Downtown: What's old is new again
Revitalization plans have been around (and consistent) for decades
Saturday, Jul 19, 2014 06:00 am
Strolling along St. Anne Street on a busy farmers’ market Saturday might give the appearance of a busy, thriving Perron District for St. Albert.
But downtown is still a work in progress and has been for decades.
Items from the 2010 version of the downtown area redevelopment plan have slowly been getting into gear, as design work gets underway this year to realign St. Anne Street. Construction could start next year if funds are approved in the 2015 budget.
After that, the next logical step would be implementing improvements to Millennium Park, says Carol Bergum, the city’s director of planning and development.
St. Albert has launched redevelopment plans before. Consultant reports and plans going all the way back to the 1970s call for similar attributes as the 2010 iteration: pedestrian-friendly, mixed use, multi-family housing, parkades, civic space, support and expand downtown retail.
“At the same time, the existing core will have a definite and valid function which we suggest as a ‘civic core’ of the community encompassing a range of civic and commercial uses serving a segment of the town and acting as a social focus for the community,” reads a consultant’s report from 1974, proposing plans for the town’s centre area between Sir Winston Churchill Avenue and the Sturgeon River.
“The central area of St. Albert has long been recognized for redevelopment as the social and economic focus of the community,” reads the general municipal plan of 1980.
“The city core can create an attractive centre that will help spark a renewed attitude of investment confidence through the creation of a ‘people place’ for activities and events,” says a consultant’s report from 1989 on downtown redevelopment.
The downtown area redevelopment plan approved in 1990 was updated a few times, but that bylaw was finally repealed and replaced in 2010.
The 2010 version noted continued rapid growth on St. Albert’s fringes.
“In this context, downtown will need to continue to evolve as a complete community and play an increasingly important role as a civic, cultural and commercial hub,” the current version of DARP says.
What should be in that civic, cultural and commercial hub that all the plans have called for?
“The City Centre area of St. Albert is vastly underutilized. The development potential of the area has not gone unnoticed; however, as the area has a colourful history of imaginative designs proposed for the area varying from ideas which infer that St. Albert fashion future development in the core area in the image or (sic) a resort town with sailboats cruising the Sturgeon River, to somewhat less imposing proposals for low density office space surrounded in surface parking,” says a city centre area redevelopment plan technical report from the early 1980s.
Fanciful resort town vision aside, the plans and consultant reports and proposals nearly all call for amenities like civic and cultural institutions, a large civic space for gathering, parking structures and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks to encourage people to shop and wander downtown.
“What surprised me (about the old plans) is the same concepts and premises kept coming forward. And the reason is they are good, solid planning principles to make a downtown successful,” Bergum said, adding that St. Albert is fortunate to have an already-interesting downtown core, in part due to past efforts to revitalize the downtown. For instance, St. Albert Place gives home to the kind of civic and cultural touchstones that are considered key to downtowns.
Public and private
The city owns land in the core, something both Bergum and the early 1980s technical report suggest could help guide development in the Perron District.
“It gives us more control and more ability to set the stage for what gets developed there,” Bergum said.
Publicly funded projects – like the realignment of St. Anne Street, or the development of St. Albert Place throughout the 1970s – help create private investment in the long run, she says.
“That really demonstrates the public commitment to downtown and its revitalization and generally in most downtowns, that’s what happened first,” she said of public investment. “It is those sorts of things that then in turn attract a lot of private investment.”
Currently, property developer Amacon is planning extensive redevelopment to its Grandin mall site, and Bergum said other developers are also expressing some interest in potential projects downtown.
Downtown areas often make up only a small percentage of a municipality’s total land, Bergum said, but can bring in proportionally larger revenue, sometimes up to 10 to 15 times as much, she said.
City centre cores are often are really good value for public investment that’s going to leverage private investment, said Glenn Miller, vice president of education and research for the Canadian Urban Institute.
“A downtown typically represents a very small proportion of the total area of the municipality but delivers proportionally more revenue than most other neighbourhoods and that’s because that’s where the city hall is, that’s where the main shopping street is, and if you can, through a long-term plan, if you can create a critical mass of different activities, that’s going to support that,” Miller said.
The Canadian Urban Institute has done two reports compiling case studies of downtowns across Canada.
Miller said cities often want to revitalize their cores because it’s linked to the community’s identity.
In the institute’s reports, Miller says they note “persistence is a key attribute” when it comes to municipalities pursuing redevelopment.
He pointed to Sudbury, Ont., as a community that tried for years to successfully revitalize.
“They’ve been trying to redevelop their downtown for 30 years. I think they finally got the formula right, and it is a formula, you can’t be prescriptive, there is no one answer. But as a result of this constant effort to renew and maintain interest in the downtown, they were able to attract the first new architecture school in Ontario, and the first one ever in northern Ontario, so they now have a school of architecture right downtown,” Miller said.
After the school moved in, restaurants and retail got a bump. Now there are two student residences downtown, helping create a critical mass.
“If you a have reason for a bunch of people to come downtown every day to actually live downtown and be there, you start to create the conditions for other things.”
Sometimes it can take a few tries for cities to find success.
“I think it’s always a matter of timing. We talk about collaborative leadership and you’ve got to have the stars aligned in some respects,” Miller said.
Importance of planning
In its research, the Canadian Urban Institute has looked at cities that appeared poised on the brink of success – only to have a recession hit, or some other factor pull the rug out.
“Sometimes it could just be the plan isn’t bold enough, or putting its emphasis in the wrong place,” he said.
While things have improved for downtown cores, Miller said, it was back in the 1970s when attention started to be paid to a shifting dynamic.
Retail dollars were starting to shift to suburban shopping malls. So many communities’ solutions were to put in downtown shopping malls, which was a mistake, Miller said.
“From a practical point of view, that has actually been a bit of a disaster because downtown malls are inward looking and they take people off the streets which is exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve. One of the best indicators of a successful downtown is the number of people on the street,” Miller said.
But more recent attempts across the country are starting to gel.
“What we’ve found is generally speaking across the country is downtowns are doing pretty well again,” Miller said.
And having a plan in place means the municipality could take advantage when opportunities come along, like in 2008 when the federal government started handing out stimulus funds to shovel-ready programs.
The institute has developed five different lenses to evaluate how a downtown is performing.
The first is vision. Is there a plan, Miller asked, and who’s responsible for the leadership? The institute has found that collaborations between the public and private sector see more success.
The second is visibility.
“Does downtown have an integral, central role?” Miller asked. “Downtown is typically how cities represent themselves to the outside world. That doesn’t always translate into support to council.”
The third is prosperity. Is the area attracting new residential, commercial and cultural developments?
The fourth is livability, which is about the vibrancy and connectedness of a downtown.
“One indicator is housing. Are people wanting to live downtown?” Miller asked.
The final lens is strategy. Is the city investing strategically in its future, Miller asked. He suggesting using data to look at how the downtown is performing.
For St. Albert, Bergum said, downtown is the heart of the city because of the public space and events that draw people to the area, which in turn creates shared memories throughout the community.
“That’s what helps to start cement the sense of belonging and the sense of place in a community.”