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Monday, January 27, 2020
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Elmira core revitalization awaits private investment

Woolwich’s plan for a review of downtown Elmira has its merits, but only if leads to actual changes.

Ideas such as looking at zoning to encourage more retail or mixed uses, as opposed to office space, for instance, make sense, but don’t require a consultant. In spending upwards of $50,000, the township needs to see some actual movement on any changes that might come out of the process.

That’s something of a tall order, as many past studies of the core have recommended ways to improve the situation there, but to little avail.

The BIAs plan to improve the appearance of the core, particularly through façade upgrades, is a good one, but will rely on property owners being willing to spend money to make their buildings more attractive. Likewise, better streetscaping and other aesthetic measures will require money, both private and public.

Will such investments take place? That’s the great unknown, but critical if any expenditures on planning are going to pay off.

While the retail component in downtown Elmira has suffered over the years, the core’s prospects have improved with additional apartment-style housing in the area. The subdivisions on the west side also increase the number of people within easy reach of the downtown. That’s where a proposal such as an apartment close to the township hall also makes sense.

What’s missing is the kind of retail/commercial development that makes the core more vibrant, something unique that makes the place a draw. The changing nature of shopping, both the online and big-box kind, means the downtowns of every community face new challenges, ones that can’t be met head-to-head.

Creating a mixed-use core – residential, work spaces and unique retail, for instance – is an established goal, but one that isn’t always easy to achieve.

The overall goal is admirable. Compact, mixed-use communities modelled on the best of European examples would be ideal outcomes, countering the North American suburban expanse that’s been the norm for several decades. There’s a big if, however, as that remains something of a long shot. And it will involve investment that hasn’t been forthcoming.

There has been much talk about the need in Elmira for alternatives to single-family suburban homes, particularly for housing catering to an older population looking to get out of those big homes but remain in the community. A medium-density project that offered ground-floor retail, for example, fits the bill on many fronts.

Also key is walkability, ideally with the likes of medical services, restaurants and groceries within easy access.

The mix has its advantages. It’s easy to imagine a range of retail and services that would cater to those living in the building, making the location even more convenient and user-friendly. It would also harken back to an era when commercial buildings that lined the main street pretty much always included living space above – just take a look at the buildings along Arthur Street, for instance.

Of course, there are other steps to take in helping to preserve the downtown. A core review done a few years back looked at the requirements. Attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, including trees, green spaces, flowers, benches and trails and amenities such as restaurants are what residents want from their downtowns

To be sure, Elmira’s downtown is in much better shape than most in the area, but there is a need to be proactive. Having more people living downtown would set off a chain reaction, one certain to be welcomed by retailers and service providers.

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