Charrette planning committee in 2008. (Contributed photo)

Strengthening our downtown by encouraging mixed-use

Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach on tax exemption planned to encourage residential units downtown.

Ten years ago, a group of residents got together with a planning consultant to re-imagine downtown Smithers. The exercise, called the Smithers Downtown Charrette, aimed to “develop an exciting, achievable, and bold plan to enhance the vibrancy and walkability of downtown.” It’s fun to look back at the Charrette report’s 19 strategies — still available online — and reflect on how much progress has been made over the past decade.

The report recommends that council, “Consider regulatory tools such as tax incentives to encourage residential development in the Downtown Residential zone.” Our Official Community Plan echoes this idea, stating, “Mixed use development, specifically residential uses located above commercial uses, is strongly encouraged.”

Yet despite its inclusion in planning documents, little has been done to actively encourage mixed-use residential development in our downtown. This is something council hopes to address with its recently announced Revitalization Tax Exemption Bylaw.

Increasing the number of people who live downtown makes the area more vibrant, contributes to a compact, walkable community and supports downtown businesses. Also, because downtown residential development is more likely to consist of smaller, apartment-style rental units or condos, it adds much-needed diversity to our housing stock. And it adds to our tax base without costly new infrastructure, such as water, sewer, streets and sidewalks. It’s smart growth.

The Revitalization Tax Exemption Bylaw is an incentive tool we hope to use to create a win-win scenario for property owners and the community as a whole. Through this program, owners who either add residential units to existing commercial buildings or build new mixed-use commercial buildings with a residential component will qualify for a five-year municipal property tax exemption.

Our Town planning and finance staff have put together a program outline to inform community consultation. We are proposing new buildings that include one residential unit receive a 75-percent tax exemption for five years, which increases to a 100-percent exemption if two or more units are included. Similarly, renovations of existing buildings that add at least one new residential unit will qualify for a 100-percent tax exemption for the assessed value of the improvements to the building.

Already, we’ve received interest from property owners looking at new mixed-use projects in our downtown. What do you think? Is downtown residential development important? Does our proposed incentive strike the right balance between the needs of property owners and the needs of the community?

We are currently seeking community feedback on our strategy, which we hope to have in place for the 2018 construction season. Residents and developers are invited to attend our committee of the whole meeting on this topic on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. You can also email your questions or comments to me at mayor@smithers.ca and I will pass them along to council and staff.

Smithers’ downtown is among our community’s greatest strengths. Our hope is that this new program will help make it even stronger.

Taylor Bachrach is the Mayor of Smithers.