'A smart city, a dynamic city': Downtown BIA optimistic for revitalization

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Windsor Star/Carolyn Thompson

here’s a downtown Windsor dream of hundreds of students sitting in little parks, biking down University Avenue and wandering into shops and restaurants between classes.

In the vision, storefronts are full and streets are busy. Maybe there’s a new law school in the core, on top of the social work and arts buildings the university has opened. Maybe the city has closed some roadways to make the area more walkable. Maybe small buildings are being converted into apartments and student housing.

Maybe downtown Windsor is vibrant again.

“Hopefully we’ve turned a corner and downtown is becoming again slowly the heart of the city,” said Larry Horwitz, chair of the Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association, at its annual meeting Wednesday evening.

Horwitz said he knows it will take time, but with the University of Windsor’s new buildings the city is taking a step in the right direction.

Craig Goodman, the architect for the university’s construction work, presented the project. He showed off the re-design of the old Windsor Star building on Ferry Street, where work was done to open up green space and keep the heritage value of the stone walls and brick facade. He outlined plans for an arts hub, where the design of the inside of the Armouries building overlaps, just like the students will: sculpture meets painting meets music. The buildings will link with pedestrian roadways and expanded green spaces.

Not only does the university bring with it the immediate benefit of more than 1,000 students, staff and faculty (once all the buildings have opened), Horwitz said it’s a consistent economic generator. It’s not one affected by ups and downs in the economy.

“This will make a huge change to our economic vitality,” he said.

The DWBIA is putting money towards projects it hopes will spur on spin-off from the university. Wednesday night the board approved its 2016 budget, which includes $20,000 for decorative lighting and flowers, $15,000 for grants to help fix up filthy facades and $32,000 for street cleaning and repairing broken windows.

“We want to fill up every shop in the downtown, make it a place that people can be proud of,” Horwitz said.

Increasingly, universities are realizing they don’t have to work separately from the cities they’re in, said Douglas Kneale, provost and vice-president academic.

He came to Windsor in part because of the potential for creativity and innovation in its downtown development. A similar expansion at Brock, which brought about 500 people into the downtown, was estimated to have a $17-million economic spin-off. In Windsor, twice that number are expected to be using the downtown buildings.

Still, many business owners are waiting to be convinced.

Ryan Smith, owner of Pause Cafe on Chatham Street and vice-chair of the DWBIA board, said he’s seen a small uptick in business since students arrived at the Ferry Street building.

“I think this is great, but I feel like for years the downtown BIA was the sole voice,” he said. “You look at Chatham Street, East and West, it’s got to be the worst part of downtown there is. When you get a marginal up, it’s fabulous. But if you were from out of town, from the mall or Walkerville, it’s a joke.”

Smith said downtown housing is key to developing an urban community. Particular more options for young, single workers who want a walkable lifestyle.

Horwitz said he’s heard many property owners downtown are waiting to see what happens. Some have plans to create rental units or convert homes into student housing, but want to be confident there’s business before investing.

But Horwitz is optimistic.

He still remembers discussions about another university thinking of opening a satellite campus downtown. It never happened.

Then, in 2011, the University of Windsor decided it would do it.

“That was the day we decided we’d become a smart city, a dynamic city. Downtown changed forever,” Horwitz said. “Now we just have to keep moving forward.”