THUNDER BAY – City planners say the upcoming replacement of sewer and water lines in the north core presents a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to reshape the downtown streetscape.
The revamp will emphasize walkability, more greenery, and building “flexible streets” that can host events, markets, and patios, said Guy Walter, a landscape architect with the city.
“It will be an excavation from façade to façade, so everything will be new,” he said. “We’re coming up with completely new designs. We’re not band-aiding anything, we’re actually going to rebuild and set a new precedent for the downtown.”
Consultation is ongoing on the project, including a survey open to residents until March 19. The city is also holding consultation sessions with businesses, the Waterfront District BIA, and other groups, Walter said.
The city has budgeted $300,000 for pilot projects on potential new street designs, slated to roll out in the north core this summer. Excavation of north core streets is not expected to begin until late 2022 or 2023.
The redesign will likely mean less space for cars, at least for central sections of downtown streets.
One survey question asks if residents support changing Red River Road between Court and Water streets to provide more space for walking, public events, and outdoor patios, and less space for cars.
“We’ve seen a push from a lot of people in the community that they really want to see a lot more pedestrian-centric design,” said Walter. “Some people have even proposed full pedestrianization. But as in most communities, not everybody sees the same thing, so that’s why we’re going to find a balance.”
Plenty of parking will still be available, he said, but it could be pushed more to side streets. Tools like angled parking and one-way streets are also being considered.
“We’re not necessarily going to lose a lot of streetscape parking,” Walter said. “We’re looking at moving [spaces] into more parking strategy streets, plus we have the parkade that’s located centrally there [and] is underutilized.”
City council narrowly voted to examine the possibility of selling its two parkades, including the Waterfront District Parkade on Red River, in February.
Coun. Brian Hamilton, who sits on the Parking Authority board, has said the underused, money-losing parkades could be valuable assets as the city looks to make its downtowns “more human-friendly and less car-centric.”
In practice, that more “human-friendly” downtown could include more street trees and planted areas, public washrooms, and public art, according to consultation documents.
“We have a bit of a [green infrastructure] deficit downtown,” said Walter. “We’ve got a great park at the waterfront, but we have to bring more of that healthy, living infrastructure into our downtown cores.”
A level crossing to Prince Arthur’s Landing at the terminus of Red River Road is another major idea being considered as part of the redesign.
The crossing is seen as important in order to connect the waterfront to the downtown business district, Walter said, noting the city has initiated talks with railway companies that would need to approve the project.
It’s expected the city would need to close an existing level crossing just north of Red River, at Camelot Street, in order to secure agreement.
The city survey also asks residents to weigh in on options for “new forms of mobility” like electric vehicle charging stations, a bike share program, dedicated spaces for ride-hailing services, e-scooters, and hover-boards.
The city will do everything in its power to reduce the impact to area businesses when work begins to excavate and redesign the streets in 2022 or 2023, Walter emphasized.
“We have to have a major mitigation plan in place to support all of these businesses,” he said. “How we phase that reconstruction is really critical... We want to see these businesses really come out of [the pandemic] with support and not be disrupted again.”
Water and sewer mains in the area are “at the end of their useful life,” according to the city.
That represents a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to reimagine the downtown streetscape from the ground up, Walter said.
The boundary of the city’s “Reimagining the North Core Streetscapes” study includes the North Core Downtown BIA, extending from Pearl Street north to Van Norman Street, and from Algoma Street east to Water Street.
A budget for the streetscape redesign has not yet been set.