Winders: Downtown remains a long way from a new day

I blame Petula Clark.

If we hadn’t been promised a place where we could forget all our troubles, forget all our cares, maybe we would be more realistic when it comes to reimagining the modern downtown of mid-sized cities.

Last week, Western placed itself squarely in the middle of the City of London’s latest attempt to revitalize its city core.

The current plan centres on Mayor Joe Fontana’s vision of an education hub. By combining the post-secondary powers of Western and Fanshawe College, he hopes to deliver a much-needed jolt to downtown. As part of it, the city may be willing to donate City Hall, Centennial Hall and, eventually, Centennial House for Western to expand its operation into the core.

On the surface, that’s quite a deal for Western. The university announced no solid plans for the property. So right now, let’s not trouble ourselves with thoughts of operating and/or opportunity costs. If you allow yourself to blue-sky the possibilities, they seem endless, and the deal, should it come to fruition, would be difficult to pass up.

Fontana has had eyes on a new City Hall from Day One. That’s a tough sell to a community sitting among the highest unemployment rates in Canada the last three months. But if you give the joint away, the city has gotta go somewhere. (You can only get away with that kind of move in government. Try giving your house away so you can build a bigger, better one.)

I know a lot of folks – both inside and outside the Western Gates – are excited about this latest attempt to apply the economic defibulator to downtown. Good for them. But allow me to be the delivery truck blocking the right-hand lane of this downtown parade.

I simply don’t understand the hand-wringing.

Yes, the city paper took this up as a crusade, and has delivered manufactured outrage over Western’s perceived lack of involvement downtown. (Although I think Carolyn Young at Continuing Studies might have something to say about that.)

Fine. That’s what local papers do. I poked the 800-pound gorilla during my time in university town newsrooms as well.

But they know, as we all know, downtown isn’t one ‘education village’ away from a Renaissance.

London has spent decades bowing to whims of developers who constructed massive residential areas farther and farther from the city core. They created our current commuter city. That left downtown on its own. Today, violence simmers unchecked, roads remain clogged and the cityscape continues to deteriorate.

And nobody seems to have the courage – or the creativity – to address it.

Seriously, they wonder what happened to downtown?

What is it about those of a certain age and clinging to rebuilding downtown? London isn’t alone. Many cities look to bring downtown back to its vibrant past. We’re sold downtown as fun, active, even sexy. But cities, London included, are often unwilling to make the moves to clean it up.

Downtown fetishists can be dangerous. Numerous communities have wasted millions upon millions of dollars trying to construct what once was. Downtown can be fun to rally around, and you usually get shouted down for questioning its inflated value.

But I am not alone in believing London’s time – and money – can be better spent in other areas of the city. Like where the people are today.

If anything, it’s a positive to see Western getting shamed into, er, offered an opportunity to help downtown. Town-gown relations – even for a university with global ambitions – are important.

I am glad Western and London may get what they want; I just hope it’s what we all need.