Redesigning Stratford's Market Square

By far the most discouraging thing about living in Stratford is that it is a city full of potential. Of course potential shouldn't be discouraging, however, convincing locals of this opportunity, let alone gathering the gumption to take advantage of the city's assets, can be a mind-numbing and laborious process.

Take for instance Market Square - Stratford is blessed with what could be a magnificent space surrounded by great shops in distinct heritage buildings; yet, instead of being a place where citizens can congregate and chat, Market Square is a parking lot.

Historically Market Square was a place of congregation and not just in the fashion it is today. Yes while there was parking - namely for horse and buggies using the Market Building (City Hall) - but the square was also the location of the farmer's market, the city's early fairs and the site of other civic celebrations. 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 gossip.

This is the history and energy the City Centre Committee has recently been trying to reintroduce with a number of visioning sessions aimed at redesigning Market Square. Thus far there have been two meetings facilitated by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, involving a vast cross-section of city residents.

Of course there isn't much of an argument 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 park 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.

What was nice about the visioning sessions is that everybody seemed to agree they'd like to see the square as a place for people; it was just overcoming the issue of the buses. On this front traffic engineer Nick Poulos was very informative. Basically stating that if the buses were even moved a block, say to the Cooper site or Erie Street Parking lot, transit rider ship would suffer. Thus any new design must take into account of keeping the bus terminal on the square.

Of course this makes total sense - after all, the key is making the square the meeting place of the city's citizens and having the buses using the space as a terminal would only add to that dimension. In fact, redesigning the square into a public space could only make transit even more attractive, as the transit terminal would be a public park, 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 2000 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 will benefit transit rider ship.

An ideal design of the square is shown in adjacent, which extends the square past the current centre median to provide a public square, while bringing the buses in along Wellington and Downie Streets. Street access and parking is still present along the streetscape of the south-end of Market Square. In this design 50 spots would be lost in the redesigning of the square, hardly a great loss 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, 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 over 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.