Friday, December 03, 2004

Exhibition Place vs. Ontario Place

It's been a month of long hours at work, and accordingly it's been a month of low e-mailing and minimal blogging. However, I've been prodded back into action by Marc Weisblott of BLC fame, with the challenge to come up with a few thoughts on the task force to investigate the future of Exhibition Place and Ontario Place.

To be honest, though, I had a hard time deciding what to say on the matter. Even when the call for public submissions came forward in the news, I don't think I actually read much of the article. Both venues are places that are significant uses and attractions that you see all the time on maps, or going past on the GO train, or driving by on the Gardiner or the Lake Shore, and that I've been to a few times (mostly as a kid). But while I know they're there, and can appreciate the fact that they're there, serving a purpose I suppose, I don't really think about them all that often.

I can't remember what the last time I voluntarily went down to either of them just for the sake of going. Sure, I went down to Ontario Place perhaps 2 or 3 years ago, but it was for a work "appreciation day" type of event. I suppose it would be back in 1999, to visit my brother who was working at (interestingly) the BLC. (Also interestingly: my mother also worked a booth at the BLC back in her youth, in the 1960's.) Even in my younger days, the trips to the Ex were almost always primarily for another event — because we had Jays tickets at Exhibition Stadium, or had concert tickets, also at Exhibition Stadium. (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Also, the Beach Boys / Chicago, back when I thought Chicago were cool. They did have a cool period, especially their second album, which is exceptional, but I was very misguided on their 80's stuff.) Or later, tickets to a show at the Molson Amphitheatre. But there wasn't really ever enough on its own to really interest me in either case.

I was starting to feel some shame at my nonchalance towards the issue — until I read similar a similar response from Andrew Spicer. I'm not sure, though, if those thoughts are common to a lot of Torontonians — there certainly does seem to be a lot of hype raised around the opening and closing of the CNE, for example. Perhaps it's just that we prefer to focus on more everyday issues (the important stuff — like the design of the Toronto street sign, of course). The idea that, if you are a tourist and want to get an idea of Toronto, you shouldn't head to the CN Tower and the typical tourist locations — you should visit some of Toronto's neighbourhoods and walk its streets.

In that vein, I tried to picture how west-enders (i.e., west end of downtown — not Mississaugans) would feel about those facilities. I certainly enjoyed having an apartment close to the lake this summer out in the east end; a quick walk and I could bike down the Martin Goodman Trail, or walk down the boardwalk, or just sit and read a newspaper in the shade and people-watch. I can't picture doing that as regularly if I lived on Queen or King West. Part of that is the increased distance, and part of that is the barriers of the Lake Shore, Gardiner, and rail corridor. But a good part of that is also the distance across Exhibition Place, which I picture (fairly or not) as being fairly quiet and empty for a good 80 to 90 percent of the year. I suppose that's a way of saying that it would be nice to increase activity in there, particularly in Exhibition Place, to bring that 80-90% down a good deal. I tend to agree with Armchair's assessment that "re-examining the purpose of the two sites would surely mean trying to find a more consistent draw to the area." (I also tend to agree with his thought that the facilities should remain public.)

I'm not sure that co-ordinating or combining the two facilities is as important as simply increasing activity throughout the year. I am reminded of the constant cries to better integrate 905 transit systems with the TTC in a bid to increase ridership. There may be some efficiencies to be had there (for example, eliminating duplicate service along Burnhamthorpe or Dundas), but the real thing that's going to attract more riders is better service — especially faster and more frequent service — not what colour of bus offers the service. (And if you improve the speed and the frequency, the issue of the transfer between the two services becomes much smaller.)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

More on Don Mills vs. Vaughan Mills

A pattern is emerging. I have become an elections junkie, and similar to our provincial, federal and municipal elections over the past year or so, I followed the U.S. election a fair amount — for ours, it was the daily SES tracking polls; for the American election, I became addicted to the daily update from electoral-vote.com. (Check out how its traffic spiked as the election began to approach — clearly I wasn't the only junkie!) Also similarly, I am definitely feeling election-ed out (surprisingly quickly). During our federal election I became a regular reader of Paul Wells' blog but have since returned to it perhaps once or twice. I can sense that feeling already here this time.

Now that it's over, hopefully posting here will increase. To get started, here's a link to an article by Stephen Wickens from Saturday's Globe and Mail, an article that is related to a couple of subjects I've written about lately: Don Mills and Vaughan Mills. Stephen starts out simply looking at Vaughan Mills from a pro ("shopper-tainment"??) vs. con ("sprawl") perspective. What I particularly appreciate is that he then brings up Don Mills as an example of what could be. He got a quote from Anne Morash, an official at Cadillac Fairview (operators of Don Mills Centre and other GTA malls such as the Eaton Centre, Fairview Mall, and Sherway Gardens):

"We gained inspiration from Bloor West Village, from Bayview south of
Eglinton. Those are valuable neighbourhoods because everything is
there. More and more, people want to be able to do things without having
to get into their cars."

Hopeful words indeed...

Monday, October 25, 2004

Gas tax debacle

I've been meaning to post on the McGuinty government's gas tax announcement and what it means for Toronto. This past weekend saw a back-and-forth debate in the media between provincial and Toronto officials, with Toronto claiming that this deal is worse than no deal, and with the province saying that the city pols are ingrates and should be thanking them for "a promise kept, not a promise broken". I've been trying to sort my way through the rhetoric and have come to the conclusion that they're both right (or, if you're a pessimist, they're both wrong). I was going to try to explain it a little more, but I think Royson James explained it a little better today than I could have. Or, for other coverage within the blogosphere, see Andrew Spicer's take.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

San Francisco, then vs. now


Stumbled across an interesting website tonight that compares screen captures from the 1958 film Vertigo with contemporary photos taken from as close to the same vantage point as possible without setting up a tripod and leaving it there for 45 years!

Aside from the skill of the photographer in painstakingly recreating the precise scenes, and seeing how little San Francisco has changed over the past 45 years, what struck me most about these shots is how much trees enhance the urban landscape. For examples, try here, here, or here. Even the tiny little street trees here.

Now I have to go out and actually watch the movie...

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Varsity blues

I was excited when the Argonauts announced their plans to move into a new facility on the grounds of the former University of Toronto Varsity Stadium at St. George subway station (if I were a TV reporter, I would have to say something about the "infamous 1950 'mud bowl'", but as I am not a TV reporter, I do not have to stoop to that level...). Although I, like much of the GTA, initially admired the SkyDome upon its 1989 opening (compared to the ad-hoc Exhibition Stadium), the lustre soon wore off as I saw the stadium for the antiseptic cavern that it is. I was interested by the prospects of the Argos enjoying a Montreal Alouettes-style renaissance after moving from a lifeless domed stadium into a more intimate facility, and I was heartened to see that it was to be a downtown site clearly oriented to subway access. (Although I've unfortunately never seen them in person, my favourite ballparks have been the older, quirkier and more intimate downtown ballparks, like Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, or Ebbets Field.)

I was thus equally disappointed to hear that, apparently due to U of T politics, the rebirth of Varsity Stadium is to be no more. Other "plan B" sites now being considered include:

  • Exhibition Place ("Mistake By The Lake Part II", but still well served by GO and the new Harbourfront streetcar line)
  • York University (further out from downtown, but as Andrew Spicer notes, at least it's to be served by the new York University busway, and eventually an extension of the Spadina subway)
  • Downsview Park (similar location but likely in a more suburban format — at least York is making efforts to urbanize their campus and put more emphasis on transit as they struggle to cope with automobile demand)
  • Woodbine Race Track (still further out from downtown, and likely served by a giant mother of a parking lot)

Part of me says it should at least stay downtown and use the Exhibition Place grounds, while another part says it should go to York, with the ability to partner with the university athletics department and the access from the new busway to Downsview (and GO's proposed trans-GTA busway). But my heart isn't in either of them. Varsity had the subway access and urban, downtown environment, but more than that, it had tradition. I believe tradition and legend count for a lot in sports — witness the Bill Barilko legend, or the Curse of the Bambino, or the Maple Leafs trotting out their nostalgia jerseys come playoff time (I still say they should wear those things all the time). The new Varsity site was more than just a stadium: it was a rebirth. The symbolism could not be clearer. With Varsity off the table, any other site has instantly become just a stadium.

Caught in a rut

Back when I worked in North York and lived in Port Credit, every time I drove on the westbound express lanes of the 401 on the Hogg's Hollow bridge west of Yonge Street I would marvel at the shabby state of the pavement — ruts that feel as though they're redirecting your car as you drive over them — and decide that it was only a matter of time until someone loses control on them and causes an accident.

Guess what happened last Wednesday.

The trucking company has stated that it was the poor condition of the roadway, not the condition of the truck or its driver, that caused the truck to swerve out of control. I'm sure everyone is saying, "Yeah, sure it was the pavement, and your past safety record has nothing to do with it." I would normally be at the front of that line. But in this case, I'll believe it.

Transporation minister Harinder Takhar attempted to subdue an angry public by ordering a "complete audit" on the trucking firm, Redtree Contract Carriers, stating "I want to do a complete, thorough review of their record ... everything we can check, the tires, the nuts, the bolts ... and we will have to check the driving record as well." The implication is that if the trucking company was found to be at fault, that it would no longer be permitted to operate. If that is the case, it'd be unfortunately based on a knee-jerk witch hunt. Minister Takhar needs to look just as thoroughly, and without prejudice, at the condition of the pavement on the westbound express lanes.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Places to Grow wraps up

Friday was the deadline for comments on the province's Places to Grow discussion paper intended to limit sprawl across the GTA. And true to form, I got mine in just under the wire!

On Saturday, the Star published an article outlining the response from the Neptis Foundation, and their response is actually somewhat similar to mine. The points I raised in my letter response:

  • Urban thinkers, politicians, and the public have all been saying for years that the GTA is sprawling out of control and something needs to be done. There have been plenty of well-intentioned reports issued over that time, all promising to end sprawl and better manage the GTA's growth, yet virtually everything being built in 905 today still requires a car. The government needs to show how this time, the plan will actually be implemented.

  • The number of identified centres needs to be increased; there need to be different categories of "centre" (as I mentioned here, the report essentially considers downtown Oakville at the same level as downtown Toronto); and the report should also consider including major corridors (e.g., Hurontario Street, one of the few Mississauga Transit routes that is actually reasonably profitable).

  • The biggest complaint seems to be that "not everyone wants to live in a high-rise" (which I interpret as, "I don't want to live next to a high-rise"). Yet the old part of the city of Toronto illustrates that increased density doesn't mean a ghetto of high-rises: it means a mix of smaller lots, townhomes, and duplexes; three- and four-storey walk-up apartment and condo buildings (which, as Oakville's Oak Park illustrates, can even blend in well in a suburban neighbourhood); and, most of all, a major overhaul of how commercial properties develop.

This last point is the most important. Suburban planners go to great pains to make their neighbourhoods "walkable" by concentrating on street layout (at least a modified grid pattern), providing sidewalks, and installing traffic calming measures. Yet they entirely ignore the biggest issue: people won't walk if there's nothing to walk to. I cited Cornell in my letter as a rare 905 neighbourhood that actually includes a small-scale commercial component within it, but even that appears to do little: the commercial facilities don't have enough everyday facilities (grocery stores, drug stores, etc.) and residents instead still have to rely on their cars to get to the superstores. I find it interesting (and aggravating) that the province can publish transit-friendly residential development guidelines (which have managed to increase greenfield residential densities somewhat, and re-introduced the long-lost local street grid pattern), yet non-residential development is basically "untouchable."

(Today there is word that Markham is now having second thoughts about an area zoned for big box retail just north of their old main street business district. My impression: for a municipality that seemed so progressive with encouraging communities like Cornell, I'm surprised and somewhat disappointed that they ever had first thoughts. Amongst the residents that showed up to a planning meeting to roundly denounce the increasing glut of "power shopping" was GO Transit managing director Gary McNeil, who was quoted as saying, "Before me now is a reflection of a 1970s and 1980s mentality, an automobile-oriented mentality. [...] As a resident, I hate what's happening to Markham. It's like a bloody commercial wasteland.")

My previous post was all about optimism for reform in how suburban commercial sites are designed and developed. Today, I present the diametric opposite, the Vaughan Mills megaplex about to open at the 400 and Rutherford Road. Here's an article from the Star; here's the developer's website, complete with plans and diagrams. Feast your eyes on all that parking! I estimate somewhere in the order of 6000 to 7000 spaces. (That ignores all the vacant parcels surrounding it, just waiting to be filled with "pad" buildings with their own supply of parking.) This development almost makes Brampton's Trinity Common look good (no easy feat!). Give them credit: Vaughan Mills (and Trinity Common, for that matter) do actually have mini transit terminals, which is a feature rarely seen in large-scale commercial development these days. But as far as I am concerned, you can throw all the transit service you want down in 905: it will mean little unless there is some reform in commercial development styles.

Monday, September 20, 2004

The rebirth of Don Mills

On a recent trip to Don Mills, I passed an intriguing sign at the Don Mills Centre, saying, "What if Don Mills Centre became more than a mall?" It then provided a web address, one that I am finding quite intriguing.

Don Mills represented a turning point in Toronto development styles back in the 1950's. One of its distinguishing features was the ring road around the Don Mills / Lawrence intersection (the Donway), within which the main community facilities were sited, separated from the single-family homes outside the ring road and the industrial lots to the south. Separation of uses was a key principle.

Some fifty years later, the owners of Don Mills Centre (the shopping plaza in the southwest quadrant of the Donway) are proposing what would have been unthinkable back then: introducing not only office uses, but also residential uses on the Don Mills Centre site. It's a clear attempt to transform the suburban into the urban. Even more promising, it's recognition on the part of a major developer that there's more to commercial development than a Wal-Mart in the middle of a 2000-space parking lot — even better, that that's a poor way to build a city. That introducing residents to the site is actually good for business, for the developers and for the tenants.

It's a stretch to say that this will become the norm for greenfields development in 905-land (although it would be nice, and a welcome change). However, at least reinventing our inner suburbs is a good start, and a good fit with Toronto's new Official Plan.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Toronto street sign, Part II (More Blood)

I originally didn't think it would get much attention other than from sign designers or enthusiasts, but the redesign of the Toronto street sign has been getting plenty of attention lately in the Toronto blogosphere. Let's recap:

  • Original article in the Star ("The signs are a-changin'"), July 11
  • Andrew Spicer notes the transition and above article, August 5
  • My first post on the issue, also August 5
  • Andrew revisits the issue August 16, with a photo that's better than the example in the Star article
  • A Ms. Johnson cartoon by Brett Lamb appears in his new Toronto weblog, Better Living Centre, September 13 (incidentally, I'm glad to see that his blog has recovered from its bout of Phil Collins — my God, that man is a genius [Mr. Lamb, that is, in case there was any confusion!])
  • Finally, Andrew posts another picture today — like a bad case of Phil Collins, the new sign has spread to East York.

(Actually, I suppose you could compare Phil Collins' version of "You Can't Hurry Love" to the new sign design — a poor substitute for the original — although I suppose it's a matter of taste...)

That white-on-blue East York version is interesting not only in itself, but because it provides a hint of what may be to come when the signs make their way to Forest Hill, which has historically had their own white-on-green version of the standard Toronto design. I bet the new ones don't last long up there...

If you're interested in more about Clearview (the font being used on the new signs), here's a couple other links:

  • Here's the website of the developer and distributor of Clearview, Terminal Design. (Note that the website is inaccurate: Clearview is not being used province-wide in Ontario, although there are some jurisdictions other than Toronto that are starting to use it more often.)
  • Here's a study done by a local ergonomics and traffic safety firm, Human Factors North, into font sizes required for street signs — not the regular ones that are the subject of this post, but the white-on-blue oversized ones that are starting to pop up on traffic signal mast arms in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. That one recommended 8-inch (20-cm) high letters, based somewhat conservatively on older (50-plus) drivers that were specifically instructed to approach the intersection in the wrong lane (i.e., if they had to make a right turn, they were instructed to stay in the lane to the left of the curb lane).

I went out tonight armed with a flashlight and a scale ruler, aiming to measure typical letter heights on both the old and new style signs. The old ones I estimate at 8 cm, or roughly 3 inches. I couldn't find an example of the new ones that was low enough to reach; however, you can get an idea of the height by scaling off Andrew Spicer's picture. (I hope he doesn't mind if I borrow it.)

The stop sign is 60 cm in height, so I'd put the letter height of the "C" and "A" at 12.5 to 13 cm (5 inches, compared to the old signs at 3 inches).

I've done some letter height calculations based on the Ontario Traffic Manual (a set of books outlining sign design principles, amongst other things). Basically you calculate the amount of time required to read the sign, the amount of time required to perceive the message and react to it, and the time required to complete a manoeuvre (change lanes if necessary [not an issue in neighbourhoods], and slow down). Then you calculate how far you will travel in that time. Then you apply a height-to-distance ratio to calculate the minimum letter height (basically how big the letters should be in order to be legible at the required distance). Still with me?

Based on the OTM calculations, I've estimated that if you start out at 40 km/h, you're at the 3-inch height of the old signs. At 50 km/h, you get to the 5-inch height of the new signs. However, even that overestimates the height, because the distance calculations are based on a uniform speed, not a constantly reducing speed.

Anyway, sorry to get so technical and what not, but the bottom line is that I'd say the new larger signs are designed to be read at about 57-58 km/h, whereas the old ones were designed for about 42-43 km/h. So, if that new street sign on your local street seems strangely out of scale for your neighbourhood, that's probably because it is.

(Interestingly, that 57-58 km/h matches almost exactly the estimate I made about a month ago: "I first noticed them along Lake Shore Boulevard between Coxwell and the Don Valley, and assumed that they were to be introduced on higher-speed roadways in order to increase legibility at higher speeds;" "These are signs designed to be read by drivers traveling at 60 km/h or more;" etc.)


Wednesday, September 08, 2004

School overcrowding in 905-land

What with being the first week back to school and all, there's been no shortage of news coverage lately on issues for teachers, students, parents, and Ontario's education system in general. What I find most interesting is the coverage of not skyrocketing classroom sizes, but skyrocketing school sizes. Probably the best place to start is in an editorial published in the Star today that provides a number of example of schools in 905 that are overcrowded just a few years (or even months) after opening, and outlines a number of reasons why.

I can certainly attest to the crowding, as both my mother and fiancee are elementary teachers in Peel. For example, my mom teaches in the Mavis Road area of northern Mississauga. Recently a new school opened not far from hers and already its property is covered in portables. I'm almost certain I heard her say that one school had 300 kindergarten students (the number is so large that I'm doing a double-take on it today, but I'm pretty sure that's it) — she said it had more students in kindergarten alone than attended the entire K-6 school where I went to kindergarten.

What hasn't had as much attention in the news, is school sizes, and in particular the new principle of building fewer, larger facilities in the quest to attain supposed efficiencies. That school near Mavis Road probably isn't much smaller population-wise than the high school I attended, for example. The result is a much larger service area, a low proportion of students within walking distance (almost NIL at my mother's school), and thus huge costs to bus most of the students in (and/or choking traffic congestion from parents dropping their kids off). Oh, not to mention kids that spend half their day on a school bus.

You can see the same principle easily in libraries, for example: look at the Mississauga Public Library branch location map (PDF file). Of their 16 local branches (excluding the Central Library), only four have been built since I became a patron some twenty years ago (a few have moved locations somewhat or have been renovated, but their general service area has remained the same). For a more striking example, look at the Toronto Public Library branch location map, and compare the number and distribution of branches in older parts of the city (the old Toronto, southern Etobicoke, East York) with those in the suburbs. Note also how many smaller "neighbourhood libraries" there are in each area.