By Jessica Lovell
Before city council commits to shelling out the big money on a redesign of St. George’s Square, one city councillor suggested giving the plan a trial run.
Coun. Leanne Piper praised the plan that would see the intersection become a centralized public space surrounded by a single-lane roadway. However, she told the Planning & Building, Engineering and Environment Committee Tuesday, she believes the public is having trouble envisioning how the space might function. Modeling it out in actual size, a technique that she said has worked for other cities, might help people see how the plan would work, she suggested. “Can we make use of some temporary installations to test the model, so we’re making a much more informed decision as a council?” she asked.
During a public meeting on the proposed design, members of the public were led into the square, where the plan had been drawn out on the pavement using chalk in an effort to give people a better picture of what it would be like.
The plan actually draws somewhat on the history of the space, senior urban designer David de Groot told committee members.
The square was once home to St. George’s Church at its centre, and later the Blacksmith Fountain sat there surrounded by public park space.
It was only later, as cars became more dominant, that the area became the more traditional intersection it is now.
The resulting square is something de Groot called “a bit of a fragmented space.”
He used the Downtown Guelph Business Association’s Wednesday afternoon market as an example, noting how vendors are located across the street from one another.
“You don’t actually get that consolidated feeling,” he said.
The plan to create a central public square with the roadway running around the perimeter is intended to unite the spaces currently outside the intersection together.
“It creates an iconic destination in the heart of downtown,” de Groot said.
But he also noted that the design is still in the “concept plan stage,” and can be expected to be further refined before shovels go in the ground.
The committee ultimately approved the design along with a report on the Downtown Streetscape Manual and Built Form Standards, documents. They set out the approach to designing downtown streets and provide guidelines for public and private development in the area.
The design of St. George’s Square seemed to be the most significant sticking point with the report.
Guelph resident Steve Baldamus, the only delegation on the matter, came to tell the committee that people don’t want to see the square changed.
“Even though it’s fragmented, each area has a different use,” he said.
Baldamus had taken his own surveys out into the downtown to ask people what they think the square should look like. Of the 50 people, he asked, “the majority of them are against changing the square,” he said.
Some things that they would like to see include public washrooms, more trees and more three-stream waste containers.
At least one committee member, Coun. Bob Bell, agreed that the redesign of the square might not be quite right. “I haven’t got the feedback from the general public that they are onside with your design of St. George’s Square,” Bell told city staff.
Among his concerns was the issue of how to activate the new centralized space.
“The design should somehow be more successful passively,” he said.
Of the six motions associated with the report, Bell voted against two of them. He voted against the recommendation that council endorse the vision, principles and general design elements of the conceptual design for the square. Bell also gave the thumbs down to the cost estimates for the Streetscape Manual and conceptual design for the square being referred to the 2015 operating and capital budget and 10-year budget forecast.
Coun. Cam Guthrie vote against all six motions.
His greatest issue seemed to be the cost of investment in the downtown.
“There’s only so much, I believe, that should be invested,” he said.
The city’s current 10-year capital forecast includes approximately $18.5 million for downtown infrastructure renewal, including roads and underground services.
The redevelopment of St. George’s Square is being planned to correspond with work that will need to be done in the area in order to update aging infrastructure and accommodate the development of the Baker Street parking lot.
It is expected that the recommended St. George’s Square redesign can be achieved within the $18.5 million 10-year capital budget, the report said.
Guthrie thought efforts should be made within the design process to keep the costs lower.
“Can you still create a sense of community in the public realm without having to spend so much?” he asked.
By Jessica Lovell