Downtown Revitalization – Some Thoughts

Since the early 1800’s, Richmond Hill’s Historic Village Core has been the centre of the town both geographically and socially. This area today however has lost a good deal of its centrality, and indeed the last few decades have seen a significant decline in the vibrancy of the Village Core. Retail habits have changed, as other nearby retail centres have emerged, such as Hillcrest Mall. There has also been an increase in big box retail centres. As a result, the need and desire to shop in that area of our town has decreased.
The Village Core is important to residents. They have told me that we need to make a collective effort to revitalize our Village Core. They want this area to regain it’s past vibrancy and again become an inviting, important and “central location” for commerce and our town’s social and cultural life. Richmond Hill residents appreciate that our history is a proud one, and one that should be respected and celebrated. A revitalized Village Core is one important way that this can be accomplished. I believe that it can be a place where our social and cultural life can be celebrated and most importantly enriched. It represents a real opportunity for Richmond Hill and it would add significant value to our community.
In the 1980s and 90s adult entertainment clubs and adult movie stores were a prominent part of the Village Core. The Major Mack and Black Hawk Hotels were significant aspects of the area – who remembers the last days of the Major Mack Hotel when the facade was painted a vibrant pink? A good deal of progress has been made since this time. Presently there are no strip clubs and only a few adult movie places left.
In considering the past efforts to revitalize this area and the actions, both successful and unsuccessful, that we have taken as a council and as a community to reach our goal, it seems there was never a clear or comprehensive enough vision of what the goal looked like. Also, importantly, there was not a clear path to reach this destination. As Randy Bachman says in one of his songs: “if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there”. I believe what we need is a definitive plan, so as the area redevelops, we know what the big picture looks like and we know what road will take us there.
The necessary plan must address short term and long term needs. If we are to see significant revitalization of existing Village Core properties, we need to be cognizant that this investment will be permanent – for the future as well as the present. If buildings are built in the wrong size, in the wrong place or at the wrong scale it will preclude us from ever having the space to do what is needed to produce a vibrant core now and in the future. For example, we need an adequate supply of convenient parking today but this supply will not be exactly what we will need in 20 years as we move more to transit oriented urban culture. The plan must have built in flexibility and must not preclude future needs.
Components of this necessary “plan” exist today. Several documents have been approved that speak about the goal of a revitalized core. For example, Council approved the Richmond Hill Downtown Design and Land Use Strategy (DDLUS) in 2009, and we now finally have a mostly approved Official Plan (OP) in effect. The final component is the Downtown Secondary Plan, which is almost complete. This penultimate plan will be consistent with, and expand on, the goals described in previous documents. It is anticipated that this Downtown Secondary Plan will provide vision, and the resolution needed for individual property owners to know exactly what is expected as they decide to improve, redevelop, and in some cases demolish and redevelop their properties. We need to move forward as quickly as possible with the completion of the Downtown Secondary Plan (scheduled for completion in 2016). This plan is a crucial step in accomplishing the revitalization of the Village Core and it is what has been missing in the past.
Historic Village Cores across North America are experiencing, or have experienced similar problems – Big Box and Mall retail is a much more convenient retail model for consumers. This type of development has taken a lot of wind out of the sails of Historic Village Cores across North America. Like much in our past history, what works for one generation may not work for another unless constant change occurs.  The “old” if it is to remain current and up to date, must constantly reinvent itself. Many Village Cores have not kept up with this change, including ours. In order to compete in a Village Core business environment, businesses need to offer a unique product, a unique service, or both. We have a number of these types of businesses already in our Village Core, but we need many more.
Further, we need a coordinating body like a vibrant Business Improvement Association (BIA) that concentrates on marketing these businesses, and leverages the strength of other member businesses like a retail mall does for it’s tenants. In a mall or successful BIA, it is ideal to encourage the practice of sharing the market as consumers shop at several stores in the same visit.
Part of the uniqueness of a Village Core is the ability for a consumer to walk from store to store. As such, it is crucial that a Village Core has “walkability” and “parkability” in its final built form. It must also have a selection of businesses that consumers can visit often while visiting multiple locations on the same trip.
Another part of this uniqueness needs to be really interesting and appealing storefronts and similarly appealing products in these stores. We need more land owners that are willing to invest in revitalization of their storefronts and a willingness to invest in the “plan” that will ultimately benefit their retail tenants as well as neighbouring tenants as a spin off side effect.
The Town of Richmond Hill can set the table, but since private business own most of the real estate in the Village Core, private investment needs to come to the table. The municipality has done a good deal already. All of our municipally owned properties in the Village Core have been renovated – The Old Post Office, the Central Library Ransom Park, the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, The McConaghy Seniors Centre, and soon a new Civic Precinct at Yonge and Major Mackenzie. Richmond Hill also invested in the Core by setting up a BIA and Council continues to support it.
The Region of York and the Province are also in the midst of investing in a Bus Rapid Transit System that, while it will not change the road configuration in the Village Core, it represents a transit investment that will serve the area in the future.
Uniqueness needs to be the brand in the Village Core. It is the highest card in that hand. While it may appear to some that there are only churches and the McConaghy Centre that are obviously historic, we have many hidden historic gems in the Village Core. Some of these buildings are hiding behind facades of poorly built and less than attractive additions, or ugly metal cladding. As these properties are redeveloped our town staff will stipulate, where possible, that the historic strucutres are not only preserved, but are restored to their previous glory.  There are several photos showing examples of what “was” and what “can be” in the future, at the bottom of this article.
Part of the key to Village Core revitalization is bringing people to the area to live. We need additional residential intensity in the form of moderately sized condo type buildings with direct access to Yonge Street coupled with excellent transit options. It will be important that this additional residential density not be at the expense of our key historic buildings and assets. There are many examples how old buildings can be preserved while new uses and complimentary additions and redevelopments can take place.
The overall vision for the Village Core must include a comprehensive approach. This vision is not about “one offs”. Only a comprehensive vision of what needs to be built, and what land must be reserved for linked laneways, pedestrian paths, courtyards and mews is needed. I have seen a lot of prescriptions for revitalization that promote “silver bullet” single solutions. For example I have heard – the problem can be solved by creating more parking. We have over 3200 parking spots available in the core and according to our study only a few specific areas presently see parking use at more than 80% (around the theatre primarily). Parking supply is not the whole story. The Downtown Parking and Transportation Study makes recommendations towards providing adequate parking now and in the future. The study speaks to when and where it is needed so parking will not be a barrier to revitalization. Simple solutions working in isolation have not worked in the past and won’t work now. We need a comprehensive plan and then we need to stick to it.
Once this plan is in place we need to commit the resources to execute this plan. Some tough decisions will need to be made by council as actual development proposals come forward. There will need to be many conversations with Richmond Hill residents and stakeholders along the way, but I am excited by this and especially excited by the prospect of the end goal!
I have recognized the importance of revitalizing the Village Core long before I was elected to council. It has been a frustrating journey. We have seen many small steps forward and some steps backward along the way. In retrospect, I think now is the time that we can be successful. The pieces (plans) are in place (or almost in place – we are close to having a Downtown Secondary Plan approved) and the market is ready for intensification. In retrospect these pieces have not been in place in the past. I have been frustrated that this has taken so long but I think we are now at a critical mass!