CHANGES AT THE CORE
Slowly, despite hitches, the city is heading toward being progressive
The first new apartment building downtown in decades will rise on a vacant lot on Ouellette Avenue north of Erie Street.
The former Fish Market on Chatham Street West, a landmark heritage building left covered in plywood and pigeon poop, will be restored and converted to commercial or office space, high-end lofts and student apartments.
The long-vacant former Box Office bar on Pelissier Street, where a man was shot to death 10 years ago, will get an addition and be transformed into commercial and residential space.
The course of downtown is turning in part because of one of city council’s biggest, best decisions in 2017: a new, aggressive core plan that offers grants and waives taxes to drive development.
There was also investment in Windsor’s distinctive neighbourhoods, its history and public art.
Slowly, despite hitches, the city is heading toward progressive.
The downtown plan is more than just incentives. It recognizes the importance of character, a sense of place, good design and little things that make the core striking and inviting. Too bad council didn’t go all the way.
It rejected recommendations for small grants of $500 to $1,000 for simple projects like painting porches. It also rejected grants to transform alleys into vibrant pedestrian thoroughfares, like Detroit. Big projects by big developers get money. Modest projects by ordinary people don’t.
Thankfully, the non-profit Downtown Windsor Community Collaborative understands the value of grassroots enterprise and will offer Little Things Matter micro grants.
All core neighbourhoods got a major commitment when council approved adding three staff and spending an additional $264,000 to go after owners of derelict vacant buildings and force them to clean up their blight instead of waiting for long-suffering neighbours to complain.
Incentives to clean up and redevelop almost 140 potentially contaminated former industrial sites really began reaping rewards this year. The three latest applications could help convert three sites between Walkerville and Ford City, at Tecumseh Road and Howard Avenue and on Lauzon Road, into new residences. It’s not glitzy. You don’t hear about it much. But these incentives can transform huge tracts of derelict land, much of it in core neighbourhoods.
After more than a decade, council may finally license landlords of rental housing, ensuring the buildings are inspected regularly. Councillors defeated a motion to do that in November, despite a plea by the mother of 19-year-old University of Windsor student Andrew Kraayenbrink, who died in a fire in a house he rented with five other students in 2016.
But Coun. Jo-Anne Gignac, who deserves a lot of credit for this, bucked Mayor Drew Dilkens and later got the issue deferred, giving council another chance to do the right thing. The issue will be debated again when all councillors who can vote are present. Two councillors, Hilary Payne and John Elliott, had declared conflicts and Coun. Bill Marra was absent.
The city has been dealing with substandard student housing around the university since 2003 and nothing has worked, Gignac said. It’s time to ensure these places are safe.
It took two years, but council finally approved bulk garbage collection, another issue that largely affects the core. But it charges $20. The price will drop to $10 under the proposed 2018 budget. It’s another step. If you don’t want people to dump mattresses in alleys, pick them up for free.
The city will also, finally, spend $4.1 million to clean up the “stinky, lousy” (the mayor’s words) Pelissier and Goyeau Street parking garages downtown.
Council is increasingly investing in the things that make cities interesting, like distinctive neighbourhoods and history. It set aside $1 million to transform Wyandotte Street East into Windsor’s World Marketplace, highlighting its rich ethnic diversity. It’s building an arch at the entrance to historic Sandwich. An Asian Village is planned along Wyandotte Street West and a distillery district in Walkerville.
Streetcar No. 351, built in 1918 and one of three remaining that were operated here between 1886 and 1939, will be restored to mark Windsor’s place as the first city in Canada to operate electric streetcars.
The historic Riverside Brewery will probably be demolished, but the landmark Walker Power Building is being rebuilt as a “modern day showpiece” of offices and restaurants.
Council also saved the 90-year-old former International Playing Card factory that made Bicycle playing cards. It will be converted into a new school. Big windows that have been bricked up for years will be replaced, allowing natural light to flood the building again. The Lufkin Rule building may get another reprieve while a prospective buyer investigates restoring it.
The city that spends less than most of Canada’s major municipalities on public art — only $1.07 per capita — also set aside another $750,000 for a $2.75-million public art endowment. A statue of War of 1812 allies General Isaac Brock and Chief Tecumseh will be erected at the entrance to Sandwich, and one of whiskey baron Hiram Walker will be unveiled in Walkerville.
Mayor Drew Dilkens is pushing an “iconic” new main library, like the award-winning one in Halifax. Open Streets is now part of the city life.
Given all these advances, there’s no explaining other decisions. The worst was the decision to spend a whopping $795,000 to convert commercial space in the Pelissier Street parking garage to 43 more parking spaces. Parking garages kill streets. Storefronts create vibrant streets. Pelissier Street is blossoming. The garage is never full. Yet council voted to evict existing tenants, rebuff new tenants and dismiss an enterprising offer to buy and make over the concrete monster.
Despite spending millions of dollars on bike lanes, we don’t have a single protected bike lane. So fewer people ride their bikes. Council actually considered a route along Wyandotte Street East that was so Byzantine it was dubbed The Zigzag. We’re narrowing Ouellette Avenue between Wyandotte and Elliott from four lanes to two to calm traffic and animate the street, but we’re not including bike lanes. We’ve started to address the Dougall Death Trap, but you’d think a corridor that dangerous would be a high priority. Here’s hoping for better in the new active transportation plan.
For a council so conscious of how it spends money — it increased taxes this year for the first time in eight years, by a mere 1.73 per cent — there were some odd decisions. Three million dollars for a Christmas light display? The first $1.5 million worth of lights this year is spectacular. People love it. But another $1.5 million? Four thousand people are waiting for social housing.
Council agreed to solesource the streetcar restoration for a hefty $750,000 in part because it says it already has the money. The streetcar and several other expensive projects like the holiday light display are being paid for partly with $7.2 million earmarked for a parking garage that won’t be built. So they won’t cost taxpayers more money or divert money from other projects, some councillors argued. As if it’s free. Of course it’s not.
In the distressing same old, same old category: divisive 7-4 votes (for which the mayor votes with the majority) and political games. The wards of the three councillors who oppose the mayor the most received the three lowest amounts of money in the $10-million enhanced capital budget, seen as a way to reward councillors who vote the right way.
Council voted twice in the past two years at public meetings to maintain the storefronts in the Pelissier Street parking garage. Then it voted at a closed meeting to eliminate them. After public outrage, councillors confirmed their vote at the final public meeting.
Council first voted in 2016 not to issue a request for proposals to contract out city janitors’ jobs. Barely a month later, at a closed meeting, it reopened the issue, asking for another report. At a second public meeting, it approved issuing the RFP. This year, it voted to contract out janitors’ jobs at Huron Lodge. If the mayor wants something done, it’s done.
Given all these advances, there’s no explaining other decisions. The worst was to spend $795,000 to convert commercial space in the Pelissier Street parking garage to 43 more parking spaces.
Roberta Girdler, left, and Mikaela Morin join a large crowd during Open Streets Windsor in September. The event is a sign of the city becoming more progressive, writes Anne Jarvis.