Hitting the Rewind Button

Fifteen years ago, downtown was heating up, stepping up and building up.
What happened?

I RECENTLY CAME across a ‘Downtown Renaissance’ feature from The London Free Press, dated October 9, 2002. It looked at our downtown’s past, present and—showing a lot of optimism—future.

Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, so, if that was imminent in 2002, how fares the product of that blessed event 15 years later? Let’s look at some of the articles, and jump forward for an update.

One headline read, ‘Core now Forest City’s showcase’. Hands up if you think our current downtown is the kind of showplace of which we Londoners can be proud.

An article on MainStreet London compared the core’s problems to an elephant, and noted how you eat the animal “one bite at a time”. The MainStreet elephant has turned into a nasty T-Rex, with a dangerous tail that keeps crashing into things in ways unanticipated by council or the merchant’s association. Even one bite at a time, it has proven to be quite a meal.

The feature also heralded the development of a new focus on downtown economic development that was intended to put London on the national stage. Well, despite several agencies and associations spending millions of dollars on staff, studies and projects, not much new has been brought to the core.

“If you can get a strong financial partnership with the private sector, then you’ve cracked the egg that has evaded downtown cores for years,” was the view of one expert.

To extend the metaphor, the “cracked egg” turned out to be Humpty Dumpty, as city hall proved to be unimaginative and unwilling to recognize genuine opportunities.

‘Residential projects heat up downtown’, read another headline, referring to new downtown residential towers and city grants to encourage downtown property owners to build big—or at least invest in upgrading their premises.

Sound familiar?

Sure, residential expansion has continued, but at a very leisurely pace. And landlords report many tenants just move from one building to another, without the overall tenant base growth that had been expected.

Another article mentioned how merchants have high expectations that the new arena and library will help attract spending to the core. All those hockey and music fans at the John Labatt Centre and the readers and researchers at the new downtown library were expected to fill the streets and be exposed to the wares on display in merchant windows. Retailers like KIngsmill’s and Nash Jewellers were quoted, saying they expected to see a significant upswing in business as a result.

It turned out the London Knights pack the now-named Budweiser Gardens every game (not a sure thing at the time), and thousands of people pour onto downtown streets once or twice a week during the season. Scores of other entertainment events there and at the London Music Hall bring hundreds of thousands more into the core.

Lots of feet on the street, but Kingsmill’s closed its doors, Nash Jewellers fled to the suburbs and there are no similar businesses taking their places. The long-awaited downtown retail boom never happened, in spite of massive city investments in the arena, market and downtown library.

There’s lots more, but you get the idea. Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the negative effects of the failed Galleria London mall being allowed by the city to convert to offices when hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant office space existed in the downtown, including most of our heritage buildings.

Enthusiasm is one thing, and the articles are certainly that. But words don’t change things unless they are accompanied by effective action, and for the past 15 years our downtown has had an abundance of the former and precious little of the latter. The results are, sadly, very plain for all to see.  Jim Chapman