Downtown dwellers get a voice

February 4, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 03-02/10downtown

Look up, look way up.

See those lights blinking on in the second- and third-storey windows above Wyndham and Macdonell streets? Yeah, those ones. Turns out, people live up there. Who knew?

On Wednesday, a new group is gathering to celebrate those people turning on those upper-floor lights. For the first time, a group of residents have created a downtown neighbourhood association. The new group is holding its Downtown Block Party at the Alma Gallery at 7 p.m. If you live or work downtown, you should think about going.

Why? Because neighbourhood associations matter. They can help shape their communities. They can speak up for residents who aren’t getting heard on their own. They inject people into the equation. And without people, urban planning and development is just buildings and streets.

When we talk about our downtown absorbing another 7,000 residents in the next few decades under Ontario’s Places to Grow Act, we need to make sure residents’ concerns are being heard.

Guelph is going to change a lot by the mid-mark of this century. And downtown will be at the front of that change. It’ll bigger, taller, louder, busier. Hopefully, it’ll also be more vibrant, more diverse, more livable.

We don’t want to leave our downtown’s growth to city hall or business leaders alone. Downtown businesses have long had representation through the Downtown Guelph Business Association. It’s a fine organization, but its priority is not the people who live in the core.

There are plenty of examples of downtowns in Ontario where good intentions, government planning and entrepreneurial spirit haven’t been able to bring new life to a core.

Look no further than our neighbours to the west, Kitchener, Hespeler and Galt, all with once-bustling old downtowns that are now marked by vacant store fronts, empty second and third floors, abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

Talk to anyone over 60 years old from any of those communities, and they’ll tell you about a time when you’d find packed restaurants, main streets lit up with signs, and everything you needed on a few downtown blocks.

Guelph’s core does not have the bustle it used to. Street cars used to run here, and merchants lined the sidewalks with their produce and goods. This was once a place where every kind of shop wanted to be downtown, not out in a plaza 10 minutes away.

Lucky for us, it’s still a downtown where you can walk for a loaf of bread and send a letter, get your shoes fixed and buy a book. And you can do it safely. But despite the 1,500 people living in the downtown and some 4,000 others who work there – according to Shelley Krieger, the coffee shop owner who co-created the new group – we still have empty store fronts and vacant top floors of old buildings.

The new neighbourhood group says it’s concerned about noise levels from bars, short-term parking and community policing. Let’s hope they’re also worried about long-term stuff – such as what the core will look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now.

Because if we’re going to make room for thousands more at the heart of the city, there’s work to be done. They’ll need places to live, places to play and places to work.

So here’s hoping this new downtown neighbourhood association understands that Guelph will continue to change. That means they’ll need to welcome more neighbours and denser developments on their own streets. And when it comes to things that aren’t working, they’ll need to speak up.

Greg Mercer is a journalist who lives in Guelph. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at and past columns can be read at

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