Saturday, August 21, 2004

Places To Grow (But Not Too Much)

A couple of interesting articles pertaining to the recent Places to Grow draft report:

Today in the Star, Thomas Walkom outlines some history behind the last major attempt at creating a Toronto greenbelt, as the province attempts to create another. (In a planning 101 course I took at college, I seem to recall it was more an attempt to create a wide swath of right-of-way to accommodate utilities and transportation routes, which it does very well with its Ontario Hydro transmission towers, the 407 in York Region, the 403 through Mississauga, and GO's proposed transitway along most of what is somewhat ironically called the "Parkway Belt".)

Meanwhile, some OMB activity out in downtown Oakville raises what I foresee to be a major stumbling block of Places to Grow: making high-density (even medium-density) development saleable outside of 416 (and even in 416). This example is in the centre of what the government is proposing to be recognized as a "priority urban centre" (key nodes implemented across the GTA where redevelopment and intensification efforts are supposed to be directed), and is being fought tooth and nail by residents:

The developer wants to build a 14-storey, 85-unit luxury condominium on the
current site of Sharkey's Dockside Café on Forsythe St. on the west side of
Sixteen Mile Creek. Daniels has an agreement to purchase the property from the
numbered company that owns the restaurant. [...]

But residents say the proposal is out of character with the surrounding
neighbourhood and they fear it will clear the way for more high-rise development

Part of the problem is that downtown Oakville and downtown Toronto are recognized both as "priority urban centres." Downtown Oakville has some higher-density residential development dating probably from the 60's or early 70's, and some medium-density redevelopment that's more recent (late 80's or 90's), but essentially it's still a typical southern Ontario town central business district.

Actually, for transit-friendly redevelopment, Oakville isn't terribly well laid-out — its downtown is only served by low-frequency local service and is relatively distant from its main transit node (the GO station just south of the QEW). It's made up more of a string of smaller activity centres strung up Trafalgar Road: downtown, the GO station, Oakville Place and the civic centre, Sheridan College, and the new Uptown Core and proposed development north of Dundas (both of which are supposed to be higher-density centres but appear to be anchored commercially by low-density big-box retail).

As a comparison, Port Credit is a more ideal candidate for redevelopment and for inclusion as a centre. Indeed, there's a great deal of intensification and redevelopment going on right now in Port Credit, mostly completed on the old St. Lawrence Starch lands at Hurontario and Lakeshore, and in the planning stages immediately to the north. (The St. Lawrence project is an excellent example of how medium- and high-density brownfield redevelopment can fit into the small-town main street urban fabric; the sites to the north may be another story, as I hope to post about in the future.) As opposed to downtown Oakville, Port Credit is a major Mississauga Transit hub (including the southern terminus of the Hurontario route, one of the city's busiest and most profitable) and has a GO station right in the central area, and it's already at a significant higher density than Oakville's downtown and has more redevelopment opportunities.

And then there's lots of areas in the 416 with densities and development opportunities far beyond those of Port Credit, and yet the only centres identified in Toronto are downtown, Yonge/Eglinton, and the North York and Scarborough City Centres. For example, the Sheppard / Don Mills / Victoria Park area has a major employment concentration, significant high-density residential development, major shopping centres, what appears to be good development potential, and the new Sheppard subway (currently ends at Don Mills, and hoped to be extended to Victoria Park).

The document notes that these centres aren't necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach, and that "high density" can be interpreted differently in different places — hence an 85-unit luxury condominium is considered high-density in Oakville yet would be barely noticed in some areas of Toronto. To me, that sounds like a bit of a cop-out designed to deflect public outrage ("How dare you build a three-storey walk-up condominium building less than a kilometre from my house! Don't you know that there are children in this neighbourhood? How many children have to be killed" etc.), which will just turn into a recipe for the status quo. As with much of Places to Grow, the overall premise is promising, but the details seem unsatisfying.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Avenues and Hamilton

Allow me to join James Bow and Andrew Spicer in welcoming Avenues to the blogosphere. The owner, known as Hans, caught my eye quickly with his excellent title banner graphics (notably the use of the TTC subway font, including what appears to be the correct letter spacing) and his post on Hamilton. In last year's mayoral election, the controversial Red Hill Creek Expressway was a major campaign issue, but underlying it were the two main issues addressed in the Avenues column: sprawl, and Hamilton's dire fiscal situation.

The two primary candidates were Larry DiIanni and David Christopherson, and they had significant differences in how they planned to tackle Hamilton's growing and crippling debt. (The city's oldest infrastructure is crumbling, as residents of Locke Street who were subjected to flooding last year after a major trunk water main burst — twice — can attest. Hamilton's 1950's-era City Hall is falling apart, and last I heard Council was seriously considering moving into the relatively empty former Eaton Centre because there wasn't enough money to build a new one and fixing up the old one would be throwing good money after bad and might as well cost as much.)

Christopherson's view was that the Red Hill Creek Expressway was an albatross that the City could not afford to bear when it couldn't even maintain its existing infrastructure. DiIanni argued that the expressway should be built, because it would encourage more development (read: sprawl) on the east mountain in Glanbrook, which would in turn increase the tax base and would pay for the expressway and presumably fix the city's fiscal woes. (One of the reasons listed in the EA why the expressway had to be built, was the growing list of development on the east mountain that had been approved pending construction of the expressway.) Christopherson countered that the city had to invest in its core first, and that with the RHCE off the books, there'd be money to do that.

Anyway, Christopherson won the four main lower city wards (including Dundas, interestingly), but DiIanni won the outer ring (I know it's not a PR or electoral voting system, but just to illustrate the division along geographic lines). So, unfortunately we're looking at more articles like that referenced in Avenues, and Hamilton will wind up with an eastern version of the (ironically-named) Meadowlands. (Maybe this one will be called Shady Acres or something similarly idyllic.)

I haven't been keeping up with urban issues in Hamilton so much since I moved away from there last year (and since the Spectator made their website paid-access only). Maybe that's a good thing, though — it looks like Hamilton's repeating the typical hole-in-the-donut pattern. It was frustrating when I was living there, but probably more frustrating from afar.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Decline of urban architecture?

Architecture and urbanism, and the idea that recently-built urban areas are lacking the charm and care in design of pre-war areas, has been getting a bit of a go round on the blog circuit lately. Andrew Spicer recounts a trip to the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant (located about a kilometre from my apartment, and incidentally the location of the Beach near-shootout a month or so ago), and bemoans that municipal infrastructure was more highly regarded before WWII than it is today. He notes that "it is natural when visiting a place like that to ask yourself why the whole city can't be as beautiful."

Andrew brings up cost as a possible major factor, and I agree that this is one major area. But his argument appears to be that, if you're going to have to design Municipal Building X, it shouldn't be that much more expensive to get a reasonably interesting and aesthetically-pleasing design.

Where I think we should instead be looking is at non-municipal infrastructure and architecture, in particular commercial buildings (retail and office). I find that architecture in these areas often is arguably a worse offender than in the municipal area. Much of that stems from cost-efficiency, in this case from standardization. Leaving behind the big-box vs. local retail debate for a moment, it's usually the path of least resistance for Wal-Mart or Loblaw's to come to a large site and plunk down Standard Retail Store Design D-2; the building is already designed, and all that needs to be done is a little tweaking here and there to fit the specific site. Then they'll surround it by a thousand-space parking lot, which again is a least-resistance path that doesn't require appealing municipal parking codes, justifying reduced parking standards, or design of an expensive parking garage. Likely due to public pressure, Tim Hortons introduced a special, uniquely designed building when they opened a store on the historic village main street of Ancaster, Ontario, but for the most part they'll pick one of a dozen or so site layouts out of their computer files (layouts that often are distinguishable by minor differences). This has the added effect of making every suburb look rather similar to the next (of course, it has the benefit to the retailers of increasing brand recognition).

People have complained for years that residential areas suffer from the same problem — that all suburban residential areas look the same. Coming down Pharmacy Avenue in western Scarborough the other day, through a typical post-war housing development, I noted that I might as well have been coming down West 5th Street in Hamilton, through another similar post-war development. (I half expected to see a white, yellow and blue HSR bus come down the road!) Here too you're looking at standardization, with a number of standard house plans drawn up for a subdivision, not too different from those in another subdivision being built by the same developer a few miles down the road. There's a little more difference, partly in an attempt to dispel the idea that all the houses look the same ("but this one's built with yellow brick!"), but also more possible because of the number of buildings involved (e.g. a 500-unit subdivision). However, over the entire subdivision (and the suburban region) the effect of the subtle changes is lost. There are streets heading down to the lake in the central Beach area where there'll be a block consisting of almost entirely the same duplex design repeated over and over — yet you don't get the feeling of sameness here because each street has a different architectural scale and character to it. (Likely each street has a different age and a different builder, if there was even a central builder at all.)

I guess where I'm going with this is somewhere along the lines of a Reid, who commented on David Sucher's discussion of the topic in his City Comforts blog:

My observation is that good urbanism can make up for bad architecture. At least, bad architecture seems more fixable than bad urbanism.

Putting it another way, give me an overly busy, cheaply-built, EFIS laden piece of crap properly sited (built up to the street) with wide sidewalks and street trees / parking vs. an architectural masterpiece with a massive parking-lot setback any day.

The Mississauga City Centre is an interesting example of this. It features the usual big-box suspects on Rathburn Road, but they're situated (at least the buildings themselves) in a more urban fashion, right up to the road right-of-way, and I find the buildings a little smaller and less imposing. However, they're clearly designed to the letter of the City Centre design guidelines, which state that buildings must project a solid frontage to the street, but probably doesn't specify building entrances (which end up being out back where the parking is).

And perhaps that's another point: there's too much microanalysis on ensuring that buildings and developments meet a plethora of building and design codes — as Andres Duany put it, that the parking spaces are the right dimensions, that they're marked with the right shade of yellow paint, that there's just enough illumination, that there's enough of them to meet parking by-law requirements — that designers aren't taking a step back and seeing how the big picture looks.

Or, maybe it all just comes down to money, profitability, and self-interest again, and I don't know how we get around that.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Toronto street sign

I'll take this opportunity to respond to, or expand on, a couple of Andrew Spicer's recent postings. The first one deals with an issue that I have been meaning to discuss for a while, but put off: the desecration of the Toronto street sign.

Toronto's street sign is a bit of a classic. Along with the curvy, characteristic street light fixtures (watch for them in movies and TV programs — to the trained eye, it's an obvious giveaway that it was filmed in Toronto), they make up some of the street fixtures in the city that are taken for granted but that state emphatically, "You are in Toronto." The sign design (and the street light fixture design, for that matter) has been around since at least the 50's, probably earlier, and has inspired copycat versions across the GTA.

More recently, though, it's inspired a copycat version not in the 905, but in Toronto itself. The City has decided that it's time for an overhaul, and has begun to replace the signs with new ones that are much larger, feature a different font, and are constructed more cheaply.

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. Before long, though, they started to pop up on local streets in the Beach, too. These are signs designed to be read by drivers traveling at 60 km/h or more; in local neighbourhoods, they replace signs that had a subtle elegance with new ones that are graceless, clumsy and intrusive.

The smaller-scale location also allow for a closer look at the construction: instead of two separate panels enclosed in a black outer casing, there are simply two metal signs bolted together. The older signs are topped with a black "point" (yes, I believe that is the technical term for it), whereas the newer ones simply add a black point to the individual sign panels.

It's not the cheaper construction and updated font by themselves that drive me nuts. Toronto's street signs have already survived one redesign — take a close look and you'll notice that some signs have embossed letters on enamel signs, while others have "pasted-on" letters in a more modern font and are made of a somewhat weaker metal (i.e. more susceptible to being bent by vandals). That first redesign featured subtle changes likely designed to make the signs more readable and more economical to make. With this, the signs' second redesign, though, the changes have gone from the subtle to the extreme. To me, it's like playing Schubert's 9th symphony on a synthesizer and claiming it sounds almost like the real thing (and done more economically to boot!).

But I'm the one who's had an unusual (and at times, unhealthy) obsession with traffic signs since I knew how to read. Surely Joe Public doesn't care about this type of mundane thing. So I was pleasantly surprised to see an article in the Star a few weeks back, going over the new signs and (in my opinion) generally panning them. They made an appropriate comparison to New Coke — changes intended to improve an existing classic product while being imperceptible to the public, that instead caused a massive uproar. (Perhaps "massive uproar" is taking it a bit far in this case, but I think the basic premise is apt.) I do take issue with the photo they've used; the perspective of the shot makes it appear as though the two signs are pretty much the same size, whereas the new sign is on the far corner of the intersection and thus is actually much bigger.

Anyhow, Mr. Spicer has picked up on it as well (and has rescued for me a URL that I thought I had lost — thanks!). So perhaps there is hope yet for the troubled Toronto street sign. Andrew states, "I expect a backlash when people start to see them in urban residential neighbourhoods, off the main streets," and that's already upon us (for one example, see Williamson and Southwood). I may well followed his implied advice and write a couple of letters...