Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hey City Hall!...Get out of the Way and Let the Magic Happen!

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and Unfiltered Opinion
Reprinted from Oshawa Central Newspaper

Bill Longworth, City Hall Columnist
May 16, 2011

During the election campaign, I stated that creating a UOIT campus downtown was a terrible and costly error for city taxpayers.

I suggested that the huge city tax losses from all of the downtown buildings being taken over by “tax exempt” UOIT were going to have to be made up by residential taxpayers and that is still a fact.

I suggested that the downtown was in decay because city council over the years had demonstrated little vision to correct the situation. And that continues to be the case.

My Mayor Election campaign site called for major concentration in the improvement of our downtown.

Part of the plan was the creation of pedestrian malls along King Street from Mary to Centre and along Simcoe from Bond to Athol. I suggested redirecting Eastbound King traffic down Centre and along Athol to rejoin King Street at Mary. Similarly I suggested Northbound Simcoe traffic be redirected East along Athol and North on Mary and West on Bond to rejoin Simcoe.

I suggested an international design contest be promoted to conceptualize downtown streetscapes and building facades and the city to offer financial inducements by way of tax credits to property owners to improve their buildings in ways suggested by the winning plan.

I had a giant vision for making the downtown an attractive and distinctive “people place” which in turn would attract pedestrian traffic and high end retail and cultural operations.

So many municipalities have brought new life to their once-lifeless places that it is not beyond the possible in Oshawa’s downtown. I think of the main streets of Port Perry, Port Hope, Toronto’s Beaches, Yorkville, The Junction, Little India on Gerrard, Queen West, Spadina, Kensington Market, Liberty Village, The Distillery District ...and the list goes on and on. Revived neighbourhoods, often with their art and cultural components, are leaping up every day...and it could happen in Oshawa with a vibrant, creative and determined vision.

Unfortunately, Oshawa’s “Industrial Age” Politicians seem frozen in time hoping for the best but refusing to take even baby steps into the future. They’re not developing a vision of what this city could become. The closest they’ve come to visioning is continually telling us what a great place this is. Words are not enough! We need forward thinking vision, ideas, and action!

City leadership, under this Mayor, is not leading council and city staff to brainstorm ideas for city development. Real leaders would be setting direction for our future but this is not being done. Council, and this mayor, sees its role as simply putting out fires on issues that arise and City Bureaucrats effectively manage council by keeping them too busy swatting flies to concern themselves with truly important matters such as a vision for the future development of this city.

They’re kept busy debating the size of signs, the kinds of pets people can have, their weight loss programs, etc., and acknowledging decisions made by the Region on Oshawa’s behalf . City Council Agendas rarely address anything of significance.

We have now almost completed 1/8 of our new council term, and not a decision of significance has been taken. Everything seems frozen in time. Of course, this lacklustre performance should be expected since those elected promised no big vision and no big ideas for the future direction for this city....and I guess we have to accept the non-visionary “blind” leadership voters elected.

All growth and change in Oshawa is haphazard and left to chance as it has been for the last 50 years during which time Oshawa’s downtown has been sliding downward.

From time-to-time, we’ve had some outsider’s efforts to pump some progressive development into the downtown with the CIBC tower on the four corners, the Michael Starr Building, and now the Courthouse...and a few restaurants have opened to cater to the increased lunch crowd but the downtown has not taken off.

None of these developments have occurred as a result of planning or decisions of city hall. All resulted in decisions by external agencies...CIBC and the Provincial Government.

In light of the absence of any city hall vision and planning for the improvement of the city downtown over the last 50 years, I am now ready to support the move of the university and its development of a downtown campus and just ask city hall to move aside in favour of UOIT’s real thrust to breathe life into the downtown.

UOIT has recently released a planning document for its downtown campus which promises some ambitious and exciting developments for the downtown including an influx of 5000 students by 2015. UOIT’s vision, in the absence of any coming from city hall, has persuaded me to now support the downtown campus.

As City Hall and the politicians have reneged on their leadership responsibility in planning for downtown renewal, I am now supporting UOIT which has created a strong vision for downtown development and renewal...and ask City Hall to simply get out of the way and let UOIT’s magic happen.

I am pleased to see some additional greening, additional walkways, and increased building development related to the UOIT plan, and a concentrated effort for some cultural focus points. Even more, I am excited to see for the first time in 50 years that there has been some major planning for the future development of the downtown.

There will be severe student safety problems with the heavy traffic along King and Simcoe Streets and to alleviate this concern, I’m hoping that more landscaped pedestrian walkways and redirected traffic as I suggested during the election campaign will come to fruition. This will create a downtown “people place” that will not only improve safety for the students, but will attract adult foot traffic to a more pleasant downtown atmosphere which will in turn attract more upscale business. It would also provide opportunity for fountains, sculpture gardens, tree plantings, casual seating areas, etc, a magnet for cultural growth, and high end dining and retail establishments.

Proper development could turn Downtown Oshawa into a tourist destination changing the reputation of Oshawa from “blue-collar” industrial to education, high tech, and culture.

While the UOIT plan indicates some greening of the downtown, in my estimation, there can never be enough of this...and my idea about closing two blocks of downtown Simcoe St and about four blocks of King Street would add a “nature,” “upscale,” and “clean” atmosphere to the downtown. While the university plan includes a pedestrian mall by closing one small street between King and Bond adjacent to the Regent Theatre. I would encourage closing all streets from Bond to Athol between Simcoe and Mary for additional pedestrian walkways and student safety.

As in the case where streets are closed to Landscaped Pedestrian Walkways like Calgary’s premier 8th Avenue downtown business district, and Ottawa’s “Spark Street Mall,” the streets are accessible for emergency vehicles at all times and for delivery vehicles early morning and overnight.

Because of the exciting prospect presented by UOIT’s vision for the downtown, I am now of the opinion that the loss of city tax revenue is simply a cost for an improved downtown and a more attractive city which will boost Oshawa real estate values from the GTA basement and provide increased value to every city property owner.

The UOIT plan is coming close to my ideas for downtown renewal as expressed in the Mayoral Campaign....and the presentation of creative and big ideas for the city which was why I was in the race in the first place.

Oshawa has suffered from small time City Hall thinking for too long. Now is the time to take the shackles off and do everything possible to facilitate the leadership now being given by UOIT.

And in the meantime Oshawa City Hall---Move over! Ship out! Get out of the way! By inaction over too many years, you’ve abdicated your responsibility to plan for downtown renewal and development. Hand the job over to an organization that’s serious about getting the job done! Now!

As for the waterfront? We’ve had enough of small time city hall bureaucrat and political thinking. So far, planning has seemed to take a number of disparate elements, thrown them up in the air, and planted them where they landed. There’s no sense of developing an overall integrated plan to produce a world class waterfront. Let’s not lose this opportunity to transform our great waterfront resource into a world class place to complement the work UOIT will do in our downtown.

And so I say to the City Politicians and their City Hall Masters, the bureaucrats, if you want example of big league thinking to apply to our waterfront, check out the plans I introduced during the Mayoral Campaign.

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

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