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OPINION: Why do we want downtown to be just another strip mall?

This week on Market Squared, we wonder what it would look like if, say, there was a bus service that could take people downtown instead of building unlimited parking
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You may be reading this on your phone from a patio at the closed-off intersection at Wyndham and Macdonell, an initiative brought to you in part by people who believe that the future of Downtown Guelph is car-free.

I’ve always appreciated the lofty ambitions of that idea because our car culture is literally killing us. Emissions from transportation is the single biggest source of the greenhouse gases that are heating the Earth and causing it to burn, and if it’s not too late to do something about it, we’re almost too late.

On a micro level though, what little progress to go “car-free” in Guelph is based on an illusion, because while people may be car-free once they get downtown, guess how most people are getting there in the first place.

This may sound like I’m joining the Downtown Guelph Business Association’s objection to the Baker District Urban Design Master Plan on the basis that there’s not enough parking in the proposal. I’m not.

While I concede the point that most people want to be able to get in their car, drive somewhere at their own convenience and find parking with relative ease, why do the people in charge of the business interests of the core want to turn it into just another strip mall?

In his eagerness to constantly find new parking downtown, I have to call out DGBA executive director Marty Williams on his insistence that Downtown Guelph, in the midst of a major facelift and revitalization, needs to uphold the destructive practices of the last century.

Adding insult to injury, it seems like the business association expends almost no effort in promoting the obvious alternative. If you go to the DGBA website right now, you will see that there’s a tab for parking in the top right-hand corner of the website, but there’s no tab for alternatives, like transit.

I’m forced to wonder why the DGBA, single-minded in its quest to bring more people to the core, completely ignores the fact that the City of Guelph essentially runs a shuttle bus service that brings people from all corners of the city to Downtown Guelph every half-hour, 19 hours a day.

Despite the furious objections I already foresee filling my inbox, I think the reason why local transit seems to be a non-entity on the DGBA website is because of pre-conceived notions that still exist about who takes transit.

When you see transit as a conveyance for low-income seniors, students, poor working-class people, and new Canadians, you see a group of people you can’t sell to. They’re not going to be hanging out on the patios of downtown bistros, and they’re not going to buying expensive clothes in boutique shoppes.

I also wonder how much time and energy the DGBA spends on promoting transit use among its own members, finding ways to encourage those businesses to get more of their employees to use transit to get to and from work. I wonder if city hall does as well since they’re conveniently located downtown, less than five minutes from Guelph Central Station.

Williams mentioned concerns about closing the Baker Street parking lot this fall just in time for the first Guelph Storm home games in nearly two years. I wonder why there’s no mention on the DGBA website that if you have a ticket to an event at the Sleeman Centre or the River Run Centre, then you can ride Guelph Transit for $1. It’s one of the few tepid acts of self-promotion the city does around transit.

Again, the answer is obvious. Transit is for other people, just like parking in paid lots, garages and structures is for other people. Interesting to note that no matter what status of the pandemic we’re in, on-street parking downtown has been consistently full even while paid parking is readily available.

Like my article a few weeks ago about drive-thru issues, the problem with parking isn’t creating more options, it’s people refusing to accept an alternative option when they would rather do what they want.

That bus that goes past your house “empty," why don’t you get on it instead of driving another car downtown? It’s as simple as choosing to go to a different fast-food joint instead of becoming an obstruction to traffic, but like those line ups at the golden arches at Gordon Street, people prioritize their own convenience first, never second.

So in that respect, Williams was right, but if we all agree that we don’t have to change, nothing will ever change. The DGBA is now making a case that they’re going to wallow in the same bad habits as malls and plazas when for years they’ve promoted themselves on as better, more enjoyable shopping alternative compared to parking in a massive lot and wandering around another bland interior.

The city and the DGBA need to get on the same page, is the future of our downtown core car-free, or are we just building a better drive-thru?


Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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