Who hates downtown Halifax? Certainly not the thousands of people who head to Argyle Street for post-work drinks. Most definitely not the shoppers mobbing the Spring Garden Road shopping district. And unquestioningly, without a doubt, not the crowds that flock to the boardwalk every chance they get.
By all indications, regular Haligonians love downtown. And why shouldn't they? It's a lovely place, with wonderful views of the harbour, interesting architecture and shops and a fun mix of different slices of our community---office grunts rubbing elbows with university students, artists, blue-collar workers and the odd newspaper reporter.
But there is one group that hates downtown Halifax: the political and business establishment that runs this town.
The political and business leadership first set out to destroy downtown in the 1960s, when it decided to forever cut downtown off from the waterfront by building a six-lane expressway called Harbour Drive atop what is now the boardwalk. Only after the horrific Cogswell Interchange was built did a group of historic preservationists stop those plans; no one now thinks Harbour Drive was a good idea, but while the historic preservations are vilified as the enemy of an undefined, but vaunted, "progress," the establishment suffered no consequences whatsoever from their very bad idea.
Frustrated at their first attempt, business and political groups moved on to a second plan: they'd kill downtown by subsidizing suburban development. Sure enough, Eaton's, a Barrington Street anchor of downtown, moved out to the West End Mall. By the 1990s, the leaders of the former cities of Dartmouth and Halifax were outdoing each other in constructing the suburban business parks of Burnside and Bayers Lake, selling off below-market priced land. The big box districts sprung up, sucking the retail heart out of downtown. The same with office space: earlier this year, city council approved expansion of both BLIP and Burnside for new office buildings, which will rent for a fraction of the price of downtown offices.
Not satisfied with knocking it to the ground, the business elite decided to kick downtown while it was down: The Chamber of Commerce moved its headquarters out to Burnside, and the Chronicle-Herald, whose workers made the Argyle Street bar district possible, moved out to the rotary. Both moves deprived downtown shops of another set of customers, and also sent businesses a clear signal about which business districts matter and which don't.
But now, business propagandists tell us, they love, love, love downtown, and they're going to save it by having us pay for a shiny new convention centre. Blithely unaware of their hypocrisy while sitting in their new rotary office, Chronicle-Herald columnists Marilla Stephenson and Roger Taylor continue to rail against those who oppose the convention centre; Stephenson and Taylor would better serve their own reputations if they'd put out more trite columns about privatizing the sewage system and how to save point three of a cent on heating oil, and leave off about downtown altogether, at least until their employer apologizes and moves back downtown.
If it had any self-respect, the Chamber too would slink away and hide rather than offer up an opinion about downtown, yet here's Chamber president Valerie Payn, drooling over the prospect of construction tenders for her members, issuing a press release saying we taxpayers need to pony up for the convention centre because "Investing in our urban core is long overdue." But if the goddamned Chamber of Commerce won't invest in the urban core, why should anyone else?
The establishment's pro-convention centre argument basically comes down to "Downtown sucks!"---the empty lots and papered-over storefronts that the establishment itself caused to exist are held up as proof that, the huge numbers who actually like and use downtown notwithstanding, downtown sucks, so we better cough up $160 million.
"Downtown sucks!" probably isn't the best marketing slogan, because it's not make-believe convention-going business people from Toronto and Vancouver who will determine the future success of downtown, but rather everyday people in Cole Harbour, Bedford and Clayton Park: if they come downtown it will thrive; if not, it won't.
And those suburbanites won't be coming downtown to visit a convention centre, but they might come for the same reasons that those who already love downtown come: because it's a pretty neat place.
posted by KYLE SHAW, Nov 9/16
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