Transforming St. Catharines’ Core with Centennial Gardens

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For years, when downtown St. Catharines was mentioned as the place to be, most people met it with the same reaction. Wrinkled noses, looks of confusion, laughter and sarcasm. You must have gotten lost.

Now, look at the place. Amazing new venues, (the Meridian Centre and the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre), restaurants popping UP faster than we are able to check out, Brock University’s downtown campus, and student residences bringing young people in droves. This is getting pretty exciting.

Grape & Wine just came to a close, showcasing our beloved Montebello park in all its beauty to the community and visitors alike.

Yet, if you want to go enjoy some green space downtown beyond Montebello, where can you go?

The same question was asked and answered recently in Toronto when Mayor John Tory announced an ambitious project of a new 21-acre downtown park:

“Great cities have great parks. As Toronto grows, we need to take bold action to create public space and make sure we build a city that makes future generations proud.”

Enter Centennial Gardens

It certainly makes me smile, because St. Catharines already has a park that fits the bill. Enter Centennial Gardens.

Just east of the lower valley of Brock University and Café Gatti starts 27 acres of historic parkland, home to the Secord Trail, 2 Welland Canals running through it, (1812 & 1875 respectively) and one of our greatest pieces of public art (a beautiful 50-year-old totem pole). It is also home to many of the less fortunate and, quite frankly, the type of people we pray for. The lost men and women that have slipped through the cracks of the system.

It is a public park that is underused, underappreciated and misunderstood. Yet, it’s future has never been brighter. A group of St. Catharines Disc Golf enthusiasts, myself included, are working tirelessly to breathe new life into St. Catharines’ Downtown Park and this could be a springboard to improve the surrounding community as well. Disc Golf is one of the fastest growing sports in North America, so it should come as no surprise that we have seen the number new visitors to the park hit over 4000 this summer. This is probably a low estimate, with a minimum of 30 people playing disc golf every day over the past 5 months. Some guys I’ve talked to will swear it is closer to 100 people on some days!

Over the past year, the park has been cleaned up tremendously — by its users! And the most beautiful thing is happening, despite the diversity of the people using the park, they are all getting along with one and another. Appreciation of the park has grown and the less fortunate who find themselves in the park are coming up to disc golfers constantly and telling us to keep up the good work.

The park has never looked better, all thanks to the power of sport and community. So why not adopt this similar principal to improve the community? Make this park a cornerstone for the Queenston Community that everyone can enjoy with investors imagining condo views overlooking an urban playground and businesses creating a space with an incomparable quality of lifestyle for their employees. Seriously.

Let’s make like Regent Park

It’s not dissimilar from what was going on in Toronto’s Regent Park. Canada’s largest and oldest social-housing development. Its green space was isolated which in turn allowed high levels of disrepair and crime. The neighborhood was separated from main streets which made policing difficult. Regent Park was the last place to take your kids. The community surrounding Centennial Gardens is similar to how Regent Park began — high crime, prostitution, drug dealing, abandoned buildings, and forgotten retail and restaurants.

Today, Regent Park has been undergoing a transformation, nearing the completion of Phase 3 of a 5-Phase plan that the city of Toronto put in place to attract investment, improving and making its green space accessible. Many of the projects-style housing has been razed and the green space courtyards have been opened up. Regent Park is beginning to see a revitalization and reconsideration, all thanks to highlighting and embracing everyone in the area, rather than gentrifying the neighborhood and replacing the current demographics. It is a diverse and exciting community. Regent Park is hip and happening for everyone.

What’s next for Centennial Gardens?

Let’s connect the community to the parklands with more entrances to increase accessibility. An entrance at the beginning of the park at Race Street and Geneva Street and a boardwalk under the Westchester bridge would allow the Merritt and Secord Trails to continue. By cutting the dangerous and dark overgrowth on Gale Crescent, people will be able to enjoy the views of the valley. The original Canal 1 (which should be a nationally recognized for its significance to our history) deserves improvements. Just think, next year is Canada’s 150 birthday.  Wouldn’t it be a perfect time to take the family for a winter skate or for an evening stroll with street lamp lighting?

Just imagine the excitement on the owner of the former General Hospital property’s face when he comes to decide what type of housing he wants to put into to the old building? The view of a beautifully landscaped park would greatly increase the property’s value, creating a draw for condos as opposed to low-cost housing. In turn, the properties on Gale Crescent, both residential and commercial, would also see an improvement in value.

And that improved accessibility I mentioned? Just being able to get to the park lands a bit easier would increase the community’s quality of living, with a “new” amenity in their own backyard and connections to our revitalized downtown. This community could be and should be a cultural destination for the younger demographic who is obsessed with getting great value out of their real estate.

The St. Catharines Disc Golf Club has taken the first steps to bring people of all ages, cultures and classes together through the power of sport to what was once the crown jewel of our region’s park system. Let’s celebrate this park again and get people excited to come to this part of the city again.

Garden City of St. Catharines. It is your turn.