By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
At one time in history, a city’s downtown was its residential core.
But as urban sprawl and suburban development gained steam in the 1950s and 1960s, large populations began to move away from the traditional downtowns as borders of municipalities began to grow.
However, across the Greater Toronto Area, that trend is beginning to reverse and is expected to gain steam in Oshawa over the next few decades.
Kyle Benham, the city’s director of economic development, said the shift represents an ideology of “jobs following people.”
Particularly with millennials, Benham says more people are looking to live in the downtown core of municipalities.
Contributing factors to this include walkability, ease of access to transit services, and lifestyle amenities, such as restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.
“If you take those three attributes – it’s here in downtown Oshawa. That’s what the labour force is looking for,” Benham explains
According to him, Oshawa’s downtown is on the cusp of a population boom, with 6,000 to 8,000 new residents expected to move into the city’s internal core over the next 10 to 15 years.
So where exactly are these people going to live?
There are currently a number of major residential developments in the works for the downtown area, all in different stages of progress.
70 King Street East
The site of the historic Genosha Hotel has been primed for redevelopment for decades. However, current owner Richard Summers has moved further than any other previous attempts. His vision includes 86 apartments and ground floor commercial space.
80 Bond Street East
Construction on the 375-unit, 21-storey building, to also include 622 sq. m. of ground floor retail space, is anticipated to begin this year.
157-163 Athol Street East
This nine-storey, 185-unit apartment building, is under construction and intended to be marketed to students.
35, 39, 45 Division Street
Located near the Durham Regional Courthouse, this planned 11-storey, 8,640 sq. m. condo building is expected to include 100 units.
73 Ontario Street
This project features two 18-storey residential towers representing 630 units. In addition, there will be 566 square metres of commercial space.
135 Bruce Street
Last but not least is this massive development project, which calls for 2,145 apartment units and 96 townhouses, as well as office and retail ground floor spaces on the former Fittings Limited lands. The incorporated buildings will range from between three to 18 storeys tall.
While these new developments will eventually dominate Oshawa’s downtown skyline. several historic downtown buildings will be getting upgrades as well.
6-18 King Street, known colloquially as the Lovell Drugs Building, is in the midst of being revitalized.
In total, more than 17,000 sq. ft. in the 140-year old building will be redone.
The former location of Fazio’s Restaurant is under new ownership and is set to be converted into 20 apartments.
But as Benham points out, as the genesis of the downtown core unfolds, it is not just the buildings which will undergo a transformation.
Over the past few years, the city has implemented a number of programs to make downtown streets more attractive to those travelling by foot.
With the expected population gains, Benham says this is a key priority.
“We’re adding literally thousands of people, so what do we need to make it a functioning and working environment,” he said.
King Street, the major east-west street running through downtown, has received a lot of attention through a pilot project.
This project calls for the widening of sidewalks on King Street, between Ontario and Mary streets, in an effort to “make it more pedestrian-friendly,” Benham says, adding the King Street sidewalks were built “for a car-dominated society.”
This will also allow for more patio spaces, a feature notably lacking in Oshawa’s downtown area.
But with the widening of the sidewalks, some prime parking spots will be eliminated, something Benham expected “push back” from residents on.
However, to his surprise, he says “we really saw a significant proportion [of residents] would rather focus on people than cars,” he said.
“Jobs following people”
When looking at the commercial aspect of downtown, Benham says the future trends will not be retailed-focused.
While there will be retail businesses, he believes they will be more specialized.
There are currently about 5,500 people working in the downtown core, and with the increased residential base, that will continue to grow as well.
Benham says the Spark Centre has been a major success for fostering upcoming and start-up businesses.
The non-profit innovation centre recently moved to 2 Simcoe Street.
“It’s quite a robust program, and they’ve done quite well,” Benham notes.
It’s this type of success, and a growing number of companies looking for “tech space” in Oshawa and other communities, that has fuelled the fire behind the idea of a Durham Region Innovation Hub.
Last summer, the Durham Region Idea Summit Cabinet, a collaborative group including Durham College and other academic institutions, companies, and businesses, entrepreneurial service providers and municipal representatives, released the first phase of a feasibility study for such a hub.
The study identified downtown Oshawa as the preferred location, something Benham agrees with.
“Downtown Oshawa is where it has got to be,” he said.
And the city already has eyes on the former Canada Post building, located at 47 Simcoe Street South.
In February 2018, council passed a resolution asking Canada Post and the federal government to give Oshawa the first right of refusal should the crown agency look to sell the program.
At approximately 65,000 sq. ft., the size of the building lines up with what the feasibility study states would be needed to make a potential innovation hub sustainable.
Challenges on the way
With all this news, Benham said there are still some obstacles down the road.
The Lakeshore East GO extension, which includes the construction of a station in the downtown core, has been mired in uncertainty.
To him, because Oshawa has been focused on the revitalization of downtown for nearly a decade, the city is ahead of the game.
“If we had to start doing this now, we’d be in trouble,” he comments.
Last but not least, while the impending closure of the General Motors plant will hurt, Benham told the city’s development services committee earlier this year the company plays a “much smaller role” in Oshawa’s economy than in the past.
In the past 10 years, GM’s local workforce has diminished from 8,300 to 2,500, now representing 3.6 per cent of the city’s total employment.
As the situation has put a great deal of national and international focus on Oshawa, Benham says the city now has a chance to shed its reputation as a “single-sector economy.”
“We’ve done so much in terms of diversifying [Oshawa’s] economy,” he said.