To close out the #windsor2035 series I am going to offer some policies for the City to consider over the next 20 years. I had hoped to have this done in the summer but failed miserably, so now just I offer you some practical policy suggestions that will in my opinion improve the City of Windsor. Although there is a 20 year time frame on this series, many of these proposal can be implemented immediately.
Build Towards A Regional Government
Windsor is the centre of a region that is politically divided but economically, recreationally and socially integrated. It is this political division that dampens economic growth in our region while preventing truly collaborative solutions to regional problems emerging. The debate over WEEDC being just one recent and prominent example of this division.
Over the next 20 years, the City of Windsor should do everything in its power to encourage regionalization, even going so far as to use economic/fiscal “incentives” to drive our neighbours towards common governance. Should they be reluctant, the city can impose additional costs on those communities and residents with specific user fees for County dwellers to use City services. Whether sewage surcharges to Tecumseh and LaSalle, extra fees for baseball, soccer or hockey leagues to use city facilities; to beginning tolling roads or additional parking charges for commuters Windsor has many tools at it disposal.
Ideas like shared policing services for those who do not use the OPP; integrated firefighting services; an infrastructure fund for “region projects” and maintenance of shared assets; a regional transit authority; regional planning policy and Greenbelt; streamlining of certain back office services between municipalities a could be an easy path forward from which broader regionalization could emerge.
Narrowing Huron Church
The City can take advantage of the Gordie Howe Bridge while ensuring that Huron Church never returns to its existing state of gridlock. The City should plan sometime post opening of the new bridge to convert a lane in each direction on Huron Church to separated bike lanes from EC Row to the University of Windsor.
After the completion of the Gordie Howe Bridge and the anticipated diversion of the majority of truck traffic it would be a perfect opportunity to narrow the thoroughfare, provide bike connections to the University from the new Parkway trails and disincentive truck traffic towards a potentially twinned spanned Ambassador Bridge that could be forced upon on hesitant City. The result would not only be a major infrastructure improvement to the West-End of Windsor but also give the city a major bargaining chip when dealing with an ever combative Ambassador Bridge Corporation by potentially crippling a twin span’s financial viability.
Open the Sharing Economy
If Windsor wants to truly be forward thinking the City should move to properly enable the implementation and regulation of the sharing economy. Whether Uber or Lift to Airbnb or Homeshare all of these apps are going to move into Windsor. In the past few weeks, Airbnb has officially been legalized in Jersey City collecting a 6% tax to the coffers of the City.
There is no reason that legalization and fee collection could not be a source of revenue for the City, while enabling innovation in Windsor-Essex and protections for services users in our city. At the same time, there needs to be some sort of regulation to give traditional industries a level playing field (look at Edmonton) while allowing these services to provide an opportunity for individuals in an economically depressed city to earn additional income.
More Accountable Council and City
Stream Council meetings to the World Wide Web; allow more than 4 weeks to review a 1,000+ page budget with more than one meeting to discuss said budget; electronic voting and tracking of Council votes so constituents know what their councilor voted for and against; more open data sources along with searchable agendas, minutes and Council documents. Most of these improvements can all be accomplished with procedural changes within City Hall at relatively low costs when compared to the overall cost of potential oversights in a $700+ million city budget.
A New Transit System
The current model of transit with a hub and spoke radiating out from Downtown Windsor doesn’t service Windsorites well and the County at all. The lack of an effective and efficient public transit system in Windsor is not only a hassle but a drag on our economy. So the question becomes how do we improve the system?
In my opinion, the model should shift from the existing hub and spoke network to a node network. Prioritize half a dozen or so hub locations: U Windsor, St. Clair College, Devonshire Mall, the eventual Mega Hospital, the Downtown Terminal and Tecumseh Mall. These locations would be connected by express route buses (possible dedicated bus/car pool lanes), that translate into a direct shot with no stops. The idea being getting between each node in 10 or so minutes meaning a complete circuit in less than an hour. When you reach the node closest to your final destination that is where local buses run spreading out from the node in a circuit pattern before returning to the nodes.
From what I hear, Windsor Transit has a plan(s) for a new system on the drawing board, what is missing is money. $5-15 million are needed to change the system, as moving bus stops, building new shelters and buying new buses all costs money. Given that Windsor Transit hasn’t had a major budget increase in years and fair hikes are used to cover rising operational costs without adding new services a clear opportunity looms from the Liberal governments infrastructure spending over the 4 years.
Part of that investment process would be to take the improved transit system and bridge it out into the county. There is already some soft coordination with Tecumseh with transfers between their transit service and Windsor Transit at Tecumseh Mall, there is also some desire for this service to expand. So the question is how do we expand this service?
In reality to answer this question it depends if a truly regional transit system is developed or just a patch work of county based systems connected to the existing/enhanced Transit Windsor systems. On top of this the question of whether this regional system will work into the entire county or just the more population dense area on the north shore and east shore from Amherstburg to Belle River. A clear argument could be made for a separate “South Shore” transit system that ties the southern half of Essex County together as the long routes connecting Leamington and Kingsville to Windsor will likely struggle with ridership and viability.
Simply put, many people like the idea of transit, might even be willing to pay a bit of taxes more for it but so long as their car is a quicker and more convenient method to get from point A to point B, they will use their car. Without some sort of demand side incentive to drive people from their cars and make transit more cost/time effective it is likely that regional transit will fail. As a result, road pricing, gas taxes and other demand side disincentives to driving should be put into place.
Windsor is one of the most ethnically diverse city’s in Canada, yet the only group that has an ingrained itself in our City’s fabric is the Italian community with Erie St. being the formalized Little Italy in our city. The question is, why not create a similar districts for other groups in our city? To a degree it is already occurring with clusters of shops and restaurants in certain areas of the city but expanding this concentration into specific district as a means for development of cultural communities in Windsor could be a powerful tool in attracting, integrating and engaging new immigrant communities to our city and Canada.
Wyandotte Street offers a couple of examples of what could be. Between Campbell Ave and the University a cluster of Asian restaurants and markets have a emerged to cater to international students and families. The arrival of the Multi-Foods Grocery store on Crawford further East anchors the west end of the city as being a major draw for immigrant communities. To the East, between the Downtown and Walkerville, Arabic is the predominant language on shop signs. Given its strategic location between what we hope is a resurgent downtown and a thriving Walkerville a bridge neighbourhood is needed to connect these two districts.
So the question is why not formalize these neighbourhoods, encourage cultural events and activities. Erie St get Via Italia why can’t these neighbourhoods get Eid or Chinese New Year Celebrations? This transformation could be led by local BIAs with City backing around infrastructure and local service delivery, allowing grass roots community first initiatives to take root and become ingrained. This engagement along with strategic placement of language and other supports will enable new arrivals and their families to more quickly situate themselves in our community while offering existing residence a greater taste experience of the world that can strengthen our community overall.
City’s Real Estate Business
In general, I am not a fan of government intervention but when there is a failure in the local economic environment and when the community is losing a race to the bottom in terms of development with neighbouring communities, local government taking targeted action is appropriate for the betterment of the community. The one advantage that the City of Detroit has had in its revival has been the acquisition of vast tracks of property through tax leans and sales. The city then spent tens of millions of dollars to demolish vacant, blighted and burnt out buildings, in turn free up swaths of land to be removed from servicing, for greenfield redevelopment, as well as innovative uses like urban agriculture and naturalization projects.
Windsor never sank so low (fortunately or not) but we do have a city core that is hollowed out and faces a challenge in the current state of its housing stock. According to the most recent data, there are almost 6,500 dwellings in Windsor that are “Unsuitable” for habitation. In order to have a livable community, the housing stock in the city centre MUST be improved. Given the empty lots and parking lots that dot the core and have been allowed to remain “waiting to be developed” it is time for the city to become directly involved. The problem is that developers are all waiting from someone else to invest and be successful. There hasn’t been a major residential construction in the city core in years due to the fear by developers that if they build and fail it would kill their business.
All city property sales should be completed on the condition of imminent construction. To facilitate this the city should move to acquire key properties in the Core and elsewhere from other levels of government and ministries (school boards) to ensure that closed facilities don’t rot neighbourhoods, then flip cleared properties to developers. To sweeten the pot for developers the city could wave development charges, building permit fees, pre-approve zoning as a part of the sales or property tax holidays following the completion of construction. Even if the city has to take a short term net loss in tax revenue or sale value due to paying for demolition, the long term viability of neighbourhoods and the future tax revenues of a new higher assessed value property will recover this over the longer term.
A Hub City
Community Hubs, as I have written, are a proven model in other communities tackling a wide range of issues. Whether encouraging entrepreneurs; providing health services for both physical and mental ailments; youth services like afterschool programs, homework help clinics or physical activity and sports; to employment; food security; technology the list of potential hubs goes on and on. What is missing is the physical space.
Decentralizing services and locations to a neighbourhood approach would enhance property values, draw residents and build communities. The city has capacity to provide space and the community hub model is proven to provide improve access to services to the citizenry in cities across Canada. So why can’t it work here too?
These are just a few ideas, some are more realistic than others, what is important is a civilized discourse around the eventual vision that will be the 20 Year Strategic Plan and its effective implementation when it is finally revealed.