There was a time in Stratford's past when Market Square was the city's meeting place. It was where the area's farmers came to sell their goods. The city's first fair took place there. And it was where public presentations and protests all took place. The square was a place of community engagement, a vital piece in the city's public realm, where citizens could share the day's news and indulge in a little gossip. Today Market Square is a tired asphalt surface where cars are much more welcome than the city's citizens.
There is not another city on this continent that has the opportunity we have with Market Square. In the centre of our city, behind our city hall, we have one of the greatest opportunities to create a public space where all citizens of Stratford can congregate. Many cities are breaking their municipal coffers to create exactly the same opportunity we already have.
Most would not disagree that the current state of Market Square is a blemish on the core of the city. However the debate over redesigning the square has always had two factions - on one side those who want a square and, on the other, transit users who don't want to lose their terminal space. These two divisions have polarized the debate for years, leaving the city's centre a heartless slab of asphalt.
With this in mind Stratford's City Centre Committee has over the past year engaged the community in an attempt to infuse the city's core with the life and energy it once knew. What has been nice about the committee's public process thus far has been that everybody seems to agree they'd like to see the square as a place for people. However, the issue of the buses had to be addressed.
On this front traffic engineer Nick Poulos has been very informative. Basically stating that if the buses were moved even a block, say to the Cooper site or Erie Street Parking lot, transit ridership would suffer. Thus any new design must keep the bus terminal on the square.
This, of course, makes total sense - after all, the idea is to make the square the meeting place of the city's citizens. Thus layering uses, such as a public square, a touch of parking and a transit terminal, would only add to the citizen dimension of the design.
In fact, redesigning the square into a public space could only make transit even more attractive, as the transit terminal would be a public square utilized by a vast array of citizens - from the lunchtime crowd, tourists, business folk chatting and local colour just hanging about - instead of the current stereotype of rowdy kids waiting for buses behind City Hall.
Now there is always the issue of parking downtown, however, Poulos pointed out that the city's most recent parking study showed a supply of 1152 spots in the downtown with a demand of 1085, thus there is a surplus of 67 spots. Now of course the demand has no doubt risen with the addition of the Studio Theatre, but what would you rather have at your city's heart - a parking lot, or a place where you can gather with friends and enjoy a conversation over a coffee? The trade-off between parking and a public square isn't all that great, especially when doing so could increase transit ridership.
An ideal design of the square is shown in the adjacent picture, which extends the square past the current centre median to provide a public square, while bringing the buses in along Wellington and Downie Streets. In this design transit would be retained and a public space would be gained. Street access and parking would still be present along the south side of Market Square, thus only 20 spots would be lost, which is hardly a great loss when considering what would be gained.
The options of what could be included in the new square are limitless - from bringing the farmers market back to square; erecting a fountain for summertime enjoyment and winter skating; or even, as was suggested, building a patio off the back of the second floor of City Hall to act as a stage for special events, such as concerts or the swearing in of public officials.
Whatever is included in the design of a new square will surely be a benefit to the city compared to what is currently there. But it's time to heal the riff between the two camps that have polarized this debate for so long. It's time to take advantage of the potential of Market Square and return the heart of the city back to its citizens.