St. Catharines, along with municipalities across the province, are in the midst of an election. Perhaps more so than in elections past, infrastructure is a key concern for the city. There are three major sites up for development: the old General Hospital on Queenston St, the old GM site on Ontario, and the ever present boondoggle that is Port Dalhousie. I live in Merritton, and just about every candidate flyer that has come through my door has listed the need to address the old General Hospital on Queenston St. I agree that development needs to happen, but I find myself concerned with what shape that development will take.
The reason for my concern is tied to past developments in the area. When I was living in Toronto, I came home for a visit. Driving down Queenston St, just past the intersection at Bunting Rd, I noticed something was missing – a schoolhouse. It was an old schoolhouse, probably early 20th century and was most likely built in service to what was once the Village of Homer. A classic red brick two-story building, now gone. Bulldozed in favour of a cookie-cutter subdivision. I’m not opposed to the subdivision, but I am disappointed that the schoolhouse was not incorporated into the overall neighbourhood design. A desire to preserve the history of the neighbourhood could have seen the building refurbished as apartments.
With regards to the Queenston hospital site, I find myself thinking more and more about that old schoolhouse. Most of what was once the General is well deserving of the wrecking ball. However, there is one section that is worth preserving – the old nurses wing. The section is easy to spot – a lighter brick facade and grey concrete pillars marking the doorways. The previous developer, Butera Group, had plans to incorporate some of the existing building into a redeveloped residential area. It’s something I hope the new owner, Queenston Oakdale Inc, maintains.
Aside from preserving the history of the area, there is a larger problem that City Council will need to address – affordable housing. Currently, the vacancy rate in St. Catharines hovers somewhere around 2-3%. That’s crisis level. Municipalities across Canada often incorporate an affordable housing element into any RFP (request for proposals), that requires would-be developers to commit to a percentage of units being dedicated as low-income. Importantly, the condition is non-negotiable.
There has been some movement, but St. Catharines has taken more of a carrot as opposed to a stick approach. In the spring, then MPP Jim Bradley announced $3 million in funding to reimburse development charges to builders in order to encourage them to accommodate lower-priced units. The issue is that municipalities should not be reduced to having to appeal to the better angels of developers in order to secure much needed infrastructure. There are also some stirrings within Canada’s investment community about such practices. Investors don’t factor potential bonuses, or reimbursements, into their project metrics when evaluating whether or not to invest. They do however look at equity. Replacing bonuses with penalties would more accurately align stakeholder interests across the board, as it would actually impact the equity in a project – something investors DO care about.
Long-term planning, and a solid commitment to affordable housing will be of key importance to the Queenston St. site. The neighbourhood is generally low income, and residents of Queenston St. have long lamented crime rates in the area (just a few weeks ago the city made national news due to a shooting at Queenston and Geneva). As attractive and needed as development is, it will be important that it takes place within a larger framework that addresses the socio-economic needs of the neighbourhood. Every candidate looking for my vote is eager to push development, but none have communicated any long-term strategy for the area.
We’ve seen what happens when development is allowed without strategy. Port Dalhousie serves as a stark reminder. Reminiscent of The Simpsons episode, where residents of Springfield were promised a, ‘bonafide, electrified, six car monorail’, the Port Dalhousie redevelopment has smacked of incompetence, and delay. Just last month, thanks in no small part to local MP Chris Bittle, we are finally seeing some movement on the Port piers. That said, residents are still wondering what the larger plans are for the area. Will there be a significant uptick in traffic that will need new infrastructure supports? How will development affect property taxes? Is there a way to offset any tax increases by attracting private investment?
St. Catharines is a city on the move, but it is important to remember that it is a city with it’s own distinct history and economic needs. According to Statistics Canada, the average household income is $64, 000/year. That’s the lowest in Ontario. If we want to see further development, we’re going to have to be smarter about how, what, and why we build. Projects may have to be bundled in order to attract private investment, we may have to demand more of developers in order to create supporting infrastructure. Above all, especially in the case of the Queenston St site, we will have incorporate affordable housing so as to discourage gentrification that may end up displacing the very residents who are now so eager to see the old hospital gone.
St. Catharines is not a sub-division of some larger municipality. It has it’s own distinct history and character. Whatever the direction, we would be wise to preserve this history. It’s not our job to conform to a developer’s idea of what should be built – it’s their job to conform to ours. After all, we live here and this city belongs to us.