In Praise of Commercial Street

Daniel Appell: April 26, 2011

A recent nomination to “Great Places in Canada” competition and a subsequent shortlisting has inspired me to write on the virtues of Commercial Street.

Commercial Street is a graceful remnant of our Georgian heritage. Now, it is hard to imagine its inspiration, but it was a purpose built street. It was designed and built to expedite commerce. Designed at a time when most people walked to the shops to get their supplies. At a time when pedestrians dominated traffic, the road was purposefully made wide enough to accommodate carriages. As carriages gave way to cars and cars got wider this street was able to accommodate the change.

The width of Commercial Street is important. It was wider then the streets that feed into it. Starting from the south, Wharf, Skinner, Bastion and Church are all narrow and have become interesting side streets, supporting the main street. However, Commercial Street, in its traditional form was not too wide. Designing a successful shopping street is a delicate art requiring moderation and balance. We see in the most recent construction of the library square (Diana Krall Plaza) and the conference centre the width between buildings on opposite sides of the street has been extended beyond the point where shopping becomes a comfortable and entertaining activity.

In many other ways the recent construction violates the principles of retail street design, but this is a study of what makes Commercial Street a good shopping street. For now, let’s ignore the most recent constructions.

Aside from its traditional width, Commercial Street has a number of other features that work in its favour. It has a very slight incline. Normally, this would be a disadvantage, but the incline is not so steep as to make walking a chore for most people. And it is steep enough to make the disposition of buildings against the natural grade interesting.

The curve of the street also works in its favour. The elegant crescent reveals itself in bits, allowing our curiosity to compel us further.

The older buildings are many and varied, and provide visual satisfaction while we walk. The details are not so overwhelming or fussy to cause distraction, but fine enough and varied enough to provide some bit of interest.

The buildings are low enough to allow for longer parts of the day to be sun lit. The slope is south facing and the orientation is mostly south to north allowing (as much as is possible in this climate) to enjoy warm and sunny days here.

The shape and orientation of Commercial Street have made it a very durable shopping street. For as long as Commercial Street was Nanaimo’s “main street,” other centres have moved their primary shopping streets two or three times. Commercial Street remained a “main street” shopping destination long after other urban centres gave up that obligation to shopping malls in the suburbs.

My understanding of the ‘science’ behind shopping street design, is derived from the study of shopping mall design. Throughout my formative years shopping streets were in decline. But the science of shopping malls was derived first by a study of shopping streets very much like the one we have here. Its interesting to note that if one took a map of Commercial Street and the properties along its length, one would have the perfect shape for a shopping mall. If one made allowances for the fact that a shopping mall is an interior pedestrian space, and reduced the scale by 20% one would have the perfect size for a shopping mall.

I must say that Commercial Street has proven to be remarkably resilient. I was one who predicted a quick demise of the street after the introduction of the conference centre. Despite the conference centre, Commercial Street has been much more stable then expected. While it hasn’t thrived, it has managed to continue a transition from a “main street” as a place that sells almost everything, both necessities and extras; to a tad more gentrified shopping street which tends to sell the extras only. Given the limitations imposed on the street by the conference centre and the library square, the survival of businesses and the introduction of new businesses, is a remarkable achievement. This is one of those many instances where I have to admit I was wrong, and I’m happy to do so.

The future of Commercial Street seems to be fairly secure. As the population in the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods increases, Commercial Street will see a healthy revival. A number of other initiatives could also improve prospects for our lovely and tuff little street:  1) remodel and repurpose our conference centre to improve the performance of the retail portion of it; 2) Fill in the Diana Krall Plaza with retail allowing access to the plaza from Wharf Street; 3) develop a passenger boat connection from downtown Vancouver to downtown Nanaimo; 4) redesign the bus system to speed suburban residents to our downtown; and 5) Continue to encourage a return of residential living to our downtown and the surrounding neighbourhoods.

When it was announced that Commercial Street was shortlisted for the competition “Great Places in Canada” I was pleasantly surprised. The truth is; its a damn good little street, and it deserves the recognition.