Pier Review

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTOS David Whittaker, unless otherwise noted

Thunder Bay has historically relied upon natural resource-based activities to ensure its success but it can no longer depend on such a limited source of income in today’s global economy. Fortunately, mid-sized cities like Thunder Bay recognize the need to remain competitive with other similar-sized urban areas by seeking to attract diverse cultural, social and economic drivers to ensure its future liveability. The recent $130-million transformation of Thunder Bay’s waterfront represents an important milestone for that city to invest in, fostering year-round mixed-use and recreational activities in this critical region adjacent to the historic downtown. Located in northwestern Ontario, Thunder Bay (pop. 123,000) began as a French fur-trading post in the late 17th century. Over time, it became an important transportation hub, processing grain, timber and various raw materials arriving from western Canada and moving on through the Great Lakes system and Saint Lawrence Seaway. A relatively stagnant economy combined with a declining historic centre signalled the need to draw upon Thunder Bay’s geographic and cultural strengths and rethink its waterfront and industrial lands, thereby repositioning its downtown and improving the city’s future prospects. This resulted in the creation of Prince Arthur’s Landing, a project that involved the complete transformation of three piers and the construction of a Spirit Garden on the natural promontory adjacent to the piers.

In January 2006, Thunder Bay’s City Council supported the findings for a new mixed-use destination to the east of Water Street along the Lake Superior shoreline that would eventually include cultural, recreational, office, retail, hotel and residential uses. By December 2011, Prince Arthur’s Landing had officially opened. As the client and overseer of the land that was sold off to private developers, the City remained supportive of the consultant team and design evolution, despite a change of mayors halfway through the process and occasional squelchers who felt that the money dedicated to this strategically located project should have been spent elsewhere. Fortunately, the budgets weren’t unduly cut, thereby ensuring high-quality detailing and materiality throughout. “It was a leap of faith in some ways,” notes principal Calvin Brook of Toronto-based architecture and urban design firm Brook McIlroy, adding that “They trusted the architects.” Clearly, that trust is what led to the creation of a pedestrian-oriented park connected to the downtown that is as equally active in the winter as in the summer. The project was a significant one for Brook McIlroy–an office of 22 people who, for the past five years, has had roughly one-third of its staff dedicated to the project. The firm maintains a small office in Thunder Bay and has been retained to continue their work in the city by preparing urban design guidelines for the revitalization of the downtown. Additionally, since the project opened, there has been renewed interest in the waterfront as acultural destination–one possibility being the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, an institution which contains one of the world’s finest collections of contemporary Aboriginal art.

Prince Arthur’s Landing is a $130-million public-private development in which the private sector contributed 50 percent of the funds that will eventually see a new hotel and two residential buildings constructed on the site. The federal and provincial governments provided roughly $30 million in stimulus spending with the remaining funds coming from the City of Thunder Bay. The total budget for the public sector works was close to $60 million and includes basic infrastructure, shoreline and parks development. The City essentially leveraged the entire waterfront development with around $22 million of its own funds. Part of the rationale for Prince Arthur’s Landing was to make it a central project linking the downtown to the shoreline and other destinations along a 52-kilometre section of Lake Superior waterfront. Another major component was the critical and early step of transforming a private gated marina on the site into a 276-slip public marina. Perhaps the greatest overseer along Thunder Bay’s waterfront is Nanabijou, the ever-important geographic and spiritual backdrop that is in constant view from the city. A significant figure in Ojibway legend, Nanabijou–also known as the Sleeping Giant–is a natural land formation located on an island to the east of the city that resembles a large reclining human figure. The Sleeping Giant is an important icon for the city, perhaps a symbol of optimism and hope.

From the outset, the City believed that Prince Arthur’s Landing should integrate public art wherever possible, placing a high priority on new public amenities and attractions. The mandate was also to promote connections to Lake Superior, Aboriginal culture, and the city’s shipping and rail history. Expanding the activities in the park included boating, numerous public outdoor festivals, a skating rink, splash pad, children’s boating area, and improved shopping.

The new buildings and infrastructure elements throughout Prince Arthur’s Landing include three existing buildings that were adapted for reuse: the CN Station, the Market Building and the Baggage Building. The 8,000-square-foot Water Garden Pavilion is completely new, as is the Pond Pavilion which was built to support waterfront activities such as cycling, canoeing, kayaking and children’s paddleboat rentals. A new skateboard park, market square and waterfront plaza complement the site.

Led by Brook McIlroy associate Rajko Jakovic, the Water Garden Pavilion is a public building that provides support services for some of the Landing’s outdoor activities–notably skating in the winter and a splash pad during the summer. Skaters can enjoy an outdoor fireplace and a full-service restaurant that will spill out onto the patio during the warmer season, allowing patrons the luxury of panoramic views of Lake Superior and the Sleeping Giant. Inside, the building’s Mariner’s Hall is designed with glulam beams that form the top chord of a series of inverted king trusses intended to echo the shape of a ship’s hull–one of the many metaphorical references to water and shipping found across the site. The popularity of the skating rink adjacent to the Water Garden Pavilion is evidenced by the roughly 750 skaters who came to use the space when it first opened in December–a number that was more than an entire winter season’s worth of visitors to the waterfront in past years.

The Baggage Building Arts Centre was originally constructed in the early 1900s, and has now been expanded with a new two-storey addition that includes exhibition and teaching spaces, artisan studios and retail. The studios house activities that include painting, printmaking, pottery, jewelry design, video art production and other media. A second-floor mezzanine space overlooks other double-height interior spaces, offering an enriched spatial dynamic. Using a complementary material palette of timber and glass for the new arts centre, project architect Judy Sanz-Sole connected the historic Baggage Building–a former freight-handling building–to the CN Railway Station, thereby establishing a strong image for a facility that will successfully anchor a gateway leading from the downtown at Red River Road to the waterfront once the pedestrian crossing is complete.

One of the most dramatic elements of Prince Arthur’s Landing is the Spirit Garden, a section of the park that operates as an outdoor performance area–which is intended to not only honour the Aboriginal peoples of Lake Superior but to attract as many locals to the area as possible in order to learn and apprec
iate local First Nations culture that is intrinsically linked to this landscape. The Aboriginal population comprises roughly 8 percent of the City of Thunder Bay–a proportionately similar figure to the larger urban centres of Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina. The fact that Thunder Bay has such a large Aboriginal population whose culture remains largely uncelebrated was a concern for the city, so the Spirit Garden was intended to address this shortcoming. As part of the Brook McIlroy team, recent University of Manitoba architecture graduate Ryan Gorrie was instrumental in developing the Spirit Garden, a huge benefit to the project given the fact that he not only grew up in Thunder Bay, but is of Aboriginal descent.

The Spirit Garden includes an open-air pavilion known as the Gathering Circle, a fire circle, a medicine garden, and a living shoreline–all of which represent an effort to naturalize the existing shoreline and heighten visitors’ connection with the water. The garden elements become even more pronounced at night, especially in the Gathering Circle, which is defined by a number of large bentwood “shrouds” made from young spruce trusses covered with cedar strips. Built by George Price of the Fort William First Nation, the shrouds reflect light that is cast upon the Gathering Circle, forming an evocative park icon. At the base of the structure, a number of sketches inspired by the region were drawn by the late Anishinabe artist Roy Thomas and his son Randy. The sketches were translated into electronic drawing files and then digitally fabricated into a series of laser-cut weathering steel plates through the assistance of the younger Thomas. Lakehead University will be using the Gathering Circle as part of their Aboriginal teaching program, and inmates from a regional medium-security prison (70 percent are of Aboriginal descent) will help maintain the Gathering Circle and medicine garden over time. The idea of a “living shoreline” extends across the Landing with landscaped elements between the three piers designed to enhance visitors’ connection to the shoreline. Examples include large blocks of granite and natural stone which are used for seating, visual relief, and to protect the shoreline from erosion. Other techniques to rehabilitate the landscape include adequate stormwater management and rolled-up burlap “logs” to help promote plant growth.

The public art program for Prince Arthur’s Landing incorporated a number of text-based installations, producing stunning works like Jiigew, two 70-foot-tall structures made of Cor-Ten steel located on Piers 1 and 3. Brook McIlroy collaborated with Karen Shanski and Eduardo Aquino of the Winnipeg-based design firm spmb. The two beacons are programmed with an LED lighting system that spells out Ojibway poetry through the use of Morse code. In fact, poetry and prose can be found throughout the site to promote the many cultural threads that define the region. 

Redeveloping any waterfront inevitably requires an understanding of what is necessary in formulating a successful model of economic development pertaining to water-based tourism. Already, there are numerous Aboriginal-based businesses offering tours of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Isle Royale National Park, and hunting and fishing trips to the Lake Nipigon region. Many small regional airlines operate out of Thunder Bay–some of which fly float planes that can transport customers from the nearby Thunder Bay Water Aerodrome situated to the north of Prince Arthur’s Landing. Certainly, all of these tourist-based industries can benefit from a recognizable urban design construct to help synthesize and enhance Thunder Bay’s unique identity and sense of place. Prince Arthur’s Landing is now such a place, providing an effective expression of the region through the acknowledgement of local history and Native cultures while leading Thunder Bay into the future. CA