Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nothing appealing about Victoria's Centennial Square
Feb. 9, 2007

What is it about a space that makes you want to stay in it? You and I might have differing theories on that, but I bet we could agree on at least one point: Centennial Square doesn’t have it.
I cut through the square on occasion, and find myself wondering each and every time what it is that makes the place so completely uninviting.
I don’t think I’m alone on this one, either, because the square is disturbingly empty most of the time. People just don’t seem to go there.
No disrespect to the square’s original planner, Rod Clack. I’m sure Centennial Square was a heck of an improvement over what was there 45 years ago when it was built. Victoria’s downtown was still very much in transition from its rough-and-tumble past in those years, and creating public space next to a renovated city hall was a terrific move.
But whatever it was about the square that worked in 1962, it stopped working quite some time ago. To walk through the square on any given day now is to be struck by its unloveliness, and the almost complete absence of people. That’s not what you want from your public spaces.
I’m not suggesting that’s reason enough to jump into a costly reno, or that the time is now just because the B.C. government has up to half a million bucks for communities wanting to build “spirit squares” in the runup to the Olympics. All I’m saying is that as it stands, Centennial Square is all wrong.
A letter in this week’s paper touched on one reason for the problem - the square is in shadow too much of the time. It feels cold. I don’t know if the wind really does blow harder through the square, but that’s my impression every time I pass through.
What’s an even more fundamental problem, however, is that there’s no reason for anyone to use the square. With the exception of a few special events each year, there’s no draw.
No little stores ringing the edges for your shopping pleasure. No food vendors. No guy selling bags of bird seed, or balloons. No artists. No crafts. No comfy gathering places in sunny corners.
In short, the things that make squares work in so many other cities of the world are nowhere to be found in Centennial Square. Other than a mid-block cut-through and a venue for a handful of city-sponsored events, what’s the point of it?
Public spaces can be appealing without commerce, of course. A wander through Beacon Hill Park is a reminder of that, as is a visit to any of our region’s many beautiful public gardens and oceanfront lookouts.
But Centennial Square isn’t anywhere nearly pretty enough at this point to draw people on that level. If that’s what we’re aiming for, we’re well-advised to tear up all the concrete and start from scratch, because there’s nothing about the square in its current state that lures people in just for the sheer pleasure of being there.
If you’re one of the tens of thousands of people who never use Centennial Square, maybe its future seems of little interest to you. But the fate of the square ought to matter to anyone who loves the downtown.
Fix Centennial Square, and you get a lively community space that’s a hub for new retail on the streets around the square. A “jewel” in the heart of Old Towne. Leave it as is, and it’s a concrete no-man’s-land that few shoppers bother to venture past.
Like most things in Victoria, we’ve been talking about doing something about Centennial Square for a very long time. A performing arts centre, a new library, an expanded conference centre - the revamp of Centennial Square is one of the many good ideas regularly floated in Victoria that never quite comes to fruition.
In the case of the square, we’ve been making plans to move the fountain for more than 10 years now. Bob Cross was still the mayor when we last got talking about holding a design contest to improve the square.
Many years on, we’re no farther ahead. Centennial Square continues on as public space that nobody wants to use.
Whatever the future may hold for the square, what it needs most is a reason to be. An unwelcoming and pointless community square is worse than none at all in many ways, as the “dead zones” created by such spaces go against every dictate of good urban planning.
When Centennial Square was first taking shape in the early 1960s, it must have seemed like a wonderful alternative to the ragtag collection of businesses torn down to make way for the square: a couple of brothels, a weary public market, a derelict theatre. It was a good fit for the city at that time.
But like the song says, that was yesterday. And yesterday’s gone.

1 comment:

j said...

It's a good mustering place for marches and protests of all sorts, though, having taken part in a few of those over the years.

But aesthetically... not so great.