Windsor signs long-sought 99-year lease for cool Gateway Park

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By Anne Jarvis

The Windsor Star

November, 2021

 

Windsor has landed a long-sought, 99-year lease for Gateway Park, the quirky, cool ribbon of green considered a key part of the transformation of the River West neighbourhood.

The agreement with the Detroit River Tunnel Company, to be announced Tuesday, became effective Nov. 9.

The long, narrow linear park in a cut on top of the rail tunnel between Wellington and Cameron avenues runs one kilometre from Riverside Drive to Wyandotte Street. The only parts that the city can’t use are two buildings. One, south of Riverside Drive, is owned by Canadian Pacific Railway and used for ventilation. The other is privately owned.

The DRTC, controlled by Canadian Pacific Railway, retains ownership of the land. It will pay the city $300,000 to help with maintenance. That includes one payment of $100,000 plus $20,000 a year for the next 10 years.

The city has committed $700,000 to revitalize the park. There will be no development on the land because the track underneath it, built by the Michigan Central Railway in 1910, is still used.

This has been a long time coming.

City council first approved a plan by its sister city Fujisawa, Japan for a Fujisawa Public Garden on the land in 1999. Windsor reached a temporary, five-year agreement a year later to use the property to clean it up. The Consulate-General of Japan planted 20 Japanese cherry trees in 2002 as a symbol of friendship.

The same year, local real estate agent Jack Renner led a visionary and civic-minded group of volunteers who maintained the park. They hauled out abandoned cars, cleared weeds, planted a garden at Riverside Drive, created a trail, installed benches and even roughed in a stage for an amphitheatre. They poured $1.2 million in donations of money, materials and labour into it.

But, five years later, the city couldn’t get a long-term lease or surface rights for the land. So everything stopped.

Garbage continued to be dumped there — mattresses, old furniture, tires. There were drugs. People experiencing homelessness camped there.

Most people forgot about the park, and those who remembered it didn’t feel safe using it.

The latest negotiations between the city and DRTC took almost three years. The agreement went back and forth between council and the company several times.

Now, Windsor has an opportunity to craft one of the most unique parks in the city.

When you descend the stairs to the park, the city falls away. The buildings disappear behind the cherry blossoms and the other trees along the embankments. The noise from the traffic above fades. You can hear the birds sing.

“It’s almost like you’re off somewhere in the county,” said Coun. Fabio Costante, whose west side ward borders Gateway.

“There’s a strong, genuine attachment to the space because of how unique the space is,” he said.

It’s a singular oasis running through a bleak stretch west of downtown. It’s also a critical part of the plan to resuscitate that stretch.

Gateway crosses University Avenue West, a main corridor connecting downtown to Sandwich and the University of Windsor’s two campuses. There are already plans to remake University Avenue, narrowing it from four lanes to two, adding green boulevards and protected bike lanes.

Two catalyst developments are also planned for that area. The $35-million Graffiti project at 1100 University Avenue West includes repurposing three long-vacant heritage buildings and construction of a 123-unit apartment building.

Fairmount Properties’ ambitious plan to transform the former Grace Hospital site at University and Crawford avenue includes a $100-million “mixed-use international village” with 400 to 500 housing units.

Council has also approved incentives for more development on University Avenue West and Wyandotte Street West.

“It’s important to see this as a piece of the entire transformation of River West,” said Costante, referring to the neighbourhood east of the University of Windsor.

A signature park would not only be part of the revitalization, it would connect that stretch to the riverfront.

“It’s connecting residents from the inner city to the riverfront in such a really cool way,” Costante said.

Downtown Coun. Rino Bortolin, whose ward also borders Gateway, compares it to Detroit’s popular Dequindre Cut, the former railway cut that takes pedestrians and cyclists from the river past Eastern Market.

There’s talk of paths, benches, lights, maybe public art, and a crosswalk to the riverfront. There’s already a landscaping plan. Mayor Drew Dilkens hopes the work can start next spring.

With the city’s $700,000 and the DRTC’s $300,000, “we can take what’s there and enhance it very nicely,” he said.