Heart attack

Peter Ferguson



Been to Venice lately? It’s a glorious collection of antique buildings, the playground of tourists and the rich, with an invisible underclass of servant workers who can’t afford to live there. It’s no longer a real place, just a destination.


Been to Collingwood lately? Same thing, only no canals. Literally and figuratively, the heart of Collingwood is dying, too.


Its physical heart is the downtown core, a block away from Georgian Bay, ranging two blocks wide along three blocks of the north-south main drag, Hurontario St.


A few years ago, council allowed Loblaws to destroy the main northwest block where Hurontario meets Highway 26. Everyone going from town to ski hill and back passes it on two sides. And what is it? A parking lot with a mall warehouse, its backside turned to the three surrounding streets. Street life? None. Traffic? Way too much. An asset? No, just one-sixth of downtown turned into a hole in the heart.


The waterfront is Collingwood’s primary asset and with the shipyards gone Hurontario should be able to extend right up to parks and public facilities there. But what has the town negotiated? Right at the apex of downtown, another void: private walks, private shops, private condos. Oh, and some parachuted-in fake-Victorian suburban housing, too. A heartbreaking loss of opportunity.


Recently the local library hired Kohn Shnier Architects, a nationally-renowned firm producing exemplary neomodern designs, to replace its building, and the firm developed one of its admirably crisp schemes. Then the town purchased a new site near the middle of downtown. In its so-called “Heritage District,” unfortunately. And everything went sideways.


Maybe the elders of Collingwood are unfamiliar with the “Bilbao effect.” A few years ago that Spanish city, suffering economic decline, decided, as too many of us have, that tourism was the answer. It got the Guggenheim Museum to establish a branch there, and got the architect Frank Gehry to design it as outlandishly as he might. He did, it worked, people came from all over the world and Bilbao burgeoned again.


Now everyone’s trying for the effect: do a great modern public building and your town will feel a lot better. Gehry’s giving the Art Gallery of Ontario a huge sweeping glass visor on the street, and Daniel Libeskind has sold the Royal Ontario Museum his (Note to legal: Can I call this a lie? Legal: Better not.) story that the carbuncle addition he designed for it was based on its own crystal collection when in fact he’d recently been doing some American museums just like it. But it’s working. The AGO, the ROM and Toronto have all got big buzz right now. Well, in Southern Ontario anyway.


But Collingwood threw away its chance. Kohn Shnier suffered the death of a thousand cuts as their work was parsed and eviscerated by bureaucrats and citizens whose vision for the future was nothing but an inchoate vision of the past. A fake past. So the architects walked. Opportunity lost again, and another wound to the heart.


Finally, at the south edge of downtown, council has just rescinded a previous administration’s decision to permit a six-storey housing development. Bad enough that council is just flailing around, but over what? Six storeys? Come on, that’s nothing. Vibrant downtowns depend on a critical mass of both people and built structure. A real downtown should loom over its neighbourhood. Hurontario is way too wide for its low-rise edges to be able to provide a convivial outdoor promenade space. The walls should rise, and the sidewalks widen. Then the street could start to pulse.


So in four places the physical heart of the town is damaged: the northwest corner’s a mall, north end waterside features are lost, the central library is destined to be a mediocre “heritage” pastiche, and a strong southern urban move is in danger of being homogenized.


But that’s just the physical heart of the town failing. Collingwood councils, supposed to be the social heart of their town, have let Loblaws ride roughshod over them, let the shipyards development get away with provision of minuscule civic benefit, let fake-heritage zealots drive away an artwork bound to raise the town’s profile, and let think-small advocates stand in the way of creating a vigorous downtown core. All in a continuing atmosphere of bumbling acrimony.


If I lived in Collingwood, I’d be heartsick. And I might want to have a little heart-to-heart with my councillors. And I might want to get a heartless with them.