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Friday
Sep232011

VETERANS PARK: A NEW FOCUS TO HISTORICAL DOWNTOWN

 

While the Cenotaph in downtown Red Deer is a tribute to those who fought in the wars of the twentieth century, it is also a visible manifestation of the spirit of a city that wrestles with the contemporary issues faced by cities around the globe - inclusion, urbanization, culture, history, and sustainability.

Since it was installed in 1922, the Cenotaph has weathered controversies in nearly every decade as the city has grown both physically and culturally around it. The creation of the new Veteran's Park has also been the subject of public discussion – how to use this space now and in the future, while honouring the rich historical and cultural diversity of Red Deer's past.

Creating inclusive, friendly, welcoming, and user-friendly spaces downtown is a major goal of the City planners, according to Charity Dyck, Downtown Coordinator for the City of Red Deer. “It's the perfect location, “ she says. “Being so visible to two main roads going right through the downtown, it's ideal for events that bring the community together, not only for paying respect to the veterans but to give the public and downtown workers access.”

City Manager Craig Curtis says that the Cenotaph “is still very much the focus. But now people can read and enjoy the plaques and new panels safely.”

“The Veterans Park has the ability to be more accessible to foot traffic, and it enables more visitors to enjoy a space in the community downtown,” Dyck adds. “We can see the natural linear path way downtown, from the renovated Community Centre and Alexander Way, to Veterans Park, to the outdoor patios in the public spaces downtown. Gaetz Avenue is now being revitalized as part of a vision for the downtown. “

Following extensive consultations with community organizations, institutions, and citizens, in 2009 an action plan was approved by Red Deer City Council, with recommendations from the Greater Downtown Action Plan Steering Committee. Distribution of pamphlets and other written information was enhanced by public “open house” style reviews of the plans, meetings with key stakeholders, and a “Greater Downtown Planning Week”. Feedback was generated through these forums, as well as by collecting questionnaires from the public.

Progress and Potential, a 2008 update of the Red Deer Great Downtown Action Plan, reveals that “at least 60 plans, studies, and related documents flowed” from the original action plan adopted in 2000 by City Hall. Recommendations that remained relevant to the 2008 plan included a downtown cultural focus by strengthening the connections between specific downtown spaces, but also by enhancing the “authenticity”, or historical identity, of the city. Comprehensive, long term strategies and funding for projects in the public realm to connect the downtown hub to recreational areas, and to create specific spaces that enhance social interactions were also recommended.

The 2008 Greater Downtown Action Plan identified six key themes: Great Streets, Great Places, Great Connections, Vitality, Authenticity, and Sustainability. The action plan update also noted evidence of a desire by residents to support the “growing up” of Red Deer, building a higher density urban centre with an emphasis on sustainable living. In fact, the authors of the 2008 document note that throughout the world successful downtowns are created through a lively and vibrant interaction of businesses and commerce, families, visitors, and citizens in multi-use spaces.

According to Dyck, the Veterans Park improves access to the downtown hub. “People can create connections here, experience their friends and neighbours. On nice days you can really see the change of activity downtown. We have seen with events likes Centrefest and Fiestaville that the space is ideal, and requests by community groups to use this space have increased because of the great layout.”

According to the 2008 action plan update, the “wide axis of Ross Street was designed not only for the day to day commercial life of the new frontier town, but also to hold markets, civic celebrations and parades.” The location of the Cenotaph has been contested and debated many times, yet during construction on Ross Street at 49th Avenue, feedback from the public indicated that many people appreciated the “slowing down” in the downtown core, true to the trend in contemporary urban centres, according to the authors of Progress and Potential.

“The Downtown Business Association has been responsible for many events,” says Dyck. “They recognize the importance of these events to generate business at the street level, as well as spin off business. It creates economic prosperity for local people. You can easily visit local businesses and see what our entrepreneurs are doing, and hopefully support local businesses first. “

According to Curtis, the design and consulting firm Stantec will inhabit the top five floors of Executive Place, a new office and retail tower beside Veterans Park. Along with the move downtown of the Red Deer College Donald School of Business, the flavour of the historic core of the city will be an eclectic mix of retail, commerce, and culture; what Curtis calls a “return of pedestrians to the downtown.”

Dyck points out that the goal has been to support art and culture, as well as business interests. “The aim to is see that culture is accessible to all residents,” Dyck says.

Other prairie cities, such as Winnipeg with its historical The Forks district, have made the shift into the 21st century, embracing the historic heart of the city to develop, evolve, and grow, as well as showcase their unique identity, diversity, innovation, culture and art. “It's being used exactly as we had hoped,” Curtis says of Veterans Park.

“It's not just a piece of concrete,” says Dyck regarding the Cenotaph, the new park featuring an installation of panels depicting Red Deer history. “This is about creating spaces for the public to make their own."

 

First printed in Red Deer Advocate, Tuesday, September 20, 2011

May not be reprinted without prior permission of author