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Mayor surprised by opposition to Millennium Park plan

Petition against borrowing bylaw garners over 4,500 signatures

St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron says she has been “somewhat surprised” to see the level of community opposition to the city's $16.6 million Millennium Park project. 

petition against the corresponding borrowing bylaw received some 4,500 signatures, and the citizen-based Environmental Advisory Committee and the Seniors Association are warning against the plan.

The project, which dates back to 2016, will see the largely forested area separating St. Albert Place and Lions Park downtown be transformed into a much more open green space with a pavilion building outfitted with public washrooms and some small commercial space, as well as a playground, splash pad, and picnic area.

The most up-to-date design was approved in December after council decided to abandon the original 2018 design last year out of concern there wasn't enough open green space or Sturgeon River viewing opportunities. The major changes between the two designs include the removal of about 20 per cent more trees (56 per cent of the total), and a reconfigured layout of park amenities, specifically the pavilion building.

Critics of the design, namely the Seniors Association, Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), and petition organizer Ciara Fraser, said they're concerned about tree removal, the project's cost, parking and security concerns, and in the specific case of the Seniors Association, concerns about the loss of their backyard event space and garden.

The design approved in December has a budget of $16.6 million, but council passed first reading on a $20.8 million borrowing bylaw in January. The $4.2 million difference is contingency funding, which would only be used if needed, and subject to further council approval.

In an interview, Heron said she was surprised by the number of signatures the petition received (4,583), as well as the motion passed by the EAC recommending council to reconsider the design. However, she said the design is still conceptual in nature, and detailed design work and final decisions will be made only after council approves the borrowing bylaw to pay for the project.

 “I think people are forgetting that what they're seeing is very high-level conceptual plans and not the definitive plan,” Heron said. “There's still so much work to do. There are little things we know that we want included, but where they're included on the grounds is still up in the air.”

“There's too much unknown, and that's what we need to figure out. We need to do ecological studies, we need to do some public engagement, especially with the Indigenous community, and especially with stakeholders that are in the immediate area.”

Heron said although she has heard from and met with a number of community groups and individuals about concerns, she has also heard from residents in the community who support the project.

“I think it's really important to know that people have contacted me, and probably the rest of council, and said they [would] not sign the petition,” she said. “There are two sides.”

Given the park's detailed design hasn't happened yet, Heron said it's “a mixed-bag” when it comes to her thoughts on concerns about tree loss, but she understands residents' concerns about the project's financial impact.

“I completely accept that and that is a hard decision — really hard, actually — for council.”

Councillors have mixed feelings

Now the petition against the Millennium Park borrowing bylaw has been confirmed to have come up short of the 6,608 signatures required to force council to either abandon the project as is or send it to a public vote, council will vote on second and third readings of the borrowing bylaw on April 16.

Despite the concerns raised by community groups and the petition signatories, Coun. Wes Brodhead, like Heron, said he's still in favour of the project.

“I believe in the project,” he said. “I want to make sure we hear from the people [and] address their concerns as best we can, and then see if we can find a way forward to build that park that will meet all the needs of our city.”

Asked if he was surprised by the level of opposition, Brodhead said “not really.”

“St. Albert is a passionate community and trees are a big thing,” he said. “We're trying to maintain as much as possible of the old stand of trees there.”

Coun. Sheena Hughes, who along with Coun. Shelley Biermanski voted against the Millennium Park project's design in December, as well as first reading of the borrowing bylaw in January, said she thinks the number of signatures should be enough to have other members of council think twice.

“We'll have to see what happens ... whether or not the impact of the petition actually is enough to pause the decision to move forward on it,” she said. “It's clear that we do not have full community support on it.”

“I think council needs to really ponder and have a second thought about whether or not this is in line with what the community wants to do, and in line with the debt that will be involved.”

For Coun. Mike Killick, who played a major role in having the 2018 Millennium Park design scrapped in favour of the current one, hesitated to say whether the community opposition has swayed his position, but he did say he'd be going into the April 16 vote with “an open mind.”

“I stopped in a couple of times at city hall when [the petitioners] had their sign-up table in the lobby because I wanted to listen and talk to the people who were providing their signatures ... and it certainly has given me a really clear understanding of [residents'] concerns,” he said. “I appreciate the interest and the passion that [petitioners and community groups] have expressed in various meetings, and they've had very good questions that have challenged my thinking.”

“It will be an interesting debate and discussion when we actually look at the borrowing bylaw trying to keep an open mind to both sides of the discussion.”

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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