Ripping Into The Heart Of A Heritage District For What – A High-Rise Condo And A Grocery Store?

 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.

A bit of Port Dalhousie, Ontario from across the harbour waters flowing to Lake Ontario.

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!

(Niagara At Large invites you to share your views on this post in the comment boxes below. Please remember that NAL does not post anonymous comments or comments by people using pseudonyms. Only comments attached to real names work here.)

18 responses to “Ripping Into The Heart Of A Heritage District For What – A High-Rise Condo And A Grocery Store?

  1. My grandson once worked at a very significant Restaurant and mini Theatre in Port Dalhousie the place had character and charm just like the song “They paved over paradise and put in a parking lot” another piece of our heritage gone, to be replaced by a monstrocity, it is happening all over our Province, so who is standing guard for thee??????nobooody.

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  2. How is it that Mayor McMullan can get away with holding a secret meeting with the new owners of Port Place and former members of Proud (aka the “Conservancy”) and ignore the rest of the community? Doesn’t anyone else’s opinion matter? Isn’t anyone else allowed to know what they were negotiating? What are they hiding?

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  3. The grocery store, like the theatre, is a decoy. It’s just there to make people think the iron clad OMB ruling, “build everything or nothing” should be reviewed and relaxed. If that happens the grocery store idea will be promptly dropped since no major grocery chain will gamble opening a store in a 3500 people small community already serviced by stores/malls within two miles.
    The ultimate developer’s goal? Build as many condo units as possible. The void created by the theatre disappearance could easily become an underground parking garage for a tower that could be built on top of it!
    What’s not to like? More property tax revenues for our indebted city! The moment the developer dangles that carrot in front of council how will council resists the offer?

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  4. Doug, good article. Personally, without the tower I can see a market. Not a grocery store but a market which attracts people. I did a ton of research in to what might be appropriate for that area in preparing for the OMB. Markets such as the one in Barcelona, Chapel Hill in Philadelphia, Kensington Market in Toronto, which line the streets draw people and are both a social center and a commercial center. So the overall concept which came in part from my attempts to talk about what would be appropriate in Port Dalhousie during the hearing is not completely off base. It really comes down to the implementation. Market may not drive substantial revenue and therefore, this would have to be a secondary use of the space. I see a primary use being a live music district. My research showed that Live music is a part of the established character of Port Dalhousie and a missing component of the overall Niagara tourism scene.
    Picture if you will, a market in the public space in the mornings supported by some permanent stores like a Harvest Barn, Wrights Fruit and a butcher. In the afternoon, live music with restaurants and cafes. In the evening, small jazz/blues bands would play on the inside of the same restaurants and cafes. This is a destination that calls people throughout the day and has an equal appeal to locals and tourists.
    The challenge I have is the tower once claimed to be the great fiscal provider for delivering a theater really no longer has a reason to be there. One reason this component should go is it is what people object to most. I have no problem with increased density in the commercial core. The zoning prior to the OMB fiasco provided for substantial increases in density through infilling. This incremental growth strategy has been successful in Niagara, both in NOTL and Jordan. The challenge is that the developer chased an unfeasible project which forced them to continually put new fiscal pressure on a residential component which meant they could not be reasonable and negotiate in good faith. It was all or nothing. Some cynics out there might believe that there was never an intent to build the theater and that this was a ploy to get approval. I am inclined to listen to this logic. Even the developer was hedging during the OMB hearing when they sought to reduce the requirements for occupation of the condo tower by ensuring they would not have to complete the theater first.
    In the end the most devastating thing to the Historic Commercial District of Port Dalhousie is the substantial introduction of a residential component which completely changes the established character of the area.
    Nothing will stick out more than the 20 storey residential tower when looking at it from Lakeside Park.

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    • Jeff! Congratulations on a well written letter. It is nice to hear from someone who can put actual reasoning behind their opinions. It is so tiring to continually read letters from people that must write them only so they can see their names in print as a boost to their public ego.

      Well done!

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  5. Only No Frills (Lakeshore/Lake) are really close to Port Dalhousie.

    I will grant you that the north-end is a far better place to live with being close to things. I ride a bike and I’m about 10 minutes from 3 grocery stores (20 minute ride to about 6).
    When I ride to the south-end, I hate how spread out things are. I can’t believe I use to walk to places when I lived there.

    Living down the road from Port Dalhousie, I would have to say it needs changing from what it was.
    The past year has been amazing. No more drunk students staggering home destroying things in the neighbourhood. With all the bars in Port, it had no charm, so a condo tower IMO isn’t destroying anything. Not saying I support a condo tower but Port is/was in dire need of a change.

    Having said that, downtown should still have a grocery store.

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  6. Well said!
    It’s appalling that such support was provided for a super sized condo on a two block main street in the heart of this historically designated town. I recall that the OMB was adamant that the project go forward as ‘all or nothing’, that alternatives to specifics was not an option.
    While I support a food store in Port, this (once again) is not the location for it.
    I wonder how many are planning to boycott the building, and how many times it will be sold to de-tarnish the local participants.

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  7. It’s sad to hear that Port Place Theatre is on the chopping block. I guess they felt that they couldn’t compete with the Mayor’s Downtown Theatre.

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    • What a pile of BS coming from you Preston Haskell. The developer was already trying to wiggle his way out of the theatre idea long before the PAC came on line.
      Don’t tell us you’re surprised and sadden by Port Place theatre “demise” when it was in the developer’s plans from day one. The theatre, the reflecting pond, the glassed-in carousel, the skating rink in Lakeside Parks were there to get the gullable public and the OMB green light.
      The developer’s next step is to convince the public and the OMB that it’s ruling should be revised to allow for changes!
      If the OMB respects its iron clad ruling it will be “Build it all or build nothing”
      It will be interesting to see how “flexible” the OMB will be. That outfit has been known to bend over backward to accommodate developers!

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      • Andy Petrowski

        Bernard, given you’re coming to us live from Mexico think it’s time for you to have another margarita and say hello to the cliff divers! Just a polite reminder that while you and your Proud boys and girls would love to attach the demise of this project to the original owners the fact is they are out of this picture 100%. It’s now up to Mayor Mac and the new guys to lead us into Port’s promised land!

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  8. I have never encountered such incompetence on a mass scale before. This fiasco is an embarrassment for the city and the sooner we can put it all behind us the better. No, I don’t mean build the tower, I mean come up with a feasible plan that actually serves the needs of Port Dalhousie and its citizens first, and then the rest of Niagara. So many people have been saying for years that we were going to face this impasse, and yet the cowboys capitalists with their enthusiasms and their brutal singlemindedness managed to hold sway. We should not give in one single inch to these people. Make them build the theatre, better still, fully furnish it before even thinking about putting up condos. No model suites, no billboard adverts on The Blue Monster, no concessions whatsoever. They are in full retreat, and now it is time for us to start emptying our guns on them for a change. https://www.facebook.com/groups/183257588404363/

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  9. I must apologise Bernard Frugier for not having your insight as to what goes on in a developer’s mind.
    Reading minds is NOT something I’m good at. I take most people at face value. If they are lying to me I usually don’t find out in advance.
    I really was surprised to learn that the Port Place Theatre is on the chopping block but I’m even more surprised that you have known from day one that ‘the theatre, the reflecting pond, the glassed-in carousel, the skating rink in Lakeside Park were there to get the gullible public and the OMB green light’.
    How do you do it Mr. Bernard Frugier? How are you able to read the true intention of developers while so many of us gullible dreamers simply caved in to the developer’s promise? Other than what you are intimating I have to admit that I still don’t know what the true intention of the developer is or what is on the developer’s mind!
    I’m at a loss Mr. Frugier as to how you even know the developer’s next step! You are just amazing!
    There are a many, many people that are going to be very disappointed if you turn out to be right Mr. Frugier. They have been hopeful that this project would be an improvement. According to your Port Dalhousie neighbour, ( Comment above) Mr. Ryan Zamaria there has already been an improvement!
    I hope you are wrong Mr. Frugier and that is not, as you so rudely put it, BS.

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  10. One needs only to look south, towards Fort Erie, to see how these “deals” become so convoluted. From the very beginning “The Bay Beach Condo Plan” (or whatever they call it now) promised citizens substantial amenities in exchange for handing over ownership of a substantial portion of the public waterfront park to private developers. Now we learn that those same amenities are being “scaled back” in order to allow for compliance to MNR restrictions. Of course condo supporters blame project opponents for the situation while all the while ignoring the fact that MNR was ALWAYS going to weigh in on endangered habitat protection.
    Add to this the fact that previously a Town sponsored award winning neighbourhood plan actually advocated the expansion of THE PARK with SOME POSSIBLE development of structures/buildings somehow became the “green light” for the construction of a 12 storied, privately owned condominium on formerly publicly owned parkland and… well…you get the drift (and probably the shaft as well).

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  11. Doug Draper’s commentatry on Port Dalhousie makes so much sense. The opponents to this sky scraper idea did not oppose upgrading the old commercial center of Port. They objected to the input of a 200 foot-high structure in a community where strict height limits are governed by the City’s by-laws. Those who are opposed gave their own money to support the City’s opposition at the OMB Level. Others received money.
    “Gadfly”

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  12. Is racism allowed on this site now?

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  13. Great article and comments. If its not too late, maybe we should just move this entire condo project 2 miles up Main St. to the first open field by the lake. Build the developer a small marina and park and maybe everyone can be happy! lol

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  14. .Hey, Port Dalhousie: Crystal Beach here. Let’s trade! We’ll take the grocery store and you can have our “aging in place” theme park. High rise tower? Check. Zoning change to accommodate a twelve story tower? Check. OMB decision in favour of developers? Check.
    Yes, we have it all – except a grocery store. (And many other things.) But, we’re getting a tower! On our public property! We are all thrilled about how that is going to be “the catalyst for economic growth” for our community. Not.

    We now await the decision from Superior Court regarding the lawsuit filed by some brave property owners.

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