Cars Versus People

April 8, 2010

A couple recent posts over at Kris Scheuer’s blog caught my eye as they related to a major pet peeve of mine that anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written here will attest to. Cars, parking, bicycles, bike lanes, pedestrians. The whole kit and caboodle.

The first entry reveals some surprising information emerging from a survey done by Clean Air Partnership. It seems of the 500+ folks interviewed who were going about their business along the Dundas Street West strip between Kennedy and Jane streets, more than ¾ of them arrived there through non-car means. In fact, more than twice as many walked to their destination rather than drove.

More surprisingly, a majority of business owners in the area favoured reducing parking along the street to make way for bike lanes and wider pedestrian friendly sidewalks. This has long been my argument about persistent retail woes along some of our major downtown arterial roads including much of Dundas Street West. Pedestrian unfriendliness. Even the Bloor-Danforth corridor, our main east-west drag, is largely devoid of strolling appeal. Nevermind it being unfriendly terrain to bike except for the portion between the Bloor Street viaduct and roughly Sherbourne Street. There’s the Danforth’s Greektown from Broadview to about Pape that makes for a pleasant few hour wander but that’s about it. Even trendy Yorkville draws its pedestrian crowds to the side streets one, two and three block north of Bloor.

Despite sitting atop a subway line, Bloor Street is not ultimately an attractive and desirable stop to hang out, browse, shop and generally revel in city life. It is little more than a (semi) functional traffic conduit whose fortune lies almost exclusively with the ups-and-downs of the nearby residential areas that border it. Anything that can be done to make Bloor-Danforth (or Dundas Street West) more people friendly will inevitably increase retail health as well, despite what your local B.I.A. might tell you.

Which segues nicely – something a writer always likes – to Kris Scheuer’s second post of note. After a decade+ back-and-forth on the issue, Forest Hill Village is finally getting 11 new parking spots and it’s only going to cost slightly more than a million dollars! Does that seem entirely out of whack to anyone else? There’s no reason to disbelieve that the price tag will be quickly recouped through parking fees as the Toronto Parking Authority claims, so it’s not the money that grates. But are 11 additional spaces for cars really going to alleviate the congestion and traffic problems that plague Forest Hill Village? Won’t having more parking simply bring more cars with the promise of less driving hassle? As anyone who’s ever tried to drive there (or bike) will tell you, it ain’t pretty. How more cars on the scene will alleviate the problem is a mystery to me.

Cars, cars, cars. They are the past, people, not the future. Making the city more amenable to drivers and their deathmobiles lessens the livability index rather than increases it. Pedestrians know it. Cyclists know it. Transit users know it. Even enlightened business owners know it. So let’s stop catering to the increasing minority of those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of it.

doggedly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


A Man Walks Into A Gymnasium…

March 6, 2010

How we came to be wandering around an East York middle school in the early evening hours of a Wednesday night, desperate to find a washroom is of little import to this story. Suffice it to say that our once steadfast, unswerving bladder has grown iffy and we no longer tremble at the thought of adult diapers. In fact, we count down the days until we can confidently start sporting them without fear of public ridicule. Life will be much less complicated then.

Of course, had we been strapped into our adult Depends™©® on this particular late-winter early Wednesday evening, we might not have stumbled across the Community Consultation Meeting. Having finished our business in the unlit boys room (couldn’t locate the light switch, so stop thinking what you’re thinking), we followed the murmur and din to the school gymnasium where the meeting was already in progress. A quick head count gave us 125-150 residents although we do have a knack for wild miscalculations of this type in either direction. So let’s go with not less than a 100 and no more than 300… 500. The gym was about a third full. Do the math yourself.

Along with some number of residents, there were two city councilors, a city planner and a representative from the architectural firm of the proposed building site that was the focus of this meeting. Just west of Woodbine Ave on the south side of the Danforth was a big pit, free of buildings due to a fire in 2001. (For a better background on the issue, check out Deca Diaries.) Like much of this major east-west artery of Toronto as well as its west of the Don Valley extension, Bloor Street, large swaths are less than commercially vibrant aside from the more trendy stretches like Yorkville or Greektown. For every little café or restaurant that has popped up, there are a plethora of old taverns, men’s clubs and dollar stores.

This, despite the fact that there are many bustling communities lying both north and south of the main drag and the subway rumbles below it. Business activity simply has not flourished. Much of this, in our humble opinion, has to do with the preponderance of vehicular traffic that races back and forth and is given preferential treatment, making for a less than pleasant pedestrian environment. But that is an opinion based less on fact than emotion and isn’t really part of the equation.

Or maybe it is. Because at this meeting there was a clear (but civil) divide between homeowners concerned about disruptions to their area with more congestion, less parking and those welcoming such a change, seeing it as an uptick in the tone of the neighbourhood. It wasn’t congestion, to their way of thinking, but the hustle and bustle of city life.

At the centre of the debate was a mixed use proposal to fill in the pit with a 3 tier complex consisting of nine, twelve and four story buildings. Three commercial units would occupy the ground level with some 140+ condominiums spread throughout the rest of the space; in the 8 stories above the stores, the 12 stories in the building behind that and the 4 stories which spread out south of Danforth Ave. in between the empty space behind the homes that fronted the two streets on either side of the block. (You can get a better visual of it here from an earlier application to the city for the project.)

Aside from issues of parking, there were concerns from nearby residents about noise, deliveries, privacy and the quality of shops the development was planning to bring in. Above all, many took issue with the fact that the 12 story building was at odds with the present bylaw that was supposed to allow buildings of no more than 9 stories in this area (owing to some sort of calculation that factored in street width amidst other things. My bladder was making demands again, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention at that point.) So this made it a question of re-zoning. To get this done, developers and the city had to show the benefits gained by the existing properties in the vicinity that the change in the bylaw would bring. The trick is, benefits lie in the eye of the beholder. Benefits for some are seen as drawbacks to others.

There is no question in this case that regardless of any perceived benefits, the proposed building is going to adversely affect 20-30 households on the side streets. Backyard views are going to be irrevocably altered and very likely not for the better. What is now a quiet look at a relatively open space to neighbouring yards and houses that aren’t right on top of each other will become a wall of windows. Regardless of the extensive landscaping that is being offered up as part of the new development, what was once something of an urban oasis for some households will be… less tranquil, let’s call it.

Yet what choice does the city have? Its official city plan calls for a drastic increase in density in accordance with a provincial policy statement from their Planning Act that is part of an overall anti-sprawl growth strategy. It is spots like this at Woodbine and Danforth along a major transportation line with access to nearby schools, parks and other amenities that have been targeted for development of this type.

Without a doubt, there are going to be losers in the face of a high density future. Homeowners who have lived in spots like this for 30 years and carved out nice, neighbourhood lives. Condos will spring up and peer into their backyards, reminding them that yes, indeed, they live in a big city. Hopefully, they will be at least financially compensated as property values increase so that whenever they do sell their homes, prices will reflect the positive growth their neighbourhood has experienced.

But who’s going to buy a house with a condominium complex towering over it? Future Toronto homeowners, is my guess. Those who understand that to survive in any sort of sustainable fashion, cities are going to become more full and denser, and living almost right on top of your neighbour will be just simply a fact of life.

empty bladderly submitted by Urban Sophisticat