Monday, December 31, 2012

Investing in a more vibrant downtown . . .

Happy to add something more to the discussions about how to inject some new vibrancy into Victoria’s downtown economy.  It’s something that I’ve at least had something consistent to offer over the last few years.  It’s a bit of a contrast to new converts who have more recently discovered the issue and are looking for new voices and new ideas to bring to the table.  Notwithstanding that any strategy will need to be a team effort, requiring everyone on council to be pulling in the same direction, more or less, it would be as useful to have some confidence that there is a coherent connection between the “nice things to say” and the “better things to do”.  Talk is cheap enough, but concrete action is going to cost more, both in real dollar terms and in the expenditure of political capital to support investments or make decisions that may be at odds with the sometimes confusing directions offered by the changing winds of more populist positioning.

Case in point is the Pandora Green project that our last council was pilloried for, from both left and right, for being either too expensive or aimed at disenfranchising those for whom a tent city was, at least then, a convenient soapbox on which to stand in defense of our street population.  Most of our council, at least, was focused on a coherent and consistent strategy to aggressively pursue funding and property opportunities to increase access to diverse housing and shelter options for our most disadvantaged citizens.  It’s still a better, and actually a cheaper, solution for everyone than the tent city debacle that plagued what is now Pandora Green only a couple of years ago.

Homelessness is still a problem enough, but the opening of a new shelter and another project to rescue bankrupt hotels is now paying off, in some measure, in the provision of supportive housing for some of those most in need.  For the afflicted neighbourhood along Pandora, the disappearance of the boulevard squat has been a welcome relief from the downward spiral of disorder, and the new plaza and boulevard improvements are creating a more livable environment for both the more transient users of Our Place to the more permanent residents living in apartments and condos dotted around Harris Green.  Over the longer term, the revival is also likely to attract more local business investment that is as likely to pay for the costs of the project through increased assessments, contrary to the hand wringing of those who have, as always, decried the expenditure of public funds unfairly extracted from their pockets.
The other fiscal dividend may still have a long gestation as we try and realize the savings that will emerge from a strategy that shifts management of what was an increasingly intractable policing problem to a more appropriate social services model.  Police calls to the area dropped by more than 25% soon after the completion of the project and, along with the housing and other supports we so desperately need in our community, the longer term prospects for at least containing the growth in policing costs should emerge from investments that work in concert with one another.  Making downtown and nearby neighbourhoods more attractive and reducing the impacts of difficult social issues is going to be key to sustaining, if not reviving, some of our economic vibrancy in Victoria. 

That’s a lesson that should be understood by the councillor now promising to make the downtown economy a priority.  Scoring political points by looking for ways to cut the city’s investment in affordable housing made for a good few news stories, but it was never a good strategy for building a healthy downtown economy dependent at least as much on presentation.  Likewise, her campaign video trashing the city’s investment in Pandora Green probably made friends and influenced votes, but I hope the councillor will be so good as to at least rethink, if not climb down from that particular plank, or prank.  Making mileage with the grass-roots community was good politics then, but there’s a new year coming and a new parade to chase, even if the more comprehensive and coherent collection of plans and policies built to emphasize downtown density, new economy industrial zones and other more substantive approaches to economic diversification are in play.  Teamwork, it seems, is less appealing when it’s all about being a new voice, a different voice, an independent voice.

I’ll be watching to see what’s under the Christmas tree next year.  It’s bound to be something fresh, or at least half-baked, again.

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