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Learning from Windsor's Waterfront

I spent a week visiting my parents in Windsor over the Christmas holidays, and had a very happy time. While I was there I got to thinking about the Windsor waterfront. I think there may be some lessons in how it came to be that Windsor has done a pretty good job in creating an attractive place for everyone to use.

For a six or seven kilometre stretch in downtown Windsor, the city has contiunous parkland along the Detroit River. These parks are on the north side (i.e., the water side) of Riverside Drive, and are on and below the river bank. In other words, when you are walking in the park you can move along side the water, enjoying the view of the Detroit skyline while you are shielded from the city traffic by the change of elevation up to the street level.

In the core downtown area of Windsor, the parks widen out and can be used as a staging area for festivals and other public events. The downtown waterfront park is easily accessed, since it is right across the street from venues like the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Casino.

I grew up near the western end of these parks, and walking along them was one of my favourite things to do. As I got older I loved going for walks along the waterfront at night. It was a great place to let your imagination go, or to think about anything that was going on. It was at its best for me in January or February, when large chunks of ice would be flowing through the fast-moving river, colliding with each other and crashing up against the Ambassador Bridge's foundations.

Anyway, there are lots of ways to enjoy the parks, and Windsor is lucky to have them.

This stretch of land wasn't always park, however. The downtown section -- now Dieppe Gardens -- was developed privately, but the last building was removed in 1975. Further to the east were the railway lands. When CN didn't need them anymore, the city was able to acquire them in a land trade. The last remaining private property on the waterfront was a Ramada Inn (formerly a Holiday Inn), with an Odeon Theatre. Good luck struck when the hotel burnt down in 1999, and was quickly replaced with park land.

I don't know if it was just me and my family, but growing up I always had the sense that Windsorites were bound and determined to reclaim all the land north of Riverside Drive. I think that it was the simplicity of this vision that made it successful. When the politicians had an opportunity to make a decision, it was a pass-fail situation. Reclaim land for public space: pass. Give up land for private usage: fail.

This was the key part, I think. There was a collective vision that was very clear and simple. Everyone knew what the people wanted, so, over time, gradual progress could be made towards the goal.

The situation here in Toronto is more difficult. There is not one clear, consensus vision of what ought to happen. So, we end up going in circles. And, it is also easier for people to hijack the process and lead it in their own direction.

Anyway, that's how I remember what happened in Windsor, and what I learned from it. My Dad actually has a better take on what happened since (obviously) he's older, and lived through it. He wrote the following when I asked him about the waterfront history:

The problem is there was never a permanent strong insistence that everything north of Riverside Drive had to go. There was a consensus that there should be some parks on the waterfront, but agreement that there be no buildings for the entire length is lacking.

Windsor's economy also was a factor. When the city was in one of its periodic recessions, the result of being tied closely to the cyclical nature of the auto industry, the desperate City Council bought the offer of a Toronto developer to put a highrise of twin towers on the waterfront where once had been grain elevators. The development was to look like the Toronto City Hall. What the city got, however, was the Holiday Inn, a two and three storey plywood structure built on the old dock pilings and just one square yard less in area at which Ontario's building code would have required a brick and mortar building. Adding to the fury of the opponents who were in the minority, was how the building dealt with the promise to continue to provide access to the waterfront. The building included along its length, a wooden walkway that hung over the river at the water's edge, meeting the promise. But the development included locked, eight-foot-high chain link fences at the property's edge to stop the public from getting up on the walkway. Apparently the agreement with the city also provided for fences for security reasons.

The last building on the waterside was the British American Hotel known as the BA, at the foot of Ouellette Avenue, and where US Civil War combatants from the South used to visit to spy on the North. In another recessionary period in the 1970s, a hotel chain from the Kitchener-Waterloo area, proposed to replace the aging building with a new highrise hotel to be known as the Valhalla Inn. The mayor at the time, Frank Wansbrough, held a closed meeting of council to test support and he later said every one present was in favor including one alderman who wanted to study the proposal more but seemed to lean for the new hotel.

There has always been a pro-development sentiment in Windsor which argues the entire waterfront shouldn't be without some commercial development; a few parks is enough. The one alderman, however, was the late Bert Weeks, who challenged Wansbrough for mayor and campaigned on the issue there should be no development on the waterside. He proposed a hotel be built on the opposite side of the street -- a site that is now the Hilton. When Weeks won the close-fought election -- Wansbrough went to bed thinking he had won and woke up in the morning to find he had lost -- Weeks had the political clout to stop the development. The Valhalla people angrily withdrew their proposal saying they would never consider the other side of the street and fled Windsor.

The economy was again a factor when the lands east of the BA site to the Hiram Walker were obtained. The land was a rail yard leading to a ferry across the river. But when ferry service declined, in part with a new CN railway tunnel at Sarnia where high-top cars could pass, the lands became available. A friendly Liberal federal government helped the city acquire the lands and there's now the park that runs from the Ambassador Bridge to Walkers.

The creation of the Odette sculpture garden, based on generous private gifts from the family associated with Eastern Construction, has pretty well assured the western stretch of the park will remain that way. But the pro-development pressure on City Council has never abandoned the hope that some silver of the waterfront will have buildings. When the park plan for the old railway yards was approved, council include a design for a marina in the area and the plan permits buildings for tourism attraction. There's now a one-storey building on the site to provide "amenities." Fortuantely it is below the sightline from the street level which looks down into the area, The marina is in limbo, in part because the floating docks would be in the river's navigation right-of-way, a federal jurisdiction; but the plan has never been killed. As well, every now and then the council toys with an idea, such as an aquarium on the waterfront, or a dock and services for some kind of hovercraft of other ferry service. When passenger ships tie up at Dieppe Park they block the view of the Detroit skyline.

There's no commercial development on the waterfront now, but it is always a possibility depending on the whims of the elected officials. No elected body has reflected the same conviction as when Bert Weeks had a vision for the waterfront.

Something about this Bert Weeks guy reminds me of David Miller.



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