The Urban Design Summit and the Wilson Farmhouse

A resident’s perspective.

On Monday, May 5th, I had the pleasure of attending the Urban Design Summit hosted by the City of Guelph at the River Run Centre.

A number of the themes repeated throughout the evening were place making, innovation, citizen engagement, boldness, risk-taking, social inclusion and connectivity.

Needless to say, the recently-submitted Wilson Farmhouse proposals were top of mind as I listened to the various presenters.

For Andrew Howard, of Build a Better Block, the focus was on “creating the place where people come together.” In working on transforming the barren area in front of a City Hall, he came across the magic formula developed by another innovator some 30 years before:

1) Put out food

2) Give people a place to sit

3) Give people something to do.

When Mayor Farbridge was asked to say what she thought was the “most exciting thing going on in the City”, the project she focussed on was the Baker Street complex which envisions satellite campuses for the University of Guelph and Connestoga College, a downtown YM/YWCA, a new central library, offices of Innovation Guelph, a student centre and housing.

I agree with Mayor Farbridge and I too find this initiative tremendously exciting, but it was the comment by Andrew Howard that followed that caught my attention. Mr. Howard said that while big projects were great, it was the little things out in the neighbourhoods that most interested him. Whenever he’d visit a new city, he’d look at the big stuff, but then he’d head out into the neighbourhoods to see what was going on. According to my notes, he said the following:

“Great cities have a hundred little things going on, character things. Cities need to learn to do the little things too.”

The proposed re-uses of the Wilson Farmhouse are just such an example of the potential for those “little things out in the neighbourhoods.” Between them, they incorporate that magic formula for creating a place where people come together: food, a place to sit, something to do.

In some ways, the proposals for the Wilson Farmhouse are a microcosm of the Baker St. initiative. There’s no university campus proposed, but there’s an elementary school that could be interested in renting space for an ECE program. There’s no YMCA, but there are yoga teachers and seniors centres interested in space to rent. It’s not a central library, but the potential exists for a reading room or small lending library outpost. It won’t be a headquarters for Innovation Guelph, but there are a number of innovative entrepreneurs who could envision offering something at that location. Most importantly, like the Baker St. initiative, proposals for the Wilson Farmhouse represent dynamic and creative collaboration.

Former Toronto Mayor, David Miller, said that by engaging small businesses with local citizens, you can achieve a lot. He underlined that with City building – you have to be prepared to take some risks. The example he used were the challenges encountered in bringing Dundas Square to fruition – challenges with property owners and governance models for instance.

The proposals for the redevelopment of the Wilson Farmhouse also don’t fit into neat boxes. Moving forward will require innovative collaboration and financing models.

The Staff Report in response to the Expressions of Interest reads like a pronouncement from what Mayor David Miller referred to in Toronto as, “The Department of No”. During his tenure, he sometimes felt that the City of Toronto “Risk department” said No to absolutely everything.

In my view, issues identified in the Staff Report, such as financing, community access, parking and preservation of heritage features could easily be resolved through

collaboration, dialogue and negotiations lasting no more than 8 weeks.

I don’t believe it’s possible to completely avoid risk,

but it is possible to minimize it. My group’s proposal was based on solid research, as well as community consultation, and is put forward by people with a proven track record. If an option is chosen where the renovated Farmhouse remains in City hands, the City will own an asset with significant value.

Demolition also involves risk. If the City demolishes the farmhouse, it is risking its credibility – its

credibility in protecting heritage. How can it expect developers to protect heritage assets when it fails to protect a building under its ownership?

If Council proceeds with demolition without fully exploring the Expressions of Interest received, it is risking loss of trust – loss of trust by citizens that engaging with the City is worth their time and effort.

The Wilson Farmhouse provides a link to our past, our agricultural heritage. Preserving our heritage is a way to preserve character and Guelph’s small-town feel as we move forward into the future.

The Boathouse tea room and ice-cream stand is a key example. It’s a part of our built heritage, but it provides a modern-day gathering place. I feel lucky that it is within a 5 minute bike ride or a 15 minute walk from my house. It’s a family destination after dinner on a warm evening.

It’s clear that nothing similar currently exists in the Northeast area of the City. Our research indicated that the closest place to get a scooped ice-cream cone is the plaza at the corner of Stevenson and Speedvale.

Innovator Andrew Howard from Build a Better Block said that he usually submitted proposals to the Cities which were 90% complete and that left only 10% of the work for City Staff to do. This is the case with the recent Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI): 90% of the work has been done and now the process needs to move to negotiating concrete terms.

At the Urban Design Symposium, Mayor Farbridge said she felt that what people in Guelph are looking for is connectivity, a sense of belonging – connectivity to each other and connectivity to place. All of the Wilson Farmhouse proposals put forward


a vision of connectivity. Parent and child programs, picnic shelters, community centres cafes and bakeries are all places where people come together. Moreover, that connectivity and the relationships that result are a key component of wellbeing and the community resilience that flows from it.

The Urban Design Summit was an evening of inspiring talk. It remains to be seen whether or not we can “walk the talk”. SW