Parking, accessibility, sandbars and lighting dominate discussion at downtown riverfront brainstorming session

A pair of University of Saskatchewan students lead the first stage of Wednesday’s downtown riverfront brainstorming session at City Hall. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Prince Albert’s riverfront may see some changes in the future, but residents who attended Wednesday’s brainstorming session at City Hall hope the Prince Albert Historical Museum will be a big part of the design.

Attendees mulled over multiple questions from University of Saskatchewan design students during the nearly two-hour session. The desire to preserve the area’s history and natural beauty was the most common theme that emerged.

That came as welcome news to museum manager and curator Michelle Taylor, who said it’s sometimes difficult to gauge the museum’s value to the public.

“It’s definitely nice to hear because we’re kind of in our own little bubble down at the end of Central Avenue,” Taylor chuckled during a short interview afterwards. “It’s really nice to hear the same thoughts that I think the downtown people have always been talking about.”

However, there was less agreement in other areas. Almost everyone in attendance opposed a heavily commercialized, overdeveloped waterfront, but finding ways to best take advantage of the riverfront’s natural beauty wasn’t as easy.

Accessibility was the biggest concern. While some attendees want a riverfront area that prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists, property owners say vehicle access and parking are vital. That’s especially true for the museum. Taylor estimated that around 95 per cent of the historical society’s board members and volunteers are seniors, so readily available parking is a priority.

She’s open to multi-purpose parking areas, which can be used for parking during business hours, and cultural or recreational events at other times. However, she acknowledged it’s not an easy problem to solve.

“It’s a definite balancing act, and I don’t know the right answer,” she said.

For downtown business representatives, the focus on vehicles and pedestrians was frustrating.

PADBID executive director Carolyn Carlton said the downtown riverfront does have accessibility problems, however she doubted crowded parking stalls were the problem.

“I think we all overall need a lesson on parking,” Carlton said during an interview. “There’s lots of parking downtown. There are two hour parking meters. There are five hour parking meters, so you don’t necessarily have to get a ticket. You can use parking cards. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen around the parking in the downtown, but (the) accessibility (problem) is true.”

Carlton said she hopes any new waterfront design will find a way to link the Rotary Trail to Central Avenue. She said downtown businesses, and cultural facilities like the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library would benefit if cyclists and pedestrians could easily move from those areas to the riverfront.

“I think there are some opportunities here, but it comes down to the money behind all of that,” she said. “Having access from the Rotary Trail to downtown, to River Street, would be great. I’ve tried to bike to the Library once, and you have to ride up a (slope) or you have to take older streets, so it doesn’t make it accessible to certain things. Sure you can get all the way around the city now, but you can’t really access the library or the downtown or different areas.”

Despite her concerns, Carlton said Wednesday’s discussion was a productive meeting, and a good start to any future development.

Besides promoting the museum and protecting the area’s natural beauty, the third item of common agreement was the need for a culture shift regarding Prince Albert’s downtown and nearby riverfront.

Both Taylor and Carlton argued that Prince Albert residents have an overly negative reaction to area, and they encouraged anyone who is skeptical about developing it to visit before passing judgment.

“The storefronts are filling up, most of the buildings that were fore sale downtown are now sold, new businesses are moving in and developers are coming in to meet with me about various things. It’s just an exciting time and I think more people are getting on board with that,” Carlton said. “We still have a bit of the stale Prince Albert ideals that people are holding on to that honestly, bluntly, people need to get over. Go for a walk downtown and see it from a different perspective. Pretend you’ve never been down there before and go for a walk, because we have a very beautiful city.”

“We just need to be louder somehow, because there’s still very much the naysayers who don’t want to come downtown,” Taylor added.

Attendees made a number of suggestions on Wednesday to help draw more people downtown riverfront. The biggest was to improve the lighting during the winter, something Taylor said would definitely help the museum. Other suggestions were to create more events that draw residents downtown, like the Prince Albert Farmers Market.

“We need to find something that will drive people downtown, and if the museum can be part of that, that would be amazing,” Taylor said.

The North Saskatchewan River is part of the problem, since city officials say it has too many sandbars for boating, and its fast flowing current makes it dangerous to wade into without significant safety barriers.

That danger also drives up insurance costs for organizations looking to hold events near the riverbank, one attendee said, unless they erect barriers to keep people away from the river.

PA downtown riverfront has lots of potential, students say

The University of Saskatchewan urban design students who took part in Wednesday’s brainstorming session says Prince Albert’s downtown riverfront has a lot of character, and they’re hoping to bring that out in their plans.

The students had an opportunity to take a historical tour of the area before the meeting. They said the historical buildings and riverfront provide a great foundation for any future design.

“That’s something that we as a design team want to preserve,” said one of several fourth year regional urban planning students who attended the meeting. “A lot of these old architectural buildings, that’s cool. That’s something that will attract people, and the scenery too. You’re looking down Central Avenue and you have the museum as a centerpiece, that’s something you don’t see all the time, so that’s something that we want to build on.”

Bissonnette hails from Swift Current, and although he’s driven through Prince Albert before, this was the first time he stopped to visit the downtown riverfront. He said he liked the natural beauty, as well as the local shops and businesses that populate downtown as opposed to nation-wide chains and box stores. He said that local flourish will also help bring people to the area.

“We don’t want to create a restricting area,” he explained. “We want something that won’t stick out like a sore thumb, but something where after we’re done, (the City) could build on it further. You want to keep the natural landscape and the natural area, but you want to be able to create an area downtown where people feel like they can do all sorts of different activities and also not feel like you’re completely isolated from the natural environment. We just want to give the city a lot of cultural opportunities as well.”

Prince Albert city council will have final say on any future plans for the downtown riverfront, including the ones drawn up by the University of Saskatchewan students. Craig Guidinger, Prince Albert’s planning and development director, said the goal on Wednesday was to get people dreaming big, rather than thinking about how much things will cost.

Mayor Greg Dionne was one of four elected officials in attendance for the meeting. City councillors Don Cody and Dennis Ogrodnick also attended, as did Prince Albert Northcote MLA Nicole Rancourt.