Having a plan is the easy part of downtown revitalization
Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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Having a plan is the easy part of downtown revitalization

The recently released Elmira core urban design study has plenty of useful ideas. The issue will be implementing them, and not just those destined to be non-starters (parking is always a sore spot).

The downtown could clearly benefit from better sidewalks, more greenery and park space. Such things are already in the plans for the upcoming reconstruction of Arthur Street, though it helps to have some kind of coordinated design plan.

The bigger problems are ones that can’t be addressed via landscaping and pedestrian-friendly tweaks, however.

Establishing a bypass route that would make Arthur Street a local road, not a highway, is a key move. And one very large hurdle that will take years and money from the region and senior governments to make happen.

The along-one-strip aspect of the same Arthur Street is also an impediment to creating the feeling of a real core area.

There also needs to be more reasons for people to be downtown, though admittedly improving the aesthetics would help.

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 faces 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 as of yet.

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. A number of apartment buildings have boosted the mix in the downtown, which is an advantage and an opportunity. It’s easy to imagine a range of retail and services that would cater to those living in those buildings, making a downtown location even more convenient and user-friendly.

Thus far, there’s been little movement to capitalize on the growing population adjacent to the core. Any hope of revitalizing the downtown ultimately depends on people making investments in the kind of businesses that entice people to come downtown and then to linger.

As discussed again this week at Woolwich council in relation to Waterloo region’s latest official plan review, walkability is another key, ideally with the likes of medical services, restaurants and groceries within easy access.

The so-called “15-minute community” – having daily amenities within that reach on foot or by bike – is still largely utopian, especially in every township settlement area not named Elmira, but a pedestrian focus is certainly ideal for core areas, though that’s easier said than done.

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 over the years 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.

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