Mark Rendell

Another Shot at the 50/50 Lot

While ideas for a library on the empty lot are presented to the public, admin pushes forward with the original plaza plan
A model of the 50/50 plaza plan, with a library down the street for good measure | Photos by Mark Rendell

Although the City began seeking public input on two new plans for the 50/50 lot today, administration has already begun budgeting for the original and somewhat controversial plaza revitalization project in the heart of downtown.

In the 2016 draft budget made public today, a line item for the Department of Planning and Development suggests $1.6 million be put towards “50th Street Revitalization” in 2016. A further $1.9 million and $750,000 is recommended in 2017 and 2018, for a total of $4.25 million.

It’s up to council to decide whether this $1.6 million ask from admin gets into this year’s budget (to begin streetscaping 50 Street or building the plaza). But council is now working on a compressed timeline: a new round of consultation has just begun, yet they have to decide whether or not to start funding the original plan, which received a fairly lukewarm response when it was first presented, by early December.

Admin’s choice to move ahead, even though a number of balls are up in the air, seems to be an attempt to get council to finally put their money where their mouth is on downtown revitalization.

“What we’re saying is council has to decide if they’re really sincere in their goals and objectives in downtown. If so, that commitment has to be made,” says Jeff Humble, the City’s Director of Planning and Development.

“If council is not going to spend it here or bookmark it for future years, they do have the option to spend additional money on the Harbour Plan,” he says. Though he adds that the majority of Planning and Development spending over the past five years has been directed towards projects outside the downtown core despite previous council’s stated desire for downtown revitalization.

So what’s the alternative to a plaza?

Two new options, which both include libraries, were presented at a public information session this afternoon at City Hall. One option would see a library on the Franklin Ave side of the 50/50 lot, the other has the library set in the back corner of the lot with plaza space in front.

These new plans, as well as this second round of consultation, came from of council’s discontent at only being presented with one option for the lot. But whether they’re realistic alternatives to the plaza plan remains to be seen.

A model of one of the two new options which would see a library on the Franklin Ave side of the 50/50 lot.

Any plan that includes a library would massively inflate the project’s price tag. Architect Simon Taylor says a library would likely cost between $20 and $40 million, though that’s based on very preliminary cost-estimates.

In contrast, the plaza plan (library not included) is expected to be around $4.5 million (plus $2 million that will hopefully be chipped in by the REITs that own the mall to turn the building “inside out”). Furthermore, of that $4.5 million, about $2 million would be for streetscaping between Franklin Ave. and 51 Ave., which is money that will likely have to be spent, at least in part, regardless of what happens with the 50/50 lot.

The second of the new library options: this one combines aspects of the plaza plan with the library on the 50/50 lot

Sticking with the initial plaza plan would also leave open the possibility of building a library further down 50 Street in the City-owned lots between the Gold Range and the Raven. This, explains Taylor, would expand the revitalization efforts down towards the Subway and the NNSL building. He readily admits that placing a library on the 50/50 lot would add to the vitality of Franklin Ave. But it would do little to push revitalization efforts further down 50 Street and may limit the possibility of opening up the side of the mall to allow for storefronts.

Admin makes a subtle case

During the presentation of the plans at City Hall, various pieces of information were put up on posters on the walls, seemingly in an attempt to show that council is skirting its own commitments to revitalization. The following things were noted:

  1. The City’s general plan indicates that between 2011 and 2021, 620 new units, or 45 percent of total desired builds, should be in areas designated for revitalization, while 765 new units, or 55 percent of new builds should be allowed in “greenfield sites.” As of 2015, only 156 new units have been built in revitalization areas, while 811 have been built in “greenfield sites.”
  2. The City has a policy that 30 percent of money in the Land Development Fund (which is filled with money from land sales) should be directed towards downtown revitalization efforts. But between 2010 and 2015, only 13 percent of the fund’s revenues had been directed toward revitalization efforts.
  3. Finally, to counter the argument that the 50/50 lot should be used for parking, the City presented stats that suggest on average only 60 percent of downtown parking meters are utilized during peak hours.*

More public feedback on the three plans is being collected in surveys and further public meetings tonight and tomorrow. Taylor expects the design team will have a second report outlining the different options ready for council by the end of the month.

At that time, council will have to decide whether to follow admin’s suggestion in the draft budget and proceed with funding the plaza plan, to start the herculean task of budgeting for a library, or to send the whole thing back to the drawing board.