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.

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