An artist's rendition of what Victoria Avenue could look like under Ahsanul Habib's plan.
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Ahsanul Habib always sees potential in the city's old buildings but his vision for the downtown South core is taking it to the next level.
The local architect is known for taking old places and making them new. He's transformed the former McKellar hospital into a senior's home, saved the facade of the Bank of Commerce and has plans to turn Fort William Collegiate Institute into condominiums.
But during his latest project, which is turning the Roy Building on Victoria Avenue into affordable housing, he realized that the whole street could use a transformation. Why not turn Victoria Avenue from Brodie Street to Simpson Street into an all-season pedestrian market? He recently presented his grand vision for the area saying it could bring people to the under-used downtown, generate revenue and save countless old buildings by giving them a new lease on life. Habib sees retail shops, farmers markets and even kiosks selling ice cream in the middle of the street as a great way to get people back to the neighbourhood.
"This area is dead," he said, surrounded by old photographs showing crowds of people pacing the streets of downtown Fort William.
"Every year we're losing a little bit (of the city's history)... You will never replace those old buildings."
Habib, who does own several buildings in the area, stressed that he's only one man with an idea. To his vision realized, it needs the support of city leaders and the business community. And it will only work if it can generate revenue. He understands tax payers don't want to be on the hook for a project that loses money.
"If they want this it will happen," he said. "I want it as a business not just spending money."
City development manager Mark Smith said he loves the idea. Zoning would already permit most of the proposal. Most of the infrastructure is already in place and blocking off streets would be the easy part. The difficulty is seeing whether the business community wants it.
"I think that its certainly an idea worth talking about and trying to move towards," he said.
Mayor Keith Hobbs said he's called the area a ghetto before but he really wants to see it thrive.
"That would be awesome, to have pedestrian congestion in the downtown," he said. "This is a great plan."
And the more people in an area, the safer it becomes. Hobbs said moving the South side bus terminal to city hall has done a lot to reduce the crime rate there.
"Those are the kinds of things you want to see," he said.
It reminds the mayor of Sparks Street in Ottawa. Habib said he's visited places like that, along with Toronto and Montreal, which is where the idea came from. Some have already criticized his all-weather plan because it's too cold in Thunder Bay during the winter.
"Their climate isn't any better than ours," he said.
Hobbs and Smith said a lot of consultation and discussion needs to take place before anything moves forward.
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