Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And now, a full response to The Spec

As of this morning, the previously-published 'farewell' Spec article on the retiring Ron Marini has been updated. It can be found here

If I hadn't already been sufficiently 'motivated' to respond to the piece, I sure was this morning, when this popped out at me:

'A downtown once dangerous and derelict, Ron Marini saw beyond the rot'

Of course, the problem I have with it is that nowhere in the article is the cause of this 'rot' either examined, or explained.

Shame on The Spec for this.

But this 'update' on the article serves as a perfect lead-in for an editorial I had begun yesterday.

How does a downtown lose its edge?

How does a downtown go from being a focal-point of retail and entertainment, a true core of consumer concentration, to an area about which many comment 'I never go downtown unless I have to. Ugh.'?


(More importantly, yet not to be addressed this time out, how do you reverse the process?)

With the City of Hamilton's Manager of Downtown Renewal Ron Marini's retirement, and this article published in The Spec painting a rather too-facile retrospective of his accomplishments over the past ten years, I've felt compelled to take an 'in a nutshell' look at how downtowns decline...specifically how Hamilton's got to be where and how it is today. If only to provide a better sense of what Marini had been attempting to overcome. And whether back-patting is appropriate.

We live in a consumer society. One based on acquisition. On materialistic, acquisitional consumerism, where so very great a portion of most people's self-regard is at least informed by purchasing something. Endlessly.

(Oh, and I should add that we live in an automobile-centric society. Which, of course, is merely another manifestation of the this consumer default...while after all these years, still forming the basis of it.)

There's very little these days that's not an expression of this consumer urge. In fact, as I pointed out on RTH this year, even social networking is a consumable. So it should come as no surprise that while consumers can reasonably be shown to be sheeple (the power of advertising and marketing cannot be underestimated; this is, remember, how elections are won), their habits can raise an area to ascendency just as easily as it can stomp it into the ground by simply staying away.

If less people over time frequent an area...say, an downtown...it might be for several reasons. One might be that discretionary income has fallen off; the economy has tanked, therefore people just aren't spending money, period. Another might be that a competing area - one not necessarily very far afield, it can actually be quite nearby- develops into a more desirable draw for consumers, therefore leaving the original area in its wake. The most commonly seen example is a new mall. A third could be the main source of consumers, the primary catchment area undergoes a severe shift and drops off precipitously. A fourth might be that new, negatively-tinged influences impact the area, not just taking the 'bloom off the rose', but for lack of a gentler analogy, 'manure settles on everything'. If there are sufficient negatives to a downtown...even if they're just perceived negatives...the area's traffic will suffer. If this continues long enough, and if nothing is done to counteract whatever has been brought to bear on the area, you eventually reach a crisis-point. Though naturally, there can be endless other reasons, a final one to consider is a wholesale shift in shopping habits.

Hamilton's descent into where it is currently...that of a non-downtown downtown, one that simply does not exhibit much of what the average consumer wants in a destination shopping location...has, at various points over the past five decades had all of these factors in play.

1) While the economy may not currently be in 'besieged' mode, Hamilton surely has had to contend with some harsh interludes since 1970 during which it had the shite kicked out of it. Never mind the fact that the city's had a pretty catastrophic shift in makeup (from steelmaking to...to...?) has to a great extent eviscerated the local economy for many.

2) Over the course of the past fifty years, seven local malls/conglomerated shopping areas opened. (Naturally, this doesn't include The Centre Mall, which first opened in 1955) Downtown Hamilton's Lloyd D Jackson Square débuted in 1972, taking more than a decade and a half to be brought to fruition. While much can be bandied about the merits of what had been conceived of as 'Civic Square' (I blogged about this issue here.), and 'what was lost' as a result of the mall opening at all, the fact remains that the mall did enormous sales numbers for years, employed God-knows-how-many at the retail level (At the very least, hundreds) and was a consumer draw for the longest time. However...

Eastgate Square- opened in 1973
Limeridge Mall- opened in 1981
Oakville Place- opened in 1981
Mapleview Mall- opened in 1990
The Meadowlands- opened in 2005 (?)

Even while Hamilton 'grew', these 'new' shopping options progressively sliced off pieces, removed chunks from whatever potential business Downtown Hamilton was generating/partaking of.

3) There's nothing like a captive audience. Whether we're talking about a dense, nearby catchment area, or in the case of Jackson Square, a consuming office population with its Stelco Tower. But when the bottom fell out of the steel market, and Stelco contracted, withering away in almost all regards, the mall lost a huge source of sales. Coming as it did at a time when the economy was struggling, the Negative Domino Effect kicked in. (I know this because my mom worked in Stelco Tower while I worked in retail in Jackson Square in the 80s, we were both there, we saw it first-hand, up-close-and-personal.)

4) I don't want to focus too much energy on this aspect, the 'negatively-tinged influences', but to deny that the shift in social services landscape downtown has not had a corresponding derogatory impact on the area's profile (read that as 'how people see the area' and 'whether or not business feel encouraged to locate there') is, at best, naïve. Complain all you want about people turning up their noses at 'undesirables', but this element is right there, on the 'Shopping Desirability' check-list...and not in the right column.

5) People don't shop the same way they did 'back in the day'. Online purchases. Outlet malls. Moreover, people have increasingly seen shopping as a leisure activity. As a means of entertainment. A day-out, an excursion, however you wish to frame it. Tied in with this is something the downtown can't offer what non-urban shopping areas (malls) can: free parking. (I'm really, really reluctant to get into the whole 'public transit as a fortifier of downtowns' discussion, because frankly, I find a good portion of what those who are its strident adherents offer up is based on an 'If only' wish-list. So I'm gonna leave it alone. For now.) When you combine this factor with the indisputable truth that downtown sure ain't nuthin' compared to what it used to be retail-wise, you have another piece of the puzzle.

Over the past twenty years, Downtown Hamilton has been on an ever-downward spiral. All of the above factored into its decline, but I've left out what probably accounted for much of this: Hamilton City Council took its eye off the ball.

During this time, we saw phenomenal peripheral development while Downtown Hamilton (and in fairness, pretty much the entirety of the north end) was ignored.

Left alone.

Mostly abandoned to the decay of ambivalence.

In other words, in favour of more flashy, more profitable peripheral development, the stewardship of the city's core, its very heart, was abrogated.

Good stewardship means paying attention, being engaged in the management process, having a solid -and flexible- perspective...and most of all, some vision. It sure seems from my vantage point that none of this was present regarding Downtown Hamilton.

No, it might not be fair to point out in hindsight that something should have been done when things began to unravel circa '85-'90.

But neither is it fair for yet another fluff piece to be issued where Mr. Marini is concerned, especially keeping in mind the last time I came across such a piece, as noted here.

I wish Mr. Marini well in his future endeavours. But I sure hope that given how much has been lost over the past twenty years, that somehow, someway, Hamilton City Council in all its various forms is able to better execute its stewardship of the downtown than it has.

Oh, and that The Spec does a more thorough job of examining the state of affairs in a suitably objective manner.

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I'm always interested in feedback, differing opinions, even contrarian blasts...as long as they're delivered with decorum...with panache and flair always helping.