Wednesday, November 22, 2006

City core worth leaving alone

Today's London Free Press lead editorial, City core worth it, reviews the work city council "has been doing for decades" trying to restore London's downtown to an officially proscribed nostalgic utopia of original bustling prosperity:

… enough reports on core renewal to fill the downtown library, enough meetings to put even the most diehard downtown lover to sleep. Enough tax incentives to make suburban developers weep. Enough tax money spent on megaprojects in the core to finance a ring road…
and concludes in not quite so many words that the work has been a failure so far, as raising the subject itself goes to prove. The Free Press' solution? More of the same, "for decades more"!

Why would the Free Press counsel continuing political intervention after the city's decades-long policy of downtown torture by a thousand taxes and regulations has so evidently resulted in consequences so opposite to its intentions? Because it costs the Free Press nothing to continue as media proxies for a political class that cannot even imagine anything less than the necessity for its active intervention in and direction of almost every sphere of social and economic activity in the city. It is what the political class has raised itself for, and unintended consequences be damned for insufficient force.

Not that the Free Press would admit as much; instead, it characteristically obscures the indefensibility of a proposition with the patronizingly meaningless sentimentality we have come to expect of it:
Downtowns may struggle, but they are still the heart and soul of most cities. They make us unique. They are key to our history — and our future.
Three mawkishly incontestable but irrelevant sentences are designed to direct our acquiescence to the wisdom of decades of blight by political agency. The sad thing is that many Londoners are either as equally dedicated to the rule of vapid moralizing, or otherwise resigned to sinking more of their tax dollars into the downtown pit of centrally planned decay that they will never bother to visit.

If the city were to resign its self-appointed mission of engineering miniature Shangri-Las, and failing miserably in the process, a corresponding reduction in taxes and abolition of burdensome regulation would allow the downtown to actually thrive in some form or fashion… it just wouldn't necessarily be in the way of the rosy vision of bygone days to which the city's fathers would have everyone be sold on. And what's wrong with that? Times change, whatever the appeal of retrograde civic puritanism to that minority of constituents who actually vote. It's not your father's downtown anymore, and it never will be again. At least let it be something else…

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

The problems faced by downtown are intractable anyhow, and merely symptomatic of how we've changed.

The sooner the situation bottoms out, the better the chance that renewal will come.

1. Long term trends towards demolition and eradication of suitable real estate for small business, retail and independent services diminished the tax base overall. For residents, this creates a lack of options for unique non-franchise, non-american offerings downtown.

2. Mega-mono-lithic city projects downtown coupled with completely silly planning policies (examples such as the arena, convention centre, old library, one-way streets, galleria, Mews, train tracks, market etc) don't enhance the streetscape, livability, diversity or independence of downtown. A walk through downtown is like a visit to a cross between a 3-D bomb-shelter catalogue and a wind tunnel.

In fact, big city-backed projects draw downtown into a quagmire of upward spiraling public expenses matched with ever diminishing tax revenue.

For example, the arena -- a non-essential redundancy for performance/sports complexes the city already had, alone costs the taxpayers around $4 million a year.

Considering that if there were 500 merchants downtown, that Arena with no significant spillover for private businesses would be costing $1000/mo for each and every one of them in land taxes to bear. (That's not how it works (directly), but just a simplification for illustration of how far wrong these projects are going.)

3. The worse the downtown gets, the greater the centripetal force towards the 'burbs, car-oriented shopping culture and big box (park once) shopping, all further decreasing density and adding higher costs of maintenance of the municipal infrastructure, declined public transit services, lower sustainability, ecological nightmare.

Of course, coming along with all that, the better the potential for profits and values for a sub-species of old-guard land speculators and developers who -- oh, did I mention? happen to pay for election signs especially for counsellors who back new roads and bridges to un-amputate their specualtive holdings.

Of course, London developers get to take turns taking out their monocles and spend time being counsellors and controllers. We could call this, "how to sell new development in an otherwise stagnant real estate market so that we can take your money off to Toronto."

With this comes the easier penetration and extraction of wealth by the American chains with deep pockets who are left behins, in 1,000,000 square foot measures. Why do we need a downtown again?

This situation doesn't take a degree in rocketry, and it totally reprocesses the development profile and overall commerce of the city as a whole.

This situation which has been kindled -- of city projects and planned begetting development money -- is similar to the relationship of the downtown merchant to the city government -- the entire city becomes like a the downtown merchant, trapped by locked down land ownership issues and sprawl and faced with being force-fed a diet of lower value jobs, capital flight and decreasing independence.

Rinse, repeat until finished.