ROSE CITY POLITICS – Windsor’s Esplanade Dreams

The Rose City Politics panel opines on the end of the 30 year Civic Esplanade debate with Windsor City Council approving a conceptual master plan to develop the expected $35 million stretch from City Hall Square to the riverfront, complete with an outdoor stage and ice rink, food truck areas, civic space, and more.

In their own opinions, two of the panelists now explore the merits and costs of the CIVIC ESPLANDE PROJECT as they relate to the goal of downtown revitalization.

JON LIEDTKE

In a city with $10 million streetcar desires, why not a $37 million “Esplanade, goddammit?” (Reference video.)

That’s how the redevelopment and revitalization of the riverfront of the other “city by the bay,” Newark, New Jersey was described on The Sopranos, and much like how Newark is to New York, Windsor is to Detroit.

Both cities, Newark and Windsor, exist in the shadows of larger cities looming over their skylines, creating a perpetual little-sibling syndrome of self inferiority and fostering a lack of self esteem, while wanting to prove yourself better.

Maybe this is why we constantly aim for legacy projects: I’ll show you just what we can do!

Regardless, both cities too had projects, in fact and fiction, to revitalize their shorelines and cities more broadly to not only benefit the architects, builders, and contractors, but also the community, labour, elected leadership, and all.

That episode of The Sopranos — Eloise — aired December 1, 2002, the year when American Idol premiered, Halle Berry became the first black actress to win an Oscar for Best Actress, and Tobey Maguire was actually Spiderman and not just a multiverse cameo.

And for those old enough to remember — or if you dive into an old Windsor Star article — in Windsor, Ontario 1,500 residents rung in 2002 at Charles Clarke Square and Esplanade for the first time on New Year’s Eve, while ice skating and watching fireworks.

Windsor’s Civic Esplanade master plan dates back 40 to 90 years — whether a dedicated city hall civic esplanade or a larger one connected to the riverfront — and it’s actually one of few master plans that’s been dusted off, approved, and funded; honestly a remarkable feat in this city.

Before the $37 million stretch from City Hall to the riverfront received city council’s approval, only Fred Francis, Ward 1 Councillor noted any serious objections, so it wasn’t surprising to see him as the lone and fiscally-posturing holdout.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think the project looks great and I’m sure when the city partners with organizations it will be well used and animated. Just look only to WIFF UNDER THE STARS to see the benefit of community activations at City Hall Square.

My concern is that when the space is not used professionally by event organizers, it will be a $37 million walkway from City Hall to the riverfront that will be at risk of vandalism, neglect and decay.

It’s also difficult to justify such a large spend — even if in a multi-phased approach — when the city faces ongoing and serious issues dealing with addictions and drugs, mental health and social needs, affordable housing and housing broadly, and safety issues, which present themselves seemingly more frequently.

Twenty, 15, or even 10 years ago, when the Riverfront Festival Plaza had a different event every weekend and the downtown core was bustling with hospitality establishments that were filled with patrons, a project of this stature was more easily justified.

Today though, it’s not surprising that some residents are experiencing sticker shock and window shopping other municipal priorities in their mind’s eye.

And let’s not forget that sometime this term City Council will have to decide the fate of the Riverfront Festival Plaza canopy and finalization at a price tag of $32.5 million.

Perhaps downtown’s revitalization will be borne of the Civic Esplanade and Riverfront Festival Plaza completions, proverbially “getting two birds stoned at once” as Ricky would say in the Trailer Park Boys (Canadian sitcom).

But today’s Field of Dreams (1989 U.S. film), “If You Build It They Will Come”project to lure both attendees and event organizers, feels like a debate whether it’s best to be punished as Sisyphus and forever pushing the boulder up the hill only for it to fall and then repeat, or as Tantalus and forced to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree, but unable to eat and drink.

Both the Civic Esplanade and Riverfront Festival Plaza finalization will cost roughly $70 million in today’s dollars and whether it’s the key to fixing our downtown core is the million dollar question (not adjusted for inflation).

I don’t know the answer, but I do know we have many other priorities ranking higher on the list.

Oh, and let’s not forget about our $10 million streetcar home either . . .

Dreaming is cheap, it’s the desires that are expensive.

Jon Liedtke is a host on AM800 CKLW, Co-host and Producer of Rose City Politics, a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and plays trumpet in a Windsor band The Nefidovs.

DOUG SARTORI

“Downtown Windsor, still the heart of this city, is a problem that must be faced and faced now by this council, the merchants, the business people and in particular the landlords of the downtown core area.”

City of Windsor Mayor Frank Wansbrough said those words at his 1970 inauguration, 12 years before the average Windsorite of today was born.

Seventeen council terms later, we’re still having the same conversation.

The Esplanade plan is every bit as exciting as the “major high-density residential redevelopment” at Glengarry and Riverside pitched by the city in 1976. Councils of the ’90s had exciting ideas of their own, destroying the Norwich Block for a planned 30-storey office building that ended up a truncated white elephant.

The current Mayor chaired the steering committee that brought us Adventure Bay, another would-be downtown panacea, in the 2010s.

It hasn’t really panned out. It’s lost millions of dollars and seems to be closed more than it isn’t these days.

Downtown has been in decline for longer than most Windsor residents have been alive. All that time, City government has been pouring money into one headline-grabbing scheme after another, without much to show for it.

To make matters worse, every once in a while council delivers a body blow to downtown, like the debacle around the sale of the former central library building, a disastrous transaction that got us a brand-new eyesore in the city core.

When council endorsed the plan, first-term Ward 3 Councillor Renaldo Agostino said: “There’s always this feeling that Council and the Mayor don’t support downtown and tonight is a clear indication — even for people that aren’t supporting this particular project — that they still care about downtown and want to see things improve.”

Fair enough, but I’d like to hear more about why this plan is different and what we’ve learned from past mistakes.

Five decades of downtown futility have taught Windsorites to be skeptical.

This council didn’t create downtown’s problems and it isn’t responsible for every failed project of the past, but politicians shouldn’t be surprised that they have work to do to sell this plan.

Telling Windsorites we deserve nice things isn’t going to cut it.

Doug Sartori is a political observer and organizer. When he’s not recording podcasts or getting people out to vote he runs Parallel 42 Systems, a technology consultancy in downtown Windsor.