Marshaling the urban corps

Posted on July 06, 2011 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Moncton’s well-deserved reputation for entrepreneurial brio, technological sophistication and cultural vibrancy should be reflected in its downtown. Some say it is. Others say not entirely. Most concede there’s work to do.

MARC CHOUINARD, this May morning’s peripatetic guide to all things downtown Moncton, stops suddenly to survey the crater that opens like a wound in the centre of an otherwise thriving block of business fronts on the city’s main drag. Directly across the street rises the Capitol Theatre, which he manages with a loving care that has transformed the once dowdy venue into a bustling nexus for Maritime arts and entertainment. The contrast could not be more evident or more stark.

“You know, you go along and you see this business and that business and you think, ‘Okay, hey this isn’t too bad’,” he says. “And then you hit on this and you wonder, ‘What’s going on here?’”

After 10 years of asking that very question, Chouinard is ruefully playful about the downtown “landmark” — all that’s left after a fire incinerated a bar and forced the city to demolish the remains. “It’s my big hole,” he snickers. “It’s there each morning when I come in, and it’s there each night when I leave. For all I know, it’ll always be there just, you know, grinning at me.”

Not that he’s copacetic about this or the other examples of dereliction, if not actual decay, in Moncton’s urban core. Pointing westward, he notes with chagrin a row of vacant shops adjacent to the railway underpass (commonly known as “the subway.”) “Many years ago, I had my first business in that block,” he says. Pointing eastward, he fixates on what, by all rights, should be a heritage property, but is, instead, a mournful-looking edifice, home to a string of street-level eateries, and upper floors of empty space, boarded windows and a prodigious aviary. “Yeah,” he snarks. “I call it Pigeonville. How would you like to be slurping a bowl of soup under all that?”

Still, Chouinard’s larger point isn’t that his beloved downtown is now entirely for the birds. In fact, he’s pleased with the city’s new plans to focus on core development with high-density housing, a cultural district and a 7,000-seat, mixed-use civic centre. His problem is that despite these initiatives, and in key ways, the urban core — which stretches west to Vaughan Harvey Boulevard, east to King Street, north to St. George Street and south to Assomption Boulevard, with Main Street framing the spine — does not consistently reflect the broader community’s tough, entrepreneurial, sophisticated, technologically savvy and culturally rich attitudes and endowments.

While other parts of the city can languish without threatening its social and economic coherence, its downtown must not only be vibrant: It must appear to be vibrant and in every way. “Our big events, our concerts and football games and track and field tournaments, bring people here,” he says. “But once they are here, where do they go? They go downtown. They don’t want to look at a pigeon-infested building or a giant hole in the ground.”

Of course, the spectrum of opinion constantly fluctuates about the actual condition of the city’s urban core. Some, like Mayor George LeBlanc and Downtown Moncton Centre-ville president Louis Leger, concur with Chouinard and recognize the challenges. But, they insist, these are not ruinously difficult to overcome for a municipality that is, in most measurable ways, thriving.

“Look at what’s been happening in just the past five or 10 years,” LeBlanc says. “In 1996, we had 8,000 people working in the downtown area. Today, we have 15,000. We’ve opened up a public Wi-Fi network, and we’ve seen quite a few high-tech companies, doing big things, locate in the downtown. That’s not to say we can’t do better. I’m personally committed to making the urban core stronger.”

Meanwhile, Leger pointedly asks: “Can we improve? Most certainly. But you can say that about almost every city in Canada and the United States. We do have some things to focus on. There’s no doubt about that. And we are focusing on them every day.”

Others seem almost sanguine. “I don’t want to appear to be a Pollyanna or anything,” say Stephen Clerke, who owns and operates the Gifts Galore craft retailer with his wife Joanne on Main Street, “but we’ve been here 26 years and we see the downtown as an economic centre. We choose to be located here because we rarely have a slow day. I’ve tried to look at things in a negative way. And I do see a handful of empty buildings which could be filled. But this downtown is 161 years old. We all have our sicknesses through our age. We all have our highs and lows.”

What seems inarguable, however, is that like many cities of its size (population: 126,000), Moncton considers its core district crucial to its civic health. And everyone agrees that its future depends on the degree to which its residents and appointed caretakers engage in its near-constant reinvention.

Well, nearly everyone.

REUBEN COHEN may be the last man alive who remembers what life in Moncton’s busy hub was like in the 1920s and ’30s. A profoundly successful lawyer, financier and deal-maker in his day, he now rusticates in a sprawling one-storey, split-level in the old west end of the city, where, just outside his front door, signs warn motorists to slow down for “children and pheasants.”

Seated in his living room, amidst the Steinway piano, impressionist paintings and the gilded furniture of a bygone age, Cohen is generous with his recollections. “I’m 90 years old,” he says. “I was born on top of a pool room in a cold-water flat on Main Street. My father owned a grocery store next door to it. My mother would take me to Sunbeam bakery to buy cream puffs at five cents a pop. That was amazing. The big- wigs in the city would always head downtown to get their daily shaves at the barber shop. That was, I believe, 15 cents a pop.”

On market days, farmers streamed in from the countryside, their wagons brimming with produce. During the winter, local trappers displayed their pelts in the windows of the little stores that dotted Main Street for the fur buyers who came down from Montreal. It was a different era; and in some ways, a more civilized one. “Whenever a funeral procession would pass by, everyone would stop what they were doing, and the men would doff their hats,” Cohen says.

Once shopping malls and suburban developments began to dominate the municipal landscape, he insists that downtown areas had no chance to survive, let alone thrive, as they once did; they were no longer the gathering places for the public square. Walmart was. “You can’t compare one time with another,” he says. “You can’t compare an age when the only commercial games in town were, in fact, located downtown, with an age when cars and trucks take so many people so far away for their shopping and eating. That’s just the way things happen.”

So, now, when the grand old man ponders the future of Moncton’s current core, he starts with a stunningly provocative proposition. If such changes in the life of a community are fateful, is it worth spending energy and resources deliberately reinvigorating Main Street; a strip that can no longer compete in the old ways?

“No,” he says simply. “I don’t think it’s imperative.”

He may be on to something, if only superficially.

Peruse the history of this community, and it’s hard not to conclude its progress has been shaped as much by providence as by design. Originally a Mi’kmaq settlement, it became a village of Acadian farmers before their expulsion by the British in 1755 left it abandoned for more than a decade. In 1766, Captain John Hall arrived from Pennsylvania with a land grant and six families in tow. Formally incorporated as Moncton (named after the English general who defeated the French at nearby Fort Beausejour), the township thrived as a centre for shipbuilding. The arrival of the railway changed that, and Moncton slid into recession. When the Intercontinental Railway selected the town as the site of its headquarters in 1871, a new wave of prosperity rolled in, and community fathers adopted the Latin phrase “Resurgo” (I rise again) as its official motto. To one degree or another, Moncton, which attained city status in 1890, has been ebbing and flowing like the tides ever since.

In the late 1970s and 1980s the community was hit hard by the closure or restructuring of several major businesses. In 1976, the Eaton’s catalogue division shut down, followed by the loss of CN’s locomotive shops and the mothballing of CFB Moncton at the end of the Cold War. By the 1990s, however, timely intervention by both provincial and federal governments provided city leaders with the financial wherewithal to diversify the economy. Slowly, but convincingly, the community’s retail, manufacturing and service sectors expanded in what was called the “Moncton Miracle.”

According to a statistical overview prepared by the City of Moncton’s economic development office, “With a 6.5 per cent population growth between 2001 and 2006, Moncton is the fastest growing urban centre in Atlantic Canada and the 10th fastest growing Census Management Area in Canada . . . [adding] more than 25,000 jobs to its workforce since 1990. Annual employment remains strong in historical terms (70,200 in December 2010). Home sales in 2010 reached the fourth highest level in history. There were twice as many houses sold in 2010 than a decade ago. Total value of building permits issued in 2010 period reached a high of $147 million. Retail sales were expected to reach $2.14 billion in 2009, 26 per cent higher than the Canadian Cities’ average.”

Still, what these numbers (and the historical trends behind them) don’t fully illustrate is the degree to which successive waves of prosperity and decline have affected the attitudes and priorities of the people who have surfed them. The ups and downs fate wrought actually produced the unusual level of civic self-awareness Moncton currently enjoys. This, more than anything else (and to a greater extent than at any other time in the city’s long story) is what now drives its progress, especially that of its urban core.

And something else. Something the award-winning urban planner, the late Jane Jacobs, once wrote about the essential, ephemeral meaning of downtown areas: “Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city.” Edith Robb, a former editor at the Moncton Times & Transcript, puts it another, yet equally elegant, way: “Monctonians are not apathetic about their downtown. This is a city with an abundance of natural leaders and keen observers who know what’s best for their own neighbourhoods. You have to nurture and mobilize the community. If [its] energy and imagination can be tapped, then achievement will follow.”

GEORGE LEBLANC resists criticizing the city he loves and leads. Born and raised here, the long-time council members has served as chair of the Municipal Plan Review Committee; and as a member of the Advisory Committee on Public Safety, thePension Board, the Finance Committee, the Water and Sewer Rates Committee, and the Practices and Procedure Committee. Still, he thinks Marc Chouinard has a point.

“Yeah, that spot across from the Capitol Theatre has been sitting there way too long,” he concedes. “I find that personally disappointing, because I think it has lots of potential. It’s going to take somebody to pick it up and develop it. I’m not sure why that hasn’t happened. I also think the subway block has all kinds of potential. I believe it changed hands in the past year or so, and I expect you’ll see some development soon.”

These scars and gaps in the downtown offend him most obviously for aesthetic reasons, but also for the message they broadcast to both residents and tourists. “Healthy cities have healthy downtowns,” he says. “I fundamentally believe that if you don’t have a vibrant and strong downtown, then you don’t have a vibrant and strong community. If the core of your city wastes away, eventually the entire city will suffer.”

And while Moncton is in no immediate peril of this, LeBlanc adds, “We have to remain vigilant. We have to pay constant attention. We can’t let down our guard.” In His Worship’s imagination, vigilance, constant attention and guarding-up mean two things: community involvement and sound planning. Earlier this year, he and city council introduced a citizen-engagement process, called PlanMoncton, to craft a comprehensive vision — the objectives of which include enhancing buildings, landmarks and landscapes; developing a strong retail corridor at street level; and increasing the residential density in the urban core.

Of these three, the last is especially novel for the city. “One of the keys to continued prosperity in the downtown is people,” LeBlanc says. “It’s important to get more people not just working in the downtown but actually living there. Within the next several months, you’re going to see several projects with shovels in the ground. In fact, council just approved some infrastructure to support high-density dwellings. You’re probably going to see 300 units going up. So, that’s good news.”

So is the formation of a new cultural board and action plan which, again, draws on the expertise of a variety of committed volunteers. Its priorities include downtown revitalization and urban planning; festivals and events; funding and economic development; infrastructure; heritage promotion and preservation; partnerships and collaboration; promotions and communications; and public art.

But perhaps the signature project is a mixed-use civic centre, which is still just a gleam in city council’s eye, but something LeBlanc says “we’re working really hard on . . . There are some who say it shouldn’t be located in the downtown, but the vast majority think it should be. In terms of incremental development that can come about, we have had a lot of inquiries. There’s a lot of pent-up excitement. I have been approached directly by some big players who are just waiting for this to happen. They are interested in bringing new development to the downtown as a result of this.”

Taken together then, a picture of a revitalized downtown Moncton begins to emerge. It’s a busy, humming place with public art installations, summer festivals, thriving businesses, packed restaurants and pubs, and regularly scheduled big-ticket shows and events. In effect, it is an image that consistently reflects what the city’s residents imagine themselves to be: tough, entrepreneurial, sophisticated and culturally aware.

Notably, it’s an image devoid of even the slightest evidence of dereliction — a proposition that should bring a smile to the faces of people like Marc Chouinard, who believe a downtown area should always aspire to the greatness its people’s aspirations, not their occasional lapses, proscribe.

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