KYLE SLAVIN: Learning from our past mistakes

First impressions are everything.

In high school I attempted to befriend a new classmate who, as it turned out, very quickly gained a reputation for aggressively seeking out everybody’s approval. That’s Uptown.

“Wait,” the classmate tells me. “Don’t judge me yet! There’s more to me than what you can see.” But first impressions are everything.

I’ve heard that same excuse countless times from Uptown’s developers (“This is just phase one of three … It’s still a construction site … Wait until the whole project is complete.”) when pressed about the enormous amount of negative feedback the behemoth has received thus far.

But the damage is done, and it’s quite possible irreparable for Uptown. It’s hard to change your mind about that classmate three years later when they finally come around to say, “OK, now you can judge me.”

Behind the fortress-like walls that house Walmart, Best Buy and Future Shop, workers are fervently building the second retail component of the project, which will open sometime next year. Scuttling about, too, are confused shoppers unsure of how to get from one level to the next and where they parked their cars.

I can’t see how a steep learning curve to grasp manoeuvring from A to B at Uptown can help its future.

It’s a little late to simplify things though, now that the second phase of the $350-million project is underway.

At a recent Saanich council meeting, councillors described Uptown as “uninviting,” “imposing,” and “monolithic.” That’s a pretty convenient way of putting it, now that this municipal government – the same one that approved it in 2007 – is hearing a lot of negativity.

In the execution of this so-called “urban lifestyle centre,” the lifestyle aspect of it was apparently taken out of the equation and traded for inconvenience.

Granted, developers aren’t entirely to blame. One of the potentially busiest accesses to the property is a one-way road (Blanshard Street), siphoning most of the traffic through one muddled entrance off Saanich Road.

But on site, sporadic openings have meant unoccupied storefronts and a confusing, seemingly very incomplete congruity between all the buildings and their accesses. Not very pedestrian friendly.

It’s unfortunate because the idea behind a hub like Uptown – a dense community where people can live, work and shop – is commendable. It’s also one I expect to see more frequently in the coming decade.

Before politicians set in stone the rapid transit project that’ll connect downtown to the West Shore, its entirety needs to be justified. It can’t be strictly an investment for commuter convenience.

Take the Skytrain on the mainland. The busiest stops are the stations closest to shopping centres (Metrotown) and workplaces (Granville and Robson streets).

We need to take a page from that project and recognize that what’s in between the first stop and last stop has to matter.

Uptown has the potential to be a shopping destination – it’s been touted as such since Day 1. A transit hub will likely be built hugging the west side of Uptown – but people’s first impressions must be changed to make it a worthwhile stop.

Elsewhere along the line, more Uptowns, more destinations, will be needed in order to gain heavy enough transit use going both directions – not just during rush hour – to make rapid transit a worthwhile investment. This is where Uptown needs to be a lesson in what not to do. When building a destination point, don’t alienate your consumers by having them spend years getting used to what an inconvenience your site is.

Transit’s role is crucial in how strong of a pedestrian-friendly vibe Uptown gives off, but the nature of the retailers at the centre – one-stop-shopping at Walmart, for example – means cars will never be out of the picture entirely. Reassuring angered, discouraged and frustrated customers that this balance will be achieved is a monumental task Uptown will face.

We all know that first impressions are everything. But sometimes you can luck out with your second chance.

Kyle Slavin is a reporter for the Saanich News

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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