Fix Your Downtown 1: Focus on 3 Priorities - People, People, People
How smart leaders are transforming traditional commercial districts for a “low office” future.
This is the first in a series of common sense solutions for fixing downtowns.
It was bound to happen eventually, downtown cores – and more specifically the commercial sectors of large cities – were going to have to change.
The COVID-19 pandemic that shut down cities in 2020 accelerated the hollowing out of downtowns everywhere.
So what to do about those downtowns that are not going to see the same rate of workers travelling to and from them on a daily basis?
There are many examples of cities around the world and here in Canada moving in the right direction. Calgary is investing in converting office space into housing. Kansas City and Luxembourg are among those offering free transit to make city access easier. Paris, London, Chicago and Montreal are some of the cities leading the wave of municipalities building out extensive bike lanes.
So what is the key to a revitalized downtown that is prosperous, sustainable and fun?
It comes down to three priorities … people, people, people!
More people living there. More people working there. More people visiting.
Downtown revitalization is not about trying to force office workers back into their cubicles. It is about making downtown a place that people want to be.
Here is how we can tackle each of these three challenges.
More people living downtown
First, we need to provide the housing people need. Conversions of existing office buildings are a good start. But only about 25% of office buildings in most cities are suited for conversions. Still, conversions could result in a significant number of new neighbours. In Calgary it is estimated that the number of residential units will increase by 24% in the city’s core with the planned conversions. (1)
Then we need to make downtown an exciting place to live. Easy to move around by foot or bike. Cleaner air. A greater priority to people and less to cars. Copenhagen, Denmark was the first city in the world to remove cars from a busy main street in 1962. And it worked despite the resistance and dire warnings. Pedestrian activity increased by 35% in the first year. Narrowing streets and converting them back to one-way, and ensuring there is activity at ground level will have an immediate effect.
More people working downtown
Office workers are not coming back to the downtown core to work the traditional 9-to-5 five days a week. So what do we do with all these empty commercial spaces, beyond residential conversions?
Rents will likely drop – that’s just supply and demand. What if landlords, both public and private, were willing to offer substantially cheaper rents to get vacant spaces filled, especially on the ground floors that are currently empty? Downtowns may need a short-term jolt, to kickstart areas and get them hopping with activity.
A good place to begin would be cultural industries. Artists, musicians, chefs. Another would be start ups and other companies that skew to a younger workforce. Watch the coffee shops and brewers follow.
Make working downtown cool. Look to artists to animate at street level. Make space available for artists’ studios, and invite people to wander through. Create workspaces that double as community spaces, inviting visitors to enjoy low-cost and free activities that will bring more people downtown.
Municipal governments would need to help make this happen. They would need to change their zoning rules in downtown cores from strictly commercial to residential, light industrial and other permitted uses that allow for a mix of activities. They would need to coalesce the community around a shared vision for a better tomorrow and figure out the appropriate incentives – and then get out of the way of the people actually making change happen.
More people visiting downtown
Now, how to get people to visit? Every city has unique features that will attract tourists, visitors and residents. You need to start by identifying what is unique in your city. And you need to think BIG. Or your city will get left behind as younger workers, tourists and anyone who can will flock to the cities that were not afraid to change.
And let’s be clear. The public spaces that attract visitors are places where people can walk around. Great public spaces are stress-free – but cars are inherently stressful. Car-free or car-light zones are far more important in getting people back downtown than are wide roads designed to move thousands of 9-to-5 workers to and from their offices.
New big attractions - think the Halifax Library - will give someone a reason to come as a tourist or from another part of town.
And small attractions. Once the investment has been made by the city to build something big, governments really need to step out of the way and empower community groups to create the small attractions that make life exciting around the buildings, in the buildings and everywhere in between.
Make sure people can arrive by transit or by foot or bike. We want them enjoying the new attractions and businesses, not looking for parking.
So where to start?
I know we said BIG a few sentences ago but why not start big with one block. Seriously. Pick a single block with a property owner ready to go big. And then make it the kind of block that everyone wants to be part of.
Here in Ottawa, one of the busiest spots on a weekend, and increasingly on weekdays, is a commercial building at City Centre off of bleak Albert Street. It is a hopping spot with nearby neighbours and a large variety of businesses including a bakery (with a patio), a brewery (with a patio), a gym (with doors open to the outside) and a pool hall. It is at the intersection of both rail lines, along bike lanes and it boasts cheap rent. A decade ago, it was probably the last place in Ottawa anyone would have thought could be reinvented as a place for people.
So why can’t we recreate this in the downtown core? Well, we can. And over the next few articles we will look at what needs to happen to turn any downtown into the thriving space we would all want to hang out in.