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Martin Laplante

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Wed, 28 Nov 2007

Dense Condos Do Not Revitalize

It's a story that gets repeated in a lot of major cities. Retailers in a struggling downtown pin their hopes on a high-end condominium complex to bring them fresh new customers. Condo dwellers move in, but the customers never appear.

If the retailers were unable to attract the thousands of people already within walking distance, what makes them think that a few hundred others will be any different? Is it like Goldilocks, the potential customers that are nearby are too old or too young, but the new ones will be just right?

From speaking to retailers in areas that have both highrise condos and other forms of housing in the vicinity, the people in the condos are not their best customers. It's mostly the ones in the ground-oriented housing, the ones with families and/or roots in the area, that frequent local stores. Is the condo lifestyle with an underground garage not conducive to picking up some groceries from the local butcher and fruit store, or is there something about ground-oriented housing that is more likely to make people grounded, loyal to the small retailers within a few blocks of them?

It's not just the fact of plopping a certain number of persons in one place that animates the street, and arranging them vertically does not guarantee that a large proportion of them will walk the street and animate it in search of who knows what destination. A prerequisite is to provide these destinations: parks, schools, community centres, skating rinks, and so forth. Half of these are destinations mostly for households with children, so having family housing as part of a diversity of housing types helps ensure that people are walking down the street and interacting. The area of course has to be made walkable, with a scale and feel that lends itself to that mode of transportation.

Condos do very little of any of that. Downtown condos interact with the street through video cameras, a sign of mutual hostility and suspicion. They can be part of the mix, and once you get a mix of ages giving life to the street, and giving subsistence and permanence to the retailers who serve them, condos can be additional, a way to get a shot at the big-ticket items that the condo crowd may notice while walking from the newsstand to the coffee shop on those days where they don't just go from the underground garage to their apartment without any interaction with the street. But they can't be the mainstay of the retailers who are holding out for a better class of customers.

This is one of the flaws behind "new" mixed use: the thought that having buildings with both retail and residential ingredients on the same lot will magically ignite the flame of commerce. Retail has to stand on its own two feet with the customers that are already there in single-use buildings within walking distance. Having more customers an elevator ride away doesn't contribute to retail success. The key to successful mixed use? Put retail where retail wants to go, near where people already live and can walk. Let them put a few affordable apartments above the stores, walkups only if at all possible.

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