By Craig Curtis
The changes to Red Deer’s downtown over the last 30 years are due to a number of major catalyst initiatives. These include the relocation of Westerner Park to its current home at the south end of the City and the relocation of the downtown railway line and yards adjacent to Hwy. 2.
Following the relocation of the railway line it was recognized that the Riverlands area west of Taylor Dr. presented potential for redevelopment. It also provided opportunity to link the downtown to the river. In 2006, the City approved the relocation of the former civic yards to a new site in the Riverside Heavy Industrial area; this major project was completed in 2009 leaving an area available for redevelopment.
In 2007 City council directed that a new focus be given to the downtown and this resulted in an updated Greater Downtown Action Plan, which was approved in February 2009. The recommendations in this plan were reinforced in the 2009 Strategic Plan which proposed that the downtown be identified and enhanced as the, “vital core to the identity of Red Deer”.
The Greater Downtown Action Plan was the result of a nine-month long planning initiative. Hundreds of residents participated in the process, a process that included speakers and walking tours as well as a design charter led by urban designer Michael Von Hausen.
Based on public input the plan identifies three primary zones within the greater downtown: Historic Downtown, Riverlands and the area north of Taylor Dr. currently known as the Railyards. The plan recommends the development of these areas as distinct but complimentary districts.
Historic Downtown is proposed to remain the focal area for the City’s offices, retailers and public buildings. In order to enhance this area, the City gave priority to a number of projects which improve the pedestrian and shopping environment.
The three major projects include Veterans’ Park, The Ross Street Patio and the revitalization of six blocks of Gaetz Ave., now commonly known as Little Gaetz. Veterans’ Park provides a public gathering space as well as an improved setting and interpretation of the Cenotaph. The Ross Street Patio, which received an international planning award, brings life to the street and a venue for public gathering and formal and informal activities. The Little Gaetz improvements provide an improved shopping experience, as well as a setting for the new weekly downtown farmer’s market.
Riverlands is proposed as a diverse riverfront community featuring medium density housing along the river, a site for a hotel and convention centre and other commercial opportunities. The relocation of the Civic Yards opens up over 31 acres for redevelopment which will link the downtown with the river. The plans for redevelopment were approved in The Riverlands Area Redevelopment Plan adopted by City council in October 2011. The development of Riverlands is dependent on a number of major infrastructure projects which are currently underway. These include the burial of the high voltage overhead transmission line as well as road improvements to Taylor Dr. and Ross St. The burial of the transmission line along the riverfront will create an improved residential/commercial environment and capture the market value of the properties available for redevelopment. The reconfiguration of Taylor Dr. and Ross St. will improve connectivity for pedestrians with the Historic Downtown. The redesign also has a clear cost benefit as traffic projections show that it will defer the need to widen the Taylor Dr. bridge.
Railyards is proposed as a vibrant mixed use urban living district with high density residential development and excellent trail linkages.
An Area Redevelopment Plan for Railyards is underway and is scheduled for completion in 2014. In the interim, road access has been improved through the westerly extension of 55 St. into the area. A major new mixed use development is nearing completion at the intersection of 55th St. and Gaetz Ave. and demonstrates the development potential of the area.
As the City celebrates its centennial a number of new initiatives and events are planned that will focus on the downtown. These include the reinstatement of The Ross Street Patio the first week of June with entertainment scheduled throughout the summer and evening concerts on July 5, Aug. 2 and Sept. 6; the official opening of Little Gaetz on July 12; the release of new historical walking tours and interpretive signage on June 6; and a centennial street dance in July 16.
The downtown will also host the annual Westerner and Christmas parades, CentreFest and Fiestaval.
The downtown is on the upswing. The City is seeing new investment in office and commercial development which has enhanced the area. The Donald School of Business with its acquisition of City Centre Stage is also seen as a major catalyst.
There has been progress but there is still huge potential to be realized.
Craig Curtis is Red Deer’s City manager.