Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Property Developers and the Robust Downtown: The Case of Four Major Canadian Downtowns

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Property Developers and the Robust Downtown: The Case of Four Major Canadian Downtowns

Article excerpt

En general, c'est dans le centre-ville des plus grandes cites canadiennes que se deroule la vie industrielle et economique de la region bien qu'ils aient subi dernierement un certain declin. Ce fait est du a differents facteurs politiques, economiques et sociaux. Le but de cet article est d'etudier l'aspect de la propriete: la structure du proprietariat et le role des promoteurs. Un certain nombre de puissants promoteurs et propretaires (comme des entreprises de promotion, des banques, des compagnies d'assurance et plus recemment des caisses de retraite) ont investi des sommes considerables dans des entreprises commerciales de premier plan dans les centre-villes. Ces elements tentent d'insuffler une vie nouvelle aux centre-villes afin de proteger leurs investissements et de les faire prosperer. Les promoteurs considerent les centre-villes canadiens comme des investissements surs ou ils possedent de nombreux biens. Des measures pro-actives assurent la prosperite de ces centre-villes.

Introduction

Understanding cities and urban spaces involves the consideration of multiple factors. In urban literature, numerous dimensions have been explored and analysed to provide an explanation of the development and functioning of cities. Most of this research focused on key issues like agglomeration, accessibility, locational preferences and the role of governments, or alternatively on the structural conditions imposed by capitalism. Yet these studies largely neglect the role of city builders. The role of these agents, property developers, is 'integral and essential to the workings of a capitalist economy' (Harvey 1985), but their actual role has remained basically understudied. Except for a few notable analyses (Haila 1991; Fainstein 2001; Olds 2001), geographical research rarely examines property developers as fundamental forces in shaping urban development.

One of the most researched parts of the city has been its downtown. (1) The prime advantage of the downtown was accessibility and agglomeration. The confluence of major transportation routes and agglomeration economies intensified the predominance of downtowns. With such assets, the dominant role of the downtown was secured until the automobile became widespread. As accessibility was not limited to fixed routes, and as the downtown suffered from congestion, high land values and deteriorating surrounding neighbourhoods, it lost many of its locational assets. Initially, firms relocated their routine functions to suburban sites; later they moved other functions, including head offices, outside the downtown (Hartshorn and Muller 1989; Fujii and Hartshorn 1995). New forms of suburban commercial clusters mushroomed across the metropolitan realm, providing alternative locations for conducting business. Concomitantly, downtowns went through a process of deterioration and disinvestment. Downtown properties that were rented at premium prices experienced high vacancy rates and declining rental rates, whereas exceptional growth occurred outside the central city. This was definitely evident in office markets. In the United States, 58 percent of metropolitan office space in 1999 was in central cities (most of it in downtowns), down from 74 percent in 1979 (Lang 2003). Municipalities often stepped in and attempt to stop downtown decline by initiating or subsidising redevelopment. Declining central cities in the American industrial belt such as Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Detroit fiercely promoted office development as a strategy to enhance the corporate and service role of the downtown (Levine 1987; Frieden and Sagalyn 1989; Robertson 1995). This strategy was adopted after the downtown had severely deteriorated and its land and property values almost hit rock-bottom.

This paper assigns a major role to the structure of property ownership and to property developers in the functioning and the development of Canadian downtowns. In his analysis of the urban retail landscape in Canada, Jones (1991) asserted that 'developers are arguably the most important players in determining the spatial structure of the retail distribution system in Canada'. …

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