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City moving forward with 'very exciting' waterfront plan

Council met behind closed doors for eight hours over two days before giving green light to enter negotiations with developer on 'catalytic' proposal
2021-03-14 Orillia waterfront redevelopment 1
The city is moving forward with one of the proponents who has made a pitch to redevelop the city's waterfront.

City council has given the green light to move forward on a “very exciting” plan to redevelop the waterfront.

On Wednesday, councillors emerged from a three-hour closed session meeting - that followed a five-hour meeting behind closed doors May 12 - to approve a move to “enter into negotiations with a preferred proponent” to develop a parcel of waterfront lands.

During the seven-minute, open-to-the-public part of yesterday’s meeting, Coun. Mason Ainsworth said not much information can be shared because “it is a closed session,” but he said citizens can look forward to “good news.”

The councillor said “it is a very exciting time for the city, from an investment standpoint (and) development standpoint and I think once we’re able to talk ... I think we’re going to have some really great news to share.”

Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke concurred.

“This has been five years in the making and it’s a transformative, catalytic development,” the mayor told OrilliaMatters after the meeting.

The mayor noted council has directed staff "to assemble a negotiating team, with the assistance of third-party expertise, and report back to Council with a framework for negotiations as we work toward a final" agreement. 

He said the meetings had to be held behind closed doors because they dealt with legal and land matters.

“I understand” the public’s frustration that the meetings were not open, the mayor said, but stressed “there are a number of factors” that made it imperative to have the meetings in closed session.

He cited the “complexities” of the two competitive proposals among those factors, and said he was “comfortable” with the process.

“I wish every meeting could take place in open session,” said Clarke, but he noted that is “simply not possible without jeopardizing the project.” He said more information would be shared with the public as soon as possible.

What we do know is that two proponents - who were pre-qualified to make a pitch to redevelop the waterfront - made detailed proposals earlier this year. Click here to read a story about those two plans.

What Wednesday’s decision means is the city has, essentially, chosen to move forward with one of the plans. But, it’s not quite that simple, says the mayor.

“It’s a little more complex than that,” said Clarke, noting there are “some things that can be negotiated” as the city strives to “realize its original” hope for the waterfront.

The city began this process in 2016 when it spent $9.3 million to purchase the Metro plaza at 70 Front St. N. 

That land, coupled with some other nearby parcels of city-owned land - including the former Ossawippi property fronting Centennial Drive - created an almost 9-acre property the city decided to develop to revitalize the area and provide a better link from the port area to the downtown.

Wednesday’s decision allows city staff to negotiate with the developer. And while it’s not certain how long things will take, Clarke said he is optimistic the city and developer could “sign a deal by the end of the summer” with shovels entering the ground in 2022.

While that process unfolds, city staff will continue to work to resolve “outstanding legal matters pertaining to this site.”

The city found itself in court during this process as Metro challenged the city on several issues - including the length of its lease, rights to small areas of land around the property and the city's handling of roofing and parking lot repairs.

The municipality recently won a Court of Appeal decision on that. Click here to read that story.

Metro has a long-term lease with the city and the plan has always been to allow Metro to stay in its current location, while the rest of the mall is razed to make way for the new development.

Clarke said he could not speak specifically about the remaining legal issues, but noted there were some expropriation issues over lease rights of property owners in the area; he said he expected the issues to be resolved “in short order.”

During this fall’s budget deliberations, council will be asked to commit funding to help move the project forward. 

For example, staff is expected to ask council to commit funds to the development of a civic square on the northwest corner of Mississaga and Centennial Drive (near the former Ossawipi property) and to create signage and public art for the area.

The mayor said it’s also expected demolition of the southern portion of the Front Street plaza will begin this fall.

Part of the reason the city originally purchased the property was to bulldoze that portion of the mall to open up Coldwater Street - and the ‘viewscape’ - to Lake Couchiching.

“That is bigger than some people realize,” said Clarke, noting the mall has “blocked” views and access to the waterfront for decades.

He said urban legend has it that the original developer of the mall in the 1970s designed the building not realizing there was a lake behind it; the design was centred around fronting on Front Street, he lamented.

BACKGROUND

Laura Thompson, the city’s manager of real estate and commercial development, provided a brief overview of the process during the open part of this week’s meeting.

She told councillors that her report is “the culmination of years worth of public consultation and strategic visioning to redevelop the downtown and waterfront area to ensure strong linkages, a vibrant waterfront and a bustling downtown" as envisioned by the Downtown Tomorrow Plan of 2012.

Thompson noted the city acquired the 70 Front St. property in 2016 to facilitate the Coldwater Street viewscape (and) facilitate redevelopment of the southern portion of the plaza. 

“Rather than sell the remnant property through a straight sale, a waterfront working group was formed to guide a strategic request for proposal process,” said Thompson.

“Twelve development principles were established to ensure the comprehensive feedback from the community to date directly informed the redevelopment of this site,” she explained. 

In 2019, the city identified three qualified proponents through a request for qualification process. In March 2021, the city received two proposals for redevelopment. 

“Since that time, staff has proceeded with a formal evaluation process to identify a preferred proponent,”’ said Thompson.

“The revitalization of the city’s waterfront land is anticipated to be catalytic and spur the redevelopment of not only 70 Front St. N., but also the surrounding lands, and lands in the downtown core,” said Thompson.

“The redevelopment is anticipated to increase the municipal tax base, introduce new year-round residential units to the downtown waterfront area, and present new opportunities for employment,” she said.

“Staff are excited to proceed with the next steps of this revitalization project,” said Thompson.

Coun. Tim Lauer, chair of the waterfront working group, said this week's decision is an important milestone.

“The waterfront redevelopment project has been years in the making and Council has arrived at a very exciting milestone today,” Lauer said in a media release. 

“I am pleased that we are moving to the next step in the process," said Lauer. "Future revitalization and reclamation of the brownfield site will increase the municipal tax base, introduce new year-round residential units to the downtown waterfront area and provide new employment opportunities. Combined with city improvements to Centennial Drive and the nearby waterfront parks, the downtown waterfront area will be a welcoming place for all Orillians.”

For more information, visit the city’s webpage devoted to the waterfront redevelopment.