Thursday, April 29, 2004

Busy

My apologies for the slow blogging of late. It's been a combination of a number of factors, most notably a busy workload at work, and planning for my engagement.

Yes, that's right — Philippa and I are now engaged. (Yes, she said "yes".) I thought that, now that my part of the "main event" is over, I would be off the hook. Turns out the "fun" is only beginning... what, you mean there has to be a wedding afterward??

Anyhow, I hope to be back up and blogging in the next day or two.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

"15 Rules for Rebuilding The World"

Although rebuilding the world seems like a tall order, in this article from Wired Magazine architect/author Christopher Alexander summarizes the 15 design principles to be followed if that should ever happen (as outlined in his recently-published four-volume book, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe).

Link courtesy of M1-City Planning (an academic blog for the University of Manitoba).

Is it easier to play in a downtown arena than a suburban one?

Amidst the commentary on last night's 2-0 Leafs victory over the Senators, comes this quote from Damien Cox:


Maybe one of the lesser known Murphy's laws is that you are destined to always fail when it matters in an arena built so far from the downtown core that your most loyal fans are trapped in endless traffic jams, even on holiday Mondays.

Sure, his tongue is firmly in his cheek, but it adds an interesting new dimension to the Battle of Ontario for urban vs. suburban theorists...

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Winnipeg's New Deal gets derailed?

A brief article in the Globe and Mail today alerted me to some new developments in Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray's quest for a New Deal for Winnipeg. Murray is another progressive urban mayor à la Miller, and lately has received a fair amount of press across the country for his efforts in changing the way Winnipeg collects revenue from its citizens.

Although I haven't studied it as closely as perhaps I might like, from what I understand it's a fairly radical (at least for Canada) redistribution that would have significantly reduced the reliance on property taxes (which would have been cut by 50%), and increased the reliance on user fees and consumption taxes (such as an increased gas tax, a new hotel tax, water and sewer surcharges, etc.). The plan was intended to increase municipal revenue and give the City more financial autonomy, while giving businesses and residents more control over how much tax they pay (you don't have much control over your property taxes, other than when you choose your home before you buy it, but you do have control over things such as how many garbage bags you put out, how much you drive and how much fuel you buy, etc.). The CBC Manitoba website has a feature section on Murray's New Deal, where you can get more details.

The plan sounded interesting to me, but it looks as though most residents of Winnipeg don't agree. Hence Murray has revised the original plan (now apparently referred to as the "Old Deal"), and replaced it with a watered-down, less ambitious, and more saleable version (the "Newer Deal"). There's fewer new fees, but there's also a much smaller reduction in property taxes (was 50%, now only 4% — though the reduction will be increased if a per-bag fee is introduced on garbage pickup). Also now off the table is a 50% cut in transit fares.

What was the downfall of the program? I've found two different answers. Articles on the CBC site and from the Winnipeg Sun seem to be emphasizing that the Newer Deal is simpler than the Old Deal, which implies that citizens felt the litany of new fees was too complicated to understand — too much change at once. But they also seem to hint at something that the Globe and Mail article states straight out:


Mayor Glen Murray, who last year said he wanted to rethink the entire structure of his government, said yesterday that residents didn't like the idea of new taxes, which would have been a cornerstone of his plan.

The Winnipeg plan primarily revolved around restructuring municpal revenue sources, not a restructuring of revenue between the three levels of government. Still, this reaction indicates to me that advocates of intergovernmental financial reform may have a bit of a struggle on their hands. The original Winnipeg plan featured some fairly significant tax cuts in some areas in addition to the new fees and taxes, and this suggests that the idea of "The Feds will give up some tax room to the provinces, who will give more taxation power to municipalities, and it'll all even out for taxpayers" may not be as easy a sell as you might think.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Property tax hikes and urban fiscal sustainability

Back on Friday, David Lewis Stein wrote a column in the Star that contained what appeared to be a rather detailed analysis of how much property tax homeowners in the GTA pay. He noted that, for a house valued at $260,000, a Toronto homeowner would pay $2,500 in property taxes, and then proceeded to show how that Toronto homeowner is actually getting a bargain (the headline, "Stop whining: Toronto gets off lightly in taxes," pretty much sums it up). According to Stein's calculations, a $260,000 home elsewhere in the GTA (i.e., the 905) would work out to anywhere between $2,730 (in Milton) and $4,400 (in Oshawa).

Maybe it helps that I've been eyeing the Toronto housing market somewhat lately, but it seemed to me that Stein's detailed analysis had conveniently neglected one key detail: how much house that $260,000 will buy in Toronto, and how much it will buy in Oshawa. A week and a half ago, I noticed a small house in the Beach that was bargain priced, because there was some foundation damage that was causing "slopage" and the house would require some pretty hefty work. That bargain price? Coincidentally, almost exactly $260,000. Head out to Oshawa, and for that price you can find some pretty decent houses (and I'd wager above average). Indeed, here's a quick search (don't know how link will work after a couple of days, but it's a search for anything in Oshawa under $275,000).

Turns out I wasn't the only one to call Stein on that one.

(UPDATE, Tuesday, April 6: Here we have the other side — a 905'er quickly reading the numbers without questioning them. Guess Stein's article was more dangerous than I thought...)

It turns out, though, that Toronto's not alone in the GTA in facing a nice property tax hike. Toronto is in the unfortunate position of having an aging infrastructure that's now needing replacement, and it's having to fund the replacement with property taxes. Hamilton's in a similar predicament (one of the major arguments people, and some councillors, have been making against the Red Hill Creek Expressway, which is adding another burden to an already weak fiscal situation). Conversely, for years Mississauga had 0% tax increases, partly due to Mayor Hazel McCallion's "pay-as-you-go" philosophy, but mostly because most of its infrastructure construction was financed through development charges — the basic concept being that land developers would pay a chunk of the cost of servicing undeveloped land, with the assumption that the future owners of that land would pay for the infrastructure later on through their taxes (a luxury that Toronto doesn't really have anymore, even though the GTA as a whole is growing). Now that Mississauga's greenfields are nearly fully developed, the development charges are drying up at the same time as Mississauga's oldest infrastructure is starting to need replacement, and Mississauga taxpayers are starting to get used to an annual Toronto ritual: waiting to see what their spring tax hike will be.

Well, I was rather surprised this morning to read that, even with the boon of development charges, the still-growing Town of Oakville is looking at a 5.4% residential tax increase. The first three paragraphs in particular are illustrative:


Growth is pushing up Oakville property taxes, the town's budget chief said after council approved a 5.4 per cent increase for this year.

"If we continue to grow, we're going to have to get used to increases in this range," Councillor Allan Elgar said in an interview. "We're looking at increases in the 6 to 7 per cent range over the next two years. Development does not pay for itself."

That rate of growth is not sustainable over the long term without funding help from the provincial and federal governments, he said.

I don't think it should take me by surprise to hear that sprawl doesn't pay for itself. What does surprise me is to hear it from a town councillor and the town's budget chief. Although I believe they have yet to fully embrace smart growth principles (e.g., the paradoxical juxtaposition of new urbanist residential with suburban big-box commercial), it sounds as though Oakville may be starting to get religion; hopefully it's not too late.

Should've trademarked it

Back on November 12, I commented to James Bow that it'd only be a matter of time before we started hearing about the 3M's. Well, it took longer than I had expected, but the phrase is starting to take off (particularly after the three of them were together for the "big announcement" last week). Royson James' column today in the Star uses the term and contrasts it/them with the Chretien/Harris/Lastman "Three Amigos." (Hmmm... maybe I should go for "Three M-igos"... well, on second thought...)

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Revitalizing Downtown Brampton (The Wrong Way?)

So the City of Brampton has decided to take steps to rejuvenate its downtown. It sounds as though the City and its mayor, Susan Fennell, have caught the smart growth bug, and are hoping to direct development to downtown to revitalize the area, create a major centre within the city, and reduce development pressures in greenfields on the outskirt. (A month or so ago, the Star ran an article profiling the City, the plans, and the mayor; unfortunately I have no URL and the 14-day search has expired.)

Great news. Downtown Brampton may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I'd take it over most of the rest of Brampton (especially the Trinity Common area at Bovaird and the 410 — don't get me started on that one!). It's got some nice, if generally not terribly distinctive, architecture in the surrounding leafy residential areas, and it's maintained its core main-street development styles while introducing some higher-density commercial and residential projects. There's a neat old warehouse just west of the GO station that's recently been converted successfully to office space, and the downtown transit terminal is generally considered to be a successful example of a symbiotic, public/private development. Oh, and there's a neat old theatre on Main Street just south of the CNR overpass.

Well, that neat old theatre apparently is what's holding back development downtown. The City's planned to raze the theatre and build a new performing arts centre on basically the same site, "because councillors believe it's vital to downtown rejuvenation." Not only that, but of course the cost is already going up: it was originally estimated at $56 million but has since jumped $12 million before construction begins.


The decision to proceed with the project will pay off big for the downtown by sparking investment and real-estate deals in the area "like you've never seen before," Fennell said.

I applaud Fennell's desire to hem in growth and direct it towards the downtown, but I hope this isn't the start of a trend that sees the development obliterate the things that give downtown Brampton its charm. Perhaps it should come as no surprise to regular readers, who will probably recognize my bent towards the traditional — I find something special about going to the old Fox Theatre on Queen Street East that I don't get at a multiplex such as the Paramount down the street. Mind you, I've only been to the Paramount a couple of times, so perhaps I haven't recognized an obsolescence that should be blatant to more regular patrons, and if the City is intent on building a performing arts centre it's better off in the downtown than, say, up on Bovaird Drive surrounded by a thousand parking spaces. I just don't see it being the salvation of downtown that Fennell and her Council do.

To truly revitalize the central area, I would leave the Heritage Theatre alone, and do something about some un- or under-utilized sites in the area — presumably by way of policy rather than by actual construction (as would happen with the performing arts centre). Potential sites? The GO/VIA station (the parking lot and the area to the west), and (from what I recall) the area northwest of Queen and Main (around the LCBO). There's some other underused lots to the east, towards the hospital.

The Brampton Mall is another good candidate, although somewhat to the south. It's a textbook example of a 1950's suburban plaza, back from when central malls were the new idea but before fully-enclosed buildings became widespread. From the street, it's still got prominent and fairly well-used tenants (including anchors A&P and Shoppers Drug Mart), but the central mall has been all but abandoned and has an eerie ghost-town aura to it — you can almost see a 1950's image of young boomers promenading through before your eyes. Right next to the Etobicoke Creek, and lining up in the corridor between Shopper's World and downtown, it seems to me to be a prime redevelopment candidate.

(Perusing the City's web pages on the proposed Performing Arts Centre, I see they're trumpeting that it will feature "direct parking and access to the Theatre via the garage". While I can see why this is considered a good thing (particularly in January), new urbanist Andres Duany takes the opposite approach in Suburban Nation: if the City wants to encourage increased activity in the downtown, they should be taking a page from shopping mall developers and siting parking facilities so that they act as an anchor with the primary destination — so that people park their cars, walk past several small, facilities scaled to attract the attention of the pedestrian, before reaching the other anchor.)

I suppose there's no point in complaining about something that's already underway and has been for nearly a year. I hope it's not a mistake; if I turn out to be wrong, I'll gladly eat my words!

Toronto-Rochester ferry news

Let's hope this isn't an omen...