In her best-selling book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” the late Jane Jacobs said cities go through a cycle of growth and decay with some managing to reverse the cycle and grow again by taking back their downtowns. Doing this creates “a ballet of the sidewalk,” by breathing new life into crumbling inner cities and recapturing their souls, said Jacobs who’s generally considered the greatest urban geographer that ever lived.
I don’t think Jacobs, who lived half her life in Toronto , ever visited Cranbrook, but if she did I could see her eyes lighting up at the sight of our downtown, which is a text book example of a downtown with a lot of potential, but still looking for a soul.
I know this is not news. In the Cranbrook Connected plan “Restore the Core” is identified as one of the “Eight Big Ideas” to put our city on the road to civic sustainability. City Council has responded with a downtown revitalization bylaw providing a five-year tax break for businesses that upgrade or expand their premises. The Spirit Square project helped to kickstart a downtown revival with the gazebo bandstand in Rotary Park, the new Wall of Honour and leveraging money for the repaving of 10th Avenue and improvements to the sidewalks . The Farmers’ Market has been a huge success and has even expanded into the winter months and the recent announcement by Heidi’s Restaurant of a new brew pub downtown bodes well for the future.
So as far as downtown goes there is definitely some good news, but we would be sadly deluding ourselves if we thought the battle for our beleaguered downtown is over. What’s needed is more ideas, more investment and more vision if our downtown is to become the heart and soul of the city again as it often appears in Jim Cameron’s Janus column in the Daily Townsman. What follows then, in no particular order, are a few ideas of my own along with others I’ve gleaned from fellow Cranbrookians that would love to see our downtown become the dynamic, vital, beating heart of the city again.
“Redeveloping the old Super Value lot is the lynch pin to downtown revitalization,” says Chris Ayling, one of the main forces behind the Cranbrook Connected plan. That along with mixed residential/ commercial development downtown “would be the number one thing to seeing more people downtown after 6 p.m. and not just going to the bars,” Ayling says.
Ironically, the fire last year that leveled several old buildings on Baker Street could be the key to getting something new happening on the venerable old street, says well-traveled Cranbrook Councillor Bob Whetham. In his travels, Whetham says he’s seen cities in South America and Europe with covered, transparent, pedestrian walkways or “gallerias” that give easy access to stores and shops in all kinds of weather. “We need something unique that would create excitement downtown, Whetham says. In the winter issue of “Cohere,” a fine new cultural quarterly about Cranbrook, writer Sioux Browning points to several advantages to living and doing business in downtown Cranbrook, but also points to a major disadvantage – “Baker Street is a stub, blocked at both ends.”
Speaking strictly for me, I couldn’t agree with Browning more. Several bad decisions by previous City Councils have virtually walled off the downtown from the rest of the city. No wonder tourists and travel writers are always talking about “the strip” because they never see downtown with the way the streets are configured now. And frankly, despite some fine stores, restaurants and entertainment facilities downtown there simply isn’t enough of them and the access is inconvenient.
So what are we going to do?
I admit I can’t offer any magic answers, but why not try to build on the success of the Cranbrook Connected process. Why not a “Restore the Core” task force or committee strictly manned by volunteers with strong connections to City Hall, the Downtown Business Association and the Chamber of Commerce? I’ll even volunteer to chair it if there’s any interest.
Could we ever create “a ballet of the sidewalk” in downtown Cranbrook? We’ll never know if we don’t try.
Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and City Councillor. His opinions are his own.