that it’s likely going nowhere.
In fairness to my colleagues, I think some of them were equally baffled by my move to try and stop further work on the CFL stadium before the staff report has come back. That’s not typically how things work at City Hall and, as a result, I got the sense that some of them were truly puzzled around why I went down this route. I’m not one for political stunts, but I’m also not one to sit idly by when I truly feel we’re heading in the wrong direction. For me, it really was as simple as reviewing the Schooner’s proposal and not seeing any prospect of something workable that I or the people I represent could support. That’s why I tried my luck at rescinding Council’s previous motion rather than waiting for the staff report. I couldn’t in good conscience let this just drift on auto-pilot into a major staff undertaking, without a check-in with Council.
But wait, couldn’t the proposal change you ask? If we were to walk now won’t we miss out on the chance to negotiate? It all depends on if you consider what’s in front of us to be remotely acceptable. The Schooner’s have asked for HRM and the Province to pay to build the stadium, contribute to the ongoing capital costs, give up tax revenue for the development (maybe all of Shannon Park), fix the off-site transportation infrastructure, and take on a lot of the risk by guaranteeing the loan and by HRM being reimbursed for some expenses by the team (if the team folds, there is no one to pay us). All the Schooners propose to do is add bleachers to get the stadium up to CFL size, and cover the operating expenses. It’s a really underwhelming pitch.
Professional sports across North America depend on the public sector to subsidize their operations by building stadiums. It’s repeated over and over and over again. Once a city has a team, there is often a high stakes game of chicken concerning who pays for upgrades or new facilities with sports teams more than willing to threaten to leave if government doesn’t contribute. The financials are inherently high risk. In Manitoba, the provincial government has had to write off a $200 million loan for the new Blue Bombers Stadium because the associated real estate project didn’t turn out as planned. Even Lansdowne Park in Ottawa, an example that many have pointed to as a successful stadium model for HRM to consider, might still prove to be a financial dud. Lansdowne has lost money in every one of the five years that it has been operating, including the year that the Redblacks won the Grey Cup. If things don’t change, Ottawa could end up $62 million short.
The Schooners aren’t going to suddenly find $100 million of their own money to invest in a stadium in a small market like HRM when other jurisdictions build facilities and take on risks on much more favourable terms. Why would they do that when the norm is that government will pay the bills? Maybe they’ll be some tinkering with the options the Schooners presented, but negotiations aren’t going to transform this from an almost wholly publicly funded effort into a private-sector project. That’s not going to happen. A move from Shannon Park to a different site might be somewhat more likely, but even that mightn’t be possible. The Schooners need not just a stadium, but also nearby redevelopment that they can share municipal tax revenue from. Shannon Park has that opportunity, but that’s not true of all vacant sites out there. The Schooners have spent two years working out a deal for Shannon Park with Canada Lands and all their more detailed work has been based on that location. It’s possible that the location could change, but I wouldn’t bet on it. What the Schooners are asking for is so far from what I could see myself voting for, due to cost and location, that I don’t see negotiations turning it around and so it just doesn’t make sense to continue.
In the end Council, rejected my attempt to end this now and instead set a check-in deadline for December. None of us can really say what will come forward in December because the CAO indicated that it mightn’t be enough time to have completed any meaningful analysis. There might be a staff recommendation, there might not be. We’ll have to wait and see. For the record, below was my pitch to my colleagues to bail now rather than waste further time and energy on this.
Boulevard Gardening: While my stadium motion was given a rough ride, Council was much more agreeable to my other motion: developing guidelines for verge/boulevard gardening. HRM’s Streets Bylaw tasks homeowners with maintaining the space between the sidewalk and the curb (aka the verge, median, or boulevard). For the most part, this is forgotten space that is never used for anything more than storing snow in the winter and setting out garbage for collection. The Streets Bylaw requires homeowners to cut any grass that might be growing there to a height of 6 inches, but it’s completely silent on alternatives to grass in this space. As a result, there is a perception that HRM doesn’t allow gardening. It’s a sort of grey area in HRM’s bylaws/rules: not prohibited, but also not defined.
Despite the ambiguity, many people around HRM have taken it upon themselves to transform their boring boulevards into gardens. This is something that should be encouraged for several reasons. Gardens are great for stormwater management as thirsty garden plants take up much more rainwater than grass does. Some municipalities, such as Guelph, even install or offer incentives to create rain gardens. Boulevard gardening also creates habitat for life. Grass is, for the most part, a monoculture that provides very little from an ecological point of view. In Seattle, planting along streets has been deliberately undertaken to link isolated park spaces together in an effort to improve habitat for pollinators (see Pollinator Pathways). There is a community pride piece. Boulevard gardening is low-cost placemaking and beautification. It’s a great way to meet neighbours, enhancing those informal ties that helps make society function. Finally, people who garden as a hobby are healthier in mind and body. There really is no reason why HRM shouldn’t be encouraging, with the appropriate rules, alternatives to boring old grass on the boulevards.
So if some people are already gardening their boulevards, why am I trying to complicate things with guidelines? Two reasons. First, HRM should put any ambiguity to rest and clearly identify that gardening is allowed on the boulevards, subject to reasonable limitations. Second, I’m hoping to partner with a non-profit and use a small portion of District 5’s capital fund to create an incentive program for homeowners to encourage more bouelvard gardening. Over the last six months as I have been working on the idea with staff, it has become clear that it’s one thing for HRM to allow gardening to go on independent of the municipality, as it occurs now, but it’s quite another for HRM to offer incentives without also setting out appropriate guidelines.
From looking around at what other cities have done (Vancouver, Victoria, Saskatoon) guidelines shouldn’t have to be overly restrictive or burdensome. There is a lot of commonality between cities, with most places setting rules around:
- how tall plants can be,
- how wide beds can be before there is a break to ensure people can access the road and sidewalk
- prohibitions around permanent structures such as irrigation systems,
- restrictions on how far down you can dig,
- protections for street trees,
- requirements to avoid other infrastructure on the verges such as mailboxes and fire hydrants,
- selection of species that disappear in the winter so as to not impede the sidewalk plow
I was pleased that Council agreed to look at boulevard guidelines. It would be nice to launch District 5 in Bloom in 2020, but the time needed for staff to return to Council might mean this is something for 2021 instead. We’ll see.
- First reading on changes to the bylaws around parking meters and residential permit parking
- Second reading for bylaw changes that will see HRM take over responsibility for road signs on private roads
- Initiated a planning process to consider a townhouse development on McPherson Road in Fall River
- Appointed newly sworn in Sackville Councillor Paul Russell to Council’s Audit and Finance Committee and the Community Planning and Economic Development Committee
- Requested a staff report to tweak the district capital fund policy to allow for grants of more than $500 to informal non-profit associations, on restricting the use of animals in entertainment at municipal facilities, and on the delivery of garbage collection near Dalhouse and SMU