COLUMN: Tired of the 12th Street rag
It was a block party just off 12th Street on Labour Day weekend, but it could have been anywhere in New West.
We were swilling beers in plastic cups, watching little ones wreak havoc in a bouncy castle.
“I really hope 12th Street gets going soon,” one dad said to me. He’d moved to New West a few years ago. “What do you think? What will it take? It just seems so…”
His voice trailed off, and I knew it was my turn to wade in but suddenly I felt exhausted. Shortly after moving here, and before I came to this paper, I asked that question a million times. To neighbours. City councillors. At the local residents association meetings. And when the graffiti, hookers and dodgy characters hanging about in the area threatened to drive me around the bend, I called the city’s bylaws manager, Keith Coueffin, who came out to walk the strip, hear my concerns and answer questions.
On our street, we formed a Block Watch. Held summer barbecues. And thankfully—no doubt completely unrelated to those initiatives—crime and public disorder have decreased significantly the past few years.
But 12th Street still sucks. Some good shops, yes. And safer. But the overall feel is bleah—dull and tired. Who wouldn’t want it to be a little more vibrant?
Many Sapperton residents say the same about East Columbia, despite a stronger retail mix and the stimulus of a new plaza next to Starbucks and the development of the Brewery District at the tail end of the strip.
In the Downtown, Columbia Street is at last beginning to gain momentum.
But as my eyes glazed over at that barbecue when 12th Street came up, I realized, nothing is going to change on streets like 12th or East Columbia until something different is done. Something more drastic than what’s been tried before.
New sidewalks and curbs were a nice touch. Murals on 12th added a little flair. And the summer festivals on these streets are great builders of neighbourhood pride—the reasons folks care in the first place—and raise awareness of the shops on the strip.
But none of these can do a damn thing about the missing key ingredient that’s preventing these strips from thriving.
And I’m not talking about cars. These strips need pedestrians, or more to the point, they need a lot of residents living on top of, or beside the retail corridor. Four-storey buildings, or in some cases more, from one end of each strip to the other.
People around 12th say they’d like a really good coffee shop, a butcher, a bakery. Truth is even if there were these things, most people would continue to make coffee at home and pick up their meats and baked goods at Superstore or Save On.
Unless the street had atmosphere.
What’s going to get people to 12th and East Columbia, consistently enough to support high-quality businesses, is atmosphere.
And atmosphere means people. Vibe.
I’ll go to Waves Coffee in Downtown because there’s people coming and going and that makes it enjoyable. I rarely went to the Village Coffee Lounge when it was on 12th because I was usually the only customer there. And shop local campaigns and a sense of “I oughta” aren’t enough.
But surely 12th Street and East Columbia will eventually take off, you say. Sapperton’s Brewery District will bring hundreds of new residents to the area, the logic goes, and they will become shoppers of East Columbia. And won’t 12th benefit from the development happening on Kingsway and Edmonds?
The reverse may actually be the case.
In my next column, I’ll share an idea for a shock treatment to turn these strips into the kinds of high streets people are clamouring for these days.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.