While many communities have turned to a heritage streetscape to win tourists and residents away from the malls and big box stores and back to the downtown cores, Ridgeway is going beyond that. When completed by the end of 2010, the $7.5-million revitalization project that tore up Ridge Road this summer will have turned the clock back to the days when farm families came to town not only to shop, but to meet old friends, exchange gossip and share food and drink.

Ridgeway banks on new civic square — and railway past —
to build a strong village centre as Fort Erie braces for growth

The commercial core of the village of Ridgeway, already popular with tourists for its charming boutique shopping, is about to be transformed into a vibrant people place, complete with public gathering space.  

Well under way, the $7.5-million downtown revitalization project includes new underground services on Ridge Road, the historic street where the village sprung up around a railway in the late 1850s, bringing a new energy to a farming community that had been settled by United Empire Loyalists in the early 1700s.  

Atop all that modern infrastructure, however, a Victoria-era streetscape, complete with railway theme, will take visitors back to Ridgeway’s Grand Trunk Railway heyday, when the area was a thriving service commercial hub serving what today is the west end of the Town of Fort Erie.  

(You can learn all about Ridgeway’s history at the Fort Erie Historical Museum, which is located on Ridge Road in the former Bertie Township municipal hall, built in 1864, the same year the railway arrived. And don’t forget to read our Ridgeway community profile.)  

While many communities have turned to a heritage streetscape to win tourists and residents away from the malls and big box stores and back to the downtown cores, Ridgeway is going beyond that. When completed, the revitalization project will have turned the clock back to the days when farm families came to town not only to shop, but to meet old friends, exchange gossip and share food and drink.  

Imagine, in the heart of uptown Ridgeway, an open-air pavillion where local bands play. Nearby, residents relax on benches to listen, old friends play checkers at café-style tables, while mothers sip on a cappuccino after purchasing fresh produce next door at the farmers’ market. Meanwhile, the sound of laughter is everywhere, as children chase each other around a splash pad that is about to transform into an illuminated work of art as the sun goes down.  

Though the timetable is ambitious, Tom Villella says the vision described above will become reality by the end of 2010, a Christmas present to downtown merchants and neighbourhood residents who have been dreaming about an active village square for more than a decade.  

“We think that it will be a draw,” Villella, a neighbourhood planner for the Town of Fort Erie, says of the civic square taking shape near the parking lot for the Friendship Trail, a 16-kilometre pathway that follows the abandoned rail line through the length of Fort Erie, bisecting Ridgeway’s commercial core. “There is already an active BIA that organizes festivals on Ridge Road, and we want the civic square to be a part of that. It will be very unique, and an important place for people to gather.”  

In Europe, every village has a square

The idea for civic squares as attractive, active gathering places for festivals and other events, rather than barren landscapes with nothing but a fountain stuck in the middle of it all, is catching on across North America. It’s an idea borrowed from Europe, where every village, no matter how small, has a square where people of all ages gather — for board games and for coffee and gossip in the day, for live entertainment and people-watching in the evening.  

But developing a public gathering space doesn’t come cheap.  

In Mississauga, where the civic square is seen as “the premier location for large events, connecting residents and community groups through arts, culture and heritage,” a $40-million revamp of that space is under way to reflect the city’s recent growth and the development of a more vibrant downtown.

Construction is expected to be completed in early 2011, with a permanent stage, opened-up amphitheatre and public restrooms all part of the plan.  

In Ridgeway, plans for an active village square have been on the books for more than a decade. While an earlier $1-million civic square project was shelved in 2000 due to lack of money, the idea survived, becoming a central theme in the 2009 Ridgeway/Thunder Bay Neighbourhood Plan. So when the federal government dangled stimulus money in front of municipalities in 2009, the town took advantage to push ahead with plans for what is seen as the key piece of a strategy to revitalize the Ridgeway core and prepare for an influx of people, as Fort Erie plans for future growth.  

As part of the civic square, a neighbouring vacant building at 283 Ridge Rd. will be torn down and redeveloped. While the municipality owns the property, its redevelopment will be undertaken by private enterprise. Villella said negotiations are currently under way with a developer “who is aware of what we would like to see go up there.” That vision includes a building with public restrooms and a ground-floor café with an outdoor seating area that can blend in seamlessly with the civic square. Offices could be located on the second floor.  

Villella says the parks department, in consultation with the uptown Business Improvement Area, will program events at the civic square, ensuring that the area is an active people place that can do double duty as a draw to bring residents from the Ridgeway/Thunder Bay/Crystal Beach neighbourhoods to Ridge Street to shop, and attract the type of residential redevelopment needed in the core to keep it strong and see it grow to meet future needs.  

Fastest-growing neighbourhood in Fort Erie

The current population of Ridgeway and Thunder Bay (the suburban community that first developed as a cottage area along Lake Erie on the outskirts of the village) is about 4,200, with about 40 new homes built in the neighbourhood each year, making it the fastest-growing in Fort Erie. The town is planning for an additional 1,100 dwelling units in Ridgeway/Thunder Bay by 2031, and all that growth must be accommodated in the built-up urban area, including the downtown area.  

Under provincial growth policies, it’s all about infill and downtown living and walkable neighbourhoods. Sustainable living is in. Urban sprawl is out.  

Villella says the push now is for more core residential housing in Ridgeway, with several buildings ripe for redevelopment. “We need a complete community downtown — a place where people live, a place that’s walkable to all the shops and services and, with the civic square, a place to gather.”  

Ron Palmer, a planner of cities and a partner in the Toronto-based The Planning Partnership, says public investment such as the Ridgeway civic square project is a “crucial” step in revitalizing downtowns. “It makes a statement to the development industry that we’re willing to risk our capital, too.”  

Public investment — in “great streetscapes, great buildings and great public spaces” — is but one of three components Palmer says are needed to create a viable downtown.  

Municipalities, he says, must also help “reduce the risk” for developers, something that can be achieved by laying out a clear plan for development so that time and money are not wasted on the approvals and public hearings process. For example, the Ridgeway/Thunder Bay Neighbourhood Plan approved by council in 2009 sets out where and how the community should be developed, including height limits on buildings on the main street, so development plans can be tailored to what the town wants to see.  

Finally, municipalities can help the development industry by acknowledging that redevelopment of existing buildings in the downtown core costs more than a new build in the suburbs. Projects can become more attractive to developers if there is a program in place, for example, that rewards downtown redevelopment through grants or tax breaks.  

The Town of Fort Erie plans to designate the Ridgeway core a Community Improvement Area under which development incentives would be available.  

“When you have these three components together, you have a pretty good strategy for enhancing and revitalizing the core,” Palmer says. “With the public square in Ridgeway, it’s a great first step in public investment. It’s telling developers we’re here.”  

With a couple of townhouse projects already in the works on uptown side streets, Ridgeway is well-positioned to re-create those heady days when the core was “the” place to be. And with the Dickens-themed Spirit of Christmas festival up next in uptown Ridgeway, the new civic square is sure to add an extra glow to this year’s celebrations.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — August 2010