Thunder Bay’s city council is set to move forward a project that will reshape its downtown south core, though it will be several years before residents see the end results.
Councillors will vote Monday on a recommendation to approve around $1.3 million in funding for detailed engineering, design, and consulting work required to demolish the Victoriaville Mall and reconstruct Victoria Avenue as a through street. Council voted unanimously to demolish the aging structure last year.
Compared to status quo and partial demolition options, full demolition was found to be the cheapest in the long run. That’s largely because the city would no longer shoulder the deficits the mall has run since it opened in 1980, which were projected to top $800,000 a year by 2025.
Physical demolition work isn’t expected to begin until 2023, while reconstruction of Victoria Avenue is estimated for completion in October 2025.
Manager of realty services Joel DePeuter said the design work marks an “exciting stage” of the project, opening a range of possibilities for the area’s future.
“It’s a pretty exciting stage, because it’s the time we get to put detail to council’s vision and determine what the neighbourhood would look like and how it would function with Victoriaville removed,” he said. “And when I say we, I mean the big we – there’ll be lots of consultation and opportunities for engagement.”
That will include consultation with the public, targeted stakeholder groups, and guidance from the city’s newly-created downtown Fort William revitalization committee.
Coun. Brian Hamilton, whose McKellar Ward encompasses Victoriaville and who sits on the revitalization committee, agreed.
“The community should be really excited that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really reimagine the downtown south core, and the adjacent neighbourhoods as well,” he said.
The cost of the full demolition and redevelopment is pegged at roughly $11.5 million, including the $1.3 million design stage. That figure could change significantly depending on the results of consultation, DePeuter noted.
“That’s an estimate that’s rather rough at this point, because it would depend a lot on what streetscape quality council and the public would want to see,” he said.
“That estimate’s based on a continuation of what’s existing now essentially on Victoria Ave, but I think there will be interest to dress things up quite a bit.”
The redevelopment endorsed by council in principle would add a new public plaza on the Syndicate Avenue right-of-way south of Victoria Avenue, and revamp the existing public square north of Victoria, with the potential for infrastructure to host concerts or markets in those spaces.
Hamilton said he’ll be keeping an eye on how those kinds of features would boost costs, but believes a more expensive redevelopment with greater public amenities might be the right choice for the city.
“If council ultimately chooses this to be a priority, then we have to be willing to really bite in and invest the capital for the long term,” he said.
Hamilton called the notion the city is prioritizing development in the north core over the south core a misconception, but said more needs to be done to help revitalize the area.
“If you look at city spending overall on infrastructure, the north and the south is similar, if not more dollars being spent in the south core – especially with this project [and] looking at the investments in the Fort William Gardens, May Street, the Dease Park area,” he said.
He’s hopeful the reopening of Victoria Avenue will increase traffic to the downtown, and open new opportunities for businesses.
“You could say of the north core it’s the entertainment district… but Thunder Bay works down here in the south core,” he said. “A lot of the businesses that would thrive in that administrative environment I think really have a lot of opportunity.”
The project must also address social issues, he said. Demolition scored lower than other options like keeping Victoriaville on issues of equity and liveability, when evaluated by a consultant last year.
Coun. Andrew Foulds pushed last year for social service agencies to be included in the revitalization committee, to ensure those concerns would be considered.
“The loss of this infrastructure will be impactful,” Hamilton agreed. “It has served a great purpose for the neighbourhood, especially people who are impoverished or have been marginalized. That’s why the work of this committee is so critical, and that we factor that social element in. There are service gaps across this community, there’s no doubt – we’re seeing them day in and day out, especially right now.”