The Beachfront redevelopment is much anticipated. But will it be something we 22,000 residents can stand proud of? Will it be a four-season “want to go there” destination or will we be left wondering "WHERE’S THE BEACH?” and what on earth have we done to our Crown Jewel?
A few short years ago, the Town of Wasaga Beach initiated a plan that set the parameters for redevelopment along Main St. and our crown jewel, the Beachfront. A plan to redefine us. The process included several public meetings with Forrec and Town Council along with public member committees, in order to formulate a plan that was setting the future for our town and our one and only industry – the tourism industry.
Recently this council decided to make amendments (OP52) to that plan. It changed so much that it is almost unrecognizable from the original. The plan is called the Downtown Development Master Plan (DDMP). It incorporates the geography from the top of Main St. (Zoo Park Road) all the way down to the beach, including Beach 2. It was more than just by-laws and building codes; it set about specific ideas and very prescriptive language in order to be as clear as possible about the direction this project would take.
The idea was to make Beach 1 an area of “mixed-use entertainment with open space focus” and resort accommodation. Beach 2 was condo-style residences we are now being told Beach 1 will incorporate. Beach 2 zoning (zoning that allows for condos) did not change so the announcement that “Beach 2 will remain as parkland” is nothing more than a platitude that should be qualified with “at this time”.
The “new” redevelopment project is a stand-alone, self-contained project that encompasses very little in the way of the original plan which was an all-inclusive, cohesive and complete rejuvenation of an entire “downtown”. The “new” plan is, much like most of this town, a piece-meal parcel that in no way ensures four-season viability. The original plan we attended meetings for, stated: “encourage the achievement of a complete community. . . the beach district will be the entertainment activity centre of Wasaga Beach . . . the synergy between the beachfront and the Downtown Core is reinforced to create a cohesive and sustainable downtown that balances the needs of local residents and tourists.“
The following are the changes that have occurred to the original DDMP with the OP52 amendments:
1. The meetings we all attended had: “Beach Drive is to be redesigned as a pedestrian-focused flush street that can be closed to vehicular traffic during special events or busy weekends during the high seasons.” It became: “The intent is that Beach Drive will be a pedestrian-focused flush street that can be opened to vehicular traffic as needed.” However, based on the Committee of the Whole council meeting this month, Beach Drive will now remain closed to vehicular traffic, period.
2. “A new Festival Square is developed at the end of Main St.” became: “A new Festival Square may be developed at the end or in proximity to Main St." It is possible that there could be no view from the bridge to the bay or open space from Festival Square to the bay due to this so-called “minor softening” of the language.
3. “A new boardwalk and entertainment area are to be created along Beach Drive” became: “A new boardwalk and entertainment area are encouraged to be created along Beach Drive."
4. “The proposed development conforms to the Official Plan and Downtown Urban Design Guidelines.” is changed to: “The proposed development conforms to the Official Plan and the general intent of the Downtown Urban Design Guidelines.”
The basis of the DDMP is that it creates an initiative of cohesive planning — the essence of a four-season, liveable area. By changing the prescriptive language, it opens up the DDMP to vague interpretation.
With all these changes to the prescriptive language, we could most likely have six-storey Beachfront condos, parcelled out between 1, 2, or 3 developers whose “intent” will be condo-focused with maybe some ground-level retail on land that extends from the Spruce St. lot to 3rd Street and Beach Drive to Mosley. (the river side of Mosley is not included). What will become of the “entertainment” aspect such as bars, outdoor activities, splash pads, and concert areas? Will the noise be too invasive for the condo owners? What is to become of these venues in a confined densely populated area? The original plan accommodated intensification of permanent residents at Beach 2 which put some distance between them and the “entertainment” area and also allowed for less intensification at Beach 1 (3 to 4 storeys) and more open areas.
With this “new” redevelopment plan shifting the entire focus, we find the mayor’s statement that “there has been plenty of public engagement” to be not exactly accurate or transparent when taken in the context of the OP52 amendments. Her response to our queries that "it is the same plan" is not quite accurate either. The “intent” of the DDMP was to increase intensification, to create walkability, bring back family outdoor entertainment, and create indoor entertainment to diversify the activities offered, with the goal of creating an attractive year-round destination.
Even the seemingly minor wording difference with reference to the Downtown core: “Main St. is preserved as the primary spine of the community”, becoming: “Main Street should be preserved ” makes us question what the actual intent is. The public meetings we attended a few short years ago stipulated Main Street was the “spine” and development growth area in a cohesive plan with the Beachfront redevelopment. It now seems rather open as to whether or not a downtown or beachfront gateway needs to be on Main St. at all. Our concern with these revisions is that the project will be a development of six-storey condo buildings that will block any beach views, and that the individual units will likely be investment-driven with no guarantee that anyone will inhabit them in the winter. If that is the case, once again the retailers will most likely close due to lack of customers in the off-season making it a challenge to attract desirable retail outlets. Beach 2 will likely remain under-utilized in the winter with nothing to draw people there as a four-season, viable area, with only Pedros and the Cannabis shop to accommodate any permanent residents. The “intent” of intensification may very well ring hollow.
It is important that the public be made fully aware that this will by no means resemble the project that was first initiated and that we spent several years attending meetings for.
We hesitate to even call this the DDMP, as it is NOT the same plan as it was. This is a stand-alone, six-storey condo project. Public meetings surrounding the OP52 amendments should have occurred, and they should have been held at 7 pm so that all our residents could attend and fully understand what these changes are and how they affect the plan. These plans are under a shroud of secrecy, directed by a small, select group led by the mayor and CAO, with restrictions limiting how many questions can be asked by other members of Council and time constraints on the presentations and are not available to the public. The restrictions even went so far as to not allow councillors a copy of the documents outside of the CAO’s office and further, to have their notes SCRUTINIZED before leaving his office.
The town does have the ability to further engage the community even during COVID-19 restrictions. They could very well use their paid “Bang the Table” survey subscription to get taxpayers' feedback, however, they use these services for things like “backyard chicken surveys” and a small “Glendale Park development plan” to give the appearance of inclusiveness. We have before us, THE most anticipated and impactful project this Town will ever undertake and 22,000 residents have no idea what that plan is, and more importantly, have no opportunity for input! There should be no issues with releasing design plans presented by the proponents in order to engage the community for input.
The only reason for such guarded secrecy could be that the Town does not want to reveal possible deals with the developers with regard to the town-owned beachfront properties. Let’s hope they do not sell us out too cheaply.
It's smart economics to buy low, sell high, but we fear the Town may get it backwards as evidenced by the Arena/Library project. The 2019 MPAC assessment value of the project land was $1.4 million, however, the Town purchased that land in November 2019 for $5.4 million. They denied us the right to see what the appraised value was by refusing both a direct request and a filed Freedom of Information application. The denial stated, “. . . the substance of deliberations of closed sessions of Council, third party information supplied in confidence and would, if disclosed, prejudice or cause injury to the economic, financial, or competitive interests of the town”. Will they reveal the assessed value and sale price of the town-owned beachfront properties once the deal has been negotiated?
Further, the mayor in correspondence with one of our directors has flat-out refused to answer his question on whether there will be further community engagement in the vital Beachfront redevelopment. The big question is WHY??
At the end of the day, we don’t believe taxpayers would support a Beachfront redevelopment with a wall of six-storey condos, very little amenities to drive our tourism industry, and perhaps no view to the World’s Longest Freshwater Beach as you come across Main Street bridge
When the big reveal finally arrives and we have the “pretty pictures” of a refreshed beachfront, and a “no matter what is built, is better than what is there now, attitude”, please remember this project is not what all the studies, all the consultants, all the strategies have revealed that are necessary for the beachfront’s success. Our “crown jewel” will likely be a stand-alone project with no surrounding support and a much pared-down entertainment aspect to it that will not provide the much anticipated “organic growth” for our one and only tourism industry. Stonebridge is the perfect example of how a new vibrant project does not necessarily equate to organic growth. Twelve years later, Main Street has had one new building: the Dairy Queen replaced an old Diner.
In the end, this project will get built (eventually) with the optics for the residents that something got done (finally). But just how will it contribute to the overall longevity of our tourist industry or contribute to our intensification? Will it be something we can stand 22,000 proud on, a four-season “want to live there” destination or will we be left wondering "WHERE’S THE BEACH” and what on earth have we done to our Crown Jewel?
P.S. Congratulations to the Town of Orillia for being creative during the pandemic in devising an opportunity for their residents to participate in their waterfront redevelopment plan through virtual open houses and invitations to fill out a survey. Perhaps our town could borrow a page from the town of Orillia.