Future of downtown London unsure, but exciting

I like to think I’m a little enigmatic, but there are some facets of me that are clear. Three of the things I’d call myself are — in no particular order — a public transit advocate, an urbanism aficionado, and a downtown London business owner. Lately, one of these things is not like the others.

I’ve watched with dismay as every decision in favour of progress in our downtown has been declared a death knell by one group of downtown business owners or another. It’d be easy to point out errors in some of their facts and failing logic. But it wouldn’t be very productive.

A truth at the bottom of it all that must be addressed: these people are scared. As excited as I am about the future of downtown, my head would have to be pretty far in the sand for me not to be afraid that years of road widening, tunnelling, flex-street construction, river transformation, and residential building won’t cost me and my family a whole lot more than a few extra minutes in commute time.

Downtown is unique because it’s mostly small businesses. Largely locally owned, and many family-run. Some won’t survive the coming years of construction, but even the ones that do will suffer revenue losses. Owners will take pay cuts, let employees go, cut back services, and increase their debt loads to keep afloat. A business failure isn’t like a lost job. You don’t get a clean break and exit package. It’s a long, slow, scary decline. And right now, its spectre looms for a lot of people.

So rather than talk about holes in the arguments of people who are afraid for their futures, let’s talk about creative solutions for people who are going to shoulder a lot of burden so downtown London can become something great for all of us.

How about improving alleyway and rear access before sidewalks and loading zones get closed off? And making it easier to navigate to affordable parking, and from it, to the shop you’re looking for. Let’s see whether we can create patio spaces that won’t be ruined by summers of construction. Let’s talk about a downtown retailer pop-up shops in malls, and a downtown restaurant food truck cruising the city.

Have we started to think about vacancy exchanges, and whether landlords are willing to support the tenants that are going to get them through this by temporarily swapping spaces to keep retailers in accessible spots? Maybe we should even talk about interest-free loans to help businesses in the worst-affected areas make payroll when things get rough.

The important thing is that we need to talk. We need to put all of our hopes and our fears on the table, listen to each other, and come up with creative solutions that go beyond posting signs and ramping up radio ads.

The answer to the problems downtown businesses are facing isn’t to halt change and cling to the status quo. But it’s also not to charge ahead, and leave people in the dust who’ve poured their hearts, souls, and entire life savings into our city.

Originally published in Our London on March 2, 2017.