The changing face of downtown Barrie

By J.T. McVeigh

This isn’t your mother’s downtown.

After years of watching the city grow up around it, downtown Barrie is getting a face-lift past councils could only dream about. The downtown core has slowly moved away from a Victorian-era commercial strip to an era of 20-storey condos, convertible sidewalks, a major concert hall and convention centre and, once again, the possibility of a hotel.

At a recent council meeting, final approval was given to rezone Five Points land in order to build a 20-storey mixed-use building in downtown Barrie. Along with the project site plan and development conditions, council endorsed, in principle, the facility design for the W. A. Fisher Auditorium and Events Centre and heard a presentation updating improvements to Dunlop Street that includes developing a convertible sidewalk, better lighting and improved pedestrian movement and flexibility for summer features. Those kind of changes have been a long time coming and for one very good reason – economics.

Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman, who grew up in the city, has seen the challenges faced by downtown Barrie and knows why this area is now considered prime.

“The reason for that was, traditionally, unless you had a view of the water, concrete construction didn’t pay,” he said. “You couldn’t build here and get the kind of condo sale value or the rental rates to make construction viable until after the 1960’s, then different economics took over. So, really, if you look around Barrie, very little multi-storey anything got built anywhere. Now that has changed because prices spiked in the last three years and that has made it all the way through the real estate market.”

A number of different scenarios have been put forward for the area. Ten years ago, there was a vision for downtown that said if the city just revitalizes the commercial area by improving its appearance, it would be enough.

“I think the realization, over the last 10 years, has changed, that it is not going to be enough,” says Lehman. “You can’t just try to improve the appearance of the commercial area and assume that it will drive enough people to the downtown, that it will create the activities that will help it be safe and thriving. So our philosophy changed to say you need a bunch of different components. You have culture that said lets have more events and event spaces down here. So we have the outdoor band shell that is being built at Memorial Square, the Five Points Theatre, we are talking about Fisher Hall because that will drive tourism. That’s the economic driver for downtown.”

So, the face of downtown Barrie will be changing.

Central Collegiate is coming down but there is a possibility of a new concert hall and convention centre. The Lakeview Dairy site, which has been a vacant for thirty years, now has a site-plan application and there is a proposed hotel for Dunlop Street and Mulcaster.

“Respectfully, to the councils of the day, when downtown was really struggling there was a willingness to just accept anything,” Lehman said. “What we should do now is say we are willing to consider much more dense development, but the design has to be very high quality.”

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