In recent years, the city of 600,000 has become a regional leader in smart urban design and distinctive architecture. New riverfront parks are transforming Nashville’s connection to the Cumberland River, bikeshare docks have appeared around downtown, bus rapid transit is in the works, and the city’s tallest tower is set to rise. And that’s just the start of it. Take a look at the city’s dramatic transformation and a peek at where it’s headed.
The civic world is obviously more complex than this simple joke. But given the persistent failure to change the trajectory of so many places despite the enormous time and energy — not to mention vast sums of taxpayer money — spent on it, it’s worth pondering the possibilities.
Problems are problems, but they are also sometimes solutions to certain sets of questions. One of these is how to mobilize, allocate, and deploy community resources and power. Fighting decline has become the central organizing principle in many places.
As a friend of mine from the IT industry once put it regarding what he termed “rackets”: “A racket is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix. Upon delving into the roots of a racket one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed — the subject of the racket is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that ‘no one wants’ are not acceptable to [the complainers]. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the rackets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine, far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives than it would be in an each-man-for-himself city.”
In short, economic struggle can be a cultural unifier in a community that people tacitly want to hold onto in order to preserve civic cohesion.
Jane Jacobs took it even further. As she noted in The Economy of Cities, “Economic development, whenever and wherever it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” And it isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo.
They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.
Consider one simple thought experiment: If a struggling community starts booming, that would eliminate a big part of the rationale for subsidized real estate development, which constitutes the principal form of economic development in all too many places, and which benefits a clear interest group. It might also attract highly motivated, aggressive people from out of town, folks who are highly likely to agitate for better than the current inbred ways of doing business. This would inherently dilute the positions of the current powers that be.
I know most of us are more concerned with the roads but have any of you noticed the condition of many of our light standards in the city. Some are almost completely rusted through. I have poked at more than one and had my finger go right through. Others are really swaying in the recent wind.
According to city reports, City Council has not only ignored city roads but also our electrical grid. I know, I know, marking priorities is hard.
There were roads, bridges, and snow to neglect and now we have light poles that are not structurally safe and are rusting out. It’s actually remarkable that council could let so many things at the same time.
Oh wait, amidst all of our infrastructure falling, we have a clear goal. In case you have ever wondered what drives the Mayor and council’s desire to keep taxes low when our city needs revenue, it is Calgary.
Saskatoon’s mayor is eyeing a property tax increase of one per cent per year less than Cowtown’s over the next decade.
In 10 to 15 years, Saskatoon’s tax rate could equal that of Alberta’s biggest city, where ratepayers have the lowest property taxes among major cities in the country, he said.
Calgary has fun with this.
To help set its mill rate, Calgary relies on a so-called municipal inflation rate, a combination of costs for salaries, service contracts, fuel and materials. Saskatoon’s administration is coming up with a formula to calculate its own municipal inflation rate and Atchison has said in the past it makes sense to try to tie property tax hikes closely to that amount rather than the consumer inflation rate.
Property tax increases since Atchison became mayor have averaged 3.7 per cent annually. During the same period, Calgary’s property tax has gone up by an average of 4.2 per cent with the municipal portion jumping an average of 6.5 per cent.
Atchison’s wish already has a fiscally prudent Calgary alderman, Andre Chabot, chuckling.
He notes this spring council chose to boost the education portion of the property tax by a onetime whopping 10.4 per cent to take advantage of the province’s move to cut its portion of the property tax.
By comparison, Saskatoon’s property tax rose by a relatively small four per cent in 2011.
“For the mayor of Saskatoon to make a claim like that, it certainly is a politically astute kind of selling feature for his proposed tax increases,” Chabot said, “because he can always make the argument that it was at least one per cent lower than Calgary’s increase.
So how many miles of roadways does “politically astute” pay for?
Of course there is a reason why Calgary’s mill rate is lower. They collect more business tax.
Jack Vicq, professor emeritus of accounting at the University of Saskatchewan Edwards School of Business, said there are differences between how Saskatoon and Calgary are funded that need to be accounted for. The amount in business tax collected in Calgary keeps its property tax rate lower, he said.
More from Vicq
“Let’s make sure the framework we’re in is the same,” Vicq said. “I would go at it from the perspective of really, what is it we should be doing in the city of Saskatoon and how are we going to do that? And maybe that takes a property tax that is higher than Calgary. You can get into trouble by just looking at Calgary and saying, ‘I want to be there.’
“You might lose sight of what you should be doing as a city or what residents expect as a city.”
As an aside, as the video below shows, I am not sure that our mayor even understands basic tax policy.
Back to what we are talking about.
First of all, the reason we have a lower rate is that we don’t fund the city the same way. We have inferior snow removal and road repair policies to Calgary. We also do things like underfund transit and force them to purchase worn out busses from places like Edmonton. Parts of our bus fleet are so old that people come from all over North America to ride them. The reason we keep using them, they are cheap to run (but you knew that already).
We don’t repair things like light poles is no big shock but now we have the cost of replacing them that is going to be a big shock to the bottom line. Either that or we will just watch them fall over.
If you are ever in budget review meetings, you hear city managers say, “If you cut this amount, I can’t afford to do maintenance on parks” or “We won’t have enough for fuel”. Those things are cut anyway. You know because why do city vehicles need fuel budgeted for properly. In many ways I think you can say that Calgary is getting far more bang for their tax dollars than we do.
Instead of funding the city the way it needs, we have actually developed our own spin that blames “freeze thaw” for bad roads (we don’t have a freeze thaw cycle, it just freezes) or that rain wrecks our roads (because we are too cheap to use rock base and instead only use sand). My favourite is listening to council talk about how brave and hard working our city workers are doing instead of talking about how underfunding is creating this mess. My favourite was when Pat Lorje suggested that city council was under siege last winter because of the lack of snow removal which was something she voted against.
The whole things reminds me of Winston Churchill underfunding the defences of Singapore in 1937 while First Lord of the Admiralty and then calling the British general performance there abysmal when Japan invaded in 1942 and they had no defences to work with.
We have roads that are brutal because the Mayor and council stopped funding the roads years ago. We have light posts that aren’t safe because the city doesn’t have the cash (because of our desire to beat Calgary) and our city is dirty and grimy into July because it is cheaper to clean the streets slowly rather than quickly. We get upset that we don’t have enough swim lessons but underfund leisure services as the city has grown.
Jack Vicq is right. Instead of playing political games, we need a council (who can override the mayor) and fund the city properly. Instead we get a Twitter feed that is constantly tweeting power outages because they take large dividends out of Saskatoon Light & Power, a #BetterRoadsYXE hashtag, new pylons and lots of emails from the city telling me how much they are doing (that’s another topic).
While the 2011 article mentions the mayor, it is also the fault of city council. Darren Hill, Pat Lorje, Charlie Clark & Tiffany Paulsen have all been there at least two terms and are working on their third terms. Mairin Loewen, Ann Iwanchuk, Randy Donauer have all been re-elected once. They are all there when the council pulls a mill rate out of Calgary and agree to it. When you are as integral part of the problem, can you be part of the solution?
Sadly repairing the grid or maintaining the Traffic Bridge doesn’t get people elected. New bridges and low taxes do. This problem isn’t going to go away and if we don’t do something about it in 2016, the mess will be just huge when we do.
“You came, you shopped, you dressed nice – you went to the mall. That’s what people did,” says Lawless, a pseudonymous photographer who grew up in a suburb of nearby Cleveland. “It was very consumer-driven and kind of had an ugly side, but there was something beautiful about it. There was something there.”
Gazing down at the motionless escalators, dead plants and empty benches below, he adds: “It’s still beautiful, though. It’s almost like ancient ruins.”
Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish.
According to longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, numerous midmarket malls, many of them born during the country’s suburban explosion after the second world war, could very well share Rolling Acres’ fate. “They’re going, going, gone,” Davidowitz says. “They’re trying to change; they’re trying to get different kinds of anchors, discount stores … [But] what’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money. That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”
Of course it didn’t help that they were built with no urban planning principles in mind.
For mid-century Americans, these gleaming marketplaces provided an almost utopian alternative to the urban commercial district, an artificial downtown with less crime and fewer vermin. As Joan Didion wrote in 1979, malls became “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes”. Peppered throughout disconnected suburbs, they were a place to see and be seen, something shoppers have craved since the days of the Greek agora. And they quickly matured into a self-contained ecosystem, with their own species – mall rats, mall cops, mall walkers – and an annual feeding frenzy known as Black Friday.
“Local governments had never dealt with this sort of development and were basically bamboozled [by developers],” Underhill says of the mall planning process. “In contrast to Europe, where shopping malls are much more a product of public-private negotiation and funding, here in the US most were built under what I call ‘cowboy conditions’.”
Shopping centres in Europe might contain grocery stores or childcare centres, while those in Japan are often built around mass transit. But the suburban American variety is hard to get to and sells “apparel and gifts and damn little else”, Underhill says.
Same thing in the largely empty Confederation Mall. The mall emptied out after rents skyrocketed in Saskatoon. What used to be disposable income is now needed for rent. In that way, malls are a reflection of the economic health of the surrounding communities.
Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.
“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.
Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.
Meanwhile, in the angry atmosphere that followed the demolition of Penn Station, New York City finally got a Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated Grand Central a landmark in 1967. But the terminal still wasn’t safe. Now hemorrhaging money as Americans turned away from trains and the passenger rail system began to collapse, the New York Central merged with its old rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The chairman and CEO of the new “Penn Central” was one Stuart Saunders, former CEO of the Pennsy, and the man who had torn down Penn Station to build the latest Madison Square Garden.
Bear with us here, as we trace how the troubled new railroad nearly succeeded in tearing down Grand Central — for it says much about how we conduct business and politics in America today.
The dynamic reinforces Nate Silver’s observation after the 2012 elections: “if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”
Among those who identified as most conservative, 75 percent reported they’d prefer to live in a place where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.” Only 22 percent said they’re prefer to live in a place where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.”
The situation was reversed for the most liberal class of respondents. Among this group, 77 percent said they preferred a smaller house, closer to neighborhood amenities. Only 22 percent would opt for the larger, more isolated house, Pew found. The proportions were roughly reversed for conservatives.
Americans overall were roughly evenly split, with 49 percent saying they’re prefer the bigger, more remote house, and 48 percent saying they’d prefer the walkable community. Interestingly, both classes of respondents — conservatives and liberals — showed little love for the suburbs. Just 21 percent of liberals and 20 percent of conservatives said they would prefer living in the suburbs.
Among the factors that were important to liberals and conservatives in choosing a place to live, there were some consistencies and some inconsistencies. Both liberals and conservatives rated living near extended family and strong schools highly. But access to museums and theaters was particularly important to consistently liberal respondents: 73 percent said these amenities were important to them, compared to just 23 percent of consistent conservatives. Liberals were also more likely than conservatives to say it was important to live in a community with a mix of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
The Partnership’s position on Bike Lanes has been consistent.We endorse the idea of protected bike lanes, but only with adequate consideration of traffic flow, special needs safety, and with minimal cost to parking convenience. We have several ideas for how to make this possible by reducing the number of lost parking spots, by making up for lost spots, by providing affordable options for employees to move their cars out of prime spaces, and by enhancing the commercial benefit to downtown businesses. We hope for a chance to collaborate with the city and with the bicycle community to make safe bike lanes come true in a way that all interests can support.
We believe that it is worthwhile to pursue a demonstration of parking-protected bike lanes in downtown Saskatoon because it could simplify safe access for bicyclists. Safe bike lanes would be an additional amenity for downtown employees, customers and residents and would help enhance our downtown brand as youthful, fun, progressive, and healthy. We recognize that every visitor to downtown who switches from driving to biking will have opened up a new parking space for the other drivers.
We simultaneously believe that convenient parking downtown is one of our most critical challenges. The vast majority of employees and shoppers in our winter city currently drive. Many drivers view downtown as more fun, but less convenient. As convenience decreases they may be attracted to our suburban competitors, as has already happened in many other Canadian cities. The parking issue is more complex than simply the question of how long it takes for shoppers to find a metered space. It also involves finding acceptable parking solutions for employees. It involves finding alternatives to unsightly gravel surface parking lots which currently are heavily relied upon to serve a legitimate need. Proper parking management should involve measuring and projecting parking needs as our economy changes and as people’s transit choices change. It should involve finding solutions when there is a deficiency. We categorically reject a philosophy of “management by neglect” whereby car convenience is left unmanaged with the hope that its deterioration will drive visitors to other transit methods. Downtown is too important to take that chance.
For these reasons we hope for an opportunity to collaborate with the city and with the bicycle community to make safe bike lanes come true in a way that all communities can support, thus ensuring the longevity of this demonstration project.
A couple of months ago I discovered that BridgeCity.ca was available to be registered and I scooped it up. I had wanted a domain to document Saskatoon on for years and this seemed to be as good as place as ever.
Since then I have been uploading photos. Most of them are of Saskatoon but a few are from outside of our city limits. My inspiration for this has been the amazing photoblog Winnipeg Love Hate. If you have never been there before, you really need to check it out. Bryon Scott has done an amazing job of documenting his city and I hope to do the same for Saskatoon.
If you want to read more about Bridge City, you can find out the information here. It’s RSS feed is here. I have been managing to update the site four days out of seven. Hopefully that will increase to five out of seven.
Francois Biber joins David Kirton to talk about bike lanes on the Saskatoon Afternoon Show.
Excellent summary of the issues by both of them.
Just previous to this segment, Kirton expressed his frustration with city councillors, the mayor, and city administration being pro-car. Listen below.
Another report has come out in support of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), an innovative way to provide public transit at a low cost with dedicated bus lanes, stops, and schedules.
The study (PDF), from pro-transit group Embarq, found that BRT drastically reduced commute times, improved air quality, and cut road fatalities in congested cities like Bogota, Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Mexico City. And we already know that BRT is one of the most cost-effective public transit investments a municipality can make.
The catch? In most cities examined in the report, those benefits only extend to low- and middle-class residents. (In Johannesburg, the poorest residents did not use BRT).
“Since the dominant benefit is travel time savings,” the study’s authors wrote, “the majority of benefits tend to accrue to the strata most represented by BRT users — typically lower- and middle-income.”
While it’s great to have a system that improves transportation access for the majority of a city’s population, BRT’s mass appeal could — ironically — be a political concern that prevents its adoption, at least in the U.S. As Alex Pareene wrote in Salon, public transit often suffers because politicians and donors rarely rely on it. The results show in the states, whose existing BRT systems lag behind those in cities around the world.
Even in densely populated and traditionally liberal cities like New York and Minneapolis, politicians neglect transit. And “because they don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people who rely on it every day, there’s almost no hope for cheap, efficient mass transit options anywhere,” Pareene wrote.
Indeed, the Embarq report echoes the public transit wealth gap, and cites that most BRT systems are often paid for by tax revenue collected from those who may never ride it. Bogota’s famed TransMilenio was financed by increased gasoline taxes, and all the systems required both substantial investment and support from municipalities.
But the Embarq report also showed that BRTs benefited cities with environmental and productivity gains more than they strained financial resources. For example, the average commuter in Istanbul now gets to and from work about an hour faster thanks to the Metrobüs, and Mexico City’s BRT system reduced air pollution enough to save 6,000 sick days a year.
As cities continue to grow and congestion increases, the benefits of BRT may become impossible to ignore — even to the rich and powerful folks who are stuck in traffic.
You see the same thing here in Saskatoon. After last night’s City Council meeting, you could almost say the same things about bike lanes.