The downtown areas and older neigbourhoods of our cities provide powerful symbols of our cultural heritage. Both buildings and landscapes tell stories about those who came before, and provide people with an essential sense of connectedness that contemporary commercial architecture seems unable to achieve. Without knowing anything about the people and history of a place, we can observe signs within our historic urban centres that tell us where people gathered for worship, commerce and recreation. Historic built forms also point to the time periods during which areas were developed, especially periods of prosperity and growth.
Despite the cultural importance of our city centres, they have suffered significant decline. This pattern has been well documented and correlated with the rise of suburban living and increased availability and use of private motor vehicles. There is no need to repeat this analysis, except to say that in most cases, we are now undoing fifty years of neglect and less than successful large-scale interventions, such as downtown malls. And happily, we have moved from a largely pessimistic view that suggested that attempts to intervene in the decline of downtown areas were doomed to failure, to an optimism buoyed by numerous successes. What has made the difference?
Urban regeneration (a much more palatable expression than “urban renewal”) requires a number of actors to be effective. Two that play key roles are local governments and private investors.
The local government’s role begins with a clear policy direction that places value on historic urban centres and supports urban regeneration to that end. This involves identifying what is important. It continues with identifying obstacles to urban regeneration—social issues, transportation problems, deteriorating streets and services, neglected public spaces and run-down old buildings that are no longer economically viable—and developing various plans to address these issues. Understandably, no private investor will invest in an area where streets, public spaces and key public buildings show major signs of neglect. Well-thought-out improvements to those same spaces send a clear message that the local government is involved and serious about making a difference within the community, and that private investors can move forward with a greater degree of confidence. There is a clear need for capable developers who have the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to deal with the challenges of renovating and restoring old buildings to make them suitable for new uses.
The Cambridge Core Areas Strategy is an example of a comprehensive approach. It identified priorities for renewing streetscapes, emphasized renewed connections with rivers and downtown parks, and called for strategic funding of improvements to privately-owned buildings.
Financial incentives for private property owners are widely used to support redevelopment of existing downtown buildings. Funding programs help encourage renovation and restoration of older buildings, as well as the redevelopment of vacant properties for new uses. These programs are typically combined with some form of urban design policies to ensure that new developments are sympathetic with the historic built form, and that they maximize benefits to the community.
Such programs are often tied directly to the increase in taxes paid on redeveloped properties. In this way, the higher costs of re-using building sites (compared to clean and vacant sites on the periphery of a city) are mitigated, and communities benefit in the long term because existing streets, underground utilities, and other services are used more efficiently.
The historic Hespeler Village area of Cambridge, Ontario illustrates how local government involvement leads to private investment. A public commitment to this downtown area has been demonstrated through street improvements, financial incentives such as loans for building improvements and fee waivers, and notably, a major renovation and enlargement of the historic Carnegie Library. The City’s Library Board intentionally chose to remain in the downtown as a public sector anchor.
In the mid-2000s, a plan was developed to take advantage of the Speed River’s proximity. In addition to making detailed recommendations for improvements to public spaces, the plan set out ideas and principles for the eventual re-use of obsolete industrial buildings.
The vision for Hespeler Village was realized in a significant way after a circa-1900 stone factory owned by American Standard was closed. A developer acquired the building, and is now working toward redeveloping the building for a mix of residential and commercial uses. The historic architecture is impressive, and its location is superb: on the riverbank, overlooking a park. The developer, who is investing about $30 million in this venture, is obviously a risk taker, and he has a reputation for having a heart for his community. This development may prove to be a catalyst for further positive change.
In some remarkable cases, private sector interests have partnered with public institutions in powerful ways. The University of Waterloo School of Architecture is an excellent example. Formerly housed in a rather utilitarian building on the main campus in Waterloo, the School had long outgrown the space. A number of community-minded business people from Cambridge, about a half-hour drive to the south, made a pitch to the director of the school that he simply couldn’t refuse. They would make sure that a suitable building would be provided if he would work to move the school to Cambridge.
An obsolete 90,000 square foot textile mill built built in the 1920s, located on a prime downtown site on the Grand River within the former City of Galt, became available at a reasonable cost. The City of Cambridge agreed to fund a building endowment ($7.5 million over a fifteen-year period) to satisfy the University’s requirements—to ensure perpetual funding of building maintenance—and provincial funding was secured to undertake a very thoughtful renovation that represents a superb example of adaptive re-use and emphasizes natural light and views of the river for the benefit of the students.
The City also provided project management and procurement expertise, and the same group of local business people used their networks to secure substantial donations of building materials, like high-quality modern light fixtures, worthy of a school of architecture. The end result has been a great success, enthusiastically received by the students who are able to learn their craft in a unique setting that is distinct from the modern University of Waterloo campus.
This is an excellent example of a partnership—undertaken by willing and enthusiastic people with the credibility and expertise to make it happen—that is serving to infuse an historic downtown with interest and vitality. It required a champion—a group of them, in this case—along with a local government that already had a plan for downtown revitalization and could instantly recognize the value of the proposal when it was pitched.
Urban regeneration requires partnerships and coordination, where governments work with private owners to effect positive changes that benefit communities by ensuring that locally important spaces and buildings continue to be valued and used. We can imagine that this is not unlike the manner in which many of these places were first created 150 years ago or more, in times of optimism and dynamic growth.