Cobourg waterfront renaissance
Aug 16, 2005 by Vince Versace, Staff Writer, Northumberland News
COBOURG - From seafaring ships to leisure yachts and from oil tank fields to upscale condominiums, Cobourg's main harbour is far from the industrial wasteland it once was and the future of its downtown is staked on this renaissance.
"My feeling concerning residential development in the waterfront area is that it will be the saving grace of our downtown," says Dean McCaughey, Town planning coordinator. "What is happening now is exactly what was planned in the (Cobourg harbour) secondary plan."
As the first phase of the Harbourwalk condominiums comes to an end, at the foot of Third Street where oil tanks once stood, the Town is processing other development plans for the waterfront area. There is Esplanade on the Wharf, an 18-unit condominium-commercial project on Division Street, south of Albert Street and a proposal for a convention centre on the former Quigley Pro Hardware site, across the street from Victoria Hall.
"The last thing we want is for the harbour area to become a residential enclave," says Mayor Peter Delanty. "However, the viability of our downtown is important. I think our waterfront is a true 'people place' and it still will be."
In 1987, Cobourg's centre harbour area was a far cry from the 'people place' Mayor Delanty now describes. The Town's harbour's secondary plan was being developed and then-Mayor Angus Read was in negotiations with both Imperial Oil and CN Rail to gain control of the main harbour lands area between Third and Division streets.
"The negotiations with the railway were tough because they kept changing who we were supposed to talk to and who was responsible for it," explains Mr. Read. "My vision was we were going to make that area parkland as far as I was concerned."
The Town's secondary plan calls for commercial links up from the centre harbour lands, along Third and Division streets, to King Street. Former Mayor Joan Chalovich, Cobourg's mayor from 1994 to 2000, says her council was cognizant of the secondary plan's vision.
"We knew the sightlines of Victoria Hall were important. We also realized we had to keep sufficient public access to the waterfront and sufficient buildings to generate tax revenue to cover your costs," says Ms. Chalovich. "The downtown was in a slump and before my time on council, a big issue was getting those oil tanks out of there."
By 1991, two of the last oil tanks closest to the shore were removed by massive cranes and loaded on a barge to be scrapped. There were a couple of oil tanks still left, further away from shore, but that did not deter the dawn of the area's first condominium development which some Town officials refer to as the 'Hoffman Years'.
"Similar to other Great Lakes communities, Cobourg today is literally returning to its waterfront for renewed economic stimulus but now in the form of residential and commercial development and emerging tourism industry," said James Hoffman in a submission at Redeveloping Brownfields, a 1998 international symposium.
Glenn McGlashon, Town planning services manager, says Mr. Hoffman had "guts" to try and develop in the harbour which was basically an industrial wasteland. The collaborative work between the Town, industries and Mr. Hoffman and the soil remediation work done made Cobourg a showcase example of waterfront regeneration, explains Mr. McGlashon.
"Mr. Hoffman was blazing new trail as he worked with us and was able to convince companies like MacAsphalt, CN Rail and Ultramar that their land was more valuable as residential," says Mr. Hoffman. "Everyone bought into the same goal."
Remediating the lands which contained petroleum, hydrocarbons and heavy metals was, "surprisingly the least difficult" thing to do, stated Mr. Hoffman. Land acquisition, meeting with area stakeholders, public disclosure and education of the environmental conditions of the lands and financial support for his project were much more difficult challenges, stated Mr. Hoffman in his symposium submission.
Mr. Read, mayor from 1985 to 1994, says his council was interested in what Mr. Hoffman proposed for the site. Ms. Chalovich and Coun. McCaughey were both impressed by Mr. Hoffman's remediation efforts using bio-remediation which involved tilling the soil with a mixture of fertilizer, moisture and soil. The developer's estimated cleanup costs were $2 million and Cobourg spent $3 million over three years, from 1995 to 1998, on roads, changing north-south links and installing imprinted asphalt in the area.
"He actually had one of his first buildings up right across the road from a still functioning Esso transfer station," says Mr. McGlashon. "He developed in phases, which explains why there is not a lot of consistency in the designs, as he worked towards his goal. He wanted to develop the entire harbour."
The size and number of units built by Mr. Hoffman varied because he built based on how much he could sell, resulting in approximately 90 units built. In 1997 Mr. Hoffman received approvals for another phase of development which resulted in the foundation of a building being built before he eventually pulled the plug due to finances.
Coun. McCaughey says Mr. Hoffman was a "bright guy" but a little ahead of his time. Ms. Chalovich says Mr. Hoffman was an intelligent developer, with a great plan but time and the economy conspired against him.
"It was not easy for James at the time. There was no condominium market outside of the direct GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the economy was not that strong at the time," says Ms. Chalovich. "Financially it proved difficult for him and in the end he got caught. It left us with an empty site which was disappointing."
The Hoffman Years, development wise, may have ended on a disappointing note but they did cause a positive change in Town planning, says Ms. Chalovich.
"Hoffman challenged our building and planning department," says Ms. Chalovich. "He was anxious to move forward and we were not ready to move as quickly. I think we grew a lot at the planning department at that time."
While this first waterfront condominium development slowly came to a halt, improvements to link the centre harbour area to Victoria Park and establish Cobourg's marina as a sailing destination were in the works. In 1989, work started on a new marina building which cost $526,000 and was covered by a provincial grant. The building was completed in 1991 with its two sets of change-rooms, so one could stay open while the other was cleaned. The new building placed Cobourg's marina on the map, says Wayne Deveau, former Town community services director.
"Boaters started saying it was the cleanest facility they had seen and it became highly touted in the lake boating system," says Mr. DeVeau.
Don Macklin, Cobourg marina manager from 1988 to 1993, says what also helped establish the marina's reputation was its focus on attracting tourists and providing a big welcome to boaters visiting Cobourg. Mr. Macklin had student volunteers dress up in period marine costumes when they worked at the marina during the summer.
"We wanted to make sure everyone loved Cobourg," says Mr. Macklin. "When you are out on that lake you can get pounded around pretty hard and nothing beats docking to a friendly smile and hello."
Improvements to the trailer park and the building of the waterfront walkway, from Division to Green streets, occurred in 1992 and came with a price tag of over $780,000. The walkway along the north wall of the harbour, heading west from Division Street , was completed soon after with the help of the Town, the Waterfront Regeneration Trust and the Rotary and Lions clubs.
"This year we are going to extend that walkway west and it will have information areas, in the west beach area, which will explain what is there," says Mayor Delanty.
Just north of the harbour wall walkway was the Diversey Water Technologies Plant, formerly known as Perolin Bird Archer. The company was in the process of closing its doors and Ms. Chalovich and her council entered into negotiations with the company to purchase the land.
"The shutting down of Diversey presented another opportunity for us in the centre harbour lands," says Ms. Chalovich.
In 2001 the Town finalized the purchase of the Diversey site for $2 but the remediation of the site carried a $1.5 million price tag. The cleaned up area now is home to the Rotary Harbourfront Park (left).
The rebirth of Cobourg's harbour was gaining notoriety not just among visiting boaters but internationally as well, says Mr. DeVeau.
"Once, after I spoke at world waterfront conference, I had calls from representatives of the Netherlands , England , Germany and Spain who wanted to come and see us. They were very pleased and impressed with the work we had done," says Mr. DeVeau.
The lack of execution of the West Harbour Plan, designed to deepen the west harbour, develop a walkway link to the area and improve its natural features, disappoints Mr. DeVeau.
"The approvals are in place for it. Developing that area by introducing plant and shrubs indigenous to the area would develop it as naturally possible," says Mr. DeVeau. "According to the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, if we ever completed that work we would have the most balanced harbour on Lake Ontario.
"Mayor Delanty says the plan has been effectively abandoned because it requires both federal and provincial funding to assist Cobourg in seeing the plan through.
"It is not do-able, financially, on our own," says Mayor Delanty.
What has been a priority for Cobourg is the gradual improvements to Victoria Park entrenching it further as the "jewel" of Cobourg. There was always a focus to "keep the jewel up" says Mr. DeVeau. Ms. Chalovich says the park has a made an incredible turnaround since 1993.
"When I was walking through there once I came across a family from Toronto. After a brief conversation they asked me what was wrong with the park since it was so empty. I will always remember that," says Ms. Chalovich.
Subsequent improvements to the mini-golf course, ongoing upgrades to the bandshell, the walkway through the park, installation of the new splash pad and the recently built Lions-Lioness Pavilion in the park have left the jewel shinning brighter than ever before, says Mayor Delanty.
"We cannot put anything else in Victoria Park. It is a jewel because we have not jammed everything we can in there," says Mayor Delanty. "I can see a council sometime in the future looking at moving the trailer park so that area can become an extension of the park."
The one constant threat to tarnish Cobourg's jewel is vandalism, which last year accounted for 20 per cent of the parks department budget in Victoria Park maintenance costs. Council this year approved the installation of 131 parking meters around the park and marina area to generate revenue to alleviate this financial pressure. Cobourg spent $1.3 million on park improvements between 2002 and 2004 and this year another $50,000 was earmarked for bandshell improvements.
Further condominium development means more people in the waterfront area and the increasing popularity of Victoria Park and its beach result in an added responsibility for the Town, says Mr. Read.
"The question is the controls you put in place after you build something. The park and the harbour are now more accessible but you need to police the area because people will abuse the area," says Mr. Read. "People need to realize we are going to face more growth and development."
A 1982 excavation project for a new sewer main at the lower end of Division Street uncovered the first timber crib placed for the original Division Street pier built in 1829. The find was significant because it demonstrates how far Lake Ontario once advanced into Cobourg before years of sand and low ground in-fill occurred. The find also demonstrates how reliant Cobourg's future was on the waterfront, says Mayor Delanty.
"It is amazing to see the transformation of the harbour and the entire waterfront," says Mayor Delanty. "From its early sailing days, to the romance of the two ferries and then the coal piles and oil drums, the change has been significant. Cobourg has been lucky enough and worked hard to make it a people place. I cannot think of another waterfront like ours on Lake Ontario. It is why people come to Cobourg."