This is one of my more fanciful serious ideas.
Now, Aylmer could technically be referred to as a bedroom community since almost everyone works in the government offices downtown. However, the traditional small-block grid layout present in the main part of Aylmer has remained its heart and soul, attracting several restaurants and boutiques, a great bakery, a family-owned grocery store, a butcher, a tailor, a cultural centre, a pastry shop, a saussicier (there’s no English equivalent, but it’s a saussage shop), several little eatieries serving everything from sushi to smoked meat, two ice-cream shops, a teahouse, an electronics shop, an electronics repair shop, two pizzerias, three churches, a retirement home, two primary schools and a secondary school, a café (and a Tim Hortons, which doesn’t really count), a bicycle repair shop, two barbers, a laundromat, a few dépanneurs (corner stores), several medical clinics of all kinds (dentistry to psychology), some well-respected bars and pubs and it most recently converted a strip-club and a rather sketchy bar (both which are in historical and beautiful stone buildings both over 150 years old) into a steakhouse and hotel/condos respectively, among many many shops and businesses. Every year, a new business or two pops up and stays, unlike the mall, Les Galeries d’Aylmer.
The Galeries d’Aylmer were built on what used to be the edge of Aylmer along rue Principale (the main street) about 40 years ago. It’s been on a slow and steady decline since about the beginning of the century, losing shops almost faster than they can move in. When they do, they don’t tend to stay longer than a year. The raison-d’être of the Galeries is based on three businesses: The Canadian Tire, the only hardware store in Aylmer, the Cinémas Aylmer, the only cinema in Aylmer and the Zellers, the only department store in Aylmer. I could include the SuperC, but there are plenty of Grocery stores in the area. Anyway, two of the three are closing: the Zellers is closing since Target, which took over the franchise recently, has deemed it too small for its needs and the Canadian Tire is closing for reasons I don’t quite know. The theatre, though has experienced a good deal of success since it’s relatively inexpensive and is a pleasant and well-run place.
But it has to go.
- It is unpleasant to walk to if it’s sunny, cloudy, hot, cold, windy or not.
- It’s ugly by any measure or standard.
- It’s dying. It’s been dying for a while and two of its three pillars are moving out.
- The space it and its sizable parking lots are on are now valuable and underperforming for that value.
- Aylmer needs more office space according to the city and putting those jobs on Principale will be a great boon for the businesses on Principale and putting them outside of Aylmer will put an unbearable strain on the heart of our town.
Number 1 can be experienced by walking through any large expanse of parking, number 2 is pretty evident and number 3 has already been established.
Reason number 4 is important because I’m not only talking about the monetary propriety values (which are important too), but also the importance of that space for the community: Though built on the former outskirts of the town, the Galeries is now the geographical Centre of Aylmer: from the corner of Principale and Wilfrid-Lavigne, virtually all of Aylmer is within 1.5km, or about a 20 minute walk or a 3 minute bike ride at a leisurly pace. So much parking at such a central location is not only useless at such a central location since it has the potential to be a major walking and bike destination, but it’s a lost opportunity. However, in this case, it could be an opportunity for disaster, which brings me to reason 5.
Reason 5 is a big problem. I recently caught wind from a municipal councillor that there were plans for Aylmer that would see an office park built in the forests just north of Des Allumettières, a highway/artery that is (used to be) the northern border of Aylmer. The intention is nice: instead of having to ferry Aylmerites to and from Ottawa, why not bring some jobs to where they live? The implementation, however, is flawed, since no one lives where they would put the office park. But that isn’t really the heart of the issue either. Rather, the fact that they would try to displace the centre of Aylmer outside of Aylmer is the real kicker, especially considering that the urban boundary is set to restrict any growth north of the aforementioned office park. The worst of it, though, is that, in creating a new ‘centre’ for Aylmer, it would most certainly kill the actual centre of Aylmer, Principale, which has been picking up steam for the first time since its first blow, the Galeries d’Aylmer, was dealt.
In my opinion, and I’ve been told that it’s quite reliable, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel when it doesn’t need reinventing and, to quote professor Trelawney, “NEITHER CAN LIVE WHILE THE OTHER SURVIVES!”
In contrast, office space in the heart of Aylmer is a boon. Not only does it bring investment into the area, but it enhances the businesses that already exist and function within the community: the cafés and restaurants, instead of just serving the dinner crowd, now have the lunch and afternoon crowd too. Instead of sitting empty or underutilized the parks will greet people walking to and from work, lunch and dinner. It fills in the daily usage schedule of the entire area, a need Jane Jacobs so stressed in the Life and Death of Great American Cities (a must-read). The only place with enough place is the lot on which now lays decomposing the Galeries d’Aylmer. But what a lot! It’s along Principale only 0.2km away from where the nearest main street shops are, across the street from the highest-density residential site in Aylmer and the yard of the old monastery with centenary trees and, as stated before, in the dead middle of Aylmer as it is today.
So, that is why we should do away with the mall, now here is what I think we shóúld do.
- Demolish the mall gradually, beginning by building over the pavement in the front, then the back and then partially dismantling whatever needs to be taken apart for step two:
- Cut streets through the area to replicate as much as possible the grid of ‘old Aylmer’ as well as to increase the connectivity of the lot with the surrounding neighbourhoods. The smaller the blocks, the better.
- Enforce mixed-use, mixed density and mixed-income development.
- Build grádually. Just as one can’t swallow a whole turkey at once, a functioning community can’t swallow too big a change at once.
- Separate the lot into sections and invite bids to design each one, but have them work to integrate their designs to create a diversity of styles and ideas. However, design the buildings to eventually be gradually replaced with new ones in the future (separate, smaller buildings, diversity of designs, none of this block-building nonsense) so that the new area can become an organic, evolving neighbourhood instead of a linear whole that is doomed to becoming outdated and decrepit.
- Design the space to accommodate transit (I’ll get into thát later) and put a big emphasis on walking and biking.
- Don’t try to replace Principale – design it to be a part of it.
- Be inventive! There are so many innovative old ideas that are coming back (like orienting the buildings with the sun and wind for passive heating and cooling, high quality materials, walkability, vegetable gardens, strategic planting of trees) and new ones (geothermic heating, green roofs, smart glass). Make this an example without it being a gimmick.
With the increased density (I’m thinking up to 6 stories near Principale and lower to 2-3 higher north), the removed and/or sunken/leveled parking, not only could there be more space and more attractive spaces for businesses, but there would be more much-needed housing and floorspace for offices as well as a better space for the public to enjoy. This is a truly efficient use of the space which is now squandered on asphalt. It has to be done right, with every detail gone over by someone qualified to do so, but it can be done.
As mentioned before, the decline of the Galeries d’Aylmer and the push for employment within Aylmer are both potential problems, but put two and two together and you have the opportunity to encourage the positive growth currently going on in Aylmer. This might be the first project I’ll actually push to become real because there’s a lot at stake here. This could be very good or very bad.