Posted by: Downtown Residents Association Windsor | May 28, 2011

DOWNTOWN REBORN

Downtown Reborn

By Chris Vander DoelenMay 28, 2011 12:18 AM

WINDSOR, Ont. — More than 1,000 students and faculty from the University of Windsor are to move into several of the city’s downtown landmarks under a $100-million plan that would also pave the way for an Olympic pool and reshape the city’s core.

The historic home of The Windsor Star is among a half dozen buildings that would change hands under the massive civic redevelopment plan, which sources say is to be announced Monday.

Nearly a decade in the making — although negotiations only became serious in the last 18 months — the plan is intended to transform empty and underused landmarks in the city’s core into a downtown campus for the University of Windsor and St. Clair College.

Its partners include the provincial government, the City of Windsor and the two post-secondary institutions, among others. The centrepiece of a complex series of deals includes provincial funds for the Olympic swimming pool the city wants to build downtown on an empty tract assembled decades ago for a civic arena.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan is to announce at least $30 million in funding Monday, $15 million for the university and at least $15 million for the pool project. Mayor Eddie Francis and council hope to fashion their pool plan into an aquatic theme park and family recreation centre.

If it is to open in time to host an international Children’s Games in 2012, construction would have to begin almost immediately.

The rest of the scheme is nearly as large as the $64-million pool project. A handful of downtown landmarks are to be bought, sold, renovated and refurbished into what provincial officials call an “education cluster” housing college and university students.

The province will announce Monday that it is contributing $15 million for the “capital redevelopment” costs associated with the move, most of which are renovation costs.

There are so many moving parts to the plan – not to mention potential spinoffs and additional private investment – that Windsor residents may not recognize their downtown once the construction and renovations are done and the dust settles in two or three years.

Speculators from as far away as Vancouver had already caught a whiff of the deal through political connections and were looking at downtown properties this week, according to one source familiar with the project.

After the aquatic centre, the second-biggest piece of the proposal involves the university’s purchase of the three buildings that have been the home of The Windsor Star since 1922.

The university hopes to transform the buildings and a parking lot into a school of social work, sending The Star’s newsroom and downtown sales staff to new digs which have not yet been chosen.

The Star is evaluating at least half a dozen locations in the downtown in the event a deal is reached with the university.

The Star/University portion of the deal hinges on the successful outcome of an engineering study to determine the suitability of renovating the newspaper’s buildings – including its cavernous former printing hall – into teaching space.

The press room has been unused since The Star moved most of its production departments to a new home on the E.C. Row Expressway in 1996. Later, new technology and streamlining of the newspapers’ operations left most of the 68,000-square-foot building empty.

Under the plan, the university intends to buy and renovate The Star buildings: the red-brick former apartment block, built in 1914; the main office block, whose arched Indiana limestone windows have been a downtown landmark since its completion in 1927; and the press annex, built in 1953.

Most of the provincial grant to the university is expected to be spent renovating at least five downtown buildings.

The university also intends to acquire long-term use of the Armouries building – city-owned since a 2004 swap with the federal government – as well as the former downtown bus station.

City council has known about the plan since at least December. This year council secretly paved the way for the downtown facelift by approving a $10-million renovation and long-term lease of the Armouries to the university during several in-camera meetings which were part of the 2011 budget process.

The city, the university, the college and the province have been in serious negotiations for the transformational plan for the past 18 months. But elements of the concept of moving thousands of students into the half-empty downtown have been under discussion at the university for nearly 10 years.

Insiders say the university’s end of the plan didn’t have any urgency during the first few years of discussion. But the scheme started to gather speed after Alan Wildeman was named president of the school and learned of it. The immediate success of St. Clair College in building its MediaPlex school of journalism in the downtown further spurred the university’s plans.

Preliminary proposals have the university moving its school of visual arts from Huron Church Road into the 110-year-old Armouries, along with its music program. That move involves between 400 and 500 students, plus faculty.

The school of social work would move 500 students, plus faculty. The university’s communication, film and media studies program is said to be moving an unknown number of students into the 1950s-era bus station, whose paved site would be also used for school parking.

A new program is also to be announced at St. Clair College, although it was unclear this week whether it will be identified Monday or held back to be used as an additional election-year fanfare.

The former TD bank branch at the corner of Victoria and University is also “in play,” sources said this week. Both schools have talked to the bank about acquiring the building, but now only the college is interested in it.

The Capitol Theatre is not part of the scheme but is also in line for new tenants whom sources would not identify this week.

The upshot of Monday’s announcement: the downtown will see its current school population of 1,400 St. Clair College students and faculty boosted by up to another 2,000 people. A large sports facility will fill an equally large hole on the west side of the downtown, and foot traffic will increase substantially in most of the core.

And a half dozen aging, underused and unproductive buildings will find new purpose that will inject new life into the downtown – perhaps enough to spur additional private investment in the downtown and around its edges.

If it all works out, Monday could be a turning point as historic as the buildings involved.

cvanderdoelen@windsorstar.com or 519-255-6852

© Copyright (c) The Windsor Star
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