A downtown housing strategy

by Stephano Grande
Who needs a Downtown Housing Plan, when the $40-million residential development grant program is proving to be “successful” in leveraging dozens of housing projects?
While some may already be claiming victory and thinking there is no longer a need for a plan, most of us who are in the field know differently.
A thriving downtown residential neighbourhood can only be achieved when there is an abundance of people downtown, walking around at all hours of the day, for work, entertainment, hospitality and retail, or just for a leisurely stroll.  In city planning terms, encouraging density and mixed-use developments, with storefronts and creating incredible public spaces, are essential ingredients. So it should be easy to understand that simply allocating public dollars to stimulate housing will not necessarily get us there — only a plan can.
That’s why the Downtown Housing Plan is important. A strategy that ensures public incentives are guided —both strategically and comprehensively to achieve our downtown housing vision — is critical in reaching our aspirations of a vibrant and complete neighbourhood.
In other downtowns, developers simply gobble up incentives, taking a shotgun and “let’s wait and see where the dust settles” approach. We can learn from these cities and make sure that our plan contains key strategies that indicate the city is serious about moving our downtown forward, such as greater coordination in the marketing of our downtown to the public, enhancement of our public spaces and a greater variety of transportation options. 
Our plan has all these components. The plan also looks at the efficient and consistent delivery of city planning regulations in addition to a downtown safety strategy that will ensure residents and visitors feel safe on our downtown streets during the day and night.
 The plan, however, falls short in some key areas. It does not address how the city will deal with SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels and the over concentration of social housing in and around our downtown and its negative impact. 
If we’re going to talk about downtown housing, these social issues and all levels of government must be drawn into being part of the plan. This can still happen.
 Also, thoughtful city planning presents an opportunity to foster communities built on the principles of greater cultural and economic diversity, leading to a stronger, safer and more tolerant city. 
Although the plan is silent on it, a strategy that insists on a broad housing mix with a range of incomes and households is critical. All that is needed is the proper allocation of grants to these key areas and the market will respond.
The importance of directing housing development to create the desired density needed to stimulate mixed-use buildings and storefronts is also absent from the plan. This too can be simply addressed by giving greater priority for projects that reflect these critical values. Ensuring the private sector helps us achieve our vision is critical.
While it has taken only months for developers to respond, it has taken years for our downtown business community, and even the media, to advocate for the proper housing incentives to get going. Now, the real work begins. The plan no doubt is a great start and it will evolve.
Real success will not be based on how many developers line up for the housing grant program this year, but rather on how well we use the Downtown Housing Plan as a blueprint to foster a more thoughtful vision for a downtown, where development and initiatives are carefully planned and implemented, leveraging sacred public dollars to create a world-class urban residential neighbourhood.
(Stephano Grande is the executive-director of the Downtown BIZ.)