Thoughts on Downtown Development

I read with interest this past weekend Craig Boudreau’s “thoughts” — shared via Facebook but probably coming soon to an op-ed page near you — about the proposed new CBRM central library.

Craig Boudreau

Craig Boudreau (cropped from CB Post photo/Jeremy Fraser)

Boudreau, who is vice chair of the Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce, owns multiple office buildings and two parking lots in downtown Sydney, plus an empty lot at the corner of George and Dorchester where he told the Post he plans to build a “five to seven” story commercial/residential development. He also co-owns a downtown Sydney restaurant. So when he talks about the library’s potential to drive economic development and prosperity he’s talking about his own economic development and prosperity, and fair play to him, that’s his prerogative, but it’s worth bearing in mind when he speaks.

On Facebook, Boudreau began by saying some appropriate things about the modern library as a “community living room” where “a person’s socio-economic status is irrelevant,” before saying this:

Contrary to some of the whispers I have heard, this is not a private development in any way – this is a publicly owned building that the CBRM will own and manage.

While I presume he’s not addressing me personally — I’ve never said the library was a private development, I’ve said the library is a public building that has been, inexplicably, permitted to be included within a private development and I haven’t been whispering this, I’ve been shouting it from the metaphorical rooftops — I feel the need to respond. Boudreau writes;

This investment will result in enormous positive social benefits, along with significant strategic private investment, particularly because of its strategic waterfront location that will incite this investment – it is community economics 101. But what I really want to point out is that the proposed library is part of a much bigger picture – this is only one part of the future waterfront development plan.

But that’s precisely the point. The waterfront development plan is that of a private developer. CBRM council never actually debated potential locations for the new library, it allowed Martin Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development Ltd (HRDL) to select the location by including the library in his waterfront proposal. Look at either of the municipal libraries Boudreau cites as inspirations — Halifax and Antigonish — and you will find that neither municipality allowed a private developer to choose the building’s location because that’s not how normal municipalities make decisions about important pieces of civic and social infrastructure.

But Boudreau, like so many local businesspeople, seems to have lost the ability to distinguish between the private and the public sectors — how else to explain his contention that we should “be proud of” the $100,000 helipad the CBRM constructed with public money for the benefit, basically, of a single private operator?

He thinks he’s clinching an argument when he says the library is “part of the future waterfront development plan” when he’s actually just highlighting the problem.

 

Tupperware Tax?

While researching this piece, I came across some of Boudreau’s other “thoughts” and they are really quite amazing.

December 28 found him writing to the editor of the Cape Breton Post to sound the alarm over the toll people working from home was having on the downtown:

…retail, food and all other businesses that don’t fall in the “office” sector…will be negatively impacted as more people work from home. Think about it – this is not rocket science and there’s no MBA required – if people are allowed and/or encouraged to work from home they effectively stop contributing to the economy.

I’ll give him this much — it certainly does not require a degree in physics or even an MBA to reach a conclusion like that.

Does he actually believe that people who work from home suddenly cease buying groceries and heating oil, paying their utility bills, dining out (or ordering in), buying non-food necessities and clothing? Is he confusing working from home with entering a cloistered order? Apparently, yes:

They won’t need as much fuel to operate their vehicles, they won’t have to purchase vehicles as often, they will not be eating lunch and/or dinner in our restaurants, they won’t be shopping in our retail stores nearly as much and they will become more accustomed to shopping online (already a big problem). I know that all of you reading this letter would be able to add one more thing to that list. Then, of course, there is the mental health and social issues that are compounding exponentially as people are losing that social connection – the term, “work families,” came about for a reason.

This suggests Boudreau would also oppose improvements to public transit or wider-spread use of electric vehicles. (It also suggests the environmental benefits of the reduction in commuting have failed entirely to register with him.)

Aerial view Downtown Sydney, NS

Aerial view Downtown Sydney, NS. (“NSCC Marconi Campus Sydney Relocation, Ekistics Plan + Design,

And dare I suggest the loss of “work families” could be compensated by time spent with actual families — or friends or neighbors? (I’m always suspicious of the term “family” when it comes from a business owner, anyway. We’re all family until you decide to fire our uncle.) We’re talking about the post-pandemic period here, just because people work from home won’t mean they have no contact with other people.

But Boudreau is not having it — he sees a crisis and he’s ready with a solution:

Make no mistake, if the government does not take the lead and speak to this publicly and announce their plans with respect to having public servants go back to the office, downtowns everywhere will be in serious trouble. And rather than incentivize people to work from home, the practice should be to disincentivize through the payment of additional taxes by the corporations and the employees that make this choice.

So, the government should punish companies who don’t rent downtown spaces (which, in passing, I’ve heard are expensive on Charlotte Street) and workers who don’t eat at downtown restaurants?

That’s a novel approach to economic development.

Boudreau’s take was so nonsensical it inspired a response from the antipodes: Mitch Ramsay-Mader, originally from Mira, now working as a town planner in Melbourne, Australia, wrote to the Post to suggest (politely) that Boudreau’s notion that the decline of the downtown could be attributed to people working from home was off base:

North American downtowns have been in decline for decades due to poor town planning practices that allowed “big box” shops to open on the urban fringe at the expense of the existing downtown core. In Australia, where I practise my profession, we have not experienced this problem to the same degree due to significantly more restrictive land-use policies which require new shops to be located within the existing downtown core…

People working from home absolutely do contribute to the economy whilst at the same time they also contribute towards a massive reduction in waste associated with needless travel to and from the office. Working from home will mean an adjustment for businesses but at the end of the day, the benefits will significantly outweigh the costs. The future success or failure of downtowns will not be determined by whether or not people continue to work from home but rather by the policy settings and decisions in place, especially as they pertain to land-use.

The future success or failure of downtown will also, I would suggest, depend upon businesspeople trying to attract people there rather than asking government to basically force them to be there. (I mean, what’s next? A Tupperware Tax to “disincentivize” people from bringing their own lunches to work?)

Luckily, some local businesses clearly get it: