A Great Vision for Thunder Bay South – Ahsanul Habib

Ahsanul Habib offers a vision for Thunder Bay's Fort William Business District and beyond.
Ahsanul Habib offers a vision for Thunder Bay's Fort William Business District and beyond.
Ahsanul Habib offers a vision for Thunder Bay’s Fort William Business District and beyond.

Moving Forward in Thunder Bay South

THUNDER BAY – For over 20 years we all have been searching for solutions; how to ‘reinvent’ the downtown to its former glory.

I moved to Thunder Bay in 1987 and did not live the glory days. But after looking at old images and history for this area it is heartbreaking to see the deterioration and how it is negatively affecting all the businesses and citizens of the community.

I do not believe what made this area so successful in the past as a shopping/commercial district can be brought back. Our shopping habits have changed. Box stores and malls provide convenience, style, cost, security and volume necessary for today’s shoppers; leaving former buildings empty.

Lacking new use puts landowners and businesses into a very challenging situation to maintain the buildings or businesses. Property values plummet. Buildings deteriorate, become abandoned or get demolished, reducing the city’s tax base and paving way to vandals, creating an environment that is no longer safe for citizens to visit.

Re-inventing the Downtown by Taking a Different Path

The area is beautiful, and in the summer lined with trees it is one of the more scenic downtown vistas.
The area is beautiful, and in the summer lined with trees it is one of the more scenic downtown vistas.

I believe this can be changed and the downtown can be ‘reinvented’ by taking a different path.

Thunder Bay has very limited public spaces where citizens can walk and shop freely, have coffee or lunch with friends and family, experience more unique local flavour in food services and products not available in large malls and box stores.

Unique Buildings and Culture

Blue Sky
New businesses opening in downtown – Blue Sky Community Healing Centre at 512 Victoria Avenue East

Here the buildings are unique, carrying on culture, history and personal touch of someone. We bump into people, we can walk freely and safely from store to store, kiosk to kiosk. A place to shop, be entertained, eat, rest, meet a friend, where local products and aroma dominates — the “all-season pedestrian market.”

The scope of this plan is Victoria Avenue East, east of Victoriaville Mall to Simpson Street

The proposed area already has many unique buildings and infrastructure, capable of supporting such a market.

This street will be closed to vehicular traffic, paved, landscaped, with traditional lights, benches, fountains, etc.

Mayor Hobbs, City Manager Tim Commisso and business owners in the downtown Fort William neighbourhood meet to discuss solutions.
Mayor Hobbs, City Manager Tim Commisso and business owners in the downtown Fort William neighbourhood meet to discuss solutions.

Property owners will be encouraged and receive first right to expand their business outside their buildings to become part of the plaza.

Small vendors will be allowed to locate stands in this paved area. Businesses/owners will be allowed to install signs on their buildings.

Traditional lights, plants, flower beds and benches will be added to meet the City of Thunder Bay’s Clean Green and Beautiful theme.

The vacant site where former Hotel St. Louis used to stand would become a large plaza with water fountains for rest and entertainment for all ages.

A refurbished street car could become a coffee or ice cream shoppe located in the plaza to connect to the history of this area, where street cars used to travel.

An International food court is planned within an existing structure.

A covered structure is proposed in the former Nesco site to help encourage people to visit in winter months as phase 2 of the project, after existing buildings are used up.

Moving into the Future with a Vision

It is a fact that citizens of Thunder Bay need to drive, as our public transportation systems is not available to all in an efficient way. It is proposed to close the two streets parallel to Victoria Avenue on the north and south to accommodate parking. These areas will be landscaped with new lights and sidewalks.

Private parking will be encouraged.

An elevated platform market is proposed where local products will be brought in on trucks and sold to the public directly, like blueberries, fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, etc.

This area has a large aboriginal population. One of the existing larger buildings will be converted to become a First Nations Pavilion, to encourage, integrate and offer positive participation, for sale of arts, crafts, entertainment, etc.

The City will be encouraged to purchase buildings and sites that become available and add to the overall concept.

Putting Public Safety First

A police kiosk is also proposed to provide physical presence for security and protection that is missing in the present environment. It will be vital at the beginning of the implementation stage for 24/7 and be phased out as the market develops.

An unsightly vacant lot where a building has been demolished is to become fruits and vegetable market. This will encourage local producers.

A restaurant is proposed behind the former bank facade with a courtyard in between.

Upper levels of all existing buildings will be encouraged to convert to apartments and live-work units. This will help the area stay active after hours.

It is of utmost importance that the market remains open for most businesses for all seasons, not just for the summer.

Total area for this market is not very large. Financial investments will be fairly affordable and most the infrastructure and buildings (vastly undervalued) already exist compared to new developments. If the city will provide leadership, property owners and businesses will invest in confidence. Businesses will receive return on their investments with increased revenue/profit and the city will receive new revenue from rent (for spaces now in the street), parking revenue and eventually increased property taxes.

Besides financial benefits, I believe the city has a moral responsibility to improve the area for the benefits of all the citizens.

Implementation requires the city to adopt a fast-track implementation process with prescribed timelines. Designate the area as a Heritage Market District.

Authorize preparation of a detailed business feasibility and implementation study where the city will develop and manage the market.

Or, issue an expression of interest for a private/city partnership to develop and manage the market.

Or, create and empower a co-op (of landowners) to develop and manage the market.

• Feasibility, financing, marketing study: January–March 2014
• Construction documenting/tender: April –July 2014
• Construction (Phase I): July–December 2014
• Marketing and leasing: January–April 2015
• Opening: May 2015

I believe the proposal is a proven plan with success in other urban centres, requiring modest investment.

The plan will generate new value for the area, bringing citizens to visit downtown and offer an experience not available anywhere else in the city. The time is now to implement the vision.

Ahsanul Habib

Ahsanul Habib is principal of Habib Architects in Thunder Bay.

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