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Elmira patio is only a short-term solution, with plenty of issues to address long-term

In approving the closure of a portion of Elmira’s Mill Street again this summer, Woolwich councillors touched on some of the key points, including a balance between helping some businesses while inconveniencing others and the need to improve the aesthetics this time around.

From the lane closure on Arthur Street to the unkempt portion of the fenced off area, the patio erected last summer was downright ugly, as councillors duly noted last week.

What they skipped, however, was some measure of perspective in assessing how the patio fits into the downtown landscape. Leaving aside the issue of the inconvenience to motorists and some of the nearby businesses, the big-picture complaint is “why bother?”

Certainly the location is horrible. It perhaps works on a temporary basis for the neighbouring restaurant, but that’s about it. Immediately adjacent to a busy regional road that sees plenty of traffic, the Mill Street intersection is never going to be a good place for a patio. Well, at least until there’s a bypass route that removes 90 per cent of the traffic from Arthur Street. And there’s some significant improvements in the core, from the architecture to the mix of offerings downtown.

Any mention of the likes of Elora or even St. Jacobs in conjunction to Elmira, as was the case at last week’s council meeting, is misguided at best. There simply is no comparison, in large part due to the main artery running right through Elmira’s core. Such comparisons evoke previous efforts to imagine Elmira as a tourist destination when study after study showed the town is a service centre for the surrounding area.

Elmira’s traffic, layout and less-than-ideal architecture combine to ensure it’s not a destination location.

A number of studies have mapped out some ideal changes, but the township isn’t in the business of acquiring real estate or helping to launch new ventures, unlike some larger municipalities (often with mixed or poor results).

Ideally, there would be the development of a cohesive vision for the core, a strategy to provide what the public wants in order to attract people downtown. That could include longer hours and marketing expertise to make stores more in line with the expectations of today’s customers. In the bigger picture, that would mean attracting the kinds of businesses that bring people in and entice them to linger, such as outdoor cafés to play up the downtown’s advantages in the better weather.

The township and its BIA have recognized an opportunity presented by a growing Elmira. Many of the new homes – current and future – are within walking distance of the core; the goal now is to give them a reason to walk, and stop, downtown.

Over the years, Woolwich has completed a few core review for Elmira, and has undertaken zoning changes to tweak the development options downtown. Much of the emphasis, not surprisingly, has been on the retail portion of downtown business. Such thinking dominates municipal planning schemes just about everywhere. Under pressure today from big-box retail, much as they were from the malls in previous generations, downtowns are having to cope with change. That doesn’t always sit well with core retailers.

Attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, including trees, green spaces, flowers, benches and trails and amenities such as restaurants are what residents want from their downtowns. Studies have highlighted those demands. While council can create an appropriate environment, it’s up to property owners to make the changes demanded by the public.

The township and BIA have plans for some changes, particularly under a new community improvement plan (CIP), which introduces a host of new financial incentives designed to open up a raft of new funding for businesses in the core looking to make material improvements to their buildings.

Potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars will be on offer for Elmira’s downtown businesses interested in renovating and upgrading their storefronts, either through grants or loans for work such as façade improvements, sign replacements and public art installations.

More than just an exercise, the CIP is a legal requirement that gives the township real power to provide grants and loans to businesses in Elmira. The CIP allows the BIA to reinvest that money back into member businesses to improve the community.

It’s a worthy initiative, but we’ll have to see what comes of it. As it stands, it makes little sense for an individual property owner to act alone, as it will take a coordinated effort to make any substantive change to the look of the downtown core. That’s a project that will include major overhauls of some not particularly attractive buildings, and a move away from a simple strip along Arthur Street, even if a bypass route is built in any useful timeframe. The township has taken steps to in theory extend the core to the likes of Memorial Avenue, but there’s been little rush to capitalize on that concept.

There have been a few apartment buildings constructed near the core – and plans for more – bringing more people within walking distance of downtown. Thus far, that prompted much in the way of change. In making a case for such projects, developers talk about the need for forms of housing aside from single-family homes, particularly in relation to seniors looking to downsize but stay in Elmira. That’s in keeping with the focus on walkable communities and mixed-use and compact neighbourhoods, though we’ve heard far more talk of this in the region, the province and the country than we’ve actually seen delivered.

Clearly, the more utopian arguments come from those who’ve visited Europe, where densities are higher and people live within an easy walk or bike ride of most of the amenities of daily living. Because most communities developed before the advent of the automobile, they’re very much people-centric as opposed to the car-centered towns and cities of North America. No one development or even a few is not going to change that.

This is not Europe, where people actually do walk and cycle as a means of transportation, not just recreation. Public transit is convenient and well used. In short, the antithesis of how we do things here. Living there, you can quite easily do without a car. That’s not true anywhere in the region, let alone in Woolwich.

Leaving aside the inconceivable, the kinds of outdoor spaces and town squares ubiquitous in Europe would be delightful, but that takes more than some traffic cones and makeshift fencing.

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