It would have been nice to get through at least one council meeting this year that didn’t descend into an act of attempted windmill tilting for a pet cause, but it happened again at Committee of the Whole this week, and now I have to write about it.
The topic was around a third party agreement with the Guelph Hiking Trail Club to manage three trails for the City of Guelph. One of those “unofficial” trails is the one that runs riverside behind Wellington Plaza between Gordon and Wyndham Street South, where there are some nice views even if the setting is a sterling example of our mid-century obsession to cover everything in concrete.
That’s why this plaza is replaced with a beautiful parkscape in the Downtown Secondary Plan, an ambitious strategy that accommodates residential and economic growth, while maintaining and enhancing the unique architectural and natural heritage of the city’s core. It’s an appropriately Guelphy plan, tantalizing in vision but completely indifferent to reality.
To understand city planning, you need to begin with a simple idea: a city is a living thing. No matter how well you plan things and time them out, factors like environment, economy, public interest, and social tastes change over months and years, and what was logical, rational and reasonable in the past is none of those things in the present.
Buildings considered avant garde and modern in the 1960s become ugly-looking blocks 50 years later.
Plans to build underground structures go out the window when you discover there’s hundreds of metres of bedrock just one metre under the surface.
Miles and miles of houses and subdivisions only look like poor planning when you realize that hundreds of people only have the option of driving 10 minutes to get to any park, store, school, or other amenity.
Still, these are the ways our city grew over the last several decades. We razed the beautiful brick work in St. George’s Square and the Carnegie Library and we can’t take a neighbourhood block along Goodwin and turn it into a destination park or new community centre. If the City of Guelph were to propose such a move, what do you think would happen?
The same rules apply to that Wellington Street plaza. You may think it’s a blight, you may want the city to move quickly to buy out the landlord and make something nicer looking, but the same issues exist today that existed more than 10 years ago when the Downtown Secondary Plan was first proposed: there are a dozen thriving businesses sitting there.
Of course, the natural counterargument will be that there are lots of empty storefronts in the city, we can just move those businesses somewhere else, right?
Would that it were so simple.
Consider the cost of moving a business in terms of time and people power. Consider the cost of moving counters, shelves, supplies, and whole kitchen set ups in some places. Consider the cost of advertising the move, the new location, and the grand re-opening. And consider the cost of losing vital business connections. Is it possible that the reason this plaza is successful because of the variety and combination of businesses found there?
And if we’re seizing riverfront property to build shared community spaces, why aren’t we seizing all riverfront properties? There are a lot of residential properties across the Eramosa from the River Run Centre, let’s take ‘em! Let’s tear down the Matrix building too, and the towers on Cardigan Street, they’re ruining a nice river view from the main road on Woolwich!
It would be nice if we could go back in time and find the developer who thought it was an awesome idea to turn a beautiful river view into the unseen backyard of a strip mall, not to mention the city council and staff who went along with it, but several decades later the die has been cast. Sorry folks, there’s a plaza there, and it seems pretty popular whether you’re looking for vinyl albums, a sex toy or a nice all-day breakfast.
If the plaza on Wellington Street was empty, or home to one or two shops, we could make a case that there’s ripe opportunity for redevelopment. We could easily move a couple of businesses and proceed with a brand-new riverfront park. But this is reality, not a visioning session at a planning workshop.
So are we going to purposefully undermine local business owners in favour of a shiny city building trophy, or are we going to bow to the hum-drum reality that you can’t build a perfect city nearly 200 years after the first corner stone was laid? You can get a facelift, but the plastic surgeon still has to work with the dimensions of your face; he or she can’t move your nose to your forehead.
There are lots of development fights in town for people who want to pick one. Maybe we don’t have to pick one that’s already lost?