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Market Squared: Schrödinger’s Development is alive again

The Lafarge site is back in the headlines, but will anything actually get done? Who can say after 15 years?
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It was interesting flashback earlier this month when the Lafarge site once again came into the news. This tract of land along Silvercreek Pkwy S. has long been eyed for a development of some kind for years. It’s been fought over, planned for, and argued about in the community for over a decade, but nothing ever happened. It is Schrödinger’s Development.

Now if you’re not aware of the actual thought experiment called “Schrödinger’s Cat” then you’ve probably seen it referenced a dozen times on The Big Bang Theory, and know the gist. Anyway, development on the Lafarge site has always been a bit like “Schrödinger’s Cat”, every couple of years something official comes forward that seems to indicate that a shovel is a few months away from being put in the ground, only when you pass by there a year later it’s the same as it ever was. 

This time it’s different though. Or it at least feels like it’s different. City staff sent out a press release on the late afternoon of Friday, July 14 announcing that nearly 2,000 trees in the Lafarge site were due to be cut down sometime before month’s end. Not only was this a typical “take out the trash” move of info dumping, but someone at City Hall had to know that the people that would make the loudest, most immediate fuss would be already encamped at Hillside and not on their phones. 

Forget the ambiguousness of the starting date, and the more than a little cynical way the information was released, but let’s suppose those trees start getting chopped down by next Monday. Then what? 

With the Lafarge site, there’s always another “Then what?” A decade ago, a fire was lit under area residents who banded together and incorporated their neighbourhood group to become a legal fighting force for a full-speed ahead plan to make that area a new commercial hub. IKEA was a name brandied about, but can you remember the last time anyone in town bemoaned our lack of build-it-yourself furniture with Swedish names? 

A deal was reached between the City, the neighbourhood group and developers in 2009 through mediation at the Ontario Municipal Board. Everyone agreed that the area would be used for some kind of limited commercial development, plus a mix of residential and a healthy dose of conservation for the land having grown over and wild since the gravel pit there went out of business. Many thought that was a starting pistol, but it was one of those toy guns with a “Bang!” flag in it. 

These aren’t the only fits and starts as every now and then some noise is made about development starting soon, or official plans about to be submitted. Remember how for like 20 years Guns N’ Roses kept saying they were working on a new album? It’s a lot like that. 

If progress on this file has been stymied, it’s because of one very important factor, and it’s the fact that train tracks split Silvercreek Pkwy, and an underpass will have to be constructed. Not an easy operation since those are busy tracks that carry freight and GO train commuters several times in a day. 

Before any building happens on the Lafarge site some major capital is going to have to go to fixing that road, and in case you’re not familiar with the 10-year capital budget, money for that underpass ain’t on it. It’s safe to say that this has always been the sticking point about development on the property, and the reason why any construction has always been just another construction year away. 

And that’s why this is so vexing. The developer is now going to clear cut the land and what? Wait for the city to squeeze in another $18 million to make an underpass happen sometime soonish? The newly approved Wilson Street parkade costs a little bit more than that, and at least there’s an understandable priority there about the need for downtown parking. Shall we flashback to last week and ask the east end about how people there might feel about council rushing another west end development? 

The fact of the matter is that the councillors themselves seem taken aback by the suddenness of the tree removal, including the relevant representatives. Both of Ward 3 councillors Phil Allt and June Hofland were at a vigil for the loss of greenspace last Sunday, and both had little to offer those angry and upset by the move. 

Mayor Cam Guthrie, who as a councillor represented Ward 4 which borders the Lafarge site, took to his blog to say, “I am greatly concerned that there will be zero development for an extended period of time on any site that has such tree removal.”

“There very well could be an application or development proposal coming forward soon from the owner of the Lafarge Lands, and I hope there is. But if it sits with nothing for years – that bothers me,” he added. 

It should bother us all. Guthrie himself refers to another example near his own home of a piece of land cleared of trees years ago, predating his city council run in 2010. It’s just now being built upon, and that location is at a semi-major intersection. Right now, the Lafarge is only accessible by walking paths over the tracks, and one end of a two-lane street in one of the older parts of town just past the strip club. 

I’ve long had a personal fascination with the Lafarge site. It was once the original brewery of Sleemans, then a bustling centre of industry when Lafarge moved in. Throughout the site are odd piles of cinder blocks, leftover cement floors, and an outline of where industry once stood but has since been reclaimed by nature. 

And because Silvercreek is impassible at one end, it’s a rare kind of safe space from traffic in the inner city. That is except for the occasional car that wanders past the three “dead end ahead” signs in the hopes that it’s some kind of trick, or else they believe, to quote Ice Cube from XXX: State of the Union, “There’s no such thing as a dead end.” Except there is, and there it sits. 

Until now, “dead end” has been a metaphor for development on the Lafarge site, but like some of those drivers, it seems that the developers are seeing a way through where perhaps there isn’t. As it’s been for the last 10 or 15 years, people in the area of the Lafarge site are waiting for something to happen that may never happen. 

Somebody wants us to think that the cat is alive, but it’s seemed pretty dead for awhile, and no one would be surprised if it didn’t rise from the dead for a bit longer. So why are we being so thoroughly convinced that the cat is alive? That’s an interesting questions….