Those who know me, know that I first ran for City Council in 2006, on a platform of revitalization for the Downtown core of St. Catharines. Having been a retailer on St. Paul Street for close to thirty years, it had become clear to me that band-aid solutions and singular improvements would not result in real change. The City touting revitalization on the basis of new streetscaping or simply a change to the traffic flow, only would suceed in luring enthusiastic, but unprepared entrepreneurs to their eventual doom, but do nothing to promote a renaissance. Change to the Downtown core could only be achieved through a comprehensive strategy and a commitment to follow through..
Early in 2007, I asked Council to consider the development of an overarching and measureable plan for the core of the city. I also asked for a Committee of Council to be formed that would steer the plan. The Committee was to be made up of representatives from the stake holders to the downtown and others perceived to be a part of the solution. Representatives were hand selected from residents, businesses, wineries, Wine Council of Ontario, Brock University, the Downtown Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Cultural community. These representatives, along with several Councillors and City staff from all departments, led by Economic Development and Planning, met for a period of two years; and consulted with perceived partners, such as the development community, the Niagara Regional Police, the Wine Council of Ontario, etc. With the help of Planning Consultants, an all-embracing plan for revitalization was formed. The result was the creation of the St. Catharines Downtown Creative Cluster Master Plan.
Now, you may say, "Great! Another plan to sit on a shelf!" However, this plan was different. It envisioned the streets of Downtown being converted to two-way traffic; the creation of a School of Fine and Performing Arts, by the University; the development and construction of a Performing Arts Centre by the City of St. Catharines, along with a new 5000+ seat spectator Arena; a new 600 car Parking Garage; the connection of the City to tourism and the wine industry through the Wine Council of Ontario’s Wine Route being extended through the Downtown and out Queenston Street; the development of a Civic Square, improved public realm and eventually, a dedicated pedestrian precinct; the repurposing of abandoned second floor commercial space to residential and the development of new residential in multiple forms, to serve multiple demographics; the creation of an incubator for new business development related to the creative sector; the creation of a practical Medical teaching facility that would be partnered with McMaster University and Brock University, etc. … While the list was lengthy, the commitment from both the engaged stakeholders and City was strong, to move this plan from concept to implimentation.
So, what happened with this new plan? St. Catharines Downtown Creative Cluster Master Plan became one of the most successful municipal plans provincilly, if not nationally, in inner urban revitalization. Planning Staff used the plan in the development of the new Official Plan for the City called The Garden City Plan. They went on to use the concepts embedded in these plans to develop the new Comprehensive Zoning By-law and the Urban Design Guidelines for the Downtown and the development of a Community Improvement Plan program that helped with the creation of new residential development and improvement of the facades of existing buildings. The Transportation and Environmental Services Department, in the wake of two-way traffic, went on to develop new public realm, street and sidewalk designs, which we have begun to see implimented around the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. Further pedestrian infrastructure improvements will continue this spring which will lend to a more walkable, pedestrian friendly and people oriented environment in the core. The Economic Development Department has dedicated a new point-person for business development and retention in the Downtown and helped to develop nGen, (Niagara Interactive Media Generator) in conjunction with its various partners. (Now called Innovate Niagara, which has become an innovation center for entrepreneurial endeavors in digital media, bioscience and business): The City has developed the new $17 million Carlisle parking facility and the Finance Department has worked with a Parking Committee and the Transportation Department to develop a new parking strategy looking at parking needs, costs and technology to make parking system both more functional, and sustainable.
The Success Stories:
City Initiatives and Partnerships
What does this mean for the residents of St. Catharines / Niagara? The Downtown core is well on its way to being revitalized. The streets are abuzz with residents attending concerts and theatre at the new world-class FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre; hockey and basketball games at the new state of the art Meridian sports and entertainment Centre; shopping at the new stores that have appeared and those that managed to hang on, (the real heroes Downtown); dining in the new restaurants and cafes and relaxing at the new pubs. It means that the experience for people in the core takes precidence over the experience of the automobile, making Downtown a more liveable, enjoyable environment. Consequently, more people are wanting to live within the core of our community. There have been new townhouse, condominium and student housing developments completed. New rental apartments developed out of the old abandoned second floor commercial space, and more residential development that has been approved for various sites within the core. The new housing approved to date will serve a range from student to high income earners and late teens to seniors. This new influx of population into the core is what will make the area sustainable for businesses into the future and safer for all. The results of the Downtown renaissance have had a significant impact on the growth of new residents moving to our City and the recent upward trend in Real Estate sales and prices in the community.
Residential Development - Coming Soon!
The Downtown is alive! …and while there is still loads of room for improvement and lots of work remaining to be done, we are well on our way to having a livable, walkable, desirable Downtown. It is my hope is that City Council, and City residents continue to support revitalization of the core and continue to focus on the livability of our community for all residents!
Next Issue - What's next for Downtown?
Well today I started a blog…
Not because there aren’t enough blogs in the world… But because our City is changing, as a result of past decisions, external pressures and internal design. What will these changes mean? How will they affect our lives? What will the end result be? What can we do to make our City a more sustainable and livable community, for now and into the future?
Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The 20th Century was a roller coaster ride for the North American City and every peak and valley that we experienced also created a related, but independent reaction. For example; The rampant industrialization of the Victorian era and post war industrial expansion, were economic booms that created employment for our residents, but also resulted in large tracks of contaminated brownfield lands within our communities. Communities were also divided by new highways and rail lines, needed to move those goods to market. The advent of the post war suburban dream created large lots with larger homes, but also pushed our serviced land to our municipal borders and changed us from a walkable community, to an auto centric one. Consequently, urban expansion raised the cost of servicing the increased municipal infrastructure to levels that, today, Cities struggle to sustain. Today, communities all over North America are revisiting past decisions and refocusing current ones, cognizant of the potential impacts on the lives of residents.
Through this Blog, I hope to look at our Community through a lens of livability and sustainability… Where we started… Where we are… Where we are going… and the opportunities and challenges along the way, through the unique lens provided by my multiple roles in Government, Culture and Commerce. Stay tuned, I am sure that this Blog will be a roller coaster ride as well!
Mark Elliott is a three term St. Catharines City Councillor for St. Patrick's Ward 4, which includes the Downtown; a Real Estate Sales Representative for McGarr Realty Inc., a locally owned boutique brokerage located in the downtown St. Catharines and Niagara-0n-the-Lake, and; a contemporary Canadian Visual Artist, specializing in paintings on canvas and wood, which deal with a social and political commentary, with a studio in Downtown St. Catharines.