On Thursday night, I braved the cold and headed out to downtown Peterborough. The goal of my little excursion was to take some night-time photographs of the Festival of Lights. I started at Peterborough Square and continued to Millennium Park, where I wrapped up and headed home.
As I stood in the courtyard area at Peterborough Square, something became painfully obvious: Peterborough Square sucks. I don’t mean the people that run it or the people who have businesses in it; I mean the building itself sucks. I know that I’m not blowing anyone’s mind here with this epiphany, but it’s kind of a big deal that doesn’t get a lot of attention from the city.
I stood there last night, in this big, dilapidated square — alone. Not another soul was there besides the security guards for the Festival of Trees and some people inside the mall eating bad burgers. I know there was a concert at Showplace, the incomparable Rodeo Kings were playing Market Hall, and it was a Thursday night — but this was the Festival of Trees and I was standing there alone.
When I made my way down to Millennium Park, there was much more traffic. Many people passing asked me what I was taking pictures of and engaged in small talk. People came and people went and the feeling was very different. The building on the water at the park, which is home to the Silver Bean Cafe, was also the temporary home of the Forest Fantasy, a tent filled with lit tree displays that also had way more traffic than the square next to Market Hall.
I work downtown and see the square often. I also grew up in Peterborough and can remember 25 years ago, when Peterborough Square was a busy mall and the outdoor square was always a busy place.
Now it’s a place that people just avoid. Unless you have a skateboard or a need to enter the mall through that entrance, people avoid it.
I think back a few years to when my wife and I attended a concert at the Labatt Centre in London, Ontario. We dined at a little quiet restaurant across the street from not only the arena, but Covent Garden Market. Covent Garden is an amazing farmers’ market during the summer months and during the winter (the time of the year that we were there) is home to an outdoor skating rink. It is bright, modern and accessible and, at 8pm on a weeknight, it was packed!
While we aren’t London, we probably have something to learn from them. I’m not going to reignite the argument over a town square, but I will say that maybe the reason the outdoor square was empty on the second night of the Festival of Trees has something to do with it being a dark and dingy place that people have forgotten.
Peterborough has been hard at work over the years trying to improve accessibility and aesthetics to the core, while Peterborough Square’s efforts have been limited to removing the old cover that used to reside over the top of the stairs at the George/Simcoe entrance.
At one point, there was a glimmer of hope that things may finally get revitalized at Peterborough Square. In 2004, the ownership had a press conference outlining a multi-million dollar plan to renovate the mall in an effort to bring better retailers and consumer traffic. Well, the years have passed … and still nothing.
The Market Hall has undergone massive improvements, inside and out, and now we have a city block that looks like it’s confused. On one side there’s Market Hall, with great storefronts and restaurants facing onto George Street, and then there’s the other side of the building along Water and Simcoe that hasn’t changed since 1975.
It’s sort of like a car company bringing out its new model that’s half brand new sports car and half 40-year-old station wagon.
There’s been a lot of effort by the DBIA to bring business and consumers to the downtown core. We’ve got some incredible shops and businesses downtown. From shops like Charm Tree Toys to businesses like Brand Health and great restaurants like Hot Belly Mama’s, downtown is a pretty great place. But smack dab in the middle of it all — like a black eye — is Peterborough Square.
The truth of the matter is that this block, with Market Hall at the forefront, should be the crown jewel of the downtown core. It should be our Covent Garden Market.
So, as our city drools over multi-million dollar sports fields, maybe some real investment in the economic heart of the city should be in order.