Vibrant residential/commercial/retail project planned for vacant core site

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross


A company with northern India roots wants to transform a long-vacant University Avenue property with 236 years of history into a distinctive residential/office/retail development it’s calling Graffiti.

The land between Elm and Cameron avenues is 2.3 acres — pretty large for a property in the core, because it stretches all the way north to the Portofino condominium tower on Riverside Drive. It has of three empty buildings, including an old building that once housed The Junction family restaurant and indoor playground, and an even older building to the west. First used starting in 1783 as a horse-drawn passenger carriage operation, it later (around 1890) became the trolley and bus storage and maintenance operation for the SW&A Street Railway.

AIPL Canada plans on restoring into commercial and retail space, while working on the rest of the project. A residential building constructed in the back will have at least 100 units and be between four and six storeys, company spokesman Shabeg Singh said Tuesday.

While the property has had multiple owners over the years who had various plans that never materialized, Singh said AIPL feels confident about the site’s great location and the company’s plans to target university and college students, millennials and young professionals with a unique “mixed-use development.”

“We just feel this project is going to be something Windsor hasn’t seen before in terms of bringing mixed use development into one place,” he said. “That includes bringing commercial activity, bringing residential activity, bringing retail activity.”

Singh said it’s a little premature to provide an estimate of the value of the project or drawings. He said the company hopes to have activity on the site this year, to repurpose the existing buildings.

“Right now we’re working on our plans and we’re working on our conceptual drawings and we’re also preparing for the launch. That’s when everyone in the city will see what’s coming online.”

He did say the company is excited about repurposing the old buildings. “We feel that preserving those important buildings adds to the aura and the character of the entire development.”

The property was previously owned by local businessmen Van Niforos and George Sofos who spent thousands renovating the old car barn for a restaurant with plans to turn the adjacent Junction building into a medical centre. They even moved a derelict century-old trolley into the trolley barn with plans to restore it and use it as a centrepiece. But the impending sale of the building in 2017 prompted the Niforos and Sofos to donate the streetcar to the city, which sent it off to a Blenheim expert for a $750,000 renovation that’s nearing completion.

Sofos said that after all the restoration work already done on the trolley barn (the front section dates to 1886 while the rear goes back to the 1700s, he said), he’s hopeful the new owners will do something that fits with its heritage. “It’s a beautiful building,” he said. “That building is good to stay another 100 to 200 years.”

Earlier this week, city council’s Development and Heritage Standing Committee endorsed an application from the new owners for a city Brownfield Redevelopment Community Improvement Plan grant of up to $23,795 to help pay for environmental studies to gauge the extent of any soil contamination.

“When they get the results of that back, they’ll have an estimate of what it will cost to clean up,” said city senior planner Greg Atkinson. And then they’ll move on to the next step in the Brownfield program, which would provide incentives in the form of reduced development charges and tax abatements. The program was created in 2010 by council in an attempt to spur development on 130 former industrial sites covering 559 acres in the city that were sitting largely vacant. The incentives are meant to help cover the costs of cleanup, to even the playing field between brownfield and greenfield development.

Meanwhile, the company is also working with city planners on the site plan.

While the city councillor for the area, Rino Bortolin, hasn’t seen the plans for the development, he’s talked to the new owners on several occasions and said “anything” new for that property is extremely welcome.

“It’s sat empty, it’s on a main corridor, it’s a connecting piece between the west end and downtown, so it has the potential to have a huge impact on that stretch,” Bortolin said. “And it takes an empty, blighted property off that street.”

The old trolley barn, he said, is gorgeous inside. “It’s one of those things where with that building restored, it’ll turn into an icon in the area, a shining example of restoration projects.”

The third building that’s part of the property is a vacant art deco office building at the corner of Elm and University.

Bortolin said he becomes truly excited about redevelopment plans when a shovel hits the ground.

And that’s already happening elsewhere in his ward, which has benefited by the city’s two-year-old community improvement plan for the downtown.

Currently on the go: Piroli Group is already at its site at Crawford Avenue and Wyandotte Street West, preparing to build a 147-unit apartment building worth $43 million; work has begun at the two-storey former Don Cherry’s at 531 Pelissier St., with a plan to turn it into a $5.6-million, industrial-stylefive-storey residential building with 24 units called The Hive; and a partnership involving Mid South Land Development Corp. and owners of the Cypher Systems Group continues to renew Chatham Street West, with renovations underway at the former Fish Market building (where Quicken Loans will locate a tech centre), the former Beer Market building and former Chatham Street Grill building.

On Tuesday, the Star reported that the partnership has a new tenant — the WindsorEssex Development Corporation — and has purchased yet another Chatham Street property: the vacant building that used to house Ye Olde Steak House and the Pour House Pub.