You Can Always Go — Downtown!

During last night’s CBRM council meeting, Jim Mountain and Robert Pajot of the National Trust for Canada reported on the results of a two-year pilot program to regenerate Sydney’s downtown.

Mountain described the Trust to council as a “small charity based in Ottawa” that has been involved with main street projects since the ’70s. He explained how they came to be working in the CBRM in a 2017 blog post:

It all began at the National Trust’s 2014 conference in Charlottetown with CBRM’s “downtown” ward Councillor Eldon MacDonald attending the Main Street workshop. Eldon saw possibilities for the Trust’s trademarked Main Street Approach being applicable to his community, to fill vacancies, improve the image and “brand” of the downtown, encourage new businesses and housing, and enhance the experience of the Sydney Waterfront District for cruise ship passengers who often pass through Sydney en route to famed Cabot Trail.

(I know, we don’t have wards, we have more than one downtown and cruise ship passengers don’t “pass through Sydney” on their way to the famed Cabot Trail, but I’m not going to nitpick. Anymore.)

Downtown_Regen_02

 

According to Mountain:

Eldon became the local champion for this project and engaged with key local leaders including CBRM staff, Mayor, and Council, the Sydney Waterfront District Association, and community organizations. Together, they identified municipal funds and then secured support from the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency.

During the February 2016 budget deliberations, Mountain presented plans for a five-year pilot project with a total budget of $408,200. This got scaled back to two years and presumably a much smaller budget, although the figure was not included in last night’s presentation.

Things actually began happening over a year later, when the Sydney Waterfront District Regeneration Project launched “with the opening of the project’s storefront office on May 26.”

 

Good beginning

Bradley Murphy, a Cape Bretoner with “some architectural training” from Carleton University’s School of Architecture, was hired on a two-year term as the regeneration coordinator for the project. Michelle Wilson of what was then the Sydney Waterfront District Development Association but has since reverted to the Downtown Sydney Development Association has been deeply involved with the project as were summer students Madison Tousaw and Edyta Suska (also from Carleton) who were tasked with “creating the photo documentation of about 100 buildings in the district.” Writes Mountain:

Taking over 1,600 photos, they…took note of current conditions and character-defining elements of each of the buildings. This first step of inventorying Sydney’s built heritage will help guide and inspire business owners and the community to plan and implement big and small projects that will make a difference to the health of the district.

I asked the CBRM if this archive would be made available to the general public, and will update this story when I receive an answer. (It’s not that I am looking for space on Charlotte Street, it’s just that I find the idea of the archive very cool. You know me and reference material.)

 

Pajot told council the Sydney pilot project was a “good beginning” that has seen a 5% uptake in vacant space in the downtown (from 20% vacant in October 2017 to 15% vacant in May 2019) and a net gain of 15 businesses (23 opened, eight closed).

The Adirondack chairs and signage, the “vacant lot parkette” (between the LHC Office Building and London Jewellers on Charlotte Street), the murals, the flowers, the exterior of Mian’s restaurant and the interior of Downtown Nutrition, the new Farmers’ Market in the old Smooth Hermans, all owe something to the pilot — as did consultant Roger Brooks’ tough love talk to council last July about the positives (and negatives) of Sydney’s downtown. (Pajot referred to Brooks’ “kick, punch, slap” approach to consulting — an approach I, personally, found refreshing.)

And there’s no doubt it’s made a difference in Sydney (which is supposed to be a “pilot” project in the truest sense of the word — as in, what we learn in Sydney can then be applied to our other downtowns). I travel Charlotte Street frequently and the small improvements are adding up. Incrementalism seems to be the watchword in downtown development — in his initial presentation to council, Mountain included this line from a 2013 Canadian Urban Institute Report, which Pajot reiterated last night:

The downtowns that have achieved the most success and transformation have been patiently committed to revitalization efforts for decades.

That said, one of the stated purposes of the regeneration project was to prepare for the future Charlotte Street infrastructure project, and there is nothing  incremental about that — it’s to  involve  widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes, filling empty spaces and creating new public spaces. Sometimes, I guess, impatient commitment can pay off too.

 

Obstacles

The challenges we face in developing downtown Sydney are not unique to the CBRM (the National Trust could hardly have trademarked — as in, they actually use the little ® symbol — their Main Street program if we were the only customer).

Adirondack chairs, flowers and signage. Charlotte Street, Sydney, NS (Spectator photo)

Adirondack chairs, flowers and signage. Charlotte Street, Sydney, NS (Spectator photo)

This passage — from an article about downtown regeneration in Tucson, Arizona — could just as easily have been written about Sydney (or Glace Bay or New Waterford):

Tucson used to be a casualty of those midcentury trends of downtown abandonment and blight. Vacant storefronts and shabby buildings lined Congress Street, the hub for most of the city’s downtown activity. There were only a few restaurants and bars, and those buildings in active use consisted predominately of offices.

And despite the trademark symbol, I don’t think the National Trust is doing anything that other organizations haven’t tried (the mural was being billed as the savior for downtowns back in 1989, when I was working at the Eastern Graphic in Montague, PEI).

What might be special about us, though, is the obstacle represented by some downtown building and business owners.

Mountain and Murphy are clearly polite people, but I don’t think I’m reaching when I say that beneath some of their (polite) comments you can sense frustration with the building and business owners who aren’t getting with the regeneration program. Speaking to the Cape Breton Post as his two-year term came to an end, Murphy offered some “pointed” advice to landlords:

Building owners need to take their vacant space seriously. The upper floors should all be converted into apartments at this time because there’s such a demand for housing and affordable housing.

It’s a no-brainer. Convert those spaces into livable apartments and then rent to tenants who are going to bring you income. By having more people living downtown, it gives a more robust population to the area, which can support local businesses.

I’ve wondered about the seeming lack of interest some owners have in seeing the downtown develop — the ones who opt out of Lumière, the popular art at night project; the ones who, when anyone suggests closing Charlotte Street to cars, even just on weekends, immediately wonder how they will get their deliveries (newsflash: businesses on pedestrian streets worldwide have devised methods of getting their deliveries, surely we could sort something out); the ones who close on Sundays at the height of the cruise season; the ones who leave their buildings untenanted rather than lowering rents.

Council is considering investment incentives that will encourage business owners, both in Sydney and across the CBRM, to improve their properties.

Mountain said future steps also include encouraging businesses to extend their hours and Pajot noted that with the Highland Arts Theatre open 150 nights a year, there are theater-goers out there looking for somewhere to go before and/or after the performance.

 

Comments

Following Mountain and Pajot’s presentation, the floor was opened  to questions and comments from council.

District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin noted that she appreciated the designation of Charlotte Street as a “nucleus” or center of developments that would eventually spread to other communities, like North Sydney. She also confessed to having been wrong about the value of flowers, having once opposed funding the Business Cape Breton-administered CBRM Blossoming Program. (Me, I think she was right to question that arrangement which, in 2016/17 saw the CBRM give BCB a $115,000 sustainability grant it did not actually qualify for to fund the program and a 10% management fee for overseeing it. The new version has individual businesses and organizations sponsoring the flowers, which seems to be working out well.)

District 10 Councilor Darren Brusckschwaiger singled out Michelle Wilson of the Sydney Downtown  Development Association for praise, noting she “works extremely hard and is getting results.” He then suggested that the CBRM, by modifying its vendors’ by-law, might be able to get more people “interested in business.’

District 12 Councilor Jim MacLeod said that “parking is ridiculous” on Charlotte Street and also suggested there should be a focus on making buildings “100% accessible.”

District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall (who was actually speaking on the next item on the agenda, a rezoning request from New Dawn, which has parking problems of its own) suggested that the focus should be on encouraging active transportation rather than increasing parking. (I am not sure what I think about this one, I am all for active transit but I also live in the North End where people regularly park across my driveway. My opinion is therefore a work in progress.)

More was said, but that’s all I wrote down and the video has yet to be posted, so that’s all I’ve got for now, but tune in again in about a month when Mountain and Pajot deliver their final report and I will have more to say on the subject of downtown regeneration.