Organic nature of urban redevelopment


The Hollywood Ranch Market was the centre of downtown Hollywood. I don’t know if it still is. But it was when I was there a long time ago. And as I recall it was open late, maybe even 24-7. It was the one place you could run into stars and starlets wearing shades at 3:00 a.m.

Here in St. Stephen, the town where I live, you don’t bump into starlets downtown. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at all on main street at 3:00 a.m. But that may change, because I understand that downtown rejuvenation is once again a top priority for the town.

I learned this when I bumped into an old acquaintance at the Scoops ice cream shop, which, along with the two pizza restaurants, seems to be the actual heart of our downtown. As we got our kids cones on a Sunday afternoon, he gave me his thoughts about urban renewal in St. Stephen, especially in light of the new, proposed civic centre, which is being planned for the downtown area. His idea was to knock down a lot of the unsightly old buildings to make way for the new.

His idea caught me by surprise. After all, I’d spent a year looking at downtown development, and had done a couple of public presentations on the decline of the main street, and an interest in urban redevelopment. In my view, the old buildings are not the problem, they’re the opportunity. If anything, there are too few old buildings remaining downtown.

The trouble with urban renewal is its complexity. If you’ve ever played Sim City (a computer game in which you build and manage your own city) you know exactly what I mean. If taxes are too high people move away and your town dies. Too few police stations, schools, hospitals, sports and recreational facilities, the same thing. And that’s just a game. Real life is much more difficult.

So, what are the complexities of this downtown, or any urban centre, for that matter? First, the centre has to have real resonance for people; it has to be a living, breathing place. One of the key indicators is food. Saint John, which has a good downtown (uptown), has a large indoor market at its centre. Like the Hollywood market, the Saint John market anchors all the other activities of the area. Another hallmark of a living downtown is walkability, and viable, locally-owned shops—shops as attractions and a source of entertainment. Well, St. Stephen is virtually unwalkable, and has a very low density of local shops.

The actual centre of St. Stephen is the new box store area around Kent, the Superstore, Sobey’s and Canadian Tire. Our walkable community happens inside, along the store aisles of box stores, or outside in the grim, expansive parking lots as we walk back to our cars. In most cases, there is no need to go downtown. Whatever isn’t available in box store land, is available across the river in the U.S. at Wal-Mart. It’s almost the perfect modern existence. So, why would we need or want a downtown?

Frankly, families with kids or old people don’t really need an urban downtown. They need to be able to park their cars close to handy shopping, buy stuff at the lowest prices possible, and go home. Sure, they may want and actually need a civic centre for fitness and recreation, but that doesn’t translate into a need for a downtown experience. So who does want or need a downtown?

Working professionals and young people seem to thrive in a downtown environment. Government workers, lawyers, artists, engineers, designers, bankers, all kinds of professionals work well in the downtown collective. Young people tend to enter the job market in downtown urban environments, a fact I always notice when visiting downtown Toronto, where few workers seem to be over the age of 40.

When I first visited the problem of redeveloping the downtown core of St. Stephen about 5 years ago, my first priority was looking at the potential for young people to participate in the downtown renewal experience. So what does one need to attract young people, I wondered. Well, the first thing would be to have an available pool of young people to begin with, which I think is a real challenge in the area. Most bright young people here seem to go away to college and never return.

The second thing is to have easy-entry opportunities for the young people who are interested. That means cheap rental space or real estate in high-traffic pedestrian areas. That’s a challenge in St. Stephen, where most of the real estate is owned by a few individuals, rents are not exactly dirt cheap, and pedestrian traffic is at an all time low. The situation in neighbouring St. Andrews is better relative to pedestrian traffic, but the high real estate costs pose a real barrier to entry for young people.

It’s no secret that shifting cultural values affect urban environments. Here in Charlotte County, we have an aging population. Aging retailers and business owners, most of whom have no pension plans, can’t afford to sell their businesses at rock bottom prices. Their nest eggs are tied up in their businesses, and most young people can’t afford to buy out those nest eggs.

Young people today are not the same as young people in the past. Today’s graduates have much higher professional aspirations, preferring good jobs in established corporations, or glamorous creative careers in big cities. Those who do migrate to small towns may have a difficult fit. Because old people are not the same either.

Old people are no longer old, for one thing. For another, they have a sense of entitlement that forms an unspoken barrier to entry. For example, when financially comfortable retirees move to waterfront homes and condos close to small downtown areas, the last thing they want is noise coming from busy youth bistros at 12:30 a.m. on a quiet summer night. But busy bistros are exactly what young people want, and healthy downtown cultures require.

Of course, a town like St. Stephen should be so lucky. It has neither affluent retirees living downtown, nor artsy bistro-going youth.

If there is any answer, it’s not in knocking down old buildings and building more expensive new ones. It’s in understanding the social and cultural elements required to build lively downtown areas.


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