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Latest Elmira core review only useful if changes are implemented

Already undertaking yet another review of the Elmira core, the township last week adding a streetscaping component to the study. The consultant carrying out the work will get another $15,000 to help with a much-needed refreshing of the downtown, the idea being to have a plan in place ahead of the regional governments’ reconstruction of Arthur Street.

It’s the latest attempt to help boost the core – a number of studies have been carried out over the years, with mixed results. It’s a worthwhile exercise, 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 per se. In spending upwards of $65,000, 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.

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.

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 as of yet.

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 stores along Arthur Street, for instance.

The downtown cores of most cities are struggling, often left to decay as suburban sprawl and the big malls drew people away. Even where the retail and office uses have remained fairly strong, the downtowns suffer from the exodus that occurs nightly at 5 p.m. The key, urban planners now say, is to have people living downtown, providing a sense of community and vibrancy.

That’s not a large part of past and present plans for Elmira, though there are more people living within walking distance, though that’s thus far not been reflected in practice.

A bypass route that would take through traffic, particularly trucks, off of Arthur Street and through, say, an industrial area on the east side of town would do wonders.

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.

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 studied the core area, 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.

Beyond shopping, 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. But while the township can favour such things, and even promote them, it’s in no position to make the changes demanded by the public. Creating a plan is easy. Implementing it is the hard part, as we’ve seen many time to date.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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