Tuesday, March 11, 2008

University Heights Neighbourhood approved by City Council

By Rebecca Carmichael

Despite some student concerns about the environmental and social sustainability of the University Heights project, rezoning for Phase I was unanimously approved by the Prince George City Council. This phase will involve 63 single family homes on 56 hectares of land over the next year. Over the next 20 years, this will expand to 673 hectares, theoretically housing over 10,000 people. Although most students were unaware of the public hearing leading up to the Council decision, there was a small information session for students held at UNBC last month.
Heather Oland of L&M Engineering spoke to around 20-30 students and faculty on February 11 as a part of a series of planning talks organized by Eric Rappaport in order to inform and engage Environmental Planning students and anyone else interested about real world planning issues. The topic of the UHNP was particularly relevant due to recent media attention and student criticism of the plan. One of the concerns raised previously was that there was not enough public consultation with students, so the information session was also intended to address part of that gap. Whether that goal was actually accomplished is debatable.
A presentation was given to students regarding the planning design of the neighbourhood. It is supposed to be built on principles of smart growth, winter cities, healthy communities, compactness, completeness, and connectivity. It should feature a mixture of residential and commercial, green space, parks and schools. This will eventually involve 2440 single family dwellings and 1410 multi-family units, along with a shopping centre similar to that found at Spruceland or College Heights. The road system will be expanded, with Ospika and Tyner being 4-laned throughout, University Way connecting to Highway 16, and Massey Drive potentially being connected between Highway 16 and downtown. The development is proposed to be completed over the next 20-25 years in five phases, eventually housing over 10,000 people. It will start near College Heights and then expand towards UNBC over this time.
L&M Engineering is the firm contracted for the engineering, design and planning of the development, while the project was proposed and funded by BFW, a large development firm, and approved by the City of Prince George. That meant that while L&M could answer questions about the planning aspects of the project, some of the larger scale implications that people asked about were beyond the scope of their work.
Some of the most vocal concerns came from Mark Thompson regarding the lack of concern about wildlife habitat destruction, shared by other students. Amphibians, ungulates and small mammals would be killed or displaced by the development. He felt that people have a responsibility not to further the global loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species, and that we should take the benefits of the natural economy into greater account. Scaling down the project or using alternate plans that incorporate greater wildlife protection could help preserve some of these values.
Heather Oland responded defensively to these comments, saying that L&M was not responsible for what the government regulations dictate be protected, or for what the view of society as a whole to the environment was. Their professional responsibility was only to complete the planning they were hired for. The project is within provincial and federal regulations for environmental impact assessment and protection.
Planning student Thomas Cheney brought up concerns that the development was too spread out and low density to be considered “compact”. The response was that the word compact was used in comparison to the rest of Prince George, not necessarily in general, and that detached houses were more compatible to the housing market in Prince George than higher density dwellings. Thomas was also concerned that the size of development was more than the actual projected growth of Prince George during that time period, and that it would encourage people to move outward, causing community degradation of the city core. The response of L&M was that the development would occur in phases only when there was a market for it and that it was not their responsibility to dictate where people decide to live.
There were also concerns from students that not enough public consultation had been done. Two open houses were held, one in October 2006 at the Prince George Civic Centre to which 200 people attended, and one at UNBC in June 2007 to which 40 people attended. While L&M claimed that students had every opportunity to participate in these, very few were actually aware of these as they happened. It had not occurred to the company to specifically target students for consultation, and the part of the reason for the information session was to rectify this, although at this stage there was little opportunity for practical input into the first phase of development.
However, since this project will occur in five phases over the next 25 years, it is not all necessarily set in stone. The development will expand as the demand for housing does. There will likely be room for more consultation and changes to the plans as time goes on, including from those concerned about the sustainability of the project.

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