Tweak the streets and build a community.
That’s the idea behind Coquitlam’s burgeoning plan to strategically add benches, banners, lighting, accessibility ramps and plazas in a bid to “beautify and enliven” the city’s streetscape.
Those changes “might seem small compared to a new community centre or a new park . . . all of those changes adding up will create a great public realm,” explained the city’s utilities director Jonathan Helmus during Monday’s council meeting.
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Enough small changes could lead to more residents getting outside, leading to a healthier community with a bustling economy, Helmus said. And, with approximately 80 percent of the city’s new growth concentrated in apartments and highrises, public realms are increasingly important, he added.
The program – which is tentatively slated to get underway in summer 2023 – may be needlessly complicated, according to Coun. Craig Hodge.
The city needs a straightforward plan, according to Hodge.
“What I’ve got is a plan to create a committee to start putting in a whole lot of criteria for how we’re going to review these applications and I’d quite frankly just like to get on with doing some of the work,” Hodge said.
It might be better if the city moves forward on simple improvements, Hodge said, adding that he’s repeatedly pushed for seasonal lighting in Maillardville.
“I keep bringing this forward and we can’t get the lighting there,” he said.
The city needs a way to ensure interested residents don’t get lost in bureaucracy, city staff explained.
“The main idea is that we would prioritize community-led applications instead of ideas from staff,” Helmus said.
A city staff report anticipated leaving 10 percent of project funding for city-initiated work and spending the rest on community-led projects.
The program is also meant to incentivize the formation of new business improvement associations, an aspiration that left Coun. Dennis Marsden somewhat nonplussed.
Many small businesses already feel they’re paying disproportionate tax, Marsden said, suggesting some business owners would be less than eager to pay another fee to support a BIA.
“They’re administratively challenging. You’ve got to staff them. Typically, they are run and led by small business folks that are already stretched, so it’s really, truly challenging,” he said about BIAs.
There’s also a potential problem in the issue of who would be responsible for maintaining an improved public realm, Marsden said, noting differing standards between the city and community groups.
“If we’re going to do it, and truly believe that’s part of building a beautiful city – which it is – it’s on us to fund it not try to pass the buck,” he said.
There are numerous challenges that come with forming a BIA, agreed Coun. Brent Asmundson, who noted a Maillardville BIA that dissolved as well as potentials BIAs around United Boulevard and North Road never quite formed.
However, Asmundson said he welcomed the idea of letting community groups lead streetscape improvement efforts.
“The community sometimes comes up with ideas that we’re not coming up with here at the table,” Asmundson said.
Coun. Robert Mazzarolo questioned the idea of having streetscape improvements hinge on whether or not area businesses form a BIA.
“You’re kind of holding those businesses hostage to a certain extent and saying: ‘We won’t do it unless you guys become a part of it,’” Mazzarolo said.
Some improvements would be extremely expensive without a partnership with area businesses, explained the city’s general manager of engineering and public works. Jaime Boan.
“We do need to find a way to control it, to involve the community and the businesses,” Boan explained.
While the city makes some improvements – such as recent work on the Maillardville clock tower – by using surplus funds, there’s currently no clear path for a resident who wants to spruce up their neighbourhood, according to city staff.
The rest of council voiced support for the project, with Coun. Steve Kim suggesting sidewalk art and wayfinding that incorporates neighbourhood history.
Coun. Trish Mandewo advocated for an “Instagramable mural.”
“I’ve been asking since I got elected for a mural,” she said.
The streetscape initiative is scheduled to return to council chambers in early 2023.