By Sean Meyer/London Community News
In the not so distant future, the SoHo District may just spearhead redevelopment of the Thames River, as well as the downtown, while becoming perhaps the most desirably locations in the city to live.
That was the feeling coming from not only members of city council and the administration, but also the community at large, during the meeting of the Planning and Environment Committee on Monday (Jan. 16). The committee’s discussions included a public participation meeting on the future development of the South Street hospital properties.
While options one and three involved, respectively, the demolition of all — or none — of the buildings that make up the former SoHo (South of Horton Street) landmark, most people agreed a compromise is the best choice. The option supported nearly unanimously will see the city attempt to save both the Warm Memorial Children’s Hospital and the so-called Colborne Street building, along with the north side entranceway to the main building facing South Street.
“This is probably going to be one of the premier places you are going to want to live. It is just at the gateway or entrance to the downtown. It reflects the SoHo character,” said Mayor Joe Fontana. “I think it is encouraging that there are a couple of buildings that are worth keeping and can be incorporated into a development. We want to see what that looks like.”
The mayor also said that between the $200 million project announced last week for the area near Wellington Street and the Thames River, and now for former hospital lands, “ We are talking in the neighbourhood of $300- $400 million worth of possible development along the South Street corridor.”
John Fleming, director of land use planning, said the project examines all the properties that make up the former South Street hospital, with the exception of the health services and nurses residence buildings, which are currently still occupied by London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC).
Preserving the War Memorial and Colborne buildings not only complies with the SoHo Community Improvement Plan, but also leads to a great many citywide opportunities.
“You can imagine the tax revenue that can come with this type of redevelopment, as well as the opportunity for revitalizing the remainder of the SoHo area,” Fleming said. “There is also great potential for boosting the population at the doorstep to downtown London, which will help us with our downtown revitalization program.”
Fleming said the option two supported by administration, and later expanded to include the main building’s north entrance, gives the market the best opportunity to find a potential adaptive use.
Councillors and members of the public alike agreed.
Mark Woodward, a SoHo area resident, said an informal poll of are residents supports the compromise option. “It is a very nice balance for allowing development in the area while maintaining a good stewardship of our heritage and remembering what London is in the health care spectrum of Canada.”
Ward 1 councillor and planning committee chair Bud Polhill also agreed, adding the recommendation is a good step forward. However, there remains work to be done before the two buildings, and the entranceway, are completely safe.
“There are some nice buildings there, but what they showed us tonight is they aren’t in as good as shape as they look from the street. As I said to Joe (Fontana), they are nice from far, but far from nice,” Polhill said. “(They are) great old buildings, they look great, but when you get up there and take a real close look at it, it is going to be expensive to renovate.”
That being said, Polhill said there is no reason to assume they can’t be saved should the right opportunity be found.
“I think there are people out there who can redevelop that area and include those buildings. There are a lot of people who are very innovative,” Polhill said. “If you look at the Delta Hotel, that is a typical example of what can happen if you put your mind to it and you incorporate the old with the new.”
One question still on the horizon involves the time frame of finding those adaptive uses. Currently, the staff recommendation involves mothballing the two buildings for up to two years as the search for proposals continues.
That could cost the city an undetermined amount of money — approximately $2,200 per month for the two buildings was one estimate — on top of the $3.2 million the city is contributing to the demolition of the existing buildings. The province and LHSC have committed to the majority of the demolition costs.
And although the city would have to look at installing a new boiler in the Colborne building, Fontana said that shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle.
“Mothballing a building for a year or two, in the whole scheme of things, might be a few $100,000,” Fontana said. “But when you are going to develop a neighbourhood with those kinds of opportunities, we are talking millions in new taxes and assessment and the revitalization of a community that is going to be incredible.”