Sunday, February 29, 2004

Dennis Mills and the Waterfront

So Toronto Liberal MP Dennis Mills has released his plan for Toronto's waterfront. There's a website devoted to the proposal, although it seems rather light on details to me, even on projects like the Union Station renovations that are already underway (though you'd never know it from the writeup), which doesn't even reference the actual study's website, which is here, by the way. The Toronto Star is cautiously optimistic; local blogger Andrew Spicer is more pessimistic. Me, I'd like to know what Mills' obsession is with the United Nations; perhaps drunk on his SARS-stock success, he's previously proposed moving the actual building to Toronto's waterfront.

Perhaps more seriously though, I'd like to take what might be a more unpopular or controversial stance: it sounds like there is too much reliance on parkland. Yeah, I know, saying that too much parkland is being proposed is somewhat akin to, oh, saying that the government is spending too much on health care, or that taxes are really too low, or that Saddam wasn't that bad a guy after all, just a little misunderstood. In the Star article, Mills uses the word "developers" as though it's a four-letter word — he practically spits it out. I'd argue that severely restricting development is the wrong direction; in fact, it should be encouraged, provided it's the right kind.

A feature article published a few months ago ("Walk on the waterfront", Bill Taylor, October 12, 2003 — sorry, no link available) described a couple of trips Taylor took in early October on sunny days with temperatures above 20 degrees, where he was somewhat surprised that, for the most part, there was hardly anyone enjoying the early autumn weather on the waterfront. The only places where there was significant activity was near the downtown condos, due to a critical mass of population, and in the Beach. A couple of quotes:


"No one would claim that the residential streets in The Beach keep anyone from the Boardwalk and the sand. It's the busiest area of the lakefront, a living, breathing, vibrant community, with lots of places to eat and drink (west of Spadina Ave., this becomes a serious deficiency). What's the problem elsewhere? East side, west side, it seems to be the same. Parking lots and places, especially in the east end, where you're frequently forced away from the lake. And there's the fact that, most of the time, almost the only people you see by the water are walking their dogs."

And:

"Still a little early for lunch, but the [Beach] neighbourhood is booming. People walk (even when they don't have dogs), run, cycle. Chill out on patios. If you don't mind mixing metaphors, you could call it an oasis by the water. People use it because people live by it. They have shops and bars and restaurants, and that in turn brings in other people. But leave The Beach and you leave the people behind. Because from here to Yonge St., you'll be able to see the lake, but not get close."

Taylor primarily focuses his article on the lack of access, and the various barriers blocking the water's edge such as parking lots, cliffs, and private ownership. But his points about activity in the Beach are particularly notable to me. Though there isn't a wide swath of parkland in the area — in most cases, you can see the neighbourhood houses from the water — the area doesn't feel as though it has a lack of parkland. A big part of what makes it work is the mix of various uses: parkland and recreational facilities; houses, townhouses and walk-up apartments; restaurants, stores, bars, and the streetcar a pleasant four- or five-minute walk away. Development doesn't get in the way of enjoyment of the waterfront here; done right, it adds significantly to it. The lake isn't the only attraction; if you want some variety, you can go for a walk in an architecturally interesting neighbourhood, or head up to Queen Street for some window shopping. Local development attracts enough people through locals alone that it makes the waterfront a more interesting destination for non-locals to come and people-watch, and the built form adds definition to the park edge and makes the area much more visually interesting (this is also an issue up in Downsview, where the park commission envisions a Central Park-type environment, yet inisists on paying for it by selling off the boundary lands for bix-box development.

Maybe a better approach would be an emphasis on quality, not quantity, of parkland, and to not treat development as an evil that's taking away our waterfront. Toronto already has an example where development and the waterfront not only co-exist, but make a whole arguably greater than their sum.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Oakville North Secondary Plan

Lots going on in the urban front this week, but here's something which in particular caught my eye. The Town of Oakville hosted an open house on Tuesday night, showing the preferred development scheme for the Oakville North development area (the controversial proposal to open up the area between Dundas Street and the 407 to development).

I'll ignore the question of whether the area should in fact be developed, and the issue of another urban growth boundary being loosened to sprawl, and take a look at what's being proposed under the assumption that development of the lands is a done deal.

There are a number of maps, plans, and documents on the Town's website (here). I haven't had time yet to go through all of them, but I've at least taken a look at most of the various planning maps. If I were to pick one to focus on, it would be the main Secondary Plan (warning: 2.5 MB PDF), which not only shows the proposed broad-strokes land uses and major roads, but a conceptual (presumably) block subdivision, showing (amongst other things) a local street pattern.

The plan was largely facilitated by new urbanist planning guru Andres Duany, who's written an excellent book entitled Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream which outlines, well, the rise of sprawl in North America and then presents the new urbanist alternative. The GTA had its first introduction to Duany's work in Markham, with the new urbanist community of Cornell; Oakville already has his penstrokes on its plans, with the Oak Park area of their Uptown Core at Trafalgar and Dundas.

The North Oakville Secondary Plan certainly has many of his trademarks: it's heavily oriented around a five-minute pedestrian-shed, with lots of small interior parks or "village squares." Non-"employment" internal areas are subdivided into "urban centre areas" (lining most internal main streets, which is promising), "general urban areas", and "sub-urban areas" (of which there are an impressively low proportion). The road network is a dense and highly connected modified grid pattern, which I tend to advocate — it even shows short blocks intersecting Dundas Street for most of the way, and while my gut tells me it'll be via service roads to maintain traffic flow on Dundas, I can certainly live with that. After all, it shows a narrow band of urban core area along Dundas, which is too narrow for big box development.

But the "Trafalgar Road Urban Core Area" certainly isn't too narrow! It cuts a ~750-metre swath all the way from Dundas to the 407, a scale just crying out for big box development, as if Oakville and western Mississauga doesn't have enough of it already. It's a problem with Duany's Oak Park design, too. He's set out to design a community that's on a pedestrian scale much more reminiscent of an older urban neighbourhood. The streets are narrow; the houses are set close to the street to give the street a real sense of enclosure and of place (and to make walking more visually interesting); the blocks are small, with lots of options for trip making. He's even proved in Oak Park that a four-storey walk-up is not out of place in a suburban development (although I understand that even the most tasteful building wasn't enough to satisfy some NIMBYers there). Yet in that overwhelmingly pedestrian-oriented environment, there are no pedestrians. Why? Because there's nothing for pedestrians to walk to. The closest attractions are the Wal-Mart and other big box developments along Trafalgar Road, which of course are surrounded with huge parking lots, and that paradoxical juxtaposition is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with neo-traditional developments. The residential areas are designed for pedestrians, and the non-residential areas continue to be designed for the car.

Having said that, it does have promise, and I will hold out hope. The next question: will good intentions be lost in the interpretation? (There's some background behind that scepticism, which I will reveal in a future edition...)

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Coffee tax, part 2

In a previous entry, I wondered how much revenue a coffee tax would generate, and how much damage the litter from coffee cups and other fast food containers causes.

In an article from today's Globe and Mail, Katherine Harding fills me in on at least the latter:


"Councillor Jane Pitfield, chair of the city's works committee, said she is happy the mayor is trying to tackle this ongoing problem, which has hurt the city's reputation as a clean place to visit and live.

"'What we don't need to do is throw more money after this problem,' she said. Ms. Pitfield added that the city already spends about $16-million a year keeping the streets clean. About 90 per cent of that is spent on picking up what falls on the ground, such as coffee cups, newspapers and fast-food containers."


Interesting — the $16 million figure (times 90% = $14.4 million) isn't that far off my highly unscientific estimate of $18 million in revenue. Mind you, that cost isn't just picking up coffee cups, but also other common items; maybe such a tax should be extended to other "problem" items -- newspapers, fast food items, cups of coffee.

As a sidenote, while Tim Hortons is a major generator (albeit indirectly) of litter from coffee cups, they get top marks for generally serving eat-in customers with reuse-able dishes and cutlery. I wonder if there is any possible application of that principle to other fast-food establishments.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

ECMA's

Saw part of the end of the East Coast Music Awards on the CBC Sunday night. Although I enjoyed many of the live performances I heard (and the memories of my four years out in New Brunswick), there was something else that struck me in particular this year.

What a marketing coup!

This year's show introduced me to a couple of bands/artists that I'd be interested in at least hearing more of: Crush (who won 5 awards), and Matt Mays (newcomer of the year). Unlike performers on the Junos, who typically are by artists reasonably well-known across English Canada, I had never heard of these two artists before. Speaking of lesser-known but decent artists from the east coast, I remind myself that Chris Colepaugh is playing in Toronto Thursday night, at the Rivoli -- hope to get out to see him and his band. (Of course, before then, another show featuring Spookyhorse on Wednesday, at the B-Side.)

The other marketing genius behind the ECMA's: the music gets you thinking and waxing sentimental about the east coast and the laid-back lifestyle -- then the ads for Tourism Nova Scotia draws you in -- and those ads in turn are sponsored by Keith's. For some reason I found that to be a powerful combination. Or maybe I just want to go back there...

Monday, February 16, 2004

Coffee tax?

Upon stumbling across my blog, Jeff of Spookyhorse gave me the advice, "Don't become a slave to the blog!" Apparently I have been following that advice a little too closely lately...

Well, tonight Global News ran a CNN piece about a new form of taxation that has been discussed in the States, and more recently up here in Toronto. Seems a while back, Seattle tried implementing a ten-cent cappucino tax. It ran into widespread opposition, though, and was never put in place — but since then, New York City has taken notice. It's now trying to put in place a ten-cent latte tax to help solve its budget woes, and it sounds as though it'll run into a similar level of opposition.

The interesting thing is, I first heard about this idea on Friday, in a story aired on 680 News (another Rogers-owned media outlet), where the New York example was noted — and apparently Toronto is now considering its own 10-cent coffee tax. In a decidedly unscientific poll, they sent a reporter out on the street, where the response was remarkably supportive.

This is particularly surprising, because it seems to be a tax for revenue's sake only. Gas taxes can be argued to pay for infrastructure, or environmental costs due to automobile use (I know that's a broad statement about a touchy subject). Similarly, cigarette taxes act as a deterrent to smoking, and allow the government to collect funds that (at least indirectly) help pay for the health system. A coffee tax doesn't really deter behaviour that uses limited resources like road capacity or electricity, or that causes societal or environmental damages -- unless perhaps you count the litter of thousands of paper Tim's cups.

I'd be interested to find out how much this would generate for the city. Assuming the equivalent of 1 in 5 Torontonians orders one coffee a day, that's about $50,000 per day, or about $18 million per year. Compare that to a toll of the Gardiner and DVP. The last proposal I heard involved a toll equivalent to a TTC cash fare ($2.25), applicabale inbound only. I believe the traffic volume is about 150,000 vehicles per day coming in on each of the Gardiner and DVP. Cut that in half (150,000 total -- tolls inbound only), and then let's assume that 25% are diverted or choose to make different trips (112,500). Apply a $2.25 toll: roughly $250 million per day.