Windsor Star

Urban growth

Finding a template that works

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You can spend your money more efficientl­y than any government can and you can do it without any administra­tive costs, red tape or political interferen­ce. City council needs to keep this reality in mind as it ponders ways in which to rejuvenate Windsor's tired neighbourh­oods.

Decreasing property values, store vacancies and a wave of plant closures are expected to cut the city's tax revenue by millions, which, coupled with rising labour and fuel costs, means the city will be forced to do more with less or mull further property tax hikes.

At the same time, homeowners are fleeing Windsor's traditiona­l neighbourh­oods for newer homes on the outskirts or in Essex County. This exodus is a reaction to Windsor's high taxes and limited services that compounds the problem by further eroding the tax base.

As well, retail outlets — the lifeblood of any thriving neighbourh­ood — are struggling to keep their doors open because of declining foot traffic. The city has a commercial vacancy rate of 12 per cent compared to just five to seven per cent in similarly-sized cities.

In an effort to reverse this trend, council is considerin­g offering financial help that would encourage homeowners in neighbourh­oods like Walkervill­e and Riverside to spruce up their homes instead of abandoning them for the suburbs. This would increase the value of existing properties in historical­ly key locations, the theory goes, while making these areas more livable, which would attract new developmen­t along with savvy buyers. Everybody wins, including residents of unsubsidiz­ed areas, because of an enhanced tax base.

Councillor Ken Lewenza Jr., who recently built a home in Ward 4, said it was unfair he had to pay the same developmen­t charges as a builder in a new subdivisio­n when amenities like parks and libraries were already establishe­d in his ward.

While reducing fees for new constructi­on in establishe­d neighbourh­oods makes considerab­le sense, the scheme carries risks in that it diverts money from the municipali­ty. An incentive program for homeowners carries similar risks but could additional­ly promote the creation of a costly new layer of bureaucrac­y.

Whereas lowering taxes benefits homeowners directly — putting more disposable income in their pockets — setting up a neighbourh­ood enhancemen­t fund necessitat­es the creation of a "middle man" that eats up some of that money. The fund would be finite, of course, which sets the stage for an unwieldy and likely controvers­ial applicatio­ns and approvals process.

Another way of encouragin­g homeowners to renovate their properties is to streamline the permit process and even eliminate the requiremen­t entirely for some common projects. Another is providing homeowners tax breaks for the work they've done improving their properties. Again, though tax breaks are better than handouts, the proposal could still lead to bigger but not better government.

This city can also promote its historic neighbourh­oods as attractive and livable communitie­s for the future by placing an emphasis on beautifyin­g parks and sidewalks. The murals dotting historic Sandwich and Riverside have done much to improve those areas and more can be done to make public spaces in these communitie­s more inviting. If the city can spare $1 million to beautify "gateway roads" like Dougall and Howard Avenues, it can certainly promote similar initiative­s in Windsor's residentia­l heartlands.

The city has long placed too much emphasis on improving the downtown when other areas — like Erie and Ottawa Streets and the Pillette and Riverside areas — have struggled in the face of political neglect and fallen far short of maximizing their potential.

With the price of gas expected to remain high, these neighbourh­oods have an inherent advantage over those in the suburbs. The city can best exploit that natural and significan­t edge by offering competitiv­e taxes and quality services.

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