Downtown Revitalization: A Failure of Imagination

Peterborough’s downtown is a thriving cultural hub, and a decaying mess of poor city planning

Hootenanny

The Hootenanny on Hunter Street

It has rained on and off all afternoon, but even tornado warnings can’t dampen the spirits of hundreds of people enjoying live music on the open-air stage at the intersection of Hunter and Aylmer Streets. Cafés and bars are bursting at the seams. Street vendors fill the entire car-free block. Beau Dixon, backed by his Slips ‘n’ the High Fives band, are wailing and rocking in prime-time soul-a-billy style. Oldsters and youngsters, infants with headphones and goofy grins, perched on mom or dad’s hip, and even Federal Cabinet Minister and local MP, Maryam Monsef—everybody’s grooving in front of the stage like there’s no tomorrow. This is downtown Peterborough.

In addition to street parties like the annual Hootenanny on Hunter, what I love about living downtown is the ability to walk or bike to find everything I need—local produce at the farmer’s market, live theatre and music, the library, yoga classes, the hardware store, art galleries. Bonus—I always run into someone I know.

Lansdowne Street, on the other hand, is a sterilized blight, devoid of architectural or cultural significance, identical to any city in North America—the same fast food outlets and bland big box stores, stocked with cheap stuff imported from China.

What gives Peterborough its je ne sais quoi is not those cookie cutter stores on Lansdowne. It’s the distinctive indie businesses and cultural venues that form a tight-knit, inter-dependent neighbourhood in our core: Natas and Black Honey, our everyday meeting places; the Only with its one-of-a-kind patio and upper-level performance space; exceptional live music at the Garnet (a self-defined dive bar) or at the Spill (“a local pirate ship of art and culture”); desirable restaurants, from St. Veronus’ mussels and Belgian brews to Island Cream, home to an incomparable roti; and last but not least, the many heritage buildings on Hunter, George, and Water Streets.

Garnet

Inside the Garnet on Hunter Street

Our gem of a café district grew out of a relatively small municipal investment in 2003, which in turn attracted private investment to the area. The $1.6 million in municipal upgrades widened streets along Hunter Street, once a sorry stretch of used appliance stores, resulting in new cafés, patio dining, performance venues, and nightclubs. In just over a decade, Hunter has come to life, particularly in the summer, and in spite of the seasonal exodus of students and cottage-goers.

Many shoestring grassroots organizations like Artspace, Gallery in the Attic, Evans Contemporary, Public Energy, Theatre on King, the Spill, and the Garnet are indispensable in the core, multi-tasking as incubators, equipment sources, galleries, and performance space, not to mention ad hoc administration and marketing support for city-wide arts events.

“I believe that most art is predicated on space, particularly the performing arts and visual art,” says Peterborough writer Tim Etherington. “Cheap, available space has always been one of Peterborough’s greatest assets, but that is much more by accident than design. The hollowing-out of the manufacturing economy and the flight to the suburbs created a vacuum downtown that was fortunately filled by artists and a nascent creative economy.”

Numbers don’t lie when it comes to the value of culture as an economic force—ten times that of the sports sector and much larger than the combined value of agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, according to Statistics Canada. In light of the persistent poverty in the arts sector, one could argue that the arts actually subsidize the greater economy significantly, performing more as a social enterprise.

Etherington elaborates: “I first moved here from Montreal in ’91 because of the Union Theatre. That space attracted an influx of mangy punk artists like myself—and my contemporaries from that scene now own restaurants, bars, shops, run theatres, own homes, sell real estate, publish novels, teach children, coach soccer teams, volunteer for charity, raise families—all of the exact kind of things that any city would want from its citizens.”

Affordable space is essential to artists. Furthermore artists tend to cluster together, sharing resources, working collectively, and socializing. They create something which Chicago artist Theaster Gates calls “heat.” Artists move into rundown areas, upgrade them at their own expense, and create a sense of place, a buzz and excitement that attracts developers like bees to a flower.

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Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)

Exploring downtown Peterborough’s upper-floor spaces

Yet the arts community falls between the subsidy cracks, not clearly fulfilling either a governmental business or housing mandate. There are plenty of upper-story vacancies available in the core, but even at the going rate of $8 per sq. ft. for commercial space, decreased from former years, it is out of range for the average artist.

John Climenhage is a well-known and much-loved local painter who has lived here with his family since 2001. His large and powerful landscapes grace many homes and businesses in Peterborough. He rented in just about every building downtown. He gave me a tour of the upper-story spaces along George, Water, and Hunter Streets with their high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows—spaces that artists and urban aficionados drool over—sitting empty and deteriorating or used for storage.

“Above the Spill, that was all spaces,” says Climenhage. “I was in that corner one, and there were a couple of other artists and musicians and there’s another set in the back. I don’t know what happened but the landlord just said ‘everybody out.'”

“Then I was around the corner in the Roy Studio.” But the rent was too high so he talked to the owner of the spaces above the Apollo Grill and got the top floor for $100 a month. “Then they turned it into apartments.”

We pause at at a former dollar store at 385 George Street, 10,800 sq. ft. of prime space. “There’s a nice community centre—oh wait, the lady who owns it lives in Toronto; it’s been mostly empty for over a decade.”

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)Over Money Mart on George Street are two floors of stunning arched windows. “They won’t rent out the top floors because someone will try to dig through the ceiling and steal all the money.”

We turn down Hunter and he points out the building occupied by Lillico Bazuk Galloway Halka law firm. “There’s a third floor, nothing up there…there’s a pool table. They could just make it available to artists. Or over the Red Dog—it would be a great place to have a studio.”

Climenhage’s frustration is palpable as he maps out space after vacant space. Some need work, or are unheated, he notes, but renting to artists creates some potential income where there was none at all.

Urban / regional planner and professor at the University of Waterloo, Mark Seasons has lived and worked in many mid-sized communities before settling in Peterborough. He calls downtowns like ours “delicately poised entities which have been under assault” from post-war shopping malls and online buying trends, a problem that is shared by cities across the country. Empty space in the downtown core creates a perception of economic depression even where there is none.

“This is a blue-collar town that for decades and decades took its heritage for granted,” remarks Seasons. “We have tremendous building stock here—really good quality buildings,” he continues. “I think it’s a real jewel.”

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In the 70s, when Toronto’s commercial downtown had become a ghost town at night, the city loosened the building code to allow for densification and legal non-conforming spaces, many already occupied by artists. Soon developers twigged to the allure of the urban loft. Now too many condos compete for space and light, condos that most of us can no longer afford.

Similarly Vancouver’s central core is being hollowed out by real estate speculation, in large part foreign-owned.

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)

Peterborough is not immune. A couple of so-called luxury condos are under construction—one over clothing store The Patch and another at Atria, the former heritage YMCA building sold by the city in a notorious boondoggle to Dr. Jenny Ingram for $1 in 2007 and allowed to deteriorate for a decade before it was flipped for a half a million.

Perplexingly, the City has also chosen to subsidize private developers to build brand-new multi-story apartment buildings to meet the affordable housing demand when plenty of un-utilized space exists in the core. Moloney Project Development Corporation built a 40-unit apartment building on Barnardo Avenue with City incentives of $1.6 million, and another 28-unit building is under construction in a small neighbourhood on Edinburgh Street, with over $70,000 in capital funding and incentives per 500 sq. ft. unit. Yet there is no metric in place to gauge the efficacy of these projects in poverty reduction.

The lack of similar subsidies to help owners of older properties comply with fire and accessibility codes is one of the downtown’s major obstacles, according to Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) Director Terry Guiel. “Upper-level conversion to either businesses or housing is essential if the central area is going to meet density targets under the Places to Grow Act or remain vibrant,” says Guiel.

In 2005, the Province of Ontario’s Places to Grow mandate aimed to manage urban sprawl and financial growth in the extended Golden Horseshoe region, including Peterborough. The Provincial Land Use Planning Framework encourages “brownfield” (existing vacant or underused sites) redevelopment.

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)Guiel notes the success of the commercial occupation of several large white elephant office buildings downtown, but laments that “the City cannot continue to allow zoning amendments like Giant Tiger, Mastermind Toys, and the Casino to be placed on the periphery of the city. They are allowing competing nodes that deter people from venturing deeper into the city.”

The Downtown Economic Analysis (PDF), updated in 2015 by Urban Metrics, recommended preservation of heritage architecture, concentration of cultural, residential, and retail spaces, and a livable, tourist- and academic-friendly downtown.

The Central Area Master Plan (PDF); the Little Lake Master Plan (PDF); and Vision 2025—A 10-Year Strategic Plan for Recreation, Parks, Arenas and Culture (PDF) all repeat the refrain of the need for more quality arts facilities, and protection for heritage architecture. Even the 2012 Municipal Cultural Plan‘s (PDF) apparent support of the arts in seven strategic directions is meaningless without a clear implementation strategy. Through the limited lens of economic analysis, these studies lump zoos, restaurants and pickleball courts into the same “entertainment” bag as our wholly original art, theatre, and music.

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Surely we are awash in a festive array of studies and plans for the downtown core. But are we equally awash in contemporary, urban, and creative thinking?

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)Mark Seasons pinpoints the problem in three parts: updating a commercial property means a rise in property tax; new building codes mandate costly dedicated fire escapes, not to mention the expenses of asbestos removal, plumbing and electrical upgrades, or accessibility modifications; and fragmentation of property ownership—absentee landlords, or owners of whole blocks who lack a downtown communal spirit.

“It comes back to leadership, imagination, courage, willingness to take risks,” says Seasons. He points out that Peterborough is isolated, not in crisis, with a personality split between urban and suburban sensibilities.

Seasons would also like more presence from Fleming and Trent. But never a casino, he says. “People go there to gamble, they leave with no money.”

Coordinated support from different levels of government is key. He adds, “It’s less a function of finance and more a function of political will and vision.”

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, favours an independent planning body, public engagement, and transparency when dealing with stakeholders, and creating a “strong urban design culture and reputation for knowing how to do density well” within the planning department.

“Great urban design is not something to be politically traded off against other public aspirations like more affordable housing or environmental sustainability—indeed, smart city-making understands that great urban design is the bedrock for successfully implementing the many other goals we have, including affordability and sustainability,” states Toderian.

Michael Gallant of Lett Architects sees innovative ways to expand density. “I actually spoke to [the] Planning Committee last night about the need for a Secondary Plan for the Avenues neighbourhood,” he says. “The Avenues are unique with back laneways, which presents an opportunity to develop and provide affordable and accessible detached housing stock within the city’s core without redeveloping the existing heritage buildings and streetscapes.”

Councillor Dean Pappas believes “that the building permit process needs to be streamlined and the Provincial Government needs to put some real money and effort into supporting Places to Grow.”

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But there is good news for Peterborough landlords. The City of Peterborough offers a host of grants for the establishment of residential units on upper floors of buildings in the Central Area as well as for facade restorations through the Downtown Community Improvement Plan (CIP). Additional tax breaks exist for property owners through the City’s Heritage Tax Relief Program and the Development Changes Exemption.

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)The Canada Cultural Spaces Fund supports the improvement, renovation, and construction of arts and heritage facilities. For owners who want to partner with arts organizations to upgrade their property, ArtsBuild Ontario has extensive resources to make it happen.

Still, where is the policy in Peterborough that will keep studio rents low, leave artists in place, and protect the spaces needed for a necessarily gnarly, non-profitable, ever-changing arts culture that in turn seeds a healthy economy? How do you redevelop the derelict spaces of downtown, while preserving affordable space, particularly for the vulnerable arts community, and avoid the temptations of gentrification?

Organizations like Toronto’s Artscape and Hamilton’s Cobalt Connects illustrate the positive social and economic impact that reconfiguring space into cultural hubs can bring to a community.

Justine Simons, Deputy Mayor for Culture in London, UK plans to create dedicated “artist zones” that protect concentrated areas of artist studios from development and up-pricing.

Downtown revitalization (photo credit Ann Jaeger)And she is not alone. Across the globe artists are beginning to dig in their heels against exploitation of their ability to re-purpose unloved buildings, of their vision and unpaid labour, of the intangible value they bring to urban life. The refurbishing of heritage streetscapes is inherently bound with the arts community that breathes life into them.

I was looking at Wayne Eardley’s photos of the demolition of the General Electric plant and thinking about the irreparable loss of a heritage building. I thought about the retrofitting of Toronto’s Hearn Generating Station into Luminato’s flagship arts venue over the last few years. Both vast, historic, industrial spaces. But one has been lost forever while the other was given a second life. What was needed was imagination.

 

Hootenanny photo by Michael Hurcomb. The Garnet photo by Bradley Boyle. All other photos by Ann Jaeger.

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

troutinplaid.com
Troutinplaid

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.