Oshawa, which has seen its civic fortunes go up and down with Ontario's auto industry for the past century, is once again revving up for the future.
Over the past decade, the city has marked new milestones as several innovative pieces of institutional real estate have opened, bringing back life to the city core.
The downtown of this mid-sized city, about 60 kilometres east of Toronto along Lake Ontario, was hollowed out when powerhouse General Motors Canada and its suppliers moved to the outskirts or closed. A mall on the western edge of town shuttered many other downtown retailers several decades ago.
Oshawa was left with dozens of acres of brownfields – abandoned industrial sites, often contaminated and unusable until they undergo environmental remediation.
"The City of Oshawa actually took a very innovative approach to this: They saw the chessboard grid of the downtown and they started buying," said Glenn Miller, vice-president of education and research with the Toronto-based Canadian Urban Institute. "Over a seven- or eight-year period they remediated, sold and purchased additional sites so that they could be on centre ice."
And now, after several decades of struggling, the city's business district seems to be making a comeback. Lawyers and professors get lunch from trendy, world-cuisine restaurants, and there aren't enough parking spots to go around.
The key site in Oshawa's downtown revitalization is the Durham Consolidated Courthouse, which sits on a six-acre site acquired from General Motors and remediated at the city's expense. Due to a carefully structured financing program that included penalties for opening late and going over budget, the building, with 33 courtrooms, was finished in 2009 on time and on budget, and now brings about 1,600 people downtown every weekday.
Designed by WZMH Architects, the massive glass structure is easy on the eyes and on the environment, too. It won a Canadian Urban Institute award for brownfield redevelopment and the Green Building Award of Excellence from Architecture Canada for its clean, bright look and gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
"We felt that, architecturally, it was just a very beautiful building," said Teresa Coady, one of the jurors for the Architecture Canada award and president of Vancouver architectural firm B+H BuntingCoady. "A lot of times what we see in these sustainable buildings is a rather awkward response, but we felt that this one had managed to harmonize the aesthetic with the performance."
The courthouse is one of several large projects that Oshawa either built or strategically wooed. Downtown's multi-level parkade was completed on a brownfields site in 1991, when there wasn't much reason to park downtown. The city-owned General Motors Centre, completed in 2006, is an arena and entertainment venue that seats up to 7,600 and serves as home to the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals. And later this year Costco will open a downtown store – a rarity among big-box retailers – on another former GM site, also cleaned up by Oshawa.
But all planning aside, one other big win fell right into the city's lap: thousands of University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) students taking classes in the downtown's repurposed historic buildings.
In 2010 the eight-year-old university ran out of space on its north Oshawa campus and decided to move its faculty of education downtown. The following year, the faculty of social sciences and humanities moved into a century-old former T. Eaton Co. factory on Charles Street that had become a "sad, old building that looked like it was going to fall down," according to MaryLynn West-Moynes, UOIT's vice-president external relations. Post-renovation, however, with Wi-Fi and bright, open work spaces, it helped boost the university's downtown campus population to 2,200.
"Once the university made that commitment, and they came downtown to open the faculty of education, that's when it really started," said Oshawa Mayor John Henry, [adding that Trent University, headquartered in Peterborough, Ont., and Queen's University's medical school, located in Kingston, Ont., also run programs in his city.]"Students being downtown has brought student-oriented businesses downtown: Thai food, Italian food, coffee houses. The students have brought a real diversity to our downtown core and to our entire city."
The Urban Institute's Mr. Miller has seen this effect before.
"One of the things that we're noticing is that the post-secondary institutions, if they're not a silver bullet, they're at least a heck of a good way to bring an attractive youth segment downtown," he said, [citing Mississauga, Ont. and London, Ont. as prime examples]/note>.
For the UOIT's criminology, justice and policy students, being in downtown Oshawa is a great fit.
"The move of our faculty of social sciences and humanities was as much about space demand as it was about creating a living lab for our students," said Ms. West-Moynes, pointing out that many of the students might one day be working in the nearby courthouse or with the people who have to use it. "We've seen countless examples of how positive that can be."
What's more, students' positive effect on a community can be twofold. They live there and spend money there as students. Then, if the right job opportunities are present, they might stay on and live there as professionals, with more spending power and families to raise.
Those high-end jobs, requiring specialized, post-secondary degrees, are exactly what the city would like to see in the coming years.
"We're hoping that in five to 10 years you'll see some kind of high-tech industrial park [here]" Mr. Henry said.
For now, the car is still king in Oshawa, with automotive-related companies remaining the area's biggest employers. But with the new white-collar jobs and post-secondary institutions in town, the city is once again firing on all cylinders.
Oshawa facts and figures
Commercial vacancy rate in 2006
Commercial vacancy rate in 2012
The number of students downtown in 2012
The number of students expected to be downtown in 2015
Number of downtown restaurants in 2009
Number of downtown restaurants in 2012
Increase in pedestrians in the downtown from fall 2010 to 2011
Source: City of Oshawa