Civics lesson: where we live reflects who we are


We went out for pizza last week with a couple of friends. The conversation was lively and it made me realize how much I miss passionate discussion here.

One of our topics was the neighbouring town, St. Stephen, which has a very distinct culture. As residents there know, one of the biggest challenges they face is revitalizing their downtown. So they’ve decided to locate their new civic centre (rink, pool and meeting area) in the downtown core. But there’s still public argument, not only about the choice of location, but also about its affordability.

As the town’s development manager for a while, I was a part of the initial idea, so I have some opinions that matter. At first there was no civic centre agenda. There was only a plan to enlarge the Border Arena. That plan landed on my desk and I asked two questions: 1) is that the best place for an arena? And 2) have you ever considered a civic centre? The answers were unclear, so the town manager, mayor (Bob Brown) and I took it to the people.

It was not an empty exercise. There were no foregone conclusions, no magic plans, no fancy drawings of new buildings. Nor was it aimed at 10 or 20 people. The first meeting attracted over 200 people and we talked not just about an arena-civic centre but the future of the town itself. People were concerned. And perhaps the most powerful presentation was a slide show of photographs showing the town in 1960 and comparing that to what it looks like today. The change over 50 years was shocking. Where solid brick storefronts once stood, large parking lots now sit empty. Where once there were streets densely packed with shops and pedestrians there are now just cars speeding by. So what happened?

St. Stephen, like most other towns and cities across North America has been demolished for the automobile, or to be more exact, for box stores and parking lots. An entire pedestrian culture has been erased and lives on only in museum-piece communities such as the nearby town of St. Andrews.

Much of the new development over the last half-century has been suburban, fueled by cheap gas. For a town like St. Stephen that’s added another negative dimension: the loss of property tax dollars as citizens and businesses migrate out of town, leaving town administrators short of cash. And that shortage breeds another reaction: in-town development at any cost. To raise tax dollars, town planners and politicians, desperate for cash, allow developers to put up anything that fills an empty space. So in St. Stephen we see town management sell off a beautiful little waterfront park that was donated to the town to accommodate a giant vinyl clad retirement apartment complex. To say that this is an aesthetic travesty is an understatement.

As to the civic centre, the people, not the town administrators, decided to go for it. But that’s where it began to fall off the rails. A small group of people took control with a mission to use the new civic centre to rebuild the downtown area. From the beginning the site selection process was skewed to that mission.

While a civic centre is a great asset to attract new businesses to the region, it is essentially another box store, albeit one designed for recreation. As such it requires lots of parking space and encourages an “in-out” user pattern, where people drive in to use the complex and get back in their cars and drive home. Studies of other communities would verify this, had the time been taken. The QPlex, a wonderful suburban facility in Quispamsis, is a good example.

What downtown areas need, as pioneer urban advocate Jane Jacobs pointed out, is a high density of small shops and diverse activity. Building a downtown is more like building a culture than building structures. St. Stephen has already tried the big box approach to revitalizing its downtown. It has a reconverted chocolate factory (now a Service New Brunswick office) and a big main-street post office, as well as a tourist information centre and a chocolate museum, none of which has created the hoped-for downtown renaissance. Nor will the new civic centre.

The only visionary development that I have seen here that relates a blossoming of downtown culture is Diane Ganong’s new Bistro restaurant. Now all it needs is to add a dozen more, and to find the customers to support them (no easy task in a depressed, ugly town).

There’s no stopping the civic centre now. Or undoing the loss of the small park. Or replacing lost downtown buildings. So, what can be done? Two simple ideas: invoke a strict heritage building design code and stop the use of vinyl and aluminum cladding immediately. And no more destroying old buildings.

What about development? It’s been over seven years since I was there. Expand the town limits now. You need the tax dollars. And the town is sitting on the busiest border crossing in Atlantic Canada. Big secret development word of the day: transportation. It’s time to get the lead out, folks.


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