Commentary: We need to bring Victoria – and all our downtowns – back to life

Commentary: We need to bring Victoria - and all our downtowns - back to life
Photo: Nicholas Pescod
Downtown Victoria.

One day last week I rode my bike through the streets of downtown Victoria.

It was a sunny afternoon and in a normal world would have been full of office workers, shoppers and tourists buzzing about their days.

Instead, it was a virtual ghost town.

COVID-19 had ripped the heart out of the place.

A few plucky, smaller stores were open for business, but most were shuttered and forlorn, hidden behind large cardboard placards.

Just about everything was closed.

We had problems finding a coffee shop open.

It was a depressing ride.

Cities and towns need people to thrive and be alive. We need buskers and eccentrics and bustling shops and bookstores and movie houses and barbers and those tiny idiosyncratic shops that make Victoria so special.

And, yes, tourists too.

We did find Virtuous Pie, the cool new-age pizza restaurant on Pandora, was open for takeout, so we bought a couple of designer, home-made ice creams in compostable containers – matcha coconut and salted caramel with chocolate pretzels – and walked them to the blue bridge where we pretended, for a few minutes, that this new normal wasn’t so bad. Fewer cars.

Lots of room for the bike.

Clean air.

But with the lockdown easing, businesses will begin, slowly and cautiously, reopening this week under strict restrictions.

It will be a struggle for some; we’re not going to be back to anything approaching normal for a long time yet. And it’s crucial for all our towns and cities, especially Victoria, that we help their downtown business as much as we can. They need our support now more than ever as they re-emerge into the light of day.

Victoria is not a city of chain stores. It’s a city of small businesses. It’s those small stores and bakeries that make it special, and we have to ensure it won’t go away.

In fact, let’s encourage more patios and sidewalk shopping, if that makes people feel safer.

This summer the city will likely be ours – very few tourists are likely – so we need to embrace where we live, stay home and make sure we look after our downtowns.

Many urban planners and architects are predicting the continued demise of the city.

Online shopping has already hurt businesses worldwide, and this trend has accelerated during the days of the virus.

That’s not going away.

And if more and more people work from home, which is inevitable in our new world, then where are the office workers going to come from to patronize those city stores at lunch hour and after work?

Many towns had already been ravaged by online shopping before COVID, full of thrift stores, ‘To Let’ signs, all while Amazon just kept getting bigger. And many think larger cities such as New York will see even more larger stores transformed into apartments as more people work from home.

We’ve seen that trend already with the moving of Hudson Bay into a downtown mall and their landmark building on Douglas transformed into condos and a market, which continues to struggle even though it is bustling at lunch hour.

More and more people are living downtown, and before COVID it had a vibrancy and energy that augured well for the future. And, sure, it had its scuzzy bits too.

It’s not all pristine and perfect, but nor are we. A bit of grit is good for a city.

I also think of Sidney, which looks particularly forlorn these days.

It’s a smaller, gentler community, but it’s suffering badly too, even without the easy bustle of Beacon Avenue before 6 p.m. that is.

In the evenings they still roll up the sidewalks.

Many downtown businesses, to survive, need a healthy online presence combined with an attractive, interesting store. They also need local loyalty, and that’s something we all need to consider when we do our shopping, or go out for a meal, or choose a local coffee shop over a Starbucks.

The big chains will survive, but the smaller local stores – everywhere on Vancouver Island – are going to need us now more than ever.

If not, our towns and cities will become wastelands. I saw what that looked like last week.

And it ain’t pretty.

Ian Haysom’s coronavirus diary will appear here regularly. 

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