Vision, Challenge, Opportunity, and Solution for
Richmond Hill’s Village Core
By Councillor David West
Ontario’s Historic Downtown core areas have seen many changes over the decades. In Canada’s early days these business districts were the epicenter for communities’ trade. Shoppers came daily to the “downtown” to buy groceries, hardware, or building supplies. In the past century they also came downtown to do their banking, or get new horseshoes installed on their horses. Over time, with the advent of the car, and a variety of other changes in consumer behavior, historic downtown business districts like Richmond Hill’s have needed to evolve to remain viable and vibrant.
Our residents are eager to see our Village Core revitalize and evolve into a vibrant people oriented place where interesting shops and services can be found, as well as great restaurants and entertainment venues. In fact, the best way for a historic core to compete with other retail spaces including big box plazas, indoor malls, or even on line shopping, is to offer a unique suite of shops and services with a great opportunity for a human centered pedestrian focused experience. We already have a number of these great businesses located in our Village Core but we would like to see more!
For Richmond Hill’s Village Core to see further revitalization we need to, over time, see redevelopment of the existing properties. At the same time, the historic buildings that add much character and uniqueness to the Core should be saved, restored and integrated into redevelopment plans. In the case of historic buildings there are opportunities to add modern additions to create new, vibrant and interesting commercial spaces.
Parking supply, a very busy Yonge St. running through the centre of the core, fragmented ownership, a number of fairly small properties, respecting existing abutting neighbourhoods, and maintaining a respect for historic buildings are challenges that must be addressed in order to see the vision for a revitalized village core come to fruition.
Opportunity and Solution
To address the challenges and leverage opportunities Richmond Hill needs a carefully crafted plan. Council recently passed a Downtown Secondary Plan that lays out development vision and opportunities for landowners to redevelop and revitalize their property holdings in order to help to achieve a more vibrant Village Core.
The Downtown Secondary Plan allows landowners to increase the density of their properties and at the same time, offers an opportunity for connected laneways and mews along the side and backs of most properties. These laneways will offer opportunities for shoppers to access the rear of the properties so that additional parking, retail opportunities, and a more pedestrian friendly experience can be achieved. Further this will open the opportunity for a number of people oriented amenities to be included like fountains, public art, and pedestrian plazas. These new features will beautify the area as a whole and make an even more inviting, bright and well landscaped, experience for shoppers.
There are a number of landowners who have appealed the plan to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). They specifically object to the laneways requirements, having a fear that the Town will actually take ownership to a portion of their lands if and when they redevelop their properties. In fact, the Town seeks to provide connections between properties without taking ownership of any private property. Further, Council has also been presented with development applications that far exceed the plan’s height cap in the Core area. It is important to Council that the OMB uphold the plan in order to achieve the vision that the plan promises.
Richmond Hill has already revitalized many municipally owned assets in the core including the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, Ransom Park with the Terry Fox statue, the original Post Office building (at the corner of Centre St. W and Yonge), and will soon invest in a new town hall/urban square at the corner of Major Mackenzie Dr. and Yonge St. and a soon to be expanded Central Library. Council also recently passed a Community Improvement Plan that will offer incentives to land owners for façade improvement of existing storefronts and incentives for new office development. A new signage and wayfinding strategy is also underway that will make finding shops and attractions in the Village easier as well as improving shopper’s ability to find parking.
The village core area needs to be developed in a careful and comprehensive manner in order to allow for growth, redevelopment, and most importantly, revitalization, while at the same time being able to absorb extra traffic and parking that the plan allows, as well as the increased need for pedestrian access that this growth will generate. The Downtown Secondary Plan will accomplish this vision, but most of all I look forward to the benefit that will be created for the community and landowners in the area.