The Southside Hills is conspicuously quiet. Lots of people wonder why there isn’t more going on up there, like a neighbourhood, or stores and business. It seems like an obvious choice to many, as an alternative to sprawling suburbs and so-called ‘smart centres’, the likes of which have been condemned by urban planners everywhere. It’s a huge chunk of land that could possibly help to increase density in the downtown and vitalize the existing core of the city. It could also be a park, with marked lookouts and trails like Signal Hill. It’s close to everything, it has great views, and much of the hill is not too steep for practical building. But at the moment, the most prominent feature on the hill is a collection of rusty Irving Oil storage tanks.
With the exception of Shea Heights and Fort Amherst, why are the Southside Hills basically unoccupied?
I contacted the city if they could explain what the deal was, and they informed me that most of the land is crown land, owned by the province. But, in the 80s, a deal was signed between the province and a company named Sohilco (Southside HIlls Corporation) to give them what is known as ‘right of first refusal’, meaning roughly, if anything is to be done with the land, it will be done by Sohilco. The agreement affects an area of land bordered by Southside Road on the west, Blackhead Road at the south, Deadman’s Cove at the east and following the coastline all the way back along to Fort Amherst.
Over the years, Sohilco has had a few big ideas about developing the Hills. They were interested in engineer Tom Kierans’ ideas about excavating portions of the hills for underground infrastructure, storage and other industrial applications. He proposed underground sewage treatment for the city, with a pipe for sewage outfalls into Freshwater Bay, and a park with a road circling the high points at the top of the hill. Kierans is probably more well known for his proposal for the Rock Arena, the controversial “arena built into the hill” idea which came about at the time when the city was looking to build a new stadium. It was one of the more radically creative proposals this city has ever seen, but was eventually turned down.
Sohilco was still interested in the hill top park idea as recently as the late 90s and early 2000s, and was encouraged by the city to collaborate with the East Coast Trail Association, which was responsible for revitalizing the old trails that exist along the hill and south along the coast. These days, however, Sohilco lays dormant, and no development has progressed. Is it time to resurrect the discussion of what could become of the hills?
There are certainly environmental concerns. The marshland along the top behind the ridge out of view is recognised as being of environmental importance. There is already a lot of infrastructure built up to control the flow of water off the hill—If you’ve ever walked up the Fort Amherst East Coast Trail, you have seen the bridge and small dam, and the marshy ponds—and new developments would likely encroach on these vulnerable natural areas.
That said, it may be a perfect alternative to suburban sprawl, or a great tourist destination like Signal Hill. It could become a more important aspect of our city. For now though, the hills are just a blank canvas for our big ideas.