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Don’t Let The Door Hit You

Don’t Let The Door Hit You

A lonely stone doorway now occupies the site of the former nurses wing of the old General on Queenston St. In Niagara Falls, the fate of that city’s old city hall, built in 1866, teeters in the balance. Newer builds, such as the Burgoyne Bridge are also stuck in the mire – the City of St. Catharines facing a $10million lawsuit, in addition to a near $40million overrun on project costs. I’m not sure whether to call it incompetence, or growing pains, either way – we have a problem when it comes to infrastructure.

Former Niagara Falls resident, Alex Colangelo, rightly points to a growing trend in other cities/regions that see historic buildings preserved and included in a municipality’s overall economic growth. Commenting in the Niagara Falls Review about that city council’s decision to tear down the 1866 City Hall, Colangelo states, “Around the world, cities scramble to stop callous developers from razing these historic gems, and I’m shocked that here it’s our very own city deciding to destroy a priceless civic asset.” He has a point.

Colanglo’s petition to preserve the hall can be found here.

Drive a half-hour up the QE, and Niagara residents can get a glimpse of thoughtful city planning. Jason Thorne is the General Manager of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Hamilton – and is dedicated to that city’s historic appeal. Quoted in the Globe & Mail, Thorne points out the importance of architectural heritage, stating that Hamilton’s appeal to business, ‘comes from the historic urban fabric – so those older buildings become something that’s important to economic development.’ A point that seems all but lost on his Niagara counterparts.

Last October, writing in this paper, I worried about the fate of the old nurses wing of the General. Residents in the area had been complaining about vandalism in the abandoned hospital, many calling for demolition to be sped up. This was understandable. The site has come to symbolize a lack of planning and an inability to move infrastructure forward. Perhaps due to local worries, demolition began in early March. I felt my blood pressure rise as I watched the wrecking machines go to work on what was century old architecture. As they finished, all that was left was the front entrance. This is what counts for historic preservation in St. Catharines. To me, that doorway is not emblematic of a city preserving it’s history – it’s representative of an ignorance and irreverence for both our past, and future.

As mentioned, I’m not sure if these infrastructure mis-steps are the result of sheer incompetence, or are just growing pains of a city on the move. Either way, residents are paying very real costs. The hospital that replaced both the Dew, and the General, cost more than $7billion. To put this in perspective, the new St. Catharines Hospital serves a catch basin of 400 000 residents and boasts no particular technological advancements. Humber River Hospital serves a catch basin of 800 000, and is Canada’s first fully ‘smart’ hospital. Humber River came in at around $9billion. To add insult to injury, the St. Catharines site still lacks highway access, and is located out in the West end of the city, as opposed to being located either downtown (near the city’s most vulnerable populations) or near Brock University. The reason? The land was donated. Yet, despite not having to pay for the real estate, we still managed to spend $7billion to build a $4billion hospital.

The Burgoyne Bridge was originally estimated to cost $60million, but by builds-end had come to nearly $10million. Issues plagued the construction – oversights concerning materials and environmental factors led to long, expensive delays. You could make the argument that the delays were unforeseen, or inevitable – but that would be a lie. If you’re building a major project, it’s your job to implement a delivery model that will identify the unseen and unknown factors that can drive up costs. No, the overruns were the result of city staff not implementing a viable delivery model, or simply believing an over-optimistic estimate of the ultimate cost. As a result, the taxpayers of St. Catharines may not just be on the hook for the overruns, but now could be out for a $10million lawsuit that has been filed by the contractor.

Recently, there has been some movement on taking a more pro-active approach to infrastructure. The city has revoked a tax incentive tied to soil reclamation at the former GM site on Ontario St due to inactivity with the project. Such moves are actually more in line with the direction many involved with infrastructure investment would like to see municipalities take. Incentives for developers do not actually factor into the matrix investors use to evaluate projects. And yes, there is a difference between developers and investors. If city actors want to take advantage of possible new investment opportunities, it’s time for them to invest in their own professional development and internal planning systems.

Another route is for municipal players is to start to re-think financing models. In 2012, the City Deal was introduced as a new financing model in the UK, and is now the model being applied in more than 30 UK municipalities. Essentially a contract between the central government and cities/regions, the City Deal delivers funding for priority infrastructure with the returns of economic and employment growth feeding back. In Australia, South-East Queensland recently signed a commitment agreement to launch it’s own City Deal. Adopting the City Deal model would work well, given the federal government’s new commitment to municipalities outlined in the most recent budget – helping to provide a framework and sustainable approach to funding. Currently, this model isn’t being discussed in Canada, and you can bet it’s nowhere on the radar of those in St. Catharines City Hall – but it should be.

St. Catharines is growing. We have a new Preforming Arts Centre, arena, and more to come. That said, if we are to grow, then we need to grow up. An ad-hoc approach isn’t going to cut it. Relying on development charges, or property tax increases isn’t sustainable. We need investment in internal development for both knowledge and capacity building. We need to start having meaningful conversations with investors. We need a clearly articulated and thought-out affordable housing strategy. We need partnerships, and we need city planners to start creating them. We need more than just a doorway – we need our own bricks and mortar identity preserved and built into new economic models of development.

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