Good design will help fix broken downtown
Report celebrates the potential of city’s core, with its ‘sense of place’
“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.