Getting to yes means departing from Jacobsian activism

Getting to yes means departing from Jacobsian activism

Originally posted on Global News on January 31, 2014.

Jane Jacobs was a community activist in the 1960’s during a time of urban renewal.  Slums were being razed for highway projects. Downtowns and urban areas were crime-ridden. Activists were deafened. Jane Jacobs railed against planners and engineers of the day because urban renewal was the response to social upheaval. Suburban living was the in thing.  

Jane Jacobs was also an advocate for community planning: having eyes on the street which made for safer communities and also being familiar with jewels in the community. This is the part of Jane Jacobs that remains strong, especially with the Jane’s Walk organization where locals lead neighbourhood walks.

But it is the latter that residents tend to abuse. Many cities and regions are moving away from suburban living. As driven by policies such as the Places to Grow Act in Ontario, many cities are being proactive or learning from past mistakes in order to densify. It is that choice of creating walkable and livable communities where residents are using transit more, less reliance on cars – including car sharing, more active transportation options. Sprawling suburbs aren’t the in thing anymore. But with a more dense environment comes the need for more mid-rise apartments and condominiums.

Residents have been up in arms over recent proposals such as the a “Kensington” Walmart or Loblaws, Humbertown, mid-rise in the Beaches, The OZ .  I would even include the Mirvish+Gehry Towers, transit in Scarborough and the Billy Bishop Airport expansion. Some politicians will hide behind the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to fuel the fire of residents and blame it on bad development.  There is a disturbing trend happening in the City of Toronto alone.

Developers are urban planners who work within the constraints of several city and provincial planning, environmental and transportation policies. But also developers have a vision. I, too, was guilty of blaming developers and the OMB for trumping over community interests (ask Councillor Peter Milczyn circa 2008). Community input is critical but residents also need to have an open mind. Always saying NO to projects is regressive and flies in the face of what community and city building is all about. Throwing Jane Jacobs’ name in vain would make her roll in her grave.

Getting to yes means means citizens need to depart from what I call the Jacobsian activism. We need to turn these people from NIMBYs into YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard). Times are changing.  The planning profession has progressed. Neighbourhoods and cities are being reshaped. Residents also need to be cognizant that economic development plays a role in planning too. The need for larger grocery stores are not meant to shut down community markets but to add to the competition and provide choice. The need for a slightly larger airport not only benefits the downtown residents and business community, but also serves as a regional option for passengers too.  

Citizens, do your homework but let the planners plan. We have the best interest of the community in mind. This is what Jane Jacobs would have wanted.

Craft beer urbanism – putting the hop back into cities

Originally posted for Global News on January 6, 2014

A glass of beer is displayed on the bar at Brooklyn Brewery on October 23, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. . Mario Tama/Getty Images

What is craft beer urbanism you ask? If urbanism is about bringing people together through culture and placemaking, then craft beer urbanism creates that interaction through its location decisions and ability to congregate local residents as well as tourists.  As with urban planning trends and movements, the craft beer movement has been picking up steam for several years. Craft beer isn’t a buzzword or trend that some say should be eliminated in 2014. This form of urbanism should be embraced.

As cities are the economic engines of the country, craft breweries are the one of the pistons within the economic engine. The craft beer industry contributes to communities through jobs as they employ 650 people in direct brewery jobs, according to the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism (2013). Craft breweries are part of the creative economy where they become magnets and attract business to the area, like a Bellwoods Brewery in Ossington Village.

Craft breweries help define placemaking opportunities as well as local identity. Many of them represent the communities or regions they are part of.  Some examples have been Yellowhead Brewing in downtown Edmonton, Kichessippi Beer Company in the Carlingwood neighbourhood in Ottawa; and Junction Brewing and Kensington Brewing Company all in Toronto. Cassandra Campbell from Liberty Village Beer states that they use an incubator approach where they rent time from other microbreweries to brew their beer and sell it through establishments within Liberty Village. A small start-up approach to craft brewing, which is a component of a creative economy.

Noteworthy is the urban form of these local breweries. While some old mainstream brewery locations close down like Molson’s in Edmonton  and controversially been rezoned into commercial and residential space, craft breweries move into urban areas. Breweries are increasingly located in old warehouses or industrial units in the form of adaptive reuse.  Adaptive reuse is a process where buildings are re-purposed for new uses.  

Where do we go from here? Some craft breweries have been able to expand regionally and nationally. Others sell their rights to the mainstream breweries such as Anheuser-Busch and Molson-Coors, particularly for national distribution purposes. Those that do the latter don’t have the ability to stick to their base. Richard Florida from the Martin Prosperity Institute believes that import restrictions should be lifted and let other craft breweries come in to increase the competition. This is occurring in the United States where Lagunitas Brewing Company from California is opening an expansion location in Chicago. Chris Dillion, Managing Director at Vermilion Developments in Chicago states that cities should leverage breweries and brewpubs as anchors as it would offer a regional draw and retail experience.

It is always good to have debates on urban planning theories, principles and trends because you know it is worth talking about. Craft beer urbanism is here to stay and is putting the hop back into cities.

Transit leadership is about making difficult choices, not the status quo

Originally posted on Global News on December 20, 2013.

Leadership is about making the tough decisions.  Colin Powell said “Being responsible means pissing people off.”

Leadership is not about repackaging the status quo.

Last week, the Transit Investment Strategy Panel did just that. On the one hand, Anne Golden, with the release of the panel’s recommendations, mentioned that we all have to make tough choices. On the other hand, it was once again, playing politics by minimally changing the status quo. Yes, Councillor Karen Stintz was right – you can’t take the politics out of transit planning. That statement annoyed the heck out of Toronto Region Board of Trade Chair Carol Wilding. Based on Wilding’s comments on a local radio talk show, the Transit Panel’s recommendations did not go far enough.

The Transit Panel looked at two revenue options:

A- 3 cent increase in the gas tax capping out to ten cents, 0.5 cent rise in the corporate tax, redirection of HST on gas taxes to fund transit.

B – Capping additional gas tax to 5 cents per litre and 1/2 per cent increase in HST.

They do raise funds for transit but with the seniors cohort driving less in the next few years, younger generations choosing to use transit much more, and fluctuations in gas prices, this would eventually be a wash. The increase in the HST could be viewed as a province-wide version of a local/regional sales tax. So there is some merit. The corporate tax is a modest step in the right direction, but doesn’t sit well with the Board of Trade and the private sector.

The panel also suggested that road tolls should not be given any consideration because it would take too long to implement. In other words, it is too sensitive politically.

Currently Los Angeles is conducting a pilot project called Metro ExpressLanes where they are converting the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes on the I-10 and I-110 freeways.  This can be implemented on portions of the QEW, Highways 401 and 403 and the Don Valley Parkway where HOV lanes currently exist. In addition to this, use the two outer express lanes on Highway 401 and convert them to HOT lanes. Then direct those funds towards transit projects.

Citizens have made choices to “vote with their feet” and “drive until they can afford.”  Urban sprawl has led us down this path. In addition, 905 regions are paying the price for inefficient land use decisions. A perfect example is York Region where in 2012, the region was $1 billion in debt. York Region Transit has one of the highest subsidies in Ontario with about 60 per cent, which means they only receive 40 per cent in farebox revenue. Another result from urban sprawl. Other than changing land use policies, vehicle kilometres travelled is another option to raise revenue to fund transit. VKT is measured with the potential to change travel behaviour. But politicians are reluctant to make the effort to educate the public fearing the backlash they might receive.

Metrolinx should be charging for parking.  It is a wrong-headed approach to have subsidized parking, let alone the construction of the parking garages. The real cost of parking spots cost roughly $20,000. Metrolinx has claimed the costs are embedded in the fares, which I find hard to believe.  TTC decided to charge for parking at its lots. In 2011, Calgary Transit decided to reverse its paid parking charge and run a similar policy to that of GO Transit. Parking revenue could definitely feed into the coffers of transit operations.

Funds can go into a public infrastructure bank like the one set up in Chicago, or a government account that the panel had suggested, where it would be protected from being raided.

Politicians must stop looking at short term solutions and easy decisions for political electability.  Transit expansion should have occurred yesterday. The hard decisions must happen now. That is leadership.

The Return of the Community Mall

Cover Image Credit: Real Estate, Arthur Hammond, 1973

This article was originally posted by me on July 20th, 2012, then reposted on The Urbanist on July 24th with my permission.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre was the first regional shopping centre in Canada built in 1964. It was a burgeoning mall with Simpson’s, Eaton’s and Dominion as its anchor stores. In the immediate area were various strip plazas including Lawrence Plaza which is within approximately 2 kilometres of the mall. The post war suburb was in full gear. The subway was to the southeast of the mall on Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. The definition of the mall centred around the car with the adjacent Highway 401 and with the Allen Expressway being built a few years later.

Spadina Expressway at Lawrence Avenue West, 1963, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 169 (via Historicist)

But within the immediate area, a variety of housing types were present – a mix of single family and medium density residential. Moreso, the public housing complexes of Lawrence Heights were a hop, skip and a jump away. Although regional in scope, many of the stores within Yorkdale, including Kresge, catered to the immediate community. Not only providing everyday shopping needs but as well as jobs.

Many of the older malls like Bramalea City Centre, Fairview Mall and Scarborough Town Centre were also designed in suburban locations but also were knowledgeable of the market, which also included nearby public housing complexes that were provided by the Province of Ontario. In “Real Estate“, the 2nd installment of the 1973 National Film Board of Canada series “The Corporation”, Sam Steinberg a Montreal shopping mall developer discusses the immediate market within the area of the soon-to-be-built Bramalea City Centre (fast forward to 12:50 mark). It is interesting to note the discussions with multiple developers and the mall would “act as a catalyst for growth” before development begins.

Also you will note in the film that the developer also was building a high-rise complex nearby and the mall also had plans for a transportation centre for municipal transit. Of course given the cost of developing land in those days was much cheaper and developers could do such grand schemes. In the end, the suburban shopping center catered to all sorts of land uses nearby, had a balanced transportation network and a mix of amenities that catered to the immediate community.

Flip the page 20 years later, big box retailers and power centres have become the predominant shopping experience with auto owners and new suburban and exurban development. Were these types of facilities catalysts for growth or succumbed to the sprawl that exists in our cities and communities today? Expansive free parking combined with limited transit mobility options and accessibility for those who did not own a car. No connection to the community.

As Andrew Mayer, a Senior Planner from Butler County noted:

Through the 90′s, malls began adding other uses such as movie theatres, full-fledged restaurants, amusement rides, nightclubs, and a host of other activities.

What happened in the United States surely existed in Canada as well. Shopping malls like West Edmonton Mall, Mall of America, the Mills Group of shopping centres (Vaughan Mills) and to a smaller extent Woodbine Centre, started a trend of theme shopping malls built with indoor amusement activities such as swimming, bowling and other family filled fun. Drive the kids to mall instead of the local park or a day at Canada’s Wonderland or Six Flags. In the case of West Edmonton Mall, it sucked the life out of downtown Edmonton and still continues to do so.

At the same time, strip plazas were a dying breed. Major tenants were losing business to these big box stores. Tenants were opening and closing shops as fast as one could change their underwear. Discount and end of the line merchandisers were renting out vacant spaces to make a quick buck and then leave. This continues to be the trend as we speak today.

Shopping malls were an experience. Big Box retailers are of convenience.

Are we seeing a trend back to the community?

Frances Bula, a freelance journalist noted in a 2011 Globe and Mail article:

Due to the shortage of available land, the restrictions that many Canadian cities put on commercial space, and even the stringent demands of provincial highways ministries, mall developers are going to have to be creative and persistent.

Creative and persistent they are.

Bramalea City Centre, as do many other regional malls, have such amenities such as a community police station while continuing to have grocery stores on site.  Yorkdale currently has a Community Arts Centre which was built in coordination with the City of Toronto. Unfortunately this is conspicuously located in the parking garage. Another example is London, Ontario’s Citi Plaza has converted a formerly closed Bay location into a new public library, as seen by the photo below.

At the same time, older shopping malls like Meadowlark Shopping Centre and Capilano Mall are redefining themselves as lifestyle centres where these malls are catering to the aging demographic housing medical facilities and hosting elderly friendly events.

The Shops at Don Mills and Santa Monica Place have reestablished themselves from former indoor malls and transformed into walkable “communities” of their own with high-end stores and restaurants making them destinations to go to beyond shopping. Along those same lines, Downtown Mississauga has a Master Plan in the works looking to transform its formerly desolate City Centre area, with Square One Shopping Centre continuing to be its focal point, into a new destination for residents of Mississauga. Already present are the Living Arts Centre, condos and now Sheridan College campus. Plans are to incorporate light rail transit and a cultural market. Proposed plans for revamped shopping centres are also happening in Vancouver’s Oakridge Mall (Ivanhoe Cambridge) and Mill Woods Town Centre (Rio-Can) in Edmonton.

In Bula’s article of July 22nd, Burnaby’s deputy planning director, Lou Pelletier stated that

The opportunities for development of new regional malls have substantially changed as urban communities have continued to grow and develop. Established communities like Burnaby have been increasingly focused on developing more urban, mixed-use town centres to support improved transit services, higher amenity urban living and more walkable, complete and compact communities.”

To add to Pelletier’s comment, consultant David Moss noted:

Scarborough Town Centre (Monarch and Tridel) have added about 8 to 10 buildings over the last 15 years .. say 2,000 units or so .. Sherway Gardens has added about 3 buildings, say 700 units (Great Gulf), Square One area has added about 5,000 units in 15 buildings .. (Daniels and others), Promenade has added 2,000 units .. some are true ‘on property’ ventures, some are adjacent as part of mixed use areas .. some of this was to liquidate surplus real estate (ie surface parking areas) .. that is only needed for a few key weekends per year .. while these centres should be glued to their communities, at times I think they are glued to their ‘markets’ rather than their communities.

Going forward, are these developers attempting to “control” their own communities as the malls add new higher end stores. With the talk of Nordstrom entering the Canadian market with a potential opening at  Sherway Gardens, it’s all making complete sense now.

And as such, the mall has come back to being part of the community once again – only because growth policies and land values have forced them to do so.