A check-up on Downtown Barrie

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“Spirit Catcher” by Ron Baird on Downtown Barrie’s Waterfront

Last weekend, I made a trip up to Barrie on GO Transit. Most people in the Greater Toronto Area know of Barrie as a place you pass on Highway 400 on the way north to Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, or Muskoka, but it has a population of 140,000 people, many of them commuters to the Greater Toronto Area.

Barrie features a lovely waterfront, situated at the end of Lake Simcoe’s Kempenfelt Bay. After the abandonment of the Canadian National Railway tracks north of Allandale Station in 1997, a new waterfront trail was created and Lakeshore Drive moved inland to provide more park space. The waterfront trail connects on the north with a rail trail that extends to Orillia. The waterfront has three swimming areas, a marine, food concessions, playgrounds, and gardens. On a warm Sunday in March, the boardwalk and waterfront paths were very well used. Work is being completed on further enhancements to the public realm.

IMG_8386-001A busy March Sunday on Barrie’s waterfront

In 2012, GO Transit extended the Barrie line to Allandale Waterfront Station, at the closest point possible to Downtown Barrie where tracks remained. The old Allandale Station, built by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1905 and abandoned by CN in the 1980s, still stands just north of the GO station, newly restored. Yet the station is fenced off and is awaiting re-use.

IMG_8372-001.JPGAllandale Station is fully restored on the outside, but remains fenced off. The GO Station is to the far left.

Downtown Barrie hosts many heritage buildings. Despite a catastrophic fire in 2007, the downtown core boasts a mostly-intact inventory of heritage commercial and institutional buildings. The old Carnegie Library was incorporated into the MacLaren Art Centre (a new central library was built in the 1980s). The Queen’s Hotel on Dunlop Street, established in the 1850s, retains its historical veranda. Brampton and other county towns had similar hotels, but many were lost to fire or development.

The downtown business improvement area has been active as well. During the summer months, patios are brought out into the streets, and festivals are put on year-round. New condominium towers built along the waterfront and downtown bring new residents that can support the historic city centre.

Despite my positive impressions, one thing really bothered me: Downtown has many signs posted reminding people of a 2004 by-law prohibiting “aggressive behaviour, panhandling, loitering, and skateboarding/bicycling” with a maximum fine of $5000. Surveillance cameras are positioned at several downtown corners.

IMG_8396-002Sign reminding of Downtown Barrie’s Zero Tolerance Bylaw. The historic Queen’s Hotel is in the background.

The intent of the rule against cycling probably refers to bicycles ridden on sidewalks, rather than on roadways (there are some bicycle lock-up locations downtown and along the waterfront). That said, the signage and the by-law have the effect of telling young people and low-income residents that they are not welcome.

Signs and specific bylaws such as this are not uncommon in Ontario. In Brampton, signs in public parks and along its pathways prohibit loitering as well. Yet sidewalks and parks are public spaces; parks in particular are places where one might wish to relax, have a picnic, or just sit and enjoy nature or to people-watch.

IMG_2362-001.JPG“No loitering” in Brampton’s parks

Downtown Barrie has struggled with poverty, vacant lots, derelict properties on the periphery, as well as crime, such as assaults, and drug trafficking. Downtown Barrie has many of the support services for economically and socially marginalized people; there are affordable rental apartments and rooming houses in the core as well. Downtown has several cafes and restaurants, a few clothing and furniture stores, as well as a craft brewery, but many of the businesses along the main streets are convenience stores, hair salons, vape shops, tattoo parlours, bars, and nightclubs. Especially missing are businesses such as a drug store, and a supermarket.

To discourage loitering, benches were removed from Dunlop Street, Barrie’s main street. However, seniors in particular benefit from places to sit and rest while going on walks or doing shopping. Payphones downtown were also removed in 2013; the local councillor said that they were “degrading the quality of the neighbourhood.”

In 2014, the City of Hamilton was looking at adopting a similar by-law to discourage low-income and homeless people congregating and creating a nusiance in Downtown Hamilton. Councillor Jason Farr pointed to Downtown Barrie’s success, but noted the importance of consulting with poverty advocates to “include that social side of the argument.”

Instead of merely implementing aggressive regulations and ticketing, there’s a need for inclusive urbanism. Are there adequate recreational and social activities for youth and marginalized populations? Barrie has a skateboard/BMX park nearby, at Queen’s Park, but that might not be enough to satisfy local youth. What urban interventions would Barrie’s low income populations like to see? Sadly, I doubt they were consulted.

Barrie’s waterfront is one of Ontario’s best: accessible by transit, connected to its downtown, hosting many activities and events. As construction concludes, it should help revitalize the neighbourhoods around it. Barrie should not further push away its already marginalized populations; it should find a way to be welcoming to all.

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Greenfield infrastructure: not so green

img_7612-001St. Catharines site, Niagara Health System

I recently visited two Ontario cities, St. Catharines and Orillia, to illustrate the problems of building new medical and educational institutions on isolated greenfield sites.

Large greenfield lands have several advantages: they’re easy and inexpensive to build on, they can accommodate large parking lots, and offer room for future expansion. But by the nature of their isolation, they’re more expensive to serve with road and water infrastructure, and more difficult to connect to transit. Students, patients, and employees must travel farther, and they don’t foster economic and social connections with the local community as well.

St. Catharines

In 2013, a new hospital campus opened in St. Catharines, replacing two smaller, run-down hospital sites just outside of the city’s downtown core. The new Niagara Health System site offers new and improved services, such as regional cancer centre, a spacious and bright dialysis unit, and a modern mental health centre. When the site opened, it was a vast improvement over the older facilities.

But there was one, major, drawback: the new hospital site is located on the far western edge of St. Catharines’ suburban sprawl, almost inaccessible without a car.


Location of current and former St. Catharines hospital sites

St. Catharines Transit re-routed a bus route (Route 1) to serve the new hospital site, but it costs the transit system nearly $400,000 a year to do so. The old General Hospital had four bus routes within walking distance to its urban location. Passengers from Thorold, Merritton, or several other neighbourhoods are required to make an additional transfer at the downtown bus terminal in order to access the new site. The distance makes taxi trips more expensive for the majority of St. Catharines residents and more difficult to get to by foot or by bike. Continue reading

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A better Hurontario Street – an LRT update

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Metrolinx light rail vehicle mock-up at Gage Park, meets a Brampton Transit Zum bus, 2013. 

Earlier this week, I visited Brampton City Hall, where at a public open house, Metrolinx and city staff provided an update of the Hurontario Light Rail Transit project. Brampton City Hall was an ironic location for the open house; before Brampton Council voted against building the LRT up to Downtown Brampton and the GO/VIA Station, the LRT line would have stopped right here. Even with Brampton’s decision, there will be three stops in the city, so an open house for local residents to provide their feedback was still needed.

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The Hurontario LRT project, map via Metrolinx

The open house was quite interesting as more design details were displayed. There`s a focus on promoting active transportation — walking and cycling — and urbanizing much of the corridor. Three lanes of motor traffic will go down to two in most places, and right turning traffic will be tamed. This will make Hurontario Street a safer and more pleasant place to be.

Along the entire LRT corridor, Hurontario Street will feature separated bike infrastructure — for the most part, there will be separated bike lanes, with multi-use paths in a few areas, especially south of the Queensway, where Hurontario Street is narrower. Sidewalks are also wider. With only a few exceptions, cyclists will be able to ride across intersections without being required to dismount. Those exceptions are at the Queen Elizabeth Way, and at Highways 403 and 407, where Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) standards at interchanges will force the “stop, dismount, wait for gap” regime; pedestrians will also still have to yield to motor traffic.

img_8334-001Typical cross-section once the LRT is built. The orange paths are the separated bike lanes, the green paths are sidewalks. Hurontario Street will only have two traffic lanes in each direction. 

img_8328-001At expressways, like at Highway 407, pedestrians and cyclists still must yield to motor traffic at on-ramps. 

In another benefit for pedestrians and cyclists, channelized right turns are eliminated along the entire route. Channelized right turns (like the one shown below) are convenient for motorists, but they increase conflicts with foot traffic and are incompatible with lower speeds and safe cycling infrastructure. Their removal also creates new room for streetscaping opportunities.

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An example of a channelized right turn

The northern terminus of the LRT, at least for now, will be at Steeles Avenue. As Brampton debates other LRT alignments (Kennedy Road and McLauglin Road are indirect alternatives to reach Downtown Brampton), the stop was moved to the south side of the intersection. This is unfortunate: the Brampton Gateway bus terminal, which opened in 2012, was designed to easily connect with the planned LRT stop on the north side of the intersection, with two short crosswalks across southbound Main Street.

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Planned LRT terminus at Steeles Avenue, including tunnel between the LRT platform and the Brampton Gateway Terminal. 

Instead, a more expensive tunnel is required to accommodate transferring passengers between the LRT and buses. Elevators and escalators will provide direct access to the tunnel; crosswalks at Steeles Avenue and Lancashire Lane will also be accessible from the platform.

The final contract is planned to be signed in mid-2018 and construction should begin in Fall 2018. As the City of Mississauga backs the LRT project, hopefully any change in the provincial government will not jeopardize this plan. Not only will Mississauga (and south Brampton) get a fine new transit service, it will also see a tamer, more urbanized main street.

And maybe Brampton City Council will come to its senses and extend the transit corridor via the direct, least-expensive, Main Street alignment.

Posted in Brampton, Cycling, Infrastructure, Roads, Transit | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Rethinking Downtown Brampton’s streetscape

IMG_8755-001Main Street looking north at Queen Street, Downtown Brampton

On Thursday, February 23, I went back to my hometown to check out plans for re-configuring Main and Queen Streets in Downtown Brampton. As the Region of Peel needs to replace water and wastewater infrastructure in the area, the timing is right for re-imagining what the streetscape should look like.

The same conversations are taking place in Downtown Toronto. There there are proposals for transforming King Street to prioritize transit and pedestrians; on Yonge Street, city planners, Ryerson University, and local businesses are looking to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as street furniture (such as benches and trees), patios, and special events. Of course, re-imagining downtown streets where cars are given priority will generate opposition, but it’s necessary in dense, urban cities were people, and not necessarily their cars, are given priority.

Downtown Brampton has great bones; it has numerous heritage buildings, several great public spaces, and GO Transit and VIA Rail trains stop right here. The Saturday Farmers’ Market is popular, as is ice skating at Gage Park. But despite some interesting new restaurants and bars, most retail has struggled here, and even new residential development in the area is sluggish. Improving the public realm, especially wider sidewalks and more attractive streetscaping, would be a relatively inexpensive, yet symbolically important, step to making downtown a more desirable place to be.

img_8159-001Sidewalks are narrow, and cyclists often take the sidewalks in Downtown Brampton. 

Continue reading

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They call this a “SmartCentre”

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The word “smart,” like many buzzwords, is thrown around a lot, to the point that it has lost meaning. SmartTrack, for instance, might have been a catchy name for a transit plan, but in the end, it didn’t turn out to be all that smart.

There’s also the case of SmartCentres, the retail arm of SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust. SmartCentres are ubiquitous in suburban Canada; the firm owns retail properties in all ten provinces and is Wal-Mart Canada’s largest landlord.

I was recently in St. Catharines, a mid-sized city of 125,000 on the Niagara Peninsula. I’ll have more to say about my visit there in a few upcoming posts.

I was walking from the VIA Rail station, on the west side of Twelve Mile Creek, opposite downtown, towards the new St. Catharines hospital on the city’s western outskirts. My route to the hospital (more on that later) took me through a SmartCentre big-box retail complex at Louth Street and Fourth Avenue. Tenants include Real Canadian Superstore (a large supermarket part of the Loblaws group), Wal-Mart Supercentre, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, and LCBO.


Google map of the big box complex in west St. Catharines

Like most big box centres, the stores are laid out surrounding a large parking lot. Pedestrians are an afterthought – there are few walkways or connections to surrounding sidewalks.

A token measure — a bus stop — is located within the property. The bus stop is on the main driveway, but a considerable distance from the front entrances of Wal-Mart or the supermarket, especially for anyone carrying groceries, using a mobility device and/or with young children. Shopping carts are left next to the bus shelters, and there are no other supermarkets in western St. Catharines. Anyone without a car must either visit Superstore, Walmart, or shop at higher-priced local convenience stores. The property owner is SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust with retail properties in all ten provinces.

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Excerpt from St. Catharines Transit daytime map. Only route 3 serves the big box centre from the south. 

Only one St. Catharines Transit bus route, 3 Pelham Road, serves the SmartCentre stop (evenings and weekends, route 115 replaces route 3), and only from the south. Traditional shopping areas, such as Downtown St. Catharines and the Pen Centre mall, are much better served by local transit. Route 1, which directly connects downtown and the new hospital and serves neighbourhoods to the north, runs nearby, but it doesn’t enter the property.

St. Catharines, once an industrial powerhouse, has struggled with de-industrialization and poverty. The census metropolitan area has the lowest median family income in Ontario; the city also has one of the highest obesity rates. Access to fresh, affordable food, especially for those without automobiles, should be a priority. It’s a shame that the built form isn’t smart enough to help.

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Mapping Toronto’s population growth

Data geeks across Canada were eagerly awaiting this day — February 8, 2017 — the first release of the 2016 Canadian Census of the Population. Today’s release only covers population and dwelling counts, further information on age, sex, household characteristics, as well as language, immigration status, employment, income, and other variables will be released later in 2017. The 2016 Census included the mandatory long-form census, which will provide a robust snapshot on the socioeconomic status of all 36 million Canadians.

I created three quick maps showing the population growth in the City of Toronto by census tract. The City of Toronto grew by 116,511 people over five years to 2,731,571 in 2016, a 4.45% increase. Some suburban municipalities grew much faster, like Brampton  (13.3%, with a 2016 population of 593,638), but Toronto has been able to absorb one-third of the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area’s growth.

Toronto’s population makes up 46.1 % of the Toronto CMA (population 5,928,040). The rest of that growth was found in mature suburbs such as Brampton, Mississauga, and Markham, but also in quickly-growing towns such as Milton (population 110,128, up 30.5% from 2011). While some suburbs — Mississauga and Markham in particular — have been establishing higher-density urban centres with mid and high rise condominiums, most of the suburban growth has come from single-family homes and townhouses on formerly agricultural lands. If the Greenbelt is to continue being successful in containing sprawl and preserving productive farms and natural areas, Toronto needs to absorb even more growth in the next few decades. Land developers, speculators and the real-estate industry, however, are pushing back.

The first of the three maps shows the percentage increase or decrease in population by census tract. Areas with higher growth are concentrated in Downtown (particularly along Yonge Street and in the Entertainment District, City Place, Liberty Village-Fort York and St. Lawrence-Distillery-Corktown), as well as Etobicoke Centre, on Humber Bay, Midtown, and along the Sheppard Subway corridor in North York. Not surprisingly, these are areas in which new housing developments, particularly condo towers, are being built. Other neighbourhoods, for the most part, are seeing minor increases or decreases in population, likely related to changes in household/family size.

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Population change between 2011 and 2016 by percentage by census tract, Toronto
(Alternate colour scheme available here and here)

But more interesting is the map showing absolute population increases or decreases between 2011 and 2016. It better illustrates areas of high population growth and neighbourhoods with population decline. The inner suburbs, especially parts of Scarborough and North York, clearly show slight a population decline compared to the high-growth areas described above.

gta-2016-census-absolute-changePopulation change between 2011 and 2016 by absolute numbers by census tract, Toronto
(Alternate colour scheme available here and here)

The final map shows the 63 census tracts (out of a total of 1,426 CTs) with growth of at least 2,000 persons. It very clearly shows where high population growth has taken place.

GTA 2016 Census Toronto High Growth.jpgCensus tracts that grew by at least 2,000 persons between 2011 and 2016

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Hallam Street and the Harbord Streetcar

img_7439-001Hallam Street looking east from Dufferin Street, January 2017

Hallam Street, which runs east-west from Shaw to Dufferin, north of Bloor Street, is unusually wide for such a quiet, short road. Hallam Street doesn’t provide a convenient thoroughfare for motorists, and nearly every storefront is either vacant, or converted to other uses. Despite being located in a dense urban area of Toronto, Hallam Street has a ghostly feeling when walking or cycling across it.

So why is Hallam Street so wide? And why does it have so many vacant or former storefronts?

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Former storefront on Hallam Street at Delaware Avenue, one of several on Hallam that were converted to residential uses

For thirty-one years, from 1916 to 1947, Hallam and Lappin Streets hosted the Harbord Streetcar, an interesting and circuitous route that served the northwest portion of the City of Toronto, and later, the east end of the city. Unlike most streetcar routes in Toronto, the Harbord Car refused to follow a grid. It wound its way through several working class neighbourhoods, tying together parts of Toronto otherwise underserved by its transit network.

The Harbord Car was re-routed from Hallam Street and Lappin Avenue to Dovercourt and Davenport Roads in 1947, as part of a re-organization of transit services in Toronto’s west end (more on that below). The streetcar was fully abandoned in 1966, when the first phase of the Bloor-Danforth Subway opened. Continue reading

Posted in History, Toronto, Transit | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments