Selling our Birthright for a Mess of Pottage
Ron Bolin: Nov.7, 2010
Why is it that our Planning Department and our Council seem so anxious to sell off the most precious feature that our municipal environment has to offer? The choice is both short sighted and maladaptive. The amphitheatres offered by our harbours and shorelines offer a grand stage on which to lay out a magnificent city which can be appreciated either from the water or from its bench-like streets rising along its heights. To permanently blanket these spectacles with curtains of high-rises –or their shreds- is an insult to our opportunities and to those who will come after us.
On a plain, at its middle or at its edge, high-rises are indifferent. In fact they can provide points of interest which enrich the plain. At the edge of a bowl where plain meets slope, high rises can provide the balcony seats looking out over the main seating and stage and demarcate the point at which a plain ends and a bowl begins.
Nanaimo is dominated by its geography. The Salish Sea denies any tendency for the city to a circular shape and demands an extended egg-in-profile form which itself must then bend to the ups and downs of its highly variable topography. These factors lead to both the difficulties and the charm of Nanaimo. We need to recognize these factors and work with them rather than trying to ignore or undo them. Trying to make Nanaimo into a version of Vancouver with its high-rises dominating the waterfront confuses the opportunities of an amphitheatre with those of a plain. We have something they do not, and to imitate them is to lose our chance at history.
Ask yourself if the addition of the high-rises which already obscure our waterfront from both front and back have materially added to the charm or the bustle of our city centre. It is our small downtown businessmen who have struggled to breathe what life there is into the remnant of what was once a vital urban node. While waiting for the big fix, the downtown fabric continues to shred. The key to downtown revitalization is to get our existing population to want to come there. If we want to go there then others will as well.
What is it that our City buys that is half so precious as what it sells?
We have not missed our chance at history at all Ron, whether we build high rises or not is immaterial to our place in history.
Our generation, that is you and I have gorged on entitlement programs financed by debt to be paid by our children. We have voted for ourselves a lifestyle we are not willing or able to pay for.
We are a most deceived generation of buffoons.
That is our place in history, as many rambles and rants on this forum will testify.
Interested Citizen: While I might find some agreement with your comments about our generation, it should not be taken for granted that there is no possible redemption. The issue deals with the form of our community and whether we are prepared to see yet another sell out of our urban environment.
Downtown is not buried under the shadow of highrises now,yet hordes are not rushing downtonw now, why would we want to go downtown now, unless to buy a cup of coffee, which of course is hardly unique to downtown???
Downtown used to be a bustling commercial centre, there simply were no shopping malls …… the malls have drawn people away from downtown, and it is not highrise construction that has had anything to do with that.
Downtown was full of people for the Empire Day Paraded, 15 minutes after the parade you could shoot a cannon down the street. The downtown has NOTHING to attract or hold people.
So what are you proposing anyway, except more rants against highrises???
I am proposing that we forget about scoring a knockout punch with some big overwhelming project like a conference centre, a multiplex, or highrises on the waterfront and spend more time thinking about how to make what we have more accommodating to our existing citizens. What was it that made downtown a bustling commercial and social centre? Was it only the absence of competition that made that happen? Why is it that Victoria’s downtown does not seem to have suffered nearly so much?
Please do not distort my views. I made no rant against high-rises per se, only against high-rises on our waterfront. I indicated many places where they would not only be acceptable, but desirable.
And while we’re at it, do you have anything positive to add to the conversation? How about some suggestions other than throwing in the towel?
When downtown Nanaimo was a bustling commercial centre, there was nothing north of Brooks Landing. The major department stores, both Sears and Eatons were downtown. If you needed hardware you went to Nash Hardware on Commercial St., paint and wallpaper you went to General Paint on Commercial St., Nanaimo Bakery drew people from everywhere, Dakin cameras was really the ONLY shop in town, and Willing Wayne the Discounter was in the ugly purple building at Commercial and Terminal, there was no other places to go except DOWNTOWN. That is the difference, and unless you are into time travel I don’t know how downtown will ever be that again.
It was a bustling commercial centre, because it WAS the commercial centre. That, like many old cities went the way of the dodo bird with the advent of malls in the built up urban areas, with acres of both free parking and shopping.
As for the success of downtown Victoria, for all of its population it has nowhere near the same square footage of retail as Nanaimo. My son and his wife live in Victoria, and they both attest to the fact Nanaimo still is the superior place to shop for many items.In 1970, there was far more commercial activity in Nanaimo than Victoria, as Victoria was known as the home of the newly wed and the nearly dead. Neither demographic made for strong retail.
Why is it that Coombs and Chemainus are such meccas for those seeking a quaint shopping experience? Beats me, but the fact is, they are.
Nanaimo, has been overhauled with the construction of the VICC, lots of new businesses have moved onto Commercial Street. How many of them will draw someone from mid or north town to park in one of the many lovely parkades at half a buck an hour?
I am not being a pessimist just a realist. Little art galleries, bistros and sidewalk cafes are great if you already live within walking distance, but why in the world would you face the hassle of downtown parking for any of that? Honestly now??
What kind of commercial mix do you propose that would compete with the malls? Lets face it, if you are really shopping for something, what can you find downtown, except another cup of coffee and maybe a really neat dessert? Oh yeah, and a used book or old record.
Back to you Ron.
Seems like attracting more new inhabitants to Nanaimo’s core and developing a denser urban population might bring some life to the cities core. I doubt if people from the north or south ends of town will make much effort to come downtown as their lifestyle and services are all neatly wrapped up on their doorsteps, so downtown needs to develop it own character with it’s existing and new populations. It does seem to be heading this way already from what I can see.
I recently moved to Nanaimo and have settled in the Old City. I see opportunities to create more of a vital city core where people CAN walk to shops and services. One of the keys will be to attract people who are less interested in suburban living as is offered in other parts of Nanaimo, and more interested in a downtown that balances simple urban conveniences (shops, markets, cafes), scenic values (waterfront) and a sense of community throughout it’s neighbourhoods.
I just finished a lengthy reply and hit submit, only to see my response disappear.
If it does not come back with this one, I won’t bother again.
I presume that your penultimate response was the one you feared you had lost, no?
Wish I had all the answers. I will ponder and hope that others take part. But I will note that we do enjoy taking ourselves and our visitors to the downtown waterfront. How do we develop a connection from the walkway to downtown which leads more strollers to the kind of special amenities which you mention. How do we turn Front Street into a conduit rather than a barrier?
The waterfront experience can be enjoyed quite nicely without ever setting foot on Front or Commercial St.
You can park by the Yacht Club, at Maffeo Sutton Park or the parkade under Pioneer Square and enjoy all that our lovely waterfront has to offer.
If Front St. is to be a used conduit, there has to be a reason to go through the conduit.
You are making my point. And many of our downtown businesspeople are trying their hardest to provide a reason. But the transition is not inviting. Perhaps we need a design group to get together to think about how this could be accomplished.
On the day of the Empire Day Parade, Commercial Street was lined with people from one end to the other. When the parade was over, in 15 minutes the place was vacant.
That had nothing to do with transitions. What exactly do you see as an inviting reason to wander down Commercial Street?
You can wander along the waterfront, grab a coffee, an ice cream, a snack or what have you.
So, what is up on Commercial Street that would draw you from the water?
I think I’ve lost the thread of this conversation. Please excuse me if I take this in another direction.
I have to admit, on the whole, I agree with Ron; but that might be because I don’t understand the point of Interested Citizen’s objection.
However, Ron, the aesthetic arguments for or against towers or the placement of towers gets very dicy, very quickly in this town.
There are three components to the effect of towers on the urban environment: economic, psychological and symbolic.
Judging from the many conversations I’ve had with fellow citizens the economic, and psychological effects of towers are not well understood or appreciated. This is a strong tendency of people who are from Nanaimo or from smaller centres.
However, the symbolic aspects of towers are appreciated far in excess of their other qualities. We tend to look at towers as symbols of wealth, power, and prestige. They provide us with an image of what a successful city should look like. This is why we would tolerate a building in a prominent location that looks like a giant penis. It is essentially an insulting joke, yet many of us express a pride to be associated with it. It is why we tolerate in prime locations, by the water front, second rate and third rate architecture. It is why we would be willing to subsidize their construction, as in the Maffeo-Sutton park towers. These towers are important symbols to us. Sadly, because we don’t have a very deep understanding of the economic value of towers, and we don’t appreciate the psychological effect of towers, we are stuck attempting to create a li’l Abner cartoon image of what a city should be.
This is problematic because the symbolic argument for towers is an aesthetic one, but it is not rational. To disagree is to assault matters of personal taste and opinion. And we are dealing with the appearance of value, not the value of truth or nature.
I have often found that the only way to end these wasteful exchanges is just to agree to disagree. However, the problem remains unresolved. Those with a rather unbalanced opinion of towers remain in positions of influence, and we all remain the butt of the developer’s joke.
Perhaps we could turn the Conference Centre into an annex of the University or even use it to house students?
This would bring youth into town,youth generate atmosphere , atmosphere attracts even more people & business.
There have been several suggestions that the overbuilt portion of the conference centre could be used for some program of VIU which would bring some youth and vitality to the downtown: perhaps one or more of the Arts programs.
It has also been suggested that a part could be used to replace the City Hall Annex which has been estimated to cost over $6 million to bring up to code.
Interesting. Old City Resident, for someone new to Nanaimo, makes some very good points as does interested citizen. Part of the problem with downtown Nanaimo, excluding the need for greater population density, is that for the average citizen outside the core, inside as well, there is really nothing to come down for other than a walk on the waterfront. When they do that many also check out the waterfront shops some of which do a thriving business. Me, I enjoy wandering downtown to chat with people, from all walks of life, that I know and in some case don’t. Other than Thrifty’s, London Drugs, a few of the coffee joints and occasionally Hill’s Native Crafts, I seldom if ever purchase anything. Saturdays and Sundays are a joke because many stores don’t even open, though it has been getting slightly better. This alone could have the potential to draw folk from elsewhere. As for young folk they are there, in ever greater numbers, but tend to focus on the alternative shops as well as patronizing the Queens and Cambie for their diverse range of music. Personally I am not in favour of High Rises on the waterfront, hate the feeling of walking in someones front yard, and believe they should be placed further back and up the hill. Views would be just as good. Until there are more shops geared to everyday life people will continue to shop elsewhere. Until we regain the mix and cater to the average joe/joanne as well as tourists the downtown will remain somewhat vacant.
Forgot one thing. VIU is not interested in an off site campus downtown. They should be but are not.
The idea of keeping any high rises back up off the waterfront because it is much more appealing on many levels, does beg a question from a marketing viewpoint.
If you expect someone with another bag of money to move to our fair city and plunk down half a million plus for a splashy condo. Do they want to be on top of the hill overlooking the waterfront, having to walk all the way down the hill to enjoy it, or do they want to be able to walk out their front door and enjoy it?
If you are wanting to encourage greater downtown activity, do you really think people will want to trod back up the hill to St. Peter’s with a bag of groceries every day?
If I were wanting to make money in the real estate business and was planning to build and sell high end condos, if my choice was up the hill or on the waterfront for basically the same construction cost …..no choice.
I agree with you about begging a marketing question. The question is whether the price received is worth the cost of production plus a profit. The situation for the developers and for those who may buy their projects on the waterfront is that they desire to pay less than the cost of production, which in this case is a municipal feature -waterfront- which cannot be replaced. While the idea of business may, quite rightly, be to make a profit, should that profit be made by adding value or by taking advantage of a situation where municipal authorities may be all too willing to sell the long term and irreplaceable benefits of our environment for less than they are worth to the municipality as a whole?
I.C. is arguing for the the easy sale. Its a no brainer; sell the view, make some money. The problem is that for every easy sale there are a hundred more sales that have just been made harder. That’s zero sum, baby.
Instead of allowing one person to win and a whole lot of other people lose, good planning involves allowing more people to win. This is done by creating value, not exchanging value. Good planning does require brains, but the result is a city that is easier to live in, and worth living in.
Instead of the easy sell, I recommend we go for the smart sell. In the long run, we will all be better off.