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  • Is Uptown the new Downtown?


    Gene Miller
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     And what would it take to remove the phrase, “I never go Downtown anymore,” from the regional vocabulary?

     

    I WAS AN ATTENDEE AT A RECENT UDI (Urban Development Institute) webinar, another of those bloodless, disembodied, Zoom-empowered events that Covid requires and technology allows. The topic was “Retail & the Future of Downtowns and Malls” and the three presenters seemed to know their stuff. 

    I took two points away from the event: first, the contention, shared by the speakers, that the ever-expanding online marketplace will not eliminate the in-person retail shopping experience (this deserves roughly the same confidence as yestercentury’s conviction that the automobile would never replace the horse); second, that shopping malls throughout Victoria, from Mayfair to Westshore, were in the process of becoming more downtown-ish: more diverse, more urbane, more socially and culturally—really, more functionally—inclusive; and that one could anticipate the Canadian Chess Championships along the corridors of the Hillside Mall, or a Schubert lieder-fest in the generous foyer outside Winners at Tillicum.

    I make a joke to make a point, but take a walk around Uptown, even now a combination of shopping mall and cultural experience with its buried parking, kiddie recreation area and shopping high street, professional offices, an ice skating facility and, coincidentally, the region’s only Whole Foods. Says its promotional bumph: “Uptown is Vancouver Island’s Premier Shopping, Dining and Entertainment Experience. Funny, no “after Downtown Victoria” qualifier.

    One of the webinar presenters, Laura Poland, the Manager of Mayfair, broadly hinted that her mall would soon be undertaking a transformation directed toward similar ends: from conventional shopping mall—a hermetic shopping space surrounded by endless parking—to something more communitarian and culturally inclusive, more energetic and more like traditional downtown.

    Interestingly, the matter of downtown’s retail future was hardly touched on by the speakers...unless their silence was intended to speak worlds. Their remarks and enthusiasm were directed toward this trend of cultural appropriation by shopping centres. And when the Victoria Symphony relocates to a shopping centre performance hall, what happens to the Royal and McPherson, and to other downtown cultural real estate and civic assets? After all, there are only so many event dollars to spread around. 

    May the best theatre win?

     

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    Rainbow Over Costco.  Even God favours good prices and easy parking. 

     

    Had the Q&A-less format permitted, I would have asked if, as they appropriate traditional downtown’s key cultural and social assets, the various malls around the region would also be claiming a share of the homeless, with their tents, tarps, overflowing crap-filled shopping carts and, er, spontaneity. 

    Anyway, provocative changes, huh? And consider this irony-filled prospect: shopping malls, owned and operated by professional real estate management companies attuned to the slightest market twitch, now engaged in the synthetic appropriation of the qualities and features that make (or made) for an authentic, character-rich downtown.

    While you’re at it, give study to the Starlight proposal for two central downtown blocks bounded by Cook, Yates, Quadra and View: a joyless, airtight proposition with three residential towers plunked on top, the whole package looking like one of Jon Jerde’s architectural confections (Mall of America, The Fremont Street Experience, etc.), but with all the fun removed.

     

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    An artist’s rendering of Starlight’s proposal for the Harris Green neighbourhood

     

    You think: no, all of this could only happen in a sci-fi movie!

    Friends, we are living in a sci-fi movie, a period of dislocating, dangerous, chartless social, cultural and environmental transformation. 

    Chained to our ankles are a million old meanings of things bearing on family, gender, work, job, home, community, communication, connection, purpose, politics, expertise, autonomy, selfhood, climate. And one more (among others): downtown. All of these, seemingly all at once, don’t mean what, or behave like, they used to; and it’s not that all the traditional meanings are good and the current state of flux is bad (long-overdue, liberating benefits have emerged in many cases), but that many social conventions and institutions are losing, or are now bereft of, any stabilizing content or social compass. 

    So, what, exactly, is our Downtown in the 2020s? And to pose a second rarely asked but pertinent question, who’s actually in charge of Downtown and do ‘they’ have the understanding, skills and the indomitable will to succeed necessary to ensuring Downtown’s continued viability, its social and economic success, its centrality and symbolic potency, its renewal? What would it take to remove the phrase, “I never go Downtown anymore,” from the regional vocabulary?

    I ask Google “What is Downtown?” Google replies, in part: “A city’s downtown area has an important and unique role in economic and social development. Downtowns create a critical mass of activities where commercial, cultural, and civic activities are concentrated. This concentration facilitates business, learning, and cultural exchange.”

    I sense some nostalgic idealization and hidden pleading in that.

    I mean, if you had responsibility for a successful downtown in the 2020s, wouldn’t you want it to be the city’s and region’s most appealing and vibrant area? Utterly safe? Crawling with people? Loaded with cultural, educational, recreational assets, and the stewpot of citizenship and social innovation—that is, a place of community where everyone felt and acted like a stakeholder, a place of social ego, if I can put it that way? Candidate businesses lined up and clamourous for the next commercial vacancy? Not a box surrounded by an ocean of parked cars, but a genuine and vital experience?  

    Wouldn’t you want it to be absolutely ravishing? So much beauty you wouldn’t know where to put your eyes first? Festooned with squares and pocket parks and public art? Wouldn’t you impose a design culture and code on development that resulted in streets lined with gorgeous architecture? Wouldn’t you guard downtown’s existing cultural and educational resources, and exert gravitational pull on everything from elsewhere? Wouldn’t you have a comprehensive strategy to increase downtown population, and to make sure that you weren’t just warehousing the old and the young, but housing all ages and types?

    Assuming a “Yes!” to the above, let’s ask one more question: “How?”

    If you ask local politicians or planning officials, they will tell you that the city is currently attempting or undertaking all of those objectives. But this is just standard political fatigue and bureaucratic inertia and misdirection speaking; and since responding “Really, and how’s all that working out?” conveys cynicism and thinly blanketed criticism, let’s modify our own question to “How...Now?” Are current strategies and initiatives truly rooted in and responsive to contemporary reality and emergent styles and social directions—that is, how people are behaving now and may in the near future?

    New rules abound these days, rules so new that we’re currently involved in their crafting. I understand that we’re emotionally attached to the idea of downtown, but does downtown, the real place as it is right now, feed our souls? Downtown, I contend, needs to express an entirely new story that can be seen and felt—that is, experienced. 

    You ask: what is that new story? Here’s the start of an answer.

    I would propose an intentional and ever-expanding strategy, a new story for downtown called: “Come and Play!” A blueprint for public engagement of the ever-growing downtown population and downtown institutions and organizations in a wide range of social initiatives; for esthetic improvement (utilizing the arts of decoration and embellishment, so as to minimize capital costs); for the creation of new learning institutions including a centre for urban ecological design attracting the world’s innovators; the patronage and encouragement of all forms of local business enterprise; the ending, finally, of the homeless and street pop mess on, and spreading out from, Pandora; the encouragement of performance and display; turning downtown Victoria into a megaphone through which the near-future can shout: “Bring your appetite. Bring your wallet. Bring your head, your heart, your eye, your imagination, your intellect, your desire for connection. Come and Play!”

    Can’t be done, you say? I remind you that two or three short decades ago, downtown—its ‘story’—was “a little bit of Olde England.” And all that took was low building scale, some half-timber facades, a few tea, woolen and junque shoppes, a guy playing bagpipes, and the like. Imagine!

    “Downtown—the Centre of it All!” the signs once proclaimed. Haven’t seen that lately. 

    Maybe the paint’s just peeled.

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.

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    We must absolutely stop the Starlite proposal for Harris Green.  Starlite has a terrible reputation for forcing tenants out by pretending to do renovations.  The proposal for Harris Green will have a density greater than anything in North America including Manhattan.

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