What’s Next for Downtown West?

A lengthy look at what to do with the part of downtown west of George Street ...

By Happy City’s Rachel Housser-Guy

The Downtown West Development Forum was held on June 26th  by Happy City to discuss the rapid development of the 100 block of Water Street.

With six major projects either under construction or planned, not to mention the addition of five thousand plus people to a single block of the city, a public discussion seemed to be in order. The Jimmy Pratt Center graciously opened its doors to a panel of design professionals and the public for what became a high caliber, high intensity design conversation.

A wide range of suggestions floated out of the frenzy. Some ideas were whimsical – a funicular up Barter’s Hill! Rooftop green houses!

Some of the ideas were bold – expropriating Oceanex property, banning non-NL retail chains, removing height restrictions, turning the Ultramar into a public plaza.

Some ideas were simply pragmatic – pedestrian only streets, a city-supported design competition, reformation of bylaws/zoning, interior public space with low cost/no cost access, etc.

The top five ideas which shared the greatest support amongst all were:

  1. Railway Station: the resurrection.

The re-planning and repositioning of this grand old historic building would act as a one stop shop for all transport in and out of the downtown core. This would include commuter buses from the suburbs and beyond, short term parking, a taxi stand, shuttles, a ferry to the Battery, bike rental/repair/sale, pedestrian path connections to the Waterford Valley trail/downtown/Southside road. Why not have it rezoned for commercial/retail to include cafes, a pharmacy, a liquor store, a dry cleaner/hair salon, a day care and newspaper/smokes/lottery stand while going at it? Doesn’t that four lane highway at the end of Water Street suddenly seem less pointless?

  1. The community centre you actually want via the Sally Ann

The good news is that that Salvation Army is staying downtown, the bad news is that one if not both of their buildings on Springdale Street will come down. The whole re-imagining of the spot, however, is enough to give the average citizen goosebumps. Think about what the Salvation Army does – feeds people, has great bands, holds community meetings, runs a thrift shop, organizes disaster relief, deals with addiction and mental health issues, and provides shelter. In general, it acts as a bulwark of compassion against the ever widening tide. While respecting the core clientele, imagine the possibility of additional facilities (swimming pool/urban garden/tech hub/library anyone?) open to all. It would benefit the greater community while lining the Salvation Army’s pockets. Win!

  1. Reconnecting the Hill/Water St. West

This block is an oasis surrounded by a monster overpass, two busy highways, and one cramped side street. Because of the destruction of the residential neighbourhoods above Gower Street, in various waves from the 1950s to the 1990s above Gower Street, the flow of movement through that part of town was also destroyed. Yet in the coming months and years large volumes of pedestrian and car traffic will be passing through it. What to do? Suggestions included a more defined pedestrian network from the inbound neighbourhoods, a green/pedestrian corridor along Gower, re-routing of traffic on at least one of the streets, shuttles/street cars, better lighting and signage, better accessibility for those with mobility issues, and human scale public space. It is too late to demand set backs on the new Convention Center (it leans into Adelaide Street like a pushy shopper at Costco), but new by-laws could require specific set-backs which allow moments of pause and rest for the pedestrian. Fortis, in the name of community mindedness, might also consider allowing foot traffic through its fortifications, as it cuts off two major access routes through the block.

  1. Residential reoccupation

The degree and density of this idea is debateable, but it’s generally seen as a good idea to have bodies in beds in the downtown core. For those who can live without lawns, it means contributing with a smaller footprint, being closer to your neighbours and work, as well as having a positive impact on safety in the area. However, a house does not a home make, which leads to the exciting suggestion of …

  1. Non-George St

Like it’s rowdier cousin to the East, Non-George St would be a pedestrian only, commercial/retail zoned area given special licence for festivals (remember the new Ultramar plaza?) patios, restaurants, public art, seating areas, wi-fi, markets, and  above all, space. This summer over five hundred people crowded into Solomon’s Lane to watch the summer movie series. Public space continues to be eroded in the downtown core, and it can be remedied in a way that is accessible to all. It is both pointless and dictatorial to attempt to prescribe a clientele to a neighbourhood – they are organic creatures who tend not to do what they’re told, luckily. But at some point everyone needs to eat lunch, get a coffee or to sit down in the sun for ten minutes. .Ensuring that the Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) is NOT enacted in this area (it doesn’t prevent crime, it prevents poor people), and asking Council for a Secondary Plan (an overlay, as is planned for Water Street West and Quidi Vidi, for example), in the new Municipal Plan would be a way to recognize the area as a separate area, and would go a long way to foster a lively, vibrant, and inhabited neighbourhood.

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