There has been a spot of controversy this past week over a decision by Huntsville’s Committee of Adjustment to waive payment in lieu of parking spaces for a proposed new building complex on the site of the old Dominion Store on Main Street. The Committee of Adjustment is a statutory committee composed of five members of Council and its decisions are binding. The Town has a policy that requires developers to either provide sufficient parking spaces as part of their plans or to pay cash in lieu of these to compensate the Town for the provision of future parking requirements. Generally speaking, it is a good policy but it is not hard to see why Committee members had to wrestle with it in this particular instance.
Frankly, the Main Street of Downtown Huntsville is starting to look shabby again. This is especially so of the block from the old Dominion store to the now empty Empire lot. It is nothing short of an eyesore. A number of years ago, at a time when box stores were arriving in Huntsville, significant investment was made by taxpayers to keep the downtown vibrant and the heart of our community. This included extensive renovations to the Town Hall, which allowed it to remain on Main Street, the Algonquin Theatre, and River Mill Park. Now, however, to remain competitive and to support the many fine merchants we have in our core, it is time to do more and much of this will require private development.
The owner of the Dominion Store property has done little to improve the site since he purchased it. My recollection is that, historically, he has not been a particularly easy person to deal with. The store has not been extensively renovated and the parking lot is a mess. It is understandable, in my view, that Councillors, seeing an opportunity to improve our main street and recognizing a probable lack of flexibility on the part of the developer, struggled with this proposal and finally made a decision to allow it to proceed.
While I respect the views of Anthony Doob and Dwayne Verhey, respectively active seasonal and full-time residents who have written an Opinion piece for Doppler on this matter, I also recognize that the purpose of the Committee of Adjustment is to make exceptions to the rules where they believe it is justified. There is no other reason to have it. The argument that Council may have created a precedent that will make it difficult to collect future fees in lieu of parking, is a valid one. However, there were other matters to be weighed and, at the end of the day, Councillors must act in what they believe to be in the best interests of a healthy downtown in Huntsville. It is not always black or white.
The Empire Block is another place where we need to see some action soon. That property has been vacant for too long. Development of that property is a great opportunity to enhance our downtown with new retail, residential, and green space. The Town has done some work in determining what would be suitable there but I hope they have not placed so many restrictions on the property that we are driving away reasonable proposals from private sector developers.
At a Council meeting last week, Mayor Scott Aitchison, who is also a realtor, declared a conflict of interest when consideration was given to the purchase of the building on the corner of West Street and Minerva on behalf of the Library. His reason was that he had potential involvement with the sale of the Empire property which is in close proximity to the property purchased for the library. The Mayor is well aware of the importance of the Empire block to the vitality of our downtown. Notwithstanding the conflicts he will have to avoid, hopefully he can find a buyer who can develop this site once again into an important landmark for our community.
And then, of course, on the other side of the swing bridge there is the property that has become known over the years as Beer Lake! Especially now that the Beer Store has moved from there, this plaza is almost deserted and the paved areas are in poor shape. It is a somewhat complicated situation because of multiple ownership and serious drainage issues. However, this property is part of our main thoroughfare which now extends all the way to Highway 60. It is ripe for development and cannot remain viable in its present condition. It is another opportunity for retail, residential, and green space in the heart of Huntsville.
Hopefully, Council and Town officials are treating the vitality of our downtown area as a priority and are developing strategies and incentives to attract new residential and commercial opportunities there. It is important to have an ongoing plan that encourages proper development consistent with our local priorities and also ensures that the core of our community remains strong and a place in which we can continue to take pride. In my view, and on balance, the decision related to the Dominion store property is one step in that direction.
AND….A WORD ABOUT JUSTIN TRUDEAU
It has been somewhat discouraging this past week to see stories criticizing Justin Trudeau for pushing back his time table for bringing 25,000 refugees to Canada. To me, it was not a promise broken, but rather one revisited once the reality of the situation became clear to him.
There is a vast difference between running an election campaign and running a government. In addition to promising to have all the refugees here by the end of the year, Trudeau also promised during the campaign, to listen to Canadians. I believe the latter trumps the former.
After the election, many things changed around the world and security became a greater concern for Canadians. They wanted to balance compassion for refugees with caution and they did not want to rush the process simply to meet an arbitrary date.
To his credit, Prime Minister Trudeau listened. His revised plan to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada is practical and one that most people can support and encourage. For that he should be applauded.
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