For the first twenty-five years of my life, I lived in Brampton. I still have family and friends who live there, and while I was happy to move to a place of my own in Toronto (first in North York, later to the old City of Toronto), I still have a soft spot for my hometown, even if it is a gigantic, sprawling auto-centric suburb. Tonight, it has the opportunity to vote for a transit project that will help to transform its long-neglected downtown core into a thriving urban centre.
Nearly a century ago, Brampton was a small town of about 5,000 people; the junction of two railways: the Grand Trunk mainline between Toronto and Chicago, and the Canadian Pacific branch line to Orangeville, Owen Sound, and other points in Midwestern Ontario. It was the seat of Peel County, with a beautiful 1867 Italianate courthouse, with a registry office and jail behind. Brampton had all the trappings of a prosperous rural service centre, including a hospital, a Romanesque federal building, a Carnegie Library, six historic brick or stone churches, a movie and vaudeville theatre, an armoury, and a fire hall. While there were manufacturing concerns by the railway junction – both the Hewetson Shoe Company and Dominion Skate manufactured footwear – the leading industry was horicultural. The massive Dale and Calvert greenhouse complexes exported flowers and bulbs across Canada; as a result Brampton’s nickname was “Flower Town.” Grand houses lined Main Street, showing off the town’s booming economy.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Brampton began the transition from a small industrial and civic centre into a suburb of Toronto. In 1960, a new mall, anchored by Steinberg’s and Woolworth’s, opened south of downtown, new schools and factories, including a large American Motors assembly plant, opened here as well. In 1974, the same year that the first GO Train departed from Brampton for Toronto, the town was amalgamated with sections of several surrounding rural townships, becoming a city of nearly 100,000. Today, Brampton has a population of nearly 600,000.
Apart from the greenhouses, which disappeared by 1980, and the hospital, which moved across town in 2008, all of the buildings I described are still standing (or in the case of Dominion Skate, partially standing). Downtown Brampton is blessed by its collection of historic buildings; many of these structures are lovingly preserved. The old Thomas Fuller designed Dominion Building on Main Street, which later became a police station and then a pub, was renovated and now has a Starbucks. GO Transit and VIA Rail still use the 1907 Grand Trunk Station. The Hewetson Shoe Factory is now a loft commercial space, and the old county buildings were preserved and now house the innovative Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives.
While there’s lots of great built heritage in Downtown Brampton, but downtown struggles with retail vacancies; condominium towers built in the last decade have had difficulty with sales. A new condo tower planned for the Dominion Skate building, right across the tracks from the GO/VIA station, did not get built; it sits in a half-demolished state, awaiting a new use. Also awaiting a reuse is the old Capitol Theatre, which closed as Brampton’s civic performing arts centre when the new Rose Theatre opened at Brampton’s historic “Four Corners” in 2006. There’s the popular Gage Park, with its 25-year old skating path (which has since been copied in Etobicoke and elsewhere), but most attempts at urban renewal have been, at best, only partially successful.
Thomas Fuller’s 1889 Dominion Building, Brampton
Tonight, Brampton City Council will hold a special meeting to decide the fate of its section a fully funded $1.6 billion light rail project proposed for the Hurontario-Main Street corridor from Port Credit to Downtown Brampton. The LRT, which will be funded entirely by the Province of Ontario, will connect three GO corridors, the urban centres of Port Credit and Brampton, several major employment clusters, and Mississauga’s modern city centre, which includes Ontario’s largest mall.
While most of the LRT route would operate in a reserved median in the centre of the street, in Downtown Brampton, it would operate in mixed traffic on the surface. It would require no private property, though it would require eliminating some surface parking on Main Street and turn restrictions at some intersections and driveways.
The newly-elected mayor of Brampton, Linda Jeffrey, is in favour of the project, including the planned Main Street alignment, but at least five of ten councillors are against it. Tonight’s vote will be a nail-biter, a meeting for which a record 130-plus residents are registered to depute on this item; the city is clearly divided on this project.
Opponents claim that the project mostly benefits Mississauga, and that light rail running along Main Street would ruin its heritage character, and would threaten the Saturday farmers market, which is set up on a closed Main Street. They also argue that the removal of street parking would hurt downtown businesses. These arguments are, of course, bunk; the heavy traffic, including light trucks and frequent buses do plenty to mar Main Street’s heritage; trams and light rail trains run through historic European cities like Brussels, Amsterdam, Prague, and Istanbul; the farmers market could simply re-locate to the new Garden Square or onto Queen Street. There are four large city-owned off-street parking garages with room to spare. These arguments are convenient strawmen hiding true NIMBY attitudes.
The Peel County Courthouse, now the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (PAMA)
It is true that most of the route passes through Mississauga; it’s also true that the larger city to the south enjoys more benefits from residential and employment growth on its portion of the corridor. Main Street follows Etobicoke Creek north of Steeles Avenue; this limits new development. However, lands between Shoppers World (which has been losing major retail tenants like The Bay and Target) and Highway 407 are prime opportunities for intensification, as is the largely-vacant Brampton Mall at Nanwood Avenue. But the intermodal connections at Downtown Brampton and the opportunity to revitalize the downtown core make up for these drawbacks.
Last year, at a 10-1 decisive vote, City Council voted against the proposed route, ordering staff and consultants to evaluate alternative alignments.
These alternatives, nine of which were studied, included one that follows Etobicoke Creek through a floodplain and residential backyards. Other routes would have taken passengers far out of the way on McLaughlin or Kennedy Roads to reach the downtown core. A tunnel under Main Street, which would cost the City of Brampton $380 million, was looked at as well. Staff came back to Council in June with a report that evaluated all these possible alternatives and re-recommended the original surface alignment as being the most fiscally and technically responsible option and the best for transit users and for city-building.
The Etobicoke Creek LRT alignment, proposed as a by-pass of Main Street
The Hurontario-Main LRT is the boost Downtown Brampton needs. While expanded GO rail service will come, most Brampton commuters aren’t headed to Toronto’s financial core; they’re commuting to jobs elsewhere in Brampton, in Mississauga, and in other suburbs, and inter-suburb transport is lacking. Creating a higher-order transit network requires nodes, and Downtown Brampton, one of only a few historic and walkable neighbourhoods in Toronto’s suburban belt, is an ideal place for such a node. Not only is there the connection to GO and VIA trains (which would also benefit commuters to and from Mississauga, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and elsewhere), but there are many opportunities for residential and employment intensification downtown, and along the Main Street corridor. Vacant storefronts that pockmark Main and Queen Streets say to me that more foot traffic is needed to revitalize these buildings. The LRT will help, not hinder, this goal.
If Brampton votes a second time against the Hurontario-Main LRT, it will still be built, but will terminate at Steeles Avenue, four kilometres south of the downtown core. It will require a transfer to northbound buses at a third-rate shopping mall rather than at an urban transit hub with intercity rail connections. It would be a decision that Brampton will come to regret; offers of provincially funded transit don’t come around very often.
Voting no will be, to put it mildly, a lost opportunity. Hopefully, Brampton City Council will see the sense of going with the province’s offer of a fully-funded LRT corridor.