Wednesday, January 13, 2021

After lengthy back and forth discussion, council members come to a compromise on amendment for Downtown Tax Incentive Bylaw

Putting a larger focus on Council's desire to see housing developed
in the newly created mid-town District (far left on the map) served
as the main theme of discussion at Monday's council session

A desire to see more housing created in what is currently the western portion of the downtown area made for the focus of close to fifty minutes of discussion on the City's proposed Tax Exemption plans, with Councillor Blair Mirau facing some extensive questioning from Councillors Niesh and Cunningham before all six members finally found a compromise to move forward with the plan to spur on development in three key areas of the downtown core.

The discussion began with Corporate Administrator Rosa Miller providing an overview of the previous work on the Tax Exemption bylaw and the number of ongoing edits and amendments for the proposed plan.

Mayor Brain observed how Councillor Mirau had raised an amendment in December and the Council had taken those and other changes to their lawyers. 

"At our last conversation, Councillor Mirau brought up a really good point which is not reflected in this amendment, so what happened was our staff brought this back to our lawyers to have that review and a lot of the amendments that are being made  are recommended by our lawyers so it's done correctly"

Towards the amendment introduced by Councillor Mirau on the night, Mr. Brain then provided his view of the subject up for discussion.

"His suggestion was, which I whole heartedly agree with and it's the amendments that I would like to make to this, which we could set a resolution tonight to get staff to make those changes for our next council meeting. But it was that we have the Midtown district which was to encourage housing and then we have the new downtown and the Marina district, which we want to  encourage Commercial. And so we want these incentives to reflect that we want to encourage housing more heavily in the mid-town district and we would like to encourage housing and commercial more heavily in the new downtown and marina district. So the idea is that we want to give bigger incentive for new commercial builds in the new downtown and the marina area and not necessarily in the mid-town area."

Council then engaged in what became an extensive discussion revolving around the amendment offered up by Councillor  Mirau and how they may wish to change the amount of time available for incentives for the midtown region and that the larger tax exemptions would be in place for any potential housing proposals for that district.

The main thrust of the Councillor's overview was to  express his concern that allowing for some of the tax exemption options in the Mid-Town District of the city would work against the city's desire to see housing take a primary focus for that district.

"In essence it's not just that council is against by any means any new business, you know building on a vacant lot or redeveloping a worn down building in the mid-town district; it's not that we would put up any obstacles to someone that would want to start a business in that district.  But what I am saying is that we want to be encouraging and motivating, or providing financial inducements for something that we want to see, which is commercial development in Cow Bay and Downtown. We don't want to be financially incentivizing something that is antithetical to the primary objective of the initiative which is to cluster housing in midtown and commercial in Cow Bay and Downtown"  -- Councillor Blair Mirau

Development of what is now the mid-town district
(west of Fifth Street/Fulton to Five Corners) was the topic for
Prince Rupert City Council on Monday evening.

Councillors Niesh and Cunningham offered up the most push back towards some of those themes, with both reviewing some of the past work on the bylaw and seeking to ensure that existing property owners were able to fully benefit from the Tax Amendment proposals that are currently being considered.

"I understand in a perfect world yes we want that development to be in those areas but the reality is that you have a lot of people that have investments and you know commercial developments that are already currently in those areas and we want to see those ones fixed up too.  I would not think that by handcuffing them into saying sorry you know, you only get residential to get the tax incentives, all that is going to do is discourage those people in those areas to do absolutely nothing to their buildings and I don't think that's what we want"-- Councillor Wade Niesh

Pushing forward on his themes, Councillor Mirau spoke of the work of the last few years and the money spent on the Redesign Rupert project and that the key takeaway was that the city's downtown as it currently is, is too large  for Prince Rupert's current population and how the city doesn't want to incentivize commercial development in the mid-town district.

"I do want to make this point about why I suggested the amendment the way that I did. I mean it's really no secret that we spent a lot of time and money I should say on the ReDesign Rupert process and I think one of the biggest takeaways from achieving such an amazing degree of consensus in the community, was that our downtown as it currently is, is three times too large for our current population and so I don't think we want to incentivize any new commercial developments in the midtown district. We do to Councillor Niesh's point want to encourage existing commercial operations to fix up their existing buildings. I do not think, I actually think on the contrary we want to discourage new commercial developments in the midtown district, specifically because we want to overcome the existing problem that everyone always talks about of that missing tooth syndrome. Where we have these pockets of vibrancy in Cow Bay and you can even argue closer to Five Corners, separated by vacant lots and worn down buildings  spread too far apart and it's just not appealing for people to walk between" -- Councillor Blair Mirau

In response, to those points, both Councillors Niesh and Cunningham also observed that there has been much discussion in Council in recent years as to how the city is destined to grow in population as the port expands and how the downtown area may at some point be too small should that growth come to realization.

With the City's planning department still hosting unfilled positions following the departure of former Civic Planner Zeno Krekic last spring, the City Manager took part in some of the conversation on the night.

That with Robert Long observing for council that typically if you really want to change things you wold change the zoning for that area and how council hasn't done that and how they haven't taken away any rights of anyone in those existing areas,  observing that all they have done is try to incentivize development in those areas and only incentivize those things that they wish to see developed there in the future.

"All you've done is try to incentivize what you think is appropriate in terms of the plan, which is fully supported by the community. So you're not taking anything away from anyone, the commercial properties down there are still proposed to be zoned commercially, all you're doing is you're saying that you're only going to incentivize those things that the plan said that you wanted to have happen in the future ... 

You've incentivized, in other words you're benefitting somebody at great expense to the next taxpayers that are going to be here, they are going to not gather that typical revenue which the city desperately needs. And you've traded that for people to do what you've asked  them to do  ...  

So I'm not sure why we're concerned that somehow we're taking things away. No we are not incentivizing things that we don't want  and I think at great cost to the future taxpayers, cause we won't get those revenues from those properties that are incentivized. So I think that is a fair trade and evrybody else is neutral at worst" -- City Manager Robert Long

Councillor Cunningham also noted how Council has frequently called for local commercial building owners to improve their properties and how they should be focused on that with the exemption plan.

"I think we have got to give people as much incentive as possible to redevelop or build in those areas and if we don't it's just going to languish like it is.  People have to have some incentive to fix up what's there, look what's around town right now and we're constantly saying we've got to clean up, we've got clean up and there's no incentive what so ever to clean up. If it's a straight commercial building, why clean it up then if there's no incentive? ... I would like to see it extended to an empty lot, if somebody just wants to put in a nice commercial building so be it. Anyone who wants to spend money right now in town I think we should give them some kind of incentive" -- Councillor Barry Cunningham

With the fifty minutes or so of back and forth on the topic winding down, the Mayor offered up a compromise that took some of the suggestions from a few of the members who spoke to the topic on the night.  

Towards that, the final amendment from Councillor Mirau would include encouragement of development of multi family residences in the midtown district, encourage the clustering of commercial developments in the Downtown Cow Bay Districts, as well as to encourage the development of existing commercial properties in the Mid-down, downtown and Cow Bay Districts.

As well, Council will modify the incentive plan to reflect that eligible exemptions in the mid-town, district are limited to multi-family residential and existing commercial redevelopment.

Council will approve the full Downtown Core Tax Exemption Bylaw plan at their next meeting.

The Mayor brought the topic to an end by hailing the proactive work of Councillor Mirau on the bylaw and how the discussion flushed out many concerns and themes of the council membership and how it helped to strike the right balance.

The Mayor added how he believes the community will be pleased with the direction of the program and how it will kick off development in the community, noting that the Tax Exemption plan is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle towards development in the community.

The introduction of the plan to provide Tax Exemptions came following a presentation in August by the City's contract planner on the Official Community Plan, at that time Rob  Buchan provided his view of how the city should proceed with such an initiative.

The full fifty minutes of discussion can be followed through the City's Video Archive starting at the nine minute mark of Monday's Council session.

Some of the notes on the Property Tax Exemption Bylaw proposal can be reviewed from the City's Agenda for Monday's session, the documentation is found at the end of the listings.

For more notes related to Monday's Council session see our Council Timeline feature.

Further items of interest from Council discussions can be explored here.

An overview of the City's work on its development and vision plans can be found here.

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