Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's hard to be against urban renewal . . .

Urban renewal, urban revitalization, whatever you call it, it is hard to come out against it. It just sounds so awfully good. You've got an area of the city, often the old "heart" of the city, the downtown core, that has fared poorly over the passing years. Buildings are in disrepair, businesses have deserted the area and crime, it is believed, has move in.

I'm retired and at my age I've lived through a lot of fine sounding, filled-with-promise, urban renewal schemes. Some I liked at the time and others had a false ring right from inception. A great many failed. My gut feeling it that the majority of urban renewal schemes fail but I can't say that for sure.

One thing that many of the urban renewal schemes share is cost; they are expensive. And many dip deeply into the public pocket to cover the cost. Like I said, I'm retired. I'm on a fixed income and anything that threatens to put my annual budget out of whack draws my attention and my ire.

Since moving to London, Ontario, I have felt that the city has been on a perpetual urban renewal binge. It hasn't always been the downtown core that has been the focus but there has always been a focus. A few decades ago East Of Adelaide (EOA) drew a lot of the attention. Do you recall when Dundas Street immediately east of Adelaide was ripped up and rebuilt as a wavy stretch of asphalt. Today we have a name for a stunt like this: Traffic calming.

That curving of Dundas St. cost the better part of a million bucks and it did anything but calm the neighbourhood. The area was in decline, that is why it was built. But that roadway became a focal point for the disaster that was the old EOA business district. In the end, the snaking roadway was ripped up and straightened. The cost approached a million bucks, again.

I could never see the connection between a wavy street and a successful department store, but the owner of Hudson's department store was a big believer in the curved street. Hudson's folded. The traffic may have been calmed; It slowed but it didn't stop --- at least not at Hudson's.

Today there is talk about putting in traffic calming measures in the downtown core. The city is examining the possibility of putting in what they are calling, incorrectly I believe, a Danish woonerf. London's not Denmark. I'm not going to say it wouldn't work. But, I'm not going to say that it will either.

The proposed woonerf has something in common with the former Galleria London, now Citi Plaza, popularity among a certain segment of city planners. But not all city planners are enamoured with woonerfs and pedestrian malls.

Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and authof of "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook and Your Future,"  wrote in The New York Times:

In 1959, Kalamazoo, Mich., tried to help its downtown compete with suburban shopping malls by closing a street to auto traffic and turning it into a pedestrian mall. Over the next 30 years, more than 200 American and Canadian cities created similar malls.

Far from helping retail districts, most of these pedestrian malls killed them. Vacancy rates soared, and any pedestrians using the malls found themselves walking among boarded up shops or former department stores that had been downgraded to thrift shops or other low-rent operations.

Despite these failures, cities continued to create pedestrian malls 25 years after Kalamazoo’s initial experiment. In 1984, Buffalo closed 10 blocks of its Main Street to automobiles only to see its vacancy rates increase by 27 percent and property values decline by 48 percent.

Eventually, most of these cities, including Kalamazoo, reopened streets to auto traffic. Today few pedestrian malls remain, and the handful that could be considered successful are in college towns and resort areas.

I'd bet the sales pitches for all the failed pedestrian malls shared one thing, beautiful artist's conceptions filled with dreams.

Which brings me to the pitch for urban renewal in London. It may be hard to be against urban renewal but it is easy to distrust the artist's drawings depicting life in the reborn city core.

The dramatic Gateway Bridge is in the drawings but not in the plans.

One repeating visual motif in the urban renewal drawings it the new Gateway Bridge. It is a striking structure with a soaring, arching support and stainless steel cables dramatically holding the roadway above the forks of the Thames. It's nice --- a bit of a visual cliche, but it's nice. It is also not in the plans. I asked. It is just in the drawings as eye candy.

So, if we cannot trust the drawings, can we trust the other bumph accompanying much of the urban renewal campaign? This is a campaign clearly designed to get London taxpayers on board.

To a certain extent, I hope we can't trust them. The artist's conception of the SoHo development is, to my eye, boring. London can do better than tall apartment towers, much like the towers that presently dot the city.

We need more imagination. Maybe we could take some inspiration from Steve Jobs and his plans for a new Apple corporate headquarters.

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