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  • 3 Apr 2017

    City grapples with downtown office formula

     

    Brent Penner, executive director of Downtown Saskatoon, wants city hall to move forward on recommendations from the city centre plan to entice more office space downtown. (MICHELLE BERG/The StarPhoenix) Michelle Berg

    City hall continues to struggle to find the right mix to entice more developers to add more office space in downtown Saskatoon.

    Brent Penner, executive director of the downtown business improvement district, said he wants the city to move forward to enhance office space in the core.

    Appearing before city council’s planning, development and community services committee on Monday, Penner noted the city centre plan stresses the importance of downtown office space.

    “The city centre plan was approved three and a half years ago,” he said. “It’ll be four years in September. Business wants to be downtown, but we need to make it easier for corporate decision makers to meet those needs.”

    The city needs to act now or lose the opportunity for another generation or two, Penner added.

    Committee members, including Mayor Charlie Clark, pointed out the developers of new office space downtown already receive a five-year tax abatement.

    That tax break “isn’t anything to sneeze at,” Coun. Zach Jeffries said.

    “You can only ask citizens and taxpayers to go so far when it comes to subsidizing those (business location) decisions,” Clark added.

    In 2014, about half of Saskatoon’s office space was located in the Central Business District. The rest was distributed throughout the city, according to a report from the civic administration. 

    Over the last 10 years, 40 per cent of new office space was built in industrial or business park areas, compared to 16 per cent downtown, the report adds. The costs of building downtown were nearly double that of building in industrial or business park areas, it notes.

    “We’ve seen more office development in industrial areas than in downtown,” Clark said.

    The report also notes Regina, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg prohibit building office space in heavy industrial areas.

    Andrew Shaw, who appeared on behalf of the North Saskatoon Business Association, said the organization’s membership of more than 700 businesses favours incentives over regulation.

    “We don’t have an equation or a formula right at this moment,” Shaw said.

    Coun. Darren Hill asked whether incentives like a sharply discounted bus pass for people who work downtown might attract businesses. Shaw said that type of perk could get support.

    Coun. Bev Dubois said some cities pay businesses to relocate, but Saskatoon has traditionally avoided that route.

    “We always said we aren’t going to give it away,” Dubois said.

    The report considered at Monday’s committee meeting did not contain any specific policy recommendations, but Clark convinced the committee to back an additional report on recommendations from a year-old report.

    These recommendations, from April 2016, include limiting the overall size and amount of industrial business parks, giving permit priority and reducing the time and cost of obtaining approval for downtown office development. The recommendations also include allowing major office developments to reserve up to four paid parking stalls for up to 24 months at no cost.

    An ICR Commercial Real Estate report in late 2016 said the downtown office vacancy rate in Saskatoon was 16.5 per cent, compared to 17.6 per cent in the suburbs.

     

    View the full article on the Star Phoenix website here.


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