Rising From The Ashes Of Car-centrism

March 20, 2012

Phoenix had me conflicted.

On one hand there was so much baseball. So, so much baseball, played in human scale stadiums (yet still goliathly priced concessions) with the players – superstars and all the other ones both – close enough to hear their on field banter. Hey. Isn’t that George Brett, dressed in Royals blue and spitting out sunflower seeds in the Kansas City dugout?

On the other hand there was so much driving. So, so many cars, six lane roads and intracity freeways, driving, driving and more driving. A steroid sprawl, a mini-L.A. without any of the character of place Los Angeles can exhibit. Suburbia in the sun, bleached colourless and arid.

But it had baseall. Did I mention that?

Perhaps I am being too harsh. It’s hardly fair to judge a city based on one extended long weekend especially as seen almost exclusively from the driver’s seat of a car, not that Phoenix offers up much in the way of alternatives. Yet, on first blush, the city is a sea of charmlessness in what is one of the most spectacular natural regions on the planet. It’s almost as if the European mind arrived, saw the raw, rugged beauty of the place and decided it could never compete and just start building something, anything.

Or maybe, there was so much space, the landscape seemingly ad infinitum that it was never about building, designing, planning well. It was just about filling it up. Actually, that would be filling it out.

An aging Frank Lloyd Wright certainly saw the area as a broad canvas, an experimental laboratory to plot out innovative ideas in home design and urban planning. A product of its post-World War II mindset, a belief of unlimited space and cheap fuel, much of it did not come to pass and some mercifully so. His proposed Broadacre community was drawn up with low density in mind and automobile travel at its core although it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve turned out any worse than the current city itself.

A Saturday morning drive through the west valley was especially gruesome. A wide thoroughfare surrounded by cargo rail on one side and a dry riverbed on the other, single story housing tracts popped up here and there, almost exclusively the ruddy, rust brown shade of the landscape. As with most car based communities, the social hub seemed to be strip malls sometimes anchored by futuristically designed churches. Religiously retail, you might say.

This being the southwest, the area still seemed to be reeling from the 2008 economic meltdown. Houses were being offered for $10,000 down! (What, did we just travel back to the 50s?) Apartment complexes had $129 move in specials.

And the strip malls were boarded up. Not one or two stores but entire strip malls. Just boarded up.

Now, I’d like to see these hideous blights on the landscape bulldozed and rebuilt in a more thoughtful way as much as the next strip mall hating guy but to see one just done, desolate, out of business is surprisingly unsettling. Where have the people gone? Those that remain, just how far and how often do they have to drive to get to work, to shop for groceries, to go to a restaurant or bar?

You haven’t really experienced a truly Irish St. Patrick’s Day until you’ve had yourself a whisky sour and nachos while watching March Madness in a chain pub in the middle of a Phoenix strip mall. How do you spell mass D.U.I.?

This is not to say there was nothing aside from baseball that would draw me back to Phoenix aside from being a convenient hub for more interesting destinations. There were what looked to be from the outside some very nice gated communities. Downtown Phoenix isn’t devoid of life even on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. It boasts a sizable art gallery across the street from imitation brownstone houses that start in the low millions according to the sales banner. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks have their home turfs in the core as opposed to the ailing Coyotes of the NHL whose arena was moved out to suburban Glendale much to the team’s ultimate detriment.

The Phoenix proper downtown is connected to another thriving core in Mesa by… wait for it, wait for it… an LRT. Yeah, that’s right, boys and girls. Even car crazy Phoenix has built itself about 32 kilometres (20 miles in American) of light rail recently, right down the middle of the road for the most part. For anyone still insisting that LRT isn’t fast or it impedes traffic or is second class, they are simply admitting that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The Metro Rail Line stops almost exclusively only to pick up and/or drop off passengers. Traffic flows easily in and around it and there are stretches when cars simply can’t keep up to the train. Not because of congestion but just the natural flow of traffic lights and the competing demands of other private vehicles.

Wait. How did I get onto that subject? There I was, minding my own transit business, driving around, watching baseball, hating on Phoenix.

Think of it as a passing observation on a city steeped deep in car culture and how it learned to share the roads with public transit. Phoenix is living proof of the horrors wrought by building a city around the primacy of the automobile. If it thinks LRTs are the way forward, what exactly are we here in Toronto so afraid of?

grand canyonly submitted by Cityslikr


St. Clair’s Long, Strange Journey

April 10, 2011

(In case you missed the post in the Torontoist earlier this week. With more pictures!)

*  *  *

What journey doesn’t begin with a killer prologue? The Canterbury Tales. Caxton’s ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy’. Shakespeare’s Hank Cinq: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention…” The Coen Bros. Raising Arizona.

Here’s ours. Imagine it spoken by someone with a silky smooth BBC accent and wearing tights or Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough (or any other role pre-Leaving Las Vegas.)

The St. Clair right of way streetcar is not Light Rail Transit (LRT) which is the technology at the heart of the Transit City plan. While the two can share many similarities, the most important being dedicated lanes that are physically separated from vehicular traffic that allow for unencumbered flow, LRT is faster with more capacity. Light Rail Transit comes touting transformative power on the neighbourhoods it serves especially the street level type which makes all the hoopla about burying more of the Eglinton LRT more than a little curious.

And before you utter the phrase “We don’t want another St. Clair on our hands” in a pejorative way in order to demean street level rail transit, you must first pass a test proving that you read Getting It Right. (Or if you’re not up to the 14 pages or so, try the quick summary over at Environmental Law and Litigation.) A report commissioned by the TTC last year assessing the problems that emerged with the construction of the St. Clair right of way. Yes, the city was not free of blame for the cost overruns and delays but they were hardly alone. Many of the most vital recommendations, if implemented on future projects, will go along way to alleviating the headaches residents, businesses and commuters experienced along St. Clair.

Just as importantly, Getting It Right questions the implied condemnation in the ‘No More St. Clairs’ chant — with its flipside, Yes To Subways — that somehow all the problems were due to it being street level transit. As if, had it all gone underground, everything would’ve been hunky dory. Subway supporters exhibit a curious view, it seems, as to how subways are built. Do they really believe that because it’s below ground, there’s going to be no discernible affect on the traffic above? How do these people think subways are built?

Such thoughts established, on to our expedition.

On a dreary Monday morning (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”) we ventured up to do a loop of the St. Clair ROW streetcar. Heading east toward Yonge Street from Bathurst, what first caught my attention was the utter lack of congestion. Isn’t this the specter being dangled before us by those bent on burying our public transit? Streetcars getting in the way, snarling traffic? Certainly on this particular morning commute, both streetcars and private vehicles flowed seamlessly. From Bathurst to St. Clair station at Yonge Street, a brisk 10 minutes.

The time for the entire one-way trip on the St. Clair streetcar from its eastern point at Yonge Street to its western terminus at Gunn’s Loop, just west of Keele/Weston Street, on a non-rush hour Monday, was 29 minutes. It is a fascinating tour from the northern reaches of the downtown urban core to the outskirts of the western inner suburbs. A sequence missed if traveled underground; a lost connection between people and communities.

Much has been made, justifiably, of the havoc wreaked on businesses during the ROW construction. Some 200 apparently closed because of it. It is a situation not uncommon to any area of a city that undergoes substantial redevelopment (hello, Roncesvalles) and there are no easy answers. That’s not entirely true. The easiest answer would be to never change anything, maintain the status quo. But that doesn’t seem to be a healthy option to positive future growth and development.

Now, more than a year into the new St. Clair streetcar’s run, it looks to a guy riding along observing the scenery the decimation did not take hold. While there are certainly empty storefronts and For Lease signs in windows along the way, no more so than the same trip taken along Bloor Street, say. Like everywhere else that is seen as a going concern, there’s a growing presence of chain outlets like Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Hortons along St. Clair vying for the consumers’ dollars with the olde thyme European places. Trendy cafés and bistros are popping up beside more homespun eateries that themselves are expanding beyond the traditional Italian, Portuguese and Caribbean flavours. Within less than a 10 minute streetcar ride, one could find Brazilian, Peruvian and Colombian restaurants.

This kind of variety only promises to mushroom (funghi, hongo, seta, callampa, cogumelo) as the area sees further densification. Between and around the two subway stops on St. Clair along the Yonge-University line, condo developments have sprung up including an interesting one in the old Imperial Oil building just east of Avenue Road. Towers are even spreading west from this more traditional location, now out past Bathurst Street into what was considered purely low and medium rise territory. Yes, proximity to a subway has much to do with that but the fact that this is happening now would suggest that the St. Clair right of way has enhanced rather than diminished the desirability of the area.

Is it too much to suggest that St. Clair Avenue is undergoing a renaissance? My scant two hours spent traversing it tells me no, there is something of a rebirth going on there. Even on a rainy Monday morning, people were out, going about their business. Traffic moved — traffic moved, it is worth repeating – smoothly with very few aggressive flare ups and accompanying blaring of horns. And on the streetcar, getting from point A to point B was painless. No. Joyous? Maybe a little overkill. A very pleasant journey, shall we say.

The epilogue to this tale?

Before falling in line behind our mayor’s misguided, bull-headed, ill-advised march to rid our streets of everything but cars, trucks and buses, we all need to pay a visit to St. Clair Street. Sit our asses down on the streetcar and take in the view. Hop off, have a drink and a bite to eat. Watch some soccer or buy some shoes. Not only is such an outing now easier for transit users and car drivers alike, it is more enjoyable. The exact opposite of what Mayor Ford would have you believe.

darenly submitted by Cityslikr


These Happy Days Are Yours And Mine

March 6, 2011

It is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile Mayor Ford’s approach to governing and his relatively young age. Just into his 40s, the Ford Nation feels more and more like one ruled by an octogenarian. Maybe it’s because the mayor’s blinkered sensibility is formed exclusively by his view out over his suburban backyard and through his windshield. City life, to his way of thinking, as depicted by the seminal documentary of the 1950s, Happy Days.

The latest manifestation of this is the mayor’s declared War on Graffiti. Signaling an about-face from an earlier decision just after the mayor was elected to target graffiti only on a complaint basis, the city issued over 150 removal notices along Queen Street in just 10 days, catching business owners and the local BIA by surprise in the process. The removal notices appear to make no distinction between your run of the mill graffiti and commissioned murals, bringing to mind a variation on that old standard, I may not know much about art but I know what I don’t like.

This follows an earlier eyebrow raiser last month when the Brickworks received notice for 13 graffiti violations. That chair of the Municipal Licensing and Standards Committee that polices matters of graffiti, Councillor Cesar Palacio, has somewhat softened his original hard line stance that graffiti is graffiti, comes as little consolation in light of the Queen Street blitz. The city’s aggressive proactive approach puts the onus on homeowners and businesses to prove that they’re not besmirching the cityscape with graffiti regardless if there have been any complaints from neighbours, belying the mayor’s claim to be looking out for the little guy.

So the mayor campaigned on a promise of taking City Hall’s hands out of the taxpayers’ pockets but seems to have little compunction in unleashing the bureaucracy on them if they don’t measure up to his artistic or community standards.

Which must be a trait of his strain of Tea Party-like reactionary conservatism. As Bill Maher said on his show Friday night, in the U.S. the Tea Party got elected on a straight forward platform of slaying government spending and debt but has quickly moved on to things like attacking collective bargaining, reproductive rights and almost everything else with a progressive stench of secularism. Mayor Ford has similarly set his sights outside of the fiscal realm. He’s trying to push LRTs underground. He’s asked the province to declare the TTC an essential service. Now this wading into public order with an ill-defined, if-I-don’t-like-or-understand it assault on graffiti, he’s revealing his inner non-libertarian and very authoritarian self.

Mayor Ford’s also exposing an attitude toward urbanism that is decades behind the times. A clean, whitewashed main street, full of mom and pops stores, soda shops and cruising the drag on a Saturday night. (No, most definitely not that kind of cruising or drag.) It is an intolerance to differing opinions and tastes, chock full of patronizing father-knows-bestism. Not to mention counter-productive and, ultimately, carrying an additional financial burden to households and small business owners. Eliminating commissioned murals clears out space for less agreeable forms of graffiti and tagging which those owning the buildings will have to constantly spend time and money dealing with. It also appropriates police resources which surely would be put to better use on more pressing issues the city faces.

All in pursuit of what? In a speech he gave to the Board of Trade earlier this year, the mayor said “It’s [graffiti] just out of control. Nobody likes it. It doesn’t help our city. I want people to come to the city and say wow this is spotless, and it is safe.” Note the mental myopia. The world seen only through his eyes. I don’t like graffiti so nobody likes graffiti. It’s stunningly monochromatic and reveals a remarkable lack of empathy. Never mind the Sunday School logic of equating cleanliness with safety. In addition to the mayor having obviously spent his youth watching the wholesome adventures of Richie, Potsie, Ralph and the Fonz, my guess is he also overdosed on regular viewings of The Warriors.

This is the danger of electing a mayor with such unsophisticated thinking who lacks any sort of wider vision for the city. He governs based purely on pet peeves and petty prejudices. Unchecked, we face four years not looking toward the future but back at an idealized past that never existed except in the minds of those like Mayor Ford.

heyyyyly submitted by Cityslikr


100 Days. Where Does The Time Go?

February 4, 2011

Next week Calgary mayor, Naheed Nenshi, comes to Toronto to give a speech to a sold out Canadian Club gathering at the Royal York Hotel and as far as I know he’s not going to be asking for help in retiring his campaign debt. For his part, our mayor took his act on the road a couple weeks back, going to Chicago to attend the NFC championship game. To be fair to Mayor Ford, I think precious few people would be willing to pony up $75 to watch him sweat through a speech about the finer points of civic governance. That’s the kind of thing he’d leave for his brother to do.

Mayor Nenshi has just passed the 100 days in office marker and one of his hometown newspapers decided to give an assessment of the job he’s done so far. It seems a little early to be making conclusions one way or the other. Something you’d do for less demanding jobs like President of the United States. But far be it from me to tell another city how to do things especially a city that elected someone like Naheed Nenshi as their mayor while we… well, we know only to well how that played out.

**sigh**

Guardedly upbeat, I would call the Calgary Herald’s appraisal of Nenshi’s first 3 months as mayor. While suggesting the enthusiasm that swept him into power has been “…tempered by some realities of running the city”, the paper points out “… observers do say Nenshi has achieved a good deal, and is nurturing a sense of optimism in Calgary, with public engagement at the forefront and not an afterthought.” ‘Guardedly upbeat’? That’d be ‘wildly buoyant’ if we were referring to our mayor’s initial days.

Now, again to be fair to Mayor Ford, he’s only officially been in office for 2/3s the time that Mayor Nenshi has so he’s still got over a month before we can really take a measure of the man but ‘nurturing a sense of optimism’ and placing ‘public engagement at the forefront and not an afterthought’ haven’t been trademarks of his administration. So far. But early March is still a long way off if we’re using 100 days as a yardstick. Maybe once Mayor Ford gets this whole pesky budget passed and off his desk, he will get down to the task of engaging with the public and nurturing a sense of optimism.

According to the Herald, the day after being elected “Naheed Nenshi stood outside City Hall and listed four immediate priorities: airport tunnel, securing money for the southeast LRT, getting through the budget and reforming city hall.” To date, he’s only accomplished one of those priorities, the budget which, to our outsider eyes, shouldn’t be a major source of concern. Building an airport tunnel, securing money for a major public transit project and reforming city hall, all seem, I don’t know, more long term.

Our mayor, busy as a beaver adhering to his election pledges, has really only succeeded in digging a bigger budget hole for the city with his cutting and freezing of taxes and, far from trimming some budgetary fat as it seems Mayor Nenshi has done in Calgary, Mayor Ford has proposed increasing both the operating budget and staff at City Hall this year. Mayor Nenshi got his council to increase money for transit. Mayor Ford? Well, not so much. He’s proposed cutting—no wait—re-allocating transit services.

And while Mayor Nenshi has hit a stumbling block in his attempt to secure funding from senior levels of government for a proposed LRT line, our mayor has demanded scrapping an LRT plan that was already in place with oodles of cash from senior levels of government, and to replace it with a subway that would serve far fewer people in fewer communities. Why? Because he doesn’t want to get caught behind a streetcar when he’s driving his SUV to work.

Despite some setbacks or delays in policy implementation, Mayor Nenshi seems to still be enjoying a favourable rapport with friends and foes alike on the Calgary council by reaching out and listening to everyone, even those who stand in opposition on some issues to the mayor. Like Alderman Ray Jones who thinks Nenshi is “a breath of fresh air” and is “not in your face” and “cares what other people think.” “There is far less acrimony on council,” says Duane Bratt, a Mount Royal political analyst.

Now maybe it’s too much to expect that our mayor here in Toronto would be capable of generating less acrimony on council, let alone ‘far less acrimony’ since he ran on the Acrimonious Express during his campaign. In fact, maybe it’s too much to expect anything positive emanating from this administration. If “Nenshi’s problem was he came in with very high expectations,” according to another political analyst at Mount Royal University, David Taras, Mayor Ford’s suffering from the opposite dilemma. Low to no expectations. His was not a victory about “… all the things that could be done” as is attributed to Mayor Nenshi but all the things that couldn’t be done. Not revolution but reactionism. Insular pettiness, small-minded vindictiveness and willfully blind ideology have been the Mayor Ford way. It’s hard to generate much optimism with that kind of approach.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’ still early days yet. So we will endeavour not rush to judgment. However, we do think it best that our mayor stick to attending sporting events and steer clear of the lecture circuit for the time being. Maybe keep it a secret from the outside world for as long as we can about the kind of mayor we chose to elect.

covetously submitted by Cityslikr


Vision Quest II

September 24, 2010

The journey continues.

Up this week: Sarah Thomson!

I must write this quickly as rumours build of Ms. Thomson’s imminent departure from the mayoral race. Or maybe not. Maybe in two weeks. But then again, maybe not.

Which encapsulates her candidacy perfectly.

When I initially saw Sarah Thomson at a live debate all those months ago, I was immediately reminded of the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. After she expresses outrage at the personal nature of some of the questions asked during her job interview, the crusty Mr. Grant tells Mary that he thinks she’s spunk. When Mary mistakenly takes that as a compliment, Mr. Grant barks, “I hate spunk!”

Now replace the word ‘spunk’ with ‘pluck’ in order that I stop giggling like a grade schooler, and that’s how I best describe Ms. Thomson. She’s got pluck. She left home at the age of 15 and by the time she was 30, Ms. Thomson had made herself a small fortune, “turning around failing service stations and making them successful” by getting them to sell chips and stuff and not just gas and oil. She then went back to school, got herself a degree in English and philosophy which she used to begin a new career of buying rundown houses, renovating and then flipping them, I believe the term is. Moving on from there, Ms. Thomson then took on the mantel of ‘social entrepreneur’ and started up the Women’s Post media empire in 2002.

Pluck by the bucketful.

And all very Horatio Alger which could only be made more storybook perfect with a successful run for political office. So Sarah Thomson screwed on her pluck and set her eyes straight for the top. She would become mayor of Toronto!

I mean, how hard could it be to a person who’s turned service stations around and made old houses new again? What’s a city if not a place full of old houses waiting to be flipped and stations of services in need of a little entrepreneurial giddy-up? If you treat the levers of governmental power like a business then, dognabit, the levers of governmental power will start behaving like a business. And isn’t that what we all want from our government? For it to be just like a business?

There were two very likely fatal flaws in this thinking of the Sarah Thomson campaign. One, actually government isn’t just like a business. Two, there were a couple other candidates thinking just the same thing. One had bigger name recognition and the other had more money to spend.

So Ms. Thomson veered rudderlessly from fiscal conservative to social progressive, trying to recreate the John Tory formula except for the non-winning part. It even went so far as to have a couple of the Tory offspring on her team. She tried presenting herself as a no-nonsense business manager who would ferociously cut to the bottom line while maintaining a beating heart toward all the things that made a city great. Arts and culture. Architecture, heritage and forward-thinking urban planning. That the two impulses have never quite meshed into a seamless vision was not the fault entirely of Team Thomson. The exact problem has plagued both the George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi campaigns as well.

Sarah Thomson boldly introduced the idea of road tolls into the mix. Unfortunately, the implications of her idea weren’t well thought out. In addition to which, it was part of a transit plan that insisted on building subways. That Ms. Thomson as recently as last night’s debate was rethinking the matter and publicly admitted that the planned LRTs might be the best way to go goes as both a credit to her personally but a detriment to her campaign. She appears willing to listen to others and reposition herself accordingly which might make for good mayoral material but undercuts her campaign by making her look like a wishy-washy flip-flopper.

Taking us to the overarching problem of Ms. Thomson’s candidacy. Perhaps she should’ve taken the time to ground herself more thoroughly in the issues facing Toronto before jumping into the fray. Pluck was simply not going to be enough. Too many times during debates, she was caught flat-footed and at a loss for answers. Responding to questions about urban planning and design, she constantly said, “I love Jane Jacobs” and little else.

Well, everybody loves Jane Jacobs, Ms. Thomson (except for maybe Rob Ford). So what? An inability to follow up on that epitomized a candidate who hadn’t really thought much past the platitudes and therefore couldn’t generate a base willing to believe she was up to the task of running a city.

So, perhaps prematurely but quite possibly long overdue, R.I.P. Thomson For Mayor. You were plucky. Everybody hates pluck.

crustily submitted by Cityslikr