In most of our cities, it’s too late to cry about the shift of commercial activity from high streets to asphalt plazas; the deed is done. If the high street is going to survive, it must function primarily as the core of an urban village, and gather new residents around it, especially seniors, within a walkable area.
Mission City is an example: a townsite in the District of Mission, a Fraser Valley municipality with a population of about 37,000. Mission grew up as a mill town, and is still home to the Cedar Shake and Shingle Bureau (“The Recognized Authority Since 1915”). The premiere shopping venue is The Junction, a plaza constructed in the 1990s. There’s a new neighbourhood shopping centre up by the high school, and another one in development on Highway 7.
The old downtown, centred on First Avenue, combines modest eateries with useful services — insurance and banking, post office, public library, economy department store, a couple of clothing stores — although there’s no supermarket or drug store. The Official Community Plan says of the downtown that “there is no dominant retail theme, anchor tenants, or agglomeration of quality businesses to attract shoppers on a regular basis.”
This passage may suggest that First Avenue should be competing with The Junction; but based on what I’ve seen in the urban villages around the region, such competition is almost impossible. In general, the retail dimensions of the high street buildings are wrong; the parking is wrong; and most people say they don’t have time to walk (although they’ll walk a mile at Walmart.) There are rare cases, like Robson Street in Vancouver, where tourists and affluent residents will support mall-type stores; but in most of the Lower Mainland, exponents of the high street will have to settle for a modest ambience based on the needs of a different kind of customer. The village will depend on people who live nearby, many of whom travel on foot or by transit, although it may also profit from visits by day-trippers who prefer village views to parking lots. The core users will be seniors, poor people (there are plenty of social agencies down on Mission’s Railway Avenue), transit-oriented working people, and friends and family of the people who run the shops and services.
To become a part of the walkable village, people need somewhere to live. Mission City has a single mid-rise tower, and a few medium-density complexes, but we saw no current construction on the day we visited. The District of Mission’s 2008 OCP recognizes a need for affordable rental housing and seniors housing in the core area, and high-density housing near the commuter rail station. The OCP also promises a Central Area Development Plan that will identify where this new housing should go; this is a tough site, on a steepish hill, and development must be done carefully. Judging from the municipal website, the central area planning process is still pending.
The Downtown Business Improvement Association, meanwhile, has a nice website that extols the commercial attractions of the area. However, like most BIA websites it makes no reference to community, or to the advantages of living in Mission City as opposed to just driving through it.
My co-tourist was our friend Seija Juoksu, a homeowner in the District who hadn’tconsidered the potential of Mission City. We had a pleasant lunch at Dakota Joe’s on First Avenue. In Seija’s view, it would make sense for local government to invest downtown-area improvements, and also to create a pedestrian connection between the village and the big shopping plaza over the tracks. She said the municipality has recently slowed the speed of traffic on First Avenue to 30 kilometres an hour, which makes the street more livable.
But she said much of the municipality’s visionary energy has gone in recent years to a proposed Waterfront development away from Downtown. There’s been talk of residential towers and sidewalk cafes, and taxpayers have funded a new waterfront promenade to get things started. There are doubtless some local people who see this scheme as far-fetched: the Waterfront area, aside from the expensive sidewalk, is an expanse of machine shops and storage yards, effectively inaccessible on foot from the historic village and other residential neighbourhoods.
(This is post #8 in our Urban Villages series.)