Monday, February 15, 2010

A Tale of Two Downtowns

This weekend, the downtown celebrated Frosty Fest, Brantford's Winter Festival. It was celebrated in Harmony Square with some action taking place along Dalhousie Street. By the article in the local paper, it was a success, and as I can attest, there was a lot of people in the Square. The ice rink was filled, the various carnival rides had long line ups, and I have to believe the Coffee Culture store must have been doing an incredible business.

So there it was great, then you look south and see the signs of impending destruction for the south side of Colborne;

It seems the sad legacy of south Colborne will soon be a memory, and while there are many who will be glad to see it all down and gone, there are still other voices lamenting its soon destruction. There are those who will make very good arguments, that the downtown has looked bad for years, or that right now, it is a open sore on the city, something that makes people apologize to outsiders for the horrible way it looks. Or the perception is this must be an area of high crime, because things look so run-down. I don't have the statistics in front of me, I have to say that any time I make a quick perusal of the police blotter in the local paper, its often the north end where are the crime takes place, such as break and entry and other types of robberies.

Other voices are now joining the fray, the noted columnist from the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume, an urban architect has now began to make mention of Brantford's soon to be act of 'urban renewal'. He has written two articles so far this month, the first was entitled: "Brantford aims wrecking ball at its future". This article gives people a quick history of Brantford's downtown and what the plans are for its future restoration, although that may not be the right word for what is planned. He talks about the introduction of the University to the core and how there has been effort to revitalize heritage structures within the core, rather then building new structures. Even right now, the former CIBC is being restored for classrooms, and it's located at the corner of Market and Dalhousie, right across from Market Square, which must be on everybody's list of uglies. I've already got photographs of the place, so I will save you from seeing them again.

His most recent article is more his opinion of the plan and its not nice. He is very critical of Brantford's plan for south side Colborne. He writes in the article "Brantford will live to regret the tragedy of edifice wrecks". It's a pity one can sit down with him and ask the question, now Christopher, tell us how you really feel. To him it is a tragedy that needs to be stopped and stopped now. As you read more of the plans, the scarier it sounds. He quotes from the Mayor of Brantford:
And the notion of heritage, of valuing a building because of its age, holds little sway in these parts. Listen to what Brantford Mayor Mike Hancock told a local newspaper last week: "I think the worst mistake we could make is to have a solid plan. Let's just take it down and look at what we have got. Then we can start deciding together what should go there."

Wreck now, think later. Now that's faith.

The strategy of Council is to get everybody out, tear down four blocks of building and then hope some sort of plan is developed to replace the torn down structures. This makes a person wonder if the strategy of building new structures for the University and the Y is just a pipe dream. So what will that mean for those who live and work downtown, instead of old building we get to stare at plywood sheets and some sort of framing. Will there be blocks of poster covered plywood which will make things even less appealing?

I recall reading that quote and shaking my head. What do they want to do with the downtown then?

I understand there will be time taken for environmental studies and to consider the entire grade of the slope to discover what can and cannot be built. One concern has to be regarding the structures, the problem with institutional construction is that it tends to be ugly and devoid of life. Just consider the average city hall, if there is any building that sucks the life and creativity for a city, it is the municipal structure, its no wonder most cities function in a dysfunctional manner, just look at where they work! They work in a place where life and creativity is destroyed.

Mr. Hume gives this opinion:
As that phase of our evolution now draws to a close, it will be interesting to see what's next for Brantford. Though it's not mainstream yet, the back-to-the-core movement is well underway. The results are transformative. And in fact, Brantford is an attractive, compact city well poised for its next incarnation.

On the other hand, this is also a city that has made every postwar planning mistake in the book and then some. The gospel of growth at any cost turned out to be another lie, and a lot more expensive and destructive than anyone expected.

What is impressive is people do want to come to the downtown. If there's something that is fun and appeals to all ages, people will come and have fun. They can bring money to the core, the renewal can be the reality. Just needs the right vision and plan.


Michael Cumming said...

Thanks for this article Paul! It explains much.

"I think the worst mistake we could make is to have a solid plan. Let's just take it down and look at what we have got. Then we can start deciding together what should go there."

This has got to be the most asinine quote by a public official I have ever read! Simple common sense suggests that the exact opposite is the truth.

Anonymous said...

Wow - sounds like an Urban Renewal Plan for Hamilton from the 1960s. That worked out great for us! Its been a slow death since that time. I am hopeful that we have turned a corner lately, but its sad to see others make the same mistake. Since you like song quotes, here is a gem from the Weakerthans:

up above us all,
leaning into sky
our golden business boy
will watch the north end die
and sing 'i love this town'
then let his arching wrecking ball proclaim:

Sustitute Hamilton or Brantford, and the Sentiment of this kind of hater is the same.