Smart growth for downtown areas


For all the talk about the need to rejuvenate Winnipeg’s downtown by attracting more residents to live downtown — and there certainly was recently with the controversial decision by city council to grant home buyers $10,000 for targeted purchase of condos in the east Exchange Distinct — it is important to keep in mind that downtown revitalization is not just a metropolitan city preoccupation and undertaking. 
Downtowns are viewed in much the same way by rural centres when it comes to identifying and building a sense of place and vision for the future.  
Downtown revitalization is part of a smart growth initiative spearheaded by the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), a one-million REALTOR® member strong U.S.-based association.
At a meeting last week attended by a WinnipegREALTORS® representative in Austin, Texas, with other REALTOR® organizations at the local, state and national level, a discussion was held on what is termed smart growth practices. NAR describes smart growth as placing focus on the existing assets of the community, the long-term implications of various development patterns, and the fiscal impacts of these patterns. It subscribes to the five following principles.
1. Make a commitment to housing opportunity and choice, a wide range of urban, suburban, and rural homes at all price levels for a diverse population.
2. Build better communities with good schools, low crime, quality public services, efficient transportation systems, ample recreation areas, open space, a strong employment base, and a viable commercial sector.
3. Protect the environment by controlling pollution and encouraging preservation of natural resources and properties of historic significance.
4. At the same time, respect the U.S. Constitutional right (the Canadian Constitution doesn’t recognize property rights, which are covered by common law) to freely own, use and transfer real property.
5. Implement fair and reasonable public-sector fiscal measures to ensure that the cost of new infrastructure is shared proportionally among those served.
Going beyond these principles, NAR supports planned growth that stimulates the economy, increases the tax base, and provides places to live and work. NAR believes in local authorities working in close co-operation with their citizens to manage growth responsibly and build better communities. It also supports federal and state incentives that provide tools to local governments to encourage collaborative regional planning, as long as it supplements, not displaces, local control and decision-making. And finally, it views land-use planning as a means to provide for a variety of housing types, mixes, densities and pricing to meet the needs of all segments of our population.
At the Austin meeting of government affairs directors, NAR released its summer 2013 smart growth publication entitled, On Common Ground. It addresses the vitality and livability of small communities through a series of excellent case studies. The message here is that all communities, big or small, need to pay attention to their downtown. 
The efforts do pay off. 
Here is one example from an article in the publication by Seattle-based freelance writer Brad Broberg:  
Paso Robles — a vibrant centre
Paso Robles, California, is a city of 26,793 nestled in the coastal mountains of the central part of the state — wine country. Norma Moye, executive director of the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association, recalls what the downtown was like 25 years ago after suburban shopping centres sucked the life out of it: “It was so dead you could shoot a cannon down the street and not hit anything.” 
Not anymore. Paso Robles, founded in 1886, steadily nursed its century-old downtown back to life as a vibrant shopping and entertainment destination after becoming a Main Street community in 1987.
To quickly rally public support, revitalization began with two highly visible projects — improvements to a downtown city park and a facade rehabilitation program that subsidized improvements to 12 buildings, but led property owners to improve 43 others without assistance. When an economic downturn and the arrival of an outlying Wal-Mart later threatened to undo downtown’s progress, the Main Street program helped galvanize additional projects. 
A new library/city hall complex was constructed next to the park, a Community Development Block Grant funded seismic retrofitting of vacant unreinforced buildings and a new movie theater was enticed to open by vacating a street and providing $360,000 in public improvements.
The lesson? 
“Revitalization doesn’t happen without some struggle,” Moye said, “but you don’t ever want to give up.”