By Jay Menard
You can flex all you want. If there’s no muscle behind it, no one’s taking a second look.
London’s council recently endorsed a $15.9-million plan to create Dundas Place — transitioning a stretch of Dundas St. from Wellington St. to the Thames River into a flex street.
The idea, is sound in principle. But while there’s been a lot of talk about transformation — an empty word that can be filled by any concept that fits your desires — there’s little talk about sustainability.
And that’s where the concern is.
I love the idea of a flex street. I’ve seen it work. But I don’t love the idea of a flex street as the first step in a process. Dundas Place has a strong “If you build it, they will come feel.”
And that’s true. They’ll come.
After that? You’ve got to give them a reason to keep coming back.
Montreal’s Ste-Catherine’s Street has a couple of sections that are flex streets — one near Place des Arts and one a little further east in the gay village. They are successful because of two key factors: they are event based — there’s always something going on, festival-wise to sustain the flex street; and because there are hundreds of well-established businesses, restaurants, shopping venues, and tourist spots along that route.
Many of which stay open evenings and weekends.
I live and work downtown. I’ve supported downtown since the pre-Galleria days and, as youths, my friends and I would hop on the bus and do our weekly route from the Comic Book Collector on Adelaide and Dundas, downtown to Bid Time Return and Wizards (and Wizards II). But, as it stands now, it’s hard to imagine people coming downtown on a regular basis.
That stretch of Dundas is an odd combination of vacant storefronts, head shops, and amazing boutiques.
But many of those unique stores aren’t really regular-repeat-business venues. They’re good for quirky gifts, finding that unique item. But the average Londoner likely wouldn’t patronize those businesses in enough of a volume to support it.
Cities like Montreal that have flex streets also depend upon tourist traffic to supplement those activities. It’s fair to say that for the bulk of the time, Dundas Place will have to be supported by Londoners — and, again, we have to give them a reason.
It can’t be about “people should come downtown because look at all the cool things we have.” People support stores in the suburbs not because they don’t care about London or are bad people, but rather because they have families and lives to lead. They appreciate the convenience of shopping in areas in which they live and they can generally find everything they need in a clean environment, protected from the elements, that allows them to get back to what they want to do.
And that’s not being a suburban zombie. That’s prioritizing their lives so that they have the time to take trips with the family, go to their kids’ soccer or baseball games, or work on the home.
If you want them downtown, they need a reason to come. More importantly, we need to give them a reason to return. A pretty waterfront and a gussied-up stretch of road is only window-dressing. If what they see and experience doesn’t match up, then it’s another lost opportunity.
I love attending the Dundas St. Festival and Nuit Blanche. I’m regularly downtown at The Arts Project or, increasingly, the old Novack’s building for some amazing creative enterprises. We go to all the festivals (and, yes, the fact that all of this is walking distance from where we live is a bonus).
But we also take evening walks through downtown. We see how the sidewalks roll up at 6 p.m. I’ve come out of countless Budweiser Gardens games to be greeted by nothing. I’ve navigated through the groups of people that give downtown a negative reputation. There are significant challenges downtown that serve as barriers to bringing people downtown.
You can be all Pollyana and suggest that we should be walking, arm-in-arm, singing Kumbaya and understanding the social issues that bring certain people and activities downtown, but the reality of the matter is that people have a choice. I choose to support downtown in spite of its faults. There are others who, rightly so, prefer to avoid that element and experience life in a more comfortable environment for them.
And that’s OK. That’s a solid choice. And if you’re saying, “Well, we don’t want them downtown anyway,” you’re wrong. They are exactly who you want.
Dundas Place can’t be an altar where the already converted worship, but must reach out to those who have left the flock! They are the ones who can bring new money into the core and make this venture sustainable. They are the ones who will not only come back themselves, but bring friends, family, and visitors from out of city.
But they need reasons. Plural. Not just a pretty street that can be converted, but regular events and activities that give Dundas Place a reason to exist.
In Field of Dreams, if he built it, they would come — “they” weren’t the fans, they were the players. Even as a baseball fan, I’d go to see a couple, maybe three, corn-field ball games. And that’s featuring ghost players, including one of the all-time greats.
We can create a vibrant downtown, but it has to be ours. Dreams of Toronto or Montreal won’t work. Even the favoured comparison — Pittsburgh — is not realistic. Pittsburgh has at least three things London will never have: Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins. Thanks to professional sports, there are at least 130 days and nights where there is a major-league sporting event, with all the tourist traffic that comes with it (41 for hockey, eight for football, and a whopping 81 for baseball). As much as anyone could love the Knights, Lightning, and Mustangs, there’s nothing comparable here.
It’s great to dream, but action upon those dreams needs to be rooted in reality. Who is going to come when we build it? Should we create a venue and hope the market develops? Or should we build a venue after we’ve proven there’s a market and a demand. Increasing activities downtown, filling store fronts, and cleaning up the streets first would be the best idea in my mind.
Fortunately, the investment, despite the $15.9 million price tag is minimal. Only a small portion of that amount – $2.4 million – is allocated to its esthetics. The majority of the funds are earmarked for much-needed maintenance of this stretch of road.
That said, I hope those behind the Flex Street proposal know that if they’re following the mantra, ” if we build it, they will come” – ‘they’ can’t be the players who have pushed this concept through. ‘They’ must be the fans from all around the city — the ones who have other options for their time and dollars.
Otherwise it could be game over before it even gets started.