‘It's a shame to come and show people this is downtown Brampton’: Businesses skeptical of City’s plans for rejuvenation
In cities across the world glittering downtown skylines and teeming streets below are the heart of urban life, the main draw for commercial activity, jobs and cultural spaces.
Downtown is where sky-high buildings house young, professional residents and employers set up shop. Foot traffic fills the streets and galleries, boutiques, restaurants, shops and gathering places animate the type of vibe that has drawn people for centuries to the centre of town.
The postponed Downtown Reimagined plan was supposed to revitalize Brampton's struggling city centre
Recreating a vibrant downtown core, like the one that existed during its heyday almost a century ago, has been on Brampton’s radar for years, but local leaders have been unable, or unwilling, to revive the area, which has fallen on hard times.
The city centre is checkered with boarded and demolished buildings, foot traffic is almost non-existent and the lack of parking has left many business owners frustrated.
Lorraine Smith, owner of Purple Rain Spa in downtown Brampton, has been in the area for almost five years, and has listened to the promises of redevelopment ever since she moved in.
“They kept saying, saying, saying but I still have yet to see anything coming through,” she told The Pointer.
Downtown Brampton business owner Lorraine Smith is frustrated by the lack of action to improve the neglected area
Approved in 2018, the Downtown Reimagined Plan was set to create an “aesthetically beautiful streetscape”. Planning for the project was done in conjunction with the Region of Peel, which was designing much needed upgrades to its water and wastewater infrastructure that runs beneath the downtown. Construction for the original plan was supposed to start in the spring of 2019. But in December of 2018, right after Mayor Patrick Brown came into power, the project many residents were so hopeful for, was put on hold. The City backed out of its agreement with the Region, pointing to bids for the project that came in way over the City’s budget, underground water channels that for some reason had not been examined well before the work and plans for the previously cancelled Main Street LRT that were back on the table, as reasons for hitting the pause button.
Businesses in the area have continued to be told that change is coming. Promises of a revamped downtown that would help traffic, bring residents to the city centre and beautify the aging core have continued to be thrown around. Instead of a realized vision and the breaking of ground, business owners have been left with nothing of the sort.
This back and forth has been frustrating, Smith said. Putting a hold on an area that has so much potential is like throwing away money. In theory, the location’s great, she said, but without concrete plans for improvements, there isn’t much there.
“Brampton is getting so big right now. We need more in the downtown area. It's a shame to come and show people this is downtown Brampton. It has nothing.”
In an effort to update aging infrastructure in the downtown core, the Region has planned to upgrade the water and wastewater assets, with a recent staff report noting that putting such updates to “high risk infrastructure” on hold any longer will lead to dire circumstances. Plans for this work were originally brought forward in 2018, but when the City of Brampton shut the idea down because of its issues, the Region was also forced to pull the plug.
Water main breaks have been an issue for the area in the last few years. In December 2017 a burst pipe forced businesses on George Street to close and a residential building to be evacuated. The Region has reported a number of other breaks and has said the underground infrastructure, much of which has never been repaired or replaced, is in dire need of attention.
Alongside the Region’s planned work, scheduled to begin in 2021, the City also plans on upgrading its roads. But the projects to give the downtown a minor face lift are only temporary and much of the work will essentially need to be redone once a decision on the LRT is made and large parts of the area have to be redesigned to accommodate a rail system through the historic part of Brampton.
The Main Street LRT shown running through the downtown area
The Region has said its work is needed immediately to prevent future risks and cannot wait until a final decision for the LRT is made. The temporary project will take 12 months to design, between 18-24 months to construct and on-street parking will be disrupted while construction takes place. This will cover the area of Queen Street from George Street to Chapel Avenue and Main Street from Wellington Street to Nelson Street West.
Hearing this was hard for Smith to swallow, as her business relies on street parking, which is already lacking. “I've had clients who said, ‘I love your work, I love coming to this spa but I don't think I can come up because it's frustrating trying to find parking’.” The lack of parking is what prevents the downtown area from becoming the jewel of Brampton, she says.
Smith and the other business owners The Pointer spoke with were unaware of the temporary work now being planned to fix aging infrastructure.
Given construction may take up to two years, she’s worried about the impact it will have on her business.
“That’s probably going to be devastating because I have seen what happens in Toronto, especially St. Clair Avenue, Eglinton Avenue when they have done that and it was dragged out for how long?”
According to a motion put forward by a Toronto councillor in February, 100 small businesses closed their doors along Eglinton West because of the impact of heavy construction for the crosstown LRT.
The area that will be impacted by the infrastructure work that will soon start
Taking away street parking, paired with all the problems owners have faced because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, makes Smith question if she will be running her business out of the downtown in the future.
It’s possible tenants will run into the same situation when previous plans for Downtown Reimagined were on the table. Just like in 2018, the Region is again looking for the lowest bid on the project, with the cost shared by the City and the Region. Previously, bids for the Downtown Reimagined work came in at almost triple the original estimate, which had already increased to roughly $33 million. One of the companies hoping to do the work said it would cost $73 million, and that was two years ago.
Through it all, residents and entrepreneurs have been strung along, given hope that change will come, only to be left with disappointment when plans get cancelled.
Peeyush Gupta, the owner of The Wee Smoke Shop, feels like this it’s a game of never ending ping pong.
“Whenever they delay these things, not only do they cost more money but people get sick and tired and they move on,” he said. Frustration has become a common feeling for business owners, as cancelled plans continue to plague the aging area, which should be the driver of economic, commercial and cultural activity. The lack of coordination between departments and the different levels of governments who change their plans every four years, Gupta said, has only added to the problems. “And who suffers? The public. Who suffers? The taxpayers."
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But he doesn’t think he will leave when the temporary construction takes place. The spread of the novel coronavirus has taught him to adapt to business online, which he has been successful with. But this is something numerous businesses, like Smith’s, can’t do as they rely on in-person traffic to survive.
While Mayor Patrick Brown has promised downtown revitalization since his election campaign in 2018, his insistence on tax freezes, which he has forced two years in a row, have left the City’s capital program in tatters, with more and more projects cancelled or postponed to accommodate his popular tax plans, which are not helping businesses that depend on modern infrastructure and a vibrant downtown.
In an effort to help businesses, Gupta hopes the City will allow those on Main Street that have a parking space behind their stores to let customers park there for free.
The temporary nature of the immediate work will leave sidewalks, curbs, and street lights mostly untouched in order to mitigate costs as much as possible. The City’s road work will come with a price tag of approximately $600,000, a figure that could change once the Region completes the design process.
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