Good de­sign will help fix bro­ken down­town

Re­port cel­e­brates the po­ten­tial of city’s core, with its ‘sense of place’

Windsor Star - - OPINION - ANNE JARVIS ajarvis@post­ Twit­­star­jarvis

“Em­brace its grit­ti­ness and quirks,” urges the new, 200page re­port on fix­ing down­town.

The thing about this lat­est re­port, two years in the mak­ing, with 39 rec­om­men­da­tions, isn’t just the sheer mag­ni­tude of in­cen­tives to re­vive va­cant lots and build­ings, re­pair fa­cades, trans­form al­leys and even paint porches. It’s the wel­come, pro­gres­sive phi­los­o­phy. It un­der­stands the core.

It un­der­stands why down­town, the most dis­tinc­tive part of a city, is so im­por­tant. It gets that char­ac­ter is what makes the core strik­ing and invit­ing. And it shows why in­vest­ing in it is just smart. It cel­e­brates the po­ten­tial of Wind­sor’s down­town, with all its “grit­ti­ness and quirks.”

Sub­urbs, with their rows of snout houses and masses of big box stores, all look the same. You could be in Wind­sor or Lon­don or Hamil­ton ... But down­town — that’s the heart of a city. It’s where peo­ple live, work and play. It’s the cen­tre of civic and cul­tural life. It’s where a city’s char­ac­ter shines. Down­town is what vis­i­tors re­mem­ber.

That’s why down­town is im­por­tant. That’s why so many cities are in­vest­ing in their down­towns to re­verse decades of de­cline. The core is key to the vi­tal­ity of the en­tire city, to its abil­ity to grow its pop­u­la­tion and its econ­omy.

That char­ac­ter, that col­lec­tion of at­tributes, is what makes a down­town stand out. It gives it a “sense of place,” a phrase used through­out the re­port, an iden­tity and mean­ing. It’s like no other city. It’s ours. From the turn-of-the­cen­tury her­itage homes in small but lovely Old Town west of the aquatic cen­tre to the main street feel of Wyan­dotte with its di­verse, in­de­pen­dent busi­nesses sell­ing Mid­dle East­ern goods, no one else can du­pli­cate it. It has evolved over gen­er­a­tions and through his­tory.

That sense of place per­vades every as­pect of re­vi­tal­iz­ing the core, from get­ting peo­ple to live there to at­tract­ing busi­nesses. Get­ting more peo­ple to live down­town doesn’t mean build­ing more hous­ing.

“It’s about build­ing neigh­bour­hoods,” the re­port states.

Peo­ple used to go where jobs are. Now, in­creas­ingly, jobs fol­low peo­ple. And peo­ple are choos­ing qual­ity of life first.

What­ever we do to fix the core, the re­port states, we first have to un­der­stand its sense of place.

Good de­sign will pro­tect that sense of place, en­sur­ing that as the down­town evolves, the changes fit with the sur­round­ing area. De­sign guide­lines should en­sure that in the com­mer­cial core, the fronts of new build­ings face the street, main en­trances are at street level and build­ings on cor­ners and at T in­ter­sec­tions have en­hanced ar­chi­tec­ture and are built with high qual­ity ma­te­ri­als. No plas­tic signs! New build­ings near the houses in Old Town should have sloped roofs, porches and stoops, bay win­dows and dorm­ers.

Some­times, good de­sign changes the way peo­ple live. Streets make up the most pub­lic prop­erty down­town. It’s time to think of them not only as routes for cars but places to get around in all sorts of ways, even places to gather.

Slow­ing traf­fic makes streets more invit­ing for peo­ple. Streetscap­ing can en­cour­age them to linger. Streets can de­ter­mine what hap­pens around them — the kind of build­ings, the kind of ac­tiv­i­ties. And, states the re­port, “peo­ple are in­her­ently at­tracted to places that of­fer rich de­tail and in­ter­est­ing fea­tures.”

Re­fresh­ingly, the re­port ac­knowl­edges that lit­tle things mat­ter. It’s the bro­ken win­dow the­ory. If no one re­places a bro­ken win­dow, it looks like no one cares. So why should peo­ple care? One bro­ken win­dow leads to an­other. The lit­tle things add up.

Mil­lions of dol­lars have been in­vested in down­town over the last decade. But the streets are dirty, and dam­aged street lights haven’t been re­placed.

“Un­for­tu­nately,” the re­port states, “the un­ad­dressed lit­tle things de­tract from the pos­i­tive mes­sage.”

The re­verse is also true. You don’t al­ways have to spend mil­lions on a big at­trac­tion.

“The pos­i­tive im­pact of do­ing lots of lit­tle things right should not be un­der­es­ti­mated,” the re­port states.

Fi­nally, here are the num­bers that show in­vest­ing in down­town is plain smart. Wind­sor’s down­town makes up 1.5 per cent of the city’s area.

But it rep­re­sents 5.8 per cent of the city’s as­sess­ment. A big box store else­where gen­er­ates $58,728 per acre in an­nual prop­erty taxes. A man­u­fac­tur­ing plant gen­er­ates $31,350. The smaller core of down­town gen­er­ates $150,925. That pays for com­mu­nity cen­tres and parks for the whole city.

In­vest­ing in down­town is also cheaper than build­ing on the edge of the city be­cause you don’t have to pay for new roads, sew­ers and other ser­vices. Ev­ery­thing is al­ready there.

“Ar­guably, there is nowhere else in the city that mu­nic­i­pal in­vest­ment can be fo­cused and see such a high rate of re­turn,” the re­port states.

The only thing wrong with this plan will be if coun­cil doesn’t act.


Wind­sor city Coun. Rino Bor­tolin is en­thu­si­as­tic about a pro­posed plan for the down­town that en­cour­ages devel­op­ment of prop­er­ties like the one at the cor­ner of Chatham and Ferry streets.


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