One of the Town of Huntsville’s greatest resources is the vast amount of property it holds along the downtown waterfront.
In 2020, Huntsville council approved the purchase of two privately owned properties on the south side of Hunters Bay, which means it now has waterfront land from the Centre Street bridge almost all the way to Hwy 11.
The much-anticipated decommissioning of the Mountview treatment plant and its replacement with a pumping station is expected to take place in the next few years which will create more public parkland and waterfront opportunities for the municipality. Those lands, coupled with the possibility of acquiring the waterfront lands on which Fairvern Nursing Home currently sits, prompted the municipality to set aside $40,000 and hire a consultant last spring to undertake rigorous community input and create an updated Waterfront Strategy Design Brief.
“The Town owns about 31 hectares of water’s edge land, which is phenomenal,” Donna Hinde with The Planning Partnership told Huntsville councillors at their November 24 general committee meeting.
“I work all over the province, and this took my breath away when we tallied it up and saw the resource that the Town has as the context for this strategy, and it measures about 5.3 kilometres from end to end,” she said of the study area which spans Hwy. 11 at the Vernon Narrows bridge to Lions Lookout and Muskoka Heritage Place.
Hinde told the committee her firm had undertaken extensive public consultation, which included one-on-one remote sessions with community members, councillors and input from specific community organizations, as well as a survey that received more than 350 responses.
Among the top four reoccurring themes received from community members were the need to protect natural features, clearly define pedestrian trails, ensure amenities can be used throughout the year, and the creation of more places to swim.
Here’s a brief synopsis of some of the consultant’s recommendations:
- Using Orchard Park as the start of the trail system and trailhead for Hunters Bay Trail. Enhance signage, direct people to parking, selectively clear shoreline for access to swimming and fishing in that area.
- Remove volleyball at Avery Beach and replace it with a children’s adventure playground and include a water feature. Add more parking to the west and permanent, seasonally operated washrooms. Clearly define parking and a walkway on Yonge Street and safe access to Muskoka Road 3. Use the old floatplane hangar for the launch of canoes and kayaks to try and consolidate boating in that area.
- At River Mill Park, redesign Dara Howell Way as a shared street between pedestrians and vehicles to complement the work that has been done on King Street. Although some suggested that the bandshell be moved, the consultants are suggesting it stay where it is but that the community garden be moved to another accessible location in town in favour of redesigning that green space as a picnic and swimming area and shifting swimming away from the Town docks. The consultant is also suggesting that the area at the back of Main Street be redesigned to accommodate additional parking.
- Redesign Camp Kitchen Road as a shared space for both cars and pedestrians and provide adventure play. Do not expand private docking on public lands in that area.
- Consider the construction of a new and accessible pavilion at Lions Lookout. Build permanent, year-round washrooms. Selectively clear trees to maintain the view from the lookout and consider building a viewing platform or platforms. Skating rink in that area is highly supported as well as a walking track in the winter.
- Provide access to the Mountview site through the Fairvern site, add some parking but keep it mostly as a passive-use location by maintaining a natural shoreline. It could also be a location for the community garden. Boat launching and docking is not being recommended at the Mountview location.
- At the Infra Pipe Solutions location, Hinde made it clear that no suggestions were being made that would inhibit the operations of the company and the jobs it provides. A detailed park design is being suggested for that location to think about how it could accommodate a full range of recreational uses into the future. Create a defined walkway along the west side of Centre Street to replace the beaten path people currently use. Recommendations also included connecting the trail with North Dufferin Street.
- Other suggestions included pop-up businesses along the trail, wayfinding signs connecting the entire area, and the use of public art along the same.
You can find the full design brief here (PDF).
Councillors complimented Hinde and her firm for their extensive work on their plan. Deputy Mayor Nancy Alcock said she’s been a strong supporter of the community garden at its current River Mill Park location but understood the reasoning behind moving the garden in exchange for more green space and a better area to swim. She said she liked the concept of moving the garden to Muskoka Heritage Place where a greenhouse is being considered.
Councillor Jonathan Wiebe agreed. He said he has also been a strong proponent of the community garden being in a central location like River Mill Park because it provides more texture to the downtown but said he’s amenable to it being moved. “Never has an idea come that would give us a strong enough reason to move it but I think this actually is a pretty good solution, perhaps.”
Wiebe also said that in the future, perhaps consideration could be given to a water shuttle service.
Discussions turned to more boat launch opportunities, something Wiebe said deserved consideration.
Councillor Brian Thompson questioned why a boat launch was not being recommended at the Mountview property. Hinde said the use tends to be somewhat industrial in nature with parking requirements and heavy vehicular traffic. She also noted there are already complaints about how congested certain parts of the river are getting due to slips and boat activity. She suggested that the Town look at the entire municipality for boat access, rather than precious waterfront lands in the downtown core. Thompson said he understood her point but said there is a definite need for more public boat launches.
Councillor Dione Schumacher said she likes the idea of making the waterfront more accessible and providing places for elderly people to sit. She also agreed that more boat access is necessary but agreed that looking at the greater municipality for such access would be better.
Councillor Tim Withey reminded Hinde and his fellow councillors that a pumping station will still need to be located on the Mountview lands once the plant is decommissioned. “Hopefully we can acquire the Fairvern property in the future when that project gets up and the residents get moved. I do agree that there is a lot of people interested in another boat launch. I don’t know where that is going to go. I know years ago we looked down at Camp Kitchen, which again you have the issues with parking and turning around and all that stuff, so that’s always been a challenge,” he said.
Councillor Dan Armour wanted to know what the next steps involved and asked whether the most important components of the plan could be set as priorities for implementation. Hinde said she and her team could suggest priorities and said the Waterfront Strategy Design Brief “is intended to be a reference document for the Town to guide more detailed planning and design.”
Alcock also asked Hinde what her top two priorities for public washrooms along the waterfront would be. Hinde responded that Avery Beach was one of them as it was requested by many community members who took the time to give their input. She also said River Mill Park would be a good location, particularly when dealing with kids and playgrounds and the distance to the bathrooms.
Mayor Karin Terziano had the last word. She also thanked Hinde and said the public consultation process was great. She said the Waterfront Strategy Design Brief dovetailed nicely with the municipality’s wayfinding strategy. “I’m happy to say we know we’re going to get that piece accomplished.”
Terziano said while she agrees that more boat launches are needed, she does not think they need to be in the downtown urban core or around the five kilometres of waterfront trail. “You need a car to take a boat somewhere and it’s not so much the launch itself, it is the parking and the land you need around it, so I’ll be really happy to see a further study go on as to where the best place is.”
She said the location of washrooms are important and the document will help council make a determination, particularly about River Mill Park. “I think you made some great points and I think we do have further work to do…”
Staff and council have been working from the original Waterfront Planning Strategy prepared in 1991, and over the past 30 years, much of the recommendations contained therein have been fulfilled. The Hunters Bay Trail was built as well as a pavilion, parking and boat launch on Yonge Street. The Town purchased the Martin Lumber property, developed River Mill Park, and expanded the Town docking facilities to encourage more boat traffic and business.
“Basically when you read through that study from the ’90s the Town has completed everything including purchasing the land from the KWH property which was a key piece of property along the waterfront,” noted Steve Hernen, Huntsville director of infrastructure and protective services, during a follow up conversation with Doppler.
“So now the question becomes what’s next for the Town’s waterfront? We took a report back to council in the spring and we talked about that and decided to retain a consultant to talk to people in the community and say, ‘what do you want to see your waterfront looking like?’”
Admittedly the plan will not happen overnight, said Hernen. It will require further development as future councils set priorities and find the funds to realize some of the components of the plan.
“It gives them a framework. They’ve done the public consultation: This is what the public thinks should happen. This is what the public wants to see with the waterfront,” said Hernen, adding that it’ll be up to this council and future councils to work toward the strategy and start to implement it. “But at least before we start hodgepodging things, before we get the Mountview property and run out and do something on it, at least we’ve done a consultation on it… how does that tie into the whole project.”
Hernen thinks putting a strategy together is also a way of protecting those lands. “Let’s say a developer showed up and said ‘hey, I want to go build a beautiful condo building on the Mountview property.’ Well, we’ve already done some consultation on that and they [council]know what the people want to see.”
Asked what surprised him most about the process, Hernen said the suggestion of an accessible observation deck at the Lookout. He said he hadn’t thought of that and the idea is growing on him.
“I stood there and thought ‘you know what, if you could just get out a little further you could really see downtown, you could see down the lake and you could see like a 360-degree view, and that was something that I just didn’t see coming. The public suggested it, I heard it, I thought wow… it’s growing on me.”
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