St Paul Street in St. Catharines, Ontario, was a row of boarded up buildings and broken glass three years ago. It was a scary place to visit.
The boards started to come off those beautiful old brick buildings when the city built both an arena and a performing arts centre downtown. The arena opened in 2014 and the arts centre in 2015. Since then, property values in the area have soared.
The circumstances in Saskatoon are similar but different. We have a performing arts centre and soon will have a world-class gallery in our downtown. We don’t have the empty retail spaces we once had. But we don’t have an arena.
I recently spent 12 days in St. Catharines. What was happening in its downtown intrigued me, so I contacted St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik.
He said my observations about the revitalization of his city’s downtown were correct. Property values have increased by 300 to 600 per cent since the arena and arts centre opened.
He said a property that was three storeys, with commercial space on the street level, was listed at $140,000 not long ago. That same building is now valued at $1 million.
Where there were boards and shards of glass, there are now restaurants and pubs and coffee shops and boutiques. St Paul is now a pedestrian friendly street, with just one lane each way for vehicles.
With the revitalization came people. People now want to live downtown. That is something we can relate to in Saskatoon. We want more people downtown, but need to give them as many reasons as we can to be there.
Sendzik said three residential projects have been proposed for downtown since the arena and arts centre opened. One is a 19-storey condo building. The other two are repurposing office space to residential. He said people are moving from the suburbs to the outer ring of the downtown.
There are approximately 200 parking spots next to the arena. He said people questioned the wisdom in having so few. Parking garages and a better use of transit have become the solution.
“Saskatoon does have harder winters than we probably have, but you build for it. You don’t build a parking garage beside (the arena), but maybe build a parking garage one or two blocks over so you still build that corridor of economic opportunity, so people can open up a cool pub or a nice restaurant or a diner or whatever. It allows people to stop on the way.
“The thing you will find is if you put a parking garage right beside an arena, people will just show up 10 minutes before the game, park in the parking garage, go and get their hot dog, watch the game and leave. When you put a parking garage just far enough away, the first couple of times they will do that, but then it is like, ‘Why don’t we just come for dinner with the kids and then we will go to a hockey game?’”
St. Catharines’ mayor said people are more likely to use public transit when they are going to an event downtown, compared with one out in the sticks. He said people get on the bus for free when they show their ticket to a junior hockey game.
“So we have opened up the game of hockey not to just those who drive cars, but we have opened up the game of hockey to moms and dads with kids who may not have the vehicle or the single mom and dad who don’t have the opportunity to drive out to an airport strip to watch a hockey game.”
Yikes, the airport strip sounds like a reference to our arena. Maybe he was prodded a little bit, although he has visited our city.
I asked Sendzik if he had any advice for us, given we are currently studying the feasibility of a downtown arena.
“Any advice would be — how do you say this? — do what’s best for the community for the next 50 years, not what communities have done over the last 50 years. The council (here) had the foresight to say ‘this is how you build urban centres, and if you have the land to do it, you need to seize that opportunity because, if not, I don’t know what else you will be able to do to attract people to your downtown core, keep them there and want to live there.”