By Doug Hallett
A controversial concept for redesigning St. George’s Square has been endorsed by city council in a close vote. It’s an issue some say could play a role in the Oct. 27 civic elections.
The idea of turning the square into a central space surrounded by a one-way road was endorsed in a 7-5 vote Monday, as council dealt with staff recommendations for new design guidelines for public spaces in the downtown, including changes to main roads.
“We are creating a nightmare for the upcoming election,” said Coun. Gloria Kovach, who moved that the issue be deferred and left fully in the hands of the newly elected council.
The five councillors who voted for the deferral motion were Bob Bell, Jim Furfaro, Andy Van Hellemond, Kovach and mayoral candidate Coun. Cam Guthrie. These were the same five who ultimately voted against endorsing the vision for a redesigned square. Coun. Lise Burcher was absent.
Before a series of final votes, Mayor Karen Farbridge said she has heard a wide range of opinions about the proposal for redesigning St. George’s Square. The few Guelphites who have seen the closest model for what Guelph is thinking of doing, which is in Pittsburgh, tend to be strongly in favour of Guelph’s plan, she said.
Meanwhile, Downtown Guelph Business Association executive director Marty Williams has offered “qualified support” for the plan, she noted.
Farbridge said Market Square in front of city hall has been so strongly embraced by the public as a splash pad that other planned uses for the space, such as movie nights, have been “compromised” because people don’t like to see the pool drained for other uses.
Some of the uses originally planned by city hall officials for Market Square might go into a central space in St. George’s Square, Farbridge suggested. But she also said there are successful squares elsewhere where the private sector is relied upon to “activate” them.
Although Guthrie voted against endorsing the new vision for St. George’s Square and against a new streetscape manual to guide other downtown design, he didn’t offer any reasons for voting as he did.
The recommendation to turn St. George’s Square into a central space surrounded by a one-way road came after city staff gathered public and business feedback over 16 months. Staff plan to do more consultations as they work to fine-tune plans for the square.
The new design scheme for downtown streets that was also endorsed Monday proposes a “flexible street model” on “key streets” such as Wyndham Street north of Carden Street, Macdonell Street, Quebec Street and Douglas Street.
These streets would be transformed along the lines of Carden Street between Wilson and Wyndham streets, near Market Square. Wyndham Street would see fewer car lanes as well as angle parking on one side of the street, increasing the number of parking spaces available.
“We have to rip up the streets anyway” to replace aging underground infrastructure, so there is an opportunity to change these streets and St. George’s Square, said David DeGroot, an urban designer at city hall.
St. George’s Square, “the most important and historic public space” in Guelph, traditionally had a central element until an intersection was added in the late 1960s, DeGroot told council. In 1981, the current T-intersection was created.
Williams said although he has concerns about what a redesigned square might be used for, his association supports the city’s overall plan for changing downtown public spaces. He called it “forward-looking and forward-thinking.”
He called it a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, and also financially responsible. “Nothing here is extravagant,” Williams said.
Bell said that while he doesn’t think the proposed new design for St. George’s Square is “inappropriate,” he doesn’t think it has public support. He also doesn’t like the idea of having to spend public money on activating a redesigned square.
Coun. Leanne Piper disagreed with Kovach that council should pass the issue over to the next council. She said the current council had a “responsibility to see this through” by voting on the staff recommendations, as they’re the culmination of work this council has been directing.
Piper also said she’d be happy if the central portion of a redesigned square were left for “passive” uses, such as “reading a book, having an ice cream.” There isn’t enough of this kind of space in a downtown that is set for a big increase in residents and jobs by 2031, she said.
Coun. Karl Wettstein said he didn’t see why this sort of issue should be considered political. “This is as far from being political as anything I’ve ever seen.”
Coun. Maggie Laidlaw said that as people get more familiar with the new plans for downtown public spaces during further public consultations, the plans should seem less daunting.
“A progressive vision is always somewhat scary,” she said.
By Doug Hallett