Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Downtown Opportunities: Sudbury's Market Square and the New School of Architecture

Greater Sudbury’s Market Square has been in the local news a lot lately, as speculation has been rife that the new School of Architecture has been eyeing the downtown location currently occupied by the Market. At today’s Policy Committee meeting, after last night’s meeting with Vendors, the City and Laurentian University, it seems that the rumours regarding the future of Market Square appear to be true.

“Appear” to be, because the City still has to agree to the deal to provide Laurentian with the Market Square property for the new School of Architecture. However, Laurentian has been very clear the Market Square site is by far the preferred location amongst the downtown locations having been considered.

Some more details have emerged today. It looks like the School of Architecture is planning on using the existing Market Square complex for classes, starting in 2012-13, while the new building is under construction. I would think that retaining the existing structure is going to constrain the new building’s design, given that the railroad tracks are in close proximity to the existing building in this location. But, retaining the market building seems to be the plan right now. Whether it’s going to be a permanent fixture on the School’s site remains to be seen.

However, it seems that the market vendors will have to find a new home after the fall 2012 operating season. Determining where that new home might be will be the next challenge. At today’s Policy Committee meeting, Laurentian University School of Architecture committee chair Blaine Nicholls indicated that LU hasn’t completely ruled out co-existence with the market. There has been some suggestion that the new School itself could eventually house the market. Nothing has been decided yet.

And that’s a bit of a concern for some on Council. At today’s Policy Committee meeting, Ward 11 Councillor Terry Kett indicated that the future of the market should be decided before a decision is made by the City to hand over the property to LU. That may be difficult for Laurentian, which is looking to secure the sight in the fall of this year. Given that market vendors have felt that they’ve been left out of the loop regarding how this process has unfolded, it would seem to me that a site selection process to determine the future location of the market isn’t going to arrive at any conclusion by the end of the fall.

However, whatever process unfolds now to determine the future home of the market can’t simply be left to City Council, staff and the market vendors. We, the users of the market, Market Square, and the downtown, also need to be involved in that process. We as a community have an opportunity here to improve our downtown. We also have the opportunity to make matters worse if a poor decision is implemented.

I am a big supporter of the Market. I’m even the Market’s friend on Facebook, and I love tagging the Market in pictures posted by my other Facebook friends. I try to shop at the market as often as I can. I think that we need more things like the market in Greater Sudbury. In the last municipal election, Christine Guillot-Proulx, who was a candidate for Ward 6, tried to initiate a conversation with Valley residents about a farmer’s market in that part of the City. I thought that was a fantastic idea. Let’s make it as easy as we can for all Greater Sudburians to support local farmers, while enjoying wonderful, seasonal foods. There’s no reason that we can’t have several markets in Greater Sudbury.

That being said, one of the things that I love about the farmer’s market in my community is the downtown location. When I go with my family to the market on weekends, it’s very rare that we don’t also spend some time and money at other downtown businesses, or take part in whatever else might be happening in the downtown core. I don’t think that my experience is unique, either. The Market’s presence in the downtown is good for local businesses.

That’s why, for me, whatever new location is ultimately chosen to host the market, it must be a downtown location. So far, I’ve seen it reported in the Sudbury Star that the City may be looking at a location further west along Elm Street. That likely means that they’re looking at the parking area on the other side of the tracks, located behind several existing buildings. This parking area is one of the hidden secrets of the downtown, as it’s currently unoccupied by anything at all, including parked cars. It’s used largely by seagulls and for the occasional pick-up road hockey game; there used to be a carnival which operated there, but I understand that there was some difficulty this year in securing permits, so the carnival didn’t come to town.

One of the entries in the design competition for the School of Architecture actually proposed building the new school on this site, complete with a pedestrian crossing of the railway tracks, to connect with the Larch Street / Elgin Street intersection. The designer of those plans struck on the one big drawback of this site: the lack of connectivity with the rest of the downtown.

Although this site may be a gem, it’s a hard to get to one, buried as it is behind buildings fronting on Elm Street, and behind the Beer Store on Lorne Street. Access is from little-used Energy Court. And it’s surrounded by two other parking lots, which in theory, could also be used for whatever might occupy this location in the future. To access the site by foot from the downtown, pedestrians must traverse through one of these parking lots, which isn’t the most pleasant experience for a pedestrian.

I’m not sold on this location as a new home for the market, given its lack of connection to the rest of the downtown. The site is really cut-off from the downtown by the presence of the railway tracks. Although this site might offer ample parking for the new market (and potentially for the new School of Architecture as well, given its proximity to the Market Square site), it’s not in a location which is going to get people to stay and explore the rest of the downtown. And it doesn’t lend itself to public gatherings in the same way that the square between the Market building and Elm Street currently does. For me, that public square is one of the charms of the Market. It’s one of the few urban gathering points we have in the downtown, and it’s certainly the most accessible. I hope that whatever the new School of Architecture does with that site, the square in some form is retained.

A better idea, I believe, would be to close off Durham Street to vehicular traffic on the weekend, and turn the section of Durham between Elgin and Cedar or Elm into a pedestrian promenade, and have market vendors on the street. Putting up portable tents to keep the rain (and the sun) off of vendors and market users could address some of the weather-related issues. The fact is, though, that currently shoppers on Durham and other downtown streets aren’t protected from the elements at all when it rains on the weekend, so I’m not certain that weather would really have a significant impact on market use, but I know that others have these concerns.

The City closes Durham and other streets periodically during the summer right now. The Blues for Food festival closes down a part of Durham. Ribfest will close down part of Elgin. Durham Street, though, is one of the showcases of a revitalized downtown. If you make an effort to fill Durham Street with market vendors, especially farmers selling fresh seasonal produce, you’re going to have a lot of people at the front doors of some of our existing local businesses. That can only be good for the downtown, especially if people have to travel from different points to get to the market. All downtown businesses in this area are sure to benefit. For the record, I don’t own shares in any of those businesses!

Closing off a section of the downtown to vehicular traffic for a farmer’s market is routine in other cities, including my hometown of Brampton. I believe that we need to start looking at our downtown in a different way; not as a place for cars to drive through on their way to somewhere else, but as a pedestrian-friendly destination of its own. Not that Durham Street is being used right now by many as a street to get to somewhere else in the same way that Elm Street is. Durham is already a bit of local destination, even within the downtown.

What we know now is that there’s going to be a period of uncertainty for the next little while regarding where the market is going to be housed. Whether the market can be incorporated into the new School of Architecture, or whether a new permanent home is needed (either in a purpose-built venue, or an on-street venue), what must happen is that all Sudburians who have an interest in the market’s success must be involved in the process which determines the market’s future. The threat of the new School of Architecture displacing our market should be looked at as an opportunity to continue building a vibrant, business-friendly downtown.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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