The City of Regina is set to vote soon on approving yet another parking lot in the downtown area, despite an official community plan's goal of attracting 10,000 people to the city's downtown over a 25-year span.
But according to city administration, only 74 people have moved downtown since 2013.
In a city council meeting last September, Mayor Sandra Masters noted that meant it would take 957 years to reach the goal, according to a Regina Leader-Post report.
A University of Regina associate professor says the large number of parking lots in that area is largely to blame for the slow progress in densifying the downtown.
Vanessa Mathews, an associate professor in geography and environmental studies, said the city's downtown has a "parking problem."
"We have some really amazing little shops in there. We have a beautiful park in the centre of it. And then we have paved over a lot of our streets with parking lots. That doesn't contribute vibrancy," said Mathews.
"It doesn't create a type of place that people are attracted to or where they want to be.… That constant kind of design of the downtown around the car has really meant that we're not designing the downtown for people."
A 2021 report by city administration said 46.7 per cent of Regina's private land downtown is currently either surface parking or structured parkades, with an estimated 16,100 parking stalls.
"We have probably more space in the downtown than most municipalities could ever dream of. That is a huge opportunity to to actually build something amazing," Mathews said.
"Let's build spaces so that people can come together, that they can talk to one another. It will be a meeting spot."
The city is "building outward," Mathews said, which means it's not investing in the downtown, but rather pulling people out of that core area.
She said construction of new parking lots needs to stop immediately, and existing lots — which she calls "place-less spaces" — need to be transformed into something different to infuse energy and engagement.
More attention also needs to be placed on making the downtown core transit- and bike-friendly, said Mathews.
Viable transit routes from different parts of the city, along with "active transportation and fantastic areas for people to park their bikes … will create that level of engagement and vibrancy, and people will want to live there," she said.
Pandemic worsened downtown issues: prof
Mathews recently penned a research paper titled "The place of the public under COVID‐19," which discusses the erosion of public space.
In the paper, Mathews said "municipalities need to exercise caution if departing from long-term planning to meet current demand for private space."
She said that shortchanging long-term planning to meet short-term demand is likely to exacerbate unequal access to public space.
"Demand for individualized experiences of public space, and increased private space, must be read through the lens of privilege," wrote Mathews.
She told CBC that the COVID-19 pandemic did a lot to change the downtown core.
"I think that it really kind of worsened some of the situations that we have there. So the shift of people working remotely meant that a lot of the office spaces have cleared out."
Mathews said that while many people have returned to work, there are still vacancies, and many downtown businesses have been lost.
"We are now getting a reputation for our downtown being just parking lots."
Business says it needs Scarth Street lot: Masters
Meanwhile, a new parking lot may soon be approved.
Two unoccupied homes previously sat at 2158 and 2160 Scarth Street, but those homes are now gone, leaving an empty lot in their place.
An initial application to turn the space into a private surface parking lot with 13 paved stalls for a Scarth Street office building was approved by city council in July in a 6-3 vote.
A final vote concerning the approval of the parking lot will likely come in September, when council reconvenes after a two-week break.
"When businesses come forward with specific concerns, in this case on Scarth Street, there was some indication that they needed parking in order to continue to operate downtown, both for staff as well as customers visiting," Mayor Sandra Masters told CBC on Aug. 18.
Masters calls parking lots "development opportunities." And she said there are a lot of them.
"But you know, having a parking lot on Rose Street doesn't help … a business that's attempting to operate eight blocks away."
Masters said the Scarth Street lot would allow the business, which she didn't name, to continue to operate downtown.
"Overall, we still have a problem with a lack of development downtown."