Thursday, April 01, 2004

Revitalizing Downtown Brampton (The Wrong Way?)

So the City of Brampton has decided to take steps to rejuvenate its downtown. It sounds as though the City and its mayor, Susan Fennell, have caught the smart growth bug, and are hoping to direct development to downtown to revitalize the area, create a major centre within the city, and reduce development pressures in greenfields on the outskirt. (A month or so ago, the Star ran an article profiling the City, the plans, and the mayor; unfortunately I have no URL and the 14-day search has expired.)

Great news. Downtown Brampton may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I'd take it over most of the rest of Brampton (especially the Trinity Common area at Bovaird and the 410 — don't get me started on that one!). It's got some nice, if generally not terribly distinctive, architecture in the surrounding leafy residential areas, and it's maintained its core main-street development styles while introducing some higher-density commercial and residential projects. There's a neat old warehouse just west of the GO station that's recently been converted successfully to office space, and the downtown transit terminal is generally considered to be a successful example of a symbiotic, public/private development. Oh, and there's a neat old theatre on Main Street just south of the CNR overpass.

Well, that neat old theatre apparently is what's holding back development downtown. The City's planned to raze the theatre and build a new performing arts centre on basically the same site, "because councillors believe it's vital to downtown rejuvenation." Not only that, but of course the cost is already going up: it was originally estimated at $56 million but has since jumped $12 million before construction begins.


The decision to proceed with the project will pay off big for the downtown by sparking investment and real-estate deals in the area "like you've never seen before," Fennell said.

I applaud Fennell's desire to hem in growth and direct it towards the downtown, but I hope this isn't the start of a trend that sees the development obliterate the things that give downtown Brampton its charm. Perhaps it should come as no surprise to regular readers, who will probably recognize my bent towards the traditional — I find something special about going to the old Fox Theatre on Queen Street East that I don't get at a multiplex such as the Paramount down the street. Mind you, I've only been to the Paramount a couple of times, so perhaps I haven't recognized an obsolescence that should be blatant to more regular patrons, and if the City is intent on building a performing arts centre it's better off in the downtown than, say, up on Bovaird Drive surrounded by a thousand parking spaces. I just don't see it being the salvation of downtown that Fennell and her Council do.

To truly revitalize the central area, I would leave the Heritage Theatre alone, and do something about some un- or under-utilized sites in the area — presumably by way of policy rather than by actual construction (as would happen with the performing arts centre). Potential sites? The GO/VIA station (the parking lot and the area to the west), and (from what I recall) the area northwest of Queen and Main (around the LCBO). There's some other underused lots to the east, towards the hospital.

The Brampton Mall is another good candidate, although somewhat to the south. It's a textbook example of a 1950's suburban plaza, back from when central malls were the new idea but before fully-enclosed buildings became widespread. From the street, it's still got prominent and fairly well-used tenants (including anchors A&P and Shoppers Drug Mart), but the central mall has been all but abandoned and has an eerie ghost-town aura to it — you can almost see a 1950's image of young boomers promenading through before your eyes. Right next to the Etobicoke Creek, and lining up in the corridor between Shopper's World and downtown, it seems to me to be a prime redevelopment candidate.

(Perusing the City's web pages on the proposed Performing Arts Centre, I see they're trumpeting that it will feature "direct parking and access to the Theatre via the garage". While I can see why this is considered a good thing (particularly in January), new urbanist Andres Duany takes the opposite approach in Suburban Nation: if the City wants to encourage increased activity in the downtown, they should be taking a page from shopping mall developers and siting parking facilities so that they act as an anchor with the primary destination — so that people park their cars, walk past several small, facilities scaled to attract the attention of the pedestrian, before reaching the other anchor.)

I suppose there's no point in complaining about something that's already underway and has been for nearly a year. I hope it's not a mistake; if I turn out to be wrong, I'll gladly eat my words!

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