News   Sep 20, 2019
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News   Sep 20, 2019
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Sonja Bata plans to rebuild Batawa

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unimaginative2

Guest
Mrs. Bata cobbles a new town
Shoemaker matriarch returns to her roots to revitalize former factory town of Batawa
GORDON PITTS

In 1946, a newlywed architecture student from Zurich, named Sonja Bata, first gazed on the farmer's fields in Eastern Ontario where she and her new husband would build their lives after the Second World War.

Sixty years later, Mrs. Bata, almost 80 and matriarch of global shoe giant Bata Ltd., has extraordinary plans for those fields -- 1,500 acres of land, with an abandoned shoe factory, that she owns around the former company town of Batawa.

When Mrs. Bata surveys this site 90 minutes east of Toronto, she dreams of condos in the old factory, hundreds of houses in tasteful modern styles, large parks, a retail destination, and homes for retired farmers and refugees from the city.

"We have big plans but we have to find out what the market will absorb," says Mrs. Bata, who last year bought the factory and land from Bata Ltd., which had closed the 60-year-old plant in 1999.

That closing, a huge economic blow to the area, meant the breakup of an industrial complex where more than 1,200 people once made shoes. It was where a young Mrs. Bata joined her husband Thomas and 100 of his Czech shoemakers, who were rebuilding the Bata family business in Canada after the Nazis had stormed through Czechoslovakia in 1939.

But today, the shoe industry has largely departed Canada for the Third World, and old plants must be torn down or converted to other uses.

Mrs. Bata's mission reflects both an obligation to the community bearing the family name, and a labour of love for a former architectural student who has never practised her craft.

"I still have an image of architectural purity. Today, you go to the suburbs and you have that fake stone and fake brick -- it's horrible," Mrs. Bata says.

Mrs. Bata lives in Toronto now, although she and her 91-year-old husband Thomas still have a home at Batawa.

She does not dream of building faux French chateaux or English country houses, but of creating interesting, modern and affordable dwellings that align comfortably with the natural surroundings of forest and fields.

"That's the fun I will have with it" she says, flashing her trademark glittering smile.

If she gets her way, she will pull off one of Canada's most ambitious brownfield conversions, as well as establish a model for bottom-up municipal planning with input from local citizens.

The project is still in its formative stages but no one discounts the iron will of Sonja Bata, who has been a force in her family business, and spearheaded the landmark Bata Shoe Museum in downtown Toronto.

She said other family members -- the Batas have four children -- insisted it would be mad to tackle a shoe museum. But she was determined to prove them wrong and to put it on a secure financial footing. "They warned me it was a liability and that Batawa is a liability."

It would be easy to conclude that Mrs. Bata got a sweetheart deal on the property because she is a prominent player in the family shoe company. Yet, she maintains, "they gave me a lousy price on the land. There was no haggling because they had an offer, and I said I would match the offer." She won't discuss the price. "I write this off, because if I were to calculate it, I would get very upset."

Yet others see the two senior Batas as implicit collaborators. "She and Mr. Bata still have a bit of a heart for the area," says Bob Lockwood, a councillor for the nearby village of Frankford in the municipality of Quinte West. "She told me they want to do something for the area before they leave this earth."

Mrs. Bata expects the development to ultimately make money, "but probably not during my lifetime." She admits that, as an intensely personal project, it will be more costly than the normal subdivision.

More than making money, she gets excited about the planning process. She enlisted her prominent architect friend Eberhard Zeidler to help prepare the first drawings.

"When I phoned Eb -- he is my age, he said: 'Is this a labour of love?' and I said 'yes, it is.' "

She likes nothing better than to roll out blueprints, and talk about building styles that fit into the environment, maintenance-free construction materials, and dwellings that sit back from the roads.

But she insists she will rely on the advice of people in the Batawa area. The village, once a collection of hastily constructed wartime homes, is now an attractive neighbourhood of more than 100 individually owned homes, located off the main highway. A number of the original Czech families still live there.

"Unless people are participating, they are not going to maintain it," Mrs. Bata says. "I think the people must feel, 'This is my town.' "

At a town hall meeting this past spring, Mrs. Bata unveiled plans to develop the land and tear down the factory, but some local people suggested she convert the factory into condos. They said retired farmers would prefer apartments in their own community, rather than moving away to larger centres.

So now the five-storey factory is rezoned residential and Mrs. Bata is talking to several potential partners in the condo project, one of which is doing a market survey. Up to 75 apartments could be built, and she expects single-family houses could follow in stages according to market demand.

In addition, she is looking to develop land for retail, recreation and industry. Part of the former Bata complex is already occupied by an auto parts plant owned by Linamar Corp. Also, there are plans to improve a small ski hill, located on her land but run by volunteers.

Less certain are Batawa's prospects for snaring a proposed municipal recreation centre for Quinte West. Mrs. Bata offered to donate land to put the centre in Batawa, but decisions have been deferred until after local elections this fall. Some members of council prefer the much larger town of Trenton as a site.

Meanwhile Quinte West is grappling with upgrading Batawa's water and sewage systems, including the addition of water meters, which were never required during its history as a company town.

Mrs. Bata continues to pour her passion and money into the area where as a 20-year-old, she first came to live in a small bungalow. "Maybe the development will be a little bit more expensive than if we just did it for financial reasons, but I think we will succeed."

gpitts@globeandmail.com
 
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adma

Guest
At a town hall meeting this past spring, Mrs. Bata unveiled plans to develop the land and tear down the factory, but some local people suggested she convert the factory into condos. They said retired farmers would prefer apartments in their own community, rather than moving away to larger centres.

So now the five-storey factory is rezoned residential and Mrs. Bata is talking to several potential partners in the condo project, one of which is doing a market survey. Up to 75 apartments could be built, and she expects single-family houses could follow in stages according to market demand.
One very strong recommendation I'd offer is that in addition to the Bata factory being retained, it be restored to something like its original appearance and integrity. Those old Bata factories are like flypaper to Docomomo types and modern-heritage buffs, and I don't know how deeply the community (or even Sonja Bata, given how she assented to the demolition of Toronto's Bata HQ) realizes the value in that.

A restored/residentially rehabilitated Bata plant could draw a lot of admiration far and wide. To schlock it up through "historical detailing" or extreme-makeover defeats the point of retention--even if it makes it more superficially "saleable". And given the increasing mass viability of of "loft style" living and aesthetics (especially if handled by the right design/restoration experts), the original-as-built "Bata factory aesthetic" might, in 2006, not be such a turnoff as assumed...
 
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samsonyuen

Guest
It sounds interesting. I'm not sure how desireable the area is though...
 
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unimaginative2

Guest
There's pretty significant demand for homes in places like Port Credit and Cobourg. It's not even a bad commute to, say, Markham.
 
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Brighter Hell

Guest
^Batawa is another 60 km beyond Cobourg. Trenton and Belleville are both nearby they haven't been growing at all from what I can tell.
 
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spmarshall

Guest
Belleville's growing, but very slowly. Though all the big boxes spread out along Bell Blvd in the last few years make the growth look much greater.

I'd hope that Batawa stays well outside the regular Toronto commute zone, though for a telecommuter who needs to go to Toronto 1-2 times a week, it might be attractive enough.
 
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spmarshall

Guest
There's pretty significant demand for homes in places like Port Credit and Cobourg. It's not even a bad commute to, say, Markham.
I'm sure you mean Port Hope! Yeah, thouse areas are growing much more. Both are quite a bit closer and bigger, and both have their charms.
 
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adma

Guest
Although Trenton/Belleville probably suffer from too "workaday" a perception. Almost like choosing Miami over Miami Beach...
 
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Antiloop33rpm

Guest
I could very easily see in say, 20 years time, Belleville and Trenton becoming a popular place for people to move to and invest in. Once a dedicated passenger rail corridor is built between Montreal and Toronto a person living in Belleville could find themselves at Union Station in probably a little over an hour (no fancy service would be needed, just solid regional trains that do not have to wait around 30 minutes to let freight pass).

Many small towns along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence do have potential. Belleville has a lot of industrial grit that if restored and developed could act as a catalyst. And many of the neighborhoods built between the 20's and 60's have a 'workaday' charm to them, even if some have seen better days.

The big hurdle that those two cities face (and places like Cornwall and Brockville further up the 401) is they are not centers of economic activity (there is enough that they are not fading and little more). Nor do they have strong political and cultural roots that they can exploit.

If you want to see the kind of potential these places do have I would suggest looking at Kingston. I know I have knocked the city many times before (with good reason) but just in the past few years it seems to have turned a corner. While there is not a lot of new construction (although there do seem to be more starts each year) there is a good deal of investment in renovation and restoration and the city looks better than I can certainly remember.

I am not sure if Batawa will succeed or not. But I would not be surprised if these kinds of projects taking place in smaller cities and towns beyond the usual commuting circle become more common place.
 
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Citywriter

Guest
It would have been nice if Mrs. Bata's nostalgia had extended to the Bata headquarters on Wynford, which she helped City Council okay for demolition.
 
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tudararms

Guest
I've always thought that the core of Kingston is one of the most beautiful urban areas in Ontario, at least in terms of heritage architecture, waterfront and beautiful parks. Also, apparantly Prince Edward county, which is the hinterland of Belleville, Trenton and Picton etc., is quite the up and coming place for people in the city who are looking for a retreat.
 
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interchange42

Guest
Please stop mentioning Prince Edward County. I've found it, and it's mine. Everyone keep out! Beware of dog! Trespassers will be prosecuted!

Of course, I may throw some parties, in which case most of you are invited.

42
 
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spmarshall

Guest
Please stop mentioning Prince Edward County. I've found it, and it's mine. Everyone keep out! Beware of dog! Trespassers will be prosecuted!
That bridge in Belleville, it crosses into the US. Please have proof of citizenship ready. Everybody knows there's nothing south of Highway 2 east of Toronto.

Though if you took over PEC, you could close the 49 and 62 bridges, and restrict access via the Glenora Ferry and the drawbridge on 33. Then you could keep everyone out quite well.
 
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cdl42

Guest
You do that. I'll sneak in down Regional Road 64 from Brighton. And smuggle in booze or something. Or a two-four if it's a party. We can decare independence from Ontario and create the new province of Prince Edward Island. Or something like that.
 
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Ed007Toronto

Guest
Please stop mentioning Prince Edward County. I've found it, and it's mine. Everyone keep out! Beware of dog! Trespassers will be prosecuted!
We used to go to Sandbanks a lot when I was a kid. I always thought we were in Prince Edward Island. If I was a cottage type of person I'd buy here before up north in a heartbeat.
 
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