What should be done about Brendale Square? Master of Planning students at Ryerson University have some ideas.
Over the past four months, the students — Danielle Culp, Anna Flood, Sean Guenther, Berta Haikin, Natalie Hickey, Amanda Mackaay, Nicola Sharp, and Eno Udoh-Orok — conducted site visits, hosted an open house where they gathered information from residents and some business owners, had discussions with Town staff, and reviewed provincial, district, and municipal policies and regulations to arrive at their recommendations.
Flood and Guenther presented their findings on behalf of the group to Huntsville’s Planning Committee and a full gallery in Council Chambers last night. It will now be the task of committee and council to determine which pieces of their report to include in the Town’s future plans.
The students paint a long-term vision for the area — which is bounded by Manominee and Main Streets to the north and south, and Chaffey and John Streets to the east and west — that includes public greenspace, pedestrian walkways, and mixed-use development with businesses at ground level and residential above.
The phased approach suggested in their report hinges on first addressing the area’s propensity for flooding and the contaminated soil at the sites of the former Town dump and a gas station.
It is imperative that the Town address two of the largest threats that currently challenge the feasibility of the vision: the flooding and the soil contamination. Development cannot happen until these issues have been rectified.
From the report ‘Looking Ahead: A Visioning and Strategic Planning Study for the Future of Brendale Square’
Recognizing the cost associated with such an undertaking, the students suggest that the Town create a Community Improvement Plan for the area and integrate it into Huntsville’s Official Plan which would pave the way for the municipality to acquire a section of land at the southwest corner of the site and apply for grants to assist with its rehabilitation.
They also recommend a zoning bylaw amendment to commit to open space in the area and increase the maximum allowed building heights to 19.5 metres or six storeys, along with a holding bylaw to allow sufficient time to study the land.
“If it is determined that green infrastructure will remedy the flooding issues on the site after the reports and studies have been undertaken, then the Town should remove the holding bylaw to permit development in this area,” said Guenther. “If studies determine that the area cannot support development, the Town should zone this area as open space.”
Recommended infrastructure that could mitigate flooding includes permeable paving, bioswale planters, and rain gardens. The report also notes possible larger-scale solutions like underground cisterns or catch basins.
Guenther also noted that previous studies “have confirmed that the soil on the site contains leachate and other contaminants therefore the site must be remediated before any development can happen. We acknowledge that the Town’s financial resources are limited and that remediation can be costly.” Geotechnical studies, risk assessment and other environmental assessments will also be required, he said.
Once remediated, the students recommend that the project be positioned under the umbrella of resilience funding as it provides other opportunities to access federal and provincial monies.
Phase two includes gentle intensification on the site’s underdeveloped areas adjacent to Chaffey Street, with incentives to promote development like three-storey infills. The study recommends protecting the character of existing buildings in the area, like Cripple Creek Music and Big Daddy’s Fresh Meats, and using it to harmonize the look of the site.
Road improvements on John and Cann Streets, including street planters, trees, and sidewalk improvements, are also recommended for phase two.
Finally, phase three of the study’s plan of action recommends longer-term redevelopment along Main Street and north of Cann Street with mixed-use buildings, and creation of a road through the site. They also encourage Town partnerships with property owners to create privately owned public spaces.
Flood and Guenther noted that the cost of inaction would be greater than taking action. With the increased possibility of flooding due to climate change, flood-induced damage could cause some stable businesses in the area to leave, they said.
Mayor Scott Aitchison applauded the students’ efforts but cautioned those present at the meeting not “to get too specific about some of this.” He said he liked the general themes presented and wondered, “what’s going to be the fuse to get this started?”
He noted that while a Community Improvement Plan may be part of the equation, “we adopted one when Mayor Doughty was still in office to deal with the Empire site and it’s still sitting there even though there’s potentially a million dollars worth of rebates and tax mitigation on the table.”
My fear is we have a beautiful, vibrant little downtown Main Street core with bookends on either end of it that are horrible and that need help. And yet in the Brendale Square zone, there are some thriving businesses that I feel could use our help to improve the area around it to make them thrive even more… This Council is going to have to make a decision about whether or not we cobble together some land and work with the other owners that remain to make something happen. I honestly believe that that area and the Empire site, those bookends on Main Street, are the greatest threats we face in this community.
Mayor Scott Aitchison
Planning Committee Chair Nancy Alcock agreed that Council needs to look at what incentives it wants to create for developers, and also investigate available funding to deal with the site’s flooding and toxicity issues. “I don’t think (solving those problems) is doable in the next year, but we could certainly look to see what we are eligible for which would be helpful for getting this project moving.”
Members of the audience added that unless the fundamental problems with the site are addressed, it will be difficult to attract new businesses and development. “If we fix that, there will be a lot more people at the table,” said one.
Another noted that the area’s “messy” situation with complicated ownership and the requirement to involve all levels of government will need “strong courageous leadership from (council) and really should be one of your top priorities in this town. The private sector can only do some of this.”
But at least one person thought the Empire block should take priority over Brendale Square. “Perhaps it has to be driven into the people that own (the properties in Brendale Square) that nothing is going to save them, they need to help save themselves. Perhaps we let it go down further, perhaps it has to go down before it can come back up… the Empire would be first on my list.”
And another said that at minimum, façade and parking improvements could help to rejuvenate the area.
Read the full Ryerson report here (PDF): Looking Ahead: A Visioning and Strategic Planning Study for the Future of Brendale Square
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