'Our waterfronts are so valuable. A project lifts the (real estate) values all over the town. It ripples back into the community. It can become a focal point, a starting point for the entire community.'

— Angus Ross, Canadian Brownfields Network

Collingwood joins brownfields stars on Ontario's waterfront
— redevelopment of old industrial sites adds new life, value

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Gail Krantzberg says she gets “absolutely giddy” when she tells the story of how the Georgian Bay town of Collingwood is working with a developer to transform its once-industrial waterfront.  

Krantzberg co-ordinated a plan in the 1990s for cleaning up the old dry dock and ship-building site and says her committee’s advice has been taken in its entirety, down to the smallest details.  

Today, the McMaster University civil engineering professor and specialist in Great Lakes sediment tells that Collingwood’s harbour is healthier than it has been at any time since shipbuilding began there around the turn of the 20th century.  

Krantzberg says it’s the most successful example of brownfields remediation and redevelopment she knows of in Ontario. It’s certainly not the only one. From waterways stretching from Kingston at one end of Lake Ontario, to Hamilton at the other, from Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats to the shores of Lake Erie and up the Grand River, brownfields redevelopment is adding new vigour — and value — to waterfront communities.  

Brownfields are abandoned industrial lands, often located in the heart of cities and towns. Left untouched, they become breeding grounds for urban rot, places where the very lifeblood of the community drains away.  

But once they’re cleaned up — often starting with the cleansing or removal of soil that has been contaminated by heavy metals and other toxic substances — they can be used for new purposes that add wealth and quality of life to their communities.  

Brownfields projects attract residential/commercial development

The greatest redeeming factor of brownfields redevelopment on the waterfront is the added value it brings, says Angus Ross, spokesman for the Canadian Brownfields Network.  

“Our waterfronts are so valuable,” Ross tells “A project lifts the (real estate) values all over the town. It ripples back into the community. It can become a focal point, a starting point for the entire community.”  

He points to the Town of Cobourg, a community with a clear vision of what it wanted to make of an industrial and largely abandoned waterfront. The result has been the removal of the decay and the addition of attractive residential and commercial development along the harbour and Lake Ontario shore — while maintaining public access.  

Now, he says, brownfields redevelopment is progressing beyond the stage where it was seen as a good idea in itself, and is becoming a vehicle for introducing environmentally friendly concepts. Ross believes brownfields redevelopment should be made a key component of government climate change and sustainable community objectives.  

In Collingwood, fish habitat has been returned to the waters of Georgian Bay while on the adjacent shore, mixed housing is going up, parks, trails and wetlands are being created and a town square is being built.   “Delighted is not the word for it,” says Krantzberg. “When I tell the story, I actually get absolutely giddy.”  

Pamela Welbourn is a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston who recently collaborated on the book, The Story of Brownfields and Smart Growth in Kingston: From Contamination to Revitalization. From her waterfront apartment in Kingston, Welbourn has an eagle’s-eye view of how brownfields revitalization has transformed her city’s downtown.  

Welbourn tells she’s happy to see more intensive use being made of valuable waterfront locations around Ontario. She speaks of Kingston’s Block D, an area of heavy industrial use up until 1969 and then abandoned for years. Block D was the first site to be redeveloped under Kingston’s Community Improvement Plan, which offers financial incentives to brownfields developers.  

Welbourn says brownfields redevelopment’s other key benefit is how it’s being used as a vehicle for cleaning up toxic industrial sites and turning them into examples of intensified land use — a key component of living a greener lifestyle.  

Toxins a threat to our waterways

As a retired toxicologist, Welbourn is keenly aware of the dangers that confront our society unless rehabilitative efforts are stepped up. Abandoned tanneries, paper mills, coal tar manufacturing sites, chemical plants and gas stations are just a few of the threats that confront Ontario’s waterways. In Kingston as well as in Collingwood, the brownfields program has not only encouraged private development of old industrial sites, it contributes public money to help ameliorate those dangers.  

Ontario updated its legislation last year with regulations set to come into force on July 1, 2011. The reforms are aimed at speeding the approval process as well as toughening safeguards for public health and safety.  

Some fear the regulations will deter developers from undertaking new projects, but Glenn Miller, director of education and research for the Canadian Urban Institute, believes they aren’t likely to “dampen enthusiasm” for projects with good market potential. Miller tells he doesn’t anticipate a slackening of the pace of redevelopment.  

The urban institute has been encouraging brownfields redevelopment through its Brownie Awards, given out at its annual fall conference to individuals, companies and municipalities that display the best in revitalization. Miller says this autumn, the focus of the conference will be on “making great places,” and waterfront revitalization is key.  

“A waterfront site increases the importance of doing a good job,” he says. “Waterfront brownfields sites are in a category all their own.”  

Many Brownies have been handed out for waterfront projects over the past decade. Several have been located in Toronto where substantial brownfields projects are under way along the city’s 46-kilometre waterfront. But a large number have been in smaller communities.  

Two, for example, have gone to projects that reclaimed lands abandoned by railways. In downtown Galt on the Grand River, designated a heritage waterway, a 73-unit townhouse complex was built on rail lands while in Niagara Falls, a golf course was constructed on 272 acres just one kilometre from the world-famous cataract on the Niagara River.  

Brownie points for Collingwood

In 2009, the Collingwood waterfront plan received the Brownie for best large-scale project, while the best small-scale project award went to the town’s Georgian Bay neighbour, Owen Sound, for the Grey-Bruce Health Unit on the waterfront.  

The City of Hamilton has also been widely recognized for its efforts to bring the public down to a waterfront that has for years been dominated by heavy industry. As some of that industry pulls up stakes, municipal officials are moving in to rejuvenate one of the city’s most precious features — its harbour. 

Hamilton’s efforts began in the 1980s with the purchase of an old scrap yard at a time when just two per cent of the city’s waterfront was open to the public. Now, new parks have been created and that figure is 30 per cent.  

Brian Morris is business development consultant in Hamilton’s planning and economic development department. He tells Hamilton has the oldest and one of the most comprehensive financial incentive programs in place for brownfields redevelopment.  

Morris looks forward to construction of a 15,000-seat stadium to house some of the Pan-Am Games events to be held in Hamilton in 2015. When it is built, he says, it will spark “significant redevelopment” of the former industrial lands and help to create a link to the city’s downtown core around King and James streets.  

Through the brownfields program, Hamilton is beginning to reclaim its West Harbourfront, an area that, not too many years ago, was littered with ugly fencing and “keep out” signs. Advocates are adamant that the scale of development remain small, however, and care be taken not to allow a wall of highrise construction that many say has cut average Torontonians off from their lakeshore.  

Meanwhile, along the Beachstrip, a narrow neck of land that separates Hamilton Harbour from Lake Ontario, a small example of brownfields redevelopment is beginning to turn around real estate that had been decaying for years. A former gas station property was cleaned up, the city sold some of its own adjacent property and a mixed housing development was created on the site.  

“There is still so much to do,” admits Morris. “We need to link the harbour with our downtown, for example.” Nevertheless, thanks to a concerted effort at waterfront rejuvenation, Hamilton’s shoreline — from the West Harbour to the Beachstrip — “will have a dramatically different look in the next five years.”  

Angus Ross is excited about the prospects for the future of brownfields redevelopment. Kingston has partnered with experts in remediation from the Netherlands for the further cleanup of old industrial lands. Hamilton and Collingwood will enjoy new economic vigour as a result of what’s happening there. And the most ambitious plan of all — the remaking of Toronto’s waterfront — will move into high gear.  

“Toronto isn’t competing with Montreal and other Canadian cities,” Ross says. “It’s competing with New York and London, Buenos Aires and Paris. They have an opportunity to turn the city’s waterfront into something really special. The signs are hopeful. Time will tell.”