Tuesday was a good day for Windsor.
City councillors voted to invest more in our troubled core neighbourhoods.
They waived development charges for five years in a swathe bordered by Tecumseh, Prince and Pillette roads. Then they asked staff for more ways to revive these neighbourhoods.
High unemployment, low income and property values. More blight, foreclosures, vacant buildings and lots. More population loss. It marks much of downtown, Sandwich, Glengarry east of the casino and Ford City.
Along the city’s edge, especially in the south and east, it’s the opposite: higher incomes and property values, burgeoning and prosperous neighbourhoods.
We’re not sharing our success. We need to “level the playing field,” as N. Barry Lyon Consultants of Toronto told council in their report recommending waiving development charges to spur investment.
Waiving these charges recognizes this inequality and offers these neighbourhoods a leg up.
But the 82-page report also states this, repeatedly: waiving these fees is only one small measure. There is a lot more to do. This shouldn’t be one decision. This should be the beginning of a discussion that permeates most council decisions.
Why does this matter to people like me who live in South Windsor? Or those in thriving Walkerville? Because if we lift up these core neighbourhoods, we’ll lift up the whole city. If we bring investment to these neighbourhoods, we’ll bring jobs and tax revenue for all.
A hollow core is a critical issue for Windsor. Our population hasn’t grown much in four decades. But it has shifted, creating sprawl that makes it difficult and expensive to offer adequate services and amenities.
Our distinctive, historic core neighbourhoods have character. They’re walkable. They’re close to our waterfront. They’re the kind of neighbourhoods people across North America are flocking to. Think of Walkerville extending from Prince Road to Pillette Road and south to Tecumseh. That’s the potential.
It’s difficult for a big city like Windsor to compete with county towns when it comes to taxes and fees. But there is one trump we have for those who want it: urban life and its singular vibe.
But we need comprehensive, co-ordinated and drastic action. The city can’t do everything. But it can do a lot.
Hamilton offers loans to developers converting downtown land to residential property. It also offers tax grants. Other cities offer tax deferrals. Other fees can also be waived.
But people don’t come just because taxes and fees are lower. They move to certain neighbourhoods because they’re nice places.
“The little things really do matter,” said Windsor’s urban design manager Neil Robertson.
Says Coun. Chris Holt: “We need to start with the individual homeowner.”
Replacing a roof or painting a porch can seem like a big task with little return in a challenged neighbourhood.
“If we offer perks to do it, we can maybe encourage homeowners to do it,” said Holt. “From there, it will grow. If they invest money knowing there’s a better chance their property value will go up, neighbours are going to do the same thing. That will be a game changer.”
Windsor already offers matching grants starting at $2,000 for homeowners in Sandwich, the first such program in the city. But $2,000 is a lot of money for some people, so the city is considering expanding the program but lowering the amount so more people can use it.
It can be spent on cleaning, painting, repairing or replacing windows, doors, porches — “the things you see from the street that signal people care,” Robertson said.
The city is also considering helping fund small community projects, like gardens — things “that make the neighbourhood more livable,” said Robertson.
West side resident Caroline Taylor suggested another option Tuesday: enforce property standards. Vehicles litter her neighbour’s property, and garbage and furniture litter the street.
“We need more bylaw enforcement officers,” she said.
They shouldn’t wait for complaints, she said.
“They should be out patrolling.”
These neighbourhoods also need what the consultant’s report calls “public investments” — community centres, parks, libraries. We’re building these things, but not always where they’re needed most. Sometimes we’ve closed the ones needed most.
Strategically targeted over investment — that’s what the United Way’s latest report called for. These neighbourhoods need more than their fair share, as report author Frazier Fathers said. That’s why the United Way pours $1 million a year into programs in four “priority” neighbourhoods.
The city can’t do it alone. It has helped the university and college open campuses downtown. It has offered land for a high school downtown. It needs to help find ways to keep elementary schools in these neighbourhoods open, too. The city and school boards should be partners because vibrant neighbourhoods and successful schools depend on each other.
“When schools close, you start to see things go in a bad direction,” city planner Thom Hunt said Tuesday.
Like Mayor Drew Dilkens said: “We want all areas of the city to be successful.”