Random thoughts…

1. Redesigning our gas stations

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While there are very few remaining single bay, mostly self-serve gas stations in Toronto, the standard multiple bay gas stations have been around for decades.  The footprint at these gas stations are quite extensive.  Sometimes they take so much space, bus stop locations are not placed in ideal locations because automobile access is necessary.  Take for instance this photo taken at the Petro Canada Gas Station located at southwest corner of Jane Street & Finch Avenue in Northwestern Toronto.

 

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A near side stop on Finch Avenue in the eastbound direction is not placed because of access to the plaza and the gas station, therefore a far side stop is necessary.  At Jane Street in the southbound direction several metres south of the intersection making eastbound to southbound transfers not ideal.   The reason why a larger footprint is necessary for this location is because it is located close to an industrial area and larger trucks would require access.

But it got me thinking, what if gas stations were turned from this:

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to this…

Sidewalk gas station in Europe

Sidewalk gas stations are located in urbanized areas across Europe and in some parts of South America.  Where retail is a separate use at North American gas stations, these European locations are incorporated in ground floor retail.

With this image, a cyclist can easily and safely get air to pump their tires.  Normally air pumps are located at the back of the station away from street and cyclist compete with cars.

Given space is becoming limited particularly in the downtown core, it is time planners take a hard look at incorporating on street gas pumps with ground floor retail being incorporated.  Do you think these gas station designs can work in neighbourhoods such as Liberty Village, Leslieville or Garrison Point?

2. Transit maps reimagined

As TTC is preparing to release its new system map in time for the Spadina Subway extension to Vaughan in 2016, it still runs the same mistake of separating modes by different colours.  While the various streetcar routes operate in mixed traffic, the TTC has three new LRT type routes that operate in exclusive rights-of way with signal priority – Spadina (510), Harbourfront (509) and St. Clair (512) .  While this is deemed rapid transit, the TTC does not portray it as such on its transit maps.

Courtesy of TTC

Courtesy of TTC

While the new TTC system map is focused on distinguishing service levels as explained here, the streetcar and LRT routes are treated the same.

Given the current debate of subways versus LRT is crippling Toronto in progressing towards viable transit options, TTC is definitely at fault here.  As I have experienced working in transit agencies, business development and marketing is an afterthought to transit planners, who are predominantly engineers.

My suggestions are:

  1. Change the rapid transit system maps to reflect the LRT service.
  2.  Separate the Harbourfront, Spadina and St. Clair routes from the streetcar routes on the system map with different colours.
  3. As with other transit systems, namely in Brampton, Mississauga, York Region and Durham Region, rename the routes and recolour the vehicles away from the TTC red. The new LRVs will be in operation on Spadina later this year.  Nevertheless, this re-imaging would go a long way.  Understandably a marketing study would be required that would cost several thousands of dollars.  Isn’t repairing customer service a priority for the TTC?

3. A new regional governance structure is necessary for the Greater Toronto Area

I spoke with several urban policy leaders several weeks ago regarding the need to develop a new regional governance structure beyond what currently exists.  While I commend the  Neptis Foundation recently released a report on seamless travel within the GTHA, I believe we can go a step further.

While regional governments in Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa were abolished to create megacity structures at the turn of the century, regional municipalities that were established in the 1950s still remain.  I strongly believe the old regional municipalities model should be eliminated and develop a regional governance structure.  Geographic boundaries and political makeup would have to be determined by the cities and province.  This idea had already been floated in the Golden Report in 1996.

Economic development, infrastructure and transit are very critical to cities, let alone regions. While there are separate agreements for hard services between cities and regions are made, soft services such as governance, health, and emergency services are equally as important and require collaboration.  For example, suburban poverty and affordable housing are looming issues.  These are not Toronto specific issues, but issues in both cities and suburbs.

While policy isn’t sexy enough for voters, it was important to get the message out that it is necessary moving forward. During the provincial election campaign, uploading of rapid transit to the province has been raised by the Progressive Conservatives as part of their Great Cities election platform.  While I generally disagree with anything on the right side of the political spectrum including the majority of their plan, I do agree with this idea for transit except that it should be a regional special purpose body structure with funding tied to it, similar to Translink in the Metro Vancouver.

In The Metropolitan Revolution and If Mayors Ruled the World, the authors outline the importance of cities on the world stage while downplaying the importance of senior levels of governments to accomplish anything.  In the GTAs case, instead of cities competing with each other, city leaders should be collaborating as a region to not only promote, but also to bring new companies to the area.

Unfortunately, populism is a dominant force in the Toronto area.  A recent example of this was at the 8-80 Cities talk with Charles Montgomery promoting his book The Happy City.  A question from Linda Weichel from Civic Action  was posed to the mayoral candidates Bonnie Crombie, Olivia Chow and Fred Eisenberger in how would we pay for building future transit infrastructure.  While Chow and Crombie passed the buck to the province, Eisenberger rightfully stated that we cannot continue to pass the buck and revenue tools are on the table.  While these are only campaign promises, leadership is about taking risks instead of being the popular kid in school just to make friends.  A regional structure would bring light to the importance of revenue tools to building new transportation infrastructure.

Urban design and placemaking concepts needed for a revitalized Lawrence Plaza

 

Lawrence Plaza in the 1950s. Courtesy of J-Cagney.

Lawrence Plaza has had the same layout since its opening in 1953.  As the first plaza in Toronto, it was reflective of the growth of the auto.  Cars being the dominant mode of transportation while pedestrians were pushed off to the side.  Even today we see these same formats at many of the suburban power centres across the 905 region.

Unlike the multi ethnic strip malls found as close as Bathurst & Wilson with its Filipino contingent and evident in Thistletown with the South Asian community, Lawrence Plaza is holding onto its past and dying a slow death. Stores like Loblaws, The Bay, LCBO, Tamblyn used to grace storefronts. Now multiple banks and chains such as Shoppers Drug Mart, Winners, Metro and Second Cup. The holdovers from yesteryear are the United Bakers Dairy Restaurant and the Regal-St Clair Bridge Club.

Many of the Jewish owned restaurants and shops line Bathurst Street.   But for shopping needs Kosher products can be found at Metro.  Given the high concentration of Filipinos and their affiliation with the health care industry,  medical clinics are nearby with one opening up in a former Orthodox school.

Now with the demographics of the Lawrence Manor neighbourhood ever changing,  an increase of low and high rise residential, expansion of Yorkdale Shopping Centre and the soon to be revitalization of the Lawrence Heights community, can suburban plazas like Lawrence Plaza hold up?

 

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These shots were taken in the early evening. Reflective of the demographics in the Lawrence Manor neighbourhood, the stores within the plaza has very little resemblance of these ethnic communities.

Lawrence Plaza lacks definition.  With its high retail turnover, too many gaps need to be filled.  It is clear banks and grocery shopping are needed.  Lawrence Square located at Allen Road and Lawrence is also an unsuccessful shopping mall.  The rebirth of Yorkdale as a regional shopping destination with the attraction of high end retailers such as Tiffany and with the additions of  Nordstrom, Versace and Jimmy Choo opening  in a few years, many shoppers will flock there. While a growing seniors population has become prevalent,  a rethink is definitely required for this retail space.

I have a couple of ideas that might stir up some debate.  If a new retail plaza is defined, it must be walkable like the Shops at Don Mills or Crossroads at St.Clair and Keele.  While still being mindful of the neighbourhood characteristics, the redesign should continue to offer residents grocery shopping and banking.  Another option which maybe more feasible could be similar to the design of Empress Walk with multiple condos, live-work spaces and ground floor retail.   Not forgetting the attraction of young families and creatives, the footprint is amenable to incubators which would have frequent transit and two subway stations nearby.

Talks of a renovation happened in the mid 1990s but was overwhelmingly rejected by residents at the old North York City Council.  I would hope that with the upcoming municipal elections, candidates will have a foresight for revitalizing Lawrence Plaza.   The a new vision for the northwest corner of  Bathurst and Lawrence can be a catalyst for future development and provide an example of what all four intersections can become.

What’s happening with the Finch West LRT?

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My interest in Thursday night’s Community Action Planning Group was from comprehensive planning and transportation perspectives.  Many of those who attended were interested in the progress of the Finch West LRT.  It is currently in the early planning stages (30% according to Metrolinx sources).  Construction is set to commence in 2015 and to be completed in 2020.

The panel consisted of  Mitch Stambler (TTC), Jamie Robinson (Metrolinx) and  Toronto Councillor and TTC Chair Maria Augimeri (picture above).

Many of the community’s questions were regarding:

- communicating the differentiation between LRT and streetcars

- special fares for the low income community and front end customer service (ie bus drivers)

- transit infrastructure and technology ( surprisingly someone raised MAGLEV)

- community benefits

Earlier in the day, I posted several photos on my Instagram account of a what I feel is the most important areas along the line – Jane and Finch .  One of the open tract of land on the north side of Finch between Norfinch Drive and York Gate Boulevard. This area has stood vacant for decades, probably because of the power lines relatively close by.

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The four corners of Jane and Finch consist of an inward looking Jane and Finch Mall, Norfinch Plaza, the towers off in the distance and two gas stations.   From a transportation perspective, the gas stations serve their purpose as they are within proximity of Highway 400.  Because of these gas stations, bus stops are located on the far side making transfers difficult.

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The towers are setback from the intersection which almost have similar characteristics as back facing lots to the street.  Clearly this intersection is not meant for people or cyclists, but for cars.

Other noticeable observations include the entrance to York Woods Library, which does not face Finch Avenue.  Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School has a huge plot of greenspace separating the school from the street.  Along with the industrial area near Highway 400,  much of the Finch West Corridor is what I refer to as a suburban hellhole.

Since the LRT project falls under the jursidiction of Metrolinx, Jamie Robinson equated what could happen on Finch to that of Eglinton Connects, which includes $150 million of streetscaping.  How much could Finch West cost?  Surely a secondary plan would be needed to improve the Jane and Finch intersection, which would have to include revitalization – similar to that of Lawrence Heights, Regent Park and Alexandria Park.   Several of the homes and strip plazas west of Weston Road would be subject to expropriation.   Will much of the industrial land be rezoned?  Surely a 400-Finch study will be needed as well.

BRT  or LRT?

Now here is where I have been tossing and turning over which transit mode would be more suitable for this corridor.  I compare the Finch West corridor to the Highway 7 corridor with which York Region Transit VIVA BRT operates on.  The similarities include auto-oriented development, heavy and light industrial and an opportunity to create a hub.  The plan with VIVA is to build up development while being supported by rapid transit, then switching to light rail in the future.

I posed a question to the panel at the meeting as to why hasn’t the corridor been considered for one BRT route where Brampton Transit’s Steeles Zum could operate along the Finch West corridor.  As many readers of my blog know, I favour regional governance which includes transit.  The response I received was that it was considered and it costs money.  Of course it costs money. Passengers would have a one seat ride to the subway instead of having to transfer at Humber College.   Unfortunately this would require an new Environmental assessment and the project could be delayed.  At the same time, costs would be considerably less and could take less time to build. With sources at Metrolinx telling me that it is 30% in the project design stage, this will be a hard one to redo.  Will it be a lost opportunity?

Hamilton could consider switching modes.  But with Toronto’s fixation with rail, two separate rapid transit modes could be a foregone conclusion.

What to do in the meantime

The moderator asked a question about the short term rapid transit options.  Mitch Stambler stated articulated buses will be on the corridor in September.  I asked why a “Finch Rocket” was not considered.  I suggested that it can operate similarly to the old Finch via Allen route (as shown below).

 

Image courtesy of James Bow (www.transit.toronto.on.ca)

This route could operate with limited stops between Downsview Station and Humber College. Planners can be creative by reallocating hours from other branches of the Finch West 36 and also other lower performing routes to support this route. Once the construction of the Route 1 (Spadina) subway extension is completed in 2016, the route could be truncated at Finch West Station in which cost savings would be realized.

There wasn’t a resounding NO to this option. Will this be considered by TTC planners?

What was learned from this meeting?

I was surprised planners were not present at this meeting.  I was aware that this was a transit panel and rapid transit is the most visible infrastructure project for this community.  There was recognition by some audience members that future development is critical for this area.

I strongly believe that the wrong rapid transit mode was chosen for this area, with the decision more possibly for LRT was made because of political forces.  The Eglinton corridor already has the density as opposed to the Finch Corridor.  Much of the ridership from the corridor is from long distance commuters from North Etobicoke. North Etobicoke is a transit ghetto.

A regional transit terminal at Humber College is long overdue and there was no mention of this at the meeting.

I am assuming there are high peak period transfers to buses on Jane, Sentinel, Driftwood, Keele and Dufferin with the rest going all the way to Finch Subway Station.  There is a lack of creativity to solve short term solutions.   Also a lack of creativity to look beyond Toronto’s borders.

In essence, I was not surprised with the answers I received at this meeting.  There is a lack of vision, presently, for this corridor.  Surely as Councillor Perruzza says, it is a “Finch be damned” attitude.

gBART

André Darmanin - The Urban Strategist:

To my Greater Toronto area followers, what do these plans remind you of?

Originally posted on Systemic Failure:

The Phase-1 eBART extension, now under construction, will take BART into the Eastern Contra Costa County ex-urbs. Phase-2 would take it beyond the ex-urbs, into rural and greenfield locations. Call it gBART if you will.

It is inevitable that the empty fields surrounding gBART stations will be converted to new housing developments. But will planners use this “blank slate” opportunity to build walkable communities around transit…or will it just be more sprawl?

Well, the answer is pretty obvious from the proposed station renderings. All the stations will be built in a freeway median, surrounded by giant parking lots:

Laurel Road station

Laurel Road station

Lone Tree Way station

Lone Tree Way station

Mokelumne Trail station (at least this one has a bike/ped path)

Mokelumne Trail station (at least this one has a bike/ped path)

San Creek station

San Creek station

Balfour Road station

Balfour Road station

Discovery Bay station

Discovery Bay station

Here is the Google Streetview of the Discovery Bay station location:

discovery_bay_streetview

MTC policy is that new rail projects must incorporate transit-oriented development in order to receive funding…

View original 16 more words

Craft Beer Urbanism Live – Urban Professional Series Event 2

In January, I wrote a blog post titled Craft Beer Urbanism  – Putting the hop back into cities.  With the emergence of the craft beer industry, I wanted to find out from one of the original craft beer innovators had to say.  Therefore, I decided to go live with my blog post and make this into another Urban Professional Series event.  Ron Keefe – proprietor of Granite Brewery in Toronto and board member of the Ontario Craft Brewers Association was my guest.

I decided to change it up a bit from the previous event where I would do a “fireside chat” format which entailed me interviewing the guest and allowed the audience opportunities to ask Ron questions as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This event brought out a wide range of attendees who in the end wanted hear about the craft beer industry affecting cities.

The key points raised were the following:

- Ron has been an owner of Granite Brewery for 25 years.  His brother owns a brew pub of the same name in Nova Scotia.   He hopes to be retired in the next 10 years but still unsure what will come of the business.  Hopefully his family takes over.

- His speciality are English Ales and leaves the food to his kitchen staff.  A questions was asked about food pairings with beers and mentioned there is a trend towards pairing beer with cheeses and curries instead of wine and cheese.

- Ron chose the Mt. Pleasant and Eglinton neighbourhood because of the demographics and him and his wife had chosen to live in the area as well.  Seniors are becoming the largest cohort in the area and hopes the new condos such as 150 Redpath will generate a new clientele to his brewpub.

- There have been some planning and policy challenges with operating his business.  Several years ago, the owners of the building wanted to sell to rebuild new condos.  Because he had a long term lease, he held out and Granite is still operating today.  Still has issues with the City’s by-law officers who constantly check up on him.  The biggest policy challenge is with the Ontario Craft Beer regulations where they are not getting a fair shake with provincial funding as opposed to the large consortium who control beer sales in Ontario.

Overall, it was good to hear from an owner who is active within his neighbourhood.

Here were some of the tweets from that evening’s event:

Ron’s insight was beneficial for those starting out in the craft brewing industry as well as those who know that constantly creating and innovating will make you relevant as a business within cities.

(Thanks for Carol to taking care of the photos and tweets for the evening.)

As the long winding road continues

Los Angeles City   It’s been almost one year since I left Edmonton to return to Toronto.  It’s been almost one year since I’ve been employed full-time and started to explore the world of entrepreneurialism. This morning I happened to glance at my Google Plus page after posting something an article and found this interesting article on Leaving a Big Job.  I had thought I wanted to explore the land development world, then was hit with a dose of reality.  I wanted something different.  Something challenging and fulfilling.  In an earlier post, I mentioned that I have always enjoyed strategic planning, being creative and working on projects.  Mundane and routine things don’t entice me.  I want my hands in almost every pot.   I want to know it all.  I guess that’s the challenge of being considered a creative – a 40-something creative – who wants to lead.  Maybe that was frustrating me all along and never got me to where I wanted to go. These are all things that have gone through my head.

So how has this time away from the workplace benefited me aside from 43rd Parallel Planning? I did A LOT of reading .  The mind isn’t something you want to waste. Before  I left Edmonton I read the following books:

The Metropolitan Revolution – Katz and Bradley

Happy City – Charles Montgomery

Daring Greatly – Brené Brown

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life – Chris Hadfield

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles – Steven Pressfield

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Hatching Twitter – Nick Bilton

Going Home Again – Dennis Bock

Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia – Gregory Heller

The End of the Suburbs –   Leigh Gallagher

Straphanger – TarasGrescoe

And along with three movies:  Urbanized, Detropia and The Human Scale

Two of these books were fiction (The Alchemist and Going Home Again) and would have more in common with Daring Greatly, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life and Hatching Twitter.  There is no such thing as being a born leader.  You have to experience it.  You have to take your bumps and bruises.  You have to be knocked down, not be afraid to be vulnerable and emotional.  There will be a light at the end of the tunnel if you work hard at what you do.  Sometimes you lose friendships along the way.  Other times you gain new ones while building networks.  Have a vision on where you want to go and don’t be afraid to say it.  Your knowledge and collaborative efforts will help you build your repertoire.   You will gain respect from others.

As for the practical planning, since this is generally an urban planning blog:

  1.  Suburbs need to be urbanized with more mixed use development and high-speed transit availability.  The further we go, the more socially and economically weaker we become.  The American (or Canadian) dream of living in the suburbs is fading fast.  Social inequalities become more prevalent. The family unit is becoming broken.  Our physical and mental health has deteriorated.  Crime becomes an issue in the suburbs and not in downtowns as people once thought.  Suburbs need to be independent and stop depending on retail, industrial as their tax base.  At the same time, suburbs and cities must collaborate regionally.
  2. Learn from other cities’ experiences whether it is transit or funding or governance.   Complacency is not unacceptable.  Cities as economic engines must continue to stay current on the world stage through innovation and creativity.  Cities must be bold and provide different solutions.  Neighbourhoods must accept their share of residential and employment density as growth is inevitable.  It is easy to say NO, but it’s difficult for some reason to say YES.  What creative solutions can cities come up with in order to get to YES?
  3.  Cities must be resilient and learn to adapt to change.  Not just economic but environmental and social.  In Ontario, these changes have been reflected in the updated Provincial Policy Statement and will be in the soon to be revised Places to Grow policy.
  4.  It’s time to rethink how we design our infrastructure.  Infrastructure is crumbling and the longer we wait to build, the more expensive it becomes.  Our road and highway infrastructure is based on old engineering standards; our communities have been segregated based on old zoning by-laws/codes; and any new projects take too long to build.  Municipalities will have to revamp their zoning, project management procedures and build on a complete streets mentality. Cities are for people.
  5.   Although American and Canadian markets are different, we are the same in many respects.  Two issues come to mind – building density along future transit corridors and business parks.  As I’ve stated before, Metrolinx/GO Transit has decides to accept the status quo of suburban passengers driving to the GO Stations by building massive parking structures.  Along the Lakeshore corridor, the plan is to have 15 minute regional rail service.  So why not build mixed income transit oriented development.  Are developers not willing to take the risk?   Second, vacancies are on the rise in business parks in American suburbs.  The market conditions have changed.  When will Canadian businesses realize this until it is too late?

So to sum it up, just as I had a lot to ponder over the last year, so does my career as I planner.  Staying relevant and on top of my game is critical.  Now getting back into the game is something that needs to happen soon.

Why Bill 20 should be rejected

Several months ago, I wrote a post not supporting the elimination of the Ontario Municipal Board because of costs, potential of litigation and politics would not be removed from the planning process. The development industry posted their position on Thursday also supporting the OMB.  Fabienne Chan, a real estate analyst at Urbanation, also wrote a post stating before any consideration for a local land use appeal body is formed, Toronto’s zoning by-laws need to be consistent.   The ZBLs have not been updated since 1986 and surely not since the megacity was formed.

Bill 20, sponsored by MPP Rosario Marchese,  sent me  a tweet with a link to Ken Greenberg’s testimony in favour of this bill.

In his testimony, Greenberg raised some interesting points regarding city planning commissions in the United States, which made me take a look at how planning commissions are deal with planning applications and appeals.  After looking at several videos from City Planning Commission meetings like El Sereno, California and Minneapolis, Minnesota, these could make sense.

Furthermore, if anyone has seen “The Planners”, a BBC series, here is one of their episodes from Season One.

(scroll to close to the 40 minute mark to see the committees operates in the UK)

No lawyers.  Just the developer, applicants and the public who take issue with the development applications.  City planning commissions are boards with several professionals who have the community interest in mind.  Many do site visits to familiarize themselves with the application in question.

Under the current format, the OMB adjudicator is the mediator between developers (and their lawyers) and the public.   The OMB makes decisions based on the (almost literal) interpretation of provincial planning policies, which tend to supersede those of the Official Plan and other city policies.  OMB reformers and opponents claim  their decisions are flawed because they do not familiarize themselves with the site plans.

Official Plans and Transportation Master Plans must conform to the Provincial Policy Statement, the Planning Act and other policies.  There have been some beneficial decisions resulting from the OMB, both in favour of good development or community response to bad development.  But when there is loose language within the provincial policies, decisions more likely tend to favour the developer.

To curb such loose language, the PPS was updated earlier this year and the Growth Plan for the GGH will be updated in 2015.  The policy language will be tightened to reflect recent planning trends.  Nevertheless, the Provincial Liberals are opposed to any OMB reform.

The proposed Toronto Development Permit System is meant to work within the OMB framework with more community input.  (A more lengthy summary could be found here.)  The DPS is meant to provide a comprehensive neighbourhood focus instead of decisions based on an individual site basis, which creates the animosity between residents and developers in the first place.

So then why should Bill 20 be rejected? Two reasons.

  1.   David Reevely wrote an interesting piece in the Ottawa Citizen earlier this week stating why Toronto should be given special treatment to have its own local appeal body, while other cities and towns do not.  He states that other cities haven’t asked and therefore are copacetic with the OMB as it is.   Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson, a former Liberal MPP and Minister of Municipal Affairs, is one of those.  If other cities, towns and counties can’t have their own planning commissions, why should Toronto receive special treatment?
  2. A local appeal body cannot work within the confines of a broken zoning by-law system, as Fabienne stated.  Sure Los Angeles, as an example, operates within a city planning commission environment where it is currently in the process of “re-coding” its zoning regulations.   It doesn’t mean it makes it right and some development decisions could be flawed.  The amalgamated cities must have consistent zoning regulations.  Do it right or don’t do it at all.

Under the current environment, there is no reason to change what’s working.  But at the same time, there could be some tweaks.  Bill 20 will not solve these problems but pushes them to the side.

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