The former Weyerhaeuser mill site may be the key to addressing the current housing shortage in West Nipissing, and equally promising to creating recreational opportunities and commercial development. A vision for the site was revealed to WN Council on April 18th by Paul Hicks and Michelle Blom of Republic Urbanism, consultants and urban planners, who have been studying potential uses for the land.
The 28 acres were purchased by the municipality for $156,000 on December 23, 2020. Local developer Stuart Seville was instrumental in making the deal possible when, in August of 2020, he contacted Weyerhaeuser officials concerning the abandoned brownfield which he considered prime riverfront land in the middle of town. Stirring up new interest and a positive response from the former owner, he worked out a starting price and turned negotiations over to town CAO Jay Barbeau to finalize the deal. Soon after, Republic Urbanism was contracted to conduct public consultations and develop a plan for the old mill site.
Michelle Blom, resident urban planner with Republic, walked council through the strategy and implementation plan, explaining that it was “a four-phase process that began with establishing the site’s potential.” The firm conducted a background analysis of the site and the surrounding community, with public input to determine what people wanted to see at the site. “For us, throughout the whole process, especially through the public consultation and public input and the background analysis, it became very clear that the story of the former mill site intertwines the rich historical, cultural and natural tapestry of West Nipissing… In terms of the site itself, it was clear to us that the site is a symbol of history for the community, of its industrial history and also natural history, but also a chance for a new beginning, as one residents put it… a chance for a step forward and an example for change as the community moves forward into the future.”
Topping the wish list for residents were parkland and recreational uses, trail systems, and a mix of affordable housing for seniors and others. Also desired was commercial property, especially for lands adjacent to highway 17. “The development of the former mill site will re-establish a strong connection between the community and the Sturgeon River through the creation of a vibrant riverfront park and mixed-use urban space, providing new opportunities for recreation and economic growth. [It] will breathe new life into these culturally and historically significant lands,” said Blom.
The development team established six goals: to develop a strong connection to the Sturgeon River; to provide a range of housing options; to develop something to celebrate the town’s historical, ecological and industrial heritage; to make sure the development is sustainable; to promote local entrepreneurship and business development; and to ensure a catalyst for private development and investment. Blom said the acquisition of the land by the municipality presented a huge opportunity to develop an experience along the river using a riverfront loop with multi-use pathways. These trails would “connect the riverfront to the surrounding community, to the downtown, and to the western lands of Sturgeon Falls… Surrounding this multi-use trail would be a … naturalized community park, which would provide viewpoints along the river, resting points, and really provide this access to nature that people might experience… really bring it into the community and into the downtown… Our team proposes creating the larger area as the Falls District as a way to promote economic development, attraction of tourism, and housing opportunities along the site… The land use plan really stems off of the riverfront park idea.”
The plan includes a proposal to develop highway commercial along Hwy 17, as well as a smaller area for urban commercial away from the heavy traffic of Hwy 17, oriented to face units in a newly created neighbourhood. The proposed residential units “could be low to mid-density residential units… focusing on access to parkland.” Finally, there would be the West Nipissing Power Generation lands, “which of course are an existing industrial use. But the land use strategy outlines that the lands will be moderate, extended to really allow for adequate space for future and existing operations to make sure WN Power Generation can continue to perform to its maximum capacity.”
The final concept shows a road layout, the multi-use trail network layout, and a land-use development plan with affordability and accessibility in mind. Blom included photos of different types of townhouses and multi-family residences. The plan also recommends being selective about the types of commerce going in, “to ensure their success and really give opportunities for smaller format retail for local businesses and community-centric spaces.” There was also space for large format retail “for that high traffic corridor that can really draw people in… similar to the existing highway commercial that is located along Hwy. 17, but making sure that with architectural detailing and landscaping the historical importance and cultural importance of the site can be maintained… to create a gateway development to get people not just to stop on Hwy. 17, but to really be pulled into the site and enjoy the site as well.”
The parkland area would not only have the naturalized trails, but include “activities for potentially 4-seasons; active transport, cycling, walking – there could be potential for safe viewing platforms along the riverfront, and also just allowing people to have a little bit more access to nature … for existing residents and visitors alike.”