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A Tale Of Three Main Streets

Gregg Eligh

By Mike Wicks

Main Street is the glory of Canada. If a community has no heart, it has no soul; and its heart should beat faster at the core. For here is the glory of the past, the symbol of stability, the structures that our fathers and their fathers erected, the visual reminder of another time that gives every small town a sense of continuity. — Pierre Berton, foreword to Reviving Main Street (1985)

In a small town, main street is where everyone goes to shop, dine, and wander around meeting friends and being neighbourly. It’s a small town’s downtown, where the heart does indeed beat faster. The main street in a city neighbourhood can be the same kind place and become a focal point for community activity. In Victoria, we have many main streets and many centres, but none as popular as the “villages” of Oak Bay, Cook Street, Estevan, and Cadboro Bay, all places with the ambience and sense of community that municipalities try for when revitalizing their main streets. But achieving the goal of a revitalized main street is more than a matter of planting flowers and painting buildings.

Martin Thomas of Victoria is a downtown revitalization specialist. His formula for reinventing main streets? “Think of it as a party. You clean the house, you get the food, you dress everyone up, you send out invitations, you have a party, you clean the house, and start on the next party.”

The success of the party depends not only on decisions made at the municipal level but also on the enthusiasm and support of the community.

“Municipalities can only go so far in improving infrastructure, calming traffic, and in beautifying streetscapes, says Randy Humble, director of development services for Sidney. “If a main street revitalization project is to be successful, it has to be a concerted effort by the town itself, property developers, landlords, and the retail community. Public acceptance is also a key element to the ultimate success of a main street revitalization project.”

Revitalization is an important factor in countering the neglect that can kill a main street and impact the economy of the municipality. When a main street is neglected, the community loses pride in the neighbourhood, graffiti and vandalism spread, potholes appear in the pavement, and the place looks unloved and unwelcoming. Stores become run down, landlords stop maintaining their buildings, new construction ceases, cars  rush by, and for lease signs are posted.

Cathy Wilkinson, owner of Citrine Boutique on Goldstream Avenue, says main street revitalization “puts enormous pressure on owners to take responsibility for their buildings.”

“As the area in general and, more specifically, the keener retailers improve their facades, old and tired premises have increasingly less appeal to passing shoppers, and economic reality starts to prevail,” says Wilkinson. “For instance, when I moved in here two years ago, the restaurant premises directly opposite was completely run down. Now that the building’s been renovated and it’s an upscale Italian restaurant, not only is it busy, but I’m getting their patrons noticing my store and coming across the street.”

In a healthy main street, businesses can grow, and there are connections between storeowners and customers, residents, and acquaintances. People start looking out for each other, creating a neighborhood, and keeping it safe and friendly for everyone.

Main street revitalization is a challenge that has been taken by the mayors of Sidney, Esquimalt, and Langford and all three have common objectives: to calm traffic, create a safe community environment, and attract outsiders to come and live, shop, stroll, and spend money. Sidney went to town starting in the 1990s, Esquimalt took up the cause recently, and Langford is right in the middle of reconstruction.

Book Shops and Cafés

In Sidney, visitors can walk a kilometre of red brick sidewalks from the Mary Winspear Centre at the west end of Beacon Avenue to the ocean at the east end. Along several blocks, they can shop for gifts, groceries, and books, stop for coffee several times, have a meal, visit a museum, sit on a bench and admire the flowers and street sculptures, stop for a beer, or find a room for the night.

A successful main street revitalization has several elements that make it a destination, and Sidney’s version succeeds here. It can be as simple as a cluster of book stores — there’s a dozen in the town — cafés, events such as the summer street market, which draws 5,000 to 6,000 people every Thursday evening, or attractions like the new Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre. It opened just last year and has already had 120,000 visitors, most of whom spent some time walking in the business district.

“Beacon Avenue is an ‘un-mall’ and that’s what works,” comments the centre’s executive director, Angus Matthews.

Of the main streets discussed here, Beacon Avenue had the best bones to begin with. The urban form was already there, buildings fronted the main street, there were no gaping spaces or parking lots, it’s punctuated by short blocks and interesting side streets, and the terrain is level.

Sidney’s major rebuilding of Beacon Avenue took place between 1995-2000, but work hasn’t stopped. Murray Clarke, Sidney’s chief administrative officer, estimates that the work carried out on the corridor, including one block either side of Beacon Avenue, from the highway to the ocean, cost an estimated $3 million in today’s dollars.

Next up is Sidney’s downtown waterfront plan, a proposal to redevelop the wharf at the foot of Beacon. Plans may include a floating public pier behind a breakwater and a central downtown boat harbour for mooring visitors’ boats — a watery extension of Beacon Avenue.

Longtime Sidney business owners Clive Tanner of Beacon Books and Marie Rosko of Christine Laurent Jewelers both argue for more residential development on Beacon, especially affordable housing. “Maybe the height restriction should be raised to six storeys in some areas,” says Tanner, something Rosko agrees with. “The biggest deterrent to growth and continuity are the older buildings. But there are no easy answers,” she says.

Sidney has come a long way from when Grant Rogers of the Marker Group (developer and owner of the new Pier Hotel in Sidney) was a boy. “When I was young, I thought Sidney had arrived when the 7-Eleven came to town! Now people come to shop in Sidney — it’s a destination.”

Navy Town Needs Work

Since Esquimalt spent $800,000 on Esquimalt Road (about a quarter of that on beautification elements), the atmosphere is very different. The street where drivers used to speed is calmer with bike lanes and new medians filled with trees, plants, and flowers. Two sections of the road are redone, sandwiching a stretch centred on Esquimalt Plaza that’s still awaiting revitalization. “The objective is to have a continuous main street which connects the business core, creates vitality, and promotes walkability,” says Mayor Barb Desjardins.

Starting from CFB Esquimalt, the street is a mix of new condominiums coexisting with the century-old Tudor House Pub, followed by a tired strip mall with a convenience store, an English fish and chip shop, and a Thai restaurant. Then come apartments, a retirement residence, and the Land Conservancy’s offices.

Esquimalt Plaza and the Archie Browning Sports Centre provide a break in the residential density before the street returns to a mix of old and new apartment blocks and single-family homes. At Head Street, there is another miscellany of stores ranging from a new drug store to a convenience store that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1960s. Esquimalt’s main drag has a variety of promising elements but still needs work.

“Esquimalt Plaza is the core of Esquimalt; we have the Archie Browning Arena on one side and the sports centre on the other,” comments Mark Harris, owner and manager of Esquimalt Plaza Dry Cleaning. “It’s like a community here. People just come in to chat about their latest medical treatment or who’s visiting from out of town. Some people complain about the changes to Esquimalt Road; it’s a lot slower now, but in the long run, it should be better. People will feel less stressed and perhaps take time to notice the stores in the Plaza.”

Harris also points to the benefits of using low-maintenance, highly visual impact plants. Esquimalt used more than 100 different trees and plants along its main street, including compact Oregon grape, huckleberry, juniper, and Douglas fir.

Country Grocer recently refurbished and expanded its store, taking over space vacated by RBC, which moved to a larger location at the mall. The $1 million in

leasehold improvements demonstrates a long-term commitment to the mall, but it doesn’t signal any major redevelopment of the town’s main shopping magnet.
Raymond Bergen, president of Vancouver-based Canreal Management Group, which owns the mall, remembers Esquimalt from his navy days in the 1960s. But he says this central piece of the town’s main street may not change much in appearance for years to come.

“I really like this property and am committed to it, but there are some significant impediments to major renovations or redevelopment, such as tenants holding 20-year leases, and those that have recently spent large sums of money in refitting their premises.”

A major redevelopment may become necessary or prove financially attractive to Canreal, says Harris. “This would be very disruptive and would probably mean retailers moving to a new location temporarily. Customers get used to one place and, once they change their patterns and shop somewhere else for a while, it takes up to two years to get them back. And, of course, with redevelopment comes higher rents.”

Revitalization expert Martin Thomas sees rent increases differently. “I always say I hope the rents do go up, as this proves the revitalization is working and that the area is desirable.” If the street is successful, he says the tenant and the landlord win and the biggest winners are the clients — the public voting with its dollars.

These comments highlight challenges in any downtown revitalization. All three municipalities have to deal with aging and sometimes ugly buildings that aren’t a match for the newly beautified, traffic-calmed, and flower-filled main streets.

As Esquimalt Road becomes increasingly pedestrian friendly, the mayor hopes more people will stroll between the three commercial nodes. She says the next stage of revitalization is creating a village core behind the municipal hall — a civic plaza that will be a mix of stores, restaurants, and residences.

When people think of Esquimalt, it’s shipyards and a navy base, a blue-collar town with a reputation to match. But the town is reinventing itself and its main street beautification is an indicator of things to come. Another signpost to the future might be Swallows Landing, a $60-million waterfront project that’s almost sold out. It has Esquimalt’s first condos listed for $1 million-plus and only the penthouses are left. Might it be an example for Esquimalt’s commercial property owners and retailers still undecided about sprucing up their premises? If outsiders like Alberta-based Mandalay Developments can seize the opportunities on Esquimalt’s budding potential, can the locals afford to lag behind?

Langford: The New Contender

Fifteen years ago, driving down Goldstream Avenue was an exercise in avoiding potholes, and vandalism was widespread, along with for lease signs on stores. New businesses weren’t coming to town.

It’s different today, even in the economic downturn, Langford leads the region in housing starts and business is thriving. In 2009, Langford issued 602 licences to new businesses. Even taking into account businesses that did not renew, there was still a net gain of 257 new companies.

The first step in remaking Goldstream Avenue started in 1999 on a two-block section from Jacklin to Peatt. Over the next three years, the city spent $1,282,000, excluding necessary items such as traffic signals, road works, sewer, drainage, streetlights, or other utility costs. The current phase between Bryn Maur and Veterans Memorial Parkway is costing a further $350,000 in landscaping and traffic calming and $125,000 for a gateway arch to welcome people to the newly christened Goldstream Village. The 270-metre stretch will have a traffic circle with a water feature and clock tower as its focal point. The municipality’s new slogan is “Live the Lifestyle” and it fits the downtown village theme in this short section of Goldstream.

“The community needs a pedestrian-friendly focal point. Our plan is to encourage downtown living by making Goldstream more vibrant, provide entertainment, and ensure it is a safe environment,” says Mayor Stew Young. “The trees along this part of Goldstream will be lit at night and ambient music will play along the street; and to encourage people to hang-out, in a positive way, we have free wi-fi, and the express library next to the coffee shop offers free laptop rental.”
Bill Beadle, owner of the Goldstream Station complex which houses his Station House pub and 26 retail units, recognized the potential nine years ago when he demolished the old Westwind Plaza motel. After building the retail strip, he added 65 condos above stores and offices.

“It’s important to get traffic to slow down, so people can see what retail there is, notice parking spots, and get out of their cars and walk around, says Beadle. “The commercial/residential mix has calmed late night activity; that and increasingly older, professional, and more affluent residents moving into the downtown core.”
Beadle is not the only one building and selling condos in the area. The Evo West and Strathmore developments, plus Lux and the Reflections condo-retail building along the VMP, have attracted people to the idea of living the trendy life in downtown Langford — which would have earned loud laughter a decade ago.
The truest sign of successful revitalization is successful retailers. Frontrunners opened at Beadle’s centre in 2005 and recently moved to a larger unit there that fronts on Goldstream. Storeowner Mark Nelson says, “We’re doing really well. The new phase of revitalization looks awesome. It will get people out of their cars and poking around the stores.”

Nelson and several others in the mall are confident enough that they are purchasing their commercial properties after leasing for a time. “More and more of my tenants are coming to me and asking to buy their property. This shows great faith in the revitalization work being undertaken by Langford,” Beadle says.
Opposite Beadle’s development is Langford Centre, a strip mall with anchor tenant Western Foods, which opened 36 years ago. Aside from high-profile newcomer Starbucks, which set up recently in a freestanding building close to the street, not much has changed since the 1970s. Stores are set well back from the main street behind the parking spaces. Young predicts that the revitalization of Langford’s downtown core will encourage investment and that work on rebuilding the mall should start in two to three years.

The Role of Retail

What does main street revitalization mean to storeowners in the revitalized areas, who face continuing stiff competition from big box stores and the malls in Victoria dressing themselves up like main streets, such as the new Uptown development at the Saanich end of Douglas Street? The retail sector is a vital part of the story of these three main streets. They need to deliver exceptional customer service, diverse and unique product lines, and welcoming premises. It may sound simplistic, but people buy more when they feel relaxed in a friendly, clean, and safe environment. Offer that and a revitalized main street can compete with the malls and the big boxes.

Muffet Billyard-Leake, owner of Muffet and Louisa in Sidney, commented, “People who shop at malls are a different breed than those who shop in a main street, and Costco shoppers are different again, although they will also visit main streets.”

A main street is only as good as the experience people get when visiting it and part of that experience, according to Thomas, is free parking. “There should be no meters or parking charges, and there needs to be a clear understanding that staff cannot take up street parking.”

With revitalization comes rejuvenation and the energy released brings vibrancy to a village or town. When these things come together, they are a powerful aphrodisiac and people fall in love with places and revisit often. Sidney has achieved this, Langford is about to, and Esquimalt is working hard at it.

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