The magnificent edifice at the corner of Talbot and Mary Streets, formally known as the Mickleborough building, has had a bit of an uncertain future over the past three years.
It was the former home of Ontario Works before the city purchased it from London developer Shmuel Farhi in March of 2017.
It dates back to the early 1900s and was designed by St. Thomas architect Neil Darrach. Its appraised value at the time of the sale was $4 million.
Under the deal, Farhi Holdings was to donate $2.3 million in exchange for a tax receipt and the city would pay the remaining $1.7 million.
The intent at the time was to partner with the Central Community Health Centre in hopes of consolidating their operations into the structure that once housed the British mainstay Marks and Spencer in the 1970s and Huston’s Fine Furniture into the 1990s.
Added to its functions this year was transforming a portion of the stately building to serve as a day shelter for the homeless.
A far cry from the home of fine furniture.
There was even thought given to converting some of the space into apartment units on the second and third floors, something city manager Wendell Graves abandoned as costly wishful thinking.
Back in 2017, Graves noted, “We did some analysis on a conversion and because of the physical composition of the building, the renovation costs just didn’t justify the apartment use.”
Well, would you look at this?
What has been added to Monday’s (Dec. 21) council agenda – you know it must be of some urgency if it’s a late add – but a report from that same city manager entitled 423 Talbot Street (that’s the Mickleborough building) Rapid Housing Initiative.
Graves is asking council to authorize an application to be submitted to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to seek funds under the Rapid Housing Initiative to establish affordable/supportive housing units at 423 Talbot Street.
Let’s just scroll up a few paragraphs and, yes, there’s the quote about renovation costs that just don’t justify apartment use.
“While approximately 3000 square feet of commercial space would be maintained at the front of the building on the main floor, the rear of the main floor and the second and third floors could be converted into modern, efficient housing units.”
Now there seems to be quite an urgent plea to get cracking on this proposal.
Graves points out in his report, “In order to meet the needs of Canadian citizens the Federal Government has made available a program aimed at the establishment of affordable housing. The focus of this Rapid Housing Initiative is to provide funding to projects that can be implemented and completed within one year. Typically, this would involve the conversion of existing buildings or the creation of modular housing units.”
There’s no questioning the need for affordable housing but the 180-degree turnaround on the Mickleborough building is quite breathtaking.
As Graves stresses in his report, “an adaptation of a portion of the building at 423 Talbot Street could be an ideal candidate for this program.”
So, here’s the plan according to Graves.
“While approximately 3000 square feet of commercial space would be maintained at the front of the building on the main floor, the rear of the main floor and the second and third floors could be converted into modern, efficient housing units.
“This project would be undertaken within the prescribed planning guidelines and would have very minimal impacts upon the heritage attributes of the building.
“Approximately 20 – 24 housing units could be possible.”
He adds every effort will be made to submit an application by the end of the year for the initiative which can provide up to 100 per cent of the project costs.
A recent marketing slogan for a former tenant of the Mickleborough building – that would be Marks and Spencer – was ‘Spend it Well.’
If the plan now is affordable housing, that’s good advice for all involved.
A BURNING ISSUE DURING FIRESIDE CHAT
During the week the St. Thomas and District Chamber of Commerce hosted a fireside chat featuring MP Karen Vecchio and MPP Jeff Yurek. Many of the questions focussed on the COVID-19 pandemic, as was to be expected, and a critical question for Yurek dealt with big box outlets versus small downtown retailers.
Specifically, why are the big stores allowed to sell items the small retailers cannot as they have been deemed non-essential?
This applies currently to areas like Toronto that are in the COVID-19 Grey-Lockdown zone. Much of southern Ontario could soon face similar restrictions if Premier Doug Ford enacts a temporary two-week circuit breaker starting Boxing Day.
“I’ll jump in,” advised Yurek, “since we’re the ones making those decisions.
“I totally agree with what you’re saying and I would say the majority of cabinet agrees and even the premier is fighting it. To try and move away from just big box stores being open.”
Yurek continued, “But the premier said from the start of this pandemic we will follow the advice of the chief medical officer of health.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not trying to advocate and make the necessary changes to get some of these businesses re-opened.
“But right now the chief medical officer of health has recommended to the government to only allow the larger big box stores to open.
“And the reasoning behind that is not really numbers, but it reduces the amount of places and touchpoints that people have. So, instead of going to five different places and having possible exposure at five different places, they’re just going to one.
“People aren’t supposed to be out shopping. I know it’s the Christmas season and I get it but it is supposed to be for essential items only.
“The Number 1 goal in dealing with this pandemic is ensuring there is capacity in our hospital system. We’re seeing hospitals in the red and grey areas running out of space.”
Yurek added, “We also had the debate as well on doing what Manitoba did and roping off the non-essential items and then you get into – which was a huge problem for the province – deciding what’s essential and what is not essential.
“That was quite a drawn-out process for us in Wave 1. To someone, what is essential and what isn’t essential?
“It’s not cut and dry and just imagine you get the whole government trying to put together a list of items that can or can’t be sold.
“I’m more of the idea of trying to persuade the chief medical officer of health to have small businesses remain open with strict conditions on folks who can enter the store with strict protocols.
“We’re still working on that. It’s not the answer everyone wants to hear, but we are going to follow the chief medical officer of health and, believe me, there is ongoing discussion on how do we modify the changes going forward.
“The Number 1 goal in dealing with this pandemic is ensuring there is capacity in our hospital system. We’re seeing hospitals in the red and grey areas running out of space.
“And it doesn’t take long for other hospitals to run out of space. That’s the focus of the medical officer of health.
“And, hopefully, we can have more support programs if we have to move into those (red and grey) areas but at this point, there haven’t been changes to allow the smaller businesses to remain open.
“If we (Southwestern Public Health coverage area) do go to the red, it really hits the restaurants. Retail can still operate, it’s the grey zone where the retail shutdowns occur.”
The Southwestern Public Health region did not move into the Red-Restrict zone on Friday but further restrictions for much of southern Ontario are expected to be announced Monday.
It’s an exciting proposal but then again we’re partial to cycling.
At last Monday’s meeting, council was extremely receptive to a stewardship agreement between the city and the Railway City Cycling Club for the proposed Watertower Mountain Bike Network and park development.
The project was first presented to council in September of 2017 and entails the development of mountain bike trails on land at the north end of city-owned Waterworks Park.
Development and maintenance of the trails would be undertaken by volunteers with no anticipated costs to be assumed by the city.
Examples of similar areas on municipal land include Turkey Point Mountain Bike Club, the Pines in Woodstock and the Hydro Cut in Waterloo.
In her report to council, Adrienne Jefferson, Supervisor of Parks and Forestry, writes the aim is to “transition the current undeveloped site of approximately 11.6 Ha, or 28.7 acres located at the north end of Waterworks Park along Water Tower line, including a hydro line corridor, into an area that sees a series of trails for recreational use.
“Many paths already exist throughout the proposed site. The existing paths will also serve as a basis to follow when installing new routes throughout the park.”
But it would not be limited to biking. It would be available for walkers, hikers, trail runners, off-road bikers, snowshoeing and skiers directed one-way through the park to reduce the chance for collisions.
Of note, Kettle Creek Conservation Authority is interested in continuing conversations regarding the use of their land around the Dalewood Conservation Area for a possible future expansion of the park.
The stewardship agreement is an important step forward in the process and the wheels are definitely in motion for the addition of a unique and stimulating addition to the city’s parks and trails network.
You can read the Railway City Cycling Club’s construction plan here Watertower Mountain Bike Trail Network
ANIMAL WELFARE STANDARDS
Two months ago we wrote of the death of Justice Marietta Roberts and the recollection she presided over the trial of Cody Yeo in February of 2017.
Yeo had abandoned two dogs and a cat in a sweltering apartment with no food or water. A dead dog was found in each of the two bedrooms.
He was sentenced to four months in jail.
“Sentencing must act as a deterrent and we are hopeful increasing sentences and fines will achieve this.”
Also, Yeo – who was 20 at the time – was slapped with a 10-year prohibition on owning any animal.
At the time it was observed to be a sentence that would send a message to the community and the term of incarceration was deemed “reassuring” by St. Thomas animal activist Lois Jackson.
Well, consider Scotland’s Animal and Wildlife Act passed on Nov. 30 that will give courts the ability to impose unlimited fines and jail sentences up to five years for animal cruelty.
That’s according to the Edinburgh Evening News which quotes Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chief superintendent Mike Flynn saying, “Sentencing must act as a deterrent and we are hopeful increasing sentences and fines will achieve this.”
“The Act will enhance Scotland’s position as a global leader in animal welfare standards.”
Seems we have a bit of a way to go when it comes to animal welfare.
FOR THE CALENDAR
Council is expected to formally approve the 2021 operating and capital budgets at its meeting on Jan. 4. The increase to the municipal property tax levy is 1.5 per cent.
OUR CHRISTMAS WISH TO YOU
As has been the custom for some time now, we offer these last-minute – and most appropriate in what has been a quite unusual and trying year – gift suggestions to distribute in the appropriate fashion.
To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.
And, to all faithful City Scope readers, in particular, those with birthdays at this time of year – when your special day too often is lost in the hustle and bustle that is the lead-up to the day itself – may this Christmas bring you peace, health and happiness. And the knowledge we may be nearing the end of this COVID-19 marathon.
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.