I had a number of good discussions with officials on trees, road placements, the transit system, and the city's economy in general. I also had a long discussion with a reporter from the Times &Transcript, Yvon Gauvin. And in the article that followed Thursday, he devoted five paragraphs to the conversation.
Let's go through them one by one.
"Stephen Downes agreed [that the downtown part of Main Street should be closed]. Turn part of Main Street into a pedestrian mall with St. George Street and Assumption Boulevard as main thoroughfares, he suggested. Additions like a convention/activity centre, multi-level parking garages, movie theatre, museum, arts centre, night clubs and more would provide the attraction to draw the crowds."I did. Main Street should be a mall, and St. George and Assumption - two streets that parallel Main - should handle the east-west traffic flow. But I also said in the same sentence that there should be a transit corridor in between, running along Queen and Gordon Street. I also said there should be pedestrian access from the transit corridor to the mall via shorter pedestrian routes along Robinson Court and Orange Lane. I mentioned Ottawa and Calgary as examples of this structure. I drew a little map on a piece of paper:
The sentence about the 'additions' was the product of a number of separate remarks made in a back and forth conversation. Gauvin raised two major issues he wanted me to address: first, the (perceived) lack of parking downtown, and second, a way to restore the retain sector downtown.
With respect to the parking, I said that the problem is that downtown Moncton is mostly parking already. Look at a Google Map, using the satellite view, straight down on Moncton downtown, I said. It's mostly parking! There's actually no room for retail outlets to locate, and because there's so little room for actual buildings, there aren't enough people downtown to generate the critical mass.
We didn't have the Google Map handy, but I can make the point here (the yellow blocks represent parking spaces):
So what I said was, that if we built a downtown events centre or convention centre, we should build a five-story parking garage. St. Paul does this, I pointed out, and even Saint John has one. I argued that what actually enables the holding of so much land in speculation, using it as parking space, is existing tax law that encourages parking lots and discourages the building of buildings downtown. We had a bit of a discussion on this point.
Gauvin asked, what about the free market? I replied that there's always going to be some tax system, and that the city should look at their tax policies and ask themselves, what is the free market going to do in the light of different tax policies. He said people aren't going to walk downtown, and I pointed out that a parking garage would be more convenient - go down the stairs and step out on Main Street, instead of searching all over for a parking spot and then hiking back to Main.
Additionally, I argued that the proposal to encourage retail development downtown is misguided. Moncton has two very well established retail areas, Champlain Mall, which is right at the edge of downtown (just to the right of the area in the parking photo above), and Trinity Drive / Plava Bvld. These places are where people will continue to shop. A downtown - not just in Moncton, but in any number of cities you care to name - are the home to attractions people want to visit - not just bars and cafes (though it's odd that every coffee shop downtown closes after 5) but theatres (there's no cinema downtown. Why?), museums, art galleries, a concert hall, and an arena or events centre.
Downes also agreed that public consultation was a good idea. Moncton needs input on planning. They don't always get it right by themselves, he quipped.
I did say that. I also said that it would be true no matter who is in charge. I also said that I had more faith in city officials than the newspaper has.
On the negative side are the sidewalks he calls pedestrian-hostile, and the transit system. Both need to be rethought, he said.
I did, including using that exact phrasing. I pointed to the example at Trinity Drive, walking across the bridge at Mapleton going toward Costco, where your sidewalk ends and you're faced with a 20 foot wall instead of access to the mall. And at the other end of the same mall, the area where it is impossible to use sidewalks to go to Old Navy, even after the city admonished people for not using the crossing lights to go to Old Navy.
I expressed support for the city's program of building bike lanes and bicycle paths. The newspaper has complained that some bike paths simply stop at intersections, and therefore should not be built or continued, but I noted that you cannot build an entire system in an instant and that the city should proceed, eventually closing these gaps. Building the bicycle network has been slow going, we both agreed.
I suggested that larger retail developments should be required to have sidewalks. I pointed to the work being done in Dieppe where the reconstruction of Paul includes nice wide sidewalks on both sides, correcting a longstanding problem. I also said there should be better ways to cross Wheeler. The sidewalk over Hall's Creek on Main is a death trap (I didn't mention the 50 foot missing link that's just a dirt path between Main and Champlain Mall, though I should have). I said there should be a pedestrian bridge (and maybe a transitway) over Wheeler and Hall's creek connecting Superstore (and the rest of downtown) and Champlain Mall. Maybe some other places. Other cities actually have pedestrian bridges over freeways. Even Riverview has one!
I spent quite a bit of time on the transit system. It's badly designed, I said, has bus stops that strand people in the middle of nowhere (like the stop near the Kent at Trinity, that forces people to walk on a roadway to go anywhere). I expressed astonishment at the fact that it is not possible to obtain a system-wide transit map, and mentioned that I had created one of my own:
View Moncton Transit in a larger map
I explained that the routes had not been updated for years and treated Moncton like a small town, not the largest city in New Brunswick. I drew a little diagram to illustrate how the system was designed:
The 'flower' design is typical of a small city with one central area, but in a larger city means it takes forever to travel point to point outside downtown. Also, it seems that the system evolved by simply creating a new loop whenever a new subdivision was added. There is significant evidence of transit routes being designed in response to calls or favours. There is no updating; the route to the airport still runs to the old terminal five years after the new terminal, at the opposite side of the airport, has been constructed.
There should be a transit commission, I said, and possibly other commissions to over see things like this, because the size of the city makes it too much for City Council to run all by itself. Hence, as written in the article:
More civic involvement was also suggested, including the creation of commissions to oversee some of the services for residents.
That's also where the following quote came from:
Moncton isn't a community of 20,000 people anymore. It's grown to become an important economic base by capitalizing on transit systems leading to the city, on its retail shopping appeal, its entertainment, even its thriving medical services system with two major hospitals and a number of after-hours health clinic springing up.
This actually combines my responses to two separate questions, the one on sidewalks and transit, in which I alluded to the complexity of managing a city, and the second in response to prodding, after all this discussion, on whether I had confidence in city officials, whether I thought they had the right strategy.
I replied to the latter by saying that overall I thought the city government was doing well. They have overall positioned Moncton to take advantage of recent improvements in transportation (not transit) infrastructure, and in particular, the development of freeways in the 80s and 90s, and infrastructure like the Confederation bridge. They've been adding to that through things like airport redevelopment, which gives us a state of the art facility.
And they've built on that through three waves of economic activity. The first was the encouragement of retail at Champlain and Trinity, among other locations, and especially the encouragement of a diversity of outlets (so we have Home Depot in addition to Kent, Superstore in addition to Sobeys, etc.). Second was the development of a medical services sector. We had a natural strength in that area with two hospitals, not just one. But we had to grow infrastructure around it - ten years ago there were only two after-hours clinics, open only a few hours in the evening, where you still had to make appointments, now there are many clinics of all kinds. And then third, the entertainment and events sector, with the promotion of major shows and events, and the development of infrastructure, such as the facilities at Magnetic Hill, and eventually a downtown presence as well.
There were things I didn't say, but which could be seen in the comments left by other people. A lot of support for parts, green spaces and especially trees. Support for improved transit, sidewalks and especially better snow clearing on the sidewalks (including from the wheelchair user, who must use the roads as the sidewalks are impassable). Support for a more proactive approach to development - one city official comments, "We want to use this policy to give developers more flexibility," and the resident commented, "No, that's what we don't want - don't put those apartments in residential areas, locate higher density development downtown." All of which I support, but didn't say because others were saying it.
I finished by criticizing the newspaper. I advised council members, I said, to do the opposite of what the newspaper recommends. The newspaper promotes various "loopy" policies that actually run counter to the best interests of the city. Among them:
- opposition to public art, when public art actually supports the strategy I've just described
- opposition to quality materials on city buildings, favouring vinyl siding rather than stone
- opposition to the development of sidewalks and bicycle paths, and especially bicycle lanes
- opposition to any expenditures not among its favoured projects - an events centre for the company-owned hockey team to play
- opposition to traffic circles, and other systems of moderating the speed and recklessness of city traffic - there's one person on the paper who cannot stand anything that stops him from speeding through the streets, I said
- opposition to cases where the city leads by example, as for instance the garden it maintains on the roof of City Hall (instead of just a plain roof)
"No, No," said Gauvin. "You can't mean that." I said that the newspaper very much has its own agenda and presents news and opinion that matches this agenda, to the detriment of truth and accuracy. The newspaper is one of the major factors holding the city back.
So anyhow, we see what Gauvin's article looked like after writing and editing, overall a pretty good job, clearly dropping the stuff that the editors are known to oppose, but maintaining a generally accurate record of the conversation.
The kicker, though, is that the article never actually appeared in the newspaper. This sort of coverage - generally supportive of the direction the city is taking, and heavy on proper transit, pedestrian malls, a diversified economic strategy, and the rest - is just what we do not see in the newspaper. It is as though this consultation never happened, because when the people speak, they do not say what the newspaper's masters want.
And that, Yvon Gauvin, was my point.