Evident by the questions raised by a couple of councillors at Monday’s (March 15) meeting, the Alma College Square development still generates concern even while the skeleton of Phase 1 reaches skyward. While council did approve amendments to the plans for the three-tower residential development, unanswered questions remain. Issues revolve around traffic flow, the final colours of the structures, why the site plans seemed to be in a constant state of flux, Community Improvement Plan funding and, most puzzling of all, why was a Wellington street access to the former Alma College property nixed? Developer Michael Loewith of Patriot Properties, at times, added to the confusion, in particular as to what shades and hues the exterior of the buildings will wear. Coun. Jeff Kohler perhaps put it best when he observed, “I’m certainly not going to accept buying a red car when I ordered a blue one.” A reference initially alluded to by Coun. Steve Peters.
It has a long and storied history. Of course, the St. Thomas Elgin Memorial Centre was long the home of the St. Thomas Stars and before that, the Pests and the Barons. How many of you remember the short-lived Wildcats of the Colonial Hockey League who called Memorial Arena home for three years before morphing into the London Wildcats and then the Dayton Ice Bandits? The old barn is seeped in hockey history but its defining moment may very well be written this spring and summer. Over the past couple of weeks, the venerable facility built in 1953 has been transformed into an impressive vaccination hub where tens of thousands of area residents – certainly far more than the 2,600 or so hockey fanatics who could jam the stands and walking track for a game – will wend their way through the structure and emerge after a shot of insurance against the coronavirus. Tremendous gratitude is owed Cynthia St. John, Jaime Fletcher and the rest of the hard-working staff at Southwestern Public Health and their community partners who have ironed out every last detail to open up the vaccination clinic Monday morning to get down to the business of corralling the coronavirus.
We’ve all seen ads like these featuring some product with the disclaimer, ‘May not be exactly as pictured’ or ‘Object appears larger for display purposes’. Seems that may be the case with Phase 1 of the three-tower residential development rising up on the former Alma College property. The renderings of the apartment buildings appear different than the original site plans approved by the city. That was the focus of a lengthy Q&A during the Feb. 12 meeting of the site plan control committee held online with city staff and developer Michael Loewith and his team. The bone of contention was whether the approved permit drawings for the Phase 1 building are substantially in conformance with the site plan agreement. Absolutely not, argued Alma College watchdog Dawn Doty – who lives right across the street – and architect Ed van der Maarel, also a neighbour of the grandly named Alma College Square. The 156-unit Phase 1 is scheduled for completion in 2022. Doty has a front-row seat on what is transpiring on the Moore Street property and she noted during the meeting, “Looking at the original site plan drawings, what I’m seeing outside my window is tremendously different than what I first saw. Would you agree with that?”
The space is available and waiting, staff are trained and ready to go and the service could be up and running six months after approval. The choke point in this essential service for St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital is provincial Ministry of Health approval. At Monday’s (Feb. 8) meeting, St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital president and CEO Robert Biron made a compelling presentation to council on the need to equip the facility with an MRI scanner. Biron referred to it as “A basic medical technology for any community hospital.” He added, “We are one of the few medium-sized hospitals in the province that does not provide the service.” Biron continued, “We are one of the few counties in the province that does not have access to the service.” Very curious indeed in that STEGH has been a designated stroke centre since 2016 but does not have a scanner that is required for treating stroke and is integral in the management of many colorectal and breast cancer cases. Biron went on to note, “an MRI scanner is essential in the diagnosis and management of orthopedic conditions.”
It was a particularly effervescent Joe Preston who took to the podium this past Wednesday for the area mayor’s luncheon at St. Anne’s Centre. Sharing the spotlight with Southwold Mayor Grant Jones and Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn, Preston was not only bubbling over with enthusiasm, but he also came in three minutes under the allotted 10-minute time slot. And, made a promise of better city transit by the end of this year, guaranteed. Preston opened with, “St. Thomas, what a great place to be the mayor.” He continued, “I have been mayor for little over a year and it’s been an extra-special time.” After thanking the city councillors, he observed, “Boy, do we employ some pretty good people . . . I’m here to tell you’re in pretty good shape. “We’re in good shape at being able to run this community in an efficient way with smart people doing it.”
With the observation, “Our assets are the strongest link to the new city branding,” a pair of St. Thomas railway-based entities are seeking an exemption from paying municipal property taxes. Matt Janes of The Railworks Coalition – representing the Elgin County Railway Museum (ECRM), the CASO station and, in the near future, the St. Thomas Elevated Park – made a pitch to city council at Monday’s (Jan. 20) reference committee meeting requesting tax relief. While no decision was made at the meeting, there was no shortage of questions and comments from members of council combined with a healthy dose of skepticism from several quarters. In an email to City Scope on Tuesday, Janes outlined three objectives behind the deputation to council. Topping the list was the need to, “Stress how important the Railworks’ assets (ECRM, CASO Station and Elevated Park) are to “The Railway City” brand, and the economic activity generated by our organizations.”
Four months ago, the province green-lighted an end-of-life residential hospice for St. Thomas and Elgin. And Thursday (Jan. 16) city council got an enhanced picture of what the palliative care facility will look like and feel once inside. In her presentation to Mayor Joe Preston and councillors, Laura Sherwood, director of hospice partnerships with St. Joseph’s Health Care Society, detailed the pressing need for the Hospice of Elgin, which will serve the only county in southwestern Ontario currently without a community-based hospice. Sherwood noted each year, more than 800 people in St. Thomas and Elgin die without adequate services, “placing tremendous pressures on families, caregivers, and our local health care system.” Within the next dozen years or so, that figure is expected to increase by as much as 50 per cent.
Size does, in fact, matter. That was the finding back in 2003 of what was known as the McCarthy-Tetrault report, a full and independent review of the council of the day and its working relationships at city hall. The initial call for a review of council and staff dated back to April 28 of that year when Jeff Kohler, then an alderman, moved that “the City of St. Thomas undertake an independent review of human rights practices in the corporation of the City of St. Thomas.” The subsequent report categorized council as “dysfunctional” and its inability to operate in cohesive fashion is “rooted in the mix of personalities . . . . The resulting lack of respect for others seriously undermined the effectiveness of council.” The report’s author, Chris White of the law firm McCarthy-Tetrault, made several recommendations, the most contentious of which called for the reduction in the size of council to seven members from the then-current eight, including the mayor, in an effort to cut down on the number of deadlocked votes.
Let’s start with the following premise. “If the joint goal of our community is to provide as much affordable housing for people (as possible), it is important that the private sector be the primary delivery agent.” That’s the argument put forth by Peter Ostojic who, along with his brother Joe, has completed several affordable housing developments in St. Thomas and Aylmer. In the past several months via emails sent to this corner, Peter has repeatedly questioned why the city is undertaking the construction of affordable housing units such as Phase 1 of the city’s social services and housing hub recently opened at 230 Talbot Street. A total of 28 apartment units are located on the two floors above the ground floor office space. Of those units, eight one-bedroom apartments have received funding through the federal/provincial Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) program. As such, rents can be no higher than 80 per cent of the average market rent for the area.