A Commentary by Doug Draper
Just think of it, a theatre in the heart of Port Dalhousie, Ontario’s heritage district, open year round and drawing thousands of people who just might also patronize some of the nearby restaurants and shops that complain they are starving for business when the summer crowds disappear.
Almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? And as it turns out, maybe it is.
According to recent reports in The St. Catharines Standard – a newspaper that so shamelessly championed a development group’s plan to build a condo tower complete with a 415-seat theatre in the historic port town – the developers are now of the opinion that the theatre may be the “least viable” part of the plan and are thinking of trading it in for, get this, a grocery store.
That’s right folks, a grocery store. Isn’t that great. We now face the possibility of seeing some of the aging buildings in a provincially designated heritage district flattened for a 17-storey-high, 80-unit condo tower with, among other things like offices and a hotel, a grocery store attached to the bottom of it.
Now as much as I never liked the idea of taking this quaint little community with its low-lying homes and businesses overlooking Lake Ontario and a picturesque harbour, and sticking a towering rectangular box in the middle of it, the idea of a theatre made it seem a little more palatable. At least you’d have a venue for the arts and a crowd coming that might spend more money and would surely be less rowdy than the university age kids flocking to the bars during the summer.
But a grocery store? It looks to me that there are already a good number of grocery stores in the north end of St. Catharines, of which Port Dalhousie is a part, and I know that in the south St. Catharines/Thorold area where I live there is such a saturation of grocery stores, large and small, that some people are taking bets on which ones are going to close.
I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who supported this controversial Port Place condo complex when it was going before municipal politicians and the Ontario Municipal Board for approval over the past decade, would have been as enthusiastic as they were if they knew at the time that a grocery store instead of a theatre would go in there. I certainly remember how much the theatre part of the project was played up at public meetings by the developers with no one less than former Shaw Festival theatre director Christopher Newton joining them and expressing confidence that a year-long theatre there would be financially viable, even if an arts centre came to fruition in downtown St. Catharines.
A report put before municipal councillors by Toronto theatre consultant Janis Barlow, concluding that a year-long theatre in that location would not be viable, was hardly taken seriously by tower supporters and the daily newspaper and then-St. Catharines mayor Tim Rigby was quoted in the paper calling Barlow’s report irrelevant from a planning point of view.
Rigby may have been right that from a purely technical, planning angle, the viability of the theatre made no difference. But for members of public, especially the many people who remain opposed to planting such a high building in this place, there has always been more to all of this than hard and fast planning rules.
There is the sense of history and character of a community that many of these people have expressed more interest in protecting and preserving for future generations than whatever a condo tower or even a theatre may bring. And now there may not even be a theatre. There may be a grocery store instead.
Hey, if the idea is to find another year-round business to replace the theatre, why not a hardware store? There are always people out there who need duct tape and nails. Why not another dollar store? In this lousy economy, there seems to be a growing market for those?
And here is another option for these developers. Why not take your multi-storey condo and your grocery store or whatever it is going to be and plunk them in downtown St. Catharines where they might make a better fit. Leave Port Dalhousie alone!
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