City officials, local experts look at changing space and face of Barrie

By: Nikki Cole

‘Let’s be honest. In the past, Barrie was a poster child for urban sprawl with almost universally low-density residential and commercial forms of development,’ says mayor.

The City of Barrie has grown significantly in recent years, and officials are taking a closer look at how that growth has changed the space  and the face  of the municipality.

A panel of the city’s experts came together this week to discuss local growth through a variety of different lenses  including planning, economic, cultural, and social  to see how the city can better address the housing affordability crisis and better plan for the future.

“Anybody who knows the greater Golden Horseshoe knows we are forecast to grow, but the numbers are daunting,” Mayor Jeff Lehman said during an online event hosted this week by the Urban Land Institute.

Provincial projections have the city growing to 298,000 people by 2051, which he noted will more than double the current population. 

“Until this year, I would’ve doubted that forecast. I’d have told you that was an aggressive number, but COVID has changed many things, and one of those things is people’s perception of the future of work and how location of work is decoupling for people of certain industries,” Lehman said.

As the city has grown and changed, so too has the inequality within its limits, the mayor added.

“It’s not only about physical planning and buildings. Cities are a collection of individuals making choices about their life (and) the face of Barrie is very much changing,” Lehman said. “One of the challenges we have is to tackle the growing inequality that even COVID is throwing into sharp relief.

“The last year has shown us the difference in the social determinants of health between racialized neighbourhoods and non-racialized neighbourhoods, for example, is an issue in every Canadian city, including Barrie,” he added. 

Regional centre

Despite the view by some of Barrie as being a “bedroom community” to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Lehman said he has always had a vision of the city as being a regional centre to Simcoe County and northern York Region  similar to how Kitchener-Waterloo is for that part of southern Ontario.

“We have a goal of being a city where people can find good and fulfilling careers  not just jobs or a population serving employment, but an economy that’s unto itself and creates opportunities for our young people to stay, grow and learn,” Lehman said.

Events of the last few years have also shone a light on the need for the community to become a place where everyone feels at home, he added.

“That means tackling issues of social inequality, tackling issues like racism and poverty in our community,” Lehman said. 

The City of Barrie reached its boundaries approximately 10 years ago. Since then, officials have been planning the next stage for the community. That plan, acknowledged Lehman, is going to look very different than what the municipality has done in the past. 

“Let’s be honest. In the past, Barrie was a poster child for urban sprawl with almost universally low-density residential and commercial forms of development. We grew almost exclusively through intensification because very little greenfield land was left,” he said. 

Secondary development, he continued, is starting to begin and is expected to be different from what has been built in more recent years, having been modelled on the city’s older east end.

“As a mayor, you’re supposed to love all your children equally… you’re not supposed to have a favourite neighbourhood or restaurant, but for me it’s the older east end, (which is) more walkable and (has) more diversity of housing types.”

That diversity in housing options is key to becoming a city that people want to live in  and one they can actually afford to live in.

“We need a greater range of supply. It’s not just a supply of single, detached homes. It’s a shortage of the missing middle, low-rise apartments, townhouses, highrise apartments, supportive and social housing. We need that whole spectrum of additional supply if we are going to address the affordability issue.”

Growing up, not out

One way of doing that, Lehman noted, is to build up rather than out.

“We are starting to see a huge amount of height coming into our urban growth centre on a scale Barrie hasn’t experienced before,” he said. “Traditionally, the proforma for high-density development in Barrie really only worked if you had a water view… (but) that’s changing.”

The city is seeing a large increase in the number of highrise proposals, with 14 developments in the urban growth centre. Those developments would total more than 3,000 residential units and more than a quarter of a million square metres of commercial gross floor area. The highest tower would be 41 storeys. Currently, the tallest building in the city is 16 storeys.

“That is transformative,” said Lehman, acknowledging some people have pushed back against the proposals while others do see it as progress. “That is a dramatic change in built form and not without controversy, but it happens to be right at the heart of the community in the west end of our downtown.

“Many people don’t see the impact of density as positive; many see it as contributing to crime, traffic, etc, but it creates customers for shops and services in our historic downtown, which is key to the vision we have for the future,” the mayor added.

Addressing the crisis

It’s no secret that housing prices have gone through the roof over the last few years, but Barrie was in a housing crisis long before that, with the lowest percentage of rental properties and the highest percentage of ownership in the region.

Lehman says that’s due to how the city grew in the 1980s and ’90s. While that did create some strengths, it also created a severe affordability crisis when it comes to rent. Currently, a one-bedroom apartment in the city is only $100 less than that of a similar unit in the GTA, he noted.

A city’s growth needs to be about more than just the changing space. It needs to also be about the changing face of those who call it home. 

A mass exodus from large cities during the pandemic is also contributing to the city’s growth, and in turn, helping to change the face of Barrie to include a broader and more diverse population.

“It’s great to see we have people from many different backgrounds who are finding a bit of a community here that they want to be part of,” said Lehman, adding the city is taking more effort to ensure Barrie is a welcoming location for people of all backgrounds as it continues to grow.

“My elevator pitch for Barrie… was that both Bay Street and the dock (weren’t) far away. We are perfectly located halfway between the GTA and the recreational playground of Ontario of Muskoka and Georgian Bay… but I want us to be a community that has an elevator pitch that is stronger than just the location,” he explained.

Lehman said he wants it to also be about the people, organizations and networks that exist here.

“Whether we are growing a business, talking about communities and new Canadians arriving and choosing to raise their families here… we want them to find not only people that look like them, but also organizations that support their integration into our community and celebrate their own diverse backgrounds,” he said. 

Barrie’s got talent

Whether it’s growth in development or the economy, Barrie’s director of economic and creative development, Stephannie Schlichter, says it’s all relatable through an economic lens.

“Talent ties to everything in terms of entrepreneurs feeding the industry that’s here,” she said. “Everything is wrapped around, from tourism and who you target from that lens to how do we support from an inclusion perspective or how does our built form support those that need to be here and drive those from the different forms of talent we need.”

Creating a thread of inclusion between all members of the community is key, said Michèle Newton, president and co-founder of Making Change, an organization that focuses on raising awareness and educating and exposing people to the Black community, Black culture, and issues around anti-Black racism.

“All of the work we are doing is really working toward the inclusion puzzle and the thing about it is that it’s a new puzzle we each have to build together,” Newton said. “Each puzzle piece still looks different, there are different coloured ones, different shapes and sizes. … When one is missing, that puzzle is not complete.

“For everybody to be in a community where it’s growing and changing this face and place, each puzzle piece needs to be there for it to be the real future,” she added. 

Time to bridge the gap

Einstein once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, and Newton agreed.

“When you do the same thing… you should expect the same results which is no uptake from these diverse communities,” she said.

Through conversations with individuals, Newton says the consensus seems to be they don’t feel there’s been a thread that they’ve been able to latch on to.

“Something is missing. There’s a gap,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to fit into a place that’s already there, and a lot of us from marginalized communities don’t want to fit into something that’s already there.

“We want to build something new together.”

Lehman agreed. He said as planners they tend to talk about the fabric of communities in a very physical sense  public spaces, trails and transportation  but it actually goes beyond that. 

“One of the things confronting in our community… is so much of this tends to happen without the discussion among different communities,” he said. “When we talk about inclusion, it’s a classic problem. We do consultation and all too often we consult with the same people because the same people self-select.

“We need to go beyond that and there needs to be a conscious attempt to reach out to different communities,” Lehman added. “As we change and move forward… reaching that changing face requires some intentionality.”